“Scarface” (1983)

December 31, 2008 at 5:38 pm (Cinema, Reviews & Articles, Roger Ebert)

Roger Ebert’s Chicago Sun-Times review from Dec. 9, 1983…

The interesting thing is the way Tony Montana stays in the memory, taking on the dimensions of a real, tortured person. Most thrillers use interchangeable characters, and most gangster movies are more interested in action than personality, but Scarface is one of those special movies, like The Godfather, that is willing to take a flawed, evil man and allow him to be human. Maybe it’s no coincidence that Montana is played by Al Pacino, the same actor who played Michael Corleone.
Montana is a punk from Cuba. The opening scene of the movie informs us that when Cuban refugees were allowed to come to America in 1981, Fidel Castro had his own little private revenge — and cleaned out his prison cells, sending us criminals along with his weary and huddled masses. We see Montana trying to bluff his way through an interrogation by US federal agents, and that’s basically what he’ll do for the whole movie: bluff. He has no real character and no real courage, although for a short time cocaine gives him the illusion of both.
Scarface takes its title from the 1932 Howard Hawks movie, which was inspired by the career of Al Capone. That Hawks film was the most violent gangster film of its time, and this 1983 film by Brian DePalma also has been surrounded by a controversy over its violence, but in both movies the violence grows out of the lives of the characters; it isn’t used for thrills but for a sort of harrowing lesson about self-destruction. Both movies are about the rise and fall of a gangster, and they both make much of the hero’s neurotic obsession with his sister, but the 1983 Scarface isn’t a remake, and it owes more to The Godfather than to Hawks.
That’s because it sees its criminal so clearly as a person with a popular product to sell, working in a society that wants to buy. In the old days it was booze. For the Corleones, it was gambling and prostitution. Now it’s cocaine. The message for the dealer remains the same: Only a fool gets hooked on his own goods. For Tony Montana, the choices seem simple at first. He can work hard, be honest and make a humble wage as a dishwasher. Or he can work for organized crime, make himself more vicious than his competitors and get the big cars, the beautiful women and the boot-licking attention from nightclub doormen. He doesn’t wash many dishes.
As Montana works his way into the south Florida illegal drug trade, the movie observes him with almost anthropological detachment. This isn’t one of those movies where the characters all come with labels attached (“boss,” “lieutenant,” “hit man”) and behave exactly as we expect them to. DePalma and his writer, Oliver Stone, have created a gallery of specific individuals, and one of the fascinations of the movie is that we aren’t watching crime-movie clichés, we’re watching people who are criminals.
Al Pacino
does not make Montana into a sympathetic character, but he does make him into somebody we can identify with, in a horrified way, if only because of his perfectly understandable motivations. Wouldn’t we all like to be rich and powerful, have desirable sex partners, live in a mansion, be catered to by faithful servants — and hardly have to work? Well, yeah, now that you mention it. Dealing drugs offers the possibility of such a lifestyle, but it also involves selling your soul.
Montana gets it all and he loses it all. That’s predictable. What is original about this movie is the attention it gives to how little Montana enjoys it while he has it. Two scenes are truly pathetic; in one of them, he sits in a nightclub with his blond mistress and his faithful sidekick, and he’s so wiped out on cocaine that the only emotions he can really feel are impatience and boredom. In the other one, trying for a desperate transfusion of energy, he plunges his face into a pile of cocaine and inhales as if he were a drowning man.
Scarface understands this criminal personality, with its links between laziness and ruthlessness, grandiosity and low self-esteem, pipe dreams and a chronic inability to be happy. It’s also an exciting crime picture, in the tradition of the 1932 movie. And, like the Godfather movies, it’s a gallery of wonderful supporting performances: Steven Bauer as a sidekick, Michelle Pfeiffer as a woman whose need for drugs leads her from one wrong lover to another, Robert Loggia as a mob boss who isn’t quite vicious enough, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, as Pacino’s kid sister who wants the right to self-destruct in the manner of her own choosing.
These are the people Tony Montana deserves in his life, and Scarface is a wonderful portrait of a real louse.


Roger Ebert

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The J. Geils Band – “The Morning After” (1971)

December 31, 2008 at 5:22 pm (Reviews & Articles)

Lenny Kaye review for Rolling Stone (issue #95), Nov. 11, 1971… 


Call ’em the best new band of 1971, if you will, ’cause that’s what they are, and here’s the goods to prove it: The Morning After, a recollection of the sort of things that went down the Night Before, a hard-core dose from the College of Musical Knowledge that comes on like rifle fire on a hot summer night.

Sound like a bit much? Well, maybe. But ever since they began to move out of their local Boston environs in January of this year, the J. Geils Band have provided evidence to the fact that shake-your-ass music is not about to be swept under the rug by the heavy metal kids or the gentle singers of song. In their cross-country live performances, including an epic stand at an otherwise-moribund Fillmore East closing that neatly showed the way for everyone else on the bill, and with their fine debut album, they’ve displayed a musical acumen that most groups never reach; and like it might have always been hoped for, in some rock & roll dreamland, it looks like it’s only the beginning for New England’s finest.

