Cinema Mixtape: Beck
Introducing Back Row's first Cinema Mixtape! The concept is pretty much exactly as it sounds, we take a musician we love and recommend an “album” of movies to you inspired by their songs, albums and personas. I am a long, long time fan of Beck (to the point that when he won a Grammy a couple years ago I had people I hadn't spoken to in decades reaching out to congratulate me on his win), so I decided who better to start out with than everybody's favorite enchanting wizard of rhythm.
So without further ado, I present my gift to you dear Reader, a cinema mixtape to show you I care.
Track 1, Southlander (2001)
Am I cheating if Beck is actually in the movie? It kind of feels like cheating. Directed by Steve Haft, friend of Beck and director of "Where It's At," Southlander is a bizarre yet charming story of a musician who finds his signature sound in a funky-looking '69 "Molotron" keyboard. Unfortunately, his beloved keyboard gets stolen out of his car, and what follows is a journey through bizarre underground scene of Los Angeles.
Southerland feels exactly like an early Beck album, and yeah, Beck has a straight up cameo in it too. It’s a quintessential indie film that really shines in its cast of characters and sense of humor (I mean, the name Ross Angeles alone...). Albums like One Foot in the Grave and Stereopathetic Soulmanure are similar diamonds in the rough, low budget albums that showcase a unique mix of humor, found sounds and some genuinely great songs.
Track 2, Chafed Elbows (1966)
Beck’s grandfather, Al Hansen, was a fluxus artist who ran in the same circles as Yoko Ono and John Cage–he did the piano drop before it was cool. His style had a strong influence on Beck growing up, not to mention Beck's mother Bibbe who was a Warhol girl. While not a fluxus film exactly, Robert Downey Sr.’s Chafed Elbows still fits the bill. The majority of the movie is mostly a voice over narrating the action, which is made up of hundreds of photographs that were developed at a local drugstore. It has a loose plot that jumps around from a nervous breakdown, to satirical commentary on politics, music, commercialism, medicine, and basically everything under the sun. The absurdity and flaunting of taboos that makes up this film, along with its do-it-yourself creation and distribution, echoes the Fluxus movement and also Beck's own creative methods.
Track 3, Repo Man (1984)
The influence of punk on Beck's earlier albums is overt, and it still comes out every once in a while. Repo Man is a manic movie about punk rock, repo men and aliens. With a killer soundtrack that boasts the likes of Iggy Pop and Black Flag, and a droll and irreverent mix of humor and violence, anybody who went through a punk phase has been influenced by this movie.
Mellow Gold certainly reflects everything in this movie, down to its Los Angeles location. “Mutherfucker,” “Truck Driving Neighbors Downstairs,” and The Information’s “Nausea” all fit the bill, the last of which even has a similar color palette in its music video. Beck has consistently channeled a sense of otherworldliness through his music, so Repo Man’s UFOs, sushi and grime compliment his early vibe perfectly.
Track 4, The Big Lebowski (1998)
Look, we're talking Beck who ushered in the slacker age with his slacker anthem “Loser.” And while, in the grand scheme of things and Beck's career, "Loser" was merely a stepping-stone towards the bigger and better, it's obviously worth a mention.
I feel like at this point I’d be hard pressed to find somebody who doesn’t know the plot of The Big Lebowski so I’ll just get right into it. Another Los Angeles staple (notice a trend here?), this Coen Brother classic manages to take you on a journey through the upper class, the lower class, the artists, the criminals, religious iconography, laugh-out-loud humor, genuinely touching moments, and of course, all the while in boxers and leather sandals. If that doesn’t scream Beck to you, I recommend you listen to some Beck.
Track 5, Be Kind Rewind (2008)
Collaging is a huge part of Beck’s musical style. Experiments with feedback, genres, toy instruments, samples, The Information's sticker sets that allowed you to create your own album art, recent collaborations producing artists such as Charlotte Gainsbourg, Thurston Moore and Stephen Malkmus–it's no secret that Beck loves mixing and matching in order to build something brand new. Be Kind Rewind nails that. It’s an endearing movie about Jack Black and Mos Def trying to recreate classic films in their backyard with homemade props and including only the important scenes, in an attempt to not lose Black's video rental job. One of the more creative, if not perhaps too meta, films that has come out in recent years.
Track 6, W. W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1975)
Odelay is all about mixing line dancing with rock with rap with folk, and funny enough, this lesser known Burt Reynolds picture just about covers most of that (okay, minus the rap). The year is 1957 and W. W. is a traveling con man who likes to rob gas stations and tip the poor attendant a couple dollars for his trouble. While running from the police he manages to find himself entwined with an unknown rock band (with Jerry Reed!) looking for their big break.
