Grizzly Bear

The other night, at the Miami Beach Fillmore Auditorium, the New York City-based indie rock band Grizzly Bear finally made it to Miami. The five-piece band brought its captivating, restless, yet refined, rock sound to an eager audience of young and more stately hipsters alike. Singer, multi-instrumentalist and founder Ed Droste led the band center stage but mostly in the shadows against a wall of alternately glowing jellyfish. “I really hope we don’t wait as long to come back again,” Droste said to the warm audience. The enthusiasm from the crowd sounded much grander than the half-at-capacity venue, which holds 1600 max. Here’s one of several moments where Droste expressed his gratitude for to the welcome Miami gave the band:

Droste switched between Omnichord and electric guitar as his preferred instrument. Since he began the project in his bedroom as a solo artist, Grizzly Bear has become a democratic affair and guitarist Daniel Rossen shared as much in lead vocals as the band’s founder. Also singing, bassist Chris Taylor, who occasionally put down the bass to play clarinet, tenor sax or flute. Rounding out the crew was Chris Bear on drums and keyboardist Aaron Arntz, who hid behind a wall of various synthesizers almost as tall as he.

It made for an intriguing mix of instruments, explored not for gimmick but to serve these unassuming yet brilliant songs. “A Simple Answer” had Rossen juggling keyboard and guitar work. Comments on the complexity of these songs overheard in the crowd included Pink Floyd-esque. Yet, any left turns in the music never broke a well-grounded groove. There was something comforting about watching these young musicians gel over real instruments.

Most dynamic throughout the night were the members’ varied voices, from solo to harmonic. Droste provided more earthy if still breathy vocals while Rossen and Taylor’s voices brought a more angelic element to the mix with their own crystalline tenors and falsettos. “Gun-Shy” offers a nice demonstration of Droste and Rossen trading off on vocals. My battery on the camera died before the song came to its end:

There was only one occasion where the band fell out of sync. Rossen seemed to jump ahead on the keyboard riff of “Two Weeks” on a couple of occasions, but otherwise the set went perfectly. Droste seemed chatty, asking how the Heat game was going before the band quietly sequed into “Shift,” a surprise from the moody but gorgeous debut album Horn of Plenty. Here’s the moment caught on video I uploaded to YouTube and the full song:

That marked a quiet moment in the set, but “What’s Wrong” opened with Taylor on tenor sax, and the song had a new-found, overall booming quality missing from the record. The band closed with a downright majestic “Sun In Your Eyes,” which Droste set up as the last song of the night to a chorus of “Awe!” from the audience. Rossen tried to soften the blow by noting, “It’s kind of long and plodding and boring.” Of course, it was anything but. The band patiently played with the dynamic of the song, cooing their beautiful lyrics before the incandescent crescendos of the instruments.

Even with songs turned boisterous, the reaction from the audience was always jubilant. The band only offered one song for the encore, an acoustic version of “All We Ask.” When Droste sang “Wasting time with you some,” someone in the crowd yelled back, “Noooo!” Clearly there have been people in this city longing for a Grizzly Bear appearance. Droste knew it. When the band came on at around 9:45 p.m. his first words were, “Miami! I don’t know what took us so long to get here,” after all.

The opening act, Majical Cloudz, seemed to warm up the crowd nicely, though they felt a bit too minimalist and overly literal in the lyric department to amuse on a deeper level, unlike the headline act. A duo composed of vocalist Devon Welsh and musician Matthew Otto, Welsh also seemed chatty, concerned about the houselights and how intimidating the large room felt. “We’re tiny-room people so big rooms kinda freak us out. These candelabras and stuff remind me of the Titanic.” Their shtick was spare and confessional. These were sparse songs with Otto playing simple repetitive notes and creating an atmospheric drone with his electronic equipment. Fittingly, Otto sang lyrics as literal as “Listen to this song/This is how I feel…”

P1010495

The music was so spare it gave little to the audience members to feed off. All they could do was stand there. These songs were so spare that they left no room in the music to even sway to. But it’s not like Welsh was not aware of this. Before the band’s last song, he even said, “OK, we’re gonna end by— for a change— playing a slow, sad song .” A Grizzly Bear audience should be expected to have patience, and these fans proved themselves as such, giving Majical Cloudz warm applause between attentive listens. Droste even complimented the crowd on its behavior during the opening band’s set, who he clearly has affection for … all the more reason for GB to pay Miami back with a return visit.

Set List

Speak in Rounds
Adelma
Sleeping Ute
Cheerleader
Lullabye
Yet Again
Shift
A Simple Answer
Foreground
Gun-Shy
Ready, Able
While You Wait for the Others
What’s Wrong
Two Weeks
Half Gate
Sun in Your Eyes

Encore:

All We Ask (acoustic)

The tour continues in the U.S. through August. Visit Grizzly Bear’s website for all the tour dates.

Finally some more images from the night. All photos were taken by Ana Morgenstern. We were nestled in the balcony with drink service:

Omnichord

Daniel Rossen

Ed Droste

Chris Taylor

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

The other day we drove up to Orlando from Miami for a live show by Phoenix. Though not as impressed by their latest album Bankrupt!, expectations for a great live show ran high. They had already impressed during their first show in South Florida a few years back (Phoenix pack arena-sized show into Fillmore theater; Oct. 29, 2010). This show, at the House of Blues, just like the Fillmore show, would sell out. This night’s performance, though not as stagey as the Miami Beach show, still impressed. The band breezed through its repertoire with its usual spunk and warmth. It even felt rather brief.

It began with a short set by Chicago ’90s grunge survivors Urge Overkill. There was a time when these guys would headline these venues about 20 years back. It was interesting to watch these guys live. With rather ebullient ease, they played their hits from back in the day, like “Positive Bleeding,” “Sister Havana” and their cover of “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” made famous for its presence in Pulp Fiction. There was also a new tune. But, beyond five or six seemingly impressed attendees, the interest in Urge Overkill seemed polite if any at all. The group’s music is still rather uneventful barroom rock that chugs along on rudimentary hooks. One guy paid more attention to his video game than the performance (see image below).

Nash Kato and videogame

Phoenix would go on at about 9:45 at night with the first single off the new album kicking off the lively set. The sound immediately revealed that this concert was going to sound amazing, from the quality of the performance to the clarity of the sonics. Even though the set list was weighted by lots of new material, the guys brought so much life to their music with their presence (as last time, dual drummers, too). It was a zippy set. The band mixed together several songs as medleys. At one point singer Thomas Mars shared his joy at being in such an intimate venue after all of the band’s earlier festival dates. Here’s one of the band’s biggest ever hits thanks to a car commercial:

They did something interesting with the epic “Love Like a Sunset,” mixing it with the title track of the new album:

The crowd gave them back lots of energy with lots of raised hands throughout the set, and quite literally supported Mars during the band’s closing number, “Rome” and a reprise of soaring section of “Entertainment.” Between the two songs, he appeared at the back of the pit and crowd-surfed his way to the stage, a classic Mars move he pulls at the end of Phoenix’s shows.

Setlist:

Entertainment
Lasso
Lisztomania
Long Distance Call
The Real Thing
S.O.S. in Bel Air
Sunskrupt! (A combination of “Love Like a Sunset” and “Bankrupt!”)
Too Young / Girlfriend
Trying to Be Cool / Drakkar Noir / Chloroform
Armistice
1901

Encore:

Countdown (Stripped-Down Version)
Playground Love (Air cover)
Don’t
Rome
Entertainment (Reprise)

The group has dates scheduled for the US and Europe scheduled through the end of November. See what’s available here (that’s a hotlink).

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Anyone who follows Independent Ethos knows an artist’s perceived popularity matters little to this blog. What matters is the work produced, though sometimes the circumstances under which that work is produced matters. Take Fiona Apple’s current tour. When it stopped into Miami Beach over the weekend, something felt … flat. I had last seen her perform in Washington D.C., during the heat wave of ’06 in an outdoor venue. Though sweat poured off her, she offered boundless energy (read a review by “DCist”). She also seemed happy, noting last time she was at that venue was in the womb of her mother, as her father performed in a play there.

But, my how news coverage of an arrest for hashish possession can change things. Sure, it must have been a bummer for her, but probably magnifying the clouds over the tour where several things that unfolded in the mass media afterward. First her mugshot in prison stripes was circulated by the higher-than-though gossip media machine. Later, she lashed out against the arresting cops on stage. The audience video went viral. Then, the arresting police department’s spokesperson had the tacky idea to comment publicly telling her to “Shut up and sing” and “I’m more famous than you are.” Adding more insult was one famous and longtime unethical blogger’s idea to analyze her appearance on this current tour.

In response to it all, Apple most recently felt inclined to preempt her second Florida show this past Monday night by sitting down to offer a diatribe of her experiences in this losing battle with the larger voices of the conglomerate monster of the Internet. Watch the unedited near 9-minute thing here:

What a shame that a few people abusing their big metaphoric bullhorns have affected Apple’s performance quality. If she feels inclined to start a show with a speech like the one above, it’s ignorant to think it is not affecting her. The show is a stripped down affair with minimal theatrics, which is all the more reason to skip the personal distractions and focus on the marvel that is Apple’s music. Her new album, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, was a welcome return after seven years of recording studio silence. The vinyl record was made for such a work. Her voice is pure and raw, and the recording captured all the wonderment of beating the heck out of a piano. From the moment her fingertips touch the keys to the reverb of the strings, the entire beast of the instrument is on fine display.

But the weight of all these superficial concerns of image, fighting for hits on pop culture blogs and Apple’s silly idea to take heed to what the bullies of the Internet have to say dampened the show in Miami Beach. It felt brief, especially after she sprung off stage and did not return for an encore. The house lights went up soon after she bounded off, so this was probably planned. Still little, if anyone cared, as all the cheering stopped soon after the lights went out and people shuffled out with little a care. It was a lackluster performance, as she went through the motions. Here’s one subdued moment:

As this latent post reveals, I almost did not even bother writing about the show, I felt so underwhelmed. I was the guy nodding off a couple of times during the set. I was able to stay awake enough to capture some clips, but my wife captured this last one:

Though the first minute of the song is missing, it offers an interesting moment on stage for the singer. She and the band extend the pauses in the song, creating a playful tension as Apple waits for cues from her drummer. Though she’s laughing at the thrill of anticipation, the moment she sings, her voice carries an impressive weight. Apple is still an honest, potent musician and God bless her for it. She will probably only get better as the superficial media gets bored and stops covering her silly stumbles, and she starts to ignore the coverage, so she can focus on her fantastic music.

I’d be dreaming to think this type of high school-level-type news coverage of art will ever stop. But, by coming to this blog, you support intelligent coverage of music and film that sticks to the art and keeps irrelevant personal coverage out of the mix. We can all learn from this and be better.

Her tour continues at these following dates:

10/05 – Louisville, KY @ Palace Theatre
10/06 – Cincinnati, OH @ Aronoff Center
10/07 – Columbus, OH @ Palace Theatre
10/09 – Buffalo, NY @ Kleinhans Music Hall
10/11 – Pittsburgh, PA @ Stage AE
10/12 – Montclair, NJ @ Wellmont Theatre
10/16 – New York, NY @ Terminal 5
10/17 – New York, NY @ Terminal 5
10/21 – Pittsburgh, PA @ Stage AE

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

It’s a marvel what one learns about filmmaking while watching the anti-film This is Not a Film. In 2010, acclaimed Iranian director Jafar Panahi was confined to his condo in Tehran under house arrest as part of his punishment for intending to make a film deemed subversive by the state. During his house arrest, he decided to turn on a camera and just record, all the while trying to deny he was even making a film. He reportedly had This Is Not a Film smuggled out of the country on a flash drive hidden inside a cake delivered to the 2011 Cannes Film Festival where it had its world premiere in 2011. The result offers a raw, insightful glimpse inside the mind of a creative genius.

This is Not a Film is so enlightening into the craft of filmmaking, it feels tragic that the government of Iran has denied this man the right to express himself. The film is set up with Panahi calling up a friend who turns out to be fellow filmmaker, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, about a “problem.” Panahi cannot specify details over the phone, so he asks Mirtahmasb to come over. It will soon be revealed that Panahi needs a camera operator. Setting up his own HD camera in a corner, recording his movements as he wanders or sits in a room, it seems, leaves much to be desired for this visionary.

