Gilbey on Film: lovable Roeg

This great British director's movies are enjoying a deserved revival.

Two pieces of Nicolas Roeg-related good news arrived this morning. The first came in the post: a copy of BFI Southbank's March programme, with its long-overdue Roeg season.

It's no exaggeration to say that I grew up on Roeg; my tastes were shaped, and my horizons broadened, by his films. I came of cinema-going age during what is generally considered the start of his downward slide: the first film of his that I saw at the cinema was Castaway in 1986, followed by the unloved curiosity that is Track 29 -- a freaky, Dennis Potter-scripted adult fairy-tale with a mix'n'match cast (Gary Oldman, Back to the Future's Christopher Lloyd and Roeg's wife Theresa Russell, a regular fixture in his work for 12 years beginning with 1979's Bad Timing). The Witches, Roeg's traumatic 1990 adaptation of Roald Dahl's novel, was a gruesome joy right up to the moment of its compromised ending, and went some way toward bringing the director back into favour.

But Cold Heaven, the fraught and creepy psychological thriller that marked his last collaboration with Russell, drifted on to video after a couple of festival screenings; I remember seeing Roeg on a TV arts show around that time, arguing that the film's themes and concerns were not dissimilar from those found in the then-current blockbuster Total Recall. It wasn't a far-fetched claim by any means, but there was palpably the sense that cinema audiences, critics and the industry in general had moved on from Roeg.

Funny to think that films as scandalous (in both formalist and visual terms) as Performance, Don't Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth could have become part of the canon, but maybe that was one aspect of the problem: possibly we felt we had all the Nicolas Roeg films we wanted, and we had no further use for any more. So I mourn the fact that Roeg never got to shoot his much-mooted adaptation of Martin Amis's Night Train, or to bring to the screen Paul Theroux's clammy thriller Chicago Loop with James Spader (Theroux had dedicated the novel to Roeg -- with whom he had conjured up the plot -- and Russell). He remained instead effectively relegated to TV, or forgotten, ever since.

As for the question of whether a falling-off in quality had contributed to this general fatigue in our response to him, that is not something I can answer until I've watched the later movies again. Were I to defer now to my teenage self for an opinion, there's every chance he would rave long into the evening without discernment before asking if anyone knows how to get hold of a "This Charming Man" 12-inch for under £20.

The other bulletin from the world of Roeg is the appearance of Don't Look Now at the top of Time Out's just-published Top 100 Best British Films poll, which proves that he is still greatly treasured after all this time (Perfomance, Walkabout and Bad Timing also make appearances further down the list), but also that we have decided collectively to write off the later films and give obeisance to the accepted masterpieces.

Either way, the recognition is reassuring, considering the debt that modern film-makers (Christopher Nolan in Memento, Alejandro González Iñárritu in 21 Grams and Babel, Steven Soderbergh in The Limey, Julio Medem in The Red Squirrel) owe to the fractured, associative storytelling style pioneered by the likes of Resnais and Roeg. It isn't simply a case of throwing the scenes up in the air and cutting them together in whichever order they fall; there's an intuitive quality to Roeg's mosaic textures, so that colours, sounds, words and visual echoes can cause a sudden ricochet effect in the narrative chronology.

I still think of Roeg as one of cinema's great cerebral and emotional forces, yet I didn't vote for any of his films in my own contribution to the poll: were there too many other contenders, or had he just become too familiar to me, so much a part of myself that I had failed even to notice him any more? A bit of the former but more of the latter, I think.

When I got to interview him in 1995 (before the release of his film Two Deaths), he disputed the long-rumoured story that he liked to leave a cinema halfway through whatever film he happened to be watching so that he could imagine the rest himself. It really doesn't matter that it isn't true because it fits: something in that mixture of perverseness and imagination gets close to the essence of Roeg.

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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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.