If music be the food of love

Forget the drama about who might win, the post-performance gushing or even the insightful commentary from some of the judges, the “comedy track” about fat kids and Tamil accents and whatever else the producers’ desperate, picayune imagination can come up with in order to fill the airtime with something other than just music. Here’s the single biggest reason why I love this show, and the others like it. Thanks to the song choices of the contestants, I have found my list of favourite songs growing longer, and in unexpected ways. They have, to extend a Jerome K. Jerome analogy, made my boat bigger. A few highlights:

Udhaya Udhaya Ularugiren (Udhaya, A. R. Rahman): The song has its idiosyncrasies: the word kaadhal often involves an abrupt jump from one note to another, and Hariharan’s rendition of that part is hit-or-miss. But it doesn’t take away from the beauty of the song. It’s rare to hear a duet with two distinct voices and feel like you’re hearing one soul. Thanks to the film deservedly sinking without a trace, this song, I believe, got undeservedly sidelined, until it was popularized by kids in competition wanting to cut their teeth on a really tough Rahman number.

Enakkoru Kaadhali Irukkindral (Muththaana Muththallavo, M. S. Viswanathan): A dear friend introduced me to this, and it was steadily climbing the charts in my head before a recent Super Singer performance gave it another ratings bump. I’ll be honest: MSV is not my favourite singer, except for certain specific songs that I don’t think anyone else would’ve done justice to. When viewed in the context of the film (MSV sings for Thengai Srinivasan, SPB for Jaiganesh), it works fine. But forget all of that and listen to how it is composed.

Also, there’s something to be said for the experience of hearing a kid perform a song that’s probably more than twice his/her age, and feeling like you’re hearing it for the first time. I think part of it is because you’re not hearing it in the context of the film, so even if someone’s voice is too lightweight, or not raspy enough, or too strong for a particular song, you don’t care much. You end up focusing on how *their* rendition makes you feel. It is, of course, easier with songs you haven’t paid much attention to before this. But even with ones that you’ve had on repeat loop in a corner of your brain for years, there’s the occasional Eureka moment. Like listening to Divagar sing Neeye Unakku Endrum Nigaranavan and realizing that, until then, I had never even considered the possibility of that song being done solo.

Thanks to these performances, I’ve found myself really listening to these songs. I’ve found myself trying to figure out, in my head, how I would break down the difficult parts of a song and teach it to myself. The music is no longer just helping me relax after a long day at work or during a long commute. It’s saying good morning.

Postscript: While composing this piece in my mind, I started skimming through my old posts on music. Here’s what I discovered: I have written petabytes of stuff about bad moviesbad performances, bad directors, bad screenwriters, even bad acceptance speeches, but I have rarely written about bad music. Oh, I’ve made the odd snarky comment, but otherwise, it’s been mostly about how much I’ve enjoyed listening to this song or that. I’ve written thank you notes to composers, singers, sometimes even to music itself.

Now, part of this is due to the sample size: I write more often about the movies, and therefore find more opportunities to complain. But I don’t think it’s just that, really. (Not that I let data get in the way of my conclusions anyway.)

I think it’s simply the fact that music was the first thing I fell in love with.

Begin Again

A few years ago, I fell in love with a musical called Once. I would sometimes enthusiastically recommend it to people, only to be asked, “What’s it about?” I hate that question.

Oh, it’s not an unreasonable question. Everyone asks that. I do too, when someone recommends a film to me. Trouble is, the films I most enthusiastically recommend are typically those to which the question doesn’t apply.

Before Sunrise is an example: two people spend a day walking around Vienna and talking. Nothing happens, in the traditional sense of a plot. How do you explain to someone why it’s so wonderful?

Once is similar. Oh it has a plot, but it’s really just something for the film to do with itself while the music plays. The film works because it understands music, and musicians, and why they need music in order to exist. When Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova play Falling Slowly in that little music shop at lunchtime, the film basically stops to watch them. It does that often. And we do it with them.

As is often the case when someone makes such a wonderful film about nothing, someone else gives them a bigger budget and asks them to make another one, this time about something. Which completely misses the point of course, because the reason why the first film was so wonderful was because it was about nothing except the music itself. Heck, it didn’t even bother to name the characters — they are listed as Guy and Girl in the credits.

And so it goes with John Carney, who has now made a film called Begin Again, set in New York, about a down-and-out alcoholic A&R executive and a singer-songwriter who sometimes writes music for “her own pleasure. And her cat.” He is estranged from his family, has been thrown out of the record company he co-founded, and is always at least a little drunk. She has been dumped by her upcoming rock star boyfriend, is crashing on her friend’s couch and is about to pack up and go back home.

The premise is fine. And Carney clearly hasn’t forgotten anything he knew or learnt about musicians — there are some wonderfully well-observed scenes in there. The problem is that the film wants to have an actual story that grows from this premise, and fit the music in between.

Maybe the problem is mine, in that I just wanted them to chuck the plot and make music together. The scenes where they do precisely that are the ones that hold the rest of the film afloat. There is a liveliness to them that makes even the Mickey Rooney-esque “Hey kids, let’s put on a show” portions work better than they ought to. You can sense a certain joy in the performance. The rest of the time, though, you just check your mobile for messages and wait for the music to start again.

There’s a scene where the Keira Knightley character listens to a song and talks about how the music got lost in the production. Don’t you think there’s something ironic about a situation where you find that the best review for a movie, and not exactly a complimentary one, was actually uttered by a character in it?

Video

Freeze Frame #160: Bandslam

Regular readers of this blog, such as there are, know that one of the genres I have a soft corner for is the one where a bunch of unlikely musicians get together to form a band. Bandslam approaches this from the point of view of a boy who wants to manage a band, not play in one — not a commonly taken PoV. Now, when I watched this movie a long time ago, I wasn’t all that taken by it. But somehow, one of its scenes kept popping up in memory often, and I have no idea why. So I went to Youtube and looked it up, and here it is.

The song being performed is by Steve Wynn, and is called Amphetamine. The original, frankly, is nothing to write home about. This one, on the other hand… the term pattaiya kalapparadhu (loosely translated to “bringing down the house”) barely does it justice.

The real pleasure for me, though, comes from watching Galean Connell (the one who seems to be coordinating the whole thing) — how often do you see someone enjoy his music like that?

Kadal

This is not going to be about how good an album Kadal is, or how Rahman’s doing a great job of importing blues and gospel to our shores. This album may not rank among his absolute best, but it is certainly very good. More importantly in the context of his recent collaborations with Mani Ratnam, melodious — his work in Raavanan or Guru or Yuva, while undoubtedly good, did not burrow its way into my head and refuse to leave.

My reason for writing this post is more personal. For a long time, especially back when I was a grad student, I related to songs like Barney Stinson related to women — I couldn’t pass a good one by without wanting to pick it up.

Then the urge sort of died down. I have no idea why, really. I could say something like, “Oh, real life got in the way.” Truth is, real life didn’t get in the way of anything I absolutely wanted to do. I just didn’t feel like singing. My skills, such as there were to begin with, have been slowly diminishing. So now I don’t sing too well, but I still remember enough to realize it, which makes it even more difficult to sing without wincing.

But over the last couple of days, I’ve been listening to Anbin Vaasalae and Adiye and desperately wanting to learn how to sing them right. Okay, given how important the backing vocals are to these songs, if I were to belt them out solo while driving to work, nobody will want to carpool with me for sure. And since, like I said, I know how badly I sing now, I’m gonna have to pull out my shruti box, get started with sarali varisai again and get to the point where, when I sing a note, it doesn’t sound like a probability distribution around that frequency.

Still, this need has not made its presence felt with such urgency in God alone knows how long. And for that, A. R. Rahman, I am thankful.

Not much to say right now, just breezing through…

I’ve heard Yerikarai poongaathe a number of times, but I never really listened to it until I read this sublime little description at the end of a Gautham Menon interview by the always-readable Baradwaj Rangan:

Think Ilankaathu veesuthe, or further back, the godly Yerikarai poongaathe, which, despite being sung by KJ Yesudas, is no solo but really a duet between the singer and the flute.

KJY: Yerikkarai poongaathe…

(Flute: Yeah, you talkin’ to me?)

KJY: Nee pora vazhi thenkizhakko…

(Flute: Perhaps. Why do you ask?)

KJY: Thenkizhakku vaasamalli…

(Flute: What about it?)

KJY: Yenna thedi vara thoodhu sollu…

(Flute: Hmm… lemme think about it…)

By the time you get to the second stanza, verbalizing the flute’s responses requires some of Tarantino’s calibre.

Amazing how the man’s music still manages to surprise us.

Rockstar

Nearly every review of Rockstar will tell you the following things:

  • Ranbir and Rahman are in top form.
  • They are let down by a meandering script that shines in individual moments but lacks brevity in some portions and depth in others.
  • Nargis Fakhri looks like a million bucks. Acts worth a dime, if you’re feeling generous.

For the record, I agree with all of those things. Let me focus, instead, on a few specifics that occurred to me. Sort of like Baradwaj Rangan‘s Bullet Point Review series.

  • It is now well known that this was Shammi Kapoor’s last performance. He appears in just a handful of scenes, and speaks probably 4 lines in all. But I will say this: if the man had to bow out with a brief role, he can be glad it was this one. What stands out, though, is an image of him that appears in the opening credits in lieu of an “In Memoriam” line. That image says everything you need to know about Shamsher Raj Kapoor.
  • Every so often, during the musical performances, you find yourself pulling back for a moment to reflect on Rahman’s genius. My favourite moment came during the Katiya Karoon sequence in Kashmir, when one of the interludes seemed to hark back to the keyboard intro to Pudhu vellai mazhai (Yeh haseen vaadiyaan) from Roja. You could almost see him winking at you.
  • What makes Ranbir’s performance so good is the fact that he manages to create something credible out of an extremely confused character. We aren’t talking about a rebel without a cause — we are talking about one without a clue. Having said that, the scene where he tells his manager (Kumud Mishra is a pitch-perfect performance) that he doesn’t want his heart broken is, well, heart-breaking in its urgency and need. Much of the film shows a character who has erected walls around himself. Even his romance seems not so much experienced as played out, what with all the epigrammatic dialogue and sex-obsessed bucket-listing. This is the scene where the walls crumble. The following scene in the ICU is just as good — it starts off exactly like a lot of melodramatic scenes if that ilk, but quickly descends into a shocked silence.
  • The screen time seems to be more or less equally divided between his romance and his life as a rock star. The bridge between the two — how his life feeds his art — is not built. A few scenes detailing the creative process would’ve really helped.
  • Also, the film seems to suggest that Jordan’s popularity is linked to clever marketing of his negative image. Is that all there is to it? What do his listeners really feel about his music? I would’ve loved to see that.
  • Two siblings (one of each lead character), two shades of loyalty. There is a moment when you see what looks like Ranbir Kapoor staring at his own poster, then the camera pans to reveal his sister. Outstandingly done.
  • The songs are extremely well-staged. Be it Harshdeep Kaur providing a playful soundtrack over the lead pair’s escapades, or the way Sadda Haq builds slowly and then virtually explodes on stage. And if there is a better point in the movie to play Naadaan parinde, I am not sure what it is.
  • Finally, that little gem of a conversation the movie ends on. This is not extraordinary dialogue per se, but its nonlinear placement in the film elevates it. And watch Ranbir’s expression when he looks back at the screaming crowds and sees them as if for the first time. Here is a musician realizing that the music, really, is all he has left.

ps: I was reading a couple of lovely blog posts on the film (here and here) and the term “accidental rockstar” seemed to resonate. So I weighed in with this comment. Thought I’d reproduce it here:

I wonder if Jordan’s career progression as a musician is supposed to be sort of an ironic riff on his mentor’s initial comment about pain being the engine that drives a musician. It appears that his general air of being a bit pissed off and disconnected from the world around him allows his music to mean whatever it does to his listeners.

The Sadda Haq sequence, for instance, shows a whole bunch of folks shouting out that slogan, and none of them probably mean anything to Janardhan, nor does he mean anything to them. But is that the point Imtiaz is trying to make, that the music could mean different things to different people, and that Jordan’s image, however marketable it is, doesn’t really mean a thing to either Janardhan or his listeners when it comes right down to it?

For me, the key moment comes right at the end when the man seems to see the audience for the first time. It’s as if he’s thinking, “So this is what Khatana bhai was talking about. Damned if it didn’t turn out like he said it would.”

Answers to Trivia Challenge #1

Now, the answers to Trivia Challenge #1:

1. The connection I was looking for is Joseph Conrad. Apocalypse Now was based on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (Coppola’s wife made a documentary on the making of the film, titled Hearts of Darkness). Amitabh’s character in Kala Paththar was indeed based on the protagonist in Conrad’s Lord Jim (watch the flashback sequence where he is a naval officer). And the spaceship in Alien was named Nostromo, after a Conrad novel. In the script, another spaceship was named Narcissus (after another Conrad novel, The Nigger of Narcissus). Ridley Scott appears to have been a Conrad fan — his debut was based on The Duellists.

2. The connection is the phrase For whom the bell tolls, originally by John Donne (pic 1) from his work that begins famously with No man is an island</i>, borrowed by Hemingway for the title of his novel. The third pic is a still from the movie version of the Hemingway novel.

3. The reason is Good Will Hunting, which was set in MIT. When it won a bunch of Oscars, they lit up the building to celebrate.

4. Ah, the one question people didn’t get! What people did was put the stamp on envelopes and sent it to junk addresses so that they would get it back with the words Return to Sender stamped on it. Which, in case you don’t know your Elvis, is the title of one of his hits.

5. Modern Times was supposed to be a critique of the mechanized world we live in. Therefore, all sounds in the film are mechanical. Even human voices are not heard directly, but over a device such as the radio/loudspeaker.

Good show, Shafeek and PV! Srikanth, I’ve seen it referred to as a poem in some places, but I’ll take your word for it being an essay :-)

I will do one on Hindi films soon. Hope you folks enjoyed this one. Let me know if it was too tough/easy/boring.