His friend soon picks up the camera to shoot Panahi. After all, his 20-year ban from filmmaking does not stipulate anything about acting or reading from a script, Panahi reasons. There are also discussions over his iPhone with a lawyer who is working to appeal his sentence, which also includes six years in jail, as well as conversations with concerned relatives. But Panahi seems to delight in turning that iPhone into a camera. He transforms into another man during sequences when he explores his craft. He shares a clip from his 1995 film the Mirror with Mirtahmasb and how he feels like the little girl who wants to throw off the fake cast and quit acting, when she comes to realize the bus she is riding is headed the opposite way of her home. It offers witty insight into the subversive quality of his films.

Thinking about the resonance in his own work clearly shakes up Panahi, and he orders Mirtahmasb to cut, but the documentary director continues filming. “You are not directing. This is an offence,” he tells Panahi. But, just as this film has emerged commercially with US distribution, you cannot keep a good director down. Panahi breaks out a screenplay to read from and soon begins rearranging furniture in his home to help describe what would have been his next film in more visual detail, blocking off the set in his living room with tape. He describes each instance of intended action, from what happens outside a window when a door bell rings to where another character steps into the theoretical camera’s view. The need to direct is in this man’s blood. It’s an energy that simply cannot be repressed, no matter the threat of jail. During this extended sequence the viewer truly sees that filmmaking is what keeps Panahi alive.

This becomes a catalyst for more thoughts on filmmaking by Panahi, as he shares clips from The Circle and Crimson Gold as well as his own doubts and eureka moments, which brings him back to the “set” inside his home.

No fancy plot is necessary to rivet fans of cinema to This is Not a Film. Here is a true genius of film baring his creativity, thoughts in a pure search for truth in the medium. In the end, his defense of this work appears in his own honesty. Even as he tries to create a film via this non-film, he cannot help but feel he is telling lies by filming within the confines of his home.

As the “film” unfolds, the soundtrack beyond his home’s walls is worth noticing: the sound of fireworks and sirens in the street. Mysterious at first, as if there might just be a war going on outside, it is later revealed via a news report, that it is Fireworks Wednesday. Following protests of the recent reelection of the country’s unpopular president, a reporter on the television notes, the country’s leader has found no religious reasons for Fireworks Wednesday and has had it denounced as unreligious. What is actually happening outside are people shooting off fireworks in protest and police zipping about to arrest them.

As much as Panahi would argue this is not a film, the narrative within This is Not a Film plays out with more skill than many in Hollywood can muster. There are many witty set ups, as the film continues to unfold in surprising ways, from the introduction of his daughter’s pet iguana, Igi, to the resonance of the revolutionaries living it up on Fireworks Wednesday just outside Panahi’s confines. There is a moment early in the film when Panahi looks into the lens. “The city is real busy today,” he comments. And so is this movie. At a brisk 75 minutes, it is something not to be missed.

As of this post, after the appeals court upheld the original sentence of a 20-year ban from filmmaking and six years in prison, the director has made his intentions known that he seeks to appeal to the country’s supreme court. Though he remains out of jail, he could be sent there at any time. Amnesty International continues to collect signatures in reverse Panahi’s sentence. You can add your voice here.

Hans Morgenstern

This is Not a Film is not rated, runs 75 minutes and is Persian with English subtitles. It opens in South Florida on Friday, May 18, at 7 p.m., at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which provided a DVD screener for the purposes of this review. For more screening dates across the US, see the film’s official website.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Often depicted as a supplemental aspect used to illuminate a larger story in Hollywood movies, or, worse, as a joke, prostitution rarely receives a human treatment at the heart of a story. With House of Pleasures, aka L’Apollonide (Souvenirs de la maison close), French director Bertrand Bonello, tries to illuminate the collateral effects of prostitution on the lives of the women who perform sex acts for money. The results are mixed at worse when he stretches the artiness, but the stumbles are few and brief. The director maintains a respectful affection toward the characters, as the quiet but soulful drama at the center of the story redeems the movie.

Set in late 1800s/early 1900s Paris, when city officials began shutting down so-called houses of tolerance, House of Pleasures ultimately tells a sad story about sad women. The film is as much about the lives of these women as it is about sex and the inner, raw, unromantic workings of a brothel in turn of the century Paris. Focusing on the tragedy of these women’s lives, this film may seem difficult for some to stomach, but Bonello certainly makes the world look pretty with a shallow depth of field focus on his lens and beautiful women in brilliant costumes in his sights.

But behind this facade is a horrific story of one woman, Madeleine (Alice Barnole), reduced to a freak show thanks to a deranged client who disfigures her. As the film unfolds in mostly fractured story form, the mystery of what happened to Madeleine becomes more and more clear, and what seems at first affection by the man is revealed as disdain. By the end, we get the full, horrific effect on the mutilation that has left her with the nickname “The Woman Who Laughs.” The commentary here is not hard to see. However, Bonello stretches it out, indulging in some artsy, surreal stylization that feels a bit heavy-handed, and then offers an almost blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment of revenge by the other women that reeks of cheap, almost Hollywood-like catharsis.

These women are barely ever empowered (one is nicknamed “Caca” for a “special talent” and another acts like a robotic doll for a client who takes her from behind). Their degradation in this soul-sucking line of work is the film’s point. When it maintains that focus, House of Pleasures stays true to the heartbreaking futility of these women’s lives. One act of revenge on a demented man will never repair that. When the brothel’s red light goes out at film’s end, the implications are things have only grown worse for women who have chosen such a career path, even beyond the era and into today.

It’s an especially cruel story seeing as these woman are trying to make a career at a time when there was little tolerance for such women, despite the official sanctioning of brothels. As one girl tells Pauline (Iliana Zabeth), a new occupant of the house, she should not ever expect to become a woman worth marrying once she starts this job. The drama of hopelessness among the prostitutes is what the film does best at conveying. Bonello uses all the tools of cinema at his disposal to heightened effect. The costumes, the period sets and, on some occasions, the use of split screens to reveal the range of activity within the house. The blasé yet close camaraderie among the women, however, maintains the film’s heartbeat. It’s an intimate portrait and not so much about the carnal acts in the rooms, as it is about the social aspects of those involved: the socializing in the living room with the men, the lives of the women with each other who only have one another to share tears, hugs and kisses together. They seem imprisoned by their job. The only time they seem truly sensual and even happy arrives when they spend a day out on a picnic away from clients.

The lives of these women cross over like small stories woven into a tapestry. Bridging it all together are montage sequences featuring sixties-era music that try to pull these threads together, creating a film that feels much more impressionistic than a straight up story. “The Right to Love You” by the Mighty Hannibal sets the tone during the opening sequence and in a montage later in the film. The film also utilizes the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” during a potent scene, as the women mourn their impending separation after officials order the brothel to shut down. The movie closes with a world-weary sounding “Bad Girl” by Lee Moses. Along with incidental music by Bonello, first known as a musician before becoming a director, it makes for an inspired soundtrack that brings to mind Quentin Tarantino, yet still holds back from being as intrusive as Sophia Coppola’s new wave choices for Marie Antoinette.

In France, this teaser trailer was created in advance of the film’s release featuring “Bad Girl” (fair warning: the images are not NSFW, but it captures the beauty of the cinematography by Bonello’s partner and collaborator Josée Deshaies as well as places the costuming and, of course, the women on full display):

During its run, locally, at that Miami Beach Cinematheque, House of Pleasures will be preceded by a rarely seen 2005 short by Bonello, “Cindy: The Doll is Mine.” Unreleased in the US and only available in poor, butchered quality on YouTube, its a gorgeous little film by its own right. The 15-minute short is a tribute to both photographer Cindy Sherman and the indie rock band Blonde Redhead, whose song “Doll is Mine” features heavily in the unfurling of the film. The remarkable Asia Argento plays both the boyish, brunette photographer and the womanly, platinum blonde model, as both share a cry in their “process” of transference.

Hans Morgenstern

House of Pleasures is Unrated, runs 125 minutes and opens in South Florida on Thursday, Jan. 6, at 6:30 p.m. at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review. The same day, at 9 p.m., it opens in Coral Gables, at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

A rare opportunity to see a nice part of Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki’s work in a revival art house setting is underway in— of all places— Miami Beach, Florida. In a bold move of programming, the Miami Beach Cinematheque, is presenting select pictures by Kaurismäki throughout the month of November under the banner of “Helsinki Cowboy.” So far, I have caught the career-defining Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989) and his latest, 2011’s Le Havre. Both distributed by Janus Films, the label behind the Criterion Collection home video series. As can be expected from Janus/Criterion the films indeed justify a theatrical setting, as the images are impeccable from the hi-def projector of the MBC.

