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T. Rex: Born To Boogie
So it makes perfect sense for Marc Bolan and his band, T.Rex, to suddenly storm the parapets of popularity and take the UK public hostage. Britain was in need of a sonic tonic after John, Paul, George and Ringo retreated to their attorneys, and Bolan's mix of fire and flamboyance was more than enough to lift the malaise. After "Hot Love" hit #1 on the charts (where it would stay for SEVEN weeks), Bolan and his band were declared the new obsession, and the press confirmed the pandemonium they caused, labeling it "T.Rextasy". With the release of the Electric Warrior album, Bolan cemented his icon. Thus, the idea came to capture this moment for all time. With the help of a certain celebrated drummer and a rising tide of ardor and attention, T.Rex prepared for their cinematic debut. The resulting combination of concert and confusion was called Born to Boogie. Now available for the first time ever on DVD, we can experience the sound and the persona that took England by storm.
In 1971, Ringo Starr and the then still viable film division of the Beatles' Apple Corps, had an idea. Seeing the skyrocketing success of T.Rex and its enigmatic frontman, Marc Bolan, rock's reigning drummer decided to don the director's cap, and give the man behind such hits as "Ride a White Swan" and "Get It On" his own vamped up version of A Hard Days Night. Staging two concerts at the then unheard of venue of Wembley Stadium, Bolan and his band drew 10,000 screaming devotees for each performance. Starr manned a camera, and along with a crew of more than a half dozen, he set out to capture the reality of the group's growing phenomenon for posterity.
Then, to add that necessary element of ambiguity to the otherwise straightforward sonic showcase, Starr came up with some cloyingly abstract material. It was a chance to feature Bolan outside of the guitar god parameters of his musical persona, as well as to hint at some ethereal elements in his existence. The result was a combination of recital and concept called Born to Boogie, and if it proved anything, it was that Marc truly represented the film's title. He was created to bop and was ready to take an entire nation along with him.
Depending on which side of the Atlantic you live, Marc Bolan is either a god or a goof. To many Americans, he is an incidental one-hit wonder, someone who wanted to get it on by banging a gong, and whose other recognizable tune sold compact cars to 20th century boys...and girls. But in the UK, Bolan is the real deal, a certified superstar whose influence on music is still viable in the careers of David Bowie, Morrissey, and dozens of other ultra-glam glitter rockers.
His brief reign as Britain's mod monarch of music would see him burst onto the post-Beatlemania scene, lay the foundation for most of punk's piss-off attitude, and then die that most enigmatic of rock and roll ways – as the icon-on-the-rebound victim of a freak automobile accident. When heard today, Bolan's music is nothing more than basic, three-chord crowd chants, with the occasional wisps of poetic purity to lift it above the din. But unless you're mesmerized by his muse, or caught up in his dandy as dirty boogie boy, he remains an enigma wrapped in tatty top hat and feather boa.
The new to DVD restoration of Ringo Starr's Born to Boogie may do little, initially, to change all that. If you are not a fan of Bolan today, or are even remotely interested in what made him so special to so many, this slight film document of the height of his popularity may do nothing to persuade you. After all, this is playing to the converted chaos, a non-stop barrage of concert footage, sonic studio stunts and the kind of dry, nonsensical Brit wit that anyone who tried it - other than Monty Python - was absolutely appalling at.
Even someone who found Marc's manic "Get it On" (relabeled "Bang a Gong (Get it On)" by those prudish Americans) a classic 70s AM track may be disappointed in the performances of said song here. One version has him sitting in an idyllic English countryside, accompanied by an awkward string quartet. The other is an extended rocker jam that loses the main thrust of the track about halfway through, and kind of degenerates into a constant set of 'give the people what they want' moments.
Yet these quibbles can't quash the truth about Born to Boogie. You can question his popularity or his onstage prowess, but there is no denying Bolan's intense personal power. This is a guy who just LOOKS like he should be a star - nay a SUPERstar – while bringing to the celebrity table nothing more than an inherent sense of self and a few cockrocking guitar chords. Bolan's songs are simplicity wrapped in nursery rhymes, the very stripping down and re-imagining of music that leather and Mohawk clad bands would be championed for a few years down the line.
Yet his image was also one of a puckish, prankster pixie who, somehow, magically grew to gigantic proportions once the limelight came on. As a result, Bolan was a true media monument, something that could mean anything to anyone, from pop fan to disconnected teen loner. The girls all loved him madly and the boys, while maybe not ALL wanting to be him, understood why his kind of dreamy, devilish aura had the gals all weepy and wet.
As a film, Born to Boogie is made up of three very divergent elements, only two of which hold up today against the tenets of time. The best material is the in-studio jam, which finds Bolan and a back-up band that included Elton John on keyboards (!) and that ex-mop top Ringo on drums, all banging through Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti". There is an additional sequence where surrealism meets the sonic with Marc emerging from a hollow piano (which Elton is, again, seated at) to deliver a devastