Monday, July 27, 2020

The beat goes on: The Eddy

Nobody can question Damien Chazelle’s jazz credentials; the Academy Award-winning writer/director of Whiplash and La La Land has demonstrated a bravura flair for crowd-pleasing, music-oriented dramas. His involvement with The Eddy — as co-executive producer, and director of the first two episodes — therefore generated high expectations.

Too bad he wasn’t also involved in the writing.

The 2020 Netflix miniseries comes from creator Jack Thorne, who wrote five of the eight episodes, and shared writing credit on the other three. Noting that he also scripted last year’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials tells us everything we need to know about Thorne; his world-view is dour, dreary and relentlessly depressing. All the characters in The Eddy are unhappy at best, forlorn and miserable at worst. The core plot drags along solely because these people don’t talk to each other, at least not truthfully. Our primary character lies relentlessly — foolishly — even when there’s no good reason to do so … except to stretch things along in contrived fashion.

Ah, but the music is sensational, all of it written by composer/keyboardist Randy Kerber and songwriter, lyricist and record producer Glen Ballard. Jazz is ubiquitous: mostly live performances within the context of the drama, running at length.

“Randy and I have both been working in film and television our whole careers,” Ballard observed, “and I don’t think either of us has done anything like this. Music normally comes in at the end [of production], but in this case not only was it there at the beginning, but also during shooting. For me it was fundamentally essential to the tone, and this indefinable energy which comes out of real people playing music in real time.”1

“On occasion during filming,” Kerber added, “Damien asked us to play longer. So we did long performances, and these then became embedded into the drama, which then underscored what was happening thematically. Which meant it reached a point where the music and story reached a level of interplay that added something new.”2

Chazelle agreed. “It was important to let things take their course. That was a desire all the directors seemed to share, whether it was improvising around the edges of a scene, filming the music live, or doing full takes and seeing what happened. That helped give the show some of its flavor, and is certainly in the spirit of jazz.”3

Intentions notwithstanding, whether the music compensates for the overcooked melodrama will depend on the eye-rolling tolerance of the individual viewer.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Recent discovery: Agent 077, sfida ai killers

This one resulted from a pleasant suggestion from a fan, who wondered why I hadn't explored actor Richard Harrison’s second outing as “all-American CIA Agent Bob Fleming.” Answer: No reason at all, aside from lack of time and space. So let's make up for it now.


Allegiances shift at the blink of a seductive eye in 1966’s Agent 077, sfida ai killers, released in the States as both Killers Are Challenged and Bob Fleming: Mission Casablanca.
Apparent good gals turn bad (rather randomly); bad gals turn good; other bad gals staybad. Perhaps aware that their film doesn’t make much sense, director Antonio Margheriti and scripter Ernesto Gastaldi hid behind the respective pseudonyms Anthony Dawson and Julian Berry. 

Harrison once again has an affable looseness as Fleming, reprising his role from 1965’s Secret Agent Fireball (which you’ll find in my first volume). He’s reasonably adept with a quip, and he definitely holds his own during an energetic mano a mano skirmish with a thug who wields spiked brass knuckles. Editor Renato Cinquini gives this scuffle the brisk intensity of James Bond’s train compartment struggle with Red Grant, in From Russia with Love.

Carlo Savina’s score is an occasionally awkward blend of light jazz and orchestral string cues, and the title theme — vocalese by Nora Orlandi’s 4+4 — is positively dire. That said, Savina’s jazz touches are quite pleasant; he favors walking bass, percussion and flute-driven reeds, the latter often echoed by muted trumpet. Some of these cues evoke fond memories of Henry Mancini’s work on both Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky. Riccardo Pallottini’s cinematography is a bit too self-indulgent; he succumbs to pointless overhead camera angles and ground-level close-ups that stare into Harrison’s nostrils.

Once the ghastly title theme concludes, double-time walking bass powers a lively swing cue while a scientist watches in horror as a colleague — in an approaching helicopter — is blown to smithereens; this observer soon meets a similar fate. They’re two of three researchers who’ve perfected a new energy source “that will make all other types of fuel obsolete” (a common goal in 1960s Eurospy films). In order to protect himself, the third scientist — Coleman (Marcel Charvey) — has changed his face via plastic surgery. This gives Fleming the opportunity to draw enemy attention by impersonating the man, while the actual Coleman is spirited to a safe house in Geneva. Cue all manner of attacks, many — but not all — arranged by smarmy Tommy Sturges (Aldo Cecconi), a wheelchair-bound Texas oil tycoon.

Sturges often is accompanied by the slinky Velka (Susy Andersen), whose relationship with the man — nurse? escort? paid companion? lover? — remains undefined. Savina introduces her with a deliciously sexy burst of bossa nova that once again favors bass and flute. Velka earns most of the subsequent jazz cues; she has a habit of popping up at unexpected moments, often saving Fleming’s hide … despite the fact that she just as frequently seems to put him in danger. Savina works in some fast-paced action jazz midway through the caper, when Fleming is ambushed in an open-air marketplace; the ubiquitous walking bass is augmented by harpsichord during a later car chase.

Pouty Halima (Janine Reynaud) and Moira (Mitsouko, born Maryse Guy) — both atrocious actors — serve as the death-dealing lieutenants to an initially unseen “big boss,” although Moira’s heart doesn’t seem to be in her nefarious activities. As a result, she earns a gratuitous whip-and-bondage “punishment” from Halima. That’s an oddly exploitative sidebar, but worse is yet to come; the film climaxes — if it can be called that — when Fleming lands in a protracted waterfront bar fight that leaves no cliché behind: destroyed furniture, bottles broken on heads, a drunk who continues to enjoy his tipple despite the carnage surrounding him, and even a series of (sigh) dwarf jokes. It’s slapstick nonsense on par with The Three Stooges, and it brings the film to a thudding halt for what seems an eternity; Savina wisely didn’t even try to grant this a musical backdrop.

Agent 077, sfida ai killers failed to generate a soundtrack album, although the title theme is included on Orchestra Cine Sound: Suspense Screen Themes Best 14 (release date unknown), issued on Japan’s Philips label.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Recent discovery: James Tont Operazione U.N.O.

Actually, it's more accurate to call this one a recent re-discovery.

As explained in my books' introductions, I didn't have the energy — or page count — to thoroughly cover the wealth of "Eurospy" films released in the wake of the 1960s James Bond entries; attempting to do so would have led to madness. Italian filmmakers were particularly aggressive about milking the secret agent cow, so I did make a point of including a dozen or so with (reasonably) solid jazz scores.

But I'm fully aware that many more likely await, and — with more time available, now that the books have been published — they'll pop up here, as warranted. I've spent considerable time with Matt Blake and David Deal's The Eurospy Guide, a voluminous alphabetical listing of such films; I only wish the authors had been more detailed about the existence — and quality — of jazz scores (then again, I guess that's my job).


A recent perusal reminded me of a film I'd seen way back in the day, and which remains one of the most notorious copyright offenders...


Although Italian filmmakers produced a wealth of James Bond spoofs in the wake of Goldfinger and Thunderball, none was more brazen than 1965’s French/Italian co-production of James Tont Operazione U.N.O., also known under the more eyebrow-lifting title of Goldsinger. Writer/directors Bruno Corbucci and Giovanni Grimaldi shamelessly stole — ah … parodied — all manner of elements from its British namesake, starting with the fact that the hopelessly inept Tont (Landa Buzzanca, who later starred in numerous Italian sex comedies) is best known by his code name: Agent 007½. That, by itself, was enough to arouse the wrath of the United Artists legal department, which issued a stern admonition: 

“Only James Bond, the character from the novels by Ian Fleming, can be Agent 007 … Warning is given to all Italian companies which, exploiting the success achieved by Agent 007, have distinguished the leading figures in their films by the same numerals.”1

Most prints were hastily changed back to James Tont Operazione Uno, but it’s easy to find Internet versions that still bear the Goldsinger title.