Thursday, January 28, 2010

Harry's Game

Last week everyone’s favourite cheeky chappy, happy Harry Redknapp, admitted that Tottenham Hotspur were keen on bringing Real Madrid forward Ruud van Nistelrooy back to England, but warned that meeting the Dutchman’s wage demands could “kill the club.” It was no surprise to see Redknapp wake up during the transfer window, the time of year when his revolving door transfer policy comes into its own, nor was his interest in an over-priced player well past his best particularly unexpected, but it was simply astonishing to hear of his new-found financial prudence. After all, this is the manager who normally spends money like it isn’t his own (actually, it isn’t). In the 2009 window, he splashed £45m on five players, an amount which was only exceeded by “more money than Croesus” Manchester City.

In the past, Redknapp has argued that he should not be blamed for this “hey, big spender” approach to football management, as it was financed by the (stupid) owners. It was not his fault if they wanted to “live the dream” and funded his acquisitions accordingly. Tough luck if those dreams ended up being of the shattered variety. The money side of the game was “nuffink” to do with him. So, logically, you cannot expect Redknapp to be sympathetic about what has happened to the clubs he left behind. It’s probably just a coincidence.

"Shiny Happy People"

Whatever the reason, it’s a veritable trail of destruction for Bournemouth, West Ham, Southampton and Portsmouth, but Redknapp has stated that he does not feel responsible for the financial problems that have troubled these clubs after his departure. Bournemouth were forced into administration, suffering points deductions two seasons in a row. West Ham have undergone two changes of ownership with the recent deal with the porn barons narrowly avoiding a fire sale. Southampton suffered a similar fate, entering administration and struggling to make the payroll before being sold to a Swiss consortium. Portsmouth are perhaps in the most serious economic difficulties with Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs presenting the club with a winding-up order and they have become a laughing stock as they seek investment from anyone that sounds like a wealthy Arab: Sheikh Your-Money-Maker, Sheikh It-All-About, Sheikh Rattle-And-Roll and even Sheikh n-Vac.

And what do these clubs have in common? They’ve all been saddled with a crippling wage bill for the footballing equivalent of prima donnas, lame ducks and assorted waifs and strays. If ever anybody had done his utmost to provide an unbeatable argument for a salary cap or at least a rule to limit wages as a proportion of turnover, that man would be Harry Redknapp.

Financial disaster has yet to hit Spurs, but with Jonah as their manager, it’s surely only a matter of time given his perfect record in ruining a club’s balance sheet - unless chairman Daniel Levy can keep him on a tighter leash than usual. Tottenham are already trading at a loss if you exclude player sales and I think that the days of persuading bigger clubs to spunk their money on the likes of Berbatov and Keane are long gone.

"Shirty Harry"

Droopy’s modus operandi has become horribly familiar over the years. First, you crank up the transfer merry-go-round, moving out large numbers of the existing squad, only to replace them with your own tried-and-trusted bunch of mercenaries (Pascal Chimbonda anyone?). Next, and this is crucial, you highlight how astute your transfer dealing is, for example hailing West Ham’s purchase of Liverpool’s misfiring forward Titi Camara as a coup: “I’ve got a £10m striker for £1.5m”, while conveniently forgetting to mention the ridiculously inflated salaries that are used to tempt the players into joining a second-rate team.

At a later date, you also overlook how these bargain buys actually perform on the pitch, so Camara’s record of no goals in eleven appearances for West Ham will never be discussed. The team might do well for a while, but sooner or later they will suffer from the gigantic increase in running costs and the associated rise in debt levels, and then the walls come tumbling down.

Redknapp started as he meant to go on in his first managerial role at Bournemouth, when he traded players like a South Coast version of Arthur Daley, increasing the debt from £150k in 1987 to £2.6m in 1992 (enormous for a club at this level in the early 90s). Although he made a small profit on the transfers, he drove up the salaries to a level that was to prove unsustainable. A financial advisor commented, “There was a degree of irresponsibility in his actions. It has developed into the mess we are now trying desperately to resolve.”


Given their precarious position, Redknapp’s activities at Portsmouth are also worth reviewing, as he effectively gambled the club’s future by gathering together a large squad of over-paid players. As an example, he wasted £13m on the totally unproductive forward line of John Utaka, the club’s record signing at £7m, and David Nugent, a snip at just £6m. When they were signed, Redknapp boasted, “I’m delighted with the pair of them. They will give us an awful lot up front.” At least, he was right about the awful bit, as Nugent has been loaned to Burnley after scoring a pathetic three goals, while Utaka is still a long way from reaching double figures after over fifty appearances.

Utaka is a perfect example of how Redknapp’s “strategy” damages a club, as he is paid a quite unbelievable £80,000 a week, which means that his total cost over his four-year contract is a staggering £23.6m. At his current rate of scoring, that will work out to something like £2.5m for every goal. Signings like these took Portsmouth’s annual wage bill to nearly £55m, which is around 90% of the club’s turnover (according to an investigation by the News of the World).

