Life Itself: Review

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Roger Ebert in 2010

On the second day of Doc/Fest, I went to see Life Itself: the biopic of acclaimed American film critic, Roger Ebert (you can see the trailer, here). Director Steve James shot the film in the Autumnal years of Ebert’s life; the first decade of the millennium was disastrous for Ebert’s health, and he suffered furious bouts of cancer which rendered him hospital bound, unable to speak. This lost, jovial man is a giant leap from the outrageous, acerbic wit that James depicts through interviews with colleagues and friends, archival footage and photos.

Ebert was born to an electrician and a housewife, and from high school, worked prodigiously to elevate himself beyond his working class background. Despite this, he never truly lost touch with his roots. He spent almost his entire career as film critic of the Chicago-Sun, which – in opposition to the patrician Chicago-Tribune – catered to African-Americans and the working class. In the early days of his career, Ebert would ‘hold court’ in bars, where he and his colleagues became riotously drunk. Famed for his boisterous antics amongst the local press, a friend reveals that Ebert would occasionally walk home in the early hours of the morning, ‘wishing he was dead’ – one of many small but humanising touches of the documentary.

The film covers a bizarre moment in Ebert’s career when, at the bemusement of his friends and colleagues, he collaborated with famed chauvinist and breast aficionado Ross Meyer to create the sex-ridden flick, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. The film flopped hard, despite receiving a cult following today. In a grainy glimpse of footage, Ebert admits, ‘I just wanted to get laid’.

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Ebert and Gene Siskel

Perhaps the most iconic period of Ebert’s career is his affiliation with rival film critic, Gene Siskel. Together, they presented the bi-weekly film review show Sneak Previews which helped transform film criticism into a reputable, serious discipline. The pair were hugely competitive: they trade verbal barbs with each other off air, and Siskel’s wife treats us to a memorable anecdote which humorously captures the awkward and often frosty relationship between the pair.

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Roger Ebert with his wife, Charlie ‘Chaz’ Hammelsmith

The interviews with Ebert’s family are the most telling moments of the documentary. Despite his caustic reputation on screen, Ebert is a man clearly capable of great warmth and enthusiasm. The film serves as a meditation on death as much as a biopic of Ebert, and it is somewhat ironic that the lucid, flapping-jawed critic is forced to communicate through a computer towards the end. But don’t expect the wisecracking Ebert to wallow in self-pity: he remains upbeat all the way through.

More than a fantastic documentary of one of the world’s most influential film critics, but also a life-affirming tale.

Doc/Fest – Day 1

Over a period of 21 years, Sheffield Doc/Fest has grown into one of the world’s biggest documentary festivals. The festival opened (Sat 8th) and runs until Thursday 12th, and takes place all over the city, and in as far-flung locations as the Peak District and Chatsworth House.

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The ‘Devil’s Arse’ cave in the Peak District, where the film ‘Happiness’ was shown

 

The opening day was chock full of major events: the European Premier of the documentary Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets, which covered the band Pulp’s lauded return to home town Sheffield. Unfortunately, tickets were whipped up almost as soon as annoucned, so I wasn’t able to go. But I did go and see internationally renowned journalist and documentary-maker John Pilger talk in the afternoon, and in the evening, I travelled to the interestingly named ‘Devil’s Arse’ cave in the Peak District to watch the Sundance award-winning documentary, Happiness.

John Pilger shot to fame with his documentary of 1970 The Quiet Mutiny (you can find all his documentaries online on his website, here), in which he reports from the Vietnam War, and discovering disillusioned and openly rebellious soldiers in the process. His career has spanned over five decades; after each international documentary, he returns to his native Australia to record the plight of the marginalised Aborigine people, which his most recent film, Utopia, covers.

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Journalist John Pilger

In his discussion, Pilger was candid and insightful. He is wary of the way that journalism and news is headed. He claimed that there was such a cacophony of unregulated information (online, through mobile phones), that it was difficult to separate the truth the bilge. Tellingly, he said he was distrustful of mainstream news sources such as the BBC.

In the Q & A section of the talk, I asked him to elaborate on his opinion of the current Ukraine crises. I had read an article of his in The Guardian where he appeared to be sympathetic to the Russian position, and I was interested in whether his opinion had altered as the crises had evolved.

He replied that I had slightly misquoted him – that he was sympathetic to the Russian people rather than the government, but was also wary of Western and NATO aggression (such as the planned NATO military exercises on the Russian border).

At the end of the talk, I asked him if he had any advice for someone aspiring to become a journalist like him. He said that the most important thing was to use one’s initiative; head to an area of political intrigue of crisis, link up with a local website or blog, and to do one’s own reporting. This was the best way of gaining experience.

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Entrance to ‘The Devil’s Arse’

 

In the evening I went to the Devil’s Arse cave to watch the documentary Happiness, by acclaimed French director, Thomas Balmes. The documentary explores the anticipation of TV for a rural family living in the mountains of Bhutan, after television and radio is finally legalised by Bhutan’s ruler. Everyone in the village expects their lives to dramatically transform – often unrealistically so – when the incredibly new technology arrives. Running parallel is the story of the family’s son, Peyangki, who has been sent to grow up in a Buddhist monastery as his mother can’t afford to send him to school. Lonely and bored, the climax of the film comes when Peyangki’s uncle takes him into the city to buy the fêted TV. Peyangki’s wonder at the flashing neon lights and hordes of people is something to behold, as are the stunning shots of the land and mountains in Bhutan, which form the backdrop to most of the film.

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The Bat Cave

The ‘Devil’s Arse’ cave provided an interesting setting in its own right. At one point in Happiness, some birds tweeted on the screen, to which the bats in the cave appeared to respond by squawking loudly. It would be a lie if I said that the cave added anything to the film though; the mountains of Bhutan and the Peak District were too different for the setting to offer a unique perspective.

Chaplin Boom: City Lights

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The original poster for City Lights

Last week Sheffield was host to a celebration of everything Charlie Chaplin.  As part of this season’s concert series, dubbed the #ChaplinBoom, the University of Sheffield Concerts team have performed a number of concerts across various city venues to explore his work in film, comedy and music.  On Sunday evening The Showroom Cinema witnessed a spectacular fusion of one of Chaplin’s most revered works, City Lights, with the exciting talents of Sheffield Rep Orchestra performing a live concert featuring the original score alongside a projection of the film.

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The Sheffield Rep Orchestra in rehearsal. Photo: Gareth Widdowson

City Lights was released in 1931 to popular approval, and quickly became one of Chaplin’s most successful films.  Over 80 years later, the film is still considered to be one of the greatest films ever made, regularly featuring highly in critical polls and having attracted praise from some of the most famous directors including Orson Welles and Martin Scorcese. Most recently, the much respected Sight and Sound Critics Poll (2012) retained City Lights in the top 50 best films of all time, again reinforcing the respect many have in the industry for this eclectic comedy. Released at a time when the ‘Talkie’ had been established in the movies, and had pretty much been the mainstay for over 2 years, City Lights as a silent film, achieved both real commercial success, and endorsed Chaplin’s own wish to not see his character ‘The Tramp’speak dialogue on screen.

The famous ‘boxing scene’ from the film:

Sunday night was too great an opportunity to miss. As people began to file into the cinema and the seats began to fill, the orchestra was frantically looking to set up.  The anticipation was palpable, and there was a definite buzz to proceedings. It would be fair to say I attend very few, if any, orchestral performances.  Cinema in its many forms is my main appreciation; the worlds it opens and the stories told help stimulate my imagination, while musical performance is normally relegated to the latest Scottish indie act or producers of weird electronic noises in the darkened rooms of a grubby pub.  Listening to a full orchestra in such a small space was therefore both an exhilarating and satisfying experience. The performance was absolutely fantastic; the sound enveloped the room and drove the film on perfectly.

citylights still 2 boxingFilm purists could debate the authenticity of Sunday’s live performance in keeping with Chaplin’s original intent (Chaplin would have recorded his orchestral score beforehand and run the film alongside a synchronised soundtrack), however there would be no debate this evening whether the Sheffield Rep had succeeded in both celebrating the original score and entertaining everyone who attended. This was my first viewing, and it was certainly enhanced by the audience appreciation of such a classic. As the ending rolled, almost two whole minutes of audience ovation erupted around the room. Sheffield Rep clearly know how to put on a show and this has certainly whetted my appetite for an exciting line-up of great cinema and musical performances scheduled to take place in Sheffield over the next few weeks.

Written by Dave Marsh

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Dave Marsh

Music from the Americas with The Hallé Orchestra

Sunday evening saw The Hallé, internationally renowned orchestra based in Manchester, take the audience at Sheffield City Hall through a programme featuring music by some of the Americas’ great classical composers: Gershwin, Copland, Bernstein, and Ginastera. The orchestra were conducted on this evening by Sir Mark Elder, the Hallé’s music director of fourteen years. A pre-concert talk was given by Dr Sophie Redfern, expert in Bernstein and Copland ballet music, in conversation with the BBC’s Trisha Cooper. Sadly, I was not able to be present for the talk, though several audience members commented afterwards that it was an enjoyable and informative introduction to the evening, with Dr Redfern providing fascinating insights concerning the works and the composers.

Elder supplemented Dr Redfern’s perceptive commentary with his own introduction to both Bernstein’s Wonderful Town overture, and Ginastera’s Harp Concerto. With enthusiasm, Elder placed the pieces in context of the composers’ ouvres and in the broader context of their genres, and highlighted musical features which we might enjoy listening out for.

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Conductor Mark Elder

I found the first half of the programme absolutely invigorating, primarily because of the Ginastera concerto. The Bernstein overture was enjoyable, if played slightly straight, and the Copland Rodeo: Dance Episodes reared between boisterous energy and a sense of introverted melancholy. I particularly enjoyed the latter work as it was easy to imagine the narrative from the ballet, Rodeo, for which the music was composed. Information concerning both the music’s evolution from ballet to the concert hall and Copland’s preeminence in the creation of a distinctly American style of classical music was provided in the thorough programme notes.

Ginastera’s Harp Concerto was the real highpoint of the evening. Soloist Marie Leenhardt was by turns unrelenting, violent, delicate, hesitant, but captivating throughout. My seat near the stage allowed an intimate view of Leenhardt’s highly physical performance of a score which utilises dramatic techniques for the harp, such as drumming dance rhythms on the sounding board and making glissandi with the nails rather than the flesh of the finger tips. The acoustic where I was sat was brilliant; in quieter moments, such as during the surreal, dream-like second movement, the harp notes had space and time to resonate. The orchestra were kept successfully ‘under’ the harp throughout, and they engaged melodically and texturally with the harp in varying ways so that at times the harp passages were distinct and dominating, and at other times the harp ebbed away to allow the orchestra into the foreground.

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The orchestra in Nottingham, 2009

The second half seemed more restrained in comparison to the first. There were moments of real exuberance from the orchestra in Symphonic Dancesfrom West Side Story, such as in the ‘Mambo’ and in the ‘Cool’ Fugue sections of the piece. However, a more high-octane level of energy could have made this piece of emotional extremes even more exciting and overwhelming. Gershwin’s An American in Paris was charming and entertaining, and the brass, woodwind, and percussion sections of the orchestra certainly shone in this.

Overall, this was a highly enjoyable evening, seemingly for the orchestra as well as for the audience, judging by moments when players smiled and gestured to each other, or expressed their appreciation of the music by dancing slightly in their seats. Sir Mark Elder was sinuous and animated in his movements as conductor, and his sincere and often subtle physicality led us through a syncopated, jazz-infused, at times dissonant, highly emotive evening of music.

4/5

Written by Debra Finch

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Debra Finch

Brass Music and Fields: A Long Walk to Grimethorpe

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Composer Joe Snape at work with the University of Sheffield Brass Band in the background

A rumination on the relationships between sound, geography, musical heritage and cultural belonging in Sheffield and South Yorkshire

That’s what I read on my program as I stood in the cavernous space of S1 Art Studio last Thursday. At one end of the room was a makeshift stage with a smattering of music stands on it. Before the stage was a table, which propped up an array of alien and slightly ominous electronic equipment. I had been invited to the evening’s event, A Long Walk to Grimethorpe, by local arts platform, Hand Of Sheffield. The description of the event on their flyers was a little clearer – ‘a performance for brass band, sound recordings and film’ – but still lent an air of mystery to the night.

The crowd filtered in and the lights dimmed. Louise Snape, founder of Hand Of Sheffield, described the evening’s program in a little more detail. The second half of the program would feature a musical composition written by her brother, aspiring electronic musician, Joe Snape. But first we would be treated to a documentary exploring Snape’s composition and its wider context.

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Composer Joe Snape

The documentary was projected onto the white expanse of wall behind the stage. In the film, Snape told us of his lifelong affinity for brass music, and how he intended to search for creative stimulus in the 20 mile journey from Sheffield to Grimethorpe – the Mecca of brass music. But in a twist, he planned to complete the journey whilst wearing a tuba stuffed with microphones. If he pointed the bell of the tuba at whatever was making noise, the microphones inside would pick up and record the sound.

Interspersed with scenes of Snape awkwardly lugging his tuba over wooden stiles, or crouching low, aiming the bell of his tuba at a bubbling stream, were interviews with long-time brass band members. The interviews were invaluable: the scions of brass laid out the history of brass bands in Yorkshire, commented on the current state of brass music, and – in one particular gem – informed us of the brief burst of popularity brass music received after the film Brassed Off was released.

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The magnificent S1 Art Space

Director Ismar Badzic deserves credit for the way the documentary was shot: light hearted, comedic and without a whiff of pretentiousness. It was the right approach, reflecting the modest origins of brass music, and successfully countered the highly conceptual nature of Snape’s composition. In his interviews, Snape never strayed into complicated in vague terms – he was reassuringly straight-talking.

I spoke to Snape on the phone the next day. I asked him which was his favourite sound that he recorded.

His answer was the noise of an aeroplane flying overhead. In the opening stages of the composition – which began after a boozy interval – a whine crescendoed into a tumultuous roar, combined with thunderous chords from the University of Sheffield Brass Band, who were up on stage. The sound really stood out to me as well; if I hadn’t have been told afterwards, I never would have guessed that it was the noise of an aeroplane – albeit electronically manipulated.

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Conductor Greg Waters with the University of Sheffield Brass Band

Another memorable section of the composition was when the brass band played regular staccato notes over the sound of drizzling rain. Snape discovered that one of the side effects from rigging his tuba with microphones was that they recorded the rhythm of his walk. The ‘thump’ of the brass managed to capture the repetitive nature of the hike, and evoked the long stretches of field which Snape summed up for me as ‘monotonous’.

But the composition wasn’t monotonous. Anything but. At times, it produced a meditative, rocking quality – as with the staccato notes.  At other times, the soaring ambient tones reminded me of the enormity of the terrain around Yorkshire.

The indefatigable Louise Snape deserves merit for her contribution towards the event. Hand Of Sheffield managed to pull off a seamless and entertaining evening. I walked home that night, mulling over the relationship between brass music and the rugged Yorkshire landscape.

Written by Nick Willoughby

Nick Willoughby

Nick Willoughby

 

Russian Celebration with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra

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Maestro Siminov

Last Friday, I was treated to a distinguished performance by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. The concert, which took place in Sheffield City Hall, was missing the intended conductor, Yuri Botnari. Instead, we were presented with the formidable powers of Yuri Siminov – a truly international conductor who has elevated the orchestra to new heights since his appointment as Principle Conductor and Music Director in 1998.

The program was entirely Russian. It began with extracts from Tchaikovsky’s ballet Sleeping Beauty, and was followed by Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no. 1. The second half of the concert featured Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scherezade.

Maestro Siminov conducted the works with finesse and reassuringly understated baton technique. He has been lauded as a great Tchaikovsky conductor, and his appreciation of the great composer was apparent as he drew out the subtleties of the work. By turns, he whipped the orchestra into a brooding cloud, or a playful marching band, and bobbed up and down as if dancing during the rhythmic sections. Despite this, I couldn’t help finding the extracts of Sleeping Beauty to most conventional and uninspired music of the evening.

The Shostakovitch contrasted well with the Tchaikovsky. According to University of Sheffield music lecturer David Patmore, who helpfully provided the program notes, the cello concerto was written in response to Boris Pasternak’s novel of 1957, Doctor Zhivago. The novel depicts the grim realities of life in the Soviet Union under Stalinist rule, and drew fierce criticism from the Soviet authorities. Shostakovitch – who received similar persecution from the Soviet authorities a decade earlier – appears to have been deeply affected by Pasternak’s treatment.

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British Cellist Guy Johnston

The haunting melody of the solo cello and the strained harmonic dissonance evoked a narrative of the hardships under Stalin’s rule. British soloist Guy Johnston’s playing was fiercely virtuosic, and incredibly tender in all the right places. It is a testament to Johnston’s ability that his playing managed to shine through highly capable performance of the orchestra. Johnston and Siminov had such an electric connection over the 30 minutes of the four movements that my eyes hardly left the pair of them.

Scherezade, by Rimsky-Korsakov, was the biggest surprise of the evening for me. I had an ill-formed preconceived notion that Rimsky-Korsakov was a heavy handed, red blooded composer due to a piece of his I played percussion in when I was a kid. Not at all. Scherezade was a hugely evocative, sprawling work; a wonderful fusion of traditional Western orchestration and Eastern melodies.

The score is based on the Arabian Nights – a collection of Asian folk tales originally written in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age. ‘Scherezade’ is the name of a Sultan’s wife, who tells him stories each night to stave off her execution. Her oriental violin theme can be heard repeatedly throughout the work.

