Oliver and Company Review

 

Oliver & Company (1988) Review

 

What do I know about the film?

 

Ah 1988. What a year. With a USA Presidential election, terrorist attacks sending panic throughout the world and the Olympics games taking place…What a time to be alive.

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And then of course I was born. Yes. Cokie Blume entered the world (and yes I know I have disclosed my real name on here and most of you know me personally anyway but let’s just pretend neither of those are facts and humour me) in early 1988 and with them was born an insatiable appetite for popstars masquerading as cartoon dogs. And lo, did Disney deliver.

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This is Billy Joel. As a dog. Billy Joel Dog.

But first, as with our previous 2 reviews, let us discuss what was happening over at Don Bluth Headquarters. Don Bluth’s posse was undeniably strong at this point. His new feature, The Land Before Time, had two of the biggest players in Hollywood history behind it with George ‘Star Wars’ Lucas and Steven ‘every film ever’ Spielberg as producers. With this kind of backing the dinosaur adventure Bluth created was epic in every sense and with a huge hit already under his belt he must have been feeling pretty cocky. Cocky enough to go up against Disney on the same opening weekend.

But Disney had a plan…Prolific voice actor Dom DeLuise appeared in very nearly every Bluth film, particularly in the 80’s…But Disney pilfered him from Land Before Time to appear in Oliver & Company. So let’s recap: Bluth had Spielberg and Lucas and Disney had DeLuise…

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Too close to call…

 

Critically The Land Before Time obliterated Oliver & Company with the overall consensus being that The Land Before Time was beautiful and thought provoking while Oliver & Company was a low effort merchandise generator. Ouch.

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What? Dogs just like McDonalds…You shut up…

Money wise it was a bit closer: Land Before Time won the battle of the opening weekends going straight to number 1 with Oliver languishing at number 4 but Oliver made more money in total domestically when all was said and done. That is if we don’t include the seemingly never ending sequels the Land Before Time generated.

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Does the Ice Age never arrive in this timeline? And they accused Oliver of being the money vacuum…

Disney even went as far as to rerelease Oliver in direct competition with a new Bluth film further down the line with the aim of once again outdoing him in the bank department. It was an out and out war and I fucking love it. Sure, it is less Hitler and Mussolini vs Churchill and Roosevelt, more the Sharks vs the Jetts in West Side Story. If Jeffrey Katzenberg and Don Bluth ever met in the street I am sure they just danced at each other. With Deluise sobbing in the middle…

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Can’t we all just love each other?

Overall I would give yet another point to Bluth, making it 3-0 at our latest count. But it’s not over yet folks. Disney were boosted by the domestic box office results and announced plans to release an annual animated feature for the foreseeable future therefore doing away with the long gaps in between films that had dragged 80’s Disney down. Good news then yes? Although you might suspect there will be a drop in quality with that kind of time pressure on them…

Right?

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I’m so fucking stoked…

It feels odd to be talking about the best of animated Disney, Spielberg produced movies and 1988 without mentioning the critical darling that is Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The cinematic masterpiece that arguably began the period known as-But let’s save all that for next time. Because this is about films produced by the Walt Disney Animation Studios only and not about the time I was four years old and I realised what sex appeal looks like without really understanding what that meant or why I felt funny:

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Literally impossible standards of beauty-Away with you!

So forget the small waisted animated women with amazing hair for a moment: We have a half baked Dickensian adaptation to watch!

 

Did I see it as a child?

 

Oh hell yes. I was obsessed with one of the songs in it and performed it constantly for a period of time. I remember I loved the way the dogs jumped from car to car and I used to act out the song in question at my local park jumping from different parts of the climbing frame while singing loudly doing my best to be cool. It kind of worked until the inevitable clang of me tumbling from the monkey bars.

I often acted out films and stories with other people in my class and it was suggested by someone on one occasion that we do Oliver & Company. By the way this wasn’t a recess thing: Our teacher would let us leave the classroom to rehearse and we would take up class time with the actual performances too. And they were not short. It is a wonder I learnted anything. Alas, alack, our production of Oliver & Company was not meant to be as Olivia Cameron and I got into a fierce argument over who would play Georgette and some things were said that couldn’t be taken back (Well she might have been prettier than me but she didn’t have my acting chops and everyone knew it…) and so we settled on a performance of Hocus Pocus instead and the idea was lost forever. Which was a damn shame. Although my work as Ice/Thackery Binx in what I am pretty sure was a 4 hour performance of Hocus Pocus (the kid playing Max didn’t know her lines) was superb.

 

Synopsis:

 

We open on a scratchy looking New York and a box of kittens that are being sold despite the fact nobody appears to be around to do the whole exchange of goods for cash thing but no matter, that’s the Big Apple innit? There are loads of taxis, tall buildings and boxes of cats as far as the eye can see. So all the kittens are camping it up in the hope of being chosen but naturally the passers by by pass the ginger cat Oliver in favour of the blue cats of the litter because holy shit it’s a blue cat:

 

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But the night grows cold and dark and soon Oliver is left alone with nothing but the waterlogged remains of the box and the disembodied voice of Huey Lewis for company-Huey Lewis assures him everything will be fine but Oliver is not convinced.

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After meeting Billy Joel Dog (His name is Dodger in the actual real life film but I will continue to call him Billy Joel Dog because I can) Oliver helps him with a sausage stealing caper that is deemed successful in spite of the fact the sausages are dragged through wet concrete and all over the sidewalks during a boisterous musical number.

 

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You know what? I’ll pass. Wasn’t hungry anyway.

But When Billy Joel Dog lives up to his actual name and dodges out of sharing, Oliver follows him back to his house and meets the gang of dogs he lives with and their owner Fagin who sends his pets out everyday to steal enough good stuff to pay off his extensive debts with a loan shark…

Ok…This is the part where adapting a story about humans into a story about dogs throws up some questions…This seems like a flawed business model to me. How does owning and caring for 5 dogs who are willing to roam the streets during the day = profit? Well apparently it doesn’t because the mafia boss in question Bill Sykes, here represented by a big jawed bald dude who smokes comically large cigars, makes it clear that Fagin only has 3 days to come through with the dough or else…

 

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And all that implies…

So Oliver, keen to fit in, agrees to turn to a life of crime but about 8 minutes into his first day he messes up and ends up stuck in a car with a small girl named Jenny who takes an instant liking to him and he to her.

So now he faces an agonising choice…Which family will he choose? The gang of dogs he has known for about 14 hours or the lovely little girl he has known for about 26 minutes?

Oh and will Fagin get his kneecaps broken by Sykes in the slightly more adult plot next door?

 

What Works:

 

They say you don’t know what you got till it’s gone. Seriously. Everybody says that. I think it is a human rule that you have to say it at least once a decade in some wistful context or you get evicted from Earth. But in this case the longing in my heart wasn’t awakened until what was taken from me was returned. While others may argue an alternative case, my feeling is that this is the first Disney musical since Robin Hood. That was a lot of films ago. And while every film since has had merit (And Black Cauldron was also there) and even a few songs, it wasn’t until I sat down to Oliver & Company that I truly appreciated how much I fucking love a Disney musical.

The soundtrack is impressively rangy in style too. Late 80’s pop, rock, blues, a big Broadway number, simple sweet piano, and, of course, the symphony of wonder that is the city of New York itself. Normally this would feel a bit forced but each song works with the artist it is given to and adds to the story successfully or, if not, pads it out in a suitably entertaining way. They brought in some heavy duty song writers to get the mix right ranging from the eternal Barry Manilow to piano man Billy Joel (did I mention Billy Joel is in this?) to the legendary lyrist Howard Ashman who will be back before this project is over. And the voices they were writing for? We are talking Ruth Pointer, Bette Fucking Midler, Huey Lewis and, of course, Billy Joel.

It was a joy to see the care that went into creating the soundtrack even if not all the songs are equally appreciated by me. ‘Once Upon a Time in New York City’ is a bit corny and ‘Streets of Gold’ is cut short just as it is getting going which is a shame. ‘Perfect Isn’t Easy’ is a great showcase for Bette Midler’s creation Georgette and ‘Good Company’ is one of the most effective relationship building songs Disney has ever done…But before we get to talking about those scenes we have to talk about Billy Joel Dog.

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The film doesn’t really exist until Billy Joel Dog shows up. He talks like every late 80’s/early 90’s cool guy (‘You’re not being fair! ‘Fares are for tourists kid!’ Ooh burn!) and struts all over New York like he owns it, jumping from car to car, being mean to a small cat, sexually harassing girl dogs, singing while his mouth is closed in one shot, conjuring previous Disney dogs through the power of cool alone, stopping traffic for a dog parade, and playing a moving piano and…This is all in a 3 minute song. It is ridiculously awesome.

And the song? I love it. Always have, always will. When I first got a portable music playing device it was the 3rd or 4th song that went on it. True story. Full disclosure: I’m an adult. But God save me, I love pretending to be a strutting dog in New York with a pair of stolen glasses, a string of ruined sausages and a dudetastic attitude that would make Sonic the Hedgehog, the Ninja Turtles and the Fonz all go ‘No. That’s too much sass now’ When I hear ‘Why Should I Worry?’ I forget that I hate everything. It is so cheesy. But I can’t not.

I am not sure if I even care much for the character of Dodger in the grand scheme of things. He is fairly clichéd (he is a bad boy who is actually caring and good, quelle surprise!) and not as interesting to me as the out for himself kid in the Carol Reed adaptation of Dickens’s classic tale. But Billy Joel is gung ho in his reading of the awful quips and ‘Why Should I Worry?’ is enjoyable enough that I don’t care what happens after it in all honesty.

But, in time honoured tradition, I will review the rest of the movie. Let’s take a break from the music and talk animation. It is a largely good looking film and, as with Great Mouse Detective, it gently hints to the more sophisticate visual story telling Disney would very soon be moving to if you know what to look for. Director, animator and artist George Scribner showcases some seriously cool camera shots that make what is a fairly basic story (cat moves house a few times, some shenanigans ensue) seem considerably more action packed.

I love the way New York is depicted in the opening and closing shots:

 

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The setting is used well as a background character. It isn’t all tall buildings and bright lights, it is kind of dirty and noisy with cabs as far as the eye can see and Oliver & Company portray this with pride.

 

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Some of my favourite scenes/shots? Ok! When Oliver falls off the piano during ‘Why Should I Worry?’ I always gasp. Everytime. Don’t worry, some tomatoes break his fall and he is fine and dandy. The perils of gravity are inconsistent in the Disney universe.

Ditto electricity in this film but we will get to that later…

When Jenny is performing ‘Good Company’ at the piano, Oliver is leaping all over and the camera spins round them in a way that just feels very natural and not at all showy but is still kind of impressive. It really feels like it paved the way for the dancing scene in Beauty and the Beast. I have never looked this up and just choose to believe it did. It is a lovely sequence anyway and I especially like that bit. Good Company has a pretty melody and the bonding of the two characters is very simply played in a way I find kind of moving. I didn’t go as far to cry or anything but I felt warm and fuzzy and temporarily thought I might want a cat.

Then there is Georgette, Jenny’s poodle, making her spotlit descent down the stairs at the end of her musical number, a moment that was so unexpectedly sophisticated visually speaking that my viewing partner announced: ‘It’s like something out of The West Wing…But with slutty dogs’ This remains one of my favourite soundbites of all time, not that I advocate shaming dogs for their promiscuity of course.

 

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Bitches be like…

Georgette, is played by the hammy Bette Midler to great effect. I can’t think of an equivalent character in the story of Oliver Twist but she isn’t totally without a purpose. Her role is to be a secondary antagonist and move the plot along by returning Oliver to Billy Joel Dog and friends because she hates having to share her stage/owner with him. She then transitions with fairly little fuss into being a goody but it doesn’t bother me that much because the film is better for having her in it, character inconsistencies be damned.

People like to give Aladdin credit for starting the boom of celebrities bringing their chops to animated movies but Midler turns in a solid comedy turn here. The material is somewhat weak at times but she sells it. I especially like the way she says the word ‘bark’ rather than actually barking.

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Disney are not exactly shy when it comes to including dead parents in their films but rather than offing Jenny’s parents so she can partake in animal antics without their inconvenient protection, Disney opt instead to make them neglectful as fuck which makes her instant bonding with Oliver and her devastation over his disappearance genuinely effective.

The Parents are not in the film and leave Jenny in the care of Winston who appears to be a butler of some sort. He assures Jenny in her first scene that he is confident her Parents will return from their trip in time for her birthday…but his face tells another story…He knows they will continue to let her down and Jenny is pretty despondent about the whole thing. In most kids films the parents would make it home in time for the third act but in this film? Nope. They don’t get back for her birthday despite saying on the phone to Winston that they were on their way after a quick stop off in Rome. Which is all well and good but they have still missed their young daughter’s birthday and not only that…Either Winston and Jenny don’t bother to mention the whole kidnapping ordeal Jenny goes through or her parents don’t consider this a good enough reason to come home as fast as humanly possible…Either way…Jesus.

Jenny’s enthusiasm for Oliver (The ‘Good Company’ montage suggests she is still singing the song about what great pals they are 3 days in to his arrival which speaks to her commitment if nothing else) is quite endearing and I think the actress Natalie Gregory and the animators did a great job making her vulnerable during the scenes where she is roaming the street with her piggy bank trying to get her cat back.

Interestingly the original plan was to bring back Penny from The Rescuers in this movie which…nope. I am so glad they didn’t make this Penny’s ending as that would have been too dark-She finally gets adopted after years of being overlooked/forced into child slavery and then they dump her with their butler while they go on the road leaving her to long for the days when all she had was vermin for company? Too mean Disney! I am not sure why they changed their mind…Was it that it would be too brutal to have Penny be kidnapped a second time? Also what happened to her pet cat from that movie? Were we to understand that he had died and that is why she is so keen to have a new one? And why can’t she hear animals talking in this film but she could in the Rescuers? Wouldn’t that mess with a kids head if one day you could chat away to mice and cats and then suddenly radio silence? Whatever the reason they redesigned the kid to give her a more hip look (are those stick on earrings? I hope they are stick on earrings.) and changed the name from Penny to Jenny (inspired) and I think she was better for it.

Speaking of the human characters, one thing that has changed for me over the years is my view on Fagin. As a kid I viewed him as an antagonist. I am not sure if it was the design or his initial plan when Oliver comes back to hold him for ransom but I sure as Hell found him creepy as a scrappy youngster. I don’t think I went as so far to boo when he came on screen but I had limited time for his bullshit. These days I find him a lot more sympathetic if a bit baffling. Sure he is kind of cowardly around Sykes and whines a lot about his circumstances but there is a fundamental decency that isn’t present in the source material (the anti semantic message from the book is thankfully absent unless there is some subtext I am missing) that create some great character moments. While I make fun of the whole getting your dogs to steal for you thing he does treat them as loving pets more than employees. After his unfortunate meeting with Sykes where he learns he only has 3 days to pay him back he is touched when his dogs show concern and he immediately softens and they all settle in while he reads aloud what appears to be some kind of dog porn they all enjoy.

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Fagin’s attempt to solve his problem via a pretty amusing ransom note (‘Dear very rich cat owner person…’) leads to a couple of moments of humanity that stood out to me on viewing the film as an adult. He might not stand up to Sykes but his practice speech before he stutters and panics through the real thing feels realistic because it is a familiar problem. His silent but angry response when Billy Joel Dog is attacked by Sykes’s own dogs suggests a back bone forming and it is pretty heart warming to watch his conscious get the better of him when his own life is on the line. As soon as he realises that Jenny is just a kid with shitty parents and there is no big pay off coming he reunites her with Oliver. Sure he fails to confess his part in her misery and is unable to keep her from being abducted by Sykes but he in many ways is just as vulnerable as her only he doesn’t have a butler looking after him. You get a sense he formed his ‘gang’ via street dogs because he doesn’t know how to interact with humans and while this is not the main focus of the story and might be me reading too much into it, I thought this was a nice touch.

Fagin is a guy with no education, money or prospects who eats dog biscuits and got in way over his head. It is hard not to feel sorry for him and Dom DeLuise does a good job of selling the different shades to such a sad character without making it too depressing.

I like that they made an effort to make the human characters more than background players. The A plot might be Oliver finding his way in the world but Jenny and Fagin are heavily involved in that narrative and interact with the animals in a way that you don’t often see in a film like this. They don’t get tossed to the side like the humans in 101 Dalmatians and Lady and the Tramp when the ‘real’ adventure begins…It is their story too and so they are rounded characters that are well animated and well performed.

I think it is telling that the scenes without the talking animals still work and still engaged me as a viewer. While logically a lot of what the humans do don’t make much sense, in the context of a cartoon where a dog can leap from the top of moving car to another moving car without getting splatted it is a nice touch to go beyond the cute factor of the animals and have the poor but warm and rich but lonely characters have personality.

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So Oliver gets sent packing by Georgette who facilitates his “rescue” by the gang but, unlike my synopsis suggested, there is no dilemma for Oliver and he insists he wants to be with Jenny leaving Dodger believably hurt. Fagin sees Oliver’s fancy collar and drops off a ransom note and meeting spot at the address on the tag leading to Jenny setting out in the dark to set the finale in motion. Sykes snatches the kid when he sees Fagin’s heart has grown three sizes and, even though I was hoping Winston was about to go all ‘Man on Fire’ on Sykes, the gang band together to get her back instead leading to possibly the most well regarded scene in the film.

While the actual rescue is pretty routine (there is even the classic fake pizza delivery bit, but God save me I love that) the subsequent chase scene through the graffiti coated subway system leading to the Brooklyn Bridge is pretty great. The film disposes of the villains in a solidly brutal fashion with Syke’s dogs getting electrocuted and Sykes himself getting struck by a train just as the others manage to inexplicably escape. It is over pretty quickly but it is a satisfying sequence if only for the classic ‘villain loses his cool’ moment as Sykes stops being a man and becomes a monster: Driving his fancy Cadillac scraping and screeching through the underground, destroying the gear stick, smashing through the window with his bare hand to grasp at the terrified kid on the hood of his car…I love it when previously slick villains start to lose their shit.

The film knows what its strongest asset is though: It ends on a reprise of Why Should I Worry? as Billy Joel Dog and the gang zip in and out the New York traffic singing loudly about how ace it is to be poor. This scene is the manifesto of the movie. A largely non threatening, family friendly version of New York inhabited by a rag tag gang of animals delivering an upbeat melody that stays in your head long after the credits stop rolling. And yes. Whether you like it or not, and I LOVE it, that song will stay in your head.

I wish the same could be said for every aspect of this film…However…

 

 

What Doesn’t Work:

 

This is one of the those films where the strong moments (clever shots, good tunes, cool chase scene) seem to be balanced out with elements that are hardly worth commenting on. Nothing bad exactly. But when there are moments in a film which hint that there is interesting talent working on it who want to make something good and worthwhile but then ¾ of the film is made up of lazy/safe/forgettable/filler it is all the more frustrating. It is like you can hear the producers looking at their watch and going: ‘I have dinner reservations at 7…can we not just have Cheech Marin’s character get electrocuted in a comedy way even though electricity will be dangerous later and do a funny line before passing out?’

Let’s start with the doggy gang. So, by my memory, we have Einstein who is stupid. I see what they did there. Francis who is like Frasier Crane but a dog. Rita who…is a girl. She has a couple of lines and a bit of a song. She appears to have a history with the baddy dogs, Roscoe and DeSoto, which is kind of cool…She is nearly interesting but doesn’t get enough screen time. And then there is Cheech Marin Dog aka Tito. Just…No. Not funny.

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The success of comic relief characters comes down to personal taste but Cheech Marin Dog didn’t really do it for me. He is not even as annoying as Black Cauldron’s Gurgi (in fairness I have been in traffic accidents funnier than Gurgi so that point barley counts) he just thoroughly failed to amuse me. I thought Bette Midler’s attempts to inject worth into lines like ‘I broke a nail!’ were fair and Billy Joel Dog had his moments almost entirley due to how ridiculous he was a concept: A cool dog with a neckerchief, bad puns and the voice and piano skills of Bily Joel will always be joyful. Sorry.

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But the film relies too much on Cheech’s fast talking wise cracks being funny and they just aren’t. A half hearted attempt at flirtatious banter between him and Georgette was especially grating as it is one of my least favourite tropes-You know, when the female character (usually female anyway) claims she can’t stand the male but he persists in the foolhardy belief that she will admit her true feeling soon and he is usually right because the same person who writes his arrogant, creepy behaviour also gets to write how the other character responds to it. At one point Cheech Marin Dog literally says: ‘I think she likes me!’ just after being slapped for kissing her. And I groaned so loudly that you probably heard me.

Do you get what I mean? If you are going to do the same stuff that every other film does, people are going to struggle to remember your movie but if you don’t bother to come up with something better then either A) You don’t care about the quality of your work or B) You assume your audience wants something familiar and unchallenging so you swap creativity for stuff they can’t distinguish from a billion other films they have seen or C) You don’t have the time or budget to correct what isn’t working. Make your choice A, B or C. The end result is the same either way though.

Anyway, the gang as a whole don’t get developed enough or spend enough time with Oliver to justify their claim that he is family to them. He is with them for less than a whole day so any attempt to make this convincing involves quite the shortcut. Oliver being brought back is necessary to the plot but his reaction to it is a weaksauce attempt at conflict that doesn’t really lead to anything except Dodger sulking for a few seconds. After all, the film ends with Oliver getting to stay with Jenny and he and Dodger say a brief and pretty heartless goodbye (‘You’re ok for a cat’) and off he goes, his life the same as before Oliver was in it. It would seem Jenny’s generosity only stretches to the cat and not the clearly ill probably homeless man who just gave her a single shoe for her birthday but anyways, it’s fiiiine because why should we worry etc.

Now in defence of the film (I can feel the hardcore O&C fans sharpening their…what do losers use as weapons? Never mind…) the events of Oliver Twist happen pretty fast too-I am pretty sure Oliver ends up getting caught the first day he goes out on the job in the book so perhaps it was less about lazy story telling and more about being true to the source material…But in the book when Oliver is forced back to the gang it is certainly not because he is considered family. The Oliver in the book is only ever a tool for other, more intelligent characters to take advantage of whereas here we have to buy that they care about him and we have to care about that…It is a stretch is all I am saying. They don’t do a bad job of fleshing out some of the characters but we don’t spend enough time with Fagin’s gang to feel emotionally wounded by Oliver’s decision to stay where the money is.

Oliver is pitched as the lead character although you could make a viable claim for Billy Joel Dog being the one you are invested in. But Oliver’s name is on the poster so let’s just all admit he is kind of boring. The film can’t decide if he capable or not and it just means he has qualities that all screenwriters give characters they don’t know what to do with: He is feisty but easily startled, naive but won’t be pushed around, he can hold his own but needs to be looked after…Oh my God guys just pick a lane! His story is rushed as Hell and goes by so quickly that it undermines the suffering he endures in the first song. If the film committed to the fear and uncertainty in that opening number, he would have learned a lot more but actually…what does he learn? How does he grow? What is the point to any of this? He got lucky, then luckier still. That’s it. He appears to be about to go on a crazy adventures to earn his happy ending but really he just gets passed around until it is time for the film to be over.

I wasn’t sure where to place Sykes in this review. I like his death (What? The fear in his eyes was good and he went BOOM when the train hit him… Please don’t analyse me too closely…) and I guess he is believably intimating. However I think he comes under the heading of one of the least interesting Disney villains for me and as with the Horned King I am baffled as to how many fans he has online. Sure it is kind of cool to have a character just doing his job and not being evil by birth or through magic or anything like that but he isn’t fleshed out past having a couple of hobbies (he builds models apparently) and, again, none of his lines go beyond clichés and his motivation can be summed up thusly:

 

While Disney have always adapted very, very loosely from their source material I do feel the characters in this film are not as memorable as other versions of Oliver I have seen in part because they are a lot softer in nature despite the harshness of their surroundings. I would be willing to bet a lot of people who watched this film as a child don’t remember much about the individual characterisations as adults and there is a reason for that. There are a lot of clichéd tropes, predictable punch lines and obvious character trajectories that are pretty rushed and mean the emotional beats don’t land as well as they might if the pacing/script came out a little better.

For example, Sykes getting hit by a train is a great moment of ‘holy shit-did they just go there???’ that is instantly undermined by the seriously overdone: ‘Oh no-Is the main character dead? Sure looks dead…Better not check let’s just cry-Oh wait he’s fine’ trope. It seriously does my head in: When they write it in do they imagine any person in the audience is on the edge of their seat waiting to see if Oliver died or not? Or is it just another thing to tick off from their checklist of stuff that must be included in the final act of an animated movie when the running time is a bit short?

Oliver’s happy ending doesn’t come from any major sacrifice. There is no Nancy character as far as I can make out. Ok, maybe I should stop comparing the film to the book/other Oliver movies but there is a reason I keep returning to that well: They use a lot of the same names and story beats as the Dickens novel but have abandoned so much of what made that story compelling which leaves me with the question: Why bother?

The idea of a doggy gang of criminals makes no fucking sense. I can understand a group of innocent kids being good cover for a crime gang but who isn’t noticing a Great Dane taking their wallet? No wonder Fagin was failing so hard at life.

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I just don’t get why they didn’t either make this an all talking animal story or a human only story or just abandon the whole Oliver Twist in New York with a Cat stuff all together. Perhaps if there had been less restrictions due to elements that had to be included to justify the adaptation they could have allowed themselves more freedom to be creative with how they told the story.

Dickens meets Disney could have been great. New York animals turning to crime meets Disney could have been great. What we got was entertaining enough and writing it off as a cash grab is certainly unfair. But there is a reason it has flown under the radar and is not considered part of the revitalisation of the brand: It takes more than a couple of tight songs to make a classic. Oliver may end the film with more friends than he started but he was never destined to be one of the popular kids.

That’s all still to come…

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‘You can’t sit with us!’

 

 

Conclusion:

 

 

It is a shame the final product is so middle of the road because some of the scenes (the subway chase, the Good Company segment) suggests there is a heartfelt and exciting story buried under the Cheech Marin shtick and the rush to get to the end. Overall it is demonstrably not one of the more memorable Disney films no matter what the rabid fan base shriek at you but it holds a special place for me due to the soundtrack alone.

 

 

Disney Nightmare Inducer Count: 4

Angry dogs chasing Oliver, Sad Billy Joel Dog noise, Dogs getting electrocuted and Sykes getting hit by a train…

Holy shit Sykes getting hit by a train is dark…Let’s take another look…

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Best Song:

 

While I actually think Good Company might be more deserving I have to give it to Why Should I Worry? I still think this might be one of my favourite Disney songs as it never fails to brighten my day.

 

Thanks Billy Joel Dog.

 

 

 

 

Next Time: Look at this film…Isn’t it neat? No Disney collection could be complete without The Little Mermaid (1989)

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The Great Mouse Detective Review

Ok…2 weeks and about 2 years behind schedule here it is. This one was not easy and I am not delighted with it. I wrote it, my computer died and it went away, I started working on it again, my computer died again, I cried a bir, it occurred to me around the stage the computer wouldn’t even switch on that I should buy a new computer but by this point I was sick of trying to remember what I had written and what I wanted to say about the sodding film…But it is done. It might not be good, but it exists and so I can move on with my life. Thanks for your patience. And my hope is that the Disney reviews will now pick up steam again.

 

The Great Mouse Detective (1986) Review

 

What do I know about the film?

After the total unmitigated disaster that was ‘Black Cauldron’ Disney was yet again in the position of needing a win. Enter Basil of Baker Street. No case too difficult, even the case of the box office poison. ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ was well received by audiences and critics alike and as such its legacy is partial redemption for the Walt Disney animation department thus leading to work commencing on the films that would trigger that most marvellous of things: A renascence.

But not yet. Yeah, at the time ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ was released it was unfortunately overshadowed by Bluth’s second big mouse film: The far more financially successful and Steven Spielberg produced ‘An American Tail’ Of the two films, it is more likely you have heard of that one. Hell, if you were a child in the 80’s or 90’s chances are you just burst into a sentimental chorus of ‘Somewhere Out There’ against your will.

 

While not all critics appreciated ‘Tail’ it was…big. Bombastic. Epic. In short, it out-disneyned Disney by a long shot especially where it counts-money. So if you are keeping track at home, the tally is Don Bluth 2, Disney 0. For now.

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She’s coming…Don’t worry…Any minute now…

 
Did I see it as a child?

 

Yes and I liked it very much. Although I was a bit baffled to learn that there have been a lot of different titles. It started of being called ‘Basil of Baker Street’ but apparently the name tested badly or something and was changed to ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ much to the irritation of a lot of the people working on the film. In fact, animator Ed Gombert sent around a memo claiming it was from a studio executive alerting the staff to the fact that all the films had to have generic titles lest the audience get confused such as ‘Seven Little Men help a Girl’ and ‘The Wooden Boy who becomes Real’

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Oddly enough, the version I had as a child had a third title:

 

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So I don’t know why they couldn’t make up their mind about it. I am still slightly confused but then I guess it is not the first time a film has changed titles depending on where it is distributed so I think I will just post a picture of Vincent Price looking disdainfully at a parrot and move on:

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So you may have spotted by now that the ‘Mouse Detective’ design seems to have a lot in common with another famous detective. That’s right. Poirot.

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Uncanny.

Honestly? I had always assumed Disney couldn’t get the rights to Sherlock Holmes or something seeing as he clearly appears in the film a couple of times but is never named. It felt like a singularly weird copyright dispute. However thanks to the internet I have learned that ‘Basil of Baker Street’ was a series of children’s novels by Eve Titus. There were 5 books where Basil, a detective, and Dr Dawson, his biographer, solved the crimes of the mouse world while living downstairs from Sherlock Holmes at 221b Baker Street. An odd concept, certainly. What’s next? The going on’s of the woodlice who roam the rotten floor boards in Room 101? How about the raccoon who lives in Rochester’s attic? Comics from the perspective of Superman’s head lice? A series of best selling films about the bed bugs at Hogwarts?

No JK Rowling-stop! You have enough money…Well ok. But I want a cut.

 
Synopsis:

 

Olivia is a young mouse and is having a nice birthday with her nice Father who is a toy maker and a single parent which is just charming and he gives her a wind up ballerina doll he presumably made himself and she has just declared it her very best birthday ever and he the very best Father ever in the whole world and she has just finished announcing that her favourite thing about him is how present he is…when a one legged bat breaks into their home, fucks their shit up, and kidnaps her Father.

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That escalated quickly

And so it is that Dr Dawson, a portly English gent recently returned from action Afghanistan, (ok, I know mice have their own anthropomorphised universe here but…how the fuck did they start a war with some Afghani mice?) finds Olivia sitting on a box of liver pills sobbing about needing to find the greatest detective ever to locate the missing Father. So they head to Baker Street together and thus begins a crazy adventure…

Can Basil not Sherlock and Dawson not Watson save Olivia’s Father from the clutches of the evil Professor Ratigan not Moriarty while eating crumpets made from Mrs Judson not Hudson?

Judson? Really? Smooth.
 

What Works:

Basil enters the story as a fully formed character who doesn’t need an arc. Unlike most Disney protagonists, this is more a day in the life of the lead character than it is the story of how he came to grow and change as a result of his adventure. While the lack of growth might be a point of contention in another film I appreciate it here because Basil is already awesome. Unlike the parade of Princes and Princesses that have traipsed through the halls of the Mouse over the years, this particular protagonist is charismatic from the off and excluding learning a small amount of humility and softening up a bit he doesn’t need to learn any lessons or find love or become King stupidly easily…He is a detective, he solves the mystery, appears to die, doesn’t and then it is on to the next adventure.

He is played brilliantly by Barrie Ingham whose vocal performance is truly perfect and animated enjoyably too. From the first scene there is a lot to appreciate: I like his disdain for Olivia (mainly because I share it), his dramatics when things go wrong followed by self pitying violin playing, his guilty look when Mrs Judson gets upset about her pillows and his frantic excitement when he realises Olivia’s case may link him to his nemesis. It is all good stuff. Except his perpetuation of ‘elementary’ as a catchphrase for this kind of stock character, that I could do without.

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You know what you did…

It might sound like I am saying it is hard to care about him because he doesn’t grow and change much but shut up and let me finish: the film does a good job of making you root for him via showing him being flawed from the start. He is prideful and easily brought down if he feels vulnerable and criticised, traits that are present from his entrance. The sequence where Basil believes he has finally found the villain only to discover they all knew he was coming and it was a trap is pretty excruciating as his puffed up chest falls in defeat. Dawson sees right away they are in trouble because Basil has been humiliated and it is easy to empathise with his pain as he declares himself beaten. It is quite dark because he initially fails to make any attempt to escape even knowing it will cost him and his friend their lives. Indirectly he is telling Dawson that his life is worth less than his ego. It is understandable that Dawson freaks out when his mate’s eyes go crazy and he declares that they should trigger the trap that will kill them asap. It does feel a bit like he has just lost it so it is a relief when it turns out Basil has got his groove back.

In the end, he has learned to appreciate his mates a bit more but he still gets Olivia’s name wrong during their goodbye and is quick to move on after she leaves. It is nice to have a Disney character whose passion is his work free from sentimentality and this not being shown as a thoroughly bad thing. He is self involved and very pleased with himself but he is still likeable and enjoyable to watch.

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But if you like Basil, get ready for his rival.

 

Ratigan is introduced with a thunder clap and a portrait that changes smirk as needed.

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‘I keep the portrait of my arch enemy over the fireplace for reasons unknown…’

Before we cut to him holding a little meeting with his gang.

Now, here is what elevates this film beyond standard cartoon fare: This whole introduction scene is mostly made up of exposition. We learn that Ratigan is plotting something and he is indeed behind the kidnapping of Olivia’s Father. We learn that he hates (ahem loves) Basil as much as Basil despises (cough wantstosex him) we learn he is the movie baddie because he has a sex doll, I mean voodoo doll, of Basil and he crushes Olivia’s birthday present…which presumably Fidget the Bat brought with him for some reason?

 

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But none of that matters as much as the knowledge that amongst the silliness and the monologuing and the evil laughing, Vincent Price is having the time of his life in the role and as such it is pretty hard not to be won over. It leads to his big villain song: ‘The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind’ It is fair to say it is not as epic as some Disney songs but it is a great number that introduces how Ratigan is both a dangerous narcissist and a triple threat at singing, dancing and harp playing. If every film could do an exposition scene this entertaining we’d be laughing.

The tonal shift DURING the song as the unfortunate Bartholomew is polished off in a deeply unpleasant way is not especially comedic, the moment Ratigan forces everyone to cheer up after he has just murdered one of their friends is genuinely unsettling, but the way the song starts up again is kind of funny and that is quite an impressive tight rope walk for Disney.

 

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There is nothing clunky about it…except…after Ratigan’s song it cuts back to Basil, Dawson and Olivia who I can only assume sat quietly waiting for the musical number to end before resuming their conversation exactly where they left off?

Anyway…back to Ratigan.

Immediately you can hear how much fun Vincent Price is having giggling in delight as everyone sings about scary he is. It is nice to be appreciated after all. And his reading of lines like: ‘How delightfully wicked’ and ‘I love it, I really love it’ and even the more dry lines like when he feeds someone to his cat as they protest and he snarls ‘you’re not coming through’ are just brilliant. Apparently Price was desperate to do a Disney film and his delight brings the film to life making him a clear highlight of the whole picture.

 

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Oh God, I even forgive Ratigan the cliché of ‘I am going to set up an elaborate trap for my enemy and then leave and just assume it worked out’ because the performance is so damn funny-the scene is literally scored with the villain’s gloating tones wafting from a vinyl he made himself for the occasion. Effing genius. I love picturing Ratigan in the recording studio all: ‘Have we got this? Check the levels. I’m going to do another take…I really hope he will get to hear this one day.’

 
Ratigan manages to be both scoffing scenery like a professional ham master and genuinely threatening and a huge part of that is Price truly commits to the Shakespearian levels of unhinged malice that the character demands. One minute Ratigan is having a heart attack because part of the plan has been messed up, tries to have his assistant calmly murdered for this before realising he can turn it to his advantage and laughing delightedly. He enjoys being bad and I always love that in a villain when it is executed with such skill.

But he is not just a one note antagonist either. Sure his deal is that evil is fun but there is something deeper going on It is sad really. You see Ratigan is a rat but claims to just be a big mouse. There is obvious comparisons to be made to “passing” which is a practice where someone of one ethnic groups is accepted as being part of another because it might not be immediately obvious what race they are. This of course wasn’t just for fun: Especially back when minorities were at a legal and social disadvantage it was often crucial that the person passing as a different race was not discovered. I say ‘back when’ like it doesn’t still happen…Sigh. But this is a cartoon about mice so I am not going to vanish too far up my own ass lamenting how slow our progress for equality is.

The point is, Ratigan obviously feels he has to indulge in “passing” in order to be accepted by wider society despite his natural brilliance. Who knows what his tragic backstory is? But it must be bad for him to literally MURDER anyone who calls him the R word, for him to want to be a far right ruler despite being a persecuted minority and when Basil uses the dreaded word in front of a crowd of people he literally howls in anguish. Jesus, Ratigan…what happened?

 

So both characters are great apart, but what about when their paths cross and we see their rivalry up close?

 
It is easy to get invested in the competition between Basil and Ratigan because they have the best chemistry of the Disney protagonist vs antagonist dynamic. This is the first time, that I can think of, that Disney implied that the ‘good’ character and the ‘bad’ character are cut from the same cloth. Usually the protagonist is virtuous and the antagonist is comparatively like another species. In Great Mouse Detective, Basil is as nuts as Ratigan and his obsession with him is clearly borne from recognising that they are well matched intellectually and…in other ways…

 

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Ok, Ok…I know. But ship happens. And of course it happens here.

 
Now it is fairly typical for fans of a film/TV series to create subtext where very little exists so it didn’t surprise me in the slightest to learn that there exists quite a bit of fanfiction where Ratigan and Basil are…well…you know…They are obsessed with each other after all. While you might think it is all a bit silly and far-fetched it is testament to how successful their paring in the film is. Who needs a love interest when the will they/won’t they is the two enemies? People are always quite rightly asking when Disney are going to write a gay love story into their work and I think they already did. And not that quietly either.

 

 

Despite their lack of shared screen time, the work that went into making their relationship feel like it existed before this film as well as during it leads to a fantastic climax. Keep it clean.

 

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Or don’t. I don’t really care.

A lot of Disney cartoons (and indeed films in general) choose to build to a third act spectacular designed to be an exciting and memorable conclusion to the picture, the idea presumably being that even if what came before was slow and uninteresting what you take away as an audience member is the bit where it all came together. Of course, this has varying degrees of success depending on budget, the quality of the set piece and how invested we are in the fate of the characters. Often, what is set up as the third act extravaganza falls flat because of one of these things not being in place. But sometimes the stars align and you get the Big Ben scene from The Great Mouse Detective.

So Ratigan’s plan has fallen apart like post 2011 Charlie Sheen but, like post 2011 Charlie Sheen, Ratigan is not willing to admit he has lost. So sensing it is time for the aforementioned big climax he grabs Olivia and tries to escape and as Basil tries to stop him the three of them end up crashing right into Big Ben (Yes I know Big Ben is the bell not the whole tower just take your QI knowledge and call someone who cares) Dawson and Olivia’s Pa look on concerned and it cuts to inside the clock.

There is a cool effect where Basil regains consciousness and the camera is all woozy like the dude operating it was also knocked out. The animation is striking (like a clock! No, sit down…) in its quality and the sound effects of the clock ticking works as an ominous reminder that the threat is really close.

 

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What is so cool about the sequence is how violent it gets. In a film where the two leads are engaging in a battle of who is the slicker, cleverer, wittier Gent it is quite shocking to watch as it dissolves into fisticuffs. Ratigan becomes more and more rat like as his rage grows…He drop kicks Olivia (for reals-I cheered) and proceeds to seriously beat the crap out of Basil. And like Robin Hood when he tries to escape at the end of his film it is quite intense watching Basil grow more and more afraid as he realises he is physically outmatched by what it turns out is one ripped rat. He knows being clever can’t help him now and he just needs a way out leading to the vulnerability from earlier returning in another way. He is desperate to escape and his relief when he spots his friends returning for him is beautifully illustrated and possibly my favourite shot of the film. He doesn’t need to do a rambling speech about the importance of friendship (looking at you Black Cauldron, you piece of shit) to communicate to the audience that he appreciates their loyalty, it is all delivered in that one look.

There are a lot of great animation choices here actually. The close up of Ratigan’s crazy eyes, the way he scurries after Basil shedding his clothes to reveal the form of what lies beneath and each time Ratigan strikes Basil you REALLY feel his pain…I was right there with him praying he could get away, it is properly exciting and a finale that will be hard to top in the films to come.

 

 

But it is not just the leading pair that is worth sticking around for. There is ample support from their respective sidekicks Dawson and Fidget. Dawson gets a bit of a raw deal and if I was ranking the best “Watson” incarnations he wouldn’t break the top 5 but he gets points for his go with the flow approach to the whole adventure as the story doesn’t open with him assisting Basil or anything, he meets him when Olivia does. There is no conversation about them teaming up. Basil begins chase, calls for him and Dawson is all ‘Right behind you Basil!’ I like the instant commitment to his post and how easily he fits into Basil’s world. He is a more successful audience surrogate than the alternative (more on her later…) and his reactions often matched mine so overall I would consider him a tick in the plus column.

Fidget is a pretty good comic foil for Ratigan mainly because of his odd vocal stylings and line readings. I love his delivery especially with little moments like when he is going down his check list correcting his confident assertion that he has completed his task ‘Got girl…No didn’t get girl’ and ‘My foot! My only foot!’ just sounds funny in that gruff little voice. I was quite sad when he got killed off by being hurled into the air amid panicked cries that he can’t fly…wait what? I can’t believe I never noticed that until now. He didn’t fly throughout the film…Huh.

The songs come from Moon River composer Henry Mancini and while there are not that many of them, they are pretty great. The score makes you want to go have an adventure and I especially love the main theme which is reappropriated throughout the film as a little sting for Basil:

 

 

There are some cool Sherlock references littered throughout the film-even the name Basil is a nod to the great Basil Rathbone who was one of the best known Sherlock Holmes actors. Basil’s disguise as a sailor is a hat tip to the one Rathbone wore as Sherlock in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon and one of Basil’s speeches where he rattles off all the clues he can deduce from finding Fidget’s note is taken nearly word for word from The Man with the Twisted Lip. As I mentioned above Sherlock is on a case running parallel with the mice story and the exerts we hear are actually Rathbone from a recording he did of The Adventure of the Red Headed League. Now all this is plainly just trivia I looked up but I still appreciate little nuances like this. It is this kind of attention to detail that makes this a fun film to introduce yourself to the Sherlock Holmes world.

 

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Speaking of this film as a world: The phrase that often gets pulled up when you research this movie is underrated and I am inclined to agree. While I have criticisms of the film (they will follow naturally) I am bitterly disappointed that Disney seems to have deemed Basil and co unworthy of a follow up adventure and felt we needed hours and hours of Cinderella’s Step Sister falling in love instead.

 

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Nobody cares!

I just feel there is so much potential to expand the universe, continue the story or even reboot it. I would pay out of my own pocket to see Steampunk Basil and I bet you would too if you thought about it:

 

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Yes to this!

Seriously, if Timon and Pumbaa can get their own TV series, why not this??? I am really asking here! There were other books to adapt plus the whole catalogue of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes to pilfer just-Come on Disney! I’m not coming out of my room until you sort it out.

Part of the reason I want this is because not all the potential of the characters is fully realised in the way The Great Mouse Detective story is told. While some films are unfairly mistreated by history and subsequently forgotten sometimes there are good reasons films slip your mind after you’ve seen them…

 
What Doesn’t Work:

 

Olivia is part of what was soon to be a frickin’ epidemic come the 90’s: The kid character who is there to be a representative for the target audience who doesn’t do a damn thing she is told and gets in the way. I find this utterly charmless nine times out of ten. This is one of those times.

Olivia really doesn’t participate massively in the story. She needs to be there to tell Basil about her Father going missing so he can take the case and then she does nothing but get in the way and ignore simple instructions until, right on schedule, she gets kidnapped too and that is kind of it for her. It occurs roughly 30 minutes in and while the voice actors playing Basil and Dawson do a good job of making an unearned sad scene work it really is a bit…empty. She is not the character you care about.

 

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Sorry mate.

In fairness, she is not the worst little kid character in a film by any stretch but it is a trope I don’t appreciate followed by another I am not a fan of: The character who is basically just bait. Hell there is a creepy moment where Basil and Dawson think they have found her and it turns out it is just Fidget in her clothes. So…did they have to strip her for that to work? That’s…uncomfortable. Then seconds after she is properly reunited with her enslaved Parent she is once again snatched by Ratigan.

 

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OhnoIwonderifshewillsurvive etc.

Speaking of clichés I am not fond of, and I will because I am in the ‘what doesn’t work’ section of the review, there are a few hoary jokes I could do without. I hate the ‘This thing isn’t happening and that is final!’ followed by a smash cut to that thing happening. It always makes me groan. I also can’t stand the running gag about Basil being unable to remember Olivia’s name because the whole ‘wrong name’ ‘right name’ ‘whatever’ shtick is something lazy writers do as a shortcut to let us know one character doesn’t respect another and I always feel there are better ways to do that. There are so many glorious ways to be rude using language so why do writers return to THAT particular well so often? And since I am proper ranting about clichés featured in this film, when oh when oh when will films stop using the narrator at the beginning and the end of the film only? Either use the narrator the whole way through to enhance the story in some way or go back to school you fucking hacks.

All of the above are small problems, ones I tolerate in a lot of films so it doesn’t massively distract from my enjoyment. However it does prevent it being as memorable as it could have been. It doesn’t feel like a huge amount of effort was put in to every aspect of the story and the resulting shortcomings are quite apparent especially when you compare them to what the film does do well.

There is a scene early on where they sneak quietly into a creepy toy shop and it is such a great set that it feels like it is leading somewhere good…then it just sort of fizzles out.

The set up of Fidget’s attack isn’t bad but after he nabs Olivia the ensuing chase is a little underwhelming. It happens, sure it does, but it is not delivered very convincingly. He scampers up a convenient pile of miscellaneous toys and makes an easy getaway and frankly it could have been a lot better. But perhaps they were saving their ‘chase’ budget for the clock tower scene and if getting that means a slightly underwhelming trip to a hellish toy store then I say: carry on Disney.

But then there is the Let me be Good to You scene… It is not getting away so lightly. Basically, Basil and Dawson go a rough pub to stave out Ratigan and end up staying for some drinks that are drugged despite a complete lack of pay off to this. The acts performing at this bar keep getting booed and attacked until a young mouse comes on and performs a sexy striptease. A now slightly drugged Dawson has a bit of dance and then…that’s it. She sings a frankly inappropriate song, Dawson dances and then the plot resumes.

It is actually quite a good song that is well performed by Melissa Manchester who I am reliably informed by her IMDB page won the 1982 Best Female Vocalist of the Year Award…It doesn’t specify who awarded it to her mind you so for all we know her mates had a whip round for her. I remember I liked the song and the design of the sexy mouse a lot as a kid but it is really rather pointless. I considered putting it in the ‘What Works’ section because, in fairness, I do like the old timey feel of the speakeasy band with the ragamuffins in the criminal seedy underbelly and it does feel like the kind of scene that would play in a live action movie of this kind. Perhaps the scene is a reference to that bit in every detective story ever where they visit a strip club? But…that justification feels weak in a film this short. The performer doesn’t join the story in any capacity and nothing would be lost from dropping the whole number.

It feels like they are delaying the Basil and Ratigan meet cute for the sake of filling time rather than trying to create an entertaining non sequitur. I feel like at least the random sexy track in a family film was justified in Lady and the Tramp because Lady is subsequently humiliated and it leads to her argument with the Tramp later. Cause and effect. This? Why is a sexy mouse needed here? Why is a sexy mouse needed anywhere? Did you need a sexy mouse? I resent that I actually enjoy this scene because it really has no need to exist and is an unfortunate reminder that the filmmakers don’t trust the plot to hold our attention for 90 odd minutes without throwing some sexy mice at us.

 

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‘There’s nothing I won’t do just for you…’ Wow. Ok, Disney animators…Not seen your wives for a while then?

Because that is the biggest problem: The story is too generic. Mysteries are difficult to get right and this one falls a bit flat. The writers may have included a few nods to Sherlock Holmes here and there but the spirit of intrigue and a love of clever yarns is largely absent from The Great Mouse Detective. Basically, Ratigan took Olivia’s Dad so he could build a replica of the Mouse Queen and then Ratigan kidnaps the Mouse Queen (there is a lot of kidnapping in this film isn’t there?) and has the replica pronounce him in charge. The whole plan is foiled painfully easily about 8 seconds after Ratigan takes control.

And Basil doesn’t really get to do a lot of detective work. He has a big dog called Toby sniff around to follow trails and then when he gets to the toy shop where Fidget is gathering items for Ratigan, he makes a quick deduction saying to Dawson: ‘Isn’t it painfully obvious?’ about something which, yes, is obvious. He is staring at some toys that have had their outfits stripped. He notices right away that this is what has happened. It is not that impressive because he is standing next to a box with the answer written on it.

 

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‘I am…not sure how to work this thing to be honest’

My point is…Basil is an impressive character because he is enjoyably camp, slightly unhinged and fun to watch but he is not as demonstrably brilliant as the film tries to make out.

You might be wondering how he and Dawson escape Ratigan’s death trap later in the film. Will…good for you, because it is never really explained. Basil works it out by muttering random clever sounding shit about isosceles triangles and it…It just isn’t very convincing. I love how in the latest incarnation of Sherlock Holmes on TV, the character speaks at the speed of thought and the script sparkles with creativity. I know Basil isn’t Sherlock but he is supposed to be exceptional. And there just aren’t a lot examples of this. Almost as if the writers are perhaps not willing to go away and come up with the kind of puzzles worthy of a great detective because it is too hard so they just have him piss around with chemistry sets and mutter about complicated sounding things under his breath in the hope we won’t notice he isn’t really saying anything.

While the characterisation of Basil doesn’t really suffer from this and I suppose Disney don’t want to alienate the easily confused crotch dumplings who make them that sweet sweet dollar, the lack of compelling mystery is the reason this film is not well remembered. I am pretty sure of that. I have seen it quite a few times and I never really retain the stuff about the Mouse Queen, the Toy Maker and the toy soldiers outfits being repurposed and…nope. I’ve already forgotten what else the plan was or how it is resolved.

Basil deserves better and so do we.

 

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Conclusion:

 

A cleaner tribute to Sherlock Holmes with more mystery and less child could have promoted this film to classic status. However I am not here to look a gift horse in the mouth: the lead hero and villain are fantastic with some of the best chemistry in any Disney film, the clock scene is one of my favourite moments in cartoon history and it is a jolly, understated romp that deserves to be seen. All in all, the only mystery still needing solved is why they have never revisited this world in TV/film since.

 

 
Disney Nightmare Inducer Count: 4
Opening scene attack, Bart’s death, creepy toy shop and the truly ace clock tower fight.

 

Best Song:

I have to give it to ‘The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind’ if only to honour just how much Ratigan enjoys being sung to. About himself.

 

 

 

 

Next Time: Billy Joel. As a dog. Billy Joel. As a dog.

Billy Joel Dog.

It’s Oliver and Company 1988

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My Favourite Public Service Announcements

 

My Favourite Public Service Announcements

 

So…Hi. Been a while. How are you? You look good…

Ok, ok yet again life has got in the way a lot but I fully intend to get back to regular posting (it could happen) and if you come back at this time next week I shall continue my odyssey into Disney Reviews only a full year after the last one. But for today I bring you the small offering of a list on a subject near to my heart…

 

Public Service Announcements and Public Information Films (PSA or PIF) come in many forms on many subjects but the intent is always the same: To scare you into submission. They try and frighten indifference out of you and many of them are successful. The strength of their impact depends on your own personal tolerance for discomfort and your own vulnerabilities that have been programmed into you by years of shit parenting and sub par life experiences. We all have different buttons that can be triggered almost immediately by the most seemingly insignificant stimuli.

 

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Here are some buttons. I am prepared to bet at least one of you is freaked out by that.

 

Not all PSAs are made equal though. I remember as a kid being shown a video of a child crossing the road playing a video game and then they get hit by a car and the game says GAME OVER because it was part of the Mario Bros Dramatic Irony (TM) Series and the catchy slogan flashed up on screen: ‘Remember: cars can come out of nowhere’ I was about 5 and I turned to my Mum and said: ‘Don’t they mean anywhere?’ I was unmoved by the sight of a small child about my age getting his tiny skull smashed in by a ford fiesta but galvanised into outrage by the clunky final thought.

Some of the ones I was forced to sit through either as part of my “education” or because I was raised by television were not so easily dismissed and it has only been in the last day or so that I began to consider why that is so impressive. I really was obsessed with some of these short movies and advertisements and some of them even lead to the changes in behaviour intended…sort of. Very small changes in behaviour. I certainly considered putting my seatbelt on sometimes before not bothering and that is power*.

But it is more than the message getting through that makes me admire them as a genre. As a horror movie fan I appreciate how many of them were able to tell a solid story with a compelling narrative and at least one shocking image while still being short enough to be shoe horned in between the latest instalment of Baywatch and important announcements about sofa sales set to a bastardised version of a classic rock song.

(*Of course I wear my seatbelt Mum, don’t bother phoning me about it.)

 

But here is the best part of all this nostalgia juice: I grew up in the 90’s in the UK.

 

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My school class photo. I think. Good times.

So yes, I was a 90’s kid which means while the PSAs I grew up with can now be considered vintage (oh stop whimpering we are not old, just older) I missed out on the best of the best. When it came to scaremongering about the state of the world: Take a bow, the 70’s and 80’s: take a bow. The very best of the PSA boom took place over the course of these two decades and by God some of them really straddle the line between horrifying and hilarious as perfectly captured by genius comic writer Graham Linehan in this vine that I have watched about 6,000 times:

 

To look back at these films/ads before my time was a fascinating glimpse into the hot topics at the time of broadcast. Some of them are so iconic and so embedded in pop culture that I was familiar with the tag line/images even if I didn’t see them as a kid.

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So I’ll take it we are done with the whole free love hippy thing then? Well it was fun while it lasted…

 

Are they usually aimed at kids? Not always but often. Certainly the more emotionally manipulative ones (we will get to those) are aimed at parents, most of whom are already terrified that their incompetence will lead to their children dying at some point. But a lot of them are designed to hammer home the message that gutsy youngsters who think electricity is a myth WILL get fried to shit if they so much as glance at an overloaded plug socket. That is, if crossing the street, talking to strangers and playing on a farm doesn’t get them first.

So before we get started, two important points:

1. This is a surprisingly complex and interesting topic (or I think so anyway and since I am the Cokieblume of the blog title then I guess I win) so I have decided to focus on UK ads and films only as this was where I grew up. I am happy to say that a surprisingly high number of my regular readers come from across the seas and it might be these shorts lose something in translation because they didn’t grow up watching stuff like that.

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For example. We watched this as kids. It was called Bodger and Badger. The Badger threw mash potato at Bodger a lot. Where is your God now????

So I hope this doesn’t feel too exclusive. If it proves to be a popular topic with folk I will go on to research how other countries liked to scare their children into not playing with matches and the like. I have already seen a good few that are literally screaming out for such scrutiny. And yes. I am talking about the Canadian ‘Prevent It’ series. WTF Canada?

 

2. I have mostly selected PSAs/PIFs that made me laugh more than scared me but that doesn’t stop them being off putting and downright disturbing to some. If you don’t think you can handle chat that includes creepy music, emotionless voice overs, old people having sex on faulty electric blankets and the screams of injured children perhaps this isn’t the place for you.

To be clear, I am not making fun of people who die in horrible ways. I am laughing at/admiring the people who come up with creepy campaigns to stop people dying in horrible ways. That is the bit that is funny. Not the fact that kids in the 70’s used to risk their lives and terrible haircuts for the sake of a frisbee. Although now I write that down, that is kind of funny.

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They are all called Jimmy…Why are they always called Jimmy?

 

Honourable Mention: ‘That’s no Good’

 

Ok, I KNOW I said I was sticking to UK ones only but I did used to watch Sonic as a kid and like a lot of 80’s/90’s shows there used to be a morality lesson stuck onto the last 30 seconds of every episode so they could pretend the show about a blue hedgehog who took too many steroids was educational and worthwhile. Most of these lessons on the end of Inspector Gadget, Super Ted, Captain Planet etc were pretty forgettable and pointless and even beautifully sent up by the glorious Animaniacs.

 

But in terms of exploring a complicated, sensitive topic in an inappropriately short length of time…The Hedgehog has them ALL beat:

 

 

Yes. You just saw that. That actually happened. At the end of a cartoon. While a computer version of King in the Mountain Hall played in the background. And then it stopped. With the advice that you just tell the molester no, run away as fast as your tiny matchstick legs can carry you and tell a Parent or a Teacher or a Police Officer because they have never abused anyone right?

 

 

Right?

 

Sonic?

 

We are all alone aren’t we?

 

 

11) Trick of the Light (1991)

 

And nobody was ever robbed again…

 

 

Well done everyone we did it!

 

 

 

10) Prams and Pushchairs (1979)

 

 

I have so many questions about this one. I hesitate to say it, considering how much judgements gets thrown at Mothers anyway, but come on 70’s Mum, how the fuck do you get into this situation? How did you end up so far away? She is on the other side of the road. That is already messed up before we even get to the baby falling into your handbag that appears to be full of broken glass or something.

 

I love that the world eventually resolved this one by changing the design of prams because clearly 70’s Mum wouldn’t stop abandoning her kid in the middle of the street while she went to get a haircut for a couple of hours. You keep being you 70’s Mum. Shine on you crazy diamond.

 

9) Charley Says Don’t Talk to Strangers (1973)

 

 

Now this really is a classic: You got the child voice, the choppy animation, the kid is so innocent just enjoying the fuck out of that swing and then Oh No shadowy Kidnapper with his van full of imaginary puppies and lost dreams has arrived to take all the laughter out of the swing session but it is ok because Charley is there to sort shit out and save the day by reminding Idiot Features there that nobody with feet that badly animated has any pets.

 

So the kid says no and, defeated with no other way round it not even brute strength or chloroform or anything, the Kidnapper exits stage left to find another unsupervised child to snatch and our heroes get some snacks for managing to avoid the mess of Mummy having to identify his tiny mangled body down at the morgue.

 

So all is well right? Well…

 

I am not going to lie, there is something really off-putting about Charley. In fact, if there is a twist to this tale and there usually is, I think he was the pedo in a cat costume all along. What cat eats a fish like that?

 

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I am on to you, you wailing bastard.

 

 

8. Lonely Water (1973)

 

I think what makes this one so brilliant and memorable is how turned on he sounds throughout. Am I being crude and injecting subtext when there isn’t any? Nope. He fucking loves his job. Listen to him groan and moan his way through the 90 second wonderland and tell me he isn’t recording this with at least one hand on his cock:

 

 

And his horror when he stumbles across ‘sensible children’ with their common accents and quick thinking he just can’t hack it. But he’ll be back apparently. Wait what? He’ll be back? So…what? There’s no point in even TRYING to survive? Cause at some point he will be back for you?

 

Unexpected water: The Number 1 killer of the plucky working class underdog. Beware.

 

7. George and Betty (2003 apparently but it looks like the work of the 90’s to me)

 

 

Nothing makes me sadder than harm coming to an old man in a bow tie. So the tragic passing of those ever loving horn dogs George and Betty isn’t comical exactly but it just seems like an odd pitch:

 

Ad Guy 1: So we’ve been hired to create an advert that aims to reduce the number of deaths caused by ancient electric blankets that catch fire really easily

Ad Guy 2: Who still uses those?

AG1: Old people mostly. They get cold a lot easier and then out comes the electric blanket…

AG2: Hmmm…old people, blankets, cold…

AG1: So maybe the old lady is chilly, gets out the blanket and then it cuts to a smoke filled bedroom and-

AG2: Slow down Bob, I am going on a mind journey and I want you to come with me…How about there are two old people called George and Betty…

AG1: Are they not your parents names?

AG2: Don’t worry about it. And they are going to play a little game they like to call burying the bone…

AG1: Gross…

AG2: And we see them celebrating their anniversary, sexy music is playing, he gets out the red slip he likes her in, she cleans up their wedding china…Then…then…then…The audience realises that George and Betty enjoyed one last night of passion and pleasure in this world before their skin was ripped from their tired old bones in a blaze of red satin and torched wrinkles all because they just HAD to have their old electric blanket while they did the mattress dance. And all that remains are their rotting skeletons with just the shadow of one last post shag grin on Dad-I mean George’s face…Yeah…that will show them…that will show them…

AG1: Well it is 5.30 so I guess that will do.

 

And speaking of red hot flames…

 

6. Nightmare (1990)

 

One of the things I have learned from this little excursion is that while the 70’s Mother is to blame for her baby going splat on the pavement, ALL MEN are responsible if the house burns down. Seriously. Clearly house fires were very common in the late 80’s early 90’s and as a result there are several brutally unpleasant PSAs on the topic reminding ALL MEN to change batteries on smoke alarms and test them once a week (Once a week? Really??? I just don’t love my family that much…) as well as keeping exits clear, keeping risks minimal…So many of the adverts end with a ruined, broken man crying in exactly the way his Father always told him not to having lost his beloved if slightly bland wife and children to a horrible, horrible death.

 

One of the only ones that didn’t end this way focused on the kids sitting scared and crying as their home filled with smoke and while it was unsettling I noticed they were shouting: ‘Dad! Daddy!’ Seriously, did I miss the meeting where we all got together and decided men were solely responsible for keeping houses smoke and fire free? Did we agree as a collective that women are in charge of water and wind and men earth and fire? What is with this targeted marketing gimmick?

 

 

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I always knew my own stupid penis would be the death of my loved ones…

 

But taking away this oddness, I nearly didn’t include any of these on this list because fuck me do I find them effective and not even one bit amusing. Some of them are so unnerving I was tempted to stay up all night to check my house didn’t go on fire. But then I remembered that is a Man job and I am a Woman so I went to bed.

 

And I woke up having not died so take that inevitable 90’s fire!

So anyway, here is my favourite of the genre:

 

 

 

What is my favourite part I hear you cry? Is it the fact that fire is an annoying ham of an actress shrieking her way through her script like she is having a break down? Is it the dopey look of the guy running around trying to run around and sort out his embarrassing mess of a home? Is it the fact that he actually left a pot on the stove before going to bed in this scenario? Nope. My favourite thing is the fact his instinct as soon as he wakes up is to light a cigarette. It is the most 90’s thing I have ever seen.

 

5. Play Safe (1970’s/80’s)

 

Frisbees…Kites…Footballs…What do all these things have in common?

 

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They are sexy as fuck…But no. They seem fun, sure they do, but they are all out to kill you.

This is one of the key examples of the aforementioned sub genre of the PSA: Trying to teach spirited youngsters not to do stuff that they, being spirited, will naturally want to do. Basically, the classic PSA wants to crush your youthful lust for life into dust so you can stop all that silly nonsense and be sensible like the right-to-be-disappointed-by-life narrator.

Play Safe seemed to come round every few years adjusting the short films to include whatever toys da kidz were playing with at the time. They all have the same basic premise: Toy where electricity is, stupid kid goes to get toy, sensible kid watches and does very little to stop them, kid gets fried.

 

 

I love the girl in this one who is all: ‘We should have told the police’ Yep. It is hard enough to get them to take you seriously when a crime has happened let alone when the wind changes and you lose your kite. Unless it is a cartoon police officer in a crimeless cartoon town itching to feel useful I think you might be bang out of luck.

 

I love the trope of the world weary ‘sensible’ one who is all: ‘It ain’t worth it, bruv, me ol’ mucker’ The football one is much more unsettling because they go to the trouble of killing off the little kid as well as his Brother just to really hammer home the point: One Kid smelling of charcoal and regret is one thing, but two is well sadder innit?

 

 

Now in the frisbee one we learn that sometimes you can tag out the ‘Don’t be a mug, me old bamboo’ friend for the pushy ‘go get that thing for me, I don’t see how this could end with me never being able to sleep again’ girl. Her line reading of ‘JIMMY!’ really sells it so much so they use it twice:

 

 

Even though these were all a bit before my time I recognise the setting as a version of the world that only really exists in these kind of films: The weirdly specific grim yet oddly bubbly music, the saturated colours, the greyness of the pylons, the hopelessness of the world, the way the kids only seem to have the kind of conversations that adults write for them, trapped in an endless loop of ‘You’re just scared’ and ‘He was just showing off’ and ‘JIMMMYYYY!’

 

I feel like what you would take from this is not the rather sensible notion of: ‘Don’t climb on pylons and other things where you might get shocked’ and more you should probably give up this ‘playing’ malarkey as soon as possible.

 

Don’t die for a kite. Kits are not worth it. Kites suck.

 

 

4. Where is your Lad? (1981)

 

I have no idea what this one was going for. It says it is about vandalism but…

 

 

I guess when John turns and spikes the lens and there is the sound of glass shattering they are trying to say that John is out smashing windows with all those good for nothing boys down the road but what comes across is John’s dead centre drop dead gorgeous smoulder broke the camera lens.

Also…Lad means penis. So…there’s that.

 

 

3. FARMS!!!! (1975/1977/1993)

 

FARMS ARE TRYING TO KILL US ALL! YOUR CHILD MIGHT BE BEING EATEN BY A FARM RIGHT NOW!!!

 

Ok I am cheating a bit by including 3 entirety separate videos with this one because this is super significant to me. I grew up in a farming community and so I had to watch more than one safety video on this topic. It was drummed into me at an early age that while frolicking on bales of hay had to be done, it was crucial you didn’t enjoy it. A tractor ride? Sure, but not without being super aware of your own mortality. Happy 8th birthday!

 

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Good luck making it to your 9th, you daredevil…Actually this does look kind of unsafe…

 

As I have said most of these videos amuse me more than unnerve me but these are the exceptions because they just felt so close to home. I grew up around all this stuff and was constantly being merrily informed of the consequences of letting your guard down around farm equipment. Even though the following video, Grain Drain, contains more of the ridiculous than the sublime the idea of drowning in grain still scares the shit out of me and that is before you throw in the classic child screaming sound effect from the BBC radio phonic workshop…wonder how they happened to have THAT on file:

 

 

Listen to that matter of fact voice over, watch them casually toss a doll in, marvel as he refers to as an oxygen deprived child as ‘it’ and then of course-Put a grid on it. So emphatic, emotion free, totally fucking ridiculous and yet still so creepy.

But that is NOTHING compared to what I have in store for you next. In all seriousness, these next two films are so horrible I can’t in all good faith recommend you sit and watch them. Also they are long as fuck and I know your attention span can’t handle that so let me summarise:

If you let your kid play on a farm they will drown in shit.

 

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It’s the cirrrrcle of life…

 

Apaches has become infamous for the needlessly horrible details and the sheer body count which just becomes so ridiculous that the children who make it to the end become largely indifferent to each fresh farm murder. In fairness, that kid could have easily just jumped off that tractor…But the worst one by far is the girl who drinks weed killer or something and then…

 

I wrote this as a comedy post but the vocal performance this kid gives from 17:47 onwards is so convincing and disturbing that I have to stress again how much you don’t have to listen to it. You will now I have said that. And you won’t sleep tonight. So sorry.

 

 

But this is what I mean about these things being GREAT horror movies. No film I have watched in the past 20 odd years has found a visual that makes me wince as much as that audio clip of a little girl waking up in the night in agony and screaming for her Mum.

So if that hasn’t put you off here comes the tour de force that I thought I would never see again. ‘Never Rest’ is a…Well it describes itself as a drama for kids about farm safety. I watched it in a class full of kids, many of whom lived on farms. I don’t know how many of them remember but I sure as fuck do. Mainly for the fact that it kind of forgets what it is trying to do. The point of a PIF is to inform and educate but this just went ‘fuck it, let’s do a ghost story’ Seriously.

 

 

Joshua Walker was a farmer in the old days who accidentally let some kids die and is haunted about it. Meanwhile some modern kids in stylish shell suits keep nearly getting into shenanigans on their new farm but the ghost of Joshua Walker keeps them safe and in doing so puts his spirit to rest…Or does he? No he doesn’t.

 

Because ghoooooosssssssttttt!

 

At this point you might be wondering: What does the fate of a fictional ghost have to do with teaching kids not to stick their arm into farming equipment? A good point. While initially all the modern kids survive, learn important lessons about farm safety and thank the ghost of Joshua Walker for hid help by putting flowers on his grave the film ends with one of them dying anyway and the flowers blowing off the grave…So…Did they get lost on their way to the pitch meeting? How is that ending appropriate for a PIF? What is the message? That just because a ghost saves you once doesn’t mean you won’t get hit by a tractor the day after? Or maybe that death is inevitable and we are all fucked so you might as well just jump head first into the grain dispenser? Why is there a twist ending at all? Why is…What…Did this film just INVENT the Final Destination movie series???

 

Moral of the story? Farms are super dangerous and will kill you and you can’t even stop them. Next!

 

 

2. Protect and Survive (1975 onwards)

 

Wow. What can anyone say about Protect and Survive? Like a lot of these videos it is one of my the most British approaches to horror I could ever imagine. Basically these PIFs were a series of films about what to do if nuclear war broke out. My personal favourite is the final film in the series which is simply and coldly listed as ‘Casualties’ Take a look if you dare:

 

 

Holy. Shit.

 

I can’t even…

 

First of all, this was made at a time where this scenarios seemed likely. Let that sink in. Someone had to think about this and write and record it and animate it with the idea that they would drop it if nuclear attacks seemed inevitable.

 

Second of all, the radio is our Master. The radio knows all, stops all, completes all…The radio decides when it is safe to go outside…Here is hoping you bought enough batteries for it.

 

Thirdly, the helpful calendar. The helpful arrows. It is all so helpful… I can’t…

 

But most of all it is the matter of fact advice which is borderline pathological.

 

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If someone you loves dies a horrible death while you are cowering from doom be sure and label the body. For your Queen and country.

 

The little musical phrase at the end…Just…I am trying to find words, I am.

 

What were they thinking? No really: What kind of fucked up psychopath wrote this?

Is this the right approach with a potential crisis of this scale looming? I honestly don’t know. Sure you don’t want nation wide panic but this…this is so detached and often useless (one of the earlier videos suggest of nuclear war breaks out while you are outside just get under a bridge and…that’s it. That’s all their advice) that it just can’t be the best choice. You can tell they are only guessing because they actually have no idea what to do in this situation or indeed any situation. I don’t have a better idea outside of just sending out leaflets that just say: ‘try and enjoy yourself. If this bad boy hits, we are all fucked’

 

Oh God I made it…

 

1. How Much is that Doggy? (1987)

 

No fucking way. No fucking way. No. Fucking. Way.

 

That was all I could say for about 15 minutes after watching this.

 

They put this on a screen. This can be viewed by you right now because someone made this.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen, may I proudly present my favourite PSA and possibly the greatest horror movie I have ever seen. This isn’t even a joke. Take a deep breath and hit play:

 

 

 

 

All I can see in this advert is a society who exists to protect animals is holding one hostage in the name of getting their kicks. Listen to that voice. That is a serial killer right? Like, if you could summon a voice into existence to fit with your idea of an emotionally detached murderer who aches for blood that is the voice you would come up with, yes? The voice reliably informs us that they will SHOOT this clearly petrified dog in the fucking head if we don’t wire him a single pound coin ASAP. That is in. That’s the whole concept. Dogs will die if the RSPCA don’t get their green. And it will be your fault. Not the fault of the MANIAC WITH THE GUN.

Am I taking it too literally? There is no mention of putting the dog down, or over flowing kennels or people not taking good enough care of their pets they just go right for the: Stop what you are doing or the dog will die. No context, no intro, no education, no information. As far as we know this is their set up down at HQ. Just animals hanging around with guns in their faces at all times. And the way he says: ‘We’ll have to pull the trigger’ No regret, no anger, no fear, no pain…If anything it sounds like he HOPES I don’t give him a pound so he can cover himself in sweet, sweet dog brain.

 

It is sick, it is twisted, it is nightmare fuel…

I love it. It was one of the most gripping things I have ever seen.

 

When I started to watch this the combination of the music (Oh God that music, if there is a more alarming version of that song I don’t want to know about it), the innocence of the slightly skittery looking dog and the camera creeping closer to him created a kind of dread in my stomach I didn’t know was possible. I felt ill instantly. The anticipation felt like it was killing me. Where the hell was this going? I could have 1000 guesses and never have got it right.

 

And the way the Dog looks to the side, seeing the danger before we do…It is inspired. Psychotic but inspired. I didn’t think the pay off could possibly justify that creepy, evil build up but it DID.

 

I laughed so hard, out of shock, horror and because the whole thing is ridiculous, that I thought my body was going to give out there and then. I thought I was going to die at the hands of the RSPCA.

 

 

What a way to go though.

 

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My Top 20 Favourite David Bowie Songs

My Top 20 Favourite David Bowie Songs

Nearly two weeks ago I woke up and turned on my computer only to be greeted by a headline that I had to read several times to take in. David Bowie was dead at the age of 69 after having cancer for 18 months. It was strange experiencing that level of disbelief at the death of someone I didn’t know. I went on Facebook and started to read the quotes, the lyrics, the tributes, the generic and the specific…I turned it off after about 35 seconds. I saw his son Duncan Jones had confirmed it was true. I left my bed, feeling annoyed at myself. I didn’t know him. It was sad, sure. A great loss. Doubtless. But that was it…

It seemed appropriate to stick on some Bowie as I showered. As soon as the opening strumming of my favourite Bowie song kicked in and the water hit me I started to sob so hard I stopped being able to see.

Now obviously I am ok. Don’t get me wrong. My brief shower cry, followed by getting teary eyed on the train to work after a Bowie song came on when my ipod was on shuffle is not the same as actual grief. Unlike the family and friends of the man, I was able to move on with my week. But there are many ways to feel and my own thoughts on the matter can be summarised thusly:

I didn’t know he COULD die.

I am not ready to live in a Bowieless world.
I don’t want to get too maudlin or personal. I could though. I used to write stories in English about David Bowie coming to rescue me from school on a flying pig. While other kids had posters of Leo Dicaprio from Titanic I had Bowie falating Mark Ronson’s guitar.

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In school when I was supposed to be working on other things I wrote Bowie sonnets, Bowie musicals, Bowie films all of which in my head would end with us meeting. I used to cry even imagining this happening. I grew up with his music impacting me in so many ways. I used to play the songs so often. In sickness and in health. From a very young age he was a bonding agent between and my Dad. The last present my Dad ever gave me was a Bowie CD which was both kind and sad for reasons I won’t go into. I used to play these songs with my friends and we would dance around with our socks hanging off our feet.

I remember as a teenager going out with some friends near the beach. They were all drunk when they decided they must have a Burger King. It was a quiet restaurant at about 3 in the morning. We were loud. The staff didn’t look pleased to see us. Then the TV, up in the corner on a shelf, caught my eye. It was playing a special about David Bowie. So I parked myself as close as I could to it and settled in, totally engrossed. So engrossed that I was surprised when about 10 minutes later a very large man forcibly picked me from my chair by the elbow and hurled me towards the door. It turned out one of my friends had tried to surf over the tables using a plank of wood he had found on the beach and had managed to knock over a bunch of chairs while the others were having a fry fight. The Night Manager had had enough and was banning us from his fine establishment effective immediately.

‘Can’t I just-‘ I gestured to Bowie who was wearing a green suit and singing his heart out. The Night Manager looked at the TV and then back at me. He could see I was sober and no trouble…He nearly relented. Then my friend screamed:
‘Em! We have to go! This place is full of rats! Holy shit-there’s one there! Look Em!’
‘No’
‘Just look at the rat!’
‘Are you pointing at the Manager?’
‘No just look…’
‘Right, you are pointing at the Manager’
‘Cause he’s a dirty big rat!’

‘ALL OF YOU LITTLE CUNTS GET OUT NOW BEFORE I CAVE YOUR HEADS IN! EVEN YOU SUNSHINE…’

The sunshine was aimed at me. I took one last sad look at the TV before slinking out, back into the cold…

The point is: I actually stayed to argue with the guy who had just assaulted me because I wanted to watch David Bowie videos that badly…Ok now I read that back, it is not that profound an anecdote. Sorry for wasting your time.

From a young age I recognised that here was a guy who was not afraid to try new things. David Bowie that is. Not the violent Night Manager at a certain beach side Burger King. There was a newness to every album which felt exhilarating It never felt inauthentic or pandering. He was both a one man hit machine and a great artist at the same time. That is fucking hard to pull off. He looked amazing and yet seemed quite blokey. He didn’t alienate punters but he made the oddballs feel ok about their oddness.

So while it would be easy to wax lyrical about what a unique gem he was let’s get one thing straight: I am talking about the music. The man is not a guy I knew. I don’t call him a hero. He generally came across well in interviews, seemed genuinely funny and as he got older he seemed to grow ever more comfortable in his skin. I remember hearing that when Ricky Gervais first spoke to him on the phone he was blown away by him saying ‘Sorry I’m just eating a banana’ The idea that Bowie eats bananas like the rest of us seemed kind of far-fetched. That level of fame has to be a bit toxic surely?

Recently someone suggested to me that he was the ultimate rebel. I disagree. I feel the more shocking things he did and characters he assumed were all played from a safe place. The looks? Some of them were fun but I don’t believe for a moment that he and Adam Ant and all the rest were coming up with this shit on their own. They had their Malcolm McLarens and their Lindsay Kemps telling the what to wear and how to wear it. The white skinny male musicians ruled the world then and their carefully calculated abandon of social norms was celebrated and accepted by their fans who saw their concerts and bought their records. What did he really have to rebel against?


This I suppose…

When the 80’s hit and suddenly being part of the LGBT community was seen as being dangerous, Bowie was quick to distance himself from the bisexual label he had proudly flaunted previously. In 1983 he declared he was straight and stated that ever saying he wasn’t was the biggest mistake he ever made.

But nobody is perfect. And it comes down to the music. If the music was shit nobody would be talking about him donning heels and dating supermodels. Nobody would care about the size of his cock. He would have been relegated to the footnotes of the glam era if it were not for the fact that the guy knew his way around a guitar. The voice was so distinctive. What it lacked in prettiness it made up for in emotional range. The vocals, the records, the sounds…That is what I wanted to pay tribute to.

I am including cover versions because they count as my favourite David Bowie songs. Because I like his interpretation of the songs better than other versions. I am not including Blackstar because I am not ready to look at that. Also I don’t hit a wide range of his work because…well you know the drill. This is a personal list. But if you have stumbled across this because you want to learn more about Bowie…Just buy the albums. Any off them. All of them. Well, not ALL of them. Actually no fuck it, all of them. But here are a bunch of tracks that I am sneakily including even though they didn’t make my list: Fame, Golden Years, I’m Afraid of Americans, Something in the Air, Jean Genie, Changes, The Man who Sold the World, Diamond Dogs, Thursday’s Child, Seven, Modern Love, Let’s Dance, Suffragette City, Wild is the Wind, Boys keep Swinging, Under Pressure, John I’m Only Dancing…

Oh and I like that time he sang Wake Up with Arcade Fire…


And he produced the Lou Reed classic Transformer:


And when he co wrote Lust for Life with Iggy Pop:

He was really good wasn’t he?

 
And…I am starting off the list by massively cheating. Sorry.

 
20. EVERY TRACK ON LOW (Low) Funnily enough. Every track on Low is from the album Low.

 
Sorry again.

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In my defence…I don’t tend to listen to these tracks apart from each other. Ever since I was…much, much, much younger than I am now I have listened to Low as one long flowing never ending track. My Dad didn’t have this one on record so I went and bought it in one of those CD shops along with Bowie’s Modern Love and probably the latest B*witched album cause I was a confused little puppy.

From the very first track I was excited. This was Bowie, Jim, but not as I knew it. A great number of the tracks are instrumental only including opener Speed of Life. I was so in even though I had no idea what was going on:

I lost count of the number of times I came home from school, angry and pissed off and rage filled and ready to pluck out the eyes of a baby if it meant I could leave school any earlier (turns out that is not a thing) and I would stick on Low, maybe light a couple of candles…Not to relax. To burn myself to check I could still feel pain. But anyway the point is Low is such a spectrum of moods..The songs are sad, fun, scary, delightful, inspirational and it is just an enjoyable way to spend 40 minutes before you take a deep breath, let go of what is bothering you and add to your book of revenge poetry. That’ll show ’em.

I remember back when I was working for a helpline for young people one of the supervisors asked each volunteer to debrief using a David Bowie album as a framework. NOBODY else got it. Meanwhile I said: ‘I don’t feel LOW after that shift…My computer was fine so I didn’t end up BREAKING GLASS and it went by at the SPEED OF LIFE. Due to the combination of telephone and online work I relied on both SOUND AND VISION…

The Supervisor and I were cracking each other up. It was 2am and everyone else hated us and wanted to go home.


Also, what happened to the carpet???? I guess we’ll never know:

 

19. All the Young Dudes (All the Young Dudes)

While we’re here: RIP Dale Griffin.

Yes this is primarily a Mott the Hoople song and it is their version I am familiar with. However Bowie wrote this supposedly to keep the band from breaking up due to a lack of success. And he liked it enough that he sang it. too A lot. Also listen to it: It’s a Bowie song through and through. Not to take away from the Mott the Hoople version which I like much better than the studio recording of Bowie singing it.


Bowie claimed to be baffled when it was claimed as an anthem for a disaffected glam youth as he wrote it with the apocalypse in mind. This doesn’t surprise me. A fuck ton of his songs are about the apocalypse.

I have always loved this song. I enjoy a shout along chorus and the lyrics capture a bunch of stuff I can’t numerically speaking be nostalgic for but I am anyway so shut up.

 

18. Heroes (Heroes)


This is a song that I don’t really enjoy until the ‘I…I will be king’ bit where the vocal suddenly becomes a lot more intense and the whole ‘we can do it’ vagueness of the sentiment begins to come across as kind of desperate and sad. If it was just a song about being a hero, I’d struggle to get behind it. Just listen to his wonderful delivery of ‘And we kissed…as though nothing could fall’

Speaking of which he wrote that bit after witnessing his record producer making out with one of the backing vocalists…However the dude was cheating on his wife. As a result Bowie chose not to comment on who the couple in the song were. But it is not every day your philandering ways are name checked in a Bowie song so the producer took full credit.

Just keep that in mind the next time you try and pretend this is a romantic, triumphant song, won’t you?

 
17. Ashes to Ashes (Scary Monster and Super Creeps)

I was obsessed with this video when I was a kid because of just how thoroughly I didn’t get it. I remember pressing my nose against the screen wondering what the clown outfit and the fact that the players on either far side kept touching the ground meant…

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Reveal your secrets to me…

I love the style of Ashes to Ashes musically and of course the references to previous success Space Oddity. There is something cool about name checking your biggest hit in order to discredit your protagonist as Bowie writes off his astronaut hero as a strung out junkie. Bowie claimed Ashes to Ashes was intended as a nursery rhyme and a kiss off to the 70’s. He also acknowledged the fact that as kids we want to be spacemen but then we grow up and realise even they don’t have it together. Call me a blithering fan girl, but I love it as a concept. It is the Lance Armstrong effect: If someone ever seems too amazing to be true they are probably hiding something. Don’t let anyone tell you who to look up to.

Now I will go back to patiently awaiting the Dolly Parton sequel to I will Always Love You called Actually it Turned out you were Pretty Easy to Get Over.

 
16. Oh! You Pretty Things (Hunky Dory)

It is a pretty simple piano lead track with a bitching chorus and biting verses, a completely divine snarling beast of a track. I love the references to kids in it as it just rings true especially about ‘Look at your children, see their faces in golden rays, don’t kid yourself they belong to you, they’re the start of the coming race’ Sure it is just another in a series of never ending Bowie songs about the end of the world but don’t all parents have that moment where they realise their kids are not in fact just mini versions of them but their own people who can’t be controlled?

It is worth noting at this juncture that I don’t often enjoy white guy at a piano music especially these days when that kind of shit leads to earnest songs about lost love and found love and round and round the garden like a teddy bear love. But this? This is my jam. It is so well sung and brings me so much joy with each and every listen.

 
15. Ziggy Stardust (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars)


I am not writing that album title again.

Where was I?

Oh yeah. This album is my favourite. I know, I know. What a cliché. If you asked 100 non Bowie fans to name a Bowie album they’d go with this one. It was a commercial success, kid of gimmicky bla bla bla but there are so many treasures within I just don’t care.

This was probably my favourite track as a child. I wrote a story around it about 4 women who meet under weird circumstances and become mates as the world gets attacked by spiders from Mars. One was an actress whose Oscar speech is interrupted by the invasion, one was a clichéd punk character who can eat metal, one was a stress head business woman and one an old homeless lady. The story ended with David Bowie slaying spiders.

You’re welcome.

Obviously it is actually about the rise and fall of a band and how the lead singer gets too caught up in it…Whatever. It showed rock could be truly beautiful and I will love it forever.

One of my favourite ‘Live’ style album I have is Bowie at the Beeb which features the best of Bowie’s sessions at the BBC. Several of my favourite versions of Bowie songs and indeed any songs are featured on this album. This is by far my favourite cut of Ziggy:

 
14. Sorrow (Pin Ups)

If I ever did a playlist of my ‘break up’ songs, this would go in the subsection of ‘over it, not over it’ It is easy to dismiss those that hurt you as the spawn of Satan and not worth your time but you know that friend who is always posting quotes on Facebook about how strong they are and how they are holding out for someone who appreciates every little thing about them? This song gets those losers.
You see, winners don’t need to constantly reassure everyone they are fine. They are too busy winning for such shit.

With the violins and the Bowie echoes and his sad mournful cry of ‘with your long blonde hair’ Bowie gets it. You are not ready to move on but you WISH you were.

So this is a cover version but as far as I am considered this is the only version that exists. He just Bowies it up the way only Bowie can. That specific vocal growl on the word sorrow, the over enunciating and the finger clicking sadness and the saxophone, oh the saxophone!

Heartbreak has never sounded more groovy.

 
13. Space Oddity (David Bowie)

What can I really say? It is a brilliantly imaginative song which was unlike anything before it or since. It is a mini opera, a tour de force, poetry in motion…There is nothing to dislike or pick apart. The vocal is stunning, the lyrics are evocative and the music still sounds spot on even after all these years. It doesn’t date. Hell even the early work of the Beatles seems kind of twee now. But Bowie’s first big single? It could come out tomorrow and still top the charts.

Oh fun fact: It was criticised by many due to the fact it could be interpreted as a pop at Apollo 11 and so the BBC agreed not to play it till Tom Hanks and the others were safely back home.

Major Tom is not so lucky, joining the great Laika going round and round and round…

Like most people, my favourite bit is the melancholy little moment of ‘planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do’ leading in to the clapping…I love clapping. And then the oh so beautiful music swells…Ok it is perfect. Did I mention it is perfect? He could have retired HERE.

I am so glad he didn’t.

 
12. Lady Stardust (Ziggy etc)

I always loved this song deeply in a way I can’t really bring myself to explain. I recognise why it was not a single like Starman and the like but it holds a special place for me. It is probably written for Marc Bolan of T Rex fame. You don’t need to go that deeply into the lyrics for this: The demo was called a Song for Marc.

It didn’t stop me writing a different plot around it in my childhood bedroom. I had a script called Lady Stardust and everything. Over the years my fantasy casting for the lead role of Lady Stardust has evolved considerably starting with Julian Lennon and ending with Peter Dinklage. I would play the love interest, Emily Browning my best friend, Andy Serkis my Father in a role that would bag him a long overdue Oscar and David Bowie would be so impressed with the script he would cameo briefly…

Well that was the plan.

 
11. The Bewlay Brothers (Hunky Dory)

The closer to arguably Bowie’s tightest album took a while to sink in the first time I heard it. I stared at my grinning Father in confusion. He nodded reassuringly. It was ok, he was telling me. It was supposed to end like this.

He wasn’t wrong.

Nobody knows what it is about. Some critics decided it was about Bowie’s ill brother, others him being gay (which he wasn’t in the end) Bowie’s take was it was deliberately indecipherable, designed for multiple re listens. Who cares? The ‘Oh we were gone…’ section is one of my favourite moments in any song but the whole thing grips me..It moves me and I don’t need to understand why or where it came from. Oh and when those voices come in…I can’t decide whether to laugh or hide.

 
10. Five Years (Ziggy etc)

More apocalypse now because that was the kind of dude he was.

It is such a great opener to the album the way the drum beat comes in and then…we are told a story. We as a planet have 5 years left. Well shit. Are you sure Bowie? But the newsreader is crying so…guess so.

Despite some questionable lyrics in the second verse he pulls it back big stylee with one of my favourite lyrics of all time: ‘And it was cold and it rained so I felt like an actor’ He sings with such passion leading into the pub sing along of a closing chorus that leads to our man just shrieking 5 years over and over again as dramatic strings scream at us. Then…then drum comes back.

I appreciate I have just described an abridged version of the song. But as we get deeper into his catalogue I find I have less to say. The stories he tells speak for themselves. They stand up right and exist in the world.

 
9. Rebel Rebel (Diamond Dogs)

While Diamond Dogs is, in my opinion, not one of the stronger records it has some great moments. Not to mention a deeply disturbing front cover. It was the era of the bright red hair and Halloween Jack. His mentor the performance artist Lindsay Kemp said of the hair: ‘I told him to be extreme but I didn’t mean that extreme!’

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Rebel Rebel is an up beat masterpiece that celebrates those who march to the beat of their own drums. It is the phenomenal riff that had Bowie on his knees thanking his muse as he recognised right away it would be upheld as one of the great rock riffs and of course it was this song that cemented him as a pioneer of the glam rock era.

Me? Well it just makes me boogie. And point aggressively at people near by telling them their face is a mess. I love every glorious, glamorous second of it.

 

8. Life on Mars (Hunky Dory)

When people talk Bowie this one usually comes up pretty quickly. The appeal of a song this pretty is kind of universal and yet it still feels like one for the misfits. It is more storytelling in line with Five Years but it is even more powerful because musically it captures this unknowable majesty that can only come from a truly perfect lead into a chorus. The anticipation is so dramatic and big that you fear the chorus won’t rise to meet it…But boy oh boy does it.

And how about those lyrics? Bowie maintains it was a bad break up song…Huh? I had a teacher at school who enthusiastically cornered me to tell me his theory that it was about a teen pregnancy…which works well for verse 1 but doesn’t go any way to explain why Mickey Mouse is a cow and why the sailors are fighting in the dance hall. It is a mystery to me why it works so well…
Although it did start as being performed to the Sinatra “classic” My Way which you kind of hear. I say “classic” cause I hate that song. Unless it is being sung by Sid Vicious.

Anyway I digress, this is great. It is better than all of your songs. So there.

 
7. Drive-In Saturday (Aladdin Sane)

Bowie does the 50’s…Yes please. I feel like if David Bowie had been in charge of writing Grease it would have turned out a lot better. He nails the nostalgia of the doo wop era but makes lines like ‘Gee it’s hot, let’s go to bed’ sound so fresh. I love it all but it is the chorus that really breaks me. I love every moment but especially ‘she’s uncertain if she likes him but she knows she really loves him’ Fucking…yes. This.

Also I love the term video-films. Aces. Did they ever really call them that?

I love the back vocals, the sax, I just want to sway and sing and ride in a Cadillac to the diner.

Oh also it was another apocalypse song…Dude really thought the world was going to end huh?

 
6. Young Americans (Young Americans)

Oh my…How do I start? It is Bowie doing Philly soul with Luther Vandross backing him for added authenticity. The term “plastic soul” was used to describe the sound and Bowie embraced it, acknowledging he was stealing an established sound from the soul singers in the dance halls up and down America. He didn’t invent the style but he sure does play the hell out of it.

But best of all is his use of the backing vocalists. While it is crazy to imagine Vandross backing anyone (Unlike the others he looks directly at the camera when it is on him-he wants to be the star) just listen to how they are used: They are collaborators, not window dressing. They make the song sound so much better than it ever could without them.

This is another story in a song but the specific meaning behind the lyrics has always been lost on me. One of the best nights of my life was loudly singing this during a jam in a London establishment called Jazz after Dark several years ago: I belted the words and phrases and joyful/sad shouts without knowing what I was singing really-I just knew I wanted to break down and cry because the song is everything I want it to be and more. I jump around when it is on. I reach my hands out to try and capture how it makes me feel and bottle it.

 

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5. Kooks (Hunky Dory)

Once upon a time, a kid called Zowie Bowie was born to David Jones and Angie. He later changed his name to Duncan Jones because of course he did. He went on to a win a well deserved BAFTA for his brilliant film Moon. He got teary eyed as he admitted he had finally figured out what he wanted to do with his life. Two weeks ago his Father died.

How strange it must be to know your Dad meant so much to so many, to know so many people in the world stopped and cried for your Parent. Is he touched by it or does he resent it? I don’t know. I suspect I would be ungracious in my grief. I would wish to shut everyone out.

I think of both Duncan and Bowie’s teenage daughter…My heart hurts for them because…well because it is sad. It was always going to be sad.

Kooks is a little love letter to the boy named Zowie. Unlike other lullabies for infants composed by rock Gods, Kooks is neither overly syrupy nor uncomfortably personal (fun game: Guess which two songs I am thinking of there!) It is a sweet invite to…Well you know. Stick with the family and see what happens.

Ok, this entry is painful to write. If it is painful to me God knows how Duncan feels. His Mother, Angie Bowie appears to not be in his life (on learning of David’s death while on a TV show called Big Brother she chose to stay on the show, isolated from her loved ones) Stay in our lovers story indeed…I know a lot of people who frown quite loudly at people who get divorced as if they intended their marriages to implode…Sometimes to love your kids you need to show them you love yourself enough to get out.

But let’s stay positive. David captures some charming details about early parenthood and promises his son that if the homework sucks they will just burn it and escape in the car..

Nope…Now I’m crying.

Ok it is a beautiful song and I am sorry your Dad is dead Duncan. I hope you are ok.

Let’s leave it there.

 
4. Starman (Ziggy etc)

This was the first one.

The song that used to send me to sleep when I was sick. The track I turned to as I gazed out the window wondering what my life would become. The track I would perform for my appreciative Father as he stood in his door frame chain smoking and sipping glass after glass of whiskey. His death before the age of 60 was as surprising as it was shocking.

Basically, this was my introduction to the Master. I believed it. I breathed it. I wanted so badly to be rescued by the Star Man. I was the narrator of the song, calling my friend to panicky tell them I saw…something. Then Bowie would beam down and take me away…

That was the plan. I honestly didn’t understand he wasn’t the Starman of the song. I was too young to get that being a musician wasn’t the same thing as being magic.

Except…It totally is.

If you are this good…It is.

 
3. God Knows I’m Good (Bowie at the Beeb)

I have listed Bowie at the Beeb because that is the version I listen to even though it comes as an album track on the eponymous album that launched him into the stratosphere.

Sure it is dramatic in an almost biblical sense, a story of a poor woman praying that nobody will notice her shop lifting…But it works for me. It comes from his vocal in the beeb version. He is so passionate and so right on and I just can’t get enough of it even if it is a bit OTT in how literal it is. But then, it is just more story telling. It feels kind of personal but Bowie maintained it wasn’t about his poor Mother or anything…Just a woman.

I don’t know why sincerity like this appeals to me in some artists and not in others. Maybe some people can pull of empathy better than others. The likes of Geldof, Collins and their ilk make me cringe because I sense it is self serving, like they are congratulating themselves on noticing suffering. Most people who actually help people, really help people, don’t need to make a big public parade of it to make themselves feel adequate. A song like God Knows I’m Good doesn’t end with a message about how we should all look twice at criminals because some of them are desperate not cruel. Bowie just observes the story in an omnipotent sort of fashion and relays it beautifully.

I love it. I think of it often. When people make mistakes, when I make mistakes, when I fear that nothing I do is ever going to help anyone I remember that deep down most people are decent and we are all trying. All the time.

 
2. Amsterdam (Bowie at the Beeb)

This is a cover version. It was the B side to Sorrow. And it keeps reminding me that he was the best.

So…here is the thing. The reason I love this performance so much is this: Strip away the glamour and the clout and what remains? A talented bloke with a distinctive voice who could blow anyone away with his talent. Anyone.

If Bowie had remained Dave Jones and had decided to go into plastering or something like that and then one night showed up at a folk night as all the best guitarists do in the end…Picture it for me. Everyone does their turn as is tradition. And it reaches him. He gets out his guitar, tunes it up and gives us a classic sounding sea shanty…

Can you just hear the silence in the pub? No matter what, he was destined to share a gift this good. It was undeniable. If it wasn’t the charts it would have been the clubs. He would have been heard because you can’t not listen.

Even without any of the dog and pony stuff, David could sing and play guitar, And this tour de force show of rancid passion and howling anguish just makes me want to…I want to find him and thank him for being the best.

 

 

And finally…
1. Rock and Roll Suicide (Ziggy etc)


It was always one I loved dearly. But it wasn’t until he died I knew it was my favourite.

It is to my mind, the perfect song both vocally and musically. It is both interesting to my ears and reassuring to my soul.

I love it. I love it. I love it.

It tells me, quite literally that I am not nor will I ever be alone.

I have always loved songs that take you on a journey. This song does that. There are so many shifts and changes, so many subtleties and so much explicit showmanship that it demands repeated listening.

It is heart breaking and uplifting.

Messy and tidy.

Profound and nonsense.

I am sorry that I am struggling, as I always do, to sum up what a song this good means to me. When I hear it, I imagine the band following me down the street as I walk alone in the dark, I hear the build up, I walk a bit straighter, I hold my head higher, I just believe it….

I am not alone.

It is a magnificent feeling to know with certainty that music can genuinely solve that gnawing, gnashing feeling that you are broken and cannot be fixed. It is breathtakingly reassuring to learn that a song this bright and beautiful can take you out of your problems and hold you.

It is all Bowie.

We are not alone.

 

 

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Girls Aloud: A Retrospective (Part 2)

 

Girls Aloud: A Retrospective. Part 2~Album Tracks

Why do we find it so hard to celebrate success? When Girls Aloud’s first album launched, the reception had one common thread: Confusion. The music critics clearly felt hard done by, as they had been ready to declare the manufactured, too many cooks production, product of reality TV a yawn-inducing disaster. And when it wasn’t they didn’t really know what to say. Why not offer up any of the following: Awesome? Well done? Can’t wait for the follow up? Most of the reviews I have read end by reminding the audience that the girls will struggle to maintain their career at the same level.

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Hindsight is marvellous isn’t it? While Girls Aloud’s march of success wasn’t without bumps in the road (and fists in other people’s faces) it is clear to anyone who has been paying any attention at all that they didn’t peak with album one.

So I am here to celebrate my favourite Girls Aloud tracks from every Girls Aloud album because while the quality of their work really does speak for itself, I needed an excuse to look through millions of Nicola gifs:

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It’s not stalking if our marriage is only in my mind…

Let us get some bias out the way: These are not the tracks that are necessarily musically their best because I am not fit to judge such things and the order they have been put into is largely pedantic. These are simply my favourites. I decided to do a Top 20 only to discover I actually couldn’t narrow it down to that few. That is how much I love this group. So, after more hours than I care to admit, I was able to give you a Top 24. You are welcome. I say that, because more people read Part 1 than I was expecting so I guess I am not the only one who needed some closure after the demise of the best pop group of the past 20 years.

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The night the lights went out…Ok so that wasn’t actually the moment they broke up and we were all expecting it but…still…Nooooo…

Between December 2002 and their dispantion in March 2013 Girls Aloud released 7 albums in total, two of which were single collections including limited new material. Taking the ‘Hits’ records out of the running (although their new tracks will be counted in the actual list) here is how I feel about them as a whole starting from fair enough to ohmygodiloveit:

EARLY GA

5. Sound of the Underground (Album: 1. Peak Chart Position: 2. Number of Tracks in my top 24: 1)

Before Xenomania and the great Brian Higgins took over proceedings completely, the sound of Girls Aloud struggled to get off the ground. While there are a lot of songs with fun, silly, danceable choruses, the girls themselves get lost a bit and man oh man the ballads are bad. In the end, while several of them nearly made the cut, only 1 album track from their début made my personal list. I would still recommend it for completion’s sake but it is not a must have.

OOC

4. Out of Control (Album: 5. Peak Chart Position: 1. Number of Tracks in my top 24: 4)

Some reviewers gleefully pounced on this record as evidence that Xenomania were starting to run dry. While I disagree and actually enjoy it a lot, I see where they are coming from. This is an album that plays it a little safe compared to what came before, but it still has moments of sheer lunacy and joy that more than make up for any repetition or lacklustre ideas. Plus Nicola and Kimberly get to sing a lot more than they usually do which is never a bad thing.

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3. What will the Neighbours Say? (Album: 2. Peak Chart Position: 6. Number of Tracks in my top 24: 4)

To be honest with you, there is nothing between this and Tangled Up. Both of them are excellent albums, this one may have the edge on Tangled Up purely because of how it took things to the next level for Girls Aloud musically, but I swapped them when I saw how I rated the individual tracks on the actual list…It was tough though. This is not a game to me…This is super cereal.

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2. Tangled Up (Album: 4. Peak Chart Position: 4. Number of Tracks in my top 24: 5)

See above. Excellent album, some cool songs, a couple of missteps, but pretty awesome. This one kind of felt like the most experimental musically speaking which meant a lot of the tracks are not the most personal sounding songs in the world, but I forgive it because man alive can I dance to them…

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1. Chemistry (Album: 3. Peak Chart Position: 11. Number of Tracks in my Top 24: 7)

What the Hell British public? Just as the good people at Xenomania mastered the modern pop album, interest seemingly began to drop off, going by the peak chart position. Thankfully their subsequent singles collection and a successful tour revitalised things but if it had all ended here it would still been quite the triumph. Chemistry borders on a concept album as most of the material talks about the fast paced modern world, the illusion of fame and success and generally just being a 20-something with lots of money. It is so close to perfect it hurts a bit: But one or two incredibly insipid tracks, that don’t fit with the flow at all and just scream management interference, stop it just short of being a greatest hits collection in its own right.

Bizarrely you can get a special edition version with a bunch of Christmas songs on it, which is a bit like throwing Hava Nagila on the tail end of ‘Pet Sounds’ but ok…whatever sells more units I guess.

Additionally the single choices for this record baffle me beyond belief but we will get to that in Part 3…But enough of any negativity. Chemistry has 8 tracks (Plus an intro) that were not released as singles and 7 of them appear in my top 24. If you have to own only one Girls Aloud album, this is the one.

Enough of this nonsense! Let’s have some slightly different nonsense! Right now! Yeaaaaahhh…

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24. Live in the Country (Out of Control)

 

I debated not putting this song on the list because so many fans seem to really hate it: I think it is because in the same year Memory of You was a B Side Live in the Country made the album and so I do understand. But this is my list and frankly any song which conjures up images of a pissed up Sarah Harding staggering around a village fête is ok by me.

The track was created as a response to band member Harding’s choice to swap London for a farm and while the chorus isn’t all that, the verses are awesome and the drum/bass descending into animal noises alone deserves a mention.

Best Lyric: ‘I want a stall at the fête selling strawberry shortcake, and walls that are very discreet’ Excellent.

Best Vocal: While Kimberly’s crisp delivery of the line above is fantastic, I have to give it to my girl Nic for her beautiful slight mispronunciation of the word eccentric with: ‘I’ll be out of my head, but they’ll say I’m eccentric, and look the other way…’

Any Live Performances?: Nope.

 

23. Control of the Knife (Tangled Up)

 

Girls Aloud do reggae…Kind of. The ska influences are undeniable here and while it isn’t as impactful as a lot of their work it is fun to dance to and it is kind of cool to have them tackling something new. I love the juxtaposition of the horns that kick in at the end and the repeated refrain (Got sweet hassle, sweet talking me, got cheap babble, cheap talking free) in a computer voice. However it is missing a much needed conclusion…Enter the live version…

Best Lyric: ‘You’re keeping control of the knife…But I’m not your darling’ is enjoyably cold for such an uptempo number.

Best Vocal: Well I will have to take it to the live version to answer that…

Any Live Performances?: Yes, they did it on their Tangled Up Tour to great effect. Bringing in Kelis’s ‘Trick Me’ at the end works surprisingly well as does Cheryl barking out dance instructions. Speaking of Cheryl the look she gives the camera as she howls: ‘I’ll never let you trick me twice!’ is genuinely a little scary. Hell, everything about this performances works because of her: The aggressive way she attacks the choreography is superb. She may not be the strongest singer but damn, the tiny Geordie can work it:

 

22. Here we Go (What will the Neighbours Say?)

 

One of the most important members of the GA team is Miranda Cooper, former pop star and Xenomania lyricist. Normally she works with a crew and GA to make the magic happen but on this occasion this song was one she had written for herself. Recorded under her alias Moonbaby, this would go on to be the theme to a somewhat popular show called ‘Totally Spies’ and was also recorded by the lead singer from Aqua. So by the time the girls got it, well, it was somewhat second hand and that kind of shows: It sounds a little more generic than a lot of their best stuff.

Nonetheless, they still seem to have fun with it, especially when it comes to the dirtier lyrics. That opening line, delivered by a then still 18 year old Nicola, ‘Put your tongue in my ear, it’s queer but kind of fun’ sets the tone nicely. Plus there is a brilliant synth hook, some good guitar work and the build up to that nearly-but-not-quite rock chorus is a nice ride. And yes. Totally Spies is a children’s show. And yes. They changed the lyrics a lot to make it broadcastable.

Best Lyric: By a country mile: ‘I don’t do sex, but I do do second base…So I suggest you wipe that frown from off your face’ Outstanding…

Best Vocal: They swap back and forth a lot in this one but I still can’t quite get over Nicola’s ‘Put your tongue in my ear it’s queer but kind of fun…’ but Kim also does a great job with ‘I suggest you wipe that frown from off your face’

Any Live Performances?: Yes they did this on their first little tour and it comes to life a bit more than it does on the recording. I like Sarah best in this one actually as her shouty vocals lend itself to the spirit of the original track more than the others:

 

21. Love is Pain (Out of Control)

 

That intro always confuses me because while the song is a sharp, smooth, cold bit of glacier dance pop, I always think of ‘The Bad Touch’ in the bit before the vocals…Make of that what you will. Unsurprisingly, this is largely considered to be a song about Cheryl’s cheating Husband but it is the simplicity of the track and the underplayed vulnerability in the delivery that sells it for me, not any behind the scenes drama that may or may not have been going on. A solid bit of break up dance music.

Best Lyric: None of the lyrics work well out of the context of the song, where the mood it creates is the thing, but there is something about the line ‘…Feel I could wipe you’ that appeals to me. The idea that you can just wipe a person who hurt you from your mind is pretty appealing…they should make a film about it or something…

Best Vocal: Easily Nicola’s opening verse…While Cheryl also does a great job with her moments, I think Nicola’s dainty delivery (‘I couldn’t have sung any softer without whispering’ she complains in a behind the scenes interview) is just stunning.

Any Live Performances?: They first did it on some ITV special and it is a good performance for Cheryl’s wounded puppy dog eyes for sure (seriously, girlfriend was hurting…) but the Out of Control Tour gave the song the wind machine it deserves:

 

20. Real Life (What will the Neighbours Say?)

 

I really, really like the lyrics to this song. To me, it is about the gamble of fame and how addictive it is and how everyone just wants a little more…Soon it is no longer a bit of fun but an occupation where the outcome really matters. You need people to love you in order to keep doing it and once you are on that kind of ride, that relies on others almost 100%, it is not up to you when you get off…But maybe I am reading too much into it. After all this is a song that talks about kung fu twists.

Best Lyric: ‘Dance while your dollar’s going up up up, catch your lucky number while it’s rising, rising…’

Best Vocal: Nadine’s bridge is suitably dramatic: ‘I think I’m falling! I’m not done crawling!’

Any Live Performances?: I have heard it made an appearance on their Greatest Hits Tour but the full version was also part of the set list during their first outing around the country and includes some excellent work from everyone:

 

19. Some Kind of Miracle (Sound of the Underground)

 

This is the only non-single I like enough to take with me from the first album but I really do find it charming. It was originally going to be a single until they were asked to sing a cover for a Richard Curtis film…Which is kind of a shame because this song deserves to be heard. On the surface, it could belong to anyone but the bridge and chorus both have an intense quality I love, and for me it is how I used to feel at discos…there is something just beyond adorable about a song with lines about a ‘dj box’ and a ‘glitter ball’ and then there is the ‘ba-ba-ba’ which just reminds me of 5pm CBBC drama theme tunes, and then out of nowhere that line ‘something kinda sexual…makes doing you incredible’ Jesus that escalated quickly…This is where the similarities between this and my school disco experience come to an abrupt end.

Best Lyric: ‘I roll my eyes as if I don’t care anyway, but deep inside I close my eyes and pray’ sums up my flirting technique.

Best Vocal: Again, they swap around a lot so there is not a lot of time to take in interpretation plus to add to my confusion I have both the version that was going to be released as a single and the original album track where they all sing different lines…I think it has to be Cheryl who says: ‘I’m tired of hanging round the DJ box pretending that I’m cool’ Just because I am a little bit obsessed with the inclusion of that phrase and the way they make it fit…Is that what you call it? Really? A DJ Box?

Any Live Performances?: Sadly not, but here is the alternative version which differs a bit (it is a bit more polished) just for a change:

 

18. Deadlines and Diets (What will the Neighbours Say?)

 

Another almost single, this kind of feels like an All Saints song tonally (specifically Never, Ever. I swear I wrote this before seeing the same thing written online in a Stylus review…) and is that rare thing: A Girls Aloud song that is kind of cool. Well, as cool as any song that includes the line groovy can be. Although, Cheryl’s delivery suggests it is being used in a post-modern sarcastic way…Does that help?

This is another song that was recorded by Moonbaby, but unlike ‘Here we Go’ I feel like Girls Aloud succeed in making it their own. These are girls who you can imagine waking up, looking around and going: ‘Oh fuck, not again.’ Especially Harding.

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The repetition of the bridge and chorus gets a bit old, but perhaps it is to emphasise the cycle of one night stands? Whatever, they sound great and it really sells the story: It has me reaching for the aspirin every time.

Best Lyric: The filthy innuendo of…’Wham bam, my life’s a disaster movie…But as I’m going down I’ll grin’ Tee hee.

Best Vocal: I know my bias is starting to show for the ginger one, but on the recording Nicola’s defeated and dry delivery of the final bridge/middle 8 is just too good.

Any Live Performances?: Yes. And check out those market stall dresses…You can tell this was their first tour huh?

 

17. Close to Love (Tangled Up)

 

You heard it here first: Girls Aloud need more wood. Yep. So this song is stupid but it isn’t cheesy: the production is excellent and it is all just so enjoyable. It is that kind of song that you have to bop to, just for the sake of moving. It is proper disco with funny lyrics and frankly sounds like it has been around forever. I can’t listen to that chorus without grinning. I don’t have much else to say about it: It is fun, fast and damn fine.

Best Lyric: ‘We’re gonna start this fire, cause I know I should, watch the flames go higher, we’re gonna need more wood’ Innuendos FTW.

Best Vocal: Nadine sounds pretty awesome in the live version, but I gotta go with my girl Nic, for the second bridge.

Any Live Performances?: Yes they did it on the Tangled Up Tour. Now that is clearly not them singing live on the chorus (that may have been added in post production though) but the dance routines crack me up on this one and it is as fun as a song like this should be. Any video that starts with Cheryl slapping Kim’s arse is going to be a good ‘un:

 

16. Crocodile Tears (Tangled Up)

 

While I will always love up tempo Aloud, this is one of several slower songs that demonstrate that with the right balance of pretty music and a spot on emotional pitch the girls can sell the fuck out of something more ‘adult’ in theme. It is about a break up but unlike a lot of girl band ballads, it has a darker shadowy vibe with a kind of resigned shrug of defeat behind it. Rather than wringing their hands and crying their eyes out, I imagine them staring numbly at the extra toothbrush, unsure of what to do next.

Musically it is hard to pin down quite what they were trying to do, but it works for me anyway. But most of all, and I can’t always say this, it is the performances that make the song. I really feel the morose defeat behind lines like: ‘ we better stop…before we tumble’ I can’t say how much direction they got with their delivery but it is just the right balance of genuine heart break and irritation at their bad luck.

Best Lyric: While I enjoy ‘stupid Cupid took a terrible landing…’ I like the emotional simplicity of ‘Why on Earth did you leave me? Did you need to leave me?’ best of all. Those two lines say so much with so little.

Best Vocal: I really like Sarah’s heartfelt ‘I gotta stop…dreaming away now’ but Kimberly’s trademark light delivery fits beautifully with her ‘Why on Earth did you leave me?’ It suggests a suitable bewilderment that comes with being dumped.

Any Live Performances?: Given that there are some lovely vocals on this, I am sad they never did it live.

 

15. It’s Magic (Chemistry)

 

A Nicola solo! It’s a Christmas Miracle!

Like the B Side ‘I Don’t really Hate You’ this doesn’t quite feel like a complete song in how it meanders and it took takes a few listens to ‘get it’ as a result but I got there in the end. It tips the hat to 80’s dance pop at every turn  and there is an odd urgency to the production despite the mellowness of the sound. While I wouldn’t have said no to it being a group effort it is nice that Nicola got an opportunity to carry a whole song (her second incidentally, but this one works better for me) and she pulls off an understated delivery with flair.

Best Lyric: For some reason I love the line ‘I need some help shifting this heartache’ It is such a relatable sentiment.

Best Vocal: It is all Nicola, but I like her delivery of ‘With you, only you, I know that I can be myself…funny how I can find that with you and no-body else’

Any Live Performances?: No. I guess I understand why…This is more about the production than it is about the performance.

 

14. Watch Me Go (Chemistry)

 

I usually find songs about sex kind of bland, like they have been written by people who have heard of this thing called ‘doing it’ but have never actually engaged in the activity themselves and, to be honest, the initial lyrics of ‘Watch me Go’ are no different. All this talk of all day fuck fests involving bondage and laboured metaphors about explosions (Like cum! I get it!) just scream: ‘Isn’t this filthy, aren’t we bad?’ which just sucks. (like cu-Ok we ALL get it)

But the beat is truly fantastic and then, in classic Xenomania fashion, there is a sudden shift in tone with the cheerful verse: ‘Strippers and the vicars in the back…’ What? What’s happening? And suddenly the song becomes a parody of ‘sexy’ with all this chat about taking it from a big trombone, like something out of a Carry On film…and then back to the super serious sexy song. But they are not done there, ending the song with a possibly pissed up Sarah Harding singing in a mocking voice ‘I know what you’re thinking you’ve been thinking about my butt’ What??? It is almost like these moments have been inserted to catch out people who are not listening properly and it is gloriously fun.

I have read reviews comparing this song to works from Salt n Pepper, Gwen Stefani, J Pop (in general) and Michael Jackson and none of these are inaccurate. The JC production is fantastic and it is real grower. And yes. That is another sex reference. Enjoy.

Best Lyric: ‘Strippers and the vicars in the back, First man cracked, Jump on the main line track, I take a little bit of pay, okay, and the beat of the big trombone!’ Because I didn’t see it coming. There’s another for you.

Best Vocal: Cheryl has a lot of fun with the ‘strippers and the vicars’ and Nadine has some great moments but I have to give it to Sarah’s hilarious fade out.

Any Live Performances?: Thank goodness they did this one on the Chemistry Tour. Even Nadine once said she wishes she could have done ‘Watch me Go’ more often. Plus how much fun does Cheryl have with her bit? And then there is my beautiful awkward Nic…God I love her.

 

13. Love is the Key (Out of Control)

 

That apparently Georgian choir intro going into a hook that I swear is so immediate that I felt I must have heard it somewhere before, is a strong start somewhat undermined by Kim’s silly faux American accent doing a largely typical ‘opposites attract’ song. Yawn. Hell, they even have Nic say the line: ‘I don’t mind the friction, cause opposites attract’ They are not even trying to pretend it is anything…nope. End of sentence. It isn’t anything.

Pushing aside the laziness of the verses the clang-clang electro country thing is great, the bridge (written by Kim herself) and the chorus are enjoyable enough. While Kim’s bridge lost me a bit by using the word guy three times it got me back with lines like ‘Now we’re picking out the tiles and curtains’ and ‘If you love somebody don’t ask why…Cupid mystifies’ And then there is that…’oh-oh-oh-oh-oh’ that MUST have existed before! Point is, there is a lot to get down to, not least of all the excellent inclusion of a harmonica solo in the fade out played by none other than The Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. Yep. A member of The Smiths features on a song with lines like ‘I’m mocha-chocca latte, you’re more espresso shot’

I will let him tell it:

‘I was working with Brian Higgins on a Pet Shop Boys record, and let it slip that I liked the guitars on a couple of Girls Aloud’s early singles. So he got me in a headlock, took me from behind and, before I knew it, I had a harmonic in my mouth.’

That’s show biz, kids.

Best Lyric: I like the line about picking out tiles and curtains. It is recognisably mundane and evocative, Cokieblume said pretentiously. Thanks Kim.

Best Vocal: Kimberly’s drawl on the word ‘blonde’ makes me roll my eyes but hell, it works. This is her moment really.

Any Live Performances?: Yes. They did a wonderfully camp version on the Out of Control Tour

 

12. Wild Horses (Chemistry)

 

So…While ‘Wild Horses’ is a great combination of sinister and delightfully fizzy, it is perhaps most fondly remembered as the song that has Girls Aloud making train noises. And quite rightfully so. What starts of as a classic backing vocal style ‘whoo-whoo’ builds to an actual ‘WHOOO-WHOOO’ and it is, of course, brilliant. But then, so is everything about this song.

The creepy intro that goes into the silly, sassy chorus, then a naff childishly delivered verse going straight into a much, much darker part musically aided by a snarling, low vocal by Sarah who has never sounded better. I love the shifts in tone considerably, it gives the track an urgency and an edge that is just so enjoyable. I read one review which likened the love affair discussed in the lyrics as being about sex so bad it becomes like sexual assault. Jesus. Quite a reading for a song with faux train noises, no?

Best Lyric: Is it wrong to award this to the train noise? I’m sorry but…I have to.

Best Vocal: Sarah’s work in some of the verses is genuinely great.

Any Live Performances?: Yes but sadly not the whole song. It goes into single ‘Wake me Up’ which is no bad thing but I wouldn’t say no to a whole performance of ‘Wild Horses’

(Skip to the end for classic Nadine/Nurhdeen bantz)

 

11. Racy Lacey (Chemistry)


The fact that so many of the stand out tracks on Chemistry got buried by lacklustre singles like See the Day and Long Hot Summer is a bit of a mystery. But I suppose when a large percentage of your fans are preadolescence, your pop princesses can’t be seen to be twisting round the stage celebrating/condemning a girl who has ‘a PHD with her legs apart.’ Although overall I imagine the average 12 year old girl can relate more to a song like this than a love ballad.

‘Racy Lacey’ is nasty despite of, or perhaps because of, how upbeat it is. These 5 are way, way too comfortable berating a girl for chewing up and spitting out men. It is undeniably the taunt of the playground bully more than a wry observational song about modern sexuality made all the more explicit by how it was introduced/performed on the Chemistry tour. Make no mistake: Lacey is the school bike and we should all hate her for it.

The intent and message of Racy Lacey always makes me think of a girl I knew at school who had a ‘reputation’ who one day confided in me that she was actually a virgin and had only ever kissed a couple of boys. I repaid her confidence by writing her into a play several years later. And putting her on this blog. Sorry. But the point is this: Some people are not always what they seem and the ‘na-na-na-na’ vibe of Racy Lacey never fails to conjure up this girl in my head.

Confused messages about casual sex aside, Lacey has a backing track that wouldn’t be out of place on an Austin Powers soundtrack, it is a send up of the groovy, complete with wacky sound effects, as well as a catty snarling chorus that is irritatingly memorable and an abrupt ending that concludes one of the best pop albums of the last 10 years with one hell of a mic drop. Unless you have the extended version with all the Christmas songs…Seriously…why?

Best Lyric: That is a very silly question. ANY song that has the line ‘She’s got undulating, grundulating, grinding hips’ gets a lifetime pass from me.

Best Vocal: I enjoy the mean girls bridge and chorus performed by everyone best of all but I do think Nadine stands out with her withering ‘And she’s worn them out by half past nine’

Any Live Performances?: Yep. Lacey got a delightfully tacky outing on the Chemistry tour. Bet that woke up the parents who had brought their kids to the concert…


10. Waiting (Chemistry)

 

I first heard this song while watching the Chemistry Tour and I immediately fell deeply in love and it remains a track I listen to a lot. However it stops short at number 10 because the recording just isn’t as good. The live performances are full of the energy and zest a tune like this needs and the studio work falls flat in comparison with none of the girls nailing the humour and pace such rich work highly deserves: it always feels a bit like they are struggling to keep up with it.

Having said that, it is still great. Musically it has a retro vibe running through it but it doesn’t broadcast it-That opening riff is so wonderfully assured, keeping in mind this was made before Mark Ronson started trying to bring funky swing back to the commercial mainstream. The lyrics are some of my favourites ever with wonderful golden nuggets spread throughout. Just…I genuinely can’t even handle the line: ‘Hey there buttercup…You’re like a peach on ice’ Read it again. Say the words out loud. I treasure and cherish the minds that brought that image into my head.

Best Lyric: As above. But for the sake of happy fingers I will write it again: ‘Hey there buttercup…you’re like a peach on ice.’ Fucking…yes.

Best Vocal: I think Nicola’s ‘Mr Magic is not some toy’ sounds great and bonus points to Sarah for ‘If every guy’s a dog then baby throw me to the wolves, I’ll never get to heaven with my glass half full’ I have no clue if it is trying to be flirty, sexy or just weird but I love it.

Any Live Performances?: For reasons I still don’t understand yet appreciate they incorporated ‘Waiting’ into the Out of Control Tour setlist, keeping in mind this was an album track from an record that came out about three years earlier. I guess they just like singing it: The live versions are much, much better than the recording. While I love that in the OOC performance a more confident Nicola found yet another ace way of saying ‘Mr Magic is not some toy,’ the energy and goofy dancing (especially from Cheryl) in the Wembley performance is off the charts.


9. Every Now and Then (Ten)

 

When Girls Aloud got back together to celebrate their ten year anniversary after three years apart, it was fair to say the fans were disappointed that the new album was packaged as a greatest hits collection when we were all dying for new material. But then we heard the 4 new tracks that padded out side one and…well…what I thought of the singles will have to wait for part 3, but my fucking God…Xenomania were awake again and God bless them all.

Every Now and Then is quite the banging tune. It is all kinds of intense and while the robo voice effects/icy production have been done better elsewhere it is still top drawer Aloud. The build up to the chorus is sublime and when it hits…All you can do is grab hold of something and hang on tight.

We all knew the end was nigh. When I heard Every Now and Then I wept a bit. Because it was over and because it was over. You see, they shouldn’t have ended because they were still phenomenal. But they should have ended because they were STILL phenomenal. It remains a fitting send off to the group that I genuinely do think about every now and then.

Best Lyric: ‘Never ever going back, I said I never would again, it’s better now that we’re apart, but I still think about you every now and then’ Does that not just sum up break ups so tidily? Xenomania should do Hallmark cards.

Best Vocal: Nicola sounds perfect in the opening, Cheryl sounds appropriately heartbroken with ‘but my heart won’t beat again’ and ‘you know why’ but Nadine’s voice really soars on this one in the chorus and ‘it flickers now and then.’

Any Live Performances?: No. No. Nope. It’s ok…I’m fine…

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I’m not really over this. Fucks sake they did Call Me Maybe on the last tour but not this?!

 

8. Miss You Bow Wow (Out of Control)

 

This song could well be the worst thing that ever existed. Or, more likely, a fairly innocuous bit of fluff. But here is the thing…I couldn’t tell you. I am not fit to judge it because it makes me happier than words can possibly explain. I have for the last several years screamed ‘I REMEM-BERRRR…’ at random moments quite a lot of the time and it never fails to fill my heart with a kind of lit up joy. Hell, I sing it so often my Partner regularly joins in with lyrics they made up themselves. Sometimes it alarms me just how much of my spare time is spent this way. You know how you can work out how many years people spend filling in tax returns and bathing etc? I suspect at least 5% of my life so far has been spent bellowing the lyrics to ‘Miss You Bow Wow’

And what lyrics. I ask you, not for the last time on this list, what the actual fuck is this song on about? He is looking bow wow wow? What??? Oh the words are quite remarkably dumb and yet they repeat them over and over as if that is going to help! The guitars and lines like ’20 minutes in the holiday bar then I slip into your girlfriend’s jeans’ suggest they were going for something with a little edge and if that is true they missed the mark with unutterable ineptitude…But if they just wanted to make another electro pop ear worm that is both perfect and ridiculous at the same time that I could dance around my room to then I salute you Xenomania…I DO remember living the dream…

Best Lyric: It does have to be: ‘I remember living the dream…20 minutes in the hotel bar, then I slip into your girlfriend’s jeans’ Horrible magic.

Best Vocal: The best bits are sung by Nadine, Cheryl and Sarah together so it is hard to single anyone out, but Sarah seems to be having the most fun with it and it suits her voice.

Any Live Performances?: Oh hell yes. From the Out of Control tour. Half the views on this video are me. I love this performance. Nadine may flub the lyrics to her solo but makes it up with her riff, Cheryl and Sarah are having a ball, and even my sadly silenced Nic gets a gorgeous moment at 3:18 and watching them jump and down like idiots on the second chorus is just…This is happiness.

 

7. Models (Chemistry)

 

A stonking opener to a superb album and the most single ready song they never released, Models is a fast paced, pissed off, sarcastic scene setter-Letting you know the tone of the album right off the bat. The theme of the record, to put it simply, seems to be: Is modern fame not just shallow and a bit shit? Which is a wonderful back bite to come from a now established and possibly world weary reality TV show commodity.

And the thing is, they can pull it off. Sure Cheryl was thrust into the middle of exactly this sort of bullshit by dating a footballer (‘only A list allowed’) and the rough edges borne of the council estates most of them grew up on was beginning to be rubbed out altogether, but they can still sell the Hell out of a song that needs a bad attitude. Each of them bring something to the table on Models whether it’s a silly posh accent, a Northern twang on the chorus, or bellowing the word ‘shit’ like her life depends on it (God bless Nurhdeen) each girl is fed up of London Fashion Week and the like in her own special way.

It is a heady, toxic, delirious slice of perfect electro pop and a genuine triumph of modern music. Models: Because when Girls Aloud get bored, the vocals get better.

Best Lyric: There’s a lot of funny stuff, the chorus is pretty great, but my personal vote goes to: ‘The girl’s got style, legs for miles, seen ’em walk all over you…’ We know that couple, yes? Sure we do.

Best Vocal: I really love how much Nurhdeen loves: ‘You get your kicks like flies to shit buzzing round the model zoo’ Fucking class act that girl.

Any Live Performances?: They seem to be having a whale of a time during the Chemistry tour…and with songs this good I’m not surprised:

WARNING: Photo compulsive epileptics beware! There are a lot of flashing lights in this one.

 

6. Girl Overboard (Tangled Up)

 

Girl Overboard is dance music at its most joyfully dramatic and I really love that the mood of the piece fits with the best of serious Aloud: All emotionally desperate but achingly beautiful. How dare I call it a ‘piece’ you say? Well fuck you, I would take ‘Girl Overboard’ over…well, insert any highbrow nonsense you dare here please. The girls sound great, the music is intense, the beat bloody well means business and I wave my arms up and down shouting ‘Oooh-oooh’ every time. It gets awkward on public transport.

Reading reviews of this song (and indeed the album) the phrase ‘Euro’ comes up a lot and while I can understand why (is it possible to listen to it without imagining you are in Ibiza getting an STI?) I will defend the lyrical content as being more interesting than your average floor filler. I have always interpreted it as a comment on the out of control head rush of the sudden fame the girls experienced. It is so easy to get lost. As with ‘Real Life’ above I might be giving Cooper and Higgins too much credit here but I can relate to that feeling of being overwhelmed and trying to stop for a moment to take in what is happening.

Or maybe it is about a girl who fell off a boat, I don’t know.

Best Lyric: ‘Somewhere along, I played it wrong, fell into a world so far from home’ Just…yes.

Best Vocal: I like everyone here, which is always nice. But I will single out Nicola on the last ‘somewhere along…’ as her vulnerable vocal suits it best.

Any Live Performances?: Yep. After the big intro, Girl Overboard kicks off the great Tangled Up tour. It is good stuff too. As with pretty much every track on this tour DVD it sounds like the chorus is dubbed but pushing that aside the solo moments are superb. Nadine really brings it, Nicola remains my Queen, and Sarah sounds fantastic but, rather unfortunately, my takeaway from this performance is that the choreographer clearly had their work cut out. The routine in the dance break, without the ‘boys’ to cover them, just screams ‘I am 14 and I made this up in front my mirror’ and I kind of love it:

 

The final order of the top 5 was a nightmare. Each of these songs are actual classics. Indisputably perfect. To try and write about my love for them hurts my heart. It is like trying to write my wedding vows or something. How can I condense the strength of my feeling into a few measly lines? The world must know though…So here we go…

 

5. Graffiti My Soul (What will the Neighbours Say?)

Originally composed for the Britney Spears album ‘Me Against the Music’ I am surprised her ‘team’ turned it down given how well I feel it would have suited Brit-Brit’s distinctive vocal styling and the record she put out that year. Apparently she recorded it but in the end they felt the lack of chorus was a problem. Cheryl said that the way Brit delivered the line ‘You dream of touching me there’ still haunts her nightmares and frankly I feel we all deserve to hear that. But oh well. All the more for Aloud.

You may have spotted I have not yet posted the link to the song. I feel it deserves a preamble before it literally blows your socks off. Xenomania are at their best when the lyrics are insane/catchy, the beat is big and bad and there is a hook to cling to. Here that hook is the guitar riff taken from the song ‘It’s not the Drug’ by Peplab. Supposedly Brian Higgins went all the way to Amsterdam to ask to nab it for the track and the band, presumably startled when he leapt out of a stripper cake or something, said yes. Combine it with utter filth and you have pure joy.

Utter filth? Hell yes. Remember all the innuendo in Here We Go and Deadlines and Diets I mentioned ages ago? Well for Graffiti my Soul they thought ‘fuck subtlety with a lubricated horse dick, let’s just literally give the 18 year Catholic girl the opening gambit of…’

 

That’s right. Nadine Coyle has a fist full of love that’s coming your way. And boy oh boy oh boy does it make me giddy:

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Are you honestly telling me you feel nothing? Sure it is a noisy, chaotic, brash mess but it is also 5 young girls declaring an open heart as good as suicide and warning would be suitors that they are not yet interested in kids and cash…It is a celebration of being young and horny and they sell it without being too gratuitous. Unlike the likes of the Pussycat Dolls, when Girls Aloud sing about sex it doesn’t feel like a marketing gimmick trying to hook in boys-This is one for the girls. And yet it doesn’t feel patronising either. It understands the joy of being desirable without any of the longing for longevity. Kind of like being a teenager in a reality pop band…

Plus, even if you are not 20 years old and eager to do the knuckle shuffle on a Saturday night with a ‘walking talking mannequin’ you just met at a bar, it is still one of the most danceable songs I have ever heard.

Graffiti my Soul gets me going in a way I can’t explain. I want to weep. Just…thank you Xenomania. I stamp my feet in gratitude.

Best Lyric: Could there be any other? I’ve been waiting more than a year to write: ‘Spike heels and skin tight jeans, I’ve got a fist full of love that’s coming your way’

I’m sobbing right now. I love it sooooo much.

Best Vocal: Oh it has to be Nadine. I can’t get enough of her battle cry. Her ‘I’m complicated…And I celebrate it’ is also great.

Any Live Performances?: Oh the school disco vibe is strong in this one:

 

4. On the Metro (Ten)

I never thought I’d live to see the day a Girls Aloud song NOT produced by Xenomania would get this close to my ears so very often. But here we are. In late 2012, Girls Aloud released their final album and of the 4 new tracks my stand out favourite was produced by…The Committe. Nope. Me neither. Whoever they are I want to shake their hands. The President, the Vice President, the whole committee. But having said that the production is probably my least favourite bit of the track as it isn’t actually that pleasant to the ears for the most part. Eventually the nasty bit fades to the back of your brain but that doesn’t change the fact that you now have a headache.

But it is all worth it. It is fabulously camp and manages to be both horrendous and glorious at the same time. But the real reason this song beats some slightly better disco/dance tracks for me are the lyrics. So who was responsible?  One of them, producer DJ Fresh, was extremely irritated that the song was never released as a single. I share his distress.

But anyway back to the lyricists. Oh look at that-

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Of all the blogs, in all the internet…I wish you would come to mine.

Can I just take a minute to talk about how much I love Nicola Marie Roberts? Because I do. I love her so much.

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I know the context. And no I am not sharing. Still love her.

Keep in mind when the group was formed the world didn’t really know how to respond to the moodiest of all moody teens. Kimberly had alluring lips, hips and a natural warmth, Sarah was all lairy, Nadine had the pipes and Cheryl captured the nations hearts with her frank Geordie ways. Nicola got near constant shit thrown at her because she rarely got solos so just kind of hung around the stage looking a bit awkward and generally like her cat had just been run over, not to mention she had the audacity to have red hair and pale skin…But I knew. So when all the girls went away to work on solo projects I waited patiently. I wasn’t even worried. I knew when Nicola emerged again that would be good enough for me.

But as high as my expectations were she surpassed them. Sporting an attitude so thick it wore a dunce cap and wearing many silly outfits, Nicola reinvented herself as the talented one. Not the ginger one. Not the ‘ugly’ one. Not the rude one. Although she mentions all of these labels on the record and wears them as badges of honour. Her war wounds. But more than emerging with her pride still in tact Nicola had arrived as the only one in Girls Aloud who understood how to be witty in song.

Her triumph may not have lead to global superstardom or even a ‘local girl dun good’ story but nonetheless the same critics who called her out for sticking out like a sore thumb in the girl band photo shoots now hailed her as the saviour of weird pop.

But here is not the place for a glowing review of the phenomenal ‘Cinderella’s Eyes’ This has all been leading up to one thing: Her contribution to Ten, the gloriously spot on On the Metro.

 

This is a story we all know. Many of us have lived it. And the detail is sparkling. Nicola is in a bar, nursing a drink, a dude comes over dancing self consciously, she thinks it is going well, but when she returns from the bathroom he has gone and so she heads home on the train in drunken tears, writing his name on the window. While Robyn nailed the pain of watching your love make out with another at a disco in ‘Dancing on my Own’ and Sia the self destructive nature of binge drinking in ‘Chandelier’ it is Nicola Roberts who wins the ‘Dancing gone Wrong Song’ prize for nailing the horror that is the night out hook up that doesn’t even last the whole night.

Oh and guy from Liquid in 2005? The one who kissed my hand and told me I was beautiful? I know that you feel the same baby, but I don’t have your number only got your name, so do look me up won’t you?

Best Lyric: Oh lordy…Let’s go with ‘I left my heart at the disco, now I’m crying on the metro’ It is so simple but really highlights the juxtaposition of the dramatic and the mundane that inevitably comes when you are hammered.

Best Vocal: I’m not just saying it cause she wrote it but Nicola nails that opening: ‘A hundred O’s and X’s lighting up the dark, now they turn into a question mark’ and she really relishes singing about her soda pop.

Any Live Performances?: In Classic Nicola style, this was her response when a music website asked their readers if ‘On the Metro’ should have been the lead single off Ten:

Did I mention I love her?

But thank goodness it didn’t go the same way as Memory of You, Every Now and Then and #3 and #1 on this list. They did perform it on their final tour. I was there. Actually during this song I was so close to the girls I could have reached out and touched them. But I didn’t. Sarah seemed to be having a hard enough time keeping up without such a distraction. I simply cheered. And cheered. And cheered.

(WARNING: More flashing lights.)

 

3. Singapore (The Sound of Girls Aloud, Special Edition)

This one nearly went on the B Side list seeing as it was recorded during the Chemistry sessions but didn’t make the cut. But it did make it to AN album. I only looked it up because I was doing a youtube quiz about their songs (Oh sure, you’ve made better decisions?) and I didn’t recognise it. Why did it take so long for me to discover? Well Singapore was unceremoniously banished to the second disc on the special edition version of their FIRST greatest hits album which was actually just all their singles. Yeah. I am a fan and all but I am not THAT much of a completest. So even though it has become one of my favourite songs period, it nearly passed me by due to the poor choice to give it the Memory of You treatment and shove it as far away from the limelight as humanly possible.

I sort of understand why though. Singapore seems a bit unfinished. After a great intro/bridge/chorus, the ‘Dreams means more’ section meanders horribly, always making me think of the classic jingle ‘beans mean Heinz’ some of the rhythm/rhymes are tenuous as all hell and the song kind of tails off when it runs out of things to say.

Having said all THAT…It actually makes me cry the happy/sad sort of tears when I am in the right sort of mood. It captures the inevitable doom of the long distance relationship in an almost unbearably tender and poignant fashion. Behold. And let the stop motion jelly babies tell you the story:

It contains some of my favourite lyrics and vocal work and very possibly my favourite (is this true? It feels true) chorus they ever did. Just listen to it…The sentiment is spot on: The suppressed emotion behind a line like: ‘Ciao, I’m waiting for your call’ when it immediately follows a line like ‘God it nearly breaks me’ just speaks volumes about the pain they are in. It is actually proper clever and stuff.

And then there is: ‘In my head I can see our long goodbye…you kiss my lips as I try to fix your tie’ You can see it can’t you? She is thinking about the time they will have to say goodbye even as they have this little intimate moment…She can’t enjoy it because the sadness is coming…

The chorus flows so beautifully, the bridge is truly heart breaking, with Cheryl really nailing her self frustration as she coos: ‘Gotta stop believing what the movies say’ Man, I feel I could talk about the lyrics forever. Oh just one more…Who can resist Nicola struggling to fit the word ‘tropicana’ into the opening verse? If you can, I hate you. So…Get out.

But more than anything else, that chorus. I can see this lost soul, stumbling around the street, bereft without her love, watching the sun go down in dismay, turning down the invites to go out, wrapping themselves in his 2nd favourite hoodie (he took his favourite one to Singapore obvs) even as the sad karaoke track bubbles cheerfully behind them, fading out…Ok just ONE more listen…

Dark streets…only suffocate me…
Best Lyric: ‘In a world where the sun don’t always shine…I can see tropicana in your eyes’ is fantastic but let’s just take another hour or two to admire how each line of the chorus feeds the next: ‘Dark streets only suffocate me, now you’re off to Singapore, heart aches, God it nearly breaks me, Ciao: I’m waiting for your call’ Romeo and Juliet can eat shit and die as far as I am concerned. That is pure poetry. Ok I know R&J is not a poem…Just shut up ok?

Best Vocal: Kim and Sarah get a raw, raw deal with the Beans means Heinz section. Seriously. The other three truly get a chance to shine though. Nadine DOES make my heart ache, I TRULY believe Cheryl when she says she wishes he was with her but my Nicola wins again. Her delivery of the tropicana lyric is charming but what cinches it is the way she sings the line ‘That’s the way I feel…You’re all the love I need’ she KNOWS it doesn’t rhyme. Listen to her: She wants to say kneel so bad…It makes me smile every single time.

Any Live Performances?: Nope.

Chery Cole

Cheryl is angry too…

But at least someone animated some jelly babies dancing for me. It helps. It really does.

 

2. Black Jacks (Tangled Up)

I have previously discussed how part of the charm of Xenomania comes from the bonkers nature of their lyrical content. Sure we all love a bit Zimmerman and Tupac and all that poetic truth but sometimes there is something a bit charming about singing along with a song and then going: ‘What the fuck did I just say?’ A lot of pop at the time Girls Aloud were flying was just dull. Like all the words had been spoken and so it was just about putting them in a new order. Essentially love is important, break ups are hard, money is good and the DJ better turn up the music or else. And then you get an album track like Black Jacks which has a chorus opener like ‘there’s black jacks running down my back and I say stop cause I love you baby’

What the actual fuck does that mean? It is like they put some clichés in a blender and switched it on. Then stuck the chunks together in a random order. What is a black jack anyway? They never do say.

Here’s the middle 8:

‘Teacher didn’t you know, I’m getting into the boat, these boots are making me slow, ain’t you going too fast, the future’s set in the past, you keep on telling me so’

What?

Out of context it is almost too silly. It is drivel, about nothing at all. But then you add that fabulous 90’s Northern soul sound and couple it with 60’s psychedelia and it suddenly fits. It is urgent, fun, brilliant…It works so well. I feel alive when I listen to this song. I want to run out into the street and start swinging someone round in a circle against their will:

 

Each section works together and separately. The opening is a great build up handled deftly by Nurhdeen, then there is the joy of the punchy, shout out along chorus and that rowdy ‘New York nothing’ segment is spectacularly well placed…There is nothing I would change. Oh except more Nicola. Always more Nicola.

I don’t have much else to say except…

Best Lyric: ‘There’s black jacks running down my back and I say stop…cause I love you baby’

What does that mean???? Nobody knows…I don’t even care. It just works.

Best Vocal: Nadine dominates most of the vocal on this one, I prefer her delivery of the line: ‘Wasting my time, out at sea when you’re following me all the way’

Any Live Performances?: They performed it during the Tangled Up tour and I quite enjoy Sarah’s enthusiastic whooping for a change and their exuberant shouts during the ‘New York Nothing!’ segments. Also Nadine changes the line ‘Jumping IN your face’ to ‘jumping ON your face’ which is pretty excellent.

 

Nearly 10 thousand words later we have arrived at our destination. I would apologise for the delay but it was a hell of a ride…

 

For me anyway. I enjoyed it.

 

1. Swinging London Town (Chemistry)

Swinging London Town is the best Girls Aloud album track that was never a single and never performed live by the group. And no. It is not just because Nicola Roberts named it her favourite Girls Aloud song. And because her voice dominates it. And because…Nicola…

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Where was I? Oh yeah. So shit gets real fast with this one. Right from the off the music is blistering, the lyrics are saturated with biting satire, the beat is crazy, the tempo shifts just as it is losing you and then the whole thing builds to an almighty climax. It tells the story, paints the pictures, invites you in and the girls sizzle, smirking their way through the dizzying tunnel of electro pop into the delicious cool pool of cynicism. It is a masterclass in not giving a shit delivered by a team of writers who care too much and it is as close to perfect as a frenzied ‘here we fucking go!’ kind of track can ever, ever be.

I love it. I worship it. I bow down to Swinging London Town:

(More crazy flashing for a short time but it might be worth a seizure in my personal experience, the song is that good) 

Lots of people have compared this to ‘West End Girls’ by the Pet Shop Boys and it is easy to see why. In many ways Girls Aloud and Xenomania did pick up that particular baton and run with it. The synth, the guitars, the buzz-it is so groovy. That is my main point you should hold on to. In my enthusiasm I will be getting pretentious but more than anything else the song soars with how much you want to dance to it. Keep in mind that the year this album came out the biggest, most heard songs around the globe were Maroon 5’s ‘She will be Loved’ and James Blunt’s ‘Your Beautiful’ We needed Chemistry. So badly. Girls Aloud saved the charts. And the fact that the album only got to #11 suggests we didn’t even say thank you.

Do I mean Girls Aloud saved the charts? Or do I mean Xenomania? Nope. This time I mean the girls themselves. Many critics like to single them out as the least essential members of the team but fuck that. Each girl takes their section (Sarah Kimberly, Nicola, Cheryl, Nadine, Nicola again because yessss) and performs the hell out of it. They seem to understand that they are part of the problem. Sure the price of the cocktails make them choke on their sushi, but it is all they have. Even the music fades in and out, teasing the fleeting nature of reality pop success. Sure it is empty and frivolous but in their world weary delivery you can taste their fear-This is all temporary.

‘I guess I’m neck deep in it and starting to drown, along with all the wannabes in swinging London Town…’

Sure all the big female soloists have money notes and key changes and can perform basic 5 part harmonies (something I am sure all the members of Girls Aloud would admit when cornered they never got the hang of) but can your Mariahs and Christinas take lines like ‘I pussyfoot from drink to drink in swinging London Town’ and make it sound so true? Or how about ‘Now a downward slide to rehab and all of it for free’? Or ‘Daddy’s Bentley still full of gear?’

Do we know them? Really, really know them?

I honestly believe Xenomania cracked it here: Marrying the best the girls could offer with superb lyrics and a stomping beat. Chemistry was at least partially meant as an experiment exploring the shallowness of fame in 2005. Swinging London Town is the final report-Fame in 2005 is both attractive and repulsive. Simultaneously inviting and horrific. Like holding down a job, having children and dying-Nobody knows the truth of it until it is too late to escape.

So you might as well dance.

Best Lyric: Oh God, don’t make me choose! I personally have a soft spot for Kimberly’s verse. ‘Do you know the me that wakes in places, faces I’ve never seen, the mother of all hangovers to remind me where I’ve been, and if I stop, I’m sickened, it really gets me down, so I step back into the city lights the Queen of London Town’ That moment of self realisation immediately masked with extra strength delusion is so wonderfully human.

Best Vocal: Another tricky one, just reinforcing I made the right call by putting this song at Number 1 on my list. I think they all sound wonderfully distinctive-Sarah’s growl, Cheryls light touch, Nadine’s gurn, Kim’s crisp delivery, but I have to give it to Nicola. Is it bias? Possibly. But listen to her lament the fate of the poor little rich girl who does it cause she can and admire the final verse where she closes the door to the party gently but firmly behind her with the most beautiful parting shot.

You already know the answer to the live performances one. Gutted.

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Well if you made it through all of that there is a chance you are crazier for the Aloud than I am. In which case you will want to return again in the future for Part 3 when I go through the GA Singles and rate them in order of personal preference, thus revealing my very favourite Girls Aloud tune.

Nicola is shaking with antici-

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pation.

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Disturbing Movie Scenes #1: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

1. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: The Fate of Randle McMurphy

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This is the story of the day I learned that life isn’t fair.

I was about 9, maybe 10. Now obviously you learn from the age of about 2 or 3 that life can be embarrassing, annoying and unreasonable. The noisy adult shapes in your life tell you that you can’t do something or you can’t have that and that touching that will burn your hand off bla bla bla and you scream and kick but they ignore you etc. So early and often we as humans come to understand, in the immortal words of the Jagger, you can’t always get what you want.

But, deep down, I suspected everything in life would work out fine for me. Sure, life wasn’t perfect: My friends regularly accused me of lying about stuff, usually cause I was lying about stuff, my school teachers went back and forth between encouraging my creativity and being irritated by it leaving me feeling a bit confused about whether it was ok to ignore maths and write songs instead and my Parents often had conversations about serious things behind closed doors that they thought we couldn’t hear. But generally speaking I enjoyed being alive. I imagined this would continue. I had no reason to suspect my dreams wouldn’t come true. I was excited about getting older, I was happy to be young, I believed that all the terrible things that could go wrong happened to other people. I was secure in the knowledge that, in the end, if I did my best I would continue to experience the kind of peace that comes from living in a protective bubble made up of ego, a tiny village in a farming community, wotsits, Roald Dahl books and the Spice Girls.

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All these things could last forever, right? Right? Right?

So in short: I was aware at this age that things could go wrong but I believed everything pretty much always worked out in the end. There was no bumped knee so painful that it couldn’t be kissed better.

Then one day my Father suggested we sit down as a family and watch his copy of one of his favourite movies: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Based of a book by Ken Kesey and produced by the Douglas dynasty, Cuckoo’s Nest tells the story of one Randle P McMurphy a guy who voluntarily enters a mental institute to avoid a prison sentence for statutory rape and starts to challenge the way things are done. This is not appreciated by the immovable Nurse Ratched who prefers to keep the service users sedate ie terrified, believing them a risk to themselves and others when too excited. Randle fights against her for the sake of the men he begrudgingly regards as friends and for the fun of the fair, and soon a battle of nerves breaks out between two evenly matched oppositions: One cold and controlling the other passionate and unbreakable.

Let’s be honest: When people are discussing notoriously disturbing films this one doesn’t come up. It is very well regarded, sure, winning many prizes, critically lauded and listed as one of the most culturally significant movies from the arguably incomparable output of 70’s cinema. It is still beloved to this day but such is its place in the cultural zeitgeist it is oft parodied, ripe for satire as it is. It also launched the careers of several young upstarts like Christopher Lloyd, Brad Dourif and Danny Devito. Although the author didn’t like that the film isn’t told from the perspective of Chief Bromden like in the book, Cuckoo’s Nest remains one of the most popular films ever made.

I was instantly won over, spell bound you might say by the story. Another film rated 18 or R that I was possibly too young to watch, I let the jokes I didn’t understand wash over me and got right behind McMurphy’s mission to end Ratched’s reign of terror. Despite the charges that bring him to this place in the first instance, watching him act out the World Series games, patter effortlessly and break out the gang for a day on the sea, I began to view him as a heroic figure. I remember the scene where he attempts to pick up a pluming fixture, watching him go red and sweat with the effort and embarassment…’At least I tried’ he says. Or something to that effect. My Father turned to me and repeated it. Emphasising the message. At least McMurphy is fighting back.

And then there is the other side…

Nurse_Ratched

Like with many other posts on my list, part of what is deeply unsettling about Ratched is she really believes her way is right. Does she get a sadistic pleasure out of controlling the inmates? I suspect she does. But you can understand why she objects to McMurphy and even if you can’t sympathise with her, part of what makes her frightening is she represents the bureaucratic bogeyman we all know-Someone with power who wields it for their own ends without any real understanding of the damage they are doing. She has no self awareness, she can justify her actions at every turn, and it is horrifying to think such vulnerable people are being harmed in this way.

The performances are fantastic across the board and director Milos Forman does a phenomenal job. It has been a long time since I have seen it but so many tiny moments are clear in my mind: Jack Nicholson’s energy when he first enters as he jumps all over the guards ‘acting crazy,’ Louise Fletcher’s devil horn hair, the faces of the inmates many of whom were real life inmates of such an institution, the scene where the Chief, played by Will Sampson, reveals he can talk when he accepts McMurphy’s offer of gum with a flat but enthusiastic: ‘Ah…juicy fruit’ I still think about it whenever I see the brand.

So is the film as good as remembered? Hard for me to say. It was made in the 70’s. I watched it in the 90’s. I have not seen it in ages. So I don’t have much to say about the politics of mental health as portrayed in the film. Going by the enduring satire of the movie, I feel like it did more harm than good in some ways, possibly creating or at the very least confirming the stereotype that people who have difficulties with their mental health often babble and shout and shake it all about. I don’t condemn the film for this but I certainly imagine that aspect dates it a bit.

Like I briefly mentioned earlier, the fact that McMurphy is a rapist was lost on me when I watched it. I assume they talk about it in the film but that wasn’t something I retained. The underlying, bubbling misogyny aimed at Ratched also might make me feel uncomfortable-Who knows? All I know is the film stayed with me on many levels and I don’t doubt it deserved the clean sweep of Oscars it got in 1976. Best of all is the very moving Best Actress speech Louise Fletcher gives where she does sign language for her parents, both of were are deaf.

I am stalling again…I know what I have to do and I don’t really want to do it.

So now I am going to take you through some of the key moments of the film, building up to my most personally disturbing moment in cinema. I will include clips and I will spoil the ending. So, for the last time, Eddie will you do the honours?

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Thanks Eddie. You’re a pal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So…

After a fight with some orderlies, McMurphy is taken ‘upstairs’ for some electric shock therapy in a horrible scene, and when he returns he shuffles in, seemingly weakened, much to the concern of the other inmates. Then…

So McMurphy continues his psychological warfare against Ratchet but then he learns he can’t just leave whenever he wants as he is being held with no end date in sight despite the fact he initially lied to be committed. So he decides to break out but not before having an alcohol and drugs fuelled party where he arranges for his buddy Candy to take the virginity of the stuttering Billy. In the wake of the party, which was so good McMurphy forgot to escape, Ratchet confronts Billy about his behaviour and in a glorious moment he manages to speak without stammering.
Then Ratchet, fully aware of the pain she is going to inflict, softly informs Billy she will have to let his Mother know about what he did. Then all hell breaks lose:

Again, I have to stop and praise the performances. The close ups on the faces, these reaction shots, the delivery: it is sharp, so painful, so deliriously well timed. It is art. I still get shivers even now.

So tragically Billy kills himself after realising he will not be able to escape the grip Ratchet has over his phsyche and McMurhpy loses it and tries to murder Ratchet.

And now we have arrived. The final scene of the film.

As a 9, 10 year old I took it in. When the film was over I ran to the kitchen and cried my eyes out. I remember I was crying so hard I couldn’t stay standing and collapsed on the floor. I could hear the mumbles from the living room, my siblings helpfully suggesting that perhaps we should have just rented Mrs Doubtfire again. Then my Father was there.

He was very apologetic. He clearly felt bad. But he was also baffled. ‘it’s just a film darling’ he intoned with authority. But it was too late. I now knew the truth. ‘It’s not right! It’s not fair!’ I screamed into the face of my alarmed parent. My tiny distress overwhelmed me as I replayed the moment McMurphy is finally stifled by his oppressors.

I have not watched it since I was a child because of how it made me feel then. The grief and pain I experienced as a kid that I had never felt before. As I am writing this I feel the anxiety I know so well run up and down my fingers, throat, stomach, head…I feel a bit sick, my heart is twitching. But I am going to watch it. I am going to let my tears happen. I am going to finish writing this long, pointless, rambling series of short essays about the scenes in films that have lived in my brain the longest, unwelcome guests at the most miserable party of all time.

McMurhpy is back in the ward and the Chief gets out of bed to discuss the next step in their plan to escape. But this time, it is not an act. This time something really is wrong.


The film actually ends on a moment of optimism as the Chief does what McMurphy could not: He escapes. Thanks to his friend, he can be free. He believes in himself. And so he goes, soundtracked to the roar of approval from his fellow war buddies and the stirring score-

However, the damage was done for me. My little mind was racing: How could they give someone a lobotomy? How could a man like that be overpowered and conquered by the uniforms? Why couldn’t he have escaped too? Why wasn’t he allowed to survive? It wasn’t fair. I didn’t want it to be true. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right.

I learned that day that not everyone makes it. It sounds melodramatic I know but it is true. I mean, look at the others. They could run out too but they don’t. They need that place. Why couldn’t Billy live? Because he couldn’t cope. Not everybody has the strength to run at the unknown, counting only on themselves. The world isn’t safe. Not everyone is kind.

As a child I had honestly believed I could deal with anything-then I realised what they did to McMurphy and I understood injustice. The horror of misunderstandings, the seeming reasonableness of pure evil, the fact that the weaknesses we all have can be our undoing. It wasn’t right and it wasn’t fair but McMurphy would never be avenged. Even Chief’s escape into the early morning wasn’t enough to lift my spirits.

So that was then, how about now? I am a snotty mess and it is hard to breathe but I have survived to garble and explain why it disturbed me so deeply. Is the impact the same? Not quite but it deserves its rightful place at the top of my list. McMurphy’s death was one of the defining moments of my young life: Not everyone can be saved. Not everyone can save themselves. People lose. People die.

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It has never really occurred to me until today the possible link between the agony of watching this film and my eventual road to working in mental health. Don’t get me wrong: I primarily do my job because I like feeling clever and not being bored. I am not striving to have a massive impact on the world. But I want to connect. Any way I can. I’m a bit human that way.

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In summary, that was a dark couple of weeks. I have explored a lot of common and uncommon themes of pain and disturbance all of them personal and kind of important.

It was an interesting writing exercise, way harder than I thought. The last 5 or so kind of drained me so I won’t be jumping straight back in but I hope the fact that I was able to push past my tiredness quite a few times after work to post helps me to keep going with the blog. Only time time will tell. If you enjoyed the list please do like, share and comment. Or not. Whatever works. Thank you for stopping by anyway.

And finally I just want to sincerely say to all my kind and supportive friends who might be reading this…

Fuck you, I’m not editing it to include the tunnel scene from Willy Wonka, stop asking.

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Disturbing Movie Scenes #2: Happiness

2. Happiness: Father and Son

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Some art is created with the aim of pushing buttons or making people uncomfortable. A movie like Happiness doesn’t want to entertain you. It wants to skeeve you out. I am annoyed that it absolute worked. If you read interviews with the writer/director Todd Solondz he acts all surprised that people respond the way they do to his films. He claims they are not trying to be grim and there is no reason we should judge fictional characters for their behaviour. What a troll. Dude was emotionally rickrolling people before the internet even really took off.

Like many ensemble indie hits before it and since, Happiness revolves around a family and some of the people they cross paths with and the film gets to show the different perspectives and experiences of each individual as the characters try and reach for emotional satisfaction in their own ways. The main focus is on the lives of the three Jordan sisters, one a glacial bored author, one a judgemental housewife, the third a sensitive hippy looking for meaning. The mood of the piece is horrifically depressing, a kind of a black hole of misery and a rank view of mankind as nasty and unbearably self involved.

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I don’t like this film. Just gotta say. I watched it once and as soon as it ended I knew I wouldn’t be watching it again. For a movie pitched as a comedy it feels more like a snuff film or something-I wanted to shower for the rest of my life to get the feel of it off me. You could argue I am too low brow to get it or I am uncomfortable in recognising myself in the characters but all in all it is just a miserable, dreary experience to sit through.

That is not to say it has nothing going for it. It is well put together, very well directed and there are some good moments. One of these things is a brilliant performance by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman whose ability to play just about anything made him a truly special actor, possibly one of the best. In this film he is a guy who makes dirty phonecalls.

psh

He went on to play Truman Capote and be a Mission Impossible villain. This guy. Dude was a chameleon.

What else? Well I am struggling to remember the plots of the other characters to be honest…This is what I mean. For all the controversy it is kind of unexceptional and hard to love. Oh wait, there is the Dylan Baker character…I remember him.

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I. Remember. Him.

When people praise and talk about the film, it is the story of the psychiatrist who is married to the eldest Jordan sister they always talk about. There is a reason for that. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. It annoys me that Happiness is considered worthy of memory for one plot strand cause I sure as fuck can’t remember anything else of consequence.

Anyway, enough moaning we have arrived. Dylan Baker’s Bill Maplewood. The reason the film was rejected from the Sundance Film Festival and went on to get slapped with an NC-17 rating thereby limiting where and when it could be distributed. Time to tense your ass cheeks in horror…

So this isn’t a spoiler because we are told pretty early on. Bill is a paedophile. He is also a married Father of three with a highly successful professional career as a psychiatrist who has regular heart to heart talks with his young Son about the changes going on with his body. Baker plays the character like the ideal Father we were taught about in sitcoms…he is a straight shootin’, knowledgeable man, who is prepared to have the potential awkward conversations with his child without talking down to him. He is loving and kind and wants his family to be happy.

But his own search for happiness takes a dark turn when his son has a friend round for a sleepover and Bill drugs his sandwich in order to rape him.

Now it goes without saying we don’t see the assault take place. But that doesn’t change how uncomfortable reading that made you does it?

Even though the character brings up all these feelings of disgust that you would feel under any circumstances he is not a cartoon villain like so many rapists in movies (Looking at you Tucci in Lovely Bones) He is recognisably human and although he knows that what he is doing is wrong his attraction to the boy cancels out his moral compass and he is devastated when it seems like what he wants won’t come to pass after little Johnny (of course he is called Johnny) refuses the sundae with the drug in it.

Listening to Bill then trying to get the kid to eat a hurriedly prepared roofie sandwich is majorly tense as you become more invested in the outcome, the camera forcing you to view the scene from Bill’s world as he looks back and forth from the sandwich to his ‘prey’ from the perspective of the hunter even as the video games noises bleep and bloop away reminding you that the child is a child. It is delivered like a classic Hitchcock sequence that allows you to share the relief Bill feels when the unsuspecting boy finally eats his snack…and then of course you experience the horror of realising what this means.

The scene can be viewed at this link:

http://www.criticalcommons.org/Members/MRobinson/clips/happiness-the-sandwich

Later in the film, Bill also gets the opportunity to rape another of his son’s friends, Ronald, who has been left home alone. However after Johnny’s parents take him to the hospital who recognise signs that he has been abused, Bill is questioned about the sleepover and accidentally mentions Ronald instead of Johnny thus cementing his guilt. And then it happens. The final Father and Son conversation.

Oh it is brutal. So well acted, kind of funny, very sad and just vomit inducing.

As I mentioned, Bill has been having chats with his son Billy (of course his name is Billy) about the things Billy is worried about. Namely that he can’t cum. Bill reassures his son that he is normal and it will happen one day also softly suggesting that he could help him masturbate or measure his dick if he would like…Oh God my gag reflex is off again.

But in their final conversation, Billy now knows what is Father has done and wants to hear it from him. Bill, with his trademark honestly and sensitivity to the needs of his boy, tells the truth. The horrible, horrible truth. He tells Billy that he enjoyed fucking his friends and he would do it again if given the opportunity. He says it with shame and regret but he can’t deny his feelings. As they both sob together about how their lives have been unequivocally ruined by Bill’s depravity Billy asks his Father if he would ever fuck him. Bill assures him he wouldn’t but he has had a wank while thinking of him.

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I watched this film with MY EYES.

This clip below contains all three of the Father/Son chats of which I speak. Now it has been edited poorly, out of context, with the song ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’ inserted awkwardly in-between the scenes but I’m afraid it was the best I and the internet could do. Hit play and Godspeed.

Y’still with me?

Hello?

tumbleweed

A lot of people respond angrily to art that allow kids to act scenes like this…How can you justify it, how can you accept it as anything else other than sick? Well I disagree and I’m ok with a young actor delivering these lines. Kids should know this stuff happen. It is disturbing, all the more so because abuse goes on all the time and it isn’t slavering weirdos in the dark that pounce if you are stupid enough to let your loved ones out after the witching hour. Rapists and paedophiles are regular people who you like, share a joke with, shake hands with, share your thoughts about the weather with…They are not outside of society. And even in all of this, Bill is a good Father and Husband. It is undeniable. Attentive, interested and responsible. Who can fault him?

As I said, Dylan Baker plays him like a TV Dad of old, and this works for me because we have an idea of the kind of man this is but we don’t really know him. People are quick to study the survivors of abuse for signs that they encouraged or condoned their treatment because it is bloody uncomfortable to admit that a likeable, interesting, intelligent man who our brains failed to recognise as a threat is in fact capable of making the kind of choices that parents have nightmares about.

The fact is people can control their wardrobe choices. People can control how much they drink. People can choose the company they keep. It helps people feel safe to imagine they can control what happens to them and if things go horribly wrong they can convince themselves that if they change their behaviour around a bit it won’t happen again…

The fact that we live in a world where on a regular basis people, again not creepy people in the dark but people we know and like, go around destroying lives and there is very little that can be done to reason with them is just too frightening. Who can we trust? Why can’t we stop them? Why are they doing this? Happiness provides an answer: Bill wants sex with little boys the same way you or I might want another cookie. It is there, it is tasty, he takes it.

It is easier for society to pretend there is an easy answer and that answer lies with us, the people who would never even consider treating another person with such little regard. Let’s not think about the ‘them.’ Let’s not give them a voice in this. It is easier for a survivor of childhood sexual abuse or indeed any abuse to question his/her own actions than look across the room at the guy/girl who seems to have already moved on from the experience that destroyed the survivor and ask: What was he/she thinking when they did that to me?

Because we don’t want to know do we? Not really.

Bill’s innermost thoughts and feelings are some of the most repulsive we can imagine and to be confronted with a man acting on that with actual predative behaviour in a film with a comedic and borderline sympathetic slant makes some people angry. If such topics are in films they have to be played seriously, whereas Happiness kind of shrugs about it even goes as so far as to make him a reasonable person. For many this is just not acceptable. Some things can’t be funny, some things can’t be dismissed.

But in the cesspool of Solondz, it is just a quick glance behind another white picket fence in another family with a lot of issues that nobody would guess just by looking at them. If it helps, young Billy gets his happy ending.

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I’m not going to lie it didn’t help.

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Tonight/Tomorrow..what could be more disturbing than that? Well it probably won’t seem that bad to you. But to me? I just attempted to watch the scene for the first time in over a decade and got 12 seconds in before I started to cry…Oh dear.

Tonight/Tomorrow return for my #1 most disturbing scene in a film as a seemingly throwaway joke from earlier in the film is called back with devastating effect.

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