Saturday, 28 July 2012

The Magic of Mike

Magic Mike may be the most important American picture to be released in some time. It does something films aimed at young people have not done in thirty years: It expertly deconstructs the fallacy of the American Dream without drawing attention to it. Perhaps what is most beguiling about Magic Mike is how much it manages to say about the psychology of American economics without the viewer being overly conscience of its thematic diatribe.

You see, Magic Mike presents the entertaining story of a dysfunctional troupe of male strippers going about their business, but through its characters, the film subliminally speaks volumes about corruptive capitalism and the mindless pursuit of ambition. What is most remarkable about Magic Mike is that audiences may be none the wiser of how marvellously socialistic the film's message is, rather preferring to see it as a movie about buff strippers having a good time.

Magic Mike manages to say more about the current economic maelstrom gripping America than a dozen Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Company Men or Margin Calls, but it does it in a way that is hard to pull off in this era of unthinking entertainment. Magic Mike is a rare product in that it dramatises the lives of young blue-collar Americans, exhibiting cocksure protagonists but unafraid to expose their anxieties and fears about the uncertainties of life. In that sense, Magic Mike has to be the most realistic American film to have been made lately. Not since Eminem's 8 Mile and, prior to that John Travolta's Saturday Night Fever, has a Hollywood studio released a movie about working-class young Americans trying to deal with life in such an alarmingly fascinating way. Magic Mike is a very important film and one that will retain a stronger cultural impact than most generic knockabout movies aimed at women. The paradox is that even though Magic Mike's core audience seems to be women (not to mention a lucrative gay market); it arguably says more about masculinity and male relationships than any other film since Fight Club.

Magic Mike cost $7 million to produce and has so far earned in excess of $100 million, a remarkable achievement for what is essentially a drama about the lost generation. But there may be countless folk reading this post thinking none of this correlates with the Magic Mike they saw in theatres. For them it was a fun flick about boisterous males who take drugs and screw horny women.

Films are as much about entertainment as they are about interpretation. Magic Mike is an American movie made by Americans, but it is playing to global audiences. For a European audience the film will trigger messages and themes that may not be so apparent to casual American audiences. After all, countries like Britain have a rigid social class structure and the films produced in the UK tend to incorporate such themes. Take the Hammer horror movies produced in Britain; horror films that were based largely on well known literary properties or folklore but always retained a very British metaphor of the rich feeding off the poor. For example, while an American studio like Universal Pictures may have made its Dracula into a gothic tale of terror and seduction, Britain's version of Dracula was more about a decadent aristocracy that feeds off the blood of peasants. In fact, British horror films have always had a tradition of demonising the upper-classes as creepy monsters that devour the working masses. Our culture has attuned us to such messages and as an audience we tend to gravitate towards the social message of a movie, hence why a film likes Magic Mike presents more wonders than readily meet the eye.

Of course, the UK has its own cinematic equivalent of the plight of working-class male strippers trying to make ends meet. The Full Monty was a comedic drama about a group of unemployed steel workers who embark on establishing a stripping act in the hope of making money during hard times. Unlike Magic Mike, The Full Monty focuses its attention on the struggles of largely middle-aged men as opposed to virile hunks. In true British style, it presents a grim scenario but breathes life into it through amiable characters and straightforward plotting. What The Full Monty lacks in glamour it makes up for in heart, showcasing the unlikeliest of men attempting to do the silliest of endeavours. The Full Monty was a startling success, even more so than Magic Mike. Made on a budget of $3.5 million, the film grossed over $250 million worldwide. A parochial movie set in the north of England, featuring characters speaking in regional dialect, was never meant to be anything more than a small British film, but The Full Monty scored massive success everywhere because it told a relatable story. The film's underlying criticisms about a post-Thatcher Britain in which manufacturing industries had been decimated by Conservative governance may have escaped the attention of American audiences; however, they embraced the movie's themes of male bonding and of men trying to be better fathers and husbands during difficult times. There was something in The Full Monty's core story that resonated so profoundly with Americans that they adapted it into a Broadway Musical, bestowing it with all the glamour and blue-collar pizzazz Britain would be uncomfortable with. In that sense, the Americans honed in on elements that spoke more strongly to them than what they may have done to us. Maybe that suggests that for American audiences social strife is more palatable if there is a sprinkling of brazen fun attached to it.

Britain has a rich film history of dramatising the struggles of working-class people, imbuing them with complexities and layers usually reserved for mythic idols. The British kitchen-sink cinema of the 1960s made heroes of proletariat men, turning them into angry young icons that defined a post-war generation. The popularity of angry young men in dramas seeped its way into British fashion and music, giving birth to everything from Vidal Sassoon to The Beatles. The Americans have been sorely lacking in working-class heroes, its cinema preferring to revel in middle-class aspirations and economically comfortable situations. Although blue-collar figures like Arthur Miller and Bruce Springsteen have international reverence, American popular culture has failed to create enduring art inspired by its poor huddled masses, instead wanting to peruse stories about the rich and famous. Perhaps that explains why the number one movie in America right now is about a fictional angry billionaire who dresses in a bat costume at night and beats on destitute hoodlums.

If Magic Mike has shown us anything then that is working-class Americans are a ripe source for inspired storytelling. What's more, it can be extremely profitable too. From the outside looking in it seems that American culture has never really been divided by social class as much as it has been defined by ethnicity and race. Whereas the UK has shamefully failed to convincingly dramatise the tribulations of its black communities, America has created powerhouse movies in which people of colour have been a potent cinematic force. It is often by focussing on race that American cinema has been able to make important statements about poverty, inequality and society at large.

Once again, it is perhaps because of cultural differences that we in Britain sometimes struggle to identify complex features of American storytelling which may be very obvious to its indigenous audiences but not so apparent to us.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

-Music Videos on my Mind- Naseer & Shahab's "Za Sta Pashan Nayam"

Pakistan is the last place in the world you would identify with a grunge music revival, but that is exactly what seems to be happening, flannel shirts and all.

In a bizarre quirk of events, Pakistani pop music has gone back to the future, reluctant to accept that American alternative music circa 1991 ever went out of fashion.

Naseer and Shahab are a Pakistani - by way of Australia - rock act evoking the spirit of Eddie Vedder in their song Za Sta Pashan Nayam (I'm for Love). The duo sing in the Pushtoon language, indicating the spirit of Seattle lives on in even the most dangerous places on earth.  As there is no translation available, and frankly, even if there is then life's too short to bother seeking it out, therefore, the song has to be enjoyed for its simple anthemic qualities, demonstrating that an enjoyable tune can always transcend language barriers. (The Youtube video may offer a way to activate English subtitles but it requires too much clicking.)

It seems the Pakistani alternative scene is little more than a cottage industry, inhabited by musicians creating songs for the love of music without any misconceptions it will  ever become a way to make a fortune. There's a certain innocence to that, which is particularly striking because it comes from a place that has some really big issues to deal with.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

-Music Videos on my Mind- The xx’s “Angels”

If Shakespeare could compare his love to a summer's day then it makes total sense for The xx to use imagery of oil mixed in water to echo similar sentiments.

It's hard to know what to make of The xx. Even before their eponymously titled album won the prestigious Mercury Music Award in 2009, it seemed the band was making the kind of stuff designed to appeal to those too cool for comfort. Their music was everywhere, from political promotional ads to crappy American teen movies, making them look like a new Coldplay.

The xx are back with Angels, the first single taken for their sophomore effort, Coexist. It's a brave release to have made as the song is totally stripped to bare essentials, favouring minimalism and mood over fireworks. The no frills video and spartan production arrangements mean all attention is drawn to singer Romy Madley Croft's vocals, utterly convincing in its meditation on love and longing. As a song it doesn't really go anywhere or build up to anything big, it just dwells, lingering on cosmic thoughts and deep emotions. That's not something widely done in pop music anymore.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

-Music Videos on my Mind- Scuba’s “NE1BUTU”

What on earth was the London 2012 Olympic committee thinking when they endorsed Muse's dreadful track Survival as its official song? It's horrible to think that such corny number will signature all key moments of the event.

Had the London Olympic honchos had any sense of fun then they would have licensed Scuba's enormously banging tune NE1BUTU as its flagship song. The track pays homage to Britain's vibrant rave music heritage, featuring big beats and a classic soulful vocal element. Furthermore, the video is the happiest clip you're likely to see this year, with all the races that comprise modern British life dancing and having a top time together.

And the video also features Normski! Turns out the rumours he had died during a botched corrective laser eye treatment for his short sightedness were false.

Friday, 6 July 2012

-Music Videos on my Mind- Haim’s “Forever”

One should always be cautious when the British latch on to an unknown American group and begin to venerate them like there's no tomorrow. On past occasions this type of overhyping has materialised in artists like Lana Del Rey and the Kings of Leon, big acts over here but rather less celebrated in their native country, with Americans viewing them more by way of suspicion than admiration. Of course, sometimes American groups that primarily court attention here in Europe can go on to have very successful homeland careers, a case example being the Backstreet Boys.

In keeping with the British tradition of overhyping American groups the Americans couldn't give a hoot about, Los Angeles band Haim are all over UK radio and music journals right now. The group is comprised of three sisters and a drummer called Dash Hutton. Although Haim's sound is redolent of '80s pop, the band's name is not a knowing homage to that period's tragic teen movie star Corey Haim and is in fact a clever moniker of sisters' Danielle Haim (vocals, lead guitar), Alana Haim (vocals, rhythm guitar, keyboards, percussion) and Este Haim's (vocals, bass) actual surname.

The Haim girls are getting a lot of UK loving right now and their debut single Forever is on commercial radio playlists nationwide. Their sound is old-school Americana, but the music takes liberal inspiration from '90s R&B, with the girls citing Aaliyah, En Vogue and Brandy/ Monica as key inspirations.

So are these Californian Jewish princesses rightly being praised as Christ's second coming, or are the British making a big deal out of nothing?