Life Itself: Review

Roger Ebert Ill

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.

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

 

Subways Are For Sleeping

There was a certain buzz in the air recently surrounding Matthew Malone’s revival of 1960’s Broadway flop, Subways Are For Sleeping.

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Matthew Malone conducts Subways are for Sleeping. Photo: Adam Cain

The show, which received its UK premier on Tuesday, was revived as part of Malone’s master’s degree in Music. It recounts the story of journalist Angie McKay, who is ordered by her boss to write a story on an unusual troupe of elegantly-dressed homeless men, who spend their nights sleeping on New York City’s subway.

When the musical opened in 1961, it received mixed reviews. Despite the star-studded leads, it was the supporting actors and actresses who were lauded as the standouts of the show. In a frantic response to the criticism, the director made a few last-minute revisions before the show hit Broadway. Unfortunately, this had the adverse effect of botching some of the musical numbers, and leaving the script nonsensical.

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The full ensemble. Photo: Adam Cain

 
I asked Malone what drew him to take on such an unusual project. He told me that he wants to be a musical director, but the competition is incredibly fierce at the moment. The problem is, there are only a limited number of shows running in London, and inevitably some aspiring MD’s are going to be left unemployed. Malone’s tutor advised him to take on the project in order to make him stand out from the crowd.

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Fiona Primrose as Martha Vail and Jonathan Higgins as Charlie Smith. Photo: Adam Cain

Malone – who is already an experienced MD – spent a lot of time listening to little-known musicals of the 1960’s. He settled on Subways are for Sleeping because of the quality of Jule Styne’s score, and its capacity for fun. In order to arrange the musical, he had to order three boxes of the original scores from three different locations in the United States. He said that one of the biggest challenges was having to interpret the performer’s scribbles which sometimes covered up whole swathes of the score. The original cellist, who despised the musical, had altered the title of a song from ‘I Just Can’t Wait’ to ‘I Just Can’t Wait to Get the Hell Out of Here!’

The whole process of adapting the music took Malone around four months, and the rehearsal period, three. Shortly before a performance, the energy levels of the performers often dip, but Malone said this never really happened during the rehearsals – practicing didn’t seem like a chore because they had so much fun.

I thought the whole show last night was fantastic. It was evident how much work Malone had put in. The focus of the show was on the music, so – to cut time down – some plot-heavy scenes were described with the help of a narrator. The singing and acting was strong and confident all round. Particular kudos goes to Fiona Primrose who played the role of ditzy ‘Miss Mississippi’ runner-up. She barely even had to walk in front of the audience before they were in stitches. Her performance of I Was a Shoo-In was a particular highlight.

Definitely a guy to watch in the future, Matthew Malone has all the talent, energy and enthusiasm to make waves in the world of musical theatre.

Written by Nick Willoughby

Nick Willoughby

Nick Willoughby

Back from Easter hols

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In the context of this blog, the Easter holidays were rather ill-timed.

The blog had only just been born, when I rushed home to celebrate the Easter holidays with my friends and family. And although it was relaxing – I don’t think I’ve drunk more cups of tea in my life – I could feel the crackling energy of Sheffield pulling me back from the sleepy little town I grew up in.

There’s one particular treat to look forward to this week: The University of Sheffield’s production of West Side Story!

The brave society that have chosen to stage this notoriously complex work by Leonard Bernstein are SUPAS, who have a long history of putting on a wide range of musicals at the university. There’s no doubt in my mind, though, that West Side Story is the most ambitious work the society has ever staged, so I’m particularly looking forward to it.

The musical is running from April 30th – May 3rd, 7.30pm at the University Drama Studio on Glossop Road.

In the meantime (before the review goes up) here’s a little snippet of one of my favourite local bands, Screaming Maldini.

The band have recently finished a 10 day tour in Japan, and will soon be back gigging in Sheffield. Take a listen to their new track, Abyssinia

https://soundcloud.com/screamingmaldini.

Time of My Life by the Midland Players: Review

Despite its failings – incompetent staff, dodgy-looking food – the Stratton family always return to the same restaurant. “Anniversaries, birthdays – I don’t know why.” Time of My Life was written by Alan Ayckbourn in 1992 and the financial woes that plague father Gerry, the head of a large Northern building firm, and the rest of the family, serve as an astute meditation on today’s credit crunch, just as it did on Thatcherite decadence a few decades ago.

When the play opens, all seven characters – the rich Stratton parents, sons, Adam and Glyn, and their respective girlfriends – are gathered around the restaurant table, bickering. It is mother Laura’s 54th birthday. The restaurant owner – a hapless Italian named Calvinu – is dancing around his guests, lamenting the fact that nobody wants to try his “delicious Italian coffee”.

The young couples soon rush off stage, which opens up a candid dialogue in which the parents discuss the various failures of the family, including their misgivings over their children and their choice of partner. Occasionally the scene splits off to provide glimpses into the past and future: Adam’s burgeoning relationship with girlfriend Maureen a few weeks prior to the birthday, and Glyn’s failing marriage to wife Stephanie, which is demonstrated over the course of a year.  Every scene is set in Calvinu’s restaurant.

The play is never hysterically funny, but nor is it intended to be. Instead, the humour envelops you like a big cosy jumper: witty and un-offensive, providing a welcome reprieve from the heavier emotional drama. The barbed rapport between parents Laura and Gerry certainly benefitted from the assured performances of older actors (the student venue rarely plays host to anyone past their 20’s). Margaret Stone’s two-faced performance as Laura Stratton was a personal highlight. Sickly sweet to her enemy’s faces, ice cold witch behind their backs – the transformation was enough to make your skin crawl.

The scenes with the young couples contrasted intriguingly. Despite their lack of mutual interests – Adam is a pseudo-artist snob and Maureen a ditzy hairdresser – their chemistry felt believable. This was mostly thanks to Chrissy Almond’s bubbly and quirky portrayal of Maureen. I felt uplifted as I watched their relationship blossom, but it was genuinely moving to witness the disintegration of Glyn and Stephanie’s marriage. Presumably husband and wife (both actors share the surname, ‘North’), the bond between the two was tangible. Although cocksure Glyn isn’t a particularly sympathetic character, I wanted his marriage to succeed. It was heartrending to hear Glyn repeatedly excuse his suspicious absences, and Stephanie’s muted response.

Phil Ashton took on the challenging role of playing the entire restaurant staff – incompetent and rude waiters, the sentimental host. Each character was played with confidence – a crucial element for comedic parts – thankfully leaving no need to cringe and hide behind one’s hands as a result of a flat joke. His frequent interruptions allowed some refreshing levity during the emotionally touching sections. My only criticism is that it wasn’t always obvious which character he was supposed to be playing, despite a slight alteration of costume. Perhaps a change of accent would have made the distinction a little clearer.

A tiny bit more effort with the program would have been nice. It can’t have been cheap to produce, so it feels like a mini-biography of Ayckbourn lifted straight from Wikipedia was a bit of a waste – but that’s nit-picking. I thoroughly enjoyed the Midland Players’ production of Time of My Life, and left the drama studio with the poignant complexities of family still swirling around my head. As restaurant owner Calvinu might say on sampling a delicious meal – bravo.

4/5

Review by Nick Willoughby