Lush Romantic strings capture the tossing sea in passages inspired by Sinbad the Sailor, and in the fourth movement, the festival of Baghdad is depicted in fussy brilliance. An air of brilliant adventure permeates the entire work.

The concert was a welcome treat at the hands of an experienced and talented orchestra. It would have been appreciated if the talk by original conductor Botnari had taken place before the show, but it hardly spoiled a deliciously ripe concert.

Written by Nick Willoughby

Nick Willoughby

Nick Willoughby

Striptease, Crosses and Empowerment – An Insight Into Burlesque

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Performer Audrey Heartburn

 

A girl dressed head to foot in a nun’s habit stands alone on stage. She presses a flimsy book with a cross painted on it to her chest. Suddenly, music begins to pump out from a speaker, and the girl sways her hips from side to side. She flings the book over her shoulder, and writhes about in front of a gawking audience. She teases them – at first – by whipping her dress above her thighs to flash a pair of black-stockinged legs, and ends the performance completely nude, save for her knickers and two starry nipple tassels.

How do you react? If the crowd in Vodka Revolution last night are anything to go by (gathered on behalf of the charity, Platform), you may experience shock, embarrassment or a touch of self-consciousness. ‘I had no idea where to look, it was so awkward!’ exclaimed one person. Or you may fully embrace the theatricality of the performance and have a ball.

The (fake) nun in question goes by the name of April Showers. She was joined by a host of other performers from the Sheffield University Burlesque Society – Audrey Heartburn, Mademoiselle, and society leader, Freida Sparkles, whose real name is Doris Lowman.

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The girls initially told us that the Burlesque Society couldn’t make it, and had been replaced to the Sheffield University Construction Society

I met up with Doris – a fourth year physics student – the morning after. I was keen to discover a bit more about the niche world of burlesque, which seems to poach aspects from other arts (circus, dance), whilst breaking down sexual taboos. Doris told me that she joined the burlesque society in first year, after being attracted by the colourful and imaginative costumes of the performers. She makes all of her own clothes: last night, she was wielding a pair of vast fans made out of green feathers, which she told me she was particularly proud of. I asked her what she thought the main hook of burlesque is for most women (and some men). “Everyone likes showing off,” she told me – a sentiment that I find it hard to disagree with.

Some people believe that burlesque is just a glorified version of stripping, but – from my impressions last night – they couldn’t be more wrong. The main focus is on showmanship and eccentric theatricality. Doris agrees. She tells me that the point of burlesque isn’t for it to be sexy. The point is for sexual suggestion to be used as a form of expression to engross the audience in the act.

At one point last night, Mademoiselle – a second year History student – entered the stage wearing nothing but her underwear and about a dozen balloons. She toyed with the crowd, stroking faces with a long white feather, and encouraging them to burst the balloons with the sharp end of the feather. For over half an hour after the show, one man could be heard exclaiming to his friends how he had been tricked by Mademoiselle. Apparently she had approached him, tickled his chin with the feather, then swept over to someone else before he had a chance to burst a balloon. It seems she did a number on him.

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Performer Frieda Sparks, real name Doris Lowman

I ask Doris if she finds burlesque empowering. It seems to be a feminist trend nowadays to invert acts of male gratification – stripping, scantily clad dancing (Beyoncé) – in order for women to reclaim the female body. Doris shifts in her seat when I mention the word ’empower’. She tells me she does find it empowering, but that the word gets flung around a little too often – it’s lost its potency. The most significant aspects of a show, she tells me, is to have fun, and to put on an amusing performance. Comedy is the keystone of burlesque.  Her friend is soon putting on a Top Gun themed show, replete with cheesy uniforms and thick stick-on moustaches!

The University Burlesque Society are putting on an end of year showcase tonight, at Bloo 88. Doors open at 7pm, the show starts at 8pm, and everyone is invited.

If you’re looking to get involved in burlesque, you can find a link to the university facebook group here.

Alternatively, there are plenty of non-student burlesque nights out there in Sheffield. Secrets of the Boudior run quarterly shows at both West Street Live and Leadmill which you can find out about on their website. They also hide public and private classes.

Burly Q is another company that provide high quality burlesque events. Over the past four years they have sold out 19 shows, involving some world-class performers. You can find their website here for more information.

Finally, A Pole New Adventure is a studio which provides and eclectic mix of workouts – from pole dancing to zumba to, of course, burlesque. It is run by Gemma Hopkins out of A New Adventure Studios. You can find the website here.

Written by Nick Willoughby

Nick Willoughby

Nick Willoughby