Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Not Fade Away

Year 7, Day 273 - 9/30/15 - Movie #2,165

BEFORE: Brad Garrett carries over from "Planes: Fire & Rescue", and I'm back on track with another film about aspiring musicians. 

THE PLOT:  Set in suburban New Jersey the 1960s, a group of friends form a rock band and try to make it big.

AFTER: When it comes to being either famous or successful, there are two schools of thought.  One is that people need to go out and chase the work, and the other is that they need to hone their craft, become the best they can possibly be at something, and let the work find them.  Thinking back on my own career in filmmaking, I have found that, for me, neither track worked for me.  I'll explain.

Whenever I've gone out job-hunting, mailing out my resumé, responding to classified ads, and more recently doing things like getting a LinkedIn profile, the results have always been the same: nada, zippo, bupkus.  I've worked for over 25 years in the world of video and film production, and I can't point to one career move or successful job offer that resulted from this.  Instead I can point to five or six key moments in my life where things happened - jobs did come my way, but it was more like they dropped into my lap, and I don't know whether to call that luck, fate, karma, divine intervention, or merely just me taking advantage of the situations I found myself in.

If it's luck, then it's 5 or 6 lucky things that happened to put me where I am, and I'm not sure that I believe one person could be that lucky.  I did an internship at a production company for two semesters, and when it was over, I worked part-time as an usher at a movie theater on 23rd St.  One day both directors from that production company came in to see a movie, and saw me working when I tore their tickets.  (They were filming a project at a studio a few blocks away, and came to see a movie after a long shoot day.  They were a married couple, but they were separated and dating other people.  Long story.)  Anyway, they offered me a job in their studio that was half office assistant and half production assistant, so I took the gig.  I often think back to that moment and wonder how my life would have been different if I hadn't been working that shift, if they had gone to see a different movie, or if I had been on a bathroom break when they arrived.  Would I be managing a movie theater right now, if fate/luck/karma had not intervened?

A few years after that, I was working as an office manager for that company, and they got behind in paying me, so I had this intern working for me who was going to take a part-time job stuffing envelopes for a company uptown, but she then got offered a job as a location scout for Robert Redford, so she was leaving town.  I called the company that she was about to turn down, and asked if I could substitute in for her - I figured, how bad could stuffing envelopes be?  It turned out to be an animation rep company, like an agent for animated commercial work, and I got along with the people there, and I got my foot in the door and worked there for 22 years.  Again, I think back on all the ways that could have gone south - what if Robert Redford hired someone else?  What if that intern turned down the job as his location scout?  What if I didn't get along with the people stuffing envelopes?

A few months after I got myself situated in the new gig part-time, a co-worker left to work for an independent animation studio, then a year or two later, she left that job to do her own animation for Sesame Street, and she recommended me to take her place at the indie studio.  As far as I know, I was the only recommended person, the only applicant for the job, and I've been working part-time at THAT studio also for over 22 years.  Have I worked hard at those jobs?  I believe that I have.  Am I good at them?  I think the timeline speaks for itself.  But the common thread seems to be that in most cases, there was no competition, no other applicants I had to beat out, just friends recommending me, or things coming my way by default.  Most recently I took another part-time job for another animator, someone I've known for 20 years, and she wanted my advice on getting herself to the next level, and clearing her workload so she can have more time to animate.  I recommended myself because by now I've gotten used to how this feels - another opportunity dropped right into my lap.  ("dropportunity"?)  Another fungo softball, thrown at me right over the plate.

Don't get me wrong, when I see an opportunity, I try to take it.  I'll hit the hell out of that softball if you give me a chance.  But still, I'm left wondering - who threw me the softball in the first place?   I try not to believe in God, but if I didn't know better, I'd say I've got some kind of career guardian angel looking out for me.  Or if my career is based on 5 lucky turns, then that does that mean I'm a total fraud, who doesn't really deserve the good things that have come my way?  Or maybe I should just track down the people who turned down the gigs that I got, and buy them all dinner or something.  You know, restore the karmic balance.  On the other hand, I have recommended people who I've worked with for other jobs from time to time, so maybe I have balanced things out over time.

My point is, whether you work in filmmaking or art or rock music, the principle is the same.  Work hard, but also keep your eyes open for the next opportunity, whatever it may be.  I think that's what this film is really about, trying to move forward as musicians, while not ever being certain what exactly the next step should be.  What songs should we learn?  Should we try to write our own songs, or just stick to ones that everyone knows?  Should we quit school to devote more time to the band? Should we move out of our parents' houses, and get a loft in NYC so we can do more gigs?

I'm reckoning that there are probably thousands of stories like this, right up to the hipsters of today.  Without a straightforward career path, like banking or nursing or driving a truck, it's potentially maddening to figure out what to do or whom to trust.  And even if you do everything right, there's no guarantee you're going to meet the people you need to help you succeed.  Think about the Beatles, still the most successful band of all time.  They were just a skiffle cover band, and they performed for two years in the nastiest strip clubs in Germany.  They came back to Liverpool with a different sound, a drug addiction or two and probably some STDs, but they had confidence, and were suddenly a hit with the British girls.  And even then, nearly every record executive turned them down because they thought that "guitar groups were on the way out."  They auditioned for the right person on the right day, and after 5 years they became an "overnight success".

What if they hadn't met Brian Epstein?  What if George Martin hadn't agreed to arrange their songs or produce their album? What if Ed Sullivan hadn't put them on his TV show, or what if Oswald hadn't shot JFK and given the U.S. the need for some escapism?  What about the 500 or 1,000 other, possibly better bands that didn't get exactly the same opportunities that the Beatles did?  Sure, some of those bands got work in the 1960's just by following in their footsteps - suddenly 4-man guitar groups were all the rage, and if you could get 4 guys with Nehru jackets and bowl cuts who could carry a reasonable tune on stage without passing out, you could get a recording contract.

And that's exactly the time-frame covered in "Not Fade Away", the wake of the JFK assassination and the Vietnam draft, and the change in music that the Beatles represented.  The Stones co-opting the "Bo Diddley beat" on their cover of the title track.  Crazy bands like the Kinks and the Animals and the Moody Blues, representing the second wave of the British invasion.  Meanwhile, the local band members graduate high-school, go to college, drop out of college, all while trying to keep the band going.  And eventually they learn that, surprise, it's going to take a lot of work - and some of them may have joined the band to avoid this whole "work" thing in the first place. 

Do they succeed?  Ah, that would be telling.  But again, there are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of personal stories like this out there.  This works as an amalgam, representing the average American rocker kids' dreams during the late 1960's.  The time-frame gets a little suspect, however, because the film seems to go right up to the start of the punk movement, and to me, that seems to suggest the mid-1970's (Sex Pistols formed in 1975) - and the kids don't seem 12 years older at the end of the film than they were at the start.  I can also see how people might think that this film is all over the place, trying to squeeze in as many cultural touchstones as possible. 

Maybe the reference to punk music is symbolic of how this film sort of "punked" out at the end.  They went for arty and obtuse, but to me that counts as a non-ending if there's no resolution.  The film doesn't really end, it just sort of stops.  As does my covering of this topic - I would love to follow this with a film like "CBGB", set in the early days of the punk movement, or even "Sid & Nancy", but I've only got 6 days to link to the start of my Halloween chain, and that's not easy.

Also starring John Magaro (last seen in "Captain Phillips"), James Gandolfini (last seen in "Enough Said"), Jack Huston (last seen in "Shrink"), Will Brill, Dominique McElligott (last seen in "Moon"), Brahm Vaccarella, Gregory Perri (last seen in "The Wolf of Wall Street"), Bella Heathcote (last seen in "Killing Them Softly"), Molly Price (last seen in "Random Hearts"), Christopher McDonald (last seen in "Fanboys"), Meg Guzulescu, Isiah Whitlock, Jr. (last seen in "The Angriest Man in Brooklyn"), with cameos from John Tormey, Lisa Lampanelli. 

RATING: 4 out of 10 plastic lemons

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