(500) Days of Summer – A Review

Romantic comedies are formulaic—boy meets girl, or some variation therein—and so it is a welcome change when a film can use those elements and tell an interesting story and even better, do it with a style that that is fresh and adds to the story telling. (500) Days of Summer is the story of a short relationship, 500 days, between Summer and Tom, two people who seem to share all the same interests—The Smiths, the Pixies—and get along so well, yet the relationship doesn’t work, and Tom is left wondering why.

What sets the film apart is how it goes about telling that story. The film is constructed around a non-liner plot where Tom tries to understand what went wrong. The non-linear structure allows the film makers to mix the happy scenes with the ones that show the problems, but also include commentaries from his 13 year-old sister who gives him dating advice, and his friends who know nothing. These elements allow the story to underscore not only his confusion, but Summer’s seemingly contradictory stance on relationships: shed doesn’t want a boyfriend, and yet instigates the relationship with Tom. Overlaying all of this is an occasional narrator who helps transition certain scenes and introduce the fundamental elements of the characters: Tom likes 80’s bands; Summer’s parents got divorced when she was a child and she said she would never make that mistake. Through these elements the story bounces between the idyllic and the disappointing and one is left to make sense of what really happened. In one effective use of split screen which seems influenced by Amelie, the director shows what Tom wanted to happen at a party and what really happened. It is a cleaver technique which illustrates well what Tom is thinking.  The film also relies heavily on musical montages to convey mood, rather than heavy expressions of dialog and it gives the film an impressionistic quality.

The characters, too, are a welcome change. Summer and Tom are both a bit quirky. He wears retro 60s suits with skinny ties, listens to alternative music from the 80s and dreams about changing the downtown LA architectural plan (Downtown LA’s classic architecture is a bit player in this film). She listens to the same music, thinks Ringo Starr was the best Beatle and dresses in 60s retro clothes, too. From the outset they play against romantic stereotypes, and the relationship seems marked more by what it isn’t, a couple looking for the wedding and children, then what it is a boy who wants a relationship with someone who says that will never happen. In this sense, the movie is much more interesting than most romantic comedies because it asks the question: if you don’t want to be tied down by a relationship, why are you in one? Summer instigates the relationship, so it seems she wants one, but them is to cynical, or afraid, or something to admit she wants one. If a relationship is confining, what is the alternative. For Summer it will be exactly what she claims it isn’t.

(500) Days of Summer is the right blend of style and reworking of the genre and shows that the romantic comedy (although there is a fair amount of drama, too) doesn’t have to be insipid.

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How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music – A Review

How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music

Elijah Wald, 336 pg.

The title is inflammatory and in many ways does the book a disservice because most of the book has little to do with the Beatles, or even Rock and Roll. The title after the colon is really what the book is about and for anyone interested in
American popular music from the late 1800’s to through the Jazz era and up to the birth of Rock and Roll the book is an excellent resource. Wald has done an amazing job at exploring the how American music developed and what the people at the time thought of the music, not what latter critics have said about the music.

One of his main themes is that popular music until quite recently was about dancing and that most musicians would have played dance music if not exclusively, then at many times during their career. The demand for dance music, therefore, kept music less segregated. Since people did not have ways to listen to music at home they would go out and would dance. And since the lack of music affected everyone, a broader range of people would go out to dance. The dancers, then, would be diverse and request from musicians not only current songs or dances, but older ones too. Even musicians whose primary music was not the dance hits of the day would know some dance songs. For example, when John Lomax recorded Muddy Waters in Mississippi he was not only playing his blues numbers, but hits like The Chattanooga Choo Choo. Nothing remains, though, of this music because when critics and writers discovered musicians they were looking for what set them apart from other musicians, not what made them similar. The need to create differences continues throughout the book so that many musicians such as Elvis rose to stardom on their differences, but were great fans of the popular music of the day even though they never performed it in public.

Wald continues to point out these connections throughout the book in part to make the case that the history of music has not been by those who listened to it, but those who wrote about it, namely the critics. The critics, according to Wald, are more focused on the artistic aspects of the music, and perhaps the historical, but not on what they meant for the listener. The result is often dismissive treatment of pop hits, which leads latter listeners who use the critics as a guide to older music to take misunderstand the role of the music the critics praise and what was popular. Jazz is particularly prone to this phenomena. For example, the Jazz that Louis Armstrong is most known for is the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, but those were groups formed only for the recordings which were limited to 3 minutes max, and what Armstrong was really playing had a wider range of influences, was dance-able, and had a slower tempo. Like Muddy Waters, none of the more audience oriented music survives.

Jazz is the strength of the book and he details how when Jazz began to sweep the country it wasn’t the improvisational centered music we know now, nor the Hot Fives and Sevens music either, but something people could dance to, and that was assumed to be new and free. However, most musicians could read music and often if they made up the work “faked it” they would play it over and over as it created.  Long solos and fast tempos did not work for those who came to the shows to dance. There were other opportunities for people like Duke Ellington later to break free of the dancers, because they were playing for professionals at the Cotton Club and were not quite as constrained. Wald also does not think the history of white musicians robbing blacks of ideas is exactly accurate. Racism prevented many musicians from succeeding like white musicians, but a figure like Paul Whiteman has is responsible some developments in Jazz that he is often not credited with, namely the introduction of the arrangement styles that latter grew into Swing. There were better arrangers, Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, but Whiteman was the most popular Jazz musician and Wald believes that even if his music is to sweet now, he is relevant.

All of this underlies Wald’s idea that what we claim is great now, is really transitory and as the music changes so does the interpretation of its relevance. This may be a novel insight in music criticism, but in other fields such as literature and film this isn’t exactly new. One gets the impression that he sees The Beatles loosing their throne; at this date I don’t see it. The title, which I have yet to explain, refers to how Rock and Roll which had been more dance oriented and coming out of a mix of country and rhythm and blues was change into a more pop sensibility that was made more for listening and less for dancing. It wouldn’t be until Disco that dance would really be part of a musical trend.

Ultimately, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll is a good history of American Popular music, but once it gets to the Rock and Roll era it begins to loose a little steam. His insistence that popular music is dance based muddies the story once Rock and Roll comes along. He is correct, though, in noting how American Popular music has gone from a more cross cultural and cross generational music to a very niche based music, much to its detriment.