Girls Can’t Surf (2020) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Not to take anything away from this fascinating documentary about the battle for gender parity in the surfing world, but it occurred to me how few movies exist that features female athletes, compared to the plethora focusing on males. The occasional Million Dollar Baby (2004) and I, Tonya (2017) are in stark contrast to the plethora of Rocky (and now Creed)movies,  or all the American football and baseball pictures while Kevin Costner alone has managed a dozen varied sports movies and even the recent King Richard (2021), ostensibly about the Williams sisters, actually centered on the father.  

And the reason I ask is that the lives of any of the champion surfers showcased here would have made a worthy biopic, their stories mostly about overcoming adversity, battling male prejudice and finally, though only in the last few years, winning equal pay with men. Just as King Richard was as much about brand management, so is Girls Can’t Surf, although it was only by accident that big business understood the commercial impact women surfers had on sales of board clothing.

And the other reason I ask is that compared even to the long ago likes of Big Wednesday (1978)  and Endless Summer (1965) the actual surfing footage here is meagre and it got me to thinking how much better it would have been with a proper budget for filming the surfing action.

Anyway, back to the movie I actually saw rather than the one I can only imagine, this covers the growth of female surfing from being regarded as a mere appendage to the male version to the billion-dollar industry it has become, tracing the largely sexist obstacles thrown in the way of women. The biggest issue initially wasn’t prize money, but that the men hogged the best waves and the best beaches, women often allocated times where the waves would be dismal, and therefore could not show off their skills.

This isn’t a sport like tennis or soccer where muscle power gives men the edge. Here, everyone is battling the same ocean. It’s not as if women get to surf with smaller, easier waves – that’s the last thing they want. The ocean doesn’t take it any easier on the women. But the women, barely tolerated, found themselves not just squeezed out of a decent share of the prize money but, being ignored in terms of publicity and deemed unworthy of articles in the surfing magazines, lost out in the battle to raise the sponsorship required just to make a living.

Whenever recession hit the sport, the answer was always to reduce female prize money, cancel female events or attempt to drive them out of the sport altogether. There’s an entire roll-call of generation after generation of top surfers not just battling each other to become world champion (there’s a program of global events as in Formula One racing) but battling personal circumstances – Pauline Menczer was crippled by arthritis, Pam Burridge suffered from anorexia – and each other as well as endemic sexism and inappropriate male advances.

The men were the glamour pusses, and they preferred it if the women stayed in their cars and read Mills & Boon novels and watched them surf, or if they wanted to parade about it should be in bikinis for the beauty contests that appeared a constituent part of any event.

The story is told in large part by the participants, names that were unfamiliar to me, like Jodie Cooper, Frieda Zamba, Lisa Anderson, Wendy Botha, Layne Beachley and Stephanie Gilmore. But the terms they use are the same as competitive athletes the world over, the determination to win, sometimes win at all costs, and even with a world championship trophy to your name unable to attract sponsorship.

The film could easily be interpreted as all about the battle for parity. At the start female prize money was barely a tenth of the million-dollar prize fund allocated the men. But even when manufacturers recognised that females were selling product, female earnings were usually half that of men. Eventually, the women took action, effectively going on strike when offered the poorer time slots in competitions, and at some point, it’s not exactly clear when, forcing the organisers to create a more even playing field, taking competitions to places where there was no shortage of giant waves for both sexes. The men, encountering exactly the same waves as their female counterparts, were forced to admit that in some instances the women were actually better. A social media outcry spelled the end of unequal pay, although noticeably there was no back payment for the years of inequality.

So, a terrific film directed by Christopher Nelius (Storm Surfers: New Zealand, 2010) – and co-written with Julie-Anne Du Ruvo – with no shortage of potential candidates for an awesome biopic, the supposed glamor of the surfing world exposed as tawdry for the most part, a bunch of larger-than-life personalities, a dose of humor, and women riding waves you would be scared to cross in a boat never mind with just a board for company.

In some programming quirk I caught this at the cinema but apparently it’s available on DVD and it must be streaming somewhere. The small screen will no doubt diminish the action but won’t take away form the basic story.

Ennio (2021) ***** – Seen at the Cinema

I became an instant fan of Ennio Morricone after watching dance troupe Pan’s People performing on BBC TV’s weekly Top of the Pops to Hugo Montenegro’s version of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly when it topped the singles charts in Britain in 1968. Sure, there had been successful theme songs in the charts before like Shirley Bassey’s rendering of Goldfinger, but never a pure instrumental and not a wailing guitar. This is quite simply an extraordinary documentary, and although it comes with an indulgence of anecdotes, what is considerably more compelling is the concentration, in accessible fashion, on the artist’s compositional skills. I could have watched four hours of this, never mind that clocking in at 156 minutes it’s already on the lengthy side for a documentary.

Morricone should never have been a film composer or a composer of any kind. He was too poor. His father was a trumpet-player and Morricone only took up music, designated instrument the trumpet, because his father believed a good trumpet player would always make a living and provide for his family. He was not a good trumpet player. At least, not at the start. Given that once orchestras and dance bands went out of favor, trumpet playing would have been a precarious existence, it was lucky his father’s insisted he also study harmony and composition. He won a place at a conservatoire, where the pupils, all except him, were the sons and daughters of the wealthy elite. And a conservatoire in those days was academically inclined, intending to produce classical composers and players, not people who would work as arrangers and composers of pop songs or commit the unpardonable sin of writing for the movies.

Morricone, always prolific, started working as an arranger of pop tunes for the RCA label in Italy and then for RAI, the Italian state television. But he was also an innovator and many of his songs began with a distinctive sound rather than the music being merely a backdrop to the song. He founded an experimental music group, making music out of anything but a musical instrument. You can see the benefits of that inquiring mind from the first 20 minutes of Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), for me his compositional masterpiece and my favorite western.

When he started working for Sergio Leone, he realized they had once been classmates. Leone came to him because Morricone had already written music for Italian westerns. Of course, the collaboration became legendary. As you will be aware, Leone liked the music recorded before filming began and played it during filming. While an interesting approach, I always thought it odd, until I witnessed, here, Robert De Niro making an entrance in one scene of Once Upon a Time in America (1984).

While his themes were often complex, he had a genius for catching the ear of the listener. Many scenes showed Morricone with voice and fingers tapping out a theme you will instantly recognize because all his best work was instantly recognizable. Although an extremely shy person, he was not above walking out – or threatening to do so – if a film was not going according to plan, if a director insisted on making a change or incorporating other material. Nor, for such a genius, was he full of self-confidence. Eventually, he relied on his wife as a listening board to decide if his work was any good. For what he called the “triumphant” scene from The Untouchables (1987), where cops brandishing shotguns prompted by Sean Connery burst in on bootleggers, he supplied nine ideas for director Brian De Palma, who proceeded to use the one Morricone considered the weakest. Other times, he was the one suddenly requiring an extra piece of work, calling upon Joan Baez to supply lyrics at the last minute to his theme for Sacco and Vanzetti (1971) that became the memorable “Here’s To You.”

One of the most enjoyable elements of the movie is seeing concert renditions of his themes, “Here’s To You” with a massive choral ensemble making the hairs on the back of your head stand on end. You could probably make a case for Morricone reinventing the chorus, paving the way for such practitioners as Hans Zimmer. Until then, there was many a heavenly chorus, but Morricone found better use for a chorus. And you could also argue that he influenced the likes of Ridley Scott (Gladiator, 1999) in using female opera singers to introduce a completely new sound to movies. 

One of Morricone’s stated aims was to use music to bring something else out of a scene, not to merely provide a relevant sound. So for the death of Sean Connery in The Untouchables or the baby carriage scene his music goes completely against what you are watching but nonetheless adds a deeper understanding. We also see how he folds different themes into the one piece of music.

There are a number of very moving sequences, when Morricone, for example recalls his father – he would not use a trumpet in his compositions until his father died – or when he explains his hurt at being made to feel an outcast by his classical peers, and there is one extraordinary moment when one of those who has disdained him writes a letter asking forgiveness for having so under-rated his work. And certainly there is clear petulance at being passed over for the Oscar for The Mission (1986), a piece of work that director Roland Joffe said made the movie a completely different experience. Morricone complained that half the music that won Herbie Hancock the Oscar for Round Midnight (1986) was actually old, rather than new, music.

