Friday, November 04, 2005

What a Dude Will Do in a Town Full of Heroes and Villains

Well, Mike Love is once again doing all he can to completely destroy the legacy of the Beach Boys. Apparently, he's suing Brian Wilson over a promotion connected with last year's release of Wilson's album Smile.

Now, Smile has a long and sordid history, and I'm sure that someone like Peter Lynn could cover this better than I'm prepared to, but it what it boils down to is this: in 1966, the Beach Boys released the greatest rock album of all time, Pet Sounds. To hear the melody of "You Still Believe in Me" is to know real humility, to hear the sad strains of "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" is to know real melancholy, to hear the harmony of "I Know There's an Answer" is to know real hope, and to hear "God Only Knows" is to believe, for three minutes or so, that God and love really exist and the universe makes complete, ordered sense. Yes, the album is that wonderful, and anyone who tells you less is a tin-eared downer who barely understands life, much less music.

(An aside: too often these days, thanks to Mike Love and his insistence on touring and turning the Beach Boys into a State Fair joke, the original Beach Boys recordings are dismissed as surf junk. But if you can still find yourself a copy of Endless Summer--which I had to go on eBay to do, but it was worth it--and sit and listen to the wonder that is Brian Wilson, I promise you'll be enlightened. "Surfer Girl," "The Warmth of the Sun," "In My Room," "I Get Around," "Wendy," "The Girls on the Beach," "All Summer Long," and the sublime "Don't Worry Baby"--the best song the Ronettes never recorded--are such beautiful listening, you could die immediately afterward and consider your life unwasted. Obviously, I'm a fan.)

Anyway, back to Pet Sounds. Wilson always intended to follow that album up with a more intricately-layered and musically complex sound. That album was to be called Smile. And, for many reasons (including, it must be said, the conventional AOR desires of Mike Love and Al Jardine; but also, to be fair, Brian Wilson's ever-changing mental state), the album was uncompleted. Bootlegs of recordings and outtakes have circulated since 1967, but the album itself is considered a lost masterpiece. Some songs made it onto later Beach Boys albums in some form or another, and the greatness of those songs only hints at what might have been: "Heroes and Villains," "Cabin Essence," "Wonderful," "Surf's Up," and, the masterpiece, "Good Vibrations." What this might have been in 1967.

Well, a few years ago, Brian decided to record the album on his own. While most critics agree it could never touch the expectations of nearly 40 years, the reconstructed album is a masterpiece all on its own. Brian's age and his hardships have tempered his music with a mature, introspective outlook that just sounds so damn beautiful coming out of a stereo. Perfection.

(Another aside: Breslerbabe, I recommend this album for your surf tour. Just stand on the shore and listen to the opening strains, and you will know paradise. For if heaven has a beachfront--and it does--and the angels surf--which they must--then it all occurs in slow motion as this album plays eternally. Hyperbolic enough for y'all?)

So, apparently there was a promotion when this album came out in Britain, and 2.6 million readers of the Daily Mail were given a free Beach Boys compilation CD, and Mike Love--who has the exclusive rights to the Beach Boys name and who is author or co-author of many Beach Boys songs--is calling this unfair competition and says it undercuts the sales of the Beach Boys albums. Which seems a bit of a reach, frankly, as everything Love has done since 1974 has pretty much been to force Brian out of the band and take it over for himself, and Wilson suddenly creating a masterpiece threatens his band's ability to play store openings and cruises or whatever fucking crap they're doing since they've been run into the ground... "Kokomo," my ass. Or, worse, "Still Cruisin'." These days, all of Love's money comes from the sales of the seemingly endless series of Beach Boys retrospectives, none of which--despite its absence of later greatness such as "Sail On, Sailor" and the wonderful "Forever"--has ever managed to equal Endless Summer for sheer listenability.

So, in short, can Mike Love just shut the fuck up and go back to his piecemeal hackwork? At least Brian Wilson isn't just the genius who went insane... he's managed to pull out a masterpiece in his later years.

UPDATE: As it turns out, Peter does have a few choice words (one of them, like mine, starts with an "f") about Mike Love and his Traveling Beach Boys-Esque Experience road show over here (we crossed by about an hour or so).

Sunday, October 30, 2005

James Bond Will Return...Does Anybody Care?

I never realized how absolutely apathetic I am to the idea of another James Bond film. The news that Daniel Craig, an actor I think absolutely unsuited to the role, has been cast as 007 doesn't even raise the slightest bit of ire in me. I simply don't care.

I used to care. I own every Bond film on DVD (including Die Another Day, despite its awfulness), and I have every one of Ian Fleming's novels on my shelf. I have books about the books, I have books about the films; I generally love James Bond. But I think the film series has had it and I don't think I would care if Eon Productions and the Broccoli family never put out another movie.

How did this happen? I think, for me, it's been gradually happening over the decades. The sixties Bond films--Dr. No; From Russia with Love; Goldfinger; Thunderball; the flawed You Only Live Twice; and the excellent (though Connery-less) On Her Majesty's Secret Service--took a serialized approach. Each film was definitely a sequel to the last, not just a new adventure with new characters. Sean Connery, the man who defined the role, should never have been replaced. Ironically, Connery quit the series because he felt they were becoming more and more ridiculous, and then George Lazenby was ushered in to film the more realistic, exciting character drama On Her Majesty's Secret Service. It took Connery leaving to get Eon Productions to heed his advice and ramp up the drama, intrigue, and story, instead of banking on girls and gadgets.

Then Connery came back to the series, Diamonds Are Forever had floating space lasers, and Connery quit the series once more.

The downfall came immediately after: Roger Moore. Nothing against Moore personally--I tend to enjoy his presence in films--but with the coming of the seventies and the recasting of Bond, the creative forces behind the series decided to completely refocus the films. They no longer felt like real Bond movies, despite the fact that the supporting players--Desmond Llewellyn, Lois Maxwell, Bernard Lee--continued to appear as Q, Moneypenny, and M, respectively. The filmmakers devolved into the self-parody they had always hinted at, running the series into the ground. The music became more contemporary (Wings did the first Moore-era theme song, "Live and Let Die"), the humor became sillier, and Roger Moore played Bond with about the same level of tongue-in-cheek as Adam West played Batman. Remember that redneck sheriff from Live and Let Die who shows up in Italy for no reason in The Man with the Golden Gun? Not if you value your sanity, you don't.

For whatever reason, Eon also chose to waste some of the better actors they'd had as villains--Yaphet Kotto, Christopher Lee, Curt Jurgens, Julian Glover, Christopher Walken--on idiotically silly movies (when they weren't casting complete non-entities). There was no drama, just girls, gadgets, 'splosions, and lunacy. Moonraker became an idiot parody of every space movie released up to 1978, for example, and A View to a Kill (which, in a potentially neat crossover, co-starred John Steed himself, Patrick Macnee, to no effect whatsoever) wasted an hour on horse-racing that had nothing to do with the rest of the movie and was apparently included because Roger Moore liked to hang out at the track.

By 1985, then, it became obvious that the series was out of tricks, and new blood was needed. Enter Timothy Dalton, added to give Bond a new edge of seriousness. His two films--The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill--are better than the films that preceded it, but they were still directed by John Glen, who had directed the previous several, and the seriousness of the films was still countered by unbelievable stunts. Dalton, talented actor though he is, could never fully inhabit the character, because by this point, there was no character to inhabit. There was only a collection of types, ideas, and familiarity that had to be woven into the script. And despite the brutal (and emotional) savagery of Licence to Kill, which tried very hard to return Bond to something like Ian Fleming's original character, it just wasn't going.

In 1995, there was another flurry of excitement over the role of James Bond. Much was made of how Pierce Brosnan was meant to be Bond instead of Dalton, but he was forced into a Remington Steele contract that made it impossible. And, personally, Brosnan is the best Bond of the series. He has the self-awareness that made Moore so irritating, but he tempers it with Connery's seriousness and his own instincts as an actor that Bond is, really, a prick. Someone who can't love, someone who will kill anyone he has to in order to finish his mission, someone who has, on occasion, used women as a human shield. GoldenEye tried hard and mostly succeeded at making us care about James, about giving him characterization, angst, and recognizable human problems. For my money, The World Is Not Enough is the best Bond film since On Her Majesty's Secret Service, even if Denise Richards played a nuclear scientist. That's 30 years, if anyone's counting. The series was contemporized--a female M, for instance--without playing up to modernPC ideas; Bond was still a cad, for instance.

But then came Die Another Day, and about the time Bond was driving around a castle made of ice in his invisible car, I realized that--like Star Trek, Doctor Who, and Aliens--I didn't really need anything more out of this series. Just as the series had in the days of Connery, the films had slid into the realm of unbelievability, and who really cared anymore? Even Pierce Brosnan, as Connery had, became fed up and walked away.

So, now they've got Daniel Craig and GoldenEye director Martin Campbell (also director of The Legend of Zorro, which is getting some wretched reviews this weekend), and the film is going to be Casino Royale, which is the one Ian Fleming novel Eon hasn't made into a movie. It's the first novel, and this is apparently meant to be a return to roots; a prequel, I suppose, though I doubt the movie will be period (or very faithful, frankly). Think of it as the Batman Begins of 007 movies; an attempt to reboot the series with new creative talents and a younger cast. At least, in theory--every time they want to cast a younger actor, they always pick someone who's about 39. They're already crowing about how the series will be much more realistic and harder-edged, a la The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy. And there's a lot of whinging online about how they're not going with Quentin Tarantino's concept for the movie, as though he's what the series needs--his big idea was to be "exactly faithful" to the book, which he apparently decided he was going to do by making Bond older and towards the end of his career. Faithful, except that it reverses exactly the premise of the novel...

But, really, does it matter at this point? Is the name James Bond enough to get anyone to go anymore? I doubt it; the series is largely irrelevant, and the Broccoli family is reluctant to make any actual decisions on direction. They say they want to skew to the younger audience, but they also don't want to alienate the older audience, who might actually remember the time, 40 years ago, when James Bond was the most popular character in the world. The problem is, the series has been rooted in silliness since 1971, and it always wants to veer back there. I say let it die and move on.