Parky At the Pictures (6/11/2020)
(Reviews of Shirley; What Was Virginia Woolf Afraid Of?; Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins; Luxor; Mogul Mowgli; Wolfwalkers; Phil Lynott: Songs For While I'm Away; and The Three Kings)
The majority of cinemas may be closed during these enduringly dismal days. And who, in all honesty is that big a film fan that they would risk contracting a contagious disease just to see something on the big screen as part of a well-spaced crowd? There are still ways to connect with some of the films on general release during Lockdown 2, however. In addition to Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI and the BFI Player, it should also be possible to access the titles under discussion below via iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation.
While watching Josephine Decker's Shirley, it's impossible to ignore the echoes of Edward Albee's play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which was filmed in 1966 to devastating Oscar-winning effect by Mike Nichols, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton excelling, alongside George Segal and Sandy Dennis. as the academic couple delighting in intimidating their junior counterparts. In drawing on Susan Scarf Merrell's 2014 novel, Decker is able to explore various facets of the relationship between writer Shirley Jackson and her professorial spouse, Stanley Edgar Hyman. However, the fact that they rope two entirely fictitious newlyweds into their power games tips the action towards melodramatics that are exacerbated by the choices made by Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins in the depiction of their flawed, but fascinating heroine.
As they travel by train to North Bennington, Vermont in 1948, Rose Nemser (Odessa Young) reads a short story, `The Lottery'. It was written by Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), who is married to myth and folklore specialist Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), who heads the faculty that new husband Fred (Logan Lerman) is about to join. Rose finds the study of cruel tribalism to be erotic and bundles Fred into the washroom for some risky coitus. But, as they arrive at the college and discover that they are going to be staying with Hyman and Jackson until some suitable accommodation becomes available, the newcomers feel they have been backed into a corner.
During a drinks party to launch the new term, Rose feels out of her depth, as the hosts exchange witty barbs that expose the fissures in their marriage. For all the sadistic belittling, however, Stanley is a huge admirer of Shirley's work and resents intrusions on his patch as much as his wife does his serial infidelities. His current paramour is Caroline (Orlagh Cassidy), who is married to the dean (Paul O'Brien) and Shirley delights in spilling red wine on her new sofa. But Rose soon discovers that, for all her outward appearance of eccentricity and fragility (she calls herself `a witch'), Shirley is not to be messed with, even when she is suffering from writer's block.
Having agreed to help out with the cooking and cleaning, Rose also learns that Shirley has a more human side. Indeed, having confided the secret that she is pregnant, Rose enjoys doing some leg work to provide the agoraphobic Shirley with information for her new novel, Hangsaman, which is based on the disappearance, three years earlier, of Bennington student, Paula Jean Welden. As Fred is dividing his time to impressing Stanley and attending the Shakespeare Club, Rose is glad of the distraction and is flattered when Shirley starts to show her affection. They drift into intimacy that Rose welcomes, as Fred has grown distant.
He becomes even more remote after their daughter is born and Rose struggles to come to terms with motherhood. Regarding her books as her children, Shirley beams with contentment when Stanley declares her new manuscript to be a masterpiece. His conflicted pride and envy prompt him to take out his frustration on Fred, whose application for tenure is dismissed with callous mockery. Bonding through the tormenting of the Nemsers, Shirley reveals that the Shakespeare Club is Bennington code for extramarital activity and Fred buckles under Rose's accusation. She flees to the edge of a cliff, but Shirley talks her out of suicide and Rose leaves in an ambulance as Stanley and Shirley dance to celebrate her new text and the durability of their peculiar liaison.
Given the nature of their roles and the fact that they must have had Burton and Taylor in mind, Michael Stuhlbarg and Elisabeth Ross can be forgiven for overdoing the theatrics at odd moments during this unsettling, if unpersuasive insight into a soured marriage. By necessity, they have to act Odessa Young and Logan Lerman off the screen and do so with relishablle panache. But Shirley and Stanley remain in their adopted amplified characters even when they're alone and the loquacious posturing can become a bit exhausting, especially as Decker insists on keeping Sturla Brandth Grøvlen's handheld, shallow-focus camera in such intrusively close proximity.