Live, this is all easy to explain. Caught in a time-warp where most bands have given up their melodramatics to concentrate on music, the six man J. Geils Band have set their minds to the construct of a Show, with lots of visual action to please the eyes while the ears are in motion. Peter Wolf, moving around the stage like some Bronx-bred version of Rasputin, spouting out catch-words that punctuate the set’s momentum, might well be the finest up-front performer to come down the pike since Iggy hisself, and Wolf’s control, his ability to sense out an audience situation and proceed from there, could truly provide a manic textbook for any and all who might want to create the same kind of mayhems. The Band (fronted by J. Geils’ Gangster of Love guitar) shovels support under him, with a rhythm section that pushes just that extra inch harder, with nobody taking any more than the song says they should. Add a knack for choosing semi-obscure gems of rhythm ‘n’ blues to provide their material, a pile of terse arrangements that keep building to all ends of the dynamics scale, some well-done (if at times a little obvious) originals, and a collective personality that’s in the best American Tradition (y’all have read Iceberg Slim, haven’t you?), then it’s not hard to see how the combination could keep getting better and better.

But it does, and although The Morning After strikes me as being just a shade less impressive than their first effort (due to a slight material problem), there’s no sign of any stopping. If you put this record on at just a hair more than halfway volume on a good set, stand back a little and let the opening traditionals of “I Don’t Need You No More” strike you full in the gut, there’s no way you’re going to keep yourself from being knocked across the room. No joke: I tried it and before you could say “Let’s get cra--zy baby!” I was flat up against the wall, just like friend Larry the first time he shot speed and really got off. It kills, yes indeed, but then they say you only live once.

Things begin to ease back to normal on the second cut, which is a Magic Dick harp solo called “Whammer Jammer.” He provides a golden set of minutes, as you might expect from one of the finest harmonica players in the business today, coupled with a precision and tone that hardly has an equal. But this is just Dick alone, the most pointedly blues-oriented (except for possibly J. himself) in the group, and to really tell the shape of the Geils band, you have to move into the next cut, Dyke and the Blazers’ “So Sharp.” It’s not a particularly incandescent song in this good of an album it has little choice but to come off as a filler but its value lies more in telling where the true heart of the group lies, which is to say in early and mid-Sixties rhythm and blues, a time just before the slick explosion hit soul and just after the music had moved from the older forms of the Fifties (the Contours’ “First I Look At The Purse” from their debut album is a good example). And here, with a verse structure firmly reminiscent of Dyke’s “Funky Broadway” and a great guitar hook from J., they do it to a nice ripe turn. They dedicate their performance to the memory of that great artist.

To further drive this point home, they turn next to Don Covay, and a lovely tune called “The Usual Place,” embellishing it with some of Seth Justman’s swelling organ washes and a vocal (and even group) performance that brings back the early Rolling Stones with a Seventies vengeance. This isn’t really to be taken as anything unusual, since it’s apparent that both the Stones and the Geils Band listened and learned from the same set of masters, the only difference being that a long lop of years (and environments) have separated their perspectives. In fact, the only surprising thing is that there haven’t been more bands working in this area, combining the straight-ahead drive of rock & roll with a strong sense of rhythms and blues.

By the time you wind up at the end of the first side, at the opening bars of “Gotta Have Your Love,” you’ve been sufficiently warmed up and now the time has come: the thing opens innocently enough, chugging through a couple of verses and choruses. Then, from out of nowhere, they break into a rhythmically syncopated series of stops and starts that never misses a heartbeat, straight out of the James Brown pulse. Geils steps in, gives you a taste of some of the guitar prowess he’s held in check for most of the record, and then Justman pianos it out to the fade. It sounds simple, but be guaranteed that this is the real stuff; if it don’t start you shaking just the least little bit, you might as well turn yourself in at the morgue.

“Looking For A Love,” second in the “Love” trilogy that ties together sides one and two, picks up the pace from there and throws it skyward about twelve notches or so. If Atlantic wants it, here’s their single from the album, with a chorus line that hums right into your cerebellum and a driving performance that will probably bust places right open when it’s sent out live. Peter Wolf delivers a scream toward the end that makes you wonder if there was a full moon on the night of the session, and the fade is such that you might wish it had continued on another few days or so. A motherfucker, plain and simple.

“Gonna Find Me A New Love” solidifies the new level they’ve moved the album to, a great bluesy rocker which they keep as simple and straight-forward as possible. “Cry One More Time” is a bit too close for comfort in its resemblance to the first album’s “On Borrowed Time.” However, it stands on its own as a fine piece of work.

“Floyd’s Hotel,” despite its amazing set of lyrics and a great performance, also suffers from this problem. It might just be the archetypal style it’s worked up from, but a listen to it always takes me back to “Cruisin’ For a Love,” a personal favorite from their first release, and from there, its differences aren’t as noticeable as its similarities. This isn’t too much of a problem at the current point, where the Geils Band is still young enough for it to be taken under the general heading of Style, though it might be worth considering when it gets to track-layin’ time again.

But for now, let’s take it out with “It Ain’t What You Do (It’s How You Do It).” a tribal stomp of a piece that provides the perfect encore for this album. Everybody gets a chance to show their stuff here (except for bassist Danny Klein, whose role it is to ferry the ship off the ground), and the form is just fine and dandy. Wolf babbles encouragement, Justman plays himself into circles, Geils slinks around all of them, and Steven Bladd (my choice for the most solid drummer this side of Pretty Purdie) keeps ’em all healthily in time. The title tells the whole story, both for the cut and the album, just the way it’s always been since the little bastard child of rock & roll first stuck its head up and said that there ain’t no good but the better.

This here’s the better. Slowly growing into the best. 

Lenny Kaye

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