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Yellow Submarine – 50th anniversary

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To celebrate its 50th anniversary of its original release The Beatles’ animated film Yellow Submarine returned to the big screen in a newly-restored format on Sunday 8th July. Everyone who attended received a bright blue envelope which contained four collector’s cards and a Peppertastic sticker set.

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Never one  of my favourites when growing up, Yellow Submarine has aged rather well. With the exception of George, who looks and sounds strangely cross, the individual Beatles’ character, charm and wit survive their cartoon incarnations. Ringo (voiced by Paul Angelis) is as loveable and funny as ever. I had forgotten that the real Beatles appear fleetingly at the end of the film – always a joy to see them together, though by 1968’s White Album they were effectively writing songs solo.

In glorious surround sound their music sounds wonderful. Lesser known songs such as Only a Northern Song, Hey Bulldog and It’s All Too Much showcase Harrison’s crunchy psychedelic sparkle and McCartney’s magnificent swooping bass lines.

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As the commemorative notes inside the blue envelope have it:

In every age, there are  individuals who capture the spirit of their  time  and speak with the unique voices of their generation. The Beatles  were  four such individuals. And when this spectacular film  debuted in 1968 it was instantly recognisable as a cinematic landmark. It was designed by the brilliant art director Heinz Edelmann and directed by George Dunning, and you will now experience a stunning, newly  restored version of this groundbreaking animation.

Join John, Paul, George  and Ringo on the technicolour  adventure of a lifetime. Illustrated with mind-bending moving images this will be your chance to watch The Beatles battle the music-hating Blue Meanies once again, armed only with the power of love. Filled with messages of peace, love  and hope, the film captured the essence of the ’60s. And integrating the freestyle approach of the era with innovative animation techniques, it helped revolutionise a genre.

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Cambridge Folk Festival 2018 preview

The Cambridge Folk Festival returns to the grounds of Cherry Hinton Hall in August (2nd – 5th), one of the longest running and most celebrated folk festivals in the world. Held each year since 1965, the Festival is renowned for its unique atmosphere and its eclectic mix of music: the best traditional folk artists from the UK and Ireland rub shoulders with cutting edge contemporary acts, the finest American country, blues and roots artists, acclaimed singer songwriters, famous names and world music stars.

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2018 headline acts include iconic singer-songwriter, poet and force of nature, Patti Smith (Saturday), acclaimed Swedish indie-folk sisters, First Aid Kit, exuberant Malian desert blues group Songhoy Blues (both Friday) and veteran American singer-songwriters Janis Ian and John Prine (Sunday).

Other highlights include folk royalty Peggy Seeger, Nashville Hall-of-Famer Rosanne Cash, and, at the other end of the musical spectrum, Pünk Flöyd will ‘folk up’ the back catalogue of Cambridge’s finest, Pink Floyd.

Also on the bill is Rhiannon Giddens, founding member of the Grammy award-winning folk band Carolina Chocolate Drops, who acts as 2018’s Guest Curator. Interviewed recently in Mojo magazine, Rhiannon Giddens praises the ‘beautiful vibe’ of Cambridge Folk Festival: ‘some festivals, people go to hang out and drink beer, maybe see a band or two. At Cambridge they really want to hear what’s going on.’

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At Giddens’ invitation, folk-elder Peggy Seeger, Canadian mountain-banjo player Kaia Kater, harmonising married couple Birds of Chicago, ‘Southern Gothic’ guitarist Amythyst Kiah and Bristol country-soul voice Yola Carter will share the bill with the headliners.

Giddens is connected to the idea of creating communities and making opportunities happen. Part of this involves addressing the ‘very narrow, white idea of folk musicians as ‘a guy with a guitar, or a banjo.’ As an African-American, she is interested in giving a platform to ‘people of colour’ and broadening the folk narrative, while honouring the longer continuum of the people’s music.

‘Peggy Seeger, every generation of music maker can learn from just watching her stage craft for 10 minutes. She always tells the stories that need to be told.’ Giddens cites Seeger’s song The Ballad of Jimmy Massey, ‘about a man who came back from Iraq’, which ‘does that thing that ballads have done for hundreds of years. The singer gets out of the way and the story comes through.’

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A big part of the Festival’s ethos is to celebrate and nurture emerging talent and in 2011 the Festival created a dedicated stage, The Den, to provide a platform for artists under 30 years old to progress their music careers. The Hub is another special area for young musicians to take part in workshops, sessions and perform. These performances spaces have opened the Festival to a new generation of musicians. The Festival still maintains strong links to the local Folk Club scene through The Club Tent which sees local Clubs from around the county performing throughout the weekend.

