Category Archives: 1980s

A force awakens… again

[WARNING – MANY, MANY SPOILERS]

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The film may have come out a year and a bit ago, but I’ve finally sat down to watch the Blu-Ray extras for Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Sure, I had to go to the ‘Deleted Scenes’ first (who wouldn’t?) but they don’t really lend much to what happened, and there’s no real nuggets in there, nothing that really (rightly) felt that it shouldn’t have been left on the floor. Because the film didn’t feel anything but lean. But the ‘Making Of’ was a really special viewing. I’m also not afraid to say I shed a tear watching the scenes with Carrie Fisher, both on set and off. It seems ever more tragic that she’s not going to be here to see how the universe develops in front of our eyes. A part of my childhood really did die when she left us.

The Read-Through alone sent shivers down the spine. Seeing Carrie, Harrison Ford and Mark Hammil in the same room, with Peter Mayhew, Anthony Edwards, talk through the words in that universe again… it still didn’t seem real. God knows what it must’ve been like being part of it. Because this is a film (no, not a movie) that I never thought would happen again. After the three ‘prequels’ that let down so many people of a certain age, I felt the stories had run their course. I’d never immersed myself that much in the books when I was a kid – sure, I read a few, but they never gripped me the way that first roll did on A New Hope – so for me, the films were the centre of all of it, and while I love the original trilogy (ok, I’m obsessed by it) and I still watch them regularly, I’d resigned myself to that being it. A sad, underwhelming and overblown successor that drowned in SFX, clunky dialog, toyshop characters and none of the real magic of the first three.

But of course, the last two years have proven how wrong I was. And as a 42-year old man, there should be something a bit sad about being so excited and overwhelmed by a couple of films, but then this is my youth, returning, and in a world that’s so grim, grimy, chaotic, unsure and angry, it’s no surprise that many of us are revelling in the escapism that such a vibrant, colourful and enticing universe that we all find so familiar gives us over the rest of reality.

There’s so much beautiful synergy between the old and new. And yes, some of that is a purposeful, heartstring-tugging intention to rope us olds back in, but it’s also such a reverence to the original films, because JJ Abrams gets that it’s a legacy, not just a money-making machine, churning out ever-decreasing chapters for the next decade. He was a fan himself when we were watching Empire as a small kid, he was a teen in LA, seeing the very same magic. So, where the old generation hand over to the new in The Force Awakens, it’s not just in front of the camera. Just looking at Nien Numb, who so memorably appeared in Jedi in the Falcon in the final battle of Endor, back as a pilot in the base on Yavin, or, even more sweetly, Warwick Davis, Wicket in Jedi, now returning (so much more known to many for Extras) as Wollivan alongside his yellow-headed monster daughter in the bar scene at Mas Kanta’s. It’s that incredible charm and character that’s indelibly inked onto the new films that makes you feel such a connection to them, where it wasn’t expected or assumed. There’s over a hundred creatures in VII, so many of them non-CGI, from the returning Gonk droids, to new pilots, musicians, bounty hunters.

That’s one of the greatest beauties of the  new trilogy so far is Abrams’ and the entire team’s willingness to only use CGI when there was no other means to achieve their ends. As many of us felt Lucas slowly diluting the rough-hewn charm of the original trilogy with needless new effects shots and reissues, leading to an almost shiny, blurred, CGI-laden set of prequels that fell into the era’s obsession with effects, the Force Awakens went back to what worked best: real models, characters, creatures, sets, effects, which felt so much more visceral and real. It always does, and it should be a lesson to filmmakers out there, that computer-generated SFX should be the point of last resort. Gareth Edwards showed that, more than anything with Monsters, a beautiful looking film made on a minuscule budget, whose effects were part of the tapestry, rather than the end-point of the whole fable.

I can’t even imagine what is must’ve been like being part of it, but there was something wonderful about how the younger actors – John Boyega especially – were so blown away by being on set, wanting a hug from Chewie, a walk through the Falcon. It says something that over 200 people were crowded onto the set when – for a day, they set aside a WHOLE DAY – when Han and Chewie get to utter the line that made a million adults squeal: “Chewie, we’re home.” It’s lovely to hear that, even as the film was being so meticulously made, pretty much the entire cast and crew were as excited as the rest of us were anticipating it, and watching it. And all of it soundtracked by John Williams, at 84 years old, still vital and perhaps one of the most important and iconic people in cinema today. Music that is as much part of our lives as Luke, Han, and Leia, but also Indiana Jones, ET, Jaws, Superman, Home Alone, Schindler’s List, Empire Of The Sun, Saving Private Ryan, Harry Potter, Lincoln and War Horse. Who else has been nominated for 50 Academy Awards?

The ILM work is still just incredible. Seeing so much referencing the original trilogy, whose effects were groundbreaking at the time, back against the new film is wonderful. The best CGI is the stuff that doesn’t look like it’s even there until you look, and for every shot that is obviously FX, there’s a bunch of stuff happening in the background that you don’t know is even unreal. And the new stuff: The Black X-Wing, the new TIE-Fighters, the updated Falcon, the Star Destroyer Graveyard, new Stormtroopers. Seeing them photograph the old 5ft model Falcon and take the little motifs the original model makers left (the ‘Drive Safely’ stickers!) and mapping them onto the ‘new’ Falcon so that the little details perpetuated into the new chapters. You’d have to know these details and watch it over and over, so it’s great to see that this is just ‘what had to be done’, even though many of us would never even spot what’s there. It’s just another example of the rich detail, thought and love that went into it all.

There are so many amazing insights into the making of the film. That JJ Abrams himself came up with the basic concept of BB-8. That Poe was going to be killed early on before they changed the story to keep him in. That Kylo Ren’s suit was going to be chrome (ugh) but when it was dumped it ended up as Captain Phasma. The fact that so many of the original crew from the first trilogy were part of the team that made The Force Awakens, in many cases using inspiration from the iconic Ralph McQuarrie, or the original designs, photos, and in one case, one son’s own inspiration from his father’s snowspeeder drawings in Empire. It felt like not just the handing on from one generation to another in front of and behind the camera, but really bringing so much of the history back together to ensure that the magic of the first trilogy was sprinkled all over the newest one. That may seem obvious, but it’s really the most important and intangible thing that, done wrong (especially overdone) would’ve seemed clumsy and too broadly brushed. They got it nailed.

As a film geek anyway, these behind-the-scenes things are catnip to me. It’s why I’ve started a Saturday that I couldn’t get back to sleep at 7am by thinking ‘I’ve been meaning to watch a bit of this for ages” and sitting here on the sofa for almost 3 hours gorging on the entire extras for the original Blu-Ray, feeling like a 6-year old kid again. But the mechanics of putting something so huge together is fascinating. I feel as excited watching this as I did watching grainy extras on the VHS tapes back in the mid-80s, or reading through the articles in the papers and magazines at the time. I wish I could take a weekend out and watch the whole lot from all of the films, but I’ve got packing to do!

Really, it’s an incredible thing to just immerse yourself in every now and then. I know that I’m a bit of an obsessive. How can you not be that excited about watching a universe unfold in front of your eyes that you first witnessed as a small boy (I was barely even walking when the first came out) and want to dive back into that? It’s part of my lifetime. It always will be.

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A princess of Hollywood, gone to the stars.

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“You have owned my likeness, lo all these years, so that every time I look in the mirror I have to send you a check for a couple of bucks.” 

I am not remotely embarrassed to I say I’m obsessed with Star Wars. I’m one of millions. But it doesn’t change the fact that seeing that universe expand in front of me from the day I was old enough to watch A New Hope (on VHS, I’m not that old) changed my life. I’ve watched that film over 100 times, and know every word and every character’s movements and expressions like it was my own. The quote above, of course, comes from Carrie Fisher to George Lucas, one of many quips she so beautifully and bitingly made in a career that was so much more than just those films, knowing so astutely that she’d have to rail against that oversimplified outline for the rest of her life. In this context, it’s not an exaggeration to say that when news of her heart-attack came through before Christmas I just thought “oh god, not her too”. There was way too much more to still come than 60 years would allow, even for someone that packed in as much as she did. I dearly hoped she’d pull through, ready with some withering self-deprecation about her not being dead yet, to witness the outpouring of support, and to solider on for another decade or two. But it wasn’t to be.

Really, it feels so desperately sad. I know public grief is a cheap commodity these days, traded in competitive chunks on a daily basis like a modern currency, but at 41 I don’t feel ready to let so many of these childhood touchstones drift into the mists just yet. Not Carrie, someone that stood out so much in those films, like she did in life, and instructed me about women in ways I didn’t even understand at the time. Even though she often resented the ties that bound her to those films (famously describing the role as ‘a lot of it was just running down corridors’) more tightly than she ever may have wanted, the late-blooming return to this fantasy universe and the rush of adolescent joy it brought me and so many others, makes it all the more sad she’s suddenly no longer here. [Spoiler alert] I’m not sure I could stomach that last scene in Rogue One right now. It just feels too sad to see that fresh face against this backlit scene of contemporary sorrow.

She was my first crush, probably before I even knew what one of those was. But she was also, flagrantly so much more than a sex symbol, and everything many women in cinema weren’t usually allowed to be at the time – feisty, witty, sexy, funny, articulate, intelligent and forceful – and not even Han Solo or Luke Skywalker stood a chance against her in those three films. Even as she was planned for execution, she fought back, showing vulnerability even as she cracked jokes at Grand Moff Tarkin’s expense. What a woman, in so many of the right ways, not some silver screen cypher employed as window dressing. I was hooked from then on, by this mystical figure clad in flowing white robes, who was pretty handy with a blaster and didn’t seem to care for gruff, charming space pirates (well, not at first). She transformed, during those six years from nervous ingénue princess to a star in her own right, famous – sadly, above so much else – for that bikini, rather than killing the mighty Jabba, as she should be. Perhaps one of her best put-downs came from this very weary topic, answering an angry father: “‘What am I going to tell my kid about why she’s in that outfit?’ Tell them that a giant slug captured me and forced me to wear that stupid outfit, and then I killed him because I didn’t like it. And then I took it off. Backstage.””

She was fearless. The daughter of celebrity parents (Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, her mother now tragically joining her barely 24 hours later), born and raised into Hollywood royalty, she spent much of her life and career remorselessly skewering that privilege when others hid behind it, seeing no vanity or assuming no position from it, often making capital out of the litany of ‘you-couldn’t-make-it-up’ drama that befell her. In fact, her truth about the underbelly of the industry, on others, but much of her own often painful and scarred experience, came to inform her post-Endor life. A voracious chronicler, her books were brilliant warts-and-all paens to growing up inside the movie bubble, with Postcards From The Edge very loosely autobiographical, and made into the brilliant film with Shirley Maclaine as the tortuous mother and Meryl Streep in the title role (for if Meryl plays you, you know you’re a true character of note). She even appeared – indirectly, until I only realised very recently – in the lyrics of one of my favourite albums of all time, as Paul Simon (her husband for eleven ill-fated months) talked about the “window in your heart” he found after she’d gone, immortalised in Graceland. Added poignancy when no more were needed.

She published memoirs that laid bare the high and low points of her life, taking them on tour as one-woman shows, and showing the openness and vulnerability that drew us to her from the start. Even forty years later, she managed to raise eyebrows when admitting to an affair with Harrison Ford in The Princess Diarist, which landed only a month or so before her untimely death. To the end, she never dimmed the switch. She also had roles and work that were often – sadly – overlooked. She provided the comic chops and humanity as Marie in When Harry Met Sally, worked in Shampoo, Hannah And Her Sisters, The Blues Brothers, Soapdish, and more as well as television, from 30 Rock, Family Guy, brilliantly as Rob Delaney’s acerbic mother in Catastrophe (for which she’d just finished a new series before the fateful flight home she caught from London), and spiky cameos aplenty in everything from Sex And The City to Big Bang Theory and Entourage. She never stopped working, applying uncredited script work to Hook, Sister Act, The Wedding Singer and more, even if many foolishly thought there was nothing between Jedi and The Force Awakens. Her epitaph is so much more than A Galaxy Far, Far Away.

She was also fearless in her openness about mental illness. Suffering from bipolar disorder from a young age, she never shied away from what it led her to, or the complexities of being a sufferer. Being the daughter of Hollywood royalty would be hard enough to cope with, but fighting bipolar disease, it’s actually incredible to think she had a career at all, given the rates of suicide it induces. But addressed it she did, and head on: “I have a chemical imbalance that, in its most extreme state, will lead me to a mental hospital,” she spoke over two decades ago. In a still-incredible interview, she talked in understandable terms about how her battles manifested themselves. ” I have two moods,” she explains. “One is Roy, rollicking Roy, the wild ride of a mood. And Pam, sediment Pam, who stands on the shore and sobs … Sometimes the tide is in, sometimes it’s out.” It’s for this reason alone, and her honesty, that she should perhaps be lauded more than anything for helping switch around the usual mental health narrative. She showed that that real, famous, great, successful people suffer from these conditions just as much as the rest of us, and the effect it can have on those people that feel alone and side-lined and unable to feel they can talk to anyone about it. Taboos are there to be broken, and Fisher did this with all the vim of Leia or Marie, realising that if it came from her, then another wall could be broken down.

But the part of me that aches the most is still that boy that watched entranced back in the early 80s, as this whirlwind in white, that grew up with that adoration and admiration unchanged, seeing that return in 2015, and feeling privileged to be living through both ages of the life of the person I knew as Princess Leia. From childhood crush to full-on adult infatuation, to middle-aged reverence, that person on and off-screen that never played by the rules, never kept quiet when it was expected, never felt she should fulfil the role of which she was expected. She suffered, wore that as a badge of honour, and never stopped seeing the positive side of her fractured existence. As my 40s trundles on, it feels like too many of those we held dear in our formative years are being taken away too early. Perhaps this is just what getting old is like, and this is the start of a long, uninterrupted march of those faces in front of us for the next few decades. But few will have the impact that the likes of Leia, Han and Luke had, and that emotional squeeze from the icons of your simpler, more brightly coloured childhood often hold onto you much more than those in our cluttered, complicated adult life ever could.

Sixty years old is way too soon, when so much felt still in front of her. The sadness is only compounded by the devastating death of her mother, Debbie, only a dayfew after her daughter. But for  a couple of lucky generations, we all saw that first clip and thought what Luke Skywalker did: “Who is she? She’s beautiful“. She was one of a kind, and the world is a far poorer place without her. May The Force be with you, Leia.

Goodbye, George

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I thought that 2016 had already done its fair share of disposing of iconic artists, but it still had a few cards to play. So the irony of hearing George Michael had passed away on Christmas day seemed a cruel joke too far (one that social media predictably jumped on in its crass, insensitive way almost as soon as the news hit that evening). But like Prince and Bowie before him, the sudden and unexpected nature of his passing was perhaps the biggest surprise, given he was only 53.

I know that it’s the new norm in the social media age to bear ones feelings online, and to lace tragedy with hyperbole and flowery language, an arms race to see who is the most upset or struck by these events, but while Bowie and Prince have been ever-present in my life, they were never the soundtrack to my childhood. George Michael, in Wham! and as a solo artist was definitely that, even before I knew much about him, or – blissfully unaware as a 7 year-old – his life, I was dancing round the living room to Club Tropicana and Wham Rap and recording hits off the radio on tape (yes, remember that?) Like any child of the 80s (born in ’75, but growing up in that oddly bleak yet flamboyant decade), pop music was central to my formative years. And what a decade for pop it was, perhaps never bettered, with so many big acts to choose from, even the one-hit wonders were somehow brilliant (think Owen Paul, Jermaine Stewart, The Buggles, Cutting Crew, Nina, MARRS). But alongside globe-spanning heavyweights like Duran Duran, Madonna, Prince, U2, Queen and Bowie, George Michael felt much more like one of us. The son of a Greek-Cypriot restaurant owner, born and raised in Kingsbury then Radlett, meeting Andrew Ridgely at school with dreams of pop stardom.

Forming Wham! in 1981, (I don’t know what you were doing when you were 18, but I was listening to his records, and wondering what my Geography degree would get me in life) they had a no.1 album within two years, with 3 top ten singles, including Wham Rap and the iconic Club Tropicana. The latter was filmed at the famous Pikes Hotel in Ibiza, and when I found this fact out much later on in life, I spent 2 summers trying to find the place outside San Antonio, just to be able to stand where that famous video was shot, such was its legend. It seemed crazy that I could be walking around that pool (luckily, no white pants for me), replaying that video in my head, wondering – and wishing – what it would’ve been like to have been at one of those weekend parties there in the mid 80s with George, Andy, Freddie, Grace and the rest.  He just made it all look so fun.

From there, the hits rolled almost non-stop, with staggering numbers: 100m albums sold, 7 UK no.1s, 8 US Billboard no.1s, his debut solo album, Faith, sold 20m alone, not to mention the list of awards, from 3 Ivor Novellos to countless Brits, MTV, Grammy and American Music Awards. But above all, he was a star, and a star all of his own making. George Michael did things his own way, and all his success came at a time when, if you were gay, you still had enough problems to deal with from daily life, but when you were a megastar, you’d be hounded relentlessly and mercilessly by the tabloids, rabidly obsessed with outing and shaming homosexuals. These are the same tabloids now eulogising him. It has ever been thus, the hypocrisy hanging rank in the air.. But Michael refused to be ashamed of his life. Much has been made of him not coming out until 1998, following his much-publicised bust (sorry, sting) in LA by an undercover police officer. But he didn’t care personally that he was gay, only that coming out publicly would affect his parents more than anything. In many ways, he was still the outsider from suburban London, but also, he didn’t exercise rigid control on his public or private life because he was ashamed, but because he felt it was none of anyone’s business. This infuriated the press, who simply attacked him further, and just made us root for him even more. His refusal to be a sexless, ashamed, out-gay man, is to be lauded, and still feels an outlier today, but in the late 90s, (having endured and survived the turbulent 80s) he was one of a few pop stars to be willing to put his head above the parapet. Even back then almost half the UK still thought same-sex relations ‘always or mostly wrong’. Many thought his career would suffer then, but of course, it was arguably one of the finest ripostes to a celebrity shaming there’s ever been: he made Outside in weeks after that arrest and ‘scandal’, lampooning at once the press, the LA Police, homophobes everywhere, showing that gay sex was still just sex, and making them all uncomfortable at the same time. A masterstroke, and one that many others would never have dared risk. He did it with gusto and humour, and I only loved him more.

There was the usual narrative of the ‘troubled’ star, yet no one bared this truth more honestly than George himself, speaking of his demons and addictions openly and causing many of us that were teens or younger at the time to go back over lyrics and feel embarrassment over what was overtly personal and downright dirty songs, released in plain sight. But it was all part of a talent that wrote and sang songs that were emotionally inclusive and soul-baring. When he was playing the James Dean role on Faith, he was also singing about a quick shag on Fast Love, or more brazenly pushing the tolerance of radio stations and tv channels with ‘I Want Your Sex’ (famously writing ‘explore monogamy’ on his partner’s back in lipstick’. But for all his brazen nature, great copy and partying, tragedy and difficulty was never far away either. Watching Anselmo Feleppa, his partner, die of AIDS-related illness in 1993, and penning Jesus To A Child to commemorate him. Even the accidents and incidents that put him in prison briefly, the public shame heaped on him made him no less forgiving, and it was hard not to love him for that, particularly when you detest the right-wing press and their motives so much. All the while, he still looked for that next hit, writing dozens of news songs, fighting his label for control, and in recent years that next album that never saw the light of day, robbing us perhaps of a next chapter to his remarkable story.

And all through it, he was a trailblazer and a star. While he was releasing solo classics like Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1, he was donating money to charities and individuals. Stories of giving a nurse fifteen thousand pounds anonymously for her IVF, or a concert for NHS nurses following his mother’s death, donating royalties to Childline, or Terrence Higgens’ trust for AIDS, making clear that having ‘more money than he could spend’ didn’t mean he didn’t know how to use it. In a world where celebrities now do much work for charity but do like to talk about it, he was the opposite. His work for LGBT charities was huge, and he also wore the position of a global pop star figurehead for a movement with zest, whatever the personal cost.  The trail he blazed didn’t just inspire musicians and others from his music, but made it easier for people after him to be who they needed to be, and as his music success waned, his legacy’s impact increased only further.

Ultimately though, for those of a certain age, his death leaves a sizeable hole. From as early as I can remember, I danced to his music, wanted to be him – and yes, long before I had a clue he was gay, we all wanted to be him, or be with him, such was his attraction to women – and bought his records. The tapes I had from back then are mostly long gone – I still remember being so excited to buy the cassette single of he and one of my other childhood icons, Elton John, duetting on Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me from Our Price in Redhill in 1991, when it really wasn’t cool to like either that much any more – but the records remain. So many hits, that it seemed like one of his records was permanently in the charts from 1981 to the late 90s, a staggering output, especially when success is so fleeting in the modern musical world. He did so much that seems normal now, but lost him friends, success and money back then, whether it was refusing to be in his own videos (Freedom, particularly, irked Sony, but it’s now one of the most replayed videos that era, chock-full of supermodels), suing his own record company for creative control, and simply be unashamed being out and gay when it was accepted to be a career-killer. Lesser artists would’ve been hit, but he just did what he wanted to, and that’s why people rooted for him.

I’ve dabbled as a DJ over the past two decades, and now the radio show I do is based around being the best wedding set you’ve ever heard. Understandably, Wham! and George Michael have always been high on my list of #bangers since the start. How can they not? So many of them have such happy memories for me, whether it’s listening to Wham! in Africa when I was a kid, or mesmerised by him joining Elton at Live Aid, or cracking up when the LA policeman sued him for making Outside, with George at the centre of his own joke. And every new year’s day for the last seven years, dancing to Everything She Wants at Bugged Out. Even last week, I played Last Christmas (how could you not?) on my radio show’s festive edition. It seems so sad that it’s now an epitaph, rather than a celebration of someone you hoped still had gas in their career for a long time to come. He also joins the list of artists I never saw live and that I’ll never get that chance to. Everyone I know that did was in awe. That voice of his had few peers.

As we get older, it’s inevitable that those we love, and revere and worship will slowly slip away before our eyes. Only a fool would be unwilling to accept this. But 53 is no age to go, discovered by your partner lying calmly in bed on Christmas morning. Not when you’re re-releasing a classic album in 2017, and planning a documentary that we’ll now never see. Nostalgia is a business all of its own these days, but when a chunk of your childhood becomes a freeze-frame of memories, and no longer a living, breathing person, part of that dies with them. It’s not overdramatic to say that, because while I listen to so much new music, there’s a huge part of me that’s still that little nerdy kid dancing round the room with a comb singing Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, and wanting to be that flamboyant guy on tv in tennis shorts and a haircut bigger than my torso, bobbing around alongside Andrew Ridgely. Knowing that George Michael is ‘never gonna dance again’ is a sad, sad day indeed.