Beyond the wonderful images, the films reveal a heartfelt yet serious director with a droll comedic bent. Later films to be screened during this retrospective include The Man Without a Past (2002). It was a breakthrough work that saw distribution in the US by Sony Pictures Classics and earned the director an Oscar nomination in the foreign film category. His follow-up, Lights in the Dusk (2006), will also screen. That film was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival upon its release. Also screening before the movies are several Kaurismäki-directed music videos featuring the Leningrad Cowboys, the stars of Leningrad Cowboys Go America.

Thanks to my family in Finland, I had heard of Kaurismäki, especially his fictionalized band of “musicians,” the Leningrad Cowboys, who apparently were a regular fixture on the MTV of that part of the world in the early nineties. Because of Kaurismäki’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America, the band that played the titular group was eclipsed in popularity by the fictional band of the movie. The Sleepy Sleepers would then carry on as the Leningrad Cowboys, thanks to the notoriety of that film. Below, see a clip of the Sleepy Sleepers only a year before the theatrical release of Leningrad Cowboys Go America, at a music festival:

Their look would become more uniform for the Kaurismäki film. Defined by a style that seemed to parody that of classic fifties-era American rock ‘n’ rollers, with exaggerated pompadours, pointy shoes and sunglasses, the “group” played over-the-top rock, that would fit comfortably in the rockabilly resurrection and ska sounds that were part of the late seventies and early eighties. It was fitting that their sound was 10 years behind the trend yet still fit in well with then modern, western acts like Fishbone and Mighty Mighty Bosstones, who also resurrected the sound in the nineties alternative rock era.

Though Finland is Scandinavian and democratic, the implication was that this fictitious act came from the backwoods of Siberia. Kaurismäki introduced the “band” as some strange crossover vessel of cold war eastern European culture adapting to the growing pop culture of the West, as the iron curtain began to crumble in the late eighties. The film where this group made its debut offers a hint of the director’s quirky cinematic style as it was blossoming. He has an amazing deadpan sensibility, like a bitter, old Wes Anderson who still has a vague sense of what it was to be young and naïve.

The movie opens with the group of musicians, who seem to be the only inhabitants of some odd Siberian village, where the locals are defined by conical pompadours and pointy shoes (even a baby has a tall, triangular tuft of hair sticking up from out of the top of a crib). The band performs oompah-like music in a ramshackle shed to someone who appears to be a record label executive. After the music comes to a screaming halt, the band members stare in anticipation at the A&R rep who pauses to puff from a cigarette. “Shit,” he states. “No commercial potential. Go to America. They like all kinds of shit there.”

The band indeed head to America, rolling out of their village on tractors, dragging their frozen stiff bass player in a poor man’s coffin, his pointy shoes and pointy hair sticking up through the planks of wood. Following false promises of playing Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium by their shifty manager, they hit the road for a fantasy trip across the music landscape of the USA with Jim Jarmusch handing them the keys to their banged up wheels (two musicians need to sit in chairs in the open trunk of the old sedan in order to fit in the car, the bassist in his coffin strapped to the roof).

These characters arrived at the final warming of the cold war. Though Finnish, they clearly reference the chilly, stark distance of Mother Russia. With mostly deadpan presence, they crunch out driving rock tunes at an array of dive bars for change. It’s decades of repression taking its first baby steps to find a way to express itself. Though the Leningrad Cowboys find some love in New Orleans, the band only seems to reach some level of success after playing a wedding in Mexico. Leningrad Cowboys Go America was an odd introduction to what would turn out to be a seminal work by Finland’s auteur. A love of old time rock ‘n’ roll and the driest, drollest sense of humor clash in an almost surreal way.

Though the Cowboys was a breakthrough movie for Kaurismäki, Le Havre reveals a more refined, focused director who has not compromised his sensibilities. The film contains many a breathtaking scene, like the starkly lit stacks of containers at the harbor where we meet the young African migrant Idrissa (Blondin Miguel). Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a good-hearted elderly shoe-shiner, will invest all he has to help the boy get to his mother in London. He will find karmic reward at film’s end, represented by a the neatly framed shot of the cherry blossom tree in his front yard. It’s a delicate, charming film that recalls the best of efficient world cinema. It was nominated for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes but lost out to the more bombastic Tree of Life.

Throughout Le Havre, characters have both colorful personalities and colorful attire that make them pop in the chiaroscuro lighting that defines the movie. Kaurismäki maintains the signature stagey feel of Leningrad Cowboys Go America. Often characters stare before taking action, giving the film a quietly unfolding, oddly-paced but charming feel, again recalling Anderson. And, look, there is Jean-Pierre Léaud playing the nosy, curmudgeonly neighbor who cannot abide “those immigrants.” Léaud’s appearance is fitting, seeing as the film owes a debt to the director that made him a famous actor in France as the star of 1959’s the 400 Blows: François Truffaut— also a touchstone for Anderson. The film flows with the ease and charm for the joie de vivre of both adventurous youth and aging with grace. At the film’s heart is the boy embarking on a new life, daunted by this new alien land where police are on the hunt and an old man happy in his groove of life, scraping together the few Euros needed to stay afloat and support his wife, home and dog.

When one thinks of world cinema, the thought of what Finland may have contributed does not often come to mind. Therefore I had not got around to checking out the output of Kaurismäki. I still have some catching up to do on Bergman and Kurosawa, but an opportunity to see this distinctive filmmaker on the big screen should not be passed up. As November’s choice in MBC’s monthly “Great Directors” series, Kaurismäki rewards a big screen presentation. Seeing the disparity of his early career-defining work, Leningrad Cowboys Go America, and the culmination of his refinement as a director, Le Havre, is a revelation. In these two films alone, Kaurismäki has proven a delight to watch. His quirky cinematic sensibilities, and the growth and refinement between the two films, also prove his movies still to come during this month’s series will offer interesting viewing.

Le Havre continues its run at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, tonight through Tuesday only. This Thursday, the Man Without a Past will screen for one night only, at 8 p.m. The series concludes Wednesday, Nov. 23, with the one-night only screening of Lights In the Dusk, also at 8 p.m.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

MGMT are at a crossroads, and their problem came wholly to life during a live show at Miami Beach’s Fillmore theater the other night. The alternative pop/psych-rock outfit straddles a daring line by dabbling in progressive rock while also being responsible for constructing some all-too perfect disco-pop songs, which has hurtled them to the top of the charts. The execution of both forms and the reactions to both were on vivid display last night at the Fillmore.

First some context: When their second album, Congratulations, debuted earlier this year, it nearly unseated Justin Bieber’s album on the top of the Billboard charts, reaching number two but falling off steadily after. When the article appeared on Entertainment Weekly’s Music Mix blog, some fans of both Bieber and MGMT admitted to owning both albums.

What an unpleasant irony. MGMT have striven all along to be an art-rock group, and they have proven their knack for amazing music by constructing both groovy retro funk ditties like “Electric Feel” while also pulling off moody spacey-psych experiments like “Future Reflections,” both from their debut album Oracular Spectacular, which shot them to indie and even pop stardom.

In an article on Billboard.com, just ahead of the release of Congratulations, MGMT’s founding members, Andrew Vanwyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, expressed their apprehension of success and the pressures that come with the expectations for a band as successful as MGMT. What at first began as an ironic joke– mixing progressive music with a sure-handed approach to pop– has become a burden, and that drama visibly unfolded on Fillmore’s stage last night.

The all-ages show certainly attracted the rambunctious teenie boppers, as evidenced by the screams that greet and end each song I captured on video below. We tried to make it to the front with the aid of our fastlane tickets, but were overtaken by running kids who crushed us into the barricade. Despite ending up right up front, we gave up our spot to two small girls behind us and headed for the balcony to take in the show leaning back in chairs and calmly drinking beers.

The balcony provided a good view to take in the walkouts after “Electric Feel,” which segued into the two lengthiest songs of the night, an extended jam version of “the Handshake” followed by the epic “Siberian Breaks” from the new album.

One should not take these walkouts as a cynical commentary to the extended, artier songs of MGMT’s repertoire, but a reflection of the fair weather fans MGMT’s hits have attracted in its following, which do  include some of the ignorant teen hipsters that saturated the place. Let’s face it, these teens are mostly clueless as to the groundwork that has informed MGMT’s music. I doubt most understand how fully Brian Eno’s early 70s albums, beyond the name of one of MGMT’s songs on Congratulations, has informed their aesthetic. But kudos to anyone who understands the reference to Oblique Strategies and what it has done to create great albums by David Bowie and Talking Heads, among others.