As well as a jam-packed music programme there is plenty to occupy you away from the main stages. There will be a variety of workshops and talks for festival-goers to take part in, T’ai Chi and all things therapeutic will be on offer and plenty of family-friendly entertainment for children, with a mouth-watering array of food and drink stalls to enjoy.

The Festival has won several awards over the last 50 years, including in 2014 the BBC Radio 2 Good Tradition Award and in 2016 the A Greener Festival Award, awarded to the Festival because of an on-going commitment to reducing its Carbon Footprint.

Hereditary

By the end of Hereditary you might feel a bit like the traumatised figure in Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream. This disturbing and brilliantly gripping tale of supernatural horror and family disintegration will make your jaw drop and your eyes grow wide. It gets under your skin and inside your head, and might have you covering your ears in distress. It really is that good.

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This debut from writer-director Ari Aster has been compared to classic films of the late 60s/early 70s that feature the occult, such as The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby. Like them, it plays things straight, never pandering to a modern horror audience who might expect a few laughs with their scares. Hereditary is deadly serious, and it is all the more terrifying for it.

The film starts with an on-screen death notice for Ellen Leigh, who has just ‘passed away after a long illness’, aged 78. We see a treehouse through an open window before the camera pans slowly over the contents of a workshop, which seems to involve the making of doll’s houses, then goes into one of the miniature rooms, where a boy is sleeping in bed. Cut to life-size teenage boy Peter (Alex Wolff) in his real bedroom. His dad (Gabriel Byrne) comes in carrying a black suit – it is the day of his grandma’s funeral.

Hereditary’s dread-full score puts us on edge as soon as we see younger sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro), a strange-looking 13 year-old, sleeping in the treehouse. Starting with belchingly low blasts of synth or bassoon, Colin Stetson’s simple music gnaws away in the background like a constant worry.

At the funeral Annie (Toni Collette) has trouble saying a good thing about her mother. We learn that Ellen was stubborn, private and secretive – a ‘difficult woman to read’. While she is speaking Charlie draws ugly pictures of her mother in her sketch book. Later Annie tells Charlie that she was always her grandma’s favourite and that she never cried as a baby, even when she was born.

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Charlie is a disturbed and disturbing child, whose off-kilter features unnerve us. She makes peculiar hybrid sculptures out of junk, as if mocking the intricate miniaturist art of her mother, and she a has the unsettling habit of making a loud ‘clock’ noise with her tongue.

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The family’s gloomy house, set amongst silver birch trees in the middle of nowhere, is a haunted house from casting central. A pall of dread hangs over it and we just know that something appalling is going to happen in that treehouse. If you list a few of the things that feature in Hereditary, it makes the film sound like occult horror-by-numbers: sleepwalking, scéances, books on witchcraft, weird words (SATONY, ZAZAS) and symbols drawn on bedroom walls, buzzing flies and insects and something unspeakable up in the attic.

But director Aster completely wrong-foots us. A shocking event changes everything and makes it impossible to discuss the plot without spoiling it.

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At more than two hours long Hereditary has a cumulative slow-burn intensity that deepens and quickens as the Leigh family struggle to come to terms with Ellen’s legacy. As the pace picks up during its finale, horror is piled on horror and we marvel at Toni Collette’s extraordinary acting. Her anguish and pain are so authentic it hurts. This domestic drama concerned with family secrets is like a play with a small tight-knit cast; few outsiders feature, but special mention must go to Ann Dowd (so good in The Handmaid’s Tale), as Annie’s bereaved friend Joan.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Half a century after its first release picture house cinemas in the UK are showing Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi classic in its original 70mm format. This new print was “struck from new printing elements made from the original camera negative,” and we are assured “this is a true photochemical film recreation, with no digital tricks, remastered effects, or revisionist edits.” It even has an old-fashioned ‘intermission’ of fifteen minutes.

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From the start 2001: A Space Odyssey was hugely ambitious. Kubrick told his collaborator and co-author, Arthur C. Clarke, that he was determined make a film about “man’s relationship to the universe” that would arouse “wonder, awe and terror”. It is only fitting that this epic about life, the universe and everything deserves to be seen on the widest cinema screen available.

Back in 1968 the film divided audiences and critics alike. Actor Keir Dullea (Dave Bowman) says that during the New York premiere, 250 people walked out. In Los Angeles Rock Hudson was heard to mutter, “what is this bullshit?” But many, especially the hippies and science fiction fans, had their minds blown. In San Francisco someone reportedly ran through the cinema screen screaming ‘It’s God!’

Viewers are taken on a jaw-dropping audio-visual journey – ‘the ultimate trip’, according to posters from the time. We all remember the ‘star gate’ psychedelic sequence, but what is most striking about seeing 2001 in all its restored glory is the use of music and sound. In a film with little dialogue it steers us through Kubrick’s serenely beautiful universe.

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We are immediately discombobulated, lost in space. For several minutes we stare at a blank screen in the darkness and hear discordant strings, swelling to a crescendo, before fading away, returning and fading once again into silence. Then an old black MGM logo appears, rather anti-climactically, before the first section of the film: ‘The Dawn of Man’.

In contrast to the famous classical pieces used, such as the graceful waltz of Johann Strauss’s The Blue Danube, Kubrick uses eerie choral harmonising to unsettle us, showing that all is not well in this seemingly utopian future. This comes to the fore in the disturbing scene in which Dr. Floyd (William Sylvester) and colleagues approach the mysterious black monolith – sound-tracked by what could be chanting medieval monks, who start to wail, louder and louder as if they are possessed by devils. The scene ends in ear-splittingly high-pitched white noise that has the spacemen (and audience) covering their ears.

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2001 has become the gold standard for science fiction films. It influenced many future film-makers and you can see bits of Alien, Star Wars or Gravity in your mind’s eye as you watch. The special effects do not seem ‘old’, the glacial clarity of the scenes in space feel fresh and the detailed models and sets are extraordinary. The film’s action sequences are superior to many modern CGI-enhanced blockbusters.

This vision of the future is stress-free, calm and clean. Its technology works perfectly until HAL’s malfunction and it is ironic that the computer, with its soothing yet sinister voice (Douglas Rain), becomes the most human character in the film.

50 years on, it turns out that Kubrick and Clarke got a few things right. The picture phone used by Dr. Floyd to talk to his daughter looks familiar (Skype). Chess players now play against their computers, and the small personal screens used by astronauts to watch television have become quite popular too …

Quaintly, though, the influence of Star Trek persists in the use of a phaser-like camera, and there are plenty of big bleeping coloured buttons to press on every bit of tech. If you’ve ever wondered how astronauts ‘boldly go’ in space, then 2001’s Pan Am space shuttle has the answer: a ‘zero gravity’ toilet, which has a notice advising passengers to “read instructions before use”.

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A nightingale’s song

A nightingale’s song is “like The Clash in a bush,” said Chris Packham on last night’s Springwatch (BBC2). Why? Because it’s very loud and has lots of different tunes and riffs.

After their first fast and furious record The Clash did go on to embrace many different musical styles for their albums London Calling and Sandanista! As for the birds, a study found that one male nightingale had 600 different sounds and 250 different phrases. Their song is “as loud as a motorbike 25 feet away” (95 decibels).

Since the 1970s nightingales have been in shocking decline in the UK (numbers are 91% down), so hearing them properly now is a rare treat in this country, one that normally takes time and effort to engineer.

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It was a year ago this week when I first experienced the full nightingale repertoire  during a family gathering in France – my dad owns a house in the medieval hamlet of Bousselargues, near the village of Blesle in the Haute-Loire (south of the Auvergne). In this unspoilt rural countryside, in early June, nightingales can be heard everywhere. You wander down a farm path at dusk and their song is loud and clear:

The best time to hear nightingales singing is at night, said Michela Strachan on Springwatch. Two possible reasons were given – soundwaves travel further in cooler air, reaching a larger audience of potential mates, and few other birds sing at night so they have the stage to themselves.

Male nightingales want their song to be loud and complex because the harder it is to sing, the more it tells the females how much fitter and stronger individual birds are, compared to their competitors.

Packham quoted from Rev. C.A. John’s British Birds in their Haunts, 1885: “It’s a disputed point whether the nightingale’s song can be considered joyous or melancholy. This must always remain a question of taste. My own opinion is that the piteous wailing note which is its characteristic nature casts a shade of sadness over the whole song, even those portions which gush with the most exuberant gladness.”

He pointed out that the female nightingales love those melancholy whistles – “in fact it’s the constancy of those whistles which most excite the females, and when they find a male which produces them they get increasingly fidgety and frisky.”

The Breadwinner

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The Breadwinner is a richly animated family drama set in war-torn Kabul, Afghanistan, in which the harsh realities of life under the Taliban are made bearable by the telling of stories. Stirring, hard-hitting, moving and beautiful to look at, this story about a girl disguising herself as a boy to support her family has echoes of Disney’s Mulan, though younger viewers might find it a bit slow and worthy.

Based on the bestselling novel by Deborah Ellis, The Breadwinner is the work of Cartoon Saloon, the Irish animation studio behind the quirky and charming The Secret of Kells (2009) and Song of the Sea (2015). The hand-painted animation here is much more realistic, but no less gorgeous: the dusty yellow city-scape with its minarets and pockmarked walls; the spices and fruit in the marketplace; the night sky with its crescent moon.

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In contrast, the vivid stories told by 11 year old Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry) to her baby brother are illustrated by charmingly funny and striking cardboard cut-outs (think Captain Pugwash) moving across richly-coloured backgrounds.

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At the start of the film Parvana’s father (Ali Badshah), a schoolteacher who has lost a leg in the war, tells her: ‘stories remain in our hearts when all else is gone’. He is proud of his country but explains to his daughter (and the audience) why Afghanistan has such a terrible history of war and conflict: ‘we were a pathway to everywhere … but we were at the edge of empires’. A succession of tyrants such as Ghengis Khan left their destructive mark.

And now the Taliban are in charge, who do not allow women to appear in public, unless they are accompanied by their father or uncle. So when Parvana’s father is arrested on trumped-up charges of possessing ‘forbidden books’, the family struggle to survive. The sparky and resourceful Parvana has a solution – she cuts her hair and disguises herself as a boy. This practice is called Bacha Posh and is part of a long-standing tradition in Afghanistan.

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Parvana meets a girl she knew from school who is also pretending to be a boy. Together they find work to try to get enough money to bribe the guards to release Parvana’s father. But ominous jet planes streaking overhead mean that another war is coming. The situation seems like an impossible one – how will Parvana rescue her father now, and how will her family stay together?

Composers Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna, who have previously provided a scene-setting soundtrack using traditional Afghan instruments such as sitars, now ratchet up the tension by using pulse-racing one-note violins (see Radiohead’s The Witch), building to a gripping and moving climax.

The final words of The Breadwinner belong to the narrator of Parvana’s parallel Elephant King story, who summarises: ‘we are a scorched and fractured land whose people are its greatest treasure’, and leaves us with an anti-war message: ‘it is rain that makes the flowers grow, not thunder.’

And we think of the film’s scenes of orange flowers sprouting in a desert of burnt-out tanks.

Robyn Hitchcock live at Cambridge Unitarian Church

Local hero and national treasure Robyn Hitchcock returned to Cambridge earlier this month for a couple of acoustic gigs at the Unitarian Church. “I must have walked past this building a thousand times,” he says. For we are within spitting distance of Spaceward Studios, the basement rooms where The Soft Boys recorded their first EP for DIY punk label Raw Records back in 1977.

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More than 40 years on, singer-songwriter Hitchcock has lost none of the spark, wit and eccentricity that made his first band such a joy. His hair might have turned white but he still wears polka dot shirts and flies the flag for Sixties psychedelia, with his Syd Barrett styled nasal voice and fondness for Revolver-era Beatles guitar. Between songs, his offbeat musings are equally entertaining – he should record a few of the best or publish them as ‘Martian’ prose poems.

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As darkness falls outside, Robyn starts with a cover of Dylan’s Not Dark Yet (a new one to me). The excellent acoustics of the domed stage, and the fact that we are sitting in a church, add to the atmosphere of hushed reverence. And when the singer drops into a growled baritone for the pay-off line “… But it’s getting there …” you felt a shiver of recognition.

Hitchcock wrote a bile-filled song for Reagan and Thatcher (and those who voted for them) in 1980 – I Wanna Destroy You – so gawd knows what he makes of Trump and Brexit.

An impressive back catalogue can be roughly divided between light and shade – the sunny Byrdsian folk rock of Autumn Sunglasses or jangly powerpop of Mad Shelley’s Letter Box, and what he calls his ‘dismal’ songs like Trouble In Your Blood and Don’t Look Down. “My songs have a kind of wisdom I don’t have,” says Hitchcock.

For the encore, Hitchcock summons ‘Kim’ from the audience and we are treated to a wonderful version of “I Often Dream of Trains”. Former Soft Boy Kimberley Rew looks a bit like Worzel Gummidge these days with his floppy wide-brimmed hat and haystack hair. But there’s nothing agricultural about his majestic guitar playing. Hitchcock has described his old mucker as “Hendrix on sulphuric acid … or, in sulphuric acid.”

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They are perfect together and it feels like a privilege to be in church with these two godlike geniuses.

 

Videos from Cambridge Unitarian Church:

 

Mad Shelley’s Letter Box

 

I Often Dream of Trains (edit)

 

I Often Dream of Trains (full version)

But if you’re viewing on a laptop, you’ll have to crane your neck …