End credits for Philip French

French, the Observer’s main film critic since 1978, will retire in August. Douglas McCabe assesses the work of a critic who was determined to see every film in its social, historical, cultural and aesthetic context.

Philip French, the Observer’s main film critic since 1978, will retire in August following his 80th birthday. For the past few years, it has looked as if the Observer, a newspaper founded in 1791 and now suffering from a rapid decline, could be retired before French steps down.

Film criticism in newspapers today is not the discipline to which French elevated it when he began reviewing in the early 1960s (his first film review for the paper appeared in 1963). Despite his confidence in its future, I suspect that digital, mobile and social media collectively threaten to undermine the demand for professional cultural criticism more broadly.

French has been an integral part of the Observer experience for 35 years in a way no successor will be able to equal, because our lifestyles and expectations have changed enormously. When I was an adolescent, he was part of my Sunday ritual. I lived in a small town with an impecunious, uneducated family that had limited interest in culture; French informed me about films I was not able to see for months. He helped me define my interests; my sense of how history, cultural analysis and taste intermingled and of the range of values that determined a civilised life. It is impossible to imagine another Sunday newspaper columnist having such influence today.

Most newspapers and magazines have not markedly reduced their space for film reviews in the past few decades (it is inexpensive and relatively popular copy) but they have frequently handed film criticism to populist journalists who have a limited historic perspective on the medium. There are exceptions. In the New Yorker, Anthony Lane writes beautiful prose, full of metaphor, his light-of-foot style arguably making the informed, knowledge-based approach of French seem verbose, plodding and a little worthy. Mark Cousins – the journalist, author, broadcaster and film-maker – communicates an indefinable film-art temperament with infectious enthusiasm and he has democratically decentralised cinema to an art form and industry alive and effective across all continents. This risks making French’s love of westerns, police procedurals and British dramas look conservative.

Yet such comparisons are misleading. French breathes cinema. Few cultural commentators trust the medium as he does (it saved him from a career in law). He embraces quality popular entertainment as much as the more demanding European cinema because he sees every film in its social, historical, cultural and aesthetic context.

A S Byatt has referred to him as “one of the monuments of our culture”. His short film reviews in the Observer’s television pages are deceptively simple mini-essays, overflowing with insights. The longer reviews contain an intelligence and analysis – of both a film’s wider context and its style – that few reviewers have the experience or cultural knowledge to match. Look again at his reviews of The Great Gatsby, Brokeback Mountain, Heat, or Vera Drake. French systematically articulates how to approach each work and how we experience it emotionally and intellectually.

Like everyone, critics have topics to which they return again and again. Over the decades, attentive readers of French have developed an intimate understanding of his obsessions. A comprehensive list could go on for pages but would certainly include: the writers Graham Greene and Jorge Luis Borges (many crime films manifest “Borgesian themes”); cowboy adventures (his book Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre is a leading work in a contested field); films set on trains; actors with great voices, notably Cary Grant and James Mason; the Gherkin in London; directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, Ingmar Bergman, Christopher Nolan, Pedro Almodóvar and Louis Malle (his extended interview Malle on Malle is one of the finest books on a film director).

In 1994 I sent French a postcard outlining my films of the year and, in a brief reply highlighting my inclusion of Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, he noted wryly, “Movie titles that start with numbers are often fine.” The implication was clear. French has long written about sequels (with the notable exception of the Godfather films), and the public obsession with the box office, as representing the worst traits of an industry that changed after Steven Spielberg reinvented the movie event.

He would never stoop to using a Shakespearean cliché such as: “We shall never see his like again.” But in this case, it is true – and it’s hardly French’s fault that he will be unable to inspire a sequel of the same stature.

Philip French's review of Vera Drake is worth revisiting.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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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.