Sue Chan's production design, David Barker's editing and Tamar-Kali's score have similarly been tailored to reinforce this hothouse atmosphere. But the premeditation that also informed Decker's Madeleine's Madeleine (2018) leaves the viewer feeling as manipulated as Rose, who never feels anything other than a sacrificial victim who can't even rely on her feckless. In some ways, she resembles Mia Farrow's hapless mother-to-be in Roman Polanski's adaptation of Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby (1968), in which her husband, Guy, is duped into delivering her into the clutches of their calculating, Satan-worshipping neighbours, Roman and Minnie Castevet.
In her Sight and Sound review, the estimable Hannah McGill questions why Decker and Gubbins airbrushed Jackson's four children out of the equation in making her so dishevelled and barren in contrast to Rose's glamorous fecundity. But the formulaic sketchiness of the male characters is also problematic, as is the laboured manner in which Stanley is tied into the Welden storyline (which sees the Australian Young double up as Paula in the flashbacks). Yet, despite the hints at a free spirit, Rose is very much a housewifely type, while Moss renders Shirley more of a malign Bette Davis creation than an actual historical figure in limning a woman who becomes a secondary character in her own story.
Equally frustrating is the fact that the film (which has been executive produced by Martin Scorsese) doesn't necessarily encourage the audience to seek out Jackson's supremely controlled work in the same way that a good music documentary often does. Indeed, potential readers are much more likely to be galvanised by Mike Flanagan's 10-part 2018 Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House (1959). For all its faults, however, this bold unbiopic draws some astute comparisons between the Americas of Harry S. Truman and Donald J. Trump, particularly where gender politics are concerned.
WHAT WAS VIRGINIA WOOLF AFRAID OF?
One of the few pleasures of the pandemic period has been the appearance on Freeview of Sky Arts. Covering a range of topics, but mostly focusing on painting, music, literature and cinema, the programmes are mostly pitched at the level of The South Bank Show. The precisely balanced blend of authority and accessibility has clearly been designed to appeal to the widest audience and specialists may well find the shows a little lightweight, especially when compared to weightier fare like the BBC's exemplary Arena.
Much depends upon the calibre of the contributors and that's what sets the rather contrivedly titled What Was Virginia Woolf Afraid Of? apart, Alongside Oxford Emeritus Professor of English Literature Hermione Lee, fellow academics Edward Mendelsohn, Bill Goldstein and Nicole Ward Jouve and biographer Lyndall Gordon identify with laudable clarity the key aspects of Virginia Woolf's life that helped shape her literary output.
Born in South Kensington in 1882, Virginia Stephen was deeply scarred by the loss of her mother Julia when she was just 13 years old. She also had to endure the deaths of her half-sister, Stella, and her brother, Thoby, as well as the slaughter of the Grear War. Moreover, she was abused by her half-brother, George Duckworth, who would later publish her first novel, The Voyage Out (1915). Despite being stricken with recurring bouts of depression, Virginia found a soulmate in Leonard Woolf, who recognised that his wife needed to be kept out of institutions if she was to survive.
Alongside her painter sister, Vanessa, and her husband, Clive Bell, the Woolfs found themselves part of the Bloomsbury Set and Lee delights in recounting instances in Virginia's diaries of her frighful snobbery and rudeness to the likes of TS Eliot and Katherine Mansfield. Yet, the group provided her with a social and intellectual safety net that allowed her to literary and political ideas to evolve, as she championed the causes of women's suffrage and equal rights. Indeed, she would also surprise herself by embarking upon a romantic entanglement with Vita Sackville West (an affair that was covered in the tackily melodramatic manner by Chanya Button in Vita & Virginia, 2018).
But it was the decision to launch the Hogarth Press with her husband that afforded Woolf the freedom to write what she wanted in her own pioneering style. Leonard proved hugely supportive as they published Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), The Waves (1931), The Years and Between the Acts (both 1941). Influential though these novels proved to be, however, the contributors also point to A Room of One's Own (1931) and Three Guineas (1938) as essential achievements, as they respectively encouraged women to strive for independence and denounced the spread of political machismo that is still a pernicious force in the world today.
Pieced together from interviews, archive material and atmospheric views of places associated with Virginia Woolf, this is an excellent 50-minute primer for those seeking a way into her writing. It also highlights the lasting significance of her literary and socio-political legacy, while also calling for a greater understanding of the still largely taboo topic of mental illness.
RAISE HELL: THE LIFE & TIMES OF MOLLY IVINS.
As America goes to the polls at a time when democracy is supposedly under threat, the UK release of a documentary about a frank-speaking Texan journalist is timely to say the least. It's 13 years since Molly Ivins died and time has not been kind to the longevity of her legacy on this side of the Atlantic. But Janice Engels seeks to put that right with Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins, an affectionate, if uncritical memoir that makes potent use of some scruffy, but nonetheless priceless archive footage.
The daughter of a Texas oil executive, Molly Ivins was christened Mary because Jim Ivins reckoned that if the name was good enough for the Mother of God, it was good enough for his child. Tall and big boned, she was something of a bookish loner at school. But she blossomed at Smith College and returned from a year at the Institute of Political Science in Paris to complete her internship on the Houston Chronicle. Having graduated from the journalism school at Columbia University, Ivins proved such a fearless critic on the Minneapolis Tribune that the local police force named its porcine mascot after her before she returned to Texas to run Ronnie Dugger's Texas Observer with Kaye Northcott.
Influenced by humorist John Henry Fault, Ivins began to rattle cages at the state legislature and attracted the attention of the New York Times. Editor Abe Rosenthal didn't quite know what to do with a writer who padded around the office barefoot in the company of a dog named Shit and packed her off to the Rocky Mountain bureau. Nevertheless, she found herself covering the funeral of Elvis Presley for a paper that opted to let her go after Rosenthal took exception to the phrase `gang pluck' in Ivins's coverage of poultry festival.
Undeterred, Ivins accepted a post at the Dallas Times Herald, where her columns became such essential reading that she was syndicated nationally and received two Pulitzer Prize nominations. Following the publication of her book, Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?, she also became a popular speaker and Engel and editor Monique Zavistovski unearth numerous clips of Ivins on sharp-tongued form. When Governor George W. Bush put himself forward for the presidency, she teamed with Lou Dubose on Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, which earned her a reputation of being a canary in the US political coal mine.
However, as a heavy-smoking alcoholic, Ivins had health issues and she was diagnosed in 1999 with the breast cancer she would battle for the rest of her life. Courageously, she remained a vocal critic of Dubya until her death in 2007 and news anchor Dan Rather, political commentator Rachel Maddow and former governor Ann Richards and her daughter Cecile are among those appearing here to pay fulsome tribute to an analyst who could be as acerbically cruel as she was hilariously acute. That said, this might have been a stronger film if a few naysayers had been allowed to provide some counter grist,
Engel touches upon Ivins's lonely private life, but her eagerness to avoid prying keeps her from mentioning the 1995 plagiarism claims that were levelled by humorist Florence King, even though this would also have made a good anecdote. Nevertheless, this is a rousingly engaging introduction to Ivins and her writings that leaves one longing for a similar free-thinking voice in contemporary British journalism. One is also left wishing that her ghost is haunting Donald Trump, as she would have relished the opportunity to take him down.
Although Kenneth Branagh's return as Hercule Poirot in Death on the Nile isn't due in cinemas until 18 December, there's still a chance to see the hotel in which Agatha Christie wrote the 1937 mystery in Zeina Durra's Luxor. Coming a decade after her debut feature, The Imperialists Are Still Alive! (2010), this slow-burning elliptical drama feels rather like a cross between Richard Linklater's Before Sunset (2004 and Alain Resnais's Last Year in Marienbad (1961).
Dressed in a baggy shirt and pants and with her blonde hair tightly tied in a bun, fortysomething Hana (Andrea Riseborough) checks into the Winter Palace Hotel. She seems like a quiet loner and regrets sleeping with Carl (Michael Landes) after he picks her up in the hotel bar. Having crept away in the night, Hana spends the day sightseeing with a taxi driver she knows from a previous visit. On a ferry, however, she bumps into Sultan (Karim Saleh), an Egyptologist who asks if he can catch up with her during her stay.
While visiting Luxor Temple, Hana reveals herself to be a doctor when she comes to the aid of Sarah (Trude Reed), who has passed out in the heat while on a spirituality tour with Angie (Janie Aziz). While checking up on her at her hotel. Hana accepts directions from Sultan, who had come to the Winter Palace to find her. Even though they have been apart for over a decade, he is surprised she has forgotten their visit to Abydos and asks whether she has blocked him out of her life. As they walk around the Colonnades of Amenhotep III, Hana explains that she has been working on the Jordanian-Syrian border and is taking a break before being relocated to Yemen. Sultan asks if she has a husband and children and confides that he is also unattached. But Hana seems wearily detached when he drops her off at the hotel.
The next day, Hana ducks away from Michael in the lobby and heads to the Valley of the Kings. She meets up with some of Sultan's team and he takes her into the depths of a tomb. Feeling uneasy, Hana asks if he is bothered by unearthing bodies and artefacts that have been laid to rest and she wishes there could be peace in the region. Sultan invites her back to his room for a drink, but Hana feels uncomfortable and takes a cab to the Winter Palace.
Much to her surprise, Sultan joins her for breakfast and he gets told off when he goes swimming in the pool in his boxers. Hana chides him for getting cheesily nostalgic about their romance when they drive past the site of his first dig, where they had once stood together in the moonlight. But she has to excuse herself from the table at lunch with his colleague Salima (Salima Ikram), as she is struggling to come to terms with the traumas she witnessed during her last posting and seeing Sultan again has made her feel vulnerable. The hotel manager, Dunia (Shereen Reda), recognises that she is troubled and offers to arrange a consultation with a local seer.
During a visit to Medinet Habu, Sultan and Hana's faces come close together as they inspect some hieroglyphs by the light of her phone. They go back to her room and make love, but she bolts from the bed after a careless word and they sit by the Nile to watch the sun go down. Hana is put out when Maria (Stephanie Sassen) cycles past and invites them to share a boat named `Bob Marley' to the other bank. Jealous of the younger woman, Hana gets drunk in a bar and performs a mixture of ballet, yoga and pogo moves to the tinny piano. Returning to her room, Hana suddenly feels the weight of the world on her shoulders and she starts sobbing and allows Sultan to bundle her through the door.
Still feeling on edge, Hana is wounded by another throwaway remark when she goes to Sultan's office and storms out. She accompanies Dunia to see Khadija (Aziza Sherif), who prays over her in order to help her feel less stressed. While they wait for Angie to perform her ritual, Hana dozes off and has a dream some young girls wandering between columns at a landmark. On the way back to town, the taxi gets a puncture and Hana gazes up at the night sky and enjoys the sense of tranquility. The next morning, she packs her bag and asks Sultan to take her to Abydos.
Bookended by Asmahan singing `Ya Habibi Taala', this affecting study of post-traumatic stress is played with typical finesse by Andrea Riseborough Echoing the themes of her debut, Durra contemplates the possibility of finding personal happiness in a brutal world with similar delicacy, as she links the archaeological sites and excavations with Hana delving into her heart and soul in order to resolve her feelings for Sultan and deal with the atrocities she has witnessed while doing her duty (as she says, `I'm broken. I can't take any more pain.')
Just as Hana marvels at the wonders of the ancient kingdom, Sultan mourns the fact that the Winter Palace is about to be refurbished and that all the olde worlde charm he cherishes will be lost forever. Yet, despite amusing moments like their pretending to chat to each other from neighbouring phone boxes by the staff entrance, there's little evidence of the lost passion that has seemingly kept them both single for so long. Indeed, for all his genteel solidity, Sultan's charm seems rather glib, while Hana's admission that she has long dreaded seeing pictures on Facebook of him holidaying with his children in Dubai feels like a line out of a romance novel rather than real life.
This exquisitely civilised Joanna Hogg-like aura pervades the picture and particularly informs the contrivedly convenient meet cute and the use of floridly enigmatic chapter headings. Yet there are pleasingly ambiguous scenes, such as Hana's dream (of her younger self and her sisters or of the children she never had with Sultan?) and her wild dance, with its echo of Denis Lavant's similar outpouring of pent-up emotion in Claire Denis's Beau Travail (1999). Zelmira Gainza's nimbly observant, but discreet camerawork helps Durra establish the dazedly daydreamy pace she needs to drip the backstory details. But her story is too slight to support the surfeit of arch symbolism that ultimately overwhelms the nuanced process of recovery and renewal.
Away from the screen, actor Riz Ahmed has established a reputation as an MC as part of the Swet Shop Boys. He gets to exploit this talent in Mogul Mowgli, which he has co-written with director Bassam Tariq, who is making his feature debut after winning numerous awards in conjunction with Omar Mullick for their documentary study of Karachi street children, These Birds Walk (2013). Bearing the influence of `Toba Tek Singh', Saadat Hasan Manto's 1955 short story about the forced migration of asylum inmates, this pugnacious and occasionally bleakly comic drama offers insights into the lingering legacy of the 1947 Partition of India and the shifting experience of being a South Asian immigrant in the British diaspora.
Returning to Britain for the first time in two years after being dumped by his girlfriend, Bina (Aiysha Hart), Zaheer Anwar (Riz Ahmed) stops off in Wembley at the start of a European tour. He is frustrated that mother Nasra (Sudha Bhuchar) has not opened the new washing machine he has bought her, while he still feels distant from his father, Bashir (Alyy Khan), even though he keeps having visions that equate to the perilous train journey that Bashir made from India to Pakistan in 1947.
Following an altercation outside the mosque with a racist black fan (Ali Barouti) who mistakes him for upcomer RPG (Nabhaan Rizwan), Zed begins experiencing a weakening of the muscles in his legs. As he struggles with the sensation, he is transported back to his youth and an encounter with a singer at Bashir's restaurant (Jeff Mirza) who keeps chanting the words `Toba Tek Singh'. He wakes to find his family around his bed and Nasra fretting about the evil eye that is hovering over him. He undergoes a biopsy and manager Vaseem (Anjana Vasan) breaks the news that RPG (who has an eye tattoo on his forehead) is going to take his slot on the tour.
On being informed by Dr Maybury (Andrea Hart) that he has an inherited and incurable auto-immune condition, Zed considers an experimental stem cell treatment that might render him infertile. As Bashir wants grandchildren, Zed agrees to try a traditional cupping therapy applied by a family friend, but it has no effect. Moreover, RPG comes to see him during a physiotherapy session and taunts him that he is a yesterday man who needs to pass on the baton and Zed is annoyed when Vaseem urges him to let his rival record the track he has written about his visions of Toba Tek Singh. Feeling powerless, Zed imagines himself on stage delivering a rap about his roots and being rootless and later finds himself locking horns with a confrontational black man at a freestyling event where he is very much in the minority.
Unable to perform when making a sperm deposit, Zed calls Bina in New York. She is surprised to hear from him and is so unimpressed by the reason for his call that she accuses him of being selfish. While undergoing the infusion, Zed hallucinates that Bashir has come into the room and is putting on layers of clothing associated with their shared past (he had hidden under piles of clothes on the train as a boy). Zed pulls the drip from his arm and crawls across the floor to embrace the father who has never really understood him.
The treatment works, however, and Zed is discharged after he proves to Maybury that he can walk unaided to the lifts. While in the bathroom, he asks Nasra to turn down RPG's new hit on the radio. But Bashir insists that they chant `Toba Tek Singh' together and Zed feels sufficiently renewed for the fight to turn to the camera and fix its gaze.
Having just played a rock drummer coming to the terms with hearing loss in Darius Marder's Sound of Metal, Riz Ahmed essays another musician whose body betrays him in this abrasive, assured, yet sometimes overly familiar assessment of inter-generational conflicts. Indeed, the clashes with Bashir (a grey-templed Alyy Khan, who looks far too young for a man who must be approaching 80 for the Partition train trip to ring true) are markedly less interesting than Zed's face-offs with RPG and his two seething showdowns with black youths. Similarly, the script struggles to flesh out the female characters, with Nasra's fixation with an evil eye feeling as contrived as Bina and Vaseem's seemingly callous focus on themselves rather than how their actions might impact upon Zed.
In co-creating a role that adheres to the so-called `Riz Test' depiction of British-Pakistani Muslims, Ahmed is riveting to the point of overshadowing his fellow cast members, although the switches between English and Urdu in the often inert dialogue passages emphasise this imbalance, as does the vigorous visual style that entails Annika Summerson's skittishly claustrophobic images being dizzyingly diced by editors Hazel Baillie and Adam Biskupski. The fraying sense of immersion is reinforced by Paul Davies's disconcertingly cacophonic sound design, which drums into the head during the performance sequences and the fever dreams. That said, Tariq wields the device too frequently in a directorial display that often feels more intent on achieving audiovisual dynamism than dramatic authenticity.
Tomm Moore has changed the face of Irish animation. Having earned an Oscar nomination for The Secret of Kells (2009), he repeated the feat with Song of the Sea in 2014). Now, he completes the `Irish Folklore Trilogy' with WolfWalkers, which he has co-directed with longtime collaborator Ross Stewart. Echoes of Disney's Pocahontas (Eric Goldberg and Mike Gabriel, 1995), Studio Ghibli's Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997) and Pixar's Brave (Brenda Chapman and Mark Andrews, 2012) reverberate around a story that concerns twin heroines refusing to conform at a time of political intransigence. But, while the visuals are often striking, this rousing battle between natural free-spiritedness and the dark forces of religious fanaticism feels frustratingly superficial in the treatment of its important themes.
Some time after the death of her mother, Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey) arrives in Kilkenny with her father, Bill (Sean Bean). It's 1650 and he had crossed from England to rid Ireland of wolves on the orders of the Lord Protector (Simon McBurney). Despite being advised by Bill not to stray from home, the adventurous Robyn wanders into the forest where she meets Mebh MacTire (Eva Whittaker), who has a swirling mane of red hair. She tells Robyn about the mysteries of woodland life and how she and her mother, Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy) are wolfwalkers, who can project their minds into the body of a wolf.
As her father makes his living trapping wolves, Robyn feels torn between him and her new friend, who allows her to be herself and explore the beauties of nature. She is even more swayed when Bill insists on her becoming a servant at the Lord Protector's residence, where she is warned by Bridget the housekeeper (Nora Twomey) not to enter a room off the main hall. When she hears that Mebh's mother is missing, however, Robyn suspects that her employer is responsible and finds Moll in a cage in the forbidden room.
Having accidentally acquired the gift of windwalking when Mebh bites her, Robyn uses her new powers to roam Kilkenny in a hosting wolf while her body sleeps. On one occasion, she is nearly locked outside her bedroom and she becomes acutely aware that Bill will lose his job unless he disposes of the creatures with whom she has forged a bond. But, seeing how distraught Mebh is without her mother, Robyn knows that she had to release Moll and risk ire of both Bill and the Lord Protector.
While the historical sketchiness of Will Collins's screenplay can just about be forgiven, the dearth of fairytale enchantment proves more debilitating to a narrative that is already somewhat short of incident and subplot. A little comic relief is provided by woodcutters Stumpy (John Morton) and Stringy (Jon Kenny), but the secondary characters are largely stick figures, while the Lord Protector proves a very two-dimensional villain. Similarly Bill Goodfellowe is a formulaic father who wants the best for his daughter without understanding her or being willing to invest much time in her because he is always too busy with or tired from his work.
By contrast, Moll is warmly maternal and welcoming to the newcomer, as she coaxes us into accepting a fresh perspective on wolves. But, as she spends much of the picture in a cage, she is reduced to being a helpless victim whose purpose is to inspire her daughter and her human friend to summon the resourceful resolve required to liberate her. Even Mebh and Robyn are predictable types in that they are essentially Irish variations on the traditional Disney princess. Driven on by Bruno Coulais and Kila's Celtic score, they should still capture the imagination of young female viewers, however, as they become lupine sisters in uniting against a hissable grown-up foe.
Reducing the plight of Ireland under Oliver Cromwell to such a simplistic scenario may trouble some. But knowledge and understanding have to start somewhere and if this colourfully emancipatory and unabashedly pagan saga persuades its audience to ask questions it will have done its job. The imagery will certainly help hold the attention, especially as the contrasts between the sharp angles and sombre shades within Kilkenny's woodblocky walls and the explorable spaces and magical ambiance of the storybook woods will ring bells in with those watching online while in lockdown.
PHIL LYNOTT: SONGS FOR WHILE I'M AWAY.
Thirty-four years have passed since Phil Lynott died at the age of 36. The charismatic frontman of Irish rock legends Thin Lizzy has been the subject of several documentaries, including Shay Healy's The Rocker: Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott (1996), Sonia Anderson's Thin Lizzy: Outlawed - The Real Phil Lynott (2006) and Thin Lizzy: Bad Reputation, a 2011 entry in the BBC Legends series. Swelling the ranks is Phil Lynott: Songs For While I'm Away, which has been directed by Emer Reynolds, who made such a marvellous job of chronicling the epic travels of the Voyager space probes in The Farthest (2017).
When the talking-head claque concurs at the start of a documentary that its subject was a complex personality, the least a viewer can expect is some chapter and verse on the whys and wherefores. Yet, while the claim is repeated periodically throughout this respectful profile of Phil Lynott, we get no closer to fathoming the depths or the darker side of the man who had transformed the Irish music scene in the early 1970s.
Born in West Bromwich on 20 August 1949, Lynott was initially brought up in Manchester by his mother, Philomena, with the financial support of his Guyanan father, Cecil Parris. He isn't mentioned by name, but neither are Frank and Sarah, the grandparents who gave the boy a happy childhood in the Dublin district of Crumlin after his mother found she couldn't cope on her own. She remained close to her son, who passed through his Christian Brothers school without too many race-related skirmishes, even though black kids were rare in the Ireland of the 1950s.
Striking up a rapport with Brian Downey, Lynott joined a dance band known as The Black Eagles before moving on to play alongside Brendan `Brush' Shiels in Skid Row. It was during this period that Lynott learned to play bass and he would reunite with Downey when they formed Thin Lizzy (taking the name from a character in The Dandy) in 1969 with guitarist Eric Bell and keyboardist Eric Wrixon. The latter fell by the wayside before the combo got their big break supporting Slade, although Chas Chandler threatened to throw them off the tour unless Lynott showed more dynamism on stage. Noticing the mirrors on Noddy Holder's hat, Lynott attached one to his bass and used it to shine lights on pretty girls in the audience.
Despite a showman being born, Lizzy failed to build on their 1973 hit with `Whiskey in the Jar' (which they loathed) and Bell quit to be replaced briefly by Gary Moore before the band was resurrected with Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson providing the trademark dual lead guitar sound on the 1976 album, Jailbreak. With Lynott as the chief songwriter, the hits kept coming, although a bout of hepatitis prevented him from capitalising on a big break Stateside with `The Boys Are Back in Town'. Despite the distinctive sound, Reynolds opts not to analyse Lynott's songwriting or musicianship and even swerves placing Thin Lizzy in their musical context in an age of Glam Rock, heavy metal and punk.
Instead, he focuses on his relationships with Gale Claydon and Caroline Crowther, the daughter of the TV personality Leslie Crowther. They had two daughters, Sarah and Cathleen, who reminisce about their brief time together and their pride in having had songs written about them. We also hear from Midge Ure, who guested on the 1979 US tour after Robertson had jacked it in, teenage keyboardist Darren Wharton, and Huey Lewis, who thanks his old pal for teaching him stagecraft. But little space is devoted to Gary Moore, who would be Lizzy's regular go-to stand-in and a sometime collaborator after the ride ground to a halt in 1983.
Frustratingly, next to nothing is said about Lynott's solo career or his sense of disappointment that Ure and Bob Geldof failed to invite him to play at Band Aid in 1984. Surely, it was worth dredging up his anti-band, The Greedies, or his misfiring outfit, Grand Slam? Might it not also have stirred a few memories to be reminded that his 1982 single `Yellow Pearl' became the theme tune for Top of the Pops? Discretion seems to be the watchword for the post-Lizzy period, however, with the word `heroin' being scrupulously unused, even though Lynott's worsening addiction lead to the break-up of his marriage and his tragically early death on 4 January 1986.
The glory days clearly make happier viewing and the consensus is that Lynott loved being a rock star. After all, his status allowed him to pal up with his footballing hero, George Best. But Reynolds gets no closer to the complexities and insecurities that are invariably on the flipside of fame. U2's Adam Clayton offers his twopennyworth on the celebrity circus, while more heartfelt contributions come from schoolmate Gus Curtis and cousins Monica and Peter Lynott. But the big man remains elusive and we are left to console ourselves with those daringly diverse songs, whose lyrics veered between the posturing, the pugnacious and the poetic. Maybe the answer to the mystery has lain there all along, for, as Reynolds shrewdly points out, Lizzy might have been loud, but they also had soul and it came from the proud Dub who lost himself in the persona he had fashioned to become a star.
THE THREE KINGS.
In his 2019 book, The Three Kings, Leo Moynihan cannily traced the careers of footballing titans Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and Jock Stein, who were born within 30 miles of each other in the industrial heart of Scotland. It may not have been the most original thesis, but it was cogently argued and Jonny Owen's documentary of the same name adopts a similarly pragmatic approach. However, as BBC Alba's Jock Stein (2014), Mike Todd's Shankly: Nature's Fire (2017) and Joe Pearlman's Busby (2019) have already covered the same ground in much greater detail, this accomplished encapsulation has little new to impart for fans of Celtic, Liverpool or Manchester United.
Owen devotes little time to the tough childhoods endured by Busby, Shanks and Stein in their respective coal-mining enclaves of Orbiston, Glenbuck and Burnbank and only considers Stein's playing career in any detail, as his stint as a no-nonsense centre-half in the 1950s persuaded Hoops fans to overlook his Protestant roots and accept him in the dugout after successful terms as Celtic reserve coach and first-team manager at Dunfermline Athletic and Hibernian.
By this time, Busby had overseen the rebuilding Old Trafford after the Second World War and, in shaping a team worthy of the new Salford surroundings, he had changed the face of British football management with his tracksuit style. While he was winning leagues and cups, Shankly was learning his trade in the lower divisions with Carlisle United, Grimsby Town and Workington Town. Indeed, it was only at Huddersfield Town that he began to show the spark that prompted the Anfield hierarchy to offer him the job at Second Division Liverpool in December 1959.
On securing promotion, Shankly knew that he was fortunate in being able to pit his wits against his former Scottish international teammate, as Busby had been forced to fight for his life following the Munich Air Disaster of 6 February 1958 that had killed seven of the so-called `Busby Babes', who had caught the public imagination with their youth and flair. But their rivalry was always founded on respect and Busby demonstrated the same grace when presenting Stein with the Sports Personality of the Year Team Award after he had pipped him into realising the cherished dream of becoming the first British manager to lift the European Cup, after Celtic had beaten Inter Milan 2-0 in Lisbon on 25 May 1967.
Busby would have his day at Wembley the following spring when a team graced by Bobby Charlton and George Best beat Benfica 4-1 in extra time. Having forged the Kop community, Shankly would have to be content with the UEFA Cup in 1973, when Liverpool overcame Borussia Moenchengladbach 3-2 on aggregate. He had retired by the time Bob Paisley defeated the same opponents 3-1 in the 1977 European Cup Final and clearly regretted his decision to leave after conquering Newcastle United 3-0 in the 1974 FA Cup Final. While he was asked to stay away from Melwood, Busby remained a key figure at Carrington and was twice asked to take temporary charge after successors Wilf McGuinness and Frank O'Farrell found it impossible to emerge from Sir Matt's shadow.
Meanwhile, Stein kept amassing trophies at Parkhead before he surprised many by accepting the poison chalice of seeking to surpass Don Revie at Leeds United. His tenure proved brief and he was managing the Scottish national team when he collapsed and died following a crucial World Cup qualifier against Wales on 10 September 1985. Shankly had already succumbed to what many believed was a broken heart after a Merseyside derby on 29 September 1981, while Busby got to revel in the early days of Alec Ferguson's reign before taking his leave on 20 January 1994.
In noting that their clubs are now supported by a quarter of the global population, Moynihan and Owen are right to state that football will never see the likes of Busby, Shankly and Stein again. They also correctly identify that they established the ethos on which United, Liverpool and Celtic are run today. Yet, Owen fails to recapure the zest that made I Believe in Miracles (2015) and Don't Take Me Home (2017), his studies of Nottingham Forest under Brian Clough and Wales's Euro 2016 campaign, so compellingly joyous. Editor Owen Davies assembles the well-chosen footage capably enough, but Owen never quite discerns what made each man tick and says too little about their contrasting managerial styles and personal interaction. As a hagiographical primer, this is decent enough. But three into one just doesn't go.