My favorite anecdote is how Gillo Pontecorvo, hearing heard a piece of music Morricone had composed for The Year of the Cannibals (1970) promptly stole it for his own Queimade/Burn (1969) before settling, after an argumemt, for a similar piece. Actors, composers and directors in the anecdote queue include Quentin Tarantino (The Hateful Eight, 2015) , Clint Eastwood, Terence Malick (Days of Heaven, 1978), Dario Argento (Four Flies on Grey Velvet, 1971), John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Oliver Stone (U Turn, 1997) Marco Bellochio (Fists in the Pocket, 1965) and Bernardo Bertolucci (1900, 1976).

Morricone’s film music changed over the decades. Following the westerns were giallos, marked by dissonance rather than melody, then Hollywood came calling. I hadn’t quite realized what an audience Morricone commanded – over 70 million albums sold. He had hit singles In Italy –  A Fistful of Dollars ranked fourth in the charts, For a Few Dollars one place below, “Here’s To You” also fourth. In Britain, “Chi Mai” reached the second spot; in France “Man with Harmonica” from Once Upon a Time in the West went to number one, as did “Chi Mai” while “Here’s To You” was at number two. And, of course, his music has been adopted by a host of rock bands, most notably Bruce Springsteen and Metallica.

Director Giuseppe Tornatore, who has a special place in the Morricone catalog thanks to Cinema Paradiso (1988), has produced a magnificent tribute to the genius. In my half century of regular cinema going, there are four composers I rank above all the rest, John Barry, John Williams, Hans Zimmer and Ennio Morricone, but of them all, the latter is the number one for not just his enormous output – 500 scores including 29 in one year – and his wide range of melodies, but because they are so many memorable pieces. Once Upon a Time in the West is never off my CD player and especially gets worn out in the car. For sheer enjoyment this is an undeniable five-star treat. 

I am sure this will end being streamed somewhere but I urge you to try and catch it at the cinema, the effect will be lost on the small screen of the massed choruses or Morricone conducting in vast amphitheaters.

When Comedy Was King (1960) ***

The 1960s was as much devoted to old movies as to new – the production shortage sent studios and producers back to the vaults to find anything that could fill a slot on a cinema program – and one of the most surprising beneficiaries of this was the silent movie.

It’s impossible to understand the 1960s without realizing what underpinned both the revival of slapstick comedy in such movies as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and The Great Race (1965) and, just as crucially, brought to the attention of a new public other non-comedic stars from Hollywood’s “golden age,” the revival of whose movies in turn prompted a reissue boom and a decade or so further on provided the stimulus for the restoration of forgotten masterpieces.

The innovator in the silent comedy field was Robert Youngson, a two-time Oscar-winner (in the one-reel documentary category), who had set the ball rolling with The Golden Age of Comedy (1957).

When Comedy Was King sports a greater repertoire of stars and in essence presents a tribute – though not necessarily a greatest hits – to some of the best of the silent comedians The line-up includes Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Fatty Arbuckle, Laurel and Hardy, Mabel Normand and the Keystone Cops.

It was renamed “The Parade of Joy” for European markets.

None of the shorts featured are necessarily an individual artist’s greatest work – Chaplin’s contribution, for example, is drawn from a trio of 1914 pictures, The Masqurader, Kid Auto in Venice and His Trysting Place, none of which would be seen to represent the actor at his height. But they do give an idea of what silent comedy was all about.

Buster Keaton’s contribution is selected from the 18-minute Cops (1922) with well-timed gags, slapstick and car chases. Mutual self-destruction is a hallmark of Laurel and Hardy and Big Business (1929) sees the pair get into an argument with a customer, ending up demolishing everything in sight.  This is probably the pick of the compilation since the pair’s comedy relies on their relationship with each other and with anyone who gets in their way.

Appreciation of the particular talents of Fatty Arbuckle scarcely survived the scandal that ended his career while memory of Mabel Normand would also have been hazy so Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916) is a good example of their comedy styles. They play a couple whose bed ends up floating on the sea.

Youngson was not above cashing in on a star’s future fame even when the example used of the person’s work could hardly be considered their best. In the case of Gloria Swanson (Sunset Boulevard, 1950) she was unrecognizable especially as she was only 12-years-old and being billed at the time as Gloria Dawn. Her inclusion is taken from the short Jimmie the Fox (1911) later renamed Bobby’s Sweetheart. Certainly, she is displaying none of the dramatic ability which made her the highest paid actress of the 1920s.

For all the varying quality of the actual footage, it does work as a showcase for the various stars, even though they would achieve greater success in later films. As importantly, it opened up for the 1960s generation the world of silent comedy and seemed to make that decade’s audience laugh as much as it had done previously.

Youngson would go on to make another five of these compilations throughout the decade. Without his initial forays into old school comedy, big-budget 70mm roadshows like It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World would never have seen the light of day, nor would more modest efforts like the British-made The Plank (1967), written, directed and starring Eric Sykes.

The Three Kings (2020) ****

Not to be confused with David O. Russell’s similarly-titled Persian Gulf War picture starring George Clooney from 1999, from which this picture could not be further removed given that it is the study of three Scottish football managerial geniuses who in their way created the basis for the business empires of Manchester United, Liverpool and Glasgow’s Celtic F.C.

The death of Diego Maradona and the subsequent grief that swept Argentina is the most recent example of the power of football. The Three Kings demonstrates that this is anything but a new phenomenon. And it also very much a story of the 1960s when these three kings of football ascended their thrones.

Jock Stein (of Celtic), Matt Busby (of Manchester Utd) and Bill Shankly (of Liverpool) were born within 30 miles of each other in grim Scottish mining communities. Busby and Shankly played at international level for their country but Stein, after a career in the lower echelons of football, was surprisingly hired by Celtic in the early 1950s where his leadership skills led him to be made captain of a team he subsequently led to the Scottish championship. As managers, they reached fabulous heights, Stein and Busby leading their teams to European Cup glory, Shankly’s Liverpool dominating English football for several seasons.

As much as it is about their individual triumphs and tragedies – Busby lost most of his team and nearly his own life in the Munich Air Disaster, Stein nearly died in a car crash – it is also most pertinently about the importance of football to a community. Shankly saw his team as in service to the city. But it was also about their combined global reach.

This is a personal film for me. I grew up in and around Glasgow just as Stein’s team was reaching its peak. My father used to take me and my brother all over Scotland in his car to support the team. (My knowledge of geography owes much to the teams Celtic played in Scotland and Europe.) We were at Motherwell in 1966 when in the dying minutes Celtic won the game to clinch their first title in a dozen years. We were at Celtic Park the following year when in the dying minutes our team won the quarter-final against the Yugoslavian champions Vojvodina Novi Sad and of course we sat glued to the television on May 25, 1967, when Celtic became the first British team to win the European Cup (the fore-runner of the Champions League).

The film is based on the book by Leo Moynihan.

In winning the European Cup, the first time anyone outside outside the Latin heartlands of Spain and Italy and Portugal did so, Celtic – with a team drawn from 30 miles around Glasgow rather than global galacticos – joined Europe’s elite, in the company of such names as Real Madrid, Benfica, AC Milan and Inter Milan. Celtic’s verve and audacity appealed to neutrals around the world. Manchester Utd’s fabled trio of Best, Law and Charlton, plus the legacy of the Busby Babes killed at Munich, gave that team a global platform. In Shankly Liverpool had a master of the soundbite who talked like James Cagney and did the spadework for the Liverpool teams that would dominate Europe in the 1970s and 1980s.

Whether they realised it or not, the trio put their teams on a pedestal few have reached and the film estimated that a quarter of the globe’s entire population currently supports one of the three. It is also a testament to the burden carried by the managers. By the age of 62 both Busby and Shankly had retired while Jock Stein Stein died from a heart attack in the dying seconds of a vital World Cup qualifying game while managing Scotland.

The film also captures the unique circumstances of each of the working-class cities where football was the lifeblood. All three had other major football teams and it would not be unusual for a quarter of the city’s populations to attend football matches on a Saturday afternoon. Cities that had been destroyed by the Second World War and suffered from a contraction of the workforce in the recessions of the 1960s turned to football as a lifeline. Men who otherwise contained their emotions would let them loose in raucous fashion when following their favoured teams.

Directed with at times great subtlety by Jonny Owen, also responsible for the film about Brian Clough’s Eurropean Cup-winning Nottingham Forest I Believe in Miracles (2015), and incorporating rare archive footage, the documentary looks back to a time when football passion could transcend adversity.

Here’s the link to the DVD: https://www.amazon.co.uk/s?k=the+three+kings+documentary&i=dvd&crid=3MUGTRX0UJTWB&sprefix=the+three+kings%2Cdvd%2C154&ref=nb_sb_ss_ts-a-p_3_15

It’s Not All Rock’n’Roll (2020) ****

I’ve never heard of the rock band Swearing At Motorists but like everyone else I’ve got misconceived notions about the rock’n’roll lifestyle of excess and how if you live long enough and are lucky enough you might find redemption at the end of the highway. So Jim Burns’ touching documentary It’s Not All Rock’n’Roll redresses that balance. Band frontman Dave Doughman has been a recording artist since 1995, making eight albums and about to set off on a tour where, if he’s unlucky, his audience might comprise six people, or an irate customer might insist on playing pool during the performance.

Dave’s the one in the hat.

He even does his own washing-up, takes his boy to school and has a day-job as a forklift truck driver. He doesn’t do it for the money or the fame – just as well since none has come his way – but because he wants to be a working rock musician. Since the band consists of Dave and a drummer, it’s up to him to put on a show, and, by golly, he’s the best one-man show in town, leaping up and down, playing the guitar on his back, burning off energy like gas is a dime a gallon, and keeping the tempo way above eleven.  

We catch up with him in Hamburg where he’s living. He’s single and trying to become the dad his dad wasn’t, developing a relationship with his young son, his life revolving around taking his son to and collecting him from school, fitting in songwriting and recording in between. Trying to make money when you are not particularly famous is the hard part if you want to remain a working musician, so he’s the one also selling records and memorabilia at concerts. Publicity is scant. He’s delighted when he is the February selection for a local calendar and there’s a hilarious sequence where, echoing the famous Coppertone advert, he is photographed on the beach with a dog pulling down his pants.

On stage – energy encapsulated.

But it’s one version we get of him in Germany and another when he goes on tour back to homeland America and we find out that he was on the excess express for 27 years and has only recently cut out drink and drugs and sought out treatment for depression in order to become the responsible father his father was not. I wondered what kind of tour this would be since he is relatively unknown, although John Peel has played his records and he was part of the Dayton, Ohio, music scene at one point. The answer is he plays bars and if he is invited to a festival he has the opening slot – at 10.30am. But none of that matters to Dave. He treats every gig as if he is playing Madison Square Garden or headlining Glastonbury.  It’s like the Field of Dreams of rock. Waiting for people to come, even if not many always do. But he gives the kind of performance nobody who does come will ever forget, as some concert-goers testify, and as we can see for ourselves.

The forklift truck driver shows us the way.

This being a documentary and me never having heard of this guy I had no idea where the story was going to go. I certainly didn’t think I would be totally engrossed, not so much by the later revelations, but by the guy’s honesty. In a business where artifice is often everything he is under no illusions. Even if the music doesn’t grab you by the balls, Dave Doughman has an unusual charisma. The camera loves him. And he’s not even mugging to the camera, this isn’t an act like so many other documentaries on rock stars. This is the real thing. And even when he’s electric on stage you’re still left thinking of his dichotomy – how is he going to bring up his son if he has to be thousands of miles away touring? This is an insider’s look at the genuine life of a rock musician – and not to be missed.  That rare thing – a rock documentary with soul.

You can catch this on demand at Vimeo. Check out the trailer below.

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