"Happy Harry"

As the respected former Tottenham manager David Pleat commented, “Some of the have-nots have been absolutely stupid, like Portsmouth, and have just paid for what they consider assets in the pursuit of short-term glory. A lot of clubs are loaded with players on high salaries who they would have massive problems manoeuvring to other clubs.” These costs are often funded by the club taking out loans, borrowing money against future income, sometimes with the stadium as collateral, which can be highly risky if the projected revenue stream (normally from television) does not materialise, e.g. if the club is relegated.

While Redknapp should be given credit for developing the likes of Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand and Joe Cole at West Ham, his policy is normally to buy a new player or twenty, rather than coax the best of his existing team. He has denied this, “Sometimes you get unfairly labeled in this game. I’m supposed to be a wheeler dealer, but I understand the game and maybe I don’t always get credit for that.”

It is hard not consider him a bit of a barrow boy, when he launches into his standard transfer spiel, “We’re down to the bare bones and desperately need new players.” This is usually accompanied by numerous public shows of admiration for the target with plenty of “nudge, nudge, wink, wink”, but obviously no, absolutely no tapping up. His reputation for being able to spot a player is also far from perfect, as West Ham fans would surely agree, when considering expensive flops like Marco Boogers, Ilie Dumitrescu and Florin Raducioiu, whose displays Redknapp himself described as “worth about two bob.”

"Big Mouth Strikes Again"

Possibly those who consider Redknapp a cheque-book manager are thinking of the 44 players he brought in during his first 30-month spell at Portsmouth or maybe they remember the 134 transfers he was involved in at West Ham, prompting Chairman Terry Brown to ask, “What’s Harry up to?” Fair question, given that Redknapp had thundered, “The day I would want to leave West Ham is the day we start wanting to sell the Ferdinands, the Lampards and all them”, a few short months before accepting Ferdinand’s transfer to Leeds, possibly comforted by the £300,000 bonus he himself received for the deal. This was apparently on the condition that he did not use the Ferdinand funds on transfers, which he subsequently ignored, buying just the ten players.

Imagine what managers like Harry Redknapp would have to do without the transfer window. If they weren’t able to reach into the owner’s wallet so easily, then they would have to stand or fall on their ability to coach, the quality of their preparation and the ingenuity of their tactics. At least that would give Redknapp the opportunity to make use of his enormous back-room staff. I confess to having lost track of how many coaches Spurs have now, but I believe that the lengthy list includes Kevin Bond (more of him later), Joe Jordan, Tim Sherwood, Clive Allen and Les Ferdinand. Maybe that’s why journalists are always talking about their strong bench, as they would certainly need one for that lot – especially if Tom Huddlestone is among the subs.

"All by myself"

If ever a film were made about Redknapp, it would probably focus on another aspect of his colourful career, namely the many accusations of corruption. They could call it “When Harry Met Money” or possibly “Dirty Harry”. Of course, our crafty Cockney has never been found guilty of anything and he is innocent until proven otherwise, but some malicious folk will still mutter, “no smoke without fire”. For the record, three allegations have been widely reported.

Back in September 2006, the BBC’s “Panorama” investigated football corruption, including a video of “Readies” appearing to express an interest in approaching a player illegally, though our hero told the BBC that he had never taken a bung and considered himself to be “one million percent innocent.” His assistant manager at Portsmouth, Kevin Bond, was accused in the same programme of receiving payments, which provoked him into taking legal action against the BBC. However, the corporation stood its ground, only for Bond to mysteriously drop the case just before the hearing was about to start. Nobody knows the reason for this volte-face, which seems particularly strange after all the legal costs he had incurred, but those interested in an answer could always contact Mr. Bond at Tottenham Hotspur, where he has once again been re-united with his old mucker, Harry Redknapp.

"Happy days are here again"

Along with four others, including Portsmouth Managing Director, Peter Storrie, and former Chairman, Milan Mandaric, Redknapp was actually arrested in November 2007 on allegations of conspiracy to defraud and false accounting, though he was later released without charge. With his customary chutzpah, Redknapp bizarrely claimed that being arrested somehow proved his innocence, “I’ve been answering questions to help the police. I am not directly concerned with their enquiries. They have to arrest you to talk to you, for you to be in the police station. I think that’s the end of it.”

So, imagine Redknapp’s astonishment this month, when he was informed that he would be charged with two counts of cheating the public revenue following a lengthy investigation by HMRC. This focused on allegations of unpaid tax relating to an offshore payment made to Redknapp by Mandaric. Liverpool fans greeted this announcement with their legendary Scouse wit, “You’re being taxed in the morning”, though it is not known whether the Anfield DJ played the Beatles’ classic “Taxman” during the half-time break. Whether or not Redknapp is guilty as charged, there is a moral issue about this payment, as it was apparently linked to a bonus scheme where Redknapp was given 5-10% of any profits from transfers, but it surely cannot be right to incentivise your manager to sell your best players (assets).

"Hurry Up, Harry"

There’s also a nasty smell about the strange betting patterns on Betfair prior to Redknapp’s appointment at Portsmouth, following his short-lived tenure at Southampton. An incredible £16.5m was traded on the exchange before Redknapp’s surprising return to his “spiritual home” was announced. This was obviously nothing to do with Redknapp, but eyebrows were raised.

This was just one of the many moves that Redknapp has made that have caused accusations of disloyalty. Of course, people change jobs all the time, but they don’t always profess undying loyalty before exiting stage left shortly afterwards. When he first walked out on Portsmouth, claiming that he needed a break from football, he told a reporter that he would not join their arch rivals Southampton, “I will not go down the road, no chance”, but was appointed their manager two weeks later. Similarly, when he was asked about rumours that he might quit Southampton, following the hiring of Sir Clive Woodward, England’s Rugby World Cup winning coach, as Technical Director, he boomed, “If I wanted to walk out, I would have gone in the summer”, only to resign a few weeks later. Most revoltingly, he never stopped telling people that he would stay at Portsmouth:

“Any unfulfilled dreams I have left in football can be achieved here. I turned down two exceptional offers in the last twelve months and that was a clear indication of where my heart and mind was.”

"It wouldn’t make an ounce of difference who came in for me now. This is where I belong and this is where I want to finish.”

“It would have been easy to walk away in the past year and I don’t think anyone would have had any real complaints. But, as tempting as the offers were, I couldn’t have lived with myself. There would have been a massive sense of betrayal.”

"Fans' Favourite"

Well that’s cleared that up – except that five months later, Redknapp jumped ship and headed off to Tottenham, leaving Portsmouth’s number one fan (and annoying bell ringer) John Westwood to sum up the fans’ feelings, “Every fan feels let down. When he came back from Southampton he said how much he loved the club and this would be his last job. Yet again he’s stabbed us all in the back and left us in the lurch.”

People should not be too surprised; after all, this is the man who has no compunction about rubbishing his managerial colleagues. After he returned to Portsmouth, he complained that his predecessor had left him with a useless squad, “Look what I have to work with. Some of the guys don’t even speak English. It’s ridiculous.”

Never mind his own chequered history with foreign imports, “Samassi Abou don’t speak the English too good”. When he arrived at Tottenham, he lost little time in whipping out the traditional self-serving script, “This is a football club that has been put together by I don’t know who and I don’t know how. It is a mish-mash of players. It’s scary.” And he might just have mentioned on a couple of occasions that when he took over Spurs only had two points from their first eight games …

"Blow football"

Forget other managers, what about his celebrated man management? The proverbial “arm around the shoulder” was by all accounts the main inspiration for the Spurs revival, as Harry explained, “I have just got to know them, talked to them and encouraged them.” However, not everyone at Spurs has been singing “Kumbaya” around the camp fire with Roman Pavlyuchenko complaining that Redknapp was “mocking him”, while Sunderland’s Darren Bent was understandably miffed when his manager joked that his “missus could have scored” after he had squandered an easy chance, “Even last year when I was the club’s top scorer, I never actually felt wanted.”

Nor does Redknapp appear to be in full control of his team. Apart from David Bentley’s drink driving and Ledley King’s alleged assault, his decision to not allow his team to hold a Christmas party was ignored, as the majority of his first team squad simply flew to Dublin where they went clubbing late into the night. Of course, it must be fairly difficult to take a moral line when you’re frequently in the headlines for corruption charges. That sort of undermines your authority.

One thing that football managers demand is consistency, whether it be from their players or referees, but this is a concept that has frequently challenged Redknapp. Having previously claimed that he was a “big Arsenal fan as a kid”, he altered his stance when he moved to White Hart Lane, “I followed Tottenham”. He tends to sway with the wind, so when John Hartson kicked team-mate Eyal Berkovic in the head during training, he initially dismissed the incident, “it was nothing”, before bowing to public opinion, “what he did was totally out of order, absolutely terrible.” This is one man who can “handle the truth”.

"Taxing times"

Given the tests posed by his Del Boy character, you would have thought that his lengthy career as a football manager must be justified by many great accomplishments, but in fact he has been no more successful than Peckham’s finest market trader, winning just one trophy of significance (the FA Cup) in nearly thirty years – and he virtually bankrupted Portsmouth in doing so.

He was described as Harry Houdini when he “miraculously” steered Portsmouth away from relegation, but this reputation does not really stand up to close scrutiny, as he was unable to keep Southampton in the Premier League, ending their 27-year spell in the top flight. Moreover, Portsmouth were in 16th place when Redknapp arrived and actually finished one place lower. The immediate response to Redknapp’s appointment was nine defeats in ten games, before a fine run saved them, largely thanks to significant investment from the new owner, Sasha Gaydamak, and a favourable fixture list (with two teams fielding reserve sides in advance of important FA Cup matches). In reality, Redknapp’s record was only marginally better than his much-maligned predecessor, Alain Perrin.

Of course, Redknapp is a darling of the media with his down-to-earth, “apples and pairs”, lovable rogue persona, so he invariably gets a good press, even if his managerial style is extremely predictable, as summarised in this glorious flowchart:

The newspapers also don’t appear overly concerned about the way he manipulates them, such as when he returned to Fratton Park with Spurs. Before the game, his concerns about his likely reception were quoted every day: “If people are stupid enough to shout abuse when I go back, they need their heads looking at”; “I know some idiots will try to have a go”; “The phone calls hurt. They were from sickos. People said ‘I hope you get cancer’. They are not human beings.” After the game, without a trace of irony, he stated, “The fans were as good as gold. Absolutely lovely. It all just got hyped up out of nothing.”

This is clearly a man without shame, as anyone who has had the misfortune to witness the Redknapp family’s Wii advert will attest, though this is nowhere near as bad as the hideously tacky Thomas Cook ad featuring Jamie and Louise, which has set a new low that will surely never be beaten (“We dream about it” – oh, just do one, you tight-trousered buffoon and take your has-been wife with you).

"The apple doesn't fall far from the tree"

Harry Redknapp has achieved relatively little in football, yet receives far more credit than he deserves. He is a sneaky, disloyal, feeble excuse for a manager, who appears to be motivated more by money than results. As he infamously said, possibly when taking in the ocean view from his palatial property in Sandbanks, “At the end of the day, no one gives a monkey’s about you once your career’s over, so in my view you should make the bucks while you can.” This is one manager for whom money is never too tight to mention.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Feels Like Heaven

While most music fans would agree that Echo and the Bunnymen were one of the most important bands of the post-punk era with their moody, atmospheric songs helping to define the sound of the early 80s and influencing many other groups, there might be some discussion about which of their albums is the best. Many regard the lush, orchestral “Ocean Rain”, which includes the legendary single “The Killing Moon”, as their landmark release, and it is true that the PR campaign modestly claimed that it was “the greatest album ever made”. The glacial “Porcupine” has some supporters, especially as it contains the band’s first significant hits, “The Back of Love” and “The Cutter”. Others might point to the incredible debut “Crocodiles”, which blends innocence, humour, raw energy and tuneful melodies.

There is no doubt that these are all wonderful records, but for me, their finest work can indisputably be heard on “Heaven Up Here”, the group’s second album, which was released in 1981. The authoritative NME shared my opinion, naming it the best album of that year. Building on the youthful vim and vigour of “Crocodiles”, it marks a huge step forward by a young band happy and willing to flex their musical muscles and showcase their growing confidence and ambition.

"Not a happy bunny"

Darker and more passionate than its psychedelic predecessor, it added mysticism and power to the mix – truly heaven sent. Although it’s chock full of ideas, ranging widely across the aural spectrum, it’s probably still the Bunnymen’s most consistent album, coming across strongly as a cohesive whole. It’s the record where the band really arrived at their own sound, with the pounding drums and slashing guitar only accentuating the poetry of the glorious songs. The air of mystery was emphasised by the iconic album cover, featuring the band silhouetted on a beach, standing in front of a menacing sky.

This is where the band established the brooding, atmospheric sound that would dominate their most mature work. Deep, emotional, ethereal, even otherworldly, this is highly evocative music that manages to convey a mood and render a picture (on the wall). There’s an undeniable feeling of melancholy, which will satisfy those fans of gothic, glam (glum?) rock who like their singers to “paint it black”, but, to answer the question posed in the Bunnymen’s classic “Rescue”, it’s not just the blues they’re singing.

"Hair, there and everywhere"

Of course, the group’s focal point was the effortlessly hip singer Ian McCulloch, he of the pale skin, pouty lips, back-combed black hair, dark shades and long overcoat. Like a young Jim Morrison at the mike, he certainly looked like a rock star and boy could he talk. Nicknamed Mac the Mouth, the Liverpool lip was always his greatest fan (“Lairy across the Mersey”) and he was renowned for his arrogance.

As they say in the trade, he gave good quote, as quick to deride his contemporaries, as he was to extol the brilliance of the Bunnymen: “I wasn’t just going to be in a band, I was going to be in the best one. I was going to have the best voice and write the best words. And I was going to look great”. To be fair, this attitude is shared by almost all of his fellow Scousers and was almost certainly exacerbated in McCulloch’s case by the crippling shyness of his childhood, which made him “explode” when he realised that he could sing. In addition, his brash public persona is in marked contrast to the poetic sensitivity and sense of romance revealed in his songwriting.

"Stars are stars"

McCulloch’s great self-belief is more than justified when you hear him singing with soaring abandon and passion throughout the album. His voice is extraordinarily strong and emotive, dripping with drama and pathos, as he delivers mysterious, cryptic lyrics to spine-tingling effect, especially on the majestic “A Promise”, where his compelling, over the top vocal perfectly communicates the feeling of betrayal, as he vehemently laments, “You said nothing will change/We were almost near/Almost far/Down came the rain/But nothing will change/You promised”. His singing style can be found somewhere between the plaintive monotone of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis and the flamboyant yelp of The Cure’s Robert Smith - with maybe a soupçon of U2’s Bono thrown in. Whatever – it works.

However, it would be a huge mistake to dismiss the Bunnymen as a one man band, as the other musicians contributed at least as much as the brilliant singer. Indeed, according to McCulloch, “Heaven Up Here” should be considered guitarist Will Sergeant’s album, as he was such a control freak during the recording. Even if he drove the arrangements, this does not result in any ego-tripping guitar solos, but a swirling larger-than-life sound with Sergeant’s angular guitar shimmering above and cutting through the din like shards of glass. If anything, McCulloch’s relationship with Sergeant was akin to that enjoyed by Jagger and Richards in their early days.

"The corridors of power"

A lot of the songs also revolve around the circular rhythms created by bassist Les Pattinson and, especially, the awe-inspiring drummer Pete de Freitas. Every track on this album features inventive drum patterns that were de Freitas’ trademark signature. He casually switches from the hypnotic beat of “A Promise” to the explosive drumming of the title track. After his tragic death in a motorcycle accident in 1989, McCulloch described de Freitas with his usual understatement, though in this case the hyperbole was fully warranted, “It was the end of an era. He was the best drummer on the planet”.

A real strength of this album is the way in which the Bunnymen work seamlessly together to shape each song’s dynamics, the way they build to a crescendo in “Turquoise Days” (“Did you say knowledge?/Did you say prayer?/Did you say anything?/If not for good/If not for better/If not the way it is”) being a prime example with tight interplay between lead and rhythm guitars. The music is so powerful that it gives McCulloch’s vague, spiritual lyrics additional profundity, while the singer's words, in turn, reinforce the ominous nature of the music, though McCulloch typically mocked the idea that the band’s sound could be contained in a single genre, “We’re quasi-post-pre-punk, post-industrial, neo-psychedelic, angst croon, Sinatra punk, Dean Martin jazz. We’re just the greatest band in the world”.

"Cold comfort"

The album gets off to a vigorous start with a pair of mighty songs that are particularly effective in establishing the dramatic theme of restless, groovy energy that pervades throughout the album. The appropriately named “Show of Strength” opens affairs, immediately confirming that “Crocodiles” was no fluke, as Sergeant’s prickly guitar sets the edgy, paranoid tone. The band move easily through the gears with an avalanche of sound effects reminiscent of a strong wind howling through the trees, while the bitter words aren’t taking many prisoners either, “Your golden smile/Would shame a politician/Typically/I'll apologize next time/Bonds will break and fade/A snapping all in two/The lies that bind and tie/Come sailing out of you”. Equally urgent is the darkly humorous “With a Hip”, featuring funky guitar and machine–gun drumming, as McCulloch searches for answers, “Hold it in the light and see right through it/For God's sake, make a decision”.

This is music with a big heart. It’s about making you feel something more than making you think. McCulloch’s integrity consistently shines through, especially in “Heaven Up Here”, where all of his demons are exposed. Even as he tries to shake off his addiction to alcohol, he seeks relief from his pain and gives in to its dangerous pleasures, “The hammer on my chest was an abominable pain/The anvil on my belly was an abdominal strain/You got the bottle/Gonna take the bottle/Gonna take a sip”.

"Return of the Mac"

Many of the songs hint at a world about to collapse, though any despair is somehow offset by the sheer energy coming forth from the band, as they match compelling music with bleak lyrics, not least in the utterly magnificent “Over the Wall”, which many fans believe is the best thing they’ve ever done. It’s a stunning tour de force, a triumphant epic whose magical music draws you into its web, with Reverend McCulloch singing with the dramatic fervour of a man performing an exorcism, “The man at the back has a question/His tongue's involved with solutions/But the monkey on my back/Won't stop laughing”.

The futility of life is further explored in “The Disease”, which walks along a truly desolate landscape, “As prospects diminish/As nightmares swell/Some pray for Heaven/While we live in hell”. Just as reflective is the slow-burning “All My Colours”, which sounds like a hymn, albeit one featuring tribal drums, as it considers the tragedy of being alive and vulnerable, “What do you say/When your heart's in pieces?/How do you play/Those cards in sequence?/That box you gave me burned nicely”. The Bunnymen even echo (see what I did there?) Talking Heads in “It Was a Pleasure”, as they address these problems, “Let's get rid of the shit/I know you like that, too/The stuff that undermines/The best of me and you”.

"Fade Away and Radiate"

The gloom and doom were influenced by the likes of The Doors and the Velvet Underground, but the Bunnymen put a very modern spin on any trippy 60s psychedelia, as they blended in the anger and aggression of late 70s punk. However, it is clear that McCulloch’s stage persona and even his singing voice owed a great deal to Jim Morrison and the talismanic chant of “zimbo, zimbo, zimbo …” in “All My Colours” started life as a tribute to The Doors’ legendary frontman (“Jimbo”). In the LP’s notes, McCulloch also admitted that he constantly had Velvet Underground songs in the back of his mind when recording the album.

While the overall mood may be one of sadness, there is also an uplifting feeling to the music that shines through the dark days. Any tragedy in the songs is always counter-balanced by a call to overcome, rather than wallow in misery. Even in the despondent “The Disease”, there’s a positive angle, “My life's the disease/That could always change/With comparative ease/Just given the chance”. Ultimately, this is a record that turns its face to the light, though maybe only an autumnal glow rather than full-blown summer heat, closing with the relaxed “No Dark Things” and the relatively euphoric “All I Want”, which is a celebration of desire for desire’s sake, hinting at the future upbeat sound of “Ocean Rain” with its sweet songs of romance and cinematic imagery.

"Sergeant Rock (Is Going To Help Me)"

Echo and the Bunnymen always seemed destined for greatness, but were never quite as big as their stadium-playing rivals, U2 and Simple Minds, at least in terms of record sales, even though they were acknowledged as a much cooler band with their maverick instincts, uncompromising attitude and decision to play gigs in the strangest locations. They were indeed a superb live band, and we can be grateful that their breathtaking presence was so wonderfully transferred to “Heaven Up Here”.

Although McCulloch’s pretty boy looks seemed ready made for the MTV generation, the charge of the long coat brigade was no more successful than the British cavalry in the Crimean War. However, McCulloch does not seem too bothered, “We never had a game plan. It wasn’t about the trophies or the yachts. We were very passionate about what we did and that’s what always set us apart. It was the record company who tried to make out that we were under-achievers. We were no more under-achieving than Jimi Hendrix or The Doors”.

"Lips Like Sugar"

Even though he never achieved world domination, there is no doubt that McCulloch was the most successful of Liverpool’s mythical The Crucial Three, a short-lived collaboration featuring McCulloch, Julian Cope, Pete Wylie. Apart from the fantastic name, the venture did not produce anything with Cope and Wylie leaving to form The Teardrop Explodes and Wah! Heat respectively. They enjoyed some modest success, but did not leave a lasting impression like Echo and the Bunnymen.

But nothing lasts forever and the Bunnymen split up in 1988. Although the group appeared to be going from strength to strength, there were tensions under the surface. While they enjoyed numerous triumphs, the Bunnymen were beset by torment, tantrums and tragedy with de Freitas’ fatal demise following close on the heels of McCulloch’s somewhat less permanent departure. The magic was gone baby gone, but their huge influence lives on in countless bands today, such as The Coral, The Verve, Franz Ferdinand, British Sea Power, White Lies and even Coldplay.

"Purple Haze"

Located somewhere between anthemic grandeur and acerbic Scouse wit, the spiky edge of the splendid “Heaven Up Here” still stands up today as proudly as McCulloch’s hairstyle, while time has not diminished one iota of its beautiful power. The Bunnymen would later reform, but this was the band in its glorious pomp. It was a show of strength, indeed. To return to the question of whether this is their best album, I can only agree with the Bunnymen’s own words, “This is the one called Heaven/And this is the one for me”.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Prophet With Honour

If I were to tell you that the movie of the year (admittedly, we are still only in January) is a prison drama, you might be forgiven for groaning at the thought of the numerous convict clichés, the jailhouse conventions that have become all too familiar: humiliating strip searches, simmering racial tensions, corrupt authorities, rampant drug use, violent beatings, etc, etc. It’s a (concrete) jungle in there! And yes, the French crime thriller “A Prophet” does contain all these old chestnuts, but this compelling tale forcefully takes you to a more imaginative place. Although it feels familiar, it’s a wholly original piece of work – the sort of thing you’ve seen before, but rarely done so well. Directed by the celebrated Jacques Audiard, this is an exhilarating, gripping film that will surely become a classic of the crime genre, taking its place alongside modern greats like “Scarface” and, whisper it gently, “The Godfather”.

Un Prophète”, as they say the other side of La Manche, details the prison career of Malik el Djebena (played by impressive newcomer Tahar Rahim), a 19-year-old French lawbreaker of North African origin. Sentenced to six years, the new inmate tries to keep his head down, but the leader of the ruling Corsican gang, César (played with terrifying intensity by Niels Arestrup) makes him an offer that he literally can’t refuse. Caught between a (jailhouse) rock and a hard place, Malik is forced to murder a prisoner called Reyeb, who had offered him drugs in return for sex, but more importantly to the Corsicans is a potential witness against their crimes. As a result of this “bloody deed”, Malik comes under the protection of the Corsicans, gaining their trust and slowly, but surely, learning the ins and outs of their illicit operations. As the increasing numbers of Arabs in the prison begin to make their presence felt, Malik’s Muslim background enables him to also discreetly build networks with their gang.

"Warming the bench"

Captured with a cold-eyed clarity and a total lack of sensationalism, this is a hard-edged, painfully realistic portrayal of the brutal life within the dangerous prison corridors, the gritty authenticity ensured by the inclusion of non-professionals and former convicts in the excellent cast. Its lack of sentimentality brings to mind another Cannes favourite, the acclaimed Mafia movie, “Gomorrah”. Unflinchingly direct in the way it describes the constant struggle for survival that pervades the prison atmosphere, the film is equally as good at dissecting the various ways that power is obtained and manifested as it is in detailing the mind-numbing rituals and routines during the period of incarceration. There is a matter-of-fact, even cynical, approach to the corruption of the prison guards. In this dog-eat-dog world, it is taken for granted that the prison is actually run by a select band of dominant inmates, by dint of backhanders in both senses of the word.

Like “Taxi Driver”, the ever-present threat of violence explodes into vicious action in an unforgettable sequence of shocking brutality that will cause the most jaded observer to wince. The “cut him, Razors” moment comes when Malik uses a razorblade, uncomfortably hidden in his mouth, to slash the throat of the gay informant Reyeb. What makes this distressing scene even more uncomfortable is that Reyeb is the only prisoner to have shown Malik anything resembling kindness in the early days of his detainment, but Malik knows that if he doesn’t execute the Corsicans’ order, then his days will be numbered.

"Stick to your guns"

However, this film is so much more than a prison drama, with Audiard blending American toughness with a European documentary slant plus a host of stylistic flourishes, so that it also works as a gripping thriller and an unusually thoughtful social commentary. Much of the movie runs on a sense of sheer dread, as Malik walks an ever-lengthening tightrope, merely to stay alive. Constantly pushing against the bars of the standard jailhouse production, the director inexorably builds the tension within the walls, every frame loaded with menace, from the first lonely walk in the menacing prison yard to the work with the industrial sewing machines.

Most of the film is set within the claustrophobic confines of the penitentiary, but as the story develops, Malik is allowed to venture into the outside world via a series of day releases, which affords some relief to the growing feeling of apprehension. When Malik takes a plane for the first time on a flight to Marseille, we share his childish delight at the new experience, though his prison habits are never far from the surface, opening his mouth when scanned by security and grabbing several croissants when the trolley dolly walks past. However, life is just as dangerous on the outside, a stunning gunfight in a 4x4 being proof of that.

"Ready, Steady, Cook"

Echoing the slow-burning epic transformation of “The Godfather”, we accompany Malik on a mesmerising transformation from gauche young inmate to cunning criminal overlord. Originally happy to barely survive, Malik begins to cockily thrive, with his determined journey from a humiliated outsider wholly out of his depth to the very top of the criminal hierarchy reminiscent of “Scarface”. It’s not just the changing facial hair that marks out the young man’s development. Malik’s transition is total (physical, emotional and even spiritual) – he enters prison as a scared loner and leaves it an entirely changed character, quite literally scarred by the experience.

It’s an extremely aggressive awakening, with Malik’s rise through the underworld ranks stained with cruelty, as he negotiates his way through a treacherous maze of uneasy alliances, constantly adapting to new situations, always on the look-out for opportunities to build his own empire. Although the film is very long at 2 ½ hours, the leisurely pace is fully justified to do justice to Malik’s depraved development. In the early scenes, his nakedness emphasises his vulnerability, his eyes anxiously darting around him as he takes in the grim surroundings, but he leaves the prison with the jaunty walk of the Bee Gees singing the entirely appropriate “Staying Alive”.

"There Will Be Blood"

As Malik’s confidence grows, so does the film’s scope, encompassing education and redemption, though there is little of the schmaltzy morality found in another great prison movie “The Shawshank Redemption”. Just before his death, Reyeb dispenses some worldly advice to Malik, “You can’t read, right? It’s not too late. There’s a prison school. You can learn in here. My idea is to leave here a little smarter”. OK, it didn’t work out for him, but his killer takes heed of these wise words and embarks on a highly pragmatic form of self-improvement, a further education that was not available to him on the outside as an illiterate youth with no family or financial support.

As well as formal classes in reading, writing and economics (useful for his adventures in the narcotics business), he also secretly studies the Corsican language, so that he may surreptitiously learn about their dodgy deals. Prison proves an education in every sense, as he begins building valuable links with other members of the criminal fraternity: the soon-to-be-release family man Ryad, the drug-dealing gypsy Jordi (Reda Kateb from the superb French TV series “The Spiral”), and the Muslim brotherhood who he had initially rejected. Essentially, he observes the prison’s inner dynamics and fragile power structures, so that he may exploit them for his own advantage. If nothing else, he realises that everyone will do you a favour, as long as they get something in return.

"Strike a light"

Ironically, crime only begins to pay for Malik after he goes to prison, as he discovers many more opportunities for success than he ever had the other side of the bars. He is locked up for a relatively minor offence, arriving as an impressionable kid, but the harshness of prison life means that he ends up committing far worse crimes than he could have ever imagined, ultimately leaving the premises as a hardened murderer. In fact, everything that he learns only serves to make him a superior criminal, not a better human being.

In the central role of Malik, newcomer Tahar Rahim is a revelation, making his character not only believable, but also as sympathetic as could be, given his homicidal acts. It’s a wonderfully enigmatic performance, first playing the lead with solemn uncertainty, then developing a dumb childish swagger, before maturing into a confident, intelligent man, albeit an extremely violent man, before our eyes. As befits somebody keeping his head down, it’s an understated portrayal with little dialogue, though there’s real depth here, as Malik can express every emotion through his eyes: either quietly watching, deflecting pain or controlling rage. On screen throughout the movie, Rahim is not without conscience. Although he does what he has to do in the violent world he inhabits, he never loses his moral compass, suffering when faced with the many life or death decisions that confront him.

"Search me"

Rahim’s strength recalls the dark-eyed, brooding charisma of Romain Duris in Audiard’s last film, the equally brilliant “The Beat That My Heart Skipped”, another observational study of a young man of unusual focus. Hopefully, “A Prophet” will similarly act as a breakout vehicle for the extraordinary Rahim. In many ways, Audiard’s latest film feels like a continuation of his previous effort with Malik also caught between two worlds, just as the protagonist was in “The Beat” with music and crime, only this time having to chart his course between different ethnic groups. Another similarity is the transfer of power between generations, the comparison being more obvious as Niels Arestrup plays the father figure in both movies. The intimidating tone is more redolent of Audiard’s earlier, Hitchcockian piece “Read My Lips”, which featured Vincent Cassel from “Mesrine”.

Although the overall feel of the movie is über-realistic, Audiard permits himself a few stylish directorial flourishes, notably using bold captions over slow motion shots to highlight the arrival of key characters, who will play an important role later in the plot’s development, especially Malik’s transformation. From time to time, he also uses the ghost of Reyeb, the convict who Malik killed at César’s request, either as a reminder of his sin or as a vision that somehow foretells the future.

"Be my baby"

This is one of the few references to the film’s title with Malik’s prophet-like attributes seemingly more about his ability to find his way to the Promised Land than predicting events in advance. His charmed existence and knack for emerging unscathed from the most dangerous encounters may be ascribed to him doing God’s work, but there is only one occasion when he foresees the future in a dream, even though others believe that he has powers of prophecy after surviving a near-fatal car crash. Audiard himself has confirmed that there are no religious undertones to the title, “The prophet is just a prophet. As for Jesus or Mohammed, I don’t eat that kind of bread”.

The other huge performance in the film is delivered by Niels Arestrup, who plays the Corsican mobster as a mixture of world-weary wisdom and pent-up aggression. It’s not dissimilar to Jack Nicholson’s role in “The Departed”, but I couldn’t help also thinking of “Genial” Harry Grout in the seminal 70s sitcom “Porridge” and, bizarrely, Noel Coward’s portrayal of Mr. Bridger in the institution known as “The Italian Job” – maybe because of “The Self Preservation Society”, which is incredibly apposite for this movie, despite the vast disparity in tone. While there is an element of the mentor in the crime boss, it is very largely a chilling turn with César demanding Malik’s total obedience. This is despite the fact that the actor has an uncanny resemblance to the TV chef, Antony Worrall Thompson, which only makes sense when you see the way he makes use of a teaspoon – but not to stir his beverage. His relationship with Malik is less love-hate, rather “live-hate”, given that Malik clearly despises César, but has to work for him in order to keep breathing.

"Listen, do you want to know a secret?"

As a French Arab, Malik is a thoroughly modern hero that plays against national stereotypes, an inversion that Audiard claims was deliberate: “In French cinema you see Arabs in one of two contexts, either naturalistically in a social realist context, or in genre fiction playing a terrorist. We didn’t want that. We wanted our Arabs to be heroes”. It may be strange to describe an imprisoned killer as a hero, but you will find yourself willing Malik to succeed. As Audiard says, “Do we root for Michael Corleone in the Godfather films? I think so, even if he is a monster. In my film, I wanted to make a nice guy, just like you and me, who also kills, so you can identify with him. Keep away from black and white moralising”.

Audiard understands that “People have difficulty swallowing the fact that Malik is a survivor, but I think that’s because he’s an Arab character. They’re not used to seeing Arabs come out on top and they don’t like it, not in France anyway”. However, the director does agree that, “You don’t have to like heroes. The hero in my film is there to illustrate the capacity for resistance of the individual and his ability to make himself his own rules, his own life”. And that’s certainly true, whatever your cultural background.

"Concrete jungle, animals are after me"

Indeed, the prison could be considered as a microcosm of the racial conflicts within the broader French social order with Audiard explaining, “What interests me in this tale is that it’s a metaphor for society. It’s not all that different on the inside or the outside”. Actually, I think that most of us would be happier on the outside, but I take his point. Although Malik is accepted neither by his Corsican superiors, who call him a “dirty Arab”, nor by the Muslim gang members, in a strange way the film shows that a better future can be imagined with Malik a metaphor of what France could become – a curious mix of right-wing capitalism and left-wing multiculturalism. Even when Malik gets closer to the Muslim crew, it is nothing to do with religious fervour, but everything to do with “commercial” expediency.

In fact, the more you explore the themes in this film, the more it is about the individual, regardless of his background, a point that Rahim is particularly keen to stress: “This movie is not talking about changing the way we see the Arabs. It’s about taking a man who is homeless, who has no origin, and showing you that he is just a person first, before being Arab, or Corsican, or whatever. This man just wants to eat, sleep and drink. He is writing his own life”. Audiard is of the same opinion, “it is a parable of one man’s willingness to survive and prosper”.

"Shadow boxing"

“A Prophet” is an epic adventure, which may or may not have a significant meaning. Audiard himself has scoffed, “Of course it has no message – it is cinema”, which may be true, but it is undeniable that it is cinema at its very finest. Although I don’t always agree with cinema juries (see this week’s Golden Globes for numerous incorrect choices), the London Film Festival nailed it when they gave this movie their Best Film Award, with Anjelica Huston calling it “a masterpiece, an instant classic and a perfect film”. Right on, sister.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...