Friday, July 30, 2004

The Guardian profile / Woody Allen / "Comedy just pokes at problems, rarely confronts them squarely"

Woody Allen

The Guardian profile: Woody Allen

"Comedy just pokes at problems, rarely confronts them squarely"

If ever a film-maker represented a city, the Brooklyn boy Woody Allen represented New York. Now he's working in London. Can he achieve one more surprise and confound the legions of critics who are begging him to leave the stage for good?

Xan Brooks
Friday 30 July 2004

he 1979 film Manhattan opens with a breathless Woody Allen voiceover: "He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat ... New York was his town, and it always would be." Cue a crash of Gershwin on the soundtrack, a blaze of fireworks over the Central Park skyline, and a rash of romantic misadventures on the Upper East Side.

So far, so predictable. Through a 34-film career, Woody Allen has invariably cast the city as his chief supporting star. New York was his town. One assumed it always would be. And yet the director can currently be found at Ealing studios in west London, shooting a British romantic comedy with British money and a cast of homegrown talent.
Allen's London visit can be seen as the latest in a series of increasingly desperate manoeuvres to safeguard an ailing career. Ever since Orion Pictures folded in 1991, he has found himself shuttled nervously between studios, from Columbia Tri-Star to Sweetland Films (a consortium of foreign investors) to DreamWorks to Fox, as the box office shrank, the audience dwindled and distribution grew spotty.Despite their modest budgets, many of his recent films (Sweet and Lowdown, Hollywood Ending, Curse of the Jade Scorpion) have struggled to break even.
The latest production (snappily billed as "Woody Allen's Summer Project") comes bankrolled to the tune of £9m (peanuts in Hollywood terms, but a substantial sum for a British film). David Thompson, the head of BBC Films, admits that he is taking a gamble. "What we're doing is backing a hunch that the combination of Woody Allen and the UK might be a real treat," he says. "If you're going to take a punt on anything, it might as well be someone with the track record of Woody Allen."
Certainly Allen has earned his place in the pantheon of film-makers. Born Allen Konigsberg to a working-class Brooklyn family, he wrote gags for Bob Hope and Sid Caesar before becoming a standup on the 1960s comedy circuit, where he would fumble with his glasses, gulp in faux-terror and deliver devastating one-liners with a boxer's timing.
Shifting into movies, he pioneered a new brand of romantic comedy, installing himself as an emblematic urban everyman; the nerd who gets the girl (and then usually loses her). He pursued a flighty Diane Keaton in the Oscar-winning Annie Hall, romanced a teenage Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan, and fell foul of the Mob in 1984's Broadway Danny Rose.
The melancholic Hannah and Her Sisters was galvanised by his turn as a hypochondriac TV producer, while in 1989's peerless Crimes and Misdemeanours he played a luckless documentary maker who laments that "the last time I was inside a woman was when I visited the Statue of Liberty".Throughout his 1970s and 80s heyday, Allen's patented blend of borscht-belt comedy, psychoanalysis and the tenets of the European art film was an intoxicating brew.
These days it seems to have lost its fizz. Critics say his films have grown complacent and overfamiliar, while a certain peevish quality has percolated his comic worldview. His public image, too, has taken a battering. Over the past decade Allen's films have sometimes played a distant second fiddle to the cacophonous noises off, be they from a protracted legal battle with his former producer and longtime friend Jean Doumanian, his messy break-up with Mia Farrow, or his eventual marriage to the actor's adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn.
Anything Else, on general release from today, is widely viewed as another below-par effort. In the US (where it the was released a year ago) reviews ranged from the exasperated to the desolate.
According to the Village Voice, Anything Else plays as "an infinitely running spool of Allenian repetitions that could serve as entertainment in a relatively mild circle of the Inferno". For Moira MacDonald of the Seattle Times, "the title seemed like a taunt. Is there anything else, Woody? Please?" Over at the New York Times, Elvis Mitchell claimed that the man once hailed as the voice of his generation was now "increasingly out of touch with contemporary America".Nick James, the editor of Sight and Sound magazine, would second that. "The last few films have been pretty disastrous," he says. "All the things we've come to expect just aren't there any more. The quality of the scripts is not as good. The comic timing is very rusty. My gut feeling is that he no longer has anyone around him who can be critical. In a way it's a King Lear moment. He's become so venerated and isolated by celebrity that he no longer connects with an audience. Perhaps it's a case of finding some new collaborators - or considering the dreaded word, retirement."
For his part, David Thompson is hoping that a change of scene will do him good. "I think that everyone is hungry to see him do something in a different key or colour palette. He has a singular voice, and a consistent vision of the world and how people relate. What's interesting is to see how that works with British characters, who are perhaps less prone to psychoanalysis, less up their own navels and more buttoned-up. So I can't wait to see his approach to that buttoned-up British way of life."
Uncharitable types, however, might suggest that BBC Films has snapped up a director who's past his prime - like buying up an ageing Premiership footballer and then shipping them overseas.
"Yes, they might say that," Thompson concedes. "To be fair, a lot of people were quite critical of Robert Altman when he came to the UK to make Gosford Park. But in the end it seemed that the fresh territory inspired him."
And in any case, insists Nick James: "Woody Allen was never a Premiership footballer. He was always an indie, art-house person. No one ever made a Woody Allen picture to make lots of money. They do it to say, 'I made a Woody Allen picture.' There's still a residual prestige that comes with the name."
For the time being, at least, Allen can take comfort from the fact that there is no shortage of actors still clamouring to work with him, often for a cut-price fee. The current Ealing production casts star-du-jour Scarlett Johansson among its British players. Other recent outings have found room for the likes of Charlize Theron, Will Ferrell and Leonardo DiCaprio.
The rising British star Chiwetel Ejiofor recently completed work on the latest Allen film, Melinda and Melinda (currently in post-production). A long-term fan of the director's work, he did not hesitate when offered the role.
"He's such a forceful character that you just want to be around him," Ejiofor says. "And collaborating with him leads to a much freer process, because everyone understands what a Woody Allen film is, so to a certain degree you just play on that. It creates an environment that's so much more fun than other film sets."
In Ejiofor's view, "Woody Allen is quite different from his public image. Having grown up with his films, I was expecting this nervous, neurotic guy who's constantly twitching. But instead he's a very shrewd and intelligent man who has a twin persona that he puts in his films. Woody Allen knows exactly what he wants. It's always been his particular strength to push the independent ideal as far as it will go, and he gets away with it because his writing is so extraordinary. He's the living proof that talent will out."
Woody Allen will be 69 next birthday. If he were to bow out tomorrow, his reputation would be assured and his detractors silenced, and we could all sit back and revere him from a distance.
Yet Allen seems ready to confound us. At an age when most film-makers have already been shunted into enforced retirement, his workrate (two pictures a year) remains as fierce as ever. He never revisits his films once he's finished editing, and is forever moving on - the jungle cat in the black-rimmed glasses racing hard against the ticking clock.
Posterity has no attraction for Woody Allen. "I don't like the idea of living on in the silver screen," he once told an interviewer. "I'd rather live on in my apartment."
Born Allen Stewart Konigsberg, December 1 1935, Brooklyn, New York
Education Midwood High School, Brooklyn; New York University (one semester)
Family Married Harlene Rosen, 1956 (divorced 1962); Louise Lasser, 1964 (divorced 1969); Soon Yi-Previn, 1997. One adopted son, three adopted daughters, one son by Mia Farrow
Career Scriptwriter and gag-writer and standup comedian,1953-64; had his debut as a writer and actor in What's New Pussycat?, 1965
Plays and films include Don't Drink the Water, 1966; Annie Hall, 1977; Manhattan, 1979; Hannah and her Sisters, 1986; New York Stories, 1989; Husbands and Wives, 1992; Manhattan Murder Mystery, Deconstructing Harry, 1997; Small Time Crooks, 2000
On comedy "Comedy just pokes at problems, rarely confronts them squarely. Drama is like a plate of meat and potatoes; comedy is rather the dessert, a bit like meringue."

Friday, July 23, 2004

The Guardian profile / Joss Stone

Joss Stone

The Guardian profile: Joss Stone

With her astonishingly mature, emotive black soul voice the Devon teenager is an R&B sensation in the US and a talent that knocks 'reality-pop' for six. But would a Mercury music prize for cover versions add to the respect she's won?

Carolina Sullivan
Friday 23 July 2004

oscelyn Stoker, as her parents know her, made a minor bit of history this week, as both the youngest person ever nominated for the Mercury music prize and the first nominated for an album of cover versions. Therein lies the source of a debate that has divided critics since Stoker - who took Joss Stone as a stage name in her early teens - was launched last year by Virgin Records.

Her album, The Soul Sessions, crept into the chart in January and has hung around the Top 10 ever since, selling 670,000 copies in the UK and a further 1.7m worldwide. This is the sort of result underperforming Britrockers rarely achieve. But Stone is considered by some to have cheated a bit by falling back on covers; in her case, on covers of obscure old soul tunes.
Covers are deemed the lazy woman's way out, almost karaoke. "[Her nomination] detracts a bit from others on the list who spent a long time writing their album," says the journalist Hattie Collins, who wrote a story about the singer for Blues & Soul magazine. But because Stone is a trifling 17 years old (and, by happenstance, a photogenic little pixie) she has also had many springing to her defence.So for every reviewer who griped that Stone was just retreading old tunes by the Isley Brothers et al, another maintained that The Soul Sessions was a startling, almost-great, debut. The Mercury judges, for instance, excused its lack of original material, describing it as "a remarkable showcase of classic soul power".
The secret of her success - and this is where opinion is unanimous - is a voice that should not belong to a white, Devonian teenager (from Ashill, near Tiverton). Stone has somehow been endowed with the pipes of a black American 25 years her senior.
"When I found out she was white, I said, 'I can't believe it'. She was totally amazing," says "Shabs", the head of Relentless Records, the Virgin subsidiary that sells her CDs. "I've never worked with someone I've believed in so much." As his other star act is his old friends, the trouble-magnet rappers So Solid Crew, this is saying something.Stone's deeply emotional style, which compelled Shabs to drive to Devon the day after he heard an early demo, has elicited comparisons with Patti LaBelle, Mavis Staples, and even, rather overheatedly, Aretha Franklin.
On which subject Collins, who writes about British urban culture, sounds a slight cautionary note: "She is amazing, but it's premature to be comparing her to Aretha. Mary J Blige gets that, and she's been around 10 years. Maybe in 30-odd years ... "
Premature or not, Stone is currently seen as an antidote to the poison of reality-pop, which has devalued the singles chart and discredited the music industry. The only young British singer with a similarly incongruous sound is fellow Mercury nominee Amy Winehouse (William Hill's odds are Winehouse 6-1, Stone 10-1). But although Winehouse is arguably more accomplished, writing her own material, Stone has attracted more media attention.
Her camera-friendly blonde freshness has something to do with it, but she has also benefited from something looks can't buy: the respect of the black American music scene. Across the Atlantic, Stone has been welcomed as an R&B sensation. Her album, recorded in Miami and New York, was produced by the veteran belter Betty Wright, and features guests such as Angie Stone and Timmy Thomas. Wright introduced her to Stevie Wonder, who was generous in his praise ("I didn't know what to say," admits Stone, offstage the archetypal, ineloquent teenager).
Style-setting magazines such as Vibe embraced her. The upshot is that she was known in America first, and by the time Virgin was ready to launch The Soul Sessions here, the label had a fantastic back-story on which to build.
The girl from "the English village of Devon", as the Philadelphia Inquirer put it, got a US recording deal, with EMI, before a British deal. This is notable because the US music business customarily looks askance at UK acts, who have a reputation, not undeserved, for being snide and uncooperative. The handful of young Brits who have been successful in the US, such as Dido and Coldplay, are those who have not been imposingly English in their dealings with Americans.
So imagine the delight of EMI America's Steve Greenberg when he came across the 14-year-old Stone via a video of her performance on a 1999 British TV show entitled Junior Star for a Night, her sole flirtation with pop cheesiness. Here was a talent young enough to be malleable - she wouldn't be pulling the typically Brit stunts of refusing to record "idents" for Midwestern radio stations, or of being narky to Des Moines record retailers - but sophisticated enough potentially to compete with heavyweights such as Beyoncé and Mariah Carey. He signed her when she was barely 15.
Shabs says of her place in soul music: "Her being white has made it harder to break her. It's very similar to Eminem doing what he's doing."
But Collins says: "I've been asked, are they putting more money into marketing because she's white? There does seem to be an awful lot of push behind her. Beverley Knight said recently that when she started, nobody was interested if you were black."
But Stone's age appears to be a greater sticking point. Can someone so recently a schoolgirl (she got three GCSEs last summer) really convey the cavernous pain of songs such as those in her opening album track, The Choking Kind? She does feel patronised by the doubters. She told the Guardian writer Alexis Petridis last autumn: "How old do you have to be to hurt? I think some people have forgotten what it's like to be a teenager."
Collins agrees: "You don't have to have experience to sing with heart. Whether or not she's had her heart broken, it sounds like she has. She might have gone out with some boy who wasn't nice to her." In fact, Stone's 22-year-old boyfriend is a Devon lad who worries that his constantly travelling girlfriend will run off with Justin Timberlake.But Q magazine's deputy editor, Gareth Grundy, who has just commissioned a lengthy Stone feature, sees her age as a positive advantage. "With the voice she has, her youth doubles the 'wow' factor. And she's done smart things like cover the White Stripes [whose Fell in Love with a Boy recently became her first hit single]. Who knows what kind of records she'll be making at 25?"
His enthusiasm is shared by Matt Mason, the editor of the urban culture magazine RWD, who ranks her as "an important artist on this scene".
"She crosses boundaries and is really inspired by old soul, but because she's so young she appeals [also] to young people. She could well be up for a Mobo [the black music awards, held in October], which would cause an outcry, but it's clearly music of black origin."
Stone herself claims she was barely aware of the singularity of her voice while she was growing up. "I don't think of myself as a great singer at all," she's said. "I only ever sang for fun, so I can't quite work out how I got here."
Her route to success involved Junior Star for a Night, which she entered "for a laugh" when she was 12. Her version of Aretha's Natural Woman so impressed the judges she won. ("God knows why, because I thought I was really shit.")
She attracted a bit of industry interest at the time, but life went on as normal for the Stoker family. Her father was, and is, a fruit preserver, and her mother, Wendy, who is now her manager, let holiday cottages. Joscelyn, who hated school, knew only that she would not mind singing professionally, but she suffered from a severe lack of confidence. Even now, on stage, she blushes, squirms and almost apologises for her presence.
After Greenberg's sighting of the Junior Star footage two years later, and his signing her up - after a five-minute audition - it became clear that Stone would not be staying on at school for long.
Although it feels as if she has only been around for five minutes, she's already preparing for the release of her second album, Mind, Body & Soul, in September. An advance press release makes a point of announcing that she has co-written nearly the entire thing.
To further ramp up her credibility, co-writers have been revealed as the venerated Motown producer Lamont Dozier and Portishead's ghostly frontwoman, Beth Gibbons.
Success has been nearly instant, as it often is in the Pop Idol era. The difference, however, is that those around Stone expect her to be a leading light of British pop when the Michelle McManuses of the world have become a mere footnote in the Guinness Book of Hit Singles.
Life stages
Born Joscelyn Eve Stoker, April 11 1987, Dover, Kent. Brought up in Ashill, Devon, where her family still live
Education Uffculme comprehensive school, near Cullumpton
· In 2001, aged 14, auditioned for the BBC talent show Star for a Night which she eventually won singing On The Radio by Donna Summer
· After being spotted by two London producers she was signed by New York record label S-Curve, run by Steve Greenburg, in 2002
· Toured the United States to rave reviews in 2003, aged just 16. Sang in Canada and at venues in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Diego
· Released debut album, The Soul Sessions, in January this year, and appeared at Glastonbury this summer
Stone on chart music "It's got so image conscious and boring, I didn't want to go down the usual pop route - because it's not me"