“That combination of horse manure and sincerity like you got made a lot of rich people in this town"–something about this line from the film just made me think of the sweating paranoia of “Devils Haircut,” the rhinestone life of “Sissyneck,” and the Clint Eastwood-like squint of the back porch in “Go It Alone.” Beck has long incorporated southern imagery and Western music throughout his career, but at the end of the day he’s still from LA; his brand of the south is clearly filtered through the lens of an outsider. I thought W. W. and the Dixie Dancekings worked because it mixes some true Southern characters with a cartoonish plot and rockabilly flare. Its blue-collar robin hood vibe fits in with the pictures Beck's lyrics paint; W. W.’s pistols are most certainly pointing at a poor man's pockets / Smiling eyes with 'em out of the sockets.
Track 7, Mr Freedom (1969)
Oh man, I really agonized over which movies I should choose to represent Midnite Vultures. The musical influences are obvious, but the imagery is harder to nail down. How to encompass freaks, whips, banjos, the good ship Ménage à Trois, appliances going to town on each other, and homework with heather? Midnite Vultures gives off a strong sexploitation vibe, it's also a very PG-13 kind of sexual imagery–the stuff of imagination moreso than reality. There's nothing creepy in this album, it's all pure camp fun. In the end, I decided to just opt for the most obvious influence - Mr Freedom.
Mr Freedom is an explosion of satire, art, surrealism, politics, pop culture, violence, stereotypes, nudity, and violence, topped off with a Serge Gainsbourg cameo (who Beck has sampled and covered numerous times). As a superhero of sorts, and part time cop, Mr Freedom is sent to France on a mission to stave off the Reds and secure American influence and power. He kills everybody who crosses his path, friend of foe just to be safe, and sulks when people don't appreciate the ‘peace' he brings.
Beck's (unfairly maligned) "Sexx Laws" music video is a direct homage to this entire film. The Midnite Vultures on whole reflects the sharp wit of Mr Freedom, as well as its over the top costumes and sets. (That tour was the best one.) So direct and so in your face, both the movie and Beck's album morph into something entirely different when you engage with them–like when you pick an everyday word and repeat it until it sounds like you're speaking nonsense.
Track 8, Belly (1998)
Another Midnite Vultures pick, however more in the vein of "Hollywood Freaks," "Nicotine & Gravy," and "Get Real Paid." Belly is the first and only feature length film by Hype Williams and goddamn do I wish he did more. It follows two gangsters (DMX and Nas!) who make a living by dealing drugs and pulling armed robberies, it's a lucrative living but it's also filled with murder, cops and paranoia. They both realize the lifestyle isn't worth it, but they're dug in too deep to get out cleanly.
Belly is way darker than anything in Midnite Vultures but the reason I chose it is because visually the movie and the album could be cousins or something. Belly is a pure arthouse film about being a gangster; it boasts bright color-themed rooms, strong character personalities based solely on brief introductions and camerawork reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick. It creates an entrancing mood through strong visuals, and Beck's songs and albums are all about just exactly that.
Track 9, The Science of Sleep (2006)
Another Gondry pick, The Science of Sleep is the story of Stéphane, a man who has a hard time separating his fantasies from reality, and his neighbor Stéphanie, who isn’t sure if those qualities makes for a good romantic partner. The movie is full of fantastical crafts, endearing characters and promises of a big romantic finish. Yet, while the chemistry is certainly there, unfortunately the timing and circumstances are off–c’est la vie.
Sea Change is the obvious reference for a movie about heartbreak, though I’m also reminded of Mutations' “Bottle of Blues” with the lyrics: Ain’t it hard, ain’t it hard / to want somebody who doesn’t want you. Beck's lyrics tend to build images and emotions moreso than they tell direct stories. Like Gael Garcia Bernal’s Stéphane, Beck expresses his emotions through an artistic lens that I think some people tend to dismiss if they don’t initially ‘get’ it. It’s just images, bro, think about how they make you feel.
Track 10, Solaris (1972)
This is my Morning Phase choice. Oh no, I'm not talking no George Clooney Soderbergh Solaris, I'm talking the original Tarkovsky film, all five hundred hours of it. A psychologist is sent to the Solaris space station in order to evaluate what has happened to the skeleton crew. While there, he too experiences strange phenomena that launch him into an emotional crisis of his own.
I'll be honest, the main reason I chose this is because of its pacing. While not actually five hundred hours long, its slow tracking shots, long swaths of silence and general floating-in-space vibe remind me of songs like "Unforgiven," "Wave," and "Phase." Beck said in an interview that he made a conscious choice to not have any song on the album over 60 bpm–partially because that's how they came out, and partially because of the challenge in trying to keep time that slowly. Same goes for slow films, only the best directors can create the illusion of stopped time while still keeping your rapt attention with truly otherworldly ambiance and storytelling.