As “the Handshake” and “Siberian Breaks” provided the soundtrack to the emptying crowd, which included some neighbors next to me in the balcony, you can also hear some disinterested chattering during the quieter bits of these songs. Most people were not into it or did not get it. I for one, loved to hear them stretch “the Handshake,” which is under four minutes on Oracular Spectacular, to such epic length.

Listening to it all the way through, it might just be segueing into another song, but as far as I can tell, this added section only contains two lines “Keep your silence to yourself/You won’t forget yourself.”* Maybe this is the beginning of a new song, but in this context it totally worked like the epic coda of “Future Reflections.” If it is a new song, it’s a nice, long and spacey addition to MGMT’s repertoire, and also featured some great, over-the-top guitar soloing by James Richardson.

As for “Siberian Breaks,” I was only able to capture the first half before my memory card filled up. Still, it is a certain someone’s favorite part of the song, so here it is:

What you do not see in the video above is, toward the end of the 12-minute opus, when the song breaks down into dreamy burbles of noise, bassist Matt Asti walks away, and the band carries on. Then it’s off with “Kids,” which is all backing tracks! Vanwyngarden and Goldwasser take to the stage, mikes in hand, to dance around like a couple of b-boys and sing along, leaving drummer Will Berman and Richardson to mime along by tapping the sides of the drum kit, clearly a bit bored, though still smiling about the silliness of it all. Who knows? Maybe Ben and Andrew were even lip-synching to the song, and the only thing real was the crowd’s screaming during the break down of the song. The audience ate it all up, despite the fact that the band was trying to parody itself. A photographer did post a video of that night’s performance of “Kids” from down in the crowd, which you can see here.

It’s ironic that on their debut EP as MGMT, “Time to Pretend,” the duo threw in a snippet of “Only Time Will Tell” by eighties prog-poppers Asia in an early version of “Kids,” which closes off the EP. It’s an ironic reference to what was then a pop supergroup composed of luminaries from such previous  prog-rock outfits like King Crimson and Yes . It might have been a send up then but now it might portend MGMT’s very own fate, unless they do something serious, like maybe just dropping the hits from the set-list and playing smaller venues? Radiohead refused to do “Creep” when it became a hit, and look how they turned out.

Another psych-rock band burdened by zeitgeist-defining hits is the Flaming Lips, but they never refuse their fans “She Don’t Use Jelly” or “Do You Realize.” But at least they pay respect to the songs while turning their sets into giant parties, even if they noodle on and on with crazy prog-rock bits (the parts I prefer). In my post about their recent live show in Orlando, the Flaming Lips certainly indulged in several songs from their new prog-heavy Embryonic. But, like those great early Genesis days with Peter Gabriel at the helm, they know how to turn the songs into spectacles.

Plus, when you see Wayne Coyne and his crew perform, you cannot help but feel the love he has for his fans, which transcends to life and humanity. Many tears flow from the fans when he sings “Do you realize you have the most beautiful face,” while also singing “Do You Realize that everyone you know someday will die,” and it’s not from fan-girl zeal but from a deeper reverent place in the soul.

Vanwyngarden definitely showed an effort to connect with the audience at Miami Beach’s Fillmore, but even when he I said, “I love you guys” to the crowd he had to tag on “I really mean that,” when he had his back turned to the audience. Despite this strained attempt at sincerity, what mattered is that these guys rocked the stage with true passion for their music. Having seen some MGMT performances prior, even on TV, when they just can’t seem tot get into it, I had reservations going in. But, that night, they had energy, and it showed, despite the crowd reaction and interaction. Still, there was something heavy hanging over the show.

In a lengthy review I wrote for Congratulations, I praised the band for their indulgence in the progressive side of their music. Though some have derided this second album from MGMT for not producing anything as catchy as “Electric Feel” or “Kids,” I think it is not for a lack of musical skill on the part of MGMT. I truly hope they continue to break away and continue listening to bands like Krautrock legends Cluster, as one of the band members admitted to in an NPR interview around Congratulations‘ release. Screw them walk outs, and keep rocking, MGMT.

*Edit: According to an MGMT fan on the MGMT Fan Forum this is a cover of Magazine’s “Burst,” which they have done live on other occasions. Looking it up, I found a live version by Magazine from 1978, and actually MGMT take the coda of that song, and tag on to “The Handshake” to great affect.

(Copyright 2010 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)