Saturday 20 January 2018

The rock musical: more miss than hit

Charming: Tom Parsons as 'Guy' and Megan Riordan as 'Girls' in Once
Charming: Tom Parsons as 'Guy' and Megan Riordan as 'Girls' in Once
Tame Impala
Groove Armada
Ezra Furman
Working Girl
John Meagher

John Meagher

They were queuing up in Hollywood to shower Once, the movie, with praise - everyone from Heath Ledger to Steven Spielberg was rhapsodising about the cute little Irish musical with one of the minor stars of The Commitments in the lead role.

Charming as John Carney's low-budget film starring Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova undoubtedly is, it's terribly slight and I have never felt the need to see it a second time. So, when the stage version opened at Dublin's Gaiety Theatre last year it was more out of a sense of professional duty than any personal need that urged me to go. And, was I glad I did? The simple, romantic story works brilliantly on stage and the bits that seemed a toe-curlingly corny in the film didn't bother me at all. As for the moment when 'Guy' and 'Girl' perform 'Falling Slowly'... well, even cynics like me found it heart-melting. Credit must go to Enda Walsh for his remarkable adaptation and it's bound to do great business when it opens for a six-week run at the Olympia in its home town of Dublin on Tuesday.

In truth, it is a rare example of a stage musical featuring songs not originally conceived for the theatre that actually works on a critical level. And maybe it's because the story is intimate, yet universal, and the songs featured (mainly from back catalogue of Hansard's old band, The Frames, but also from his Swell Season collaboration with Irglova) work seamlessly in the storyline.

There is no shortage of overblown productions, where songs from a giant-selling act are crow-barred into a flimsy story. And yet, many of the most egregious examples are among the most commercially successful musicals ever written.

Mamma Mia! does capture much of the naffness that clung limpet-like to Abba when they were still a going concern, but its tale of a wedding and the mother-of-the-bride's three old flames is a shoddy vehicle for many of the Swedes' most emblematic songs. It succeeds in reducing compositions as heart-rending as 'The Winner Takes it All' to a quick interlude amid the punchlines. (That said, the stage version is far better than the awful film - proof that even one so great as Meryl Streep is capable of making poor choices every now and again.)

Even a band as theatrical as Queen, who were no strangers to the rock-opera concept, were ill-served by Ben Elton's futuristic fable We Will Rock You. You would have struggled to find a critic with any good words for a musical where the main characters took their names from 'Bohemian Rhapsody' (Galileo and Scaramouche anyone?) The harsh words from London's theatre critics didn't put me off traipsing along to the Dominion Theatre to see for myself: within 10 minutes, I was sitting there, slack-jawed, and wondering just how this wretched production had lasted so long. And, not only was it one of the West End's longest running shows, but it seemingly played every major city in the world, too. It's hard not to imagine Ben Elton in a room somewhere surrounded by piles of cash and laughing maniacally.

Whatever about critics and the paying public being about loggerheads over Mamma Mia! and We Will Rock You, they were certainly in agreement when it came to Jim Steinman's 2002 effort, Dance of the Vampires. As the composer behind Meat Loaf's gazillion-selling albums, including Bat Out of Hell, Steinman could hardly have been better placed to make a killing on a crowd-pleasing rock musical but his batty adaptation of the camp Roman Polanski film The Fearless Vampire Killers, closed after a few weeks on Broadway. Steinman later claimed his vision had been sullied by the producers.

It was a similar story for Paul Simon when his musical, The Capeman, opened on Broadway in 1998. Inspired by the real-life story of a Puerto Rican teen who killed two people in 1950s New York, Simon wrote a mix of Latin, doo-wop and gospel for a soundtrack that is well worth investigation. But the production haemorrhaged money and closed after 60-odd performances. The New York Times review was typical of the scathing notices: "It's like watching a mortally wounded animal. Your only worry is that it has to suffer and that there's nothing you can do about it."

Even the greatness of Bob Dylan's oeuvre could not save the musical The Times They Are A-Changin a decade ago, despite the work of one of the planet's most significant choreographers, Twyla Tharp.

"When bad shows happen to great songwriters," quipped a New York Times headline of its dismal 28-show run, while Rolling Stone was similarly dismissive: "If you got to witness this, you will have a one-of-a-kind war story at bar-room Dylan conversations the rest of your life."

Of course, not all rock musicals are critical abominations: The Who's seminal 1969 rock opera album Tommy was turned into an outstanding musical when it debuted on Broadway almost a quarter century later; while Billy Joel's extensive catalogue provided the soundtrack for Movin' Out, a 'jukebox musical' (one featuring no dialogue, just songs) which was set in the US during the fraught years of the Vietnam War. Incidentally, Kilkenny man Darren Holden - now one quarter of The High Kings - starred as the Piano Man on the original run.

l Nina Simone was one of the finest singers of the 20th Century, and yet the world came close to never hearing that voice. She only turned to singing to make ends meet after she was refused entry, on racial grounds, to a prestigious music college. A new feature-length Netflix documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, offers a compelling, warts-and-all look at a performer who came of age during the civil rights movement but suffered a sad decline in subsequent decades. It was directed by Liz Garbus, who made a brilliant film on the troubled chess genius Bobby Fischer.

Listen up

Tame Impala

Currents (Universal/Fiction)

Album of the week

These Australian psych-pop-rockers enjoyed ecstatic reviews and an unlikely Grammy nomination for their Lonerism album a few years ago and this follow-up is bound to be just as well received. A more dance-oriented collection than before, the songs are perhaps capable of reaching a wider audience.

Everything revolves around singer, songwriter, producer and veritable cottage industry Kevin Parker, and his talents (already recognised by the likes of collaborator Kendrick Lamar) are bountiful here. 'The Moment' is an exquisite dance-pop song that will likely sound very special when Tame Impala play Electric Picnic in September, while opener 'Let It Happen' unfurls seductively over seven-and-a-bit minutes.

Parker has acknowledged that the album is, in part, is inspired by his break-up with French singer Melody Prochet (he produced her fine debut album, Melody's Echo Chamber, which is also the name of her band) and there's certainly a downbeat, resigned feel to the lovely 'Yes I'm Changing'. The sparkling soulful, pop of 'The Less I Know the Better', hints at relationship torment - "I was doing fine until I met you," he sings. "'Til I saw your face, now I can't erase." It's a smart little tune and it's got 'hit' written all over it.

Groove Armada

Little Black Book (Moda Black)


A curious hybrid of old material, remixes and new studio cuts, this double album is apparently designed to let English production duo Andy Cato and Tom Findlay express themselves fully. The result is a self-indulgent mish-mash, although one can admire the thrillingly retooled versions (by other people) of GA's emblematic songs 'I See You Baby' and 'Superstylin'.

Ezra Furman

Perpetual Motion People (Bella Union)


The Chicago native's third album delivers aural pleasure in spades: whether he's channelling the art-rock of the Velvet Underground or the post-punk thrills of The Modern Lovers or a myriad of genres in between, Furman has a way with a memorable hook and a great tune. Frankly, any 2015 playlist without his slacker anthem 'Restless Year' is redundant.

Little Boots

Working Girl (On Repeat)


Blackpool's Little Boots - aka Victoria Hesketh - delivered pure-pop goods on her major label debut Hands six years ago, but she's been largely off the radar since. This fine effort is more than capable of returning her to the charts thanks to belters like 'Better in the Morning' while the clever, experimental pop of 'Taste It' suggests there's plenty of creativity in the tank, too.

David Bowie

Low (1977)

Classic album revisited

The first of two albums he released in 1977 (the other is the superb Heroes) saw Bowie at the height of his powers. The move to Berlin had revitalised him - listen to that jaunty instrumental 'A New Career in A New Town' - but there are echoes of pain, too, especially on the dark, troubled 'Always Crashing in the Same Car' and 'Be My Wife' ("sometimes you get so lonely").

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