Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Summer of Soul, or: Are You Ready?

Unintentionally, my picks this month have featured a subtheme of music and its power in political activism. They also connect Lin-Manuel Miranda and members of The Roots, as Lin-Manuel and his father are interviewed here (and Black Thought had a brief cameo in tick, tick…BOOM!). This week, however, our story isn’t inspired by a true story…it is a true story. Time for a documentary, the ideal film to bring up at cocktail parties and book clubs.

The Film:

Summer of Soul


Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

The Premise:

This documentary tells the story of the Harlem Cultural Festival, a huge celebration of Black music and identity that was largely erased from history.

The Ramble:

When the Harlem Cultural Festival was held during the summer of 1969, it was the event for the Black community of New York City. A celebration of Black music and culture at a time when the Civil Rights movement was at a crossroads, the event was ultimately overshadowed by Woodstock. Largely forgotten until the making of this documentary, archival footage and contemporary interviews recreate the festival and underscore its significance.

Festival organizer Tony Lawrence performs onstage.

Starting off with an incredible lineup from Stevie Wonder to Mavis Staples, the 5th Dimension to Nina Simone, the festival wasn’t only an opportunity to hear a young Gladys Knight’s soulful sounds (though how amazing, right?). The massive gathering also represented an opportunity for the Black community of Harlem to come together and heal in light of trauma related to the Vietnam War and political assassinations of the decade, include the fairly recent murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the wake of grief, it was a time when the Civil Rights movement seemed to be splintering, and the fundamental split between violence and non-violence only deepened. There was a sense that revolution was coming, and a reevaluation of Blackness was on the horizon. Some speculated that the ultimate purpose of the festival was to ease tensions and prevent a riot.

Members of the Staple Singers perform onstage.

Tony Lawrence was the organizer and host of the festival, described as a hustler and schmoozer in the best sense. Through his influence, some of the biggest acts of the time performed at the festival, and the mayor of NYC at the time, John Lindsay, made an appearance.

In addition to the performances, there are some excellent interviews, including from artists and attendees. The commentary from the Fifth Dimension is particularly moving, as Marilyn McCoo explains it was meaningful for the group to perform as their music was often not considered “Black enough.” Mavis Staples’ perspective on her father’s Blues stylings and her own due with her hero Mahalia Jackson at the festival make for fascinating stories as well.

Nina Simone sings onstage, a band on various instruments standing behind her.

The documentary is great about interweaving cultural, artistic, and historical elements together to enhance our understanding of the festival. The crossover between Latin and African music, and Afro-Caribbean influences get attention and analysis. At the same time, we dive into perspectives on the moon landing, the heroin epidemic, and struggles for liberation in African nations at the time.

Because the festival was largely forgotten until this documentary was made, the film is both an artistic work and act of historical and cultural preservation.

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

Hmmmm, I’ve never felt more like I’ve written a book report on the blog than with this review. I find it much more difficult to review a documentary than other films, especially one about a time in history where I have a significant number of gaps in knowledge. There were a lot of performers I didn’t recognize at all, not aided by the fact that many have fallen into relative obscurity. Truthfully, I’m not into religion in the least, but I do love the gospel sound, and I did appreciate the songs in that vein.

What’s most impressive to me about this film is that it does a great deal to recreate the experience of being there at the festival in real time. Beyond that, it also contextualizes things so we can appreciate not only what the festival meant at the time, but the broader significance it holds. One criticism to this approach is that we really just skim the surface on certain themes and events, as the film runs slightly under 2 hours.

Would my blog wife squeeze her way to the front row or be okay with this one getting rained out? Find out in her review!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Blinded by the Light, or: Born in Thatcher’s UK

If you’ve been following news from the US in particular, but also worldwide developments in the Covid-19 pandemic as a whole, 2021 doesn’t seem off to a promising start. Unless, of course, you focus your attention on our plans for the Blog Collab. What started out as an attempt to cheer ourselves up with inspiring films has morphed into a sort of music appreciation/coming-of-age theme that we never knew we needed. Not all of our plans have worked out on the Collab, but I feel a round of applause is in order for the parts of our brain that anticipated this unintended theme was just the ticket.

Jumping back from the ’90s Midlands last week to Thatcher’s 1980s Britain (blegh), the events unfolding in this film don’t necessarily represent an improvement over the 2020s. But our film for the week does consider immigrant experiences, pursuing personal dreams, and the power of music to uplift (or at least spur on impressively choreographed dance scenes).

The Film:

Blinded by the Light

The Premise:

A British-Pakistani teen in 1980s England falls in love with the music of Bruce Springsteen while struggling to balance his family’s expectations with his dreams of becoming a writer.

The Ramble:

Growing up in 1980s Luton, British-Pakistani teen Javed’s feelings about his hometown largely comprise the urge to get away as soon as possible. Bullied and harassed by skinheads in training, resistant to his family’s ambitions, and somewhat of a loner at school, Javed takes comfort only in writing, whether journal entries, poetry, or lyrics for his bff Matt’s band.

A teen boy looks unenthusiastically at a small cake his mother is presenting to him for his birthday. His father and younger sister stand on the sides, smiling expectantly.

Javed shares opinions on few issues with his father, who pressures him to stay focused on school rather than going to parties or dating. The family agrees that Javed should attend university; however, while dad Malik insists on his son pursuing a lucrative field like economics, Javed secretly enrolls in English A levels.

During the school day, Javed receives encouragement from his teacher, crushes on political activist Eliza, and longs to be part of one of the “tribes” of students. He doesn’t realize that a small gesture from Sikh student Roops will change his life: a loan of a Bruce Springsteen cassette.

Two teen boys have an intense conversation while standing outside of the front of a school building.

Javed immediately relates to the Boss’s songs of rejection, loneliness, rebellion, and the pain of being an outsider. Emboldened by Springsteen’s lyrics, Javed decides the only way to make things happen is by pursuing them, no matter what his family says. Secretly, Javed starts on the path of writing as a career, beginning with the school paper.

Just as Javed is ready to dream big and risk it all for his future, his father Malik loses his job at the local Vauxhall factory, where he has worked loyally for nearly 20 years. Under more pressure than ever to support the family financially, Javed instead focuses on the music of Bruce, writing poetry, and getting an article published in the school paper. His goal is to attend the University of Manchester, and his new pals Roops and Eliza are there to support him.

A teen boy in a denim jacket dances with a teen girl in the middle of a crowd at an outdoor market.

But while Javed is finding his voice as a writer, Malik reminds his son to stay on track to make a decent living. What’s more, Javed’s devotion to Bruce is causing tension between him and Matt, who considers the Boss too American and essentially dad rock. And let’s not overlook the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim bullies in Luton, newly invigorated by an upcoming National Front march in town.

As always seems to be the case, everything of note seems to be happening on one dramatic day: the National Front march, the wedding of Javed’s older sister, and a chance to buy tickets for a Springsteen concert at Wembley Stadium. Where will Javed’s priorities lie when he has to choose between supporting his family and following his own dreams?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

I really wanted to give this a 4 because it’s such a feel-good film, and our lead, Viveik Kalra, is so cute. His performance as Javed is so charming that I was always rooting for him, even when his character was making irritating decisions.

I’m also such a sucker for a heartwarming coming-of-age story, especially when it comes with a healthy disdain for Thatcherism and white supremacy. And I’m not a huge Springsteen fan, but I could still enjoy the themes relating to music and identity that his work represented here.

However, I found our film a bit too lengthy (nearly 2 hours) and overly devoted to a familiar structure for coming-of-age films.

I did appreciate the hell out of the commentary on immigrant experiences in the 1980s and today. Films that look back with a heavy dose of nostalgia often rub me the wrong way, but this one counterbalanced those feelings by recognizing the socioeconomic and racial tensions still haunting the UK today (and, cough, the US).

But the film’s decision to tell instead of show really annoyed me on a personal level. First, it means that the dramatic moments fell a bit flat in terms of their emotional impact. I will admit that, increasingly, my heart seems to be made of stone–though having Javed make a speech all about how he has developed a more nuanced approach to chasing his dreams while appreciating his family lacked the emotional punch needed. We didn’t actually see him go through this progression onscreen. The plot elements needed to be woven together better so that the action of the film led to this moment, rather than feeling like merely a series of events.

Another disappointment is the development of the supporting characters. I really enjoyed Javed’s relationships with his friends and younger sister, but they (like everyone else in the film) were more or less props for his story. And there was a disagreement between Javed and Matt that I didn’t fully understand–especially when it was ultimately Matt who should have apologized IMHO (though the opposite happened). I did find the romp through town that Javed enjoyed with Roops and Eliza absolutely delightful, though.

At the very least, I’m glad this film put Viveik Kalra on my radar, and I’ll be happy to see him onscreen again. I wouldn’t say no to more of those highly choreographed dance routines either.

