Gilbey on Film: Gentlemen Broncos is an overlooked classic

If only studios had more faith in their own movies.

Much has been written about the very real difficulty of getting obscure or uncommercial films out into the public domain, but even mid-budget pictures from proven directors can be smothered in early infancy.

If there isn't any faith in a film, this will be reflected in the way it's treated by the studio and/or the distributor. Maybe the critics will collude in the film's early demise. Spying a runt of the litter, smelling the whiff of preordained failure, large parts of the media will not give it the same attention afforded to a glossy, well-oiled prestige picture such as Up in the Air.

In this instance, the "runt" to which I'm alluding is Gentlemen Broncos. While never destined to be a hit of Avatar proportions, it had on its side a director with cult appeal (Napoleon Dynamite's Jared Hess), some recognisable faces with indie cachet (Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords, plus Sam Rockwell and Mike White), and the clout of a distributor, Fox Searchlight Pictures (the "specialist" division of 20th Century Fox), with a proven record of crossover hits including The Full Monty, Little Miss Sunshine and Juno.

But Gentlemen Broncos died on its US release last October. Was it too bizarre? A picture that features three different films-within-a-film, all partly concerning a futuristic warrior's quest for his stolen gonads, could certainly have that charge levelled against it. But the movie -- about a poor, teenage fantasy writer whose submission to a short-story contest is plagiarised by a science-fiction novelist -- is heartfelt, visually arresting (in a Michel Gondry, sticky-backed-plastic kind of way) and rambunctiously funny. An original film, but not an inaccessible one.

It was deemed to have tanked on its opening weekend, when it grossed $31,000 on 12 screens, after which Fox Searchlight drastically scaled back plans to widen its release. If a movie flops in the US, it is as good as dead, and it's unlikely to receive a leg-up from its UK distributor. (The situation can sometimes be reversed if the film is travelling in the opposite direction across the Atlantic, as in the case of Croupier.) And so it was that Fox Searchlight in the UK showed zero enthusiasm for plugging the picture's release here in April.

But then, why wouldn't it? This was only a quickie release, a formality to promote the film's appearance on DVD a few days later. No point spending money pushing a product that it had already decided to bury. Most UK critics responded in kind by throwing their own handfuls of dirt onto the coffin, with the Telegraph and Standard isolated in their praise.

The slapdash treatment didn't stop there. Even with the DVD release date approaching, a critic writing for, ooh, let's say the New Statesman, might find that the PR company responsible for getting the film seen would actively brush off no less than seven requests for a review copy. Fortunately, the might of Fox Searchlight and its appointed PR agents was not omnipotent, and I happened to catch Gentlemen Broncos on a long-haul flight a few weeks back.

If I tell you I watched it twice on the way out, and once on the return leg, and that it has even made me feel I should take another look at Nacho Libre, Hess's previous film, about which I was lukewarm . . . well, what more recommendation do you want?

Gentlemen Broncos is a jubilant, uninhibited film, with a nutty sense of the fantastic and a genuine faith in the transformative power of the imagination. I must mention the genius of Jemaine Clement's performance as the clench-jawed SF legend Dr Ronald Chevalier, an icon of self-important buffoonery to rank alongside Garth Marenghi and Alan Partridge.

Chevalier's writing class, in which he focuses exclusively on the importance of giving the right name to your story's "protag", is already a contender for the most delicious scene of the year, just as Clement himself vies only with Nicolas Cage (in Bad Lieutenant -- Port of Call: New Orleans) for the title of Most Fearlessly Extravagant Comic Turn of 2010.

Also significant is someone who had nothing whatsoever to do with the film's production -- the New Yorker's Richard Brody. Search "Gentlemen Broncos" on the magazine's website and you will turn up 12 blogs, reviews and mentions of the film; all are credited to Brody.

Brody has seemingly devoted most of the past eight months to getting the word out about its brilliance, defending it from its (many) detractors, patiently explaining to them the deeper complexities that have eluded them, and generally refusing to let the movie die as its distributor would wish. He gives critics a good name.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Why Prince wanted to make his listeners feel inadequate

Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals.

Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, by Ben Greenman
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £17.99

During his mid-Eighties imperial phase, stretching from the eruption of “When Doves Cry” to the corruption of “Alphabet St”, Prince was a global object of desire: hyper-talented, cool, funny and charming. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to have him or be him. Have him or be him, covetousness or envy – those two reactions are more than a little negative. And more than a little negative is how I felt about both Prince and Ben Greenman when I got to the end of Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, a book as cumbersome as its title. Published a year after his death, it didn’t make me hate Prince as much as Blake Bailey’s monumental takedown Cheever: a Life made me despise John Cheever, but it came close.

The Prince we meet in anecdotes and legal depositions from both before and after his imperial phase is cranky, petty-minded and grasping. This may be because Greenman, who contributes to the New Yorker and has assisted George Clinton and Brian Wilson with their memoirs, is a much more entertaining writer when ripping Prince to bits than when attempting to build a shrine from his mortal remains. Here Greenman is, in flat-footed praise mode yet inadvertently dissing his subject: “From Stevie Wonder, he took mastery. From David Bowie, he took mystery. All of these influences were ingested and digested until Prince, nourished, went about making something new.” Follow that metaphor through and Prince’s “something new” can only be faecal.

But here is Greenman criticising the fall-from-grace album Graffiti Bridge. “The only thing holding back these epics from unconditional greatness is their poor aerodynamics,” he writes. “They’re like ­giant whiteboards filled with flow charts and equations: diagrams of how to make a Prince song work at top speed without actually working at top speed.” That simile, of subsonic flying whiteboards, is ridiculous but accurate – and captures something of what Prince is like when he is his diagrammatic rather than his funky self.

There are great insights here. Some are offhand, such as, “What is Purple Rain, the movie, but an argument for collaboration?” Others are more laboured but worthwhile as mini-obituaries: “Prince was a flamboyant star with a penchant for intellectual ­exploration, but he was also a sly comedian, a critic of existing soul music stereotypes, and a massive egomaniac.”

Elsewhere, the prose is pretentious, bathetic and nonsensical in equal measure. Of Prince’s alter ego Camille, ­Greenman writes, “This pitch-shifted version of Prince hovered between male and female and, in the process, cracked open previously conventional issues of power, sexuality, ego and
id.” Clearly, Prince/Camille had no issue with the superego – or, at least, didn’t feel the need to hover and in the process crack it.

By the end, I felt that this book was a fitting monument to Prince: glib and unsatisfying. When I listen to his music, I feel that something is being taken from me rather than given. At best, I end a song such as “Kiss” feeling disburdened, floating, freer; at worst, I feel hungry, swizzed, abused. And I think this is deliberate. Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals. Making them feel inadequate was the whole point.

There is a clip of him performing Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” with three members of the band. Each time the chorus comes up and everyone in the room sings, “I-i am everyday people,” you can see Prince struggling to join in, because he’s thinking, “You may be, but I’m not.”

I don’t doubt that the latter-day Prince could be a magnificent performer. The fewer musicians he had with him, the better he got. Fans left his concerts feeling that they’d been at the greatest gig in their life, but Prince was the inventor of the after-show after-show. For super-fans, there was always another gig at a smaller, more obscure venue, starting at three or five o’clock in the morning. Just when it looked like he could give no more, it turned out – wearyingly – that he was inexhaustible. There was always more of the same. More 15-minute funk jams. More cheeky covers intended to prove that Prince was a more talented musician than the songs’ composers, because he could insert a half-diminished seventh chord where they’d strummed E minor. Worst of all, there were more and more muso excursions into 1970s fusion. It’s a fundamental question: if Prince was such a great musician, why did he play such God-awful jazz?

In the end, as a fan who had adored every­thing he did up to Lovesexy, I became angry with him and stopped listening. So did Greenman: “When I started working on this book, I promised myself that I would listen only to Prince’s music. I had enough to last me months. But about six weeks in, the Prince-only diet started to feel claustrophobic and maybe even a little ghoulish . . .” What Greenman found, I think, is that in Prince’s musical world the space gets perpetually smaller, because ultimately all the singer wants you to concentrate on is his self-aggrandisement. It’s fitting that Prince kept his unreleased recordings in “the vault” – a place for miserly hoarding of surplus value.

The ghoulishness of the Prince diet is that it gives no proper nourishment. It’s there in the lyrics to one of his offhand masterpieces: “Starfish and coffee/Maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine/And a side order of ham”. This isn’t soul food. You’ll be hungry an hour later.

Greenman’s most revealing footnote – about himself and about his subject – concerns another creepy, slave-driving manufacturer of confectionery. “The movie side of Warner Bros had [in the early 1990s] just acquired the rights to remake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory . . . Prince, I thought, would be perfect for the part . . . I wrote a long letter to Warner making the case but was too shy to send it.”

In this book, that long letter is finally delivered. Prince was a perfect Wonka. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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