Gilbey on Film: Sacha Baron Cohen is back

This time as dictator General Aladeen of Wadiya.

To the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank, at the behest of a certain General Aladeen of Wadiya. As the invitation puts it: “His Excellency Admiral General Aladeen Would Like to Pleasure You at the World Premiere of The Dictator.” Perhaps it is this unusual promise which brought all these shiny orange people onto the red carpet on a dismal, rainy Thursday evening prior to watching the latest film from Sacha Baron Cohen. You would think their stylists would have warned them that tangerine doesn’t go with red, but here they are anyway, the cast of The Only Way Is Essex, illuminated still further in the sheet lightning from fifty photographers’ flashbulbs. No, strike that - the people behind me are saying it’s the cast of Geordie Shore. We’ll go with that. Thank you, people behind me.

Next is an abrasive wee fellow named Louis Spence. I don’t know who he is or what he’s done to warrant a place on the red carpet, but Alex Zane, the red-carpet interviewer with scissor legs, is mighty pleased to see him. What would Louis do if he were dictator of his own country? “Spit at people with speech impediments,” apparently. Oh dear. Is that an in-joke? Alex laughs, but it’s the fearful laughter of a man who sees his every media moment through the prism of the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand scandal, wondering: “Who will be next? Could it be me?” Moving along, he interviews one of several comics currently named Russell (not Brand), who tells him that what makes Sacha Baron Cohen so brilliant is that “he finds the line and thrusts across it …He totally, schizophrenically inhabits who he becomes.”

Right on cue, here comes the film’s star as General Aladeen, arriving in front of the venue waving from the driver’s seat of an orange Lamborghini - a clamped orange Lamborghini, that is, mounted on the bed of a City of Westminster tow truck. I like his habit of only giving press interviews in character (see this email exchange with Dennis Lim of the New York Times). Even if you don’t find it funny (though personally I’m tickled by his in-character assertion that “The Arab Spring is just a silly fad, like ‘mood rings’ or ‘human rights’”), you have to concede that it’s preferable to celebrities talking about the spiritual journey which they embarked upon with their latest role. Imagine if everyone gave interviews in character. Wouldn’t that be something? Unless it was Jodie Foster in Nell, obviously. Clearly there would need to be exemptions.

Just after the lights go down, Baron Cohen appears — still in costume and in character — in a spotlight in the balcony, greeting the audience with cries of “Hello, hello, death to the West!” and “Hello, English devils”. He says he has been enjoying his red carpet experience. “Usually when I am on a red carpet it is because I have just beheaded someone in my living room.”

That’s the general tenor of the material in The Dictator, which has at its core the novel idea of an essentially innocent oppressor: a naïve, mollycoddled man who just happens to be a vicious murderer. It’s really the same joke that held together Baron Cohen’s last two films, Borat and Brüno — wide-eyed naïf comes to the US and exposes inadvertently that country’s hypocrisy and small-mindedness — but with the twist of making him a psychopath rather than merely a buffoon.

Watching The Dictator, which begins with the dedication “In Loving Memory of Kim Jong-Il”, I missed the genuinely dangerous edge of Borat and Brüno; those pictures placed Baron Cohen in volatile, real-life scenarios where his provocations almost led to violence against him. There’s no way to fake or replace it. On the other hand, that species of comedy can’t go on forever, not least because the actor is now a widely recognisable superstar, unlikely to be able to orchestrate pranks of the same scale. At least The Dictator is often wildly funny, particularly when General Aladeen, stripped of his uniform and beard, and wandering New York for reasons too convoluted to recount, has to take work in a Brooklyn feminist co-operative “for people of all or no genders” (as the store worker Zoe, played by the impish Anna Faris, puts it).

The film has teeth, which it bares occasionally. I’m not thinking so much of the bad taste gags—a terrorism Wii game, which offers Aladeen options such as “Tokyo Subway” and “London Underground” before he opts for “Munich Olympics,” drew a shocked gasp from the audience, while there’s a running gag involving a severed head, which was done better in the horror-comedy Re-Animator. But it succeeds in finding a rich vein of humour in post-9/11 paranoia. And it turns the tables on both liberalism (in its lively mockery of Zoe and her co-op pals) and the west, the latter skewered in an inspired monologue which has Aladeen showing how the US advocates at home the same cruelty it decries in foreign regimes.

"The Dictator" is released 16 May.

Sacha Baron Cohen arrives at the premiere of The Dictator (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.

GETTY
Show Hide image

Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser