Gilbey on Film: Cinemagoers of the world unite!

The Bread and Roses film festival kicks off today.

Cinemagoers of a revolutionary inclination rejoice! Cannes may already be creeping into media coverage a full fortnight before the festival begins, but Londoners can turn their attention instead to a different festival which kicks off today, its principles unlikely to be diluted by flashbulbs and red carpets. Not only that but it’s free (well, lots of it is, anyway). The Bread and Roses Film Festival marks the centenary of the 1912 textile workers strike. There will be screenings held across London, some even at the Clapham Common bandstand. (A tip: when you study the BBC’s five-day weather forecast, try not to think of the blue pearl dropping from the black cloud on each day as a splodge of rain, but rather a tear shed poignantly in recognition of the workers’ struggle. Also: pack a brolly.)

Here’s why it’s all going down:

The centenary of the 1912 strikes marks a window of opportunity to interrogate through film depictions and representations of capitalism, workers’ rights particularly female worker’s rights, strikes, social activism and immigration, debates and issues that are very much alive, if not the defining topics, of 2012. The festival was conceived to attract new and underrepresented audiences to film—groups, communities, and individuals that otherwise do not have access to seek out or afford access to such films… All community hosted screenings are free to attend allowing audiences normally economically marginalised from cinemas to be able to access films in their local community.

You can read more on the festival website. There’s an impressive menu of screenings and discussions. Eisenstein’s Strike will be shown with the accompaniment of a live score by The Cabinet of Living Cinema, whose repertoire includes Russian and Soviet folk and classical music rendered with a bewildering array of instruments which may or may not include a kitchen sink. A screening of Ken Loach’s Bread and Roses, about a Los Angeles cleaners’ uprising, will be followed by a Q&A with his producer, Rebecca O’Brien. Other influential figures speaking at the festival include Kim Longinotto and Nick Broomfield.  

Also in London next week, and unconnected with the Bread & Roses festival, is a free screening of Mathieu Kassovitz’s dynamic 1995 banlieue-set thriller La Haine, presented by the very wonderful Other Cinema, and accompanied by Asian Dub Foundation’s live score. The key detail here is that the screening takes place at the Broadwater Farm Estate community centre in Tottenham, North London. There will be further screenings of the movie in London and Paris, but Tottenham, where last summer’s riots began, is a particularly apposite venue for this film about the urban unrest following police brutality. Or is it too literal a venue? The Other Cinema has expressed a desire to screen movies such as Casablanca and Jules et Jim on the estate in the future—but should they have started there? La Haine is a good hook, and a fine film, but imagine screening something jazzy and colourful instead— Zazie Dans La Metro or Spirited Away or the mad Thai western Tears of the Black Tiger. What do you reckon?

Or, if jazzy isn’t your bag, then some Ken Loach: wouldn’t he go down well? Kes is the way into cinema for a lot of young people; it was one of mine. Or, if you think Larky Loach would go down better, Looking For Eric would be a rousing choice. I haven’t seen his forthcoming film, The Angels’ Share, which opens in the UK in June, but I hear it has a comic bent. They could have premiered it at Broadwater Farm if it wasn’t already receiving its grand unveiling at, erm . . . Cannes.  

Ken Loach (Photo: Getty Images)

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.