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Paul McCartney on the bust-up with Lennon

When The Beatles split-up in 1970 the music press divided the pop world into two camps: those for John Lennon and those against Paul McCartney (who, coincidentally met each other for the first time 59 years ago today). That both camps were basically the same thing meant McCartney had rough ride from “hip” musos over the next decades.

McCartney was painted as straight, safe, vanilla and very very bland—the sort of music yer mom and dad listened to when riding an elevator. It was fueled in large part by his former songwriting pal John Lennon’s vicious public spat with him. Lennon excoriated McCartney in his song “How Do You Sleep?” claiming the only thing he’d done was “Yesterday.”

Lennon was perceived as cool. McCartney was seen as square, fake and lacking any real artistic credibility—whatever that may be. He was the lesser half of the writing partnership Lennon & McCartney. This was how the music press in general and the British music press in particular painted the former Beatles. Of course it was wrong—very wrong. McCartney was the cool one, the smart one, the one who was hanging out with all those avant garde artists on the edge. He didn’t have to try on different party hats to find out who he was—he knew instinctively. The way the music press wrote about him you would never have known. But then again music journalists only write for themselves and their tiny band of fellow journalists—they do not write for the public or really understand that popular music is meant for all—the clue’s in its name—it’s not an exclusive club.

How McCartney weathered it all while starting out on his solo career, raising a family with his wife Linda, then forming the band Wings reveals just how strong and determined a character/a talent is James Paul McCartney.

Understandably, post-Beatles McCartney was always cagey about giving interviews. He knew (and knows) how interviewers turn words to fit their own preconceived opinions and how interviewers like to make themselves the star of the interview.

One of McCartney’s best ever interviews came in 1978, when he was featured in a short film for Melvyn Bragg’s The South Bank Show.
McCartney and Melvyn Bragg, 1978.
The South Bank Show was devised by Bragg as an arts magazine show that would cover high and low art—from TV and films to theater and pop music. This seems utterly run-of-the-mill now but back in the seventies this hi/lo concept was considered shocking. Pop music was in no way comparable to classical music. Television was never in the same class as theater, etcetera etcetera. Bragg was challenging the perceived orthodoxy when he kicked the whole thing off with The South Bank Show in January 1978, creating the kind of mix of high and low culture we take so very much for granted today.

The South Bank Show was originally a magazine program that featured one or two short films, plus a studio interview and usually some kind of performance. During the first series this morphed into one hour profiles of artists, writers, film directors and performers which remained the format.

Paul McCartney appeared in the very first episode in a short insert documentary filmed during the recording of the song “Mull of Kintyre.” McCartney is open to Bragg’s questions and even goes so far as to explain how he writes, giving examples of some of his best known songs. He also discusses the hurt he felt over the bust-up with Lennon and ends by explaining how he gets a thrill from hearing people whistling his tunes—or as he goes on to say, how he once heard a bird whistling a riff from one of his hits.

The following is the whole interview repackaged for Bragg’s The South Bank Show: Originals series recently broadcast on Sky Arts. It opens with Bragg talking about his memory of interviewing McCartney and contains comment from journalist Clive James who rightly describes Paul McCartney as a genius.

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‘A Kitten for Hitler’: Ken Russell’s deliberately offensive final film

The list of movies Ken Russell didn’t make is nearly as impressive as the ones he did.

Russell had plans for a movie version of Hamlet starring David Bowie. He developed a film about Maria Callas which was to star Sophia Loren. He had plans for a film version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula with Peter O’Toole as the Count, Peter Ustinov as Van Helsing and Oliver Reed as Renfield. Other book adaptations included Graham Greene’s A Burnt Out Case, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth and D. H. Lawrence’s St. Mawr.

He also wanted to make a film based on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs and one of Rabelais’ Gargantua—“the man with the biggest prick in the world.” He had a thriller All-American Murder lined up with Christopher Walken, and tried for years to make a film version of Charlie Mingus’ autobiography Beneath the Underdog. He turned down The Rose (to make Valentino with Rudolf Nureyev) and had been a favorite to direct A Clockwork Orange before Stanley Kubrick with Mick Jagger in the lead.

Russell always had a film project on the go—it is only a shame that so few of them made it to the screen.

In 1997, I met Russell for the first time—interviewing him for a documentary I directed about the legendary dancer Nijinsky. I knew he had tried to make a film about Nijinsky but had somehow never managed to find the financial backing. We talked about films and he told me about two scripts he had just written. One was a full-length feature about young vampires—a rollicking romp through youth culture, gangs and the lives of traveling people. The second was a short called Ein Kitten für HitlerA Kitten for Hitler.

Russell told me A Kitten for Hitler was inspired by a discussion about censorship with his friend and one-time collaborator (The Music Lovers, The Debussy Film) Melvyn Bragg—the author, broadcaster and editor of legendary arts series The South Bank Show. Russell had suggested there were some films that shouldn’t be made—as he later explained in the Times newspaper in 2007:

Ten years ago, Melvyn Bragg and I had a heated discussion on the pros and cons of film censorship. Broadly speaking, Melvyn was against it, while I, much to his surprise, was absolutely for it. He then dared me to write a script that I thought should be banned. I accepted the challenge and a month or so later sent him a short subject entitled A Kitten for Hitler.

‘Ken,’ he said, ‘if ever you make this film and it is shown, you will be lynched’.

I read both of Ken’s scripts and liked them. Russell gave me his blessing to see if I could raise funding or find a suitable production company who would be interested in making his films.

I pitched the scripts to producers, production company execs and a whole host of bland minions who were all at first excited by the name “Ken Russell” but scared of making any form of commitment. While these bods liked the vampire movie—they balked at A Kitten for Hitler. It was “sick,” “twisted,” “not suitable for viewing” and something they were “not interested in pursuing at this time.” Having already experienced years of smug, barely pubescent TV execs shitting on good ideas, I found the rejection of Russell’s scripts galling. This wasn’t some unknown film director or some hip young punk whose only claim to fame was working in a Blockbuster—this was Ken Russell. One of the greatest film directors of the second half of the twentieth century. The man who had made The Billion Dollar Brain, Women in Love, The Music Lovers, The Boyfriend, The Devils, Savage Messiah, Tommy, Altered States, Lair of the White Worm, Salome’s Last Dance and so on and so on.

While I didn’t get anywhere with these projects, Russell thankfully did. He did manage to make A Kitten for Hitler through the auspices of Comedy Box in 2007. It varies ever so slightly from the script I’d read—but the story’s the same and still as uncompromisingly offensive. Unable to cast a child actor as the boy Lenny, Russell cast Rusty Goffe. Ken’s wife Lisi Tribble plays Lenny’s Mom, Rufus Graham plays Harry S. Truman, Rosey Thewlis plays Eva Braun, and Paul Pritchard is Hitler. Ken Russell himself appears as Santa Claus.

Watch Ken Russell’s ‘A Kitten for Hitler’ after the jump…

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Francis Bacon gets drunk

Toast of London: Francis Bacon and friends at the Colony Room
If you want to know about the artist Francis Bacon then there are his celebrated interviews with David Sylvester, two biographies by Michael Peppiatt (Anatomy of an Enigma, Francis Bacon: In Your Blood), a memoir by his longtime friend and boozing buddy Dan Farson (The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon) and a film Love is the Devil starring Derek Jacobi and Daniel Craig. Then there is this: Melvyn Bragg’s access all areas documentary with Bacon from 1985 that is one of the finest portraits of an artist ever committed to film.

What makes this South Bank Show documentary so utterly brilliant is the honesty and directness with which Bacon answers Bragg’s questions. He often pauses and considers his answer before committing himself to a reply. When he does, Bacon reveals his essence as an artist.

Bragg asks him how he paints:

‘Until the images come through you’re not in control. When they come up you have to control them.’
‘So you come up with an overall image which you don’t want to define except by working towards it?’
‘Yes…no…yes, that’s exactly how it is.’
‘You’ve thrown paint at the canvas?’
‘Once or twice. I couldn’t stand the sight of them so I just threw a pot of paint at them.’
‘You put yourself at risk.’
‘You have to, otherwise you’re an academician.’


‘When is a painting finished?’
‘I know instinctively when it’s finished. There it is…I’m always hoping chance will work in my favour. I don’t want to tell a story. I’ve no story to tell. I like the starkness of the image. I want it to give me a sensation. Shock, you could say. It’s a form of experience. A visual shock.’
‘What does your painting mean when you’ve finished?’
‘Nothing. Except what people want to read into it.. Nothing.’

Bragg always allows his subjects to present themselves as they want to be seen. Unlike too many other presenters, he does not interpose himself between the camera and the subject. He is the unseen hand who steers the ship through the storms, around the hidden rocks, towards its final destination. Bragg once told me in an interview (long, long ago) why he wore suits:

...basically because it’s easier if you are doing a television programme to wear the same thing all the time then you don’t get in the way over the programme. Another way to get people to forget about me and concentrate on the person I am talking to.

It’s advice worth heeding.

In 1985, when Francis Bacon was being hailed as the world’s greatest living artist and on the verge of his second Tate Gallery retrospective—a major feat in itself—Bragg interviewed Bacon at length about his life and art. At one point during the filming, while at lunch in Mario’s restaurant in Kensington, London, Bacon and Bragg became increasingly drunk. As Bragg later wrote in his book The South Bank Show: Final Cut:

There’s bound to be truth in cliches some of the time or they wouldn’t be. In vino veritas is less spouted now that there is less Latin about but still the notion persists that people when drunk tell the truth. That they also tell lies, come out with rubbish, destructive abuse, venom, hysterical hyperbole and all manner of degrading speech has not entirely impaired its claim. When Francis Bacon and myself appeared on The South Bank Show and for a few minutes were caught in a state of naked inebriation it provided, I think, a true insight into Francis as a man and as a painter. So I left it in the film.

As the wine flowed, Bragg asked Bacon if he paints the real world, to which the artist replied:

‘Yes! Between birth and death has always been the violence of life. I paint images of sensation. What is life but sensation?’
‘Do you think anything exists outside “the moment”?’
‘No. I believe in nothing. We are born and we die and there’s nothing else.’
‘So what do you do about it?’
‘I do nothing about it. I just drift.’
‘You paint.’
‘Yes, but my own life is just going from bar to bar and drifting, that sort of thing. I’m an optimist. But I’m an optimist about nothing. I was born with that nature.’

Bacon was seventy-five when this film was made. He had enviable stamina managing a four-hour lunch at Mario’s before climbing the rickety stairs of the notorious Colony Room, where he dispensed fifty pound notes like confetti and gargled the millionaire’s mouthwash—champagne.  Throughout, Bacon is old school courteous—even when utterly pissed—and collaborates with Bragg in creating an unequaled intimate film portrait.


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Fear of Music: Amazing early Talking Heads doc from 1979

A loft in Manhattan, New York, 1979: Talking Heads are working on their latest album Fear of Music. A TV crew from England are present making a documentary for the UK arts series The South Bank Show. They interview and film the band at work—writing, rehearsing and recording songs. At times, listening to Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, Jerry Harrison and David Byrne talk they all make it seem what they’re doing is really quite ordinary, almost mundane. Frantz says he considers his life quite normal when not on tour. He gets up early rather than sleeping all day and going to the clubs at night. Byrne, who sounds at times like Andy Warhol—nervous, shy—discusses his thoughts about dressing like ordinary working people in ordinary everyday work clothes, though he soon discovered keeping up with ordinary fashions was expensive. Tina Weymouth points out the band plays under full house lights and eschew spotlights on solos. They are earnest, conscientious, and make it sound as if what they are doing, what they are creating, is quite workaday when in truth this talented quartet are producing something very, very extraordinary.

As the documentary develops, the disparity between their artistic aspirations and their personal points of view of what they’re all about becomes apparent—with Frantz musing on whether it’s good old rock ‘n’ roll or actually art that they are producing. History’s jury has already returned the verdict on that—a unanimous decision in favor of art—great art.

Weymouth, Frantz and Byrne first played under the name The Artistics. They had an idea of “combining conceptual and performance art with popular music (their sound earned them the nickname The Autistics).” Then a friend suggested the name “Talking Heads” lifted from the TV Guide—which appealed as it had no genre defining angle. Dressed in button down shirts, sensible shoes and corduroy in amongst the ripped T-shirts, leather jackets of New York’s punk clubs, Talking Heads was a vision of the future, belonging to no genre or scene, ultimately. This became more than evident through the eight studio albums the band produced between 1977 and 1988.

Keep reading after the jump…

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‘All of my films have really been statements about America’: The wonderful world of Terry Gilliam

‘All of my films have really been statements about America, strangely enough,’ said director Terry Gilliam in this documentary about his work and career, made for The South Bank Show in 1991.

If you look closely at them, or I sit and try to describe them in some way, they’re all me reacting to that country I left. They’re seen through the eyes of somebody who lives in Britain, who’s been affected by this world, but they’ve all been messages in film cans back to America.

They’ve been disguised with the Middle Ages and the Eighteenth Century and everything, but it’s about that. This one [The Fisher King] has no disguise—that’s what’s interesting about it. It’s there, it’s naked, this is the world.

Gilliam concludes the interview by dismissing any possibility of complacency in light of the success of The Fisher King .

Let’s say this film is successful and America is going to offer me money, there will be that tendency to say, “Oh, I’ll make more like this.” It’s easier to make films like this because I don’t have the same battles and I hope the perverse side of my nature is still there to rescue me from this, because I think that’s what’s kept me going is the sheer perverseness and because the easy path is that way…(Makes hand gesture) [and] I don’t do it

I think I’ll know when I’m really middle-aged when I go that way. If the next film is an easy film—you know it’s over. You’ll know he’s middle-aged, he’s fat, he’s a slob, he’s given up the battle.

As if that is ever going to happen, Mr. Gilliam!

Watch Terry Gilliam’s latest film ‘The Wholly Family’ after the jump…

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‘The Debussy Film’: The making of Ken Russell’s TV masterpiece starring Oliver Reed

Ken Russell had thought about making a film on Debussy for some time. He was ‘hovering on the feature film fringe,’ having just made his first movie French Dressing, in 1964. But it had sadly flopped and he had returned to work as a producer and director for the BBC’s arts series Monitor.

Making a feature film had encouraged Russell’s ambitions, and he now had a revolutionary idea for a new kind of documentary arts film, but he wasn’t quite sure how best to achieve it. This was when Russell met Melvyn Bragg, a young Northern writer, who was also working in the Monitor office.

At twenty, Bragg had decided to become a writer, but thought ‘quite rightly as it turned out,’ that he wouldn’t be able to make a living from it. So, he got a job, to support his literary ambitions.

‘I got a BBC traineeship when I was twenty-one,’ Bragg told me in 1984. ‘Went into radio, which I liked an awful lot. Worked in Newcastle. Worked in the World Service, Bush House. Then I worked in Broadcasting House, in the Features Department. I was going to stay there—I didn’t like television, except for Monitor—and I said I’d only go into television if I could get an attachment onto Monitor. Eventually, one came up, and I got it.’

Russell wanted to share his idea with Bragg. He met him in a cafe, and told Bragg about Debussy and his plan for a new kind of arts documentary—a film-within-a-film. Together they wrote a script, and Bragg turned it into a screenplay.

‘When I did Debussy, Ken’s first talkie on television, nobody had done that before I did that as a screenplay as a way to make it work. The real problem you’ve got with biopics about people is that there is no structured drama in anybody’s life. You’ve got to make it.

‘What you’ve got are pits, which are very good, all over the fucking shop, and you’ve got to have that bit because [they’re] terrific, and you’ve got to have that bit because there’s hardly any relationship between them. Where, if you write a play, or write a book, there is a relationship because you’ve written it like that. But in people’s lives, something happens there, and 7 years later, something else happens. This enables us to dip in-and-out.’

It was a lunchtime in May, and I was interviewing Bragg in his office, at London Weekend Television, where he worked as editor and presenter of the (now legendary) arts series, The South Bank Show. Bragg sat behind his desk, dressed as usual in a suit (‘Another way to get people to forget about me and concentrate on the person that I am talking to’), eating an apple for his lunch.

Bragg said he thought Russell ‘a very brilliant, eccentric and erratic talent, he can be marvelous.’

The Debussy Film was the first of several highly successful collaborations between Russell and Bragg—as director and writer. A partnership that lasted until The Music Lovers (‘I had a big row with [Ken] on that which is fairly public. I hated it.’) The pair later worked together again on several documentaries for The South Bank Show .

It was also Russell’s first collaboration with actor Oliver Reed, who later described the director as:

Jesus is not Christ, only Russell.

Reed was a rare talent, who had been slightly over-looked by film producers because of a scar on his face, which he had received on a drunken night out. But Reed was more than just a feared Hell-raiser, he was a brilliant actor who brought an incredibly complex and emotional depth to the role of Debussy.

‘Debussy was an ambiguous character,’ Russell told one of his biographers, John Baxter in 1973.

...and I always let the character of the person or his work dictate the way a film goes. Also, one was a bit critical of artists like Debussy and I thought the time had come to ask questions, and the natural way for me to ask questions was to have a film director [Vladek Sheybal] talking to an actor [Oliver Reed], because an actor always asks questions about the character he’s playing and the director usually had to answer them, or try to, often to keep him happy. And when I found Debussy was friendly with an intellectual named Pierre Louys from whom he derived a lot, it seemed an analogous relationship to that of a film director and an actor. There are some points in the film, I think, where it doesn’t matter if it’s the director talking to the actor or Louys talking to Debussy—passages of intentional ambiguity.

Born in his music and his life, Debussy was a great sensualist. There’s a line of his in the film: “Music should express things that can’t be said,” which simply means to me that music is something which, the moment you talk about it, disintegrates and becomes meaningless. That’s what I mean by sensuality—something that’s felt rather than reasoned.

Ken Russell directing ‘The Debussy Film’ (1965)
While The Debussy Film may at first appear a film that is “felt rather than reasoned,” it has to be understood that every element of it is based on fact, taken from letters and personal details of the main characters. Also, by presenting inter-linking narratives, Russell was able to question, examine and comment on Debussy’s creative life, and the damage it caused him to those he loved.

With Debussy I felt it was important to say something about his music and attitudes to it as well as relevant facts of his life. A good example of this is his relationship with his mistress Gaby, and her inability to understand either him or his art. There’s a scene where the actor playing Debussy goes to a party with his girlfriend (playing Gaby) and puts on a record of Danse Sacre et Danse Profane. He wants to listen to it, to be immersed completely; he sees in it images of art nouveau. But everyone else in the room, instead of carrying on talking, or dancing to it, or giving it half an ear, all become silent and listen to the music with a mixture of duty and piety, which is all too often the case. His girlfriend, who just sees him as being perverse, does a strip-tease to it and ridicules both the man and his music. People are very wary of the heightening of experience, and want to knock it down. It’s fear as much as anything that makes her do the strip dance, fear of something she doesn’t understand and so can only get level with by ridiculing. A lot of people still do that, not just with art but with life.

I wasn’t totally on Debussy’s side; in a sense he had no right to disrupt the party. But artists are dogmatic and pig-headed, and they over-ride people. Most of the people I’ve dealt with in films have quite dispassionately sacrificed someone in their way who understood them. It’s not nice but that’s how it works. The end of the film, the music from his unfinished opera The Fall of the House of Usher, with Debussy alone in the castle and his ghostly mistress—whom he drove to attempted suicide—rising up, was an analogy of the lost romantic ideal he had destroyed by his disregard for people. You can be an egomaniac up to a point but in the end it can destroy you, or your work, or both.

The Debussy Film is Russell developing the style and technique that would make him internationally recognized as one of the greatest directors of the twentieth century. His approach was revolutionary and brilliant, and The Debussy Film changed television and cinematic biography for good. It also revealed another side to Oliver Reed (who is quite brilliant) and Vladek Sheybal, who was usually typecast as KGB agents. The film also contains cameos form artists Duggie Fields and Pauline Boty.


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Elvis Costello: Superb documentary on the making of his album ‘Almost Blue’

The wearing of a cravat is a sign of sophistication and style. Only the most self-assured can carry it off. Look at Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, or, David Niven telling us The Moon’s a Balloon, or the dear Master himself, Noel Coward, accessorized with smoking jacket, tinkling the ivories, saying how he would go through life in First or Third Class, but never Second. Yes, it takes considerable confidence to wear one, for it signifies a sense of the wearer’s identity and self-importance.

Elvis Costello wears a cravat in this documentary on the making of his 1981 album, Almost Blue. He carries it off, in his own way. In much the same way as the Post-Punk, New Wave singer made this album of classic Country and Western covers his very own.

It was an inspired decision, one perhaps touched by genius. At the height of his Indie Pop success, Elvis moved to Nashville, hooked up with legendary producer Billy Sherrill, and learned to make a near perfect C&W album.

The South Bank Show followed Elvis Costello during the making of Almost Blue, and captured almost the whole process by which Sherrill and Costello chose, worked on and recorded the album. It is an excellent documentary, revealing the talent, arrogance and self-belief required to make a landmark album, or to wear a cravat.


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Who Killed Bill?: The Sex Pistols for Dummies

Who Killed Bill? is a Sex Pistols for Dummies, bargain-bin video, consisting of a mixed collection of original archive news stories (mainly culled from London Weekend Television) and documentary footage, which tells the rise, demise, and return of the legendary band. It’s worth watching for the first fifty minutes or so, before the film veers off into a section on Vivienne Westwood’s fashion, then returning for the Filthy Lucre tour of 1996, and then beyond.

As it’s all original TV archive, there are some classic moments, including the early Janet Street-Porter interviews with the Pistols, and then with Lydon after his spilt, as well as coverage of the public’s fury for the band, and one disgruntled councillor who riffs off a long list of adjectives to describe his distaste for Punk Rock, before finishing with:

“Most of these groups would be improved by sudden death.”

There is also sections on Sid and Nancy the tragic couple and Alex Cox’s film. What’s quite startling is how The Pistols all look so young, and Lydon comes across as a shy, tense, nervous individual who seems ill at ease with his celebrity, describing its affects:

“It ain’t the person who changes, it’s people’s attitude towards them.”

Sadly, no classic tracks, just bogus lift muzak interpretations of a rhythmic Punk guitar. And the Bill of the title is, of course, Bill Grundy, he of the infamous launch-pad, “Filth and Fury” interview.


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Dusty Springfield: Excellent documentary on the White Queen of Soul

It was summer, I was a young child sitting in the living room drawing pictures when I first heard her voice on the radio. It made me stop and listen to try and understand what it was I was hearing. Her voice was full of a power and emotion that I could feel but didn’t yet fully understand. It gave a hint to some secret, adult world I was still to discover. It was sensual and seductive. The voice was Dusty Springfield. The song, “The Look of Love.”

Dusty was described by Elton John “as the greatest white singer there has ever been.” Never one for understatement, Sir Elton is almost right - though he is a tad forgetful of quite a few others from Maria Callas to Elvis and beyond. Dusty was one of the greats, and certainly the greatest white soul singer there has ever been. No one comes close.

Shown as part of Melvyn Bragg’s always fascinating arts series The South Bank Show, this excellent documentary on Dusty Springfield was first aired in 2006, and contains interviews with Burt Bacharach, Billie Jean King, Lee Everett, Charles Shaar Murray, Neil Tennant, Chris Lowe, Camille Paglia, and Carole Pope.


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