The power of gusto

A documentary about a heavy metal prodigy tugs at the heart.

What an emotionally exhausting week this is for UK cinemagoers. Whichever way you slice it, whichever demographic you belong to, handkerchiefs will be called for. I don’t care whether you’re at a genteel arthouse cinema or a 29-screen megaplex, this is going to be tough. Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or-winning Amour, which I review in this week’s magazine, surely has the greatest claim on the nation’s tear-ducts, focusing as it does on an elderly man caring for his wife, who has suffered a stroke. But let’s not discount the final instalment in the Twilight series, Breaking Dawn Part 2, which is going to break the hearts of those same teenagers who have only just recovered from bidding farewell to their childhoods a few years back with Toy Story 3. How will they survive without Edward, Bella, Dave, Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mitch and Tich?

Also released this week is Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet. Don’t be scared off by the title. Before seeing it, I had no idea who Jason Becker was or whether he was living or deceased. Nor did I expect to be giving any time to a documentary about a young guitar virtuoso drawn to the poodle-permed, tight-jeaned heavy metal scene and prone to performing protracted, squealing solos that last for several months at a time. Becker was a true prodigy, largely self-taught and with an intrinsic grasp on technique and theory that left veterans dazed. At 16, he recorded with Marty Friedman, later of arena-friendly metal giants Megadeth, under the name Cacophony. When they broke up after their second album, he was recruited into David Lee Roth’s band.

Before he could relish fully this coveted appointment, he was diagnosed with the degenerative disease ALS. His musical career, and his life, hit the buffers. He went from walking with canes to using a wheelchair to being completely paralysed, able only to move his eyes. Even these obstacles didn’t halt him.

The picture is cleverly assembled from archive footage and modern interviews by the director, Jesse Vile: such an inappropriate name for so compassionate a filmmaker. Vile has put into his movie exactly the right measures of pain and hope. For its first 40 minutes or so, we get to savour Jason Becker’s dazzling early years—the talent show footage, the home videos with that distinctive 1980s optical fuzz that makes you think Matt Dillon and Tatum O’Neal are just out of shot, wearing crop-tops and chewing Juicy Fruit. A single shot of Becker as he is today, his still-cherubic face framed with the same cascades of hair that advertise his fidelity to metal, is inserted into this early section, perhaps so that the shock to come won’t feel like a calculated ambush. But the foundations for the rest of the film are laid successfully by the poignant archive material: by the time Becker is savaged by ALS, we have a strong sense of his talent and potential against which to place the devastating diagnosis.

The wonder of Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet is that it mirrors its subject in refusing to become bogged down in the maudlin. As well as being deftly edited, it draws a lot of its energy from the extraordinary optimism and gusto of Becker’s family and friends. (His parents had already devoted their lives to him even before his illness, and he seems to have an entire network of ex-girlfriends willing to tend to him.) I also liked the use of Becker’s father’s paintings as both palate-cleansers and narrative stopgaps. They contribute to a continuity of thought and emotion on screen. The movie flows much as Becker’s life has done, interrupted but not derailed by the catastrophe at its centre.

"Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet" opens in the UK on 16 November.

Jason Becker. Credit: "Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet"

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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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder