Friday, August 24, 2018

On Aretha

How does the voice of a singer speak to you? What is it in their phrasing, their control of volume, the timbre of their voice, their register, that occasions something in you? I listen to Aretha and I hear a voice that seems to be striving for something, a voice that feels as if it is somehow reaching upwards - and in her phrasing, in her repetitions, the way she runs up to a particular stretch of melody, or tackles it in a different way from one chorus to the next, I get the sense of someone giving all her fervour to her music. These notes, when Aretha hits her stride and unleashes peals of melisma, and joyous near-shrieks that flirt with the top of her register, cause a kind of high inside me, an uplift, an astonishing sense of soaring that I don't feel to the same degree with any other vocalist.

Think about the beautiful run up the notes on "for me - there - is - no - one" in the bridge of I Say A Little Prayer, which she has a stab at twice and which only becomes more emotionally charged on the second stretch. It's not just that she's gliding up that rise, but she's putting emphasis on each one-syllable word, culminating in a lovely, breathy extended note on 'one' that makes you tingle. How do you explain that, the uniqueness in ability that enables her to dredge emotion, something real and powerful, from a little sequence of notes? In the Dionne Warwick version, there's nothing like that keening in the voice, and the song remains a pleasant piece of fluff. Aretha, coming from her tradition of gospel, sings the line with a fuck-it-all verve, a faith in her love that makes it come across with do-or-die candour. Yet she's having fun on the song, too - witness her two gorgeous verse-closing hums, or the rich and joyous hey-ey-ey! that takes us back into the chorus. It's those moments when something real and heartfelt peaks out, when Aretha lays it all out, that make my heart lift. 

I love the way Aretha sits on a song towards the upper reaches of her register, knowing that she is going to reach towards those top notes, swing into them fully. In the early song Skylark, she suddenly unleashes a peal of high notes, jumping up an octave - "Sky-y-y-y-y-la-ar-ark" - her voice a little pitchy, a touch pinched, something of a shout underlying it, but also rich and of such power and control that you actually shake to hear it. But most of the time, in her classic era, you sense her running up towards the top, gearing up for those leaps, and so much of the pleasure is in the build-up, and knowing with what enjoyment she will indulge her gift for melisma, in guessing what direction she will send the song swooping outwards. Again that sense of the gospel artist, using up her deep notes to get you onside, building up the song with incantatory, exhortatory lifts and falls - this is the way Aretha often half-speaks the ends of her phrases, giving them a lambent feeling that is so stirring somehow. In Dr Feelgood for instance you hear it in the phrase, "Filling me up with all of those pills": 'pills' is almost spoken, sort of slurred, which has a kind of rhetorical feel to it, making you lean in a bit; it's a way of gaining our confidence. By the end, when she runs through the phrase "got me a man named Dr Feelgood", giving it her trademark sincerity on top of a wicked bluesy pastiche, and opening up a snatch of melody that breathes a gust of air into the line, we're fully on side, and again sense some of that rapture. 

Throughout all of this, I'm seized as well by her piano playing, which seems to dialogue with her phrasing and sing in the same language, being punctuated by little bursts that change in volume and often seize up short with the same sense of finality. The piano gives warmth to her singing, and adds an element of call and response to her music that is somehow so touching, which feels thoughtful, like a gift. In her cover of Bridge Over Troubled Water, she starts off at the keyboard, and briefly rehearses - in a few simple touches that bring blackness, a bit of syncopation, some soul to this highly white song - its chief melody. The chords run on from each other, and she seems to pause and dwell here and there, or spring out a little jazzy run-through on occasion, making the song's tune somehow so much more warm and inviting, where before it was ethereal and serene. The keyboards lead her in, give us an entrance point, and articulate the mode that she will be singing in. Aretha's cover of the song is so beautiful because of her sheer humanity, imbuing the song's commonplaces with something authentic, which comes out in the astonishing runs of melisma she gives it, but also the way she stays late on the line, dawdling over "all your dreams are on their way", all the better to belt out "SEE HOW THEY SHINE" with the full wallop of her backing vocalists behind her. And when she reaches - when she gets to the highest point - giving all of her fire to "Oh.... and if you ever need a friend", hitting a high note on 'ever' that sounds like the clasp of a hand on your arm, you hear her performing that miracle again, of bringing truth out of nowhere, of seizing something so vital and felt, and imparting it, making sure it sticks. From there she eases into, "Look around, I'm sailing by your side", adding more words to the Paul Simon lyrics in her fervour, and beefing up the word 'sailing', giving it a few extra beats. This song, which was always beautiful, is transformed, and the listener is transformed, because an appeal has been made to us; we're an active listener, no longer a passive person over whom the music washes, but someone who has been called to, invited, recognised. 

These are the things that Aretha does to me, the ways she continues to pull me in and exert a power over me. On her album of unreleased songs and demos from her time at Atlantic, you get a few opportunities to hear her practising this art, which feels so unrehearsed, so god-given almost. On one of these, a demo for You're All I Need To Get By, you hear her finding her way around the song, working out how to give it some swing and meaning: it's so wonderful to hear her parsing the pattern of a song, the key to it; a way to open it up and exploit it for the handful of moments it can yield of authenticity, when she can pierce its shell. And, mostly you get her take on Sweet Bitter Love, badly recorded, just Aretha at the piano, giving a take of hypnotic reverence, of fire-power withheld at first and slowly building. The song's tune is so simple, but she finds new inroads, playing up the longing that its melody holds, the sense of betrayal in the lyrics, its questioning rhythms, and by the end of the song has done her customary thing of tearing through it somehow, especially on a chilling sing-shout of "Sweeeeet!" towards the end which slightly warps the recording. 

It's those moments that I treasure, these bits of honesty, rawness, anger, sexual passion that gleam through, which grab me, draw me in and pick me up. No-one else can do that. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2018


(This piece contains a whopping spoiler)

Daniel Kokotajlo's Apostasy is surprising, subverting our expectations and pulling a rug from under our feet on so many occasions: it's this brilliance in his storytelling, abetted by a total formal mastery, that makes his tale of women struggling with their faith so compelling and powerful. I'd like to talk about some of the shocks and surprises along the way, and how Kokotajlo creates them through a highly effective shot selection and by playing on received ideas and genre tropes.

A key theme of Apostasy is displacement: it's there in the way the film is at pains to guide our looks in one direction (namely, towards the initial protagonist, Alex), so that we are startled and overwhelmed when the focus moves on, half-way through the film, when Alex dies. Kokotajlo takes pleasing liberties with perspective, showing Alex in the centre of the frame, and her sister, Luisa, often displaced to the fringes, sometimes in blurred outline. Moreover Alex's thoughts and fears are presented to us in a confessional mode - at one point quite boldly during a service at the Jehovah's Witness church the three women attend. It's an audacious proposition to present us with an 'inner' character who then abruptly leaves the movie: in part, because we have been led to believe that the question of whether or not to have a transfusion, in contravention of Jehovah's Witness dictates, would form the core argument of the film. As it is, Kokotajlo side-swipes that issue by having the whole question play out off camera, in a totally elided scene: we've been watching the wrong film all along. We thought we were going to be seeing a struggle between reason and dogma; in reality, we will be presented with a tussle between dogma and human kindness - and the protagonists will be Luisa, and her mother. Kokotajlo's immediate shot after Alex's death in hospital is quite brilliant: Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran) bursts from the hospital in the middle distance, her figure blurry, lurch-striding towards the camera's focus, until she is up close and we can sound her pain, her panic, the flurry of hurt and questions going through her mind, as her eyes dart around, and she walks off again. Kokotajlo cuts from this short, silent scene to a long funeral, with cool precision. 

The shot selection continues to tell the story, and to mine its characters' feelings, with great efficiency throughout. Witness a magnificent shot/reverse-shot later on, when Ivanna visits Luisa: the focus of the scene is on their inability to talk to each other; Ivanna is forbidden from speaking to her estranged apostate daughter, while the two of them are still grieving, one of them advanced in pregnancy, both weighted down by rancour, sadness, and longing for comfort. This is well conveyed, as the camera stays on Ivanna - and then, quickly, we see the other side of the exchange, as Ivanna is leaving: the emptiness and misery, the sad squalor of her daughter's flat. This is what Ivanna was beholding. Kokotajlo often withholds like this, before showing something with a grim flourish, gaining immense power in the revelation.

This process happens again, in a scene where Ivanna is boiling with sadness and rage during a church service where she is being personally cautioned by the priest. Kokotajlo plays on stereotypical tropes of heroism, as we implore Ivanna to take a stand - literally, to stand up and leave the room where she is a prisoner, where she is being tortured by her faith, to the detriment of everything she has in the world. We will her on, because Finneran (in a truly heroic performance) plays so well that simmering rage, the indecision, the doubts that plague Ivanna, and the way they are bubbling so close to the surface - and when, finally, she does leave the service, we applaud her silently. At last, the stand that we have been waiting for. But Kokotajlo plays an ace card here, mercilessly - a shot of bitter irony, as he films Ivanna bursting from the room and seeking refuge from the cant in the bathroom, where, horrifically, the words of the preacher's sermon are relayed via a loudspeaker. Our expectations are destroyed: there is no escape; there is no resistance. 

In fact, Kokotajlo flips the whole dynamic of the film we believe we're watching. We think we're watching a film where someone will stand up for what they think is right, in the face of adversity: and, here's the kicker, we are watching that film. But what that character thinks is right is not what we think is right. We are watching, in fact, heartrendingly misplaced heroism, where someone's willpower and faith in her rightness impel her constantly to disappoint us. It's testament to Kokotajlo's pert perspective that he pulls off this reversal. That his film is headed this way comes after another immaculate one-two punch: an irruption into the slow-paced, measured, colourless film of a gaudy religious advertorial. Suddenly, the movie gives over to sun-drenched shots of Jesus, set to cheap music, and pictures of his adoring faithful. Kokotajlo gains huge ironic clout from the stylistic gap between his film and this cloying message of faith, which makes the religious message seem vapid, and plays ironically against the terseness of the film so far. But then we're hit with another rug-pull, as the movie cuts to Ivanna, watching the film and crying. We see that she derives immense solace from this ragbag of inanities: Kokotajlo's idea isn't to mock this film at all, but to show how it can in fact help people who need it. Once again, we find we aren't watching the film we thought we were watching; again, we are seeing the reverse of the shot, which surprises us. Again we see that our expectations were thin. 

In a brilliant final shot, Kokotajlo films Ivanna in the public sphere, as other people see her in her hometown: just a woman standing with some leaflets in a town centre. Filmed in silence, in the middle distance, she is a nobody, just another person, in sharp contrast to the woman of roiling emotions whose life we have watched fall apart. It's a shot that could be cruel, but which also shows compassion. It is the only shot the film could have ended on, giving it a little touch of smart-aleckry, because we know to what extent the film has taken an interest in filming the other side. Once again, the film asks us to investigate the silences it has probed throughout: all the quiet and disquiet of its characters, filmed in unblinking still shots; all their inability to communicate, seized in their eyes - this shot calls back to all of this, in a few short seconds, before giving way to darkness.