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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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

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