Would my blog wife join in with this one’s all-denim dance numbers or fast-forward through the rest of the tracks? Find out in her review!

blogiversary, Collaborative Blogging

The Soundtrack of the Blog Collab

If there’s anything I love more than bad movies, it’s sad folk-inspired music.  The beauty of the Blog Collab is its potential to combine both of these interests; when I’m writing a blog post, I’m very often listening to sad folk (but I do occasionally branch out of this melancholy genre!).

Here’s a peek at my typical playlist (with all of the Avril Lavigne filtered out and some unnecessary commentary thrown in):

  1. “I Wish I Was the Moon” — Neko Case
    The ultimate sad folk song; Neko Case is the queen of despair as evidenced by the lyrics “How will you know if you’ve found me at last? / ‘Cause I’ll be the one be the one be the one / with my heart in my lap.”
  2.  “Rabbit Hole” – Jenny Lewis
    If you don’t love Jenny Lewis, you’re wrong.  Period.  Her latest album has the most fun, irresistible ‘70s vibe.
  3. “He’s Fine” – The Secret Sisters
    I love the sad harmonies in this song that break my heart rather than fill it with rage towards the two-timing Davy White.  Okay—I might have a little bit of anger set aside for him.
  4. “Hi Ho” – The War and Treaty
    This soul- and gospel-inspired husband and wife duo creates masterfully sad and deeply felt songs that have no right being so catchy.
  5. “Touching the Ground” — Brandi Carlile
    It’s also accurate to say I listen to this woman’s entire music catalogue whenever I write.
  6. “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend” – Ezra Furman
    I only approve of love songs when they challenge gender norms.
  7. “Hey Eugene” – Pink Martini
    Possibly the only song about a drunken make-out session to pull off a sweet sense of romantic longing and regret.
  8. “Penny to My Name” – Eva Cassidy
    Eva Cassidy’s voice is so beautiful that you only realize halfway through this song that it’s about a woman who had a shotgun wedding and now lives in rural poverty from which she will never escape.
  9. “All We Ever Knew” – The Head & the Heart
    I’m a basic hipster bitch, so obviously I like this song.
  10. “Fruits of My Labor” – Lucinda Williams
    I feel weird about how sexy this song is considering it’s also despairingly sad.  Who says it can’t be both, though?
A woman lies reclined on the ground, one foot resting on an old school boom box.
Photo by Eric Nopanen on Unsplash
  1. “And It Spread” – The Avett Brothers
    You’d think spreading love would always be a good thing until you get to the line about shooting your arm full of love like it’s heroin.
  2. “James” – Camera Obscura
    Based exclusively on this song, I will never trust a James.  Or at least I will never think I know a James well.
  3. “Stay Gold” – First Aid Kit
    Like the absolute killjoys they are, First Aid Kit uses the example of a beautiful sunset to remind us that nothing good can last.
  4. “Firecracker” – The Wailin’ Jennys
    I absolutely adore this band’s folk- and bluegrass-inspired sound, and their devastating lyrics. In this song: “Knowledge pulls the reins against the bliss that I once knew / When you set your sights on me and the firecrackers flew.”
  5. “Another Sunny Day” – Belle & Sebastian
    With Belle & Sebastian, even the saddest songs are inappropriately upbeat, and this is no exception.
  6. “Best Kept Secret” – Case/Lang/Veirs
    It’s impossible not to love the Case/Lang/Veirs collaboration, and this catchy song is further evidence.
  7. “Son of Your Father” – Elton John
    I firmly believe I was born listening to Elton John, and chances are I will die listening to Elton John as well.  This one follows a familiar narrative Bernie Taupin seems to appreciate:  two parties at odds seem to reach a peaceful solution, then promptly take things on an extreme reverse course until everyone ends up dead.
  8. “Dusty Boxcar Wall” – Eilen Jewell
    I love the soulful bluegrass feel of this song and the directness of the lyrics about a woman leaving her lover with an unsentimental message written on a boxcar wall.
  9. “Coping Mechanism” – Shovels & Rope
    I’m obsessed with the emotion Cary Ann Hearst’s voice expresses; specifically devastation.  But all of the different types of devastation!
  10.  “Fuel the Fire” – Sarah Jarosz
    Something in my soul cannot resist the twang of Sarah’s voice and her banjo playing.

What do you listen to when you write?

Header photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash