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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The Sellout makes us question how far equality has come – and still has to go

American author Paul Beatty’s Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel shows how “equal justice under law” remains an abstract concept for much of black America.

At the start of The Sellout, one of two American novels shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, a man is called before the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, charged with “abject violation” of “the Civil Rights Acts . . . the Equal Rights Act of 1963, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, and at least six of the goddamn Ten Commandments”. The defendant, the son of “the esteemed African-American psychologist F K Me”, shows his contempt for the highest court in the land by stuffing a pipe full of home-grown weed and getting thoroughly, brazenly, blazed. The police officer beside him offers up her lighter as the man tells us that he has “been charged with a crime so heinous that busting [him] for possession of marijuana on federal property would be like charging Hitler with loitering and a multinational oil company like British Petroleum with littering”.

“N****r, are you crazy?” blurts out the lone black judge on the bench, unsure how to interject formally, never having done it before. The fulminating justice wants to know “how it is that in this day and age a black man can violate the hallowed principles of the Thirteenth Amendment by owning a slave” and how that same man could “wilfully ignore the Fourteenth Amendment and argue that sometimes segregation brings people together”.

Over the course of his fourth novel, Beatty – who teaches creative writing at Columbia University in New York – deconstructs this surreal tableau to show the many ways in which “equal justice under law” remains an abstract concept for much of black America, making a return to the bad old ways seem somehow pragmatic, perhaps even humane. “It’s illegal to yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre, right?” the defendant notes, on his first appearance in court. “Well, I’ve whispered ‘racism’ in a post-racial world.”

This takes us to the book’s central dilemma: schooled in “liberation psychology” and “the plight of the black race” by his eccentric father in Dickens, a ghetto community on the outskirts of southern LA, our narrator is deemed a “sellout” by his girlfriend, Marpessa, and by Foy Cheshire, the leader of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, the “local think tank” and the “closest thing the city had to a representative government”. He is a sellout because despite “countless California cruelties and slights against the blacks . . .
like Propositions 8 and 187, the disappearance of social welfare, David Cronenberg’s Crash, and Dave Eggers’s do-gooder condescension”, he hasn’t uttered “a single word” in opposition. In an age when “social activists have television shows and millions of dollars”, and to argue that “it isn’t race that’s the problem but class” is to acquiesce – this is just not acceptable.

The removal of the “Welcome to Dickens” sign from the roadside is apparently all that is required for the city to be forgotten altogether. After the Sellout’s father is gunned down while fleeing two LAPD officers – “Just because racism is dead don’t mean they still don’t shoot n****rs on sight,” the son imagines him saying, half expecting his father to stand up, dust himself off and offer up his death as a lesson to “inspire” him – our narrator is forced to ask some difficult questions. Specifically: “Who am I? And how can I become myself?”

This is the emotional core of Beatty’s powerful, poignant book. While the courtroom drama may boil down to the question of “whether a violation of civil rights law . . . results in the very same achievement these heretofore statutes were meant to promote” (as one smart justice finally seems to twig), the Sellout’s journey is better understood as a personal journey, a welcome reminder that identity is forged amid overlapping private and communal experiences and cannot be uniformly enforced.

How else to explain the view espoused by Hominy Jenkins, a Sancho Panza to the Sellout’s Don Quixote, that “true freedom is having the right to be a slave”? (Hominy is a former child actor-turned-“race reactionary”, who hopes to repay his “massa” for saving his life by literally owing him his life through indentured servitude.) How else to explain the counterintuitive pride taken when the duo tour Dickens handing out “No whites allowed” signs to local restaurants and beauty shops, in part attracting the attention that finally gets the city reinstated on the map? “The customers love it,” the proprietors explain. “It’s like they belong to a private club that’s public!”

The Sellout is a compelling act of demonstrative rhetoric, a masterful show of verbal energy that questions just how far equality has come and where it hopes to go. 

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood