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Muddy Waters and the Rolling Stones: Live at the Checkerboard Lounge, Chicago 1981

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Muddy Waters and the Rolling Stones: Live at the Checkerboard Lounge, Chicago 1981
Photo: Eagle Vision

Was the Rolling Stones’ arrival at the Checkerboard Lounge in Chicago on November 22, 1981 an impromptu, unchoreographed exercise in pure fandom? Or was it a canny bit of promotion, a reminder that the Stones remained, at heart, an authentic blues act, most at home in a club full of black musicians? The latter may be the cynical view, but the band’s manager claims he approached the Checkerboard higher-ups a week in advance, proposing a surprise concert and proffering $500 as proof-of-earnest. Don’t believe Eagle Rock Entertainment, then, when they suggest that the Stones’ appearance on this night was in any way serendipitous. Jonathan Lethem once called Mick Jagger an “irritating capitalist,” and herein lies the difficulty in being a Stones fan: how to reconcile the hard-bitten groove of the band’s rhythm section with the stage-managing machinations of the frontman? There are two basic solutions: one, don’t fret—just listen, and two, make sure Muddy Waters is on stage.

Previously available only as a lo-fi bootleg, the audio on this LP/DVD package (released as a DVD/CD in July) is notably crisp, mixed and restored by longtime Stones soundman Bob Clearmountain. The video, meanwhile, isn’t only a testament to Waters’s barely diminished stage presence (he would pass away just two years later), but also to the power of the Stones in a small venue.

Here’s the scene: Waters is performing at the Checkerboard, trotting out traditional numbers and adding thin, brittle fills with a half-length pinky slide. Cue the Stones, who enter the club, bearing bottles and blondes, during “Baby Please Don’t Go.” Waters is noticeably upped by their arrival. “Let’s bring Mick Jagger up here,” he beams, and the frontman complies, exercising an overtly light, almost precious touch to his call and response with Waters, easing himself in and not seeking—for once—to impose. Then: “What about Keith?” Jagger nods his approval, and Richards climbs onto a table and then the stage, bestowing a hug on an impossibly large black woman in a pink dress who moments before had served him a bucket of whiskey. Handed a black Telecaster, Richards gets right down to business while Waters eventually remembers Ron Wood’s name and invites him up too. As Jagger reverts from rock star to participant fanboy, Waters, looking ecstatic, alights from his stool to strut and gesticulate with the stagecraft of a man half his age. By the time they get to “Mannish Boy,” Muddy sounds 20 years younger; by the third verse, he seems ready to tear off his vest.

Soon, we get hot-fingered solos from Buddy Guy (resplendent in full afro) and lively vocals from Junior Wells, who sings directly into Waters’s face. At this point, we’re in guitar-soup territory. The Checkerboard stage threatens to buckle under the weight of a half-dozen Fenders. Somehow, though, the music works, breathes, and isn’t merely an exercise in mutual admiration. Toward the end, the now nearly forgotten blues vet Lefty Dizz, serving in this period as the Checkerboard’s in-house guitar jester, relieves Guy of conducting duties and sings “One Eyed Woman,” a panegyric to an “ugly woman…with a mouth full of skunk.” Jagger cedes him the stage while Wood meets Dizz’s non sequiturs with tiny squeals on the slide.

What is serendipitous about this night, and what you won’t find in the liner notes, is that performing mere feet away from Waters seems to bring Jagger down to earth, to take him back some 15 years at least, before world-spanning arena tours required him to amplify his preening strut. Waters, stately in vest and tie and bearing a weather-beaten, rust-red telecaster, is similarly transported. The mutual contact high is palpable. One wonders what a properly orchestrated studio collaboration between the two would have produced.

In his autobiography, Richards reminisces about the Stones’ early club days: “The spaces were small, which suited us. It suited Mick best of all. Mick’s artistry was on display in these small venues, where there was barely space to swing a cat—perhaps more so than it ever was later…. Give Mick Jagger a stage the size of a table and he could work it better than anybody, except maybe James Brown.”

Just look at the band’s 1964 TAMI show for an example of what he means. By the mid ‘70s, the Rolling Stones felt compelled to augment their loss of musical momentum with Spinal Tap-worthy props, including, memorably, a giant, inflatable penis. In 1981, at the start of a similarly bloated arena tour, the Checkerboard performance showed a version of the Stones that few would ever see again: intimate, underlit, not strutting so much as seeking to avoid collisions on a stage the size of a table.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Costume Design

Honestly, we’re so gobsmacked by AMPAS’s skullduggery that we can’t even see what’s right in front of us.

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The Favourite
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

In less than a week, AMPAS has successfully stoked the anger of just about every creative in Hollywood, and perhaps sensing a widespread boycott of the Oscar telecast in response to the banishment of four awards to commercial breaks, the academy has now “clarified” its latest attempt to reboot the Oscars for the TL;DR generation. Yesterday, in a letter signed by the academy’s board of governors—which includes president, director of photography, and hater of cinematography John Bailey—members were assured that the four winning speeches will in fact be included in the broadcast, but with all the walking and talking that it takes to announce the winners edited out. Also, those four categories may or may not be given the short shrift in 2020, as apparently there’s a “rotation” system in place that will, I guess, leave the door open for us to not see Lady Gaga walk on stage next year to accept the best actress award for her performance accepting the Golden Globe this year for “Shallow.”

Honestly, we’re so gobsmacked by AMPAS’s skullduggery that we can’t even see what’s right in front of us. Case in point: When I sat down to write this article, I thought this award was going to be a slam dunk for Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody, but as it turns out, the film isn’t even nominated for its costumes. Because sanity prevailed when voters decided they didn’t find any kind of magic in Brian May pulling out his old Queen outfits for the making of Bryan Singer’s film, maybe it will prevail again and AMPAS will take the Oscars off its planned keto diet. And if it doesn’t, we’ll take some solace in three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell—who for the third time in her career has been nominated twice in the same year—collecting this award for her gloriously ostentatious, stitch-perfect garbs for The Favourite.

Will Win: The Favourite

Could Win: Black Panther

Should Win: The Favourite

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Berlinale 2019: Out Stealing Horses, A Tale of Three Sisters, & Öndög

These films suggest the cinema as another place where we can simulate and reflect on life within and surrounded by natural landscapes.

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Out Stealing Horses
Photo: Berlinale

On the way into Berlin from Tegel Airport, one of the first signs of the city you see is a large tract of land divided into rectangular plots, on each a shed in a variable state of repair. In fact, you can find such areas dispersed throughout the city. Visitors can easily mistake these colonies for third world-style shantytowns, but in fact they’re the bougiest things imaginable: privately owned allotments, known as kleingärten, that aren’t used as primary residences. It’s an institution that allows urban dwellers with enough money to simulate life “on the land,” a slice of rural life plopped down within the city.

As goes Berlin, so goes Berlinale. Several films in this year’s competition suggest the cinema as another place where we can simulate and reflect on life within and surrounded by natural landscapes. There’s a certain nostalgia in these films’ contemplation of the relationship between people and nature—in an age where our actions have precipitated an ongoing ecological cataclysm, the depiction of natural spaces almost immediately invokes the past.

A particularly wistful note is struck by Hans Petter Moland’s Out Stealing Horses, a film about—stop me if you’ve heard this before—sexual awakening set during a rural Scandinavian summer. The film begins in the dark, cold New Year’s Eve of 1999, as an aged and lonesome Trond Sander (Stellan Skarsgård) hides out in Sweden from his troubled recent past. When the 66-year-old Norwegian meets his closest neighbor, Lars (Bjørn Floberg), the film flashes back to the summer of 1948, which Trond spent at his father’s country house in Norway. In voiceover, Skarsgård’s weathered baritone guides us through his character’s reminiscences concerning the tragedy that befell a neighboring family, and how his relationship with his father (Tobias Santelmann) was altered forever when they both became entangled in it.

Although the bulk of its action takes place in the postwar Norwegian woods, Out Stealing Horses regularly brings us back to 1999, contrasting the gray-and-blue perpetual night of a Swedish winter with the variegated colors of summer. Such blatant romantic symbolism doesn’t initially detract from a film that seems at the outset to promise a thoughtful contemplation of mortality. But as the symbols start to multiply—winter for old age and impending death; summer for youth; flowers, birds, and bees for burgeoning sexuality; thunder for emotional turmoil; water for femininity—and the melodrama becomes conventional and bloated, Moland and co-screenwriter Per Petterson’s subordination of natural objects to human meanings becomes increasingly one-dimensional.

Emin Alper’s A Tale of Three Sisters opens with a car driving into a remote, mountainous area of central Anatolia in Turkey. The car, whose hood takes up the foreground of the frame, belongs to Mr. Necati, a well-to-do city dweller on whom Sevkit (Müfit Kayacan) and his three daughters rely for their livelihood. The four live in a small village nestled in the mountains, and since their mother’s death, each of the three girls has tried and failed to serve as Necati’s family’s maid in the city. Nurhan (Ece Yüksel) and Havva (Helin Kandemir) have just returned from their stint, one that ended because the irascible Nurhan was beating the Necati children, and Reyhan (Cemre Ebuzziya) was returned some years ago when she got pregnant, upon which her father swiftly married her off to Veysel (Kayhan Açikgöz).

Veysel, a reluctant and lazy shepherd by trade, is a hapless fool, the kind of guy who will accidentally piss on a grave, then worriedly pose to his village superiors the question: “Is pissing on graves a sin?” Sevkit and the other men regularly laugh at his expense, and Reyhan and her sisters have little patience for her husband-of-necessity. The village’s mistreatment of the earnest but perpetually outmatched Veysel will have tragic consequences.

Tale of Three Sisters isn’t interested in tidy narrative resolutions. Much of the film consists of evocative scenes set amid the glowing brown-red hues of the area’s mountains and the hearth of Sivket’s family home—one of the most memorable of which is a comic, sexually suggestive sequence involving a huge jug of ayran, a foamy yogurt-based drink popular in Turkey. The film works its way toward a kind of moral resolution, though at times the journey there is a bit of a slog. Sevkit is a domineering father, his words taking over both his home and the film, which occasionally feels as tedious as his daughters find it.

Öndög, by Chinese director Wang Quan’an, is a film that takes an elemental approach to the human condition. A good portion of its running time is made up of long exterior shots of the Mongolian plains held for minutes at a time, the frame cleanly divided between the elements of earth and sky. The action, such that it is, often takes place at dusk, which flattens the silhouettes of the diminutive human figures against the blue-orange twilight sky; at times they look like shadow puppets inching their way across an ersatz, cardboard stage. The film’s aesthetics are grandiose in the same measure that they are playful.

Naturally, Öndög is concerned with life and death, and in a manner that evokes cyclical time. It opens with a pair of deaths—a woman’s body is discovered in a field, and a sheep is slaughtered on camera—and it closes with a pair of births (no spoilers here, but, then again, it’s doubtful spoilers can exist in cyclical time). Landing upon the same symbol of eternal recurrence as Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, Wang evokes dinosaur life: One character shares with another that the ancient reptiles were first discovered in Mongolia, making Mongolians their descendants, destined in millions of years to be discovered again, by dinosaur scientists.

Though the film opens with police discovering the aforementioned woman’s body and a young officer (Norovsambuu) left alone in the field to guard it until it can be retrieved, it leaves this plot thread unresolved, subsuming itself in the anti-drama of the herdswoman (Dulamjav Enkhtaivan) who’s asked to keep the officer company. Roaming around the plains on her distinctive camel and tending to her livestock with only the occasional help of a neighboring, motorcycle-riding herdsman (Aorigeletu), the herdswoman is a model of autonomy and self-determination. She’s faster and better with a gun than the police, and flat-out ignores the herdsman’s constant suggestions that she needs to find a man.

Quan’an addresses eternal, cosmic themes through a portrait of rural characters living in a desolate setting, but even if his interest is in the primeval, he doesn’t make his characters “primitive.” They live closer to death and to birth, but they still play Elvis songs on their cellphones, call the police when they’re in trouble, and have medical abortions. And Öndög’s portrait of the human condition also isn’t portentous or overly self-serious; for one, this is a film that will give you a new appreciation for the inherent humor of camel sounds. Slow but never tedious, set under sky and stars but not in the least bit sentimental, Öndög is the festival’s most profound story of human life on the land.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Actor

Throwing questions of artistic merit out the window, opponents of a Rami Malek win have dutifully cast doubt on his ideological purity.

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Bohemian Rhapsody
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Given how this accursed Oscar season has thrown one obscenity after another at everyone who has any investment whatsoever in the institution of the Academy Awards, it’s as though AMPAS is inviting the world to burn the Dolby Theater down on Oscar Sunday, as Mélanie Laurent’s Shosanna does to the Cinema Le Gamaar at the climax of Inglourious Basterds. And at this point, considering that one of the four awards being banished to commercial breaks is cinematography, and that AMPAS president John Bailey is himself a cinematographer, the presumption of self-sabotage seems credible.

Such are the affronts to progress toward anything other than ABC-Disney’s maniacal bottom line to reverse the show’s declining ratings, and the deadening effect every bad idea has had on our souls, that Rami Malek winning the best actor Oscar for leading with his teeth throughout Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody slots toward the bottom of our shit list. Malek, who cemented his frontrunner status with a BAFTA win last weekend, may be taking a page, if not the whole ream, from Eddie Redmayne’s shamelessly charming campaign playbook. But in the category’s absence of Ethan Hawke, who ran the table with critics for his performance in First Reformed, is anyone’s reserve of outrage bottomless enough to howl about the inevitable results here, beyond wounded fans of A Star Is Born? (Though, don’t get us wrong. We’re happy to give Bradley Cooper the award if it keeps him from going behind the camera again.)

Throwing questions of artistic merit out the window, opponents of a Malek win have dutifully cast doubt on his ideological purity. You don’t have to flash back to Casey Affleck to regard this tack as a grisly mistake, even if you don’t happen to believe Malek got Bryan Singer kicked off of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody for preying on underage boys. This is an Academy that nominated Green Book for five awards. Good intentions are still more than enough, and what you say is still as important, if not more so, than what you do. And if portraying Freddie Mercury as a misguided homosexual who just needed to find Britain’s one good gay somebody to love leaves a pretty foul taste in our mouths, at least Malek has managed to avoid letting the N-word slip from his mouth on the promotional circuit.

Will Win: Rami Malek, Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: Christian Bale, Vice

Should Win: Any actor willing to publicly stand up in support of airing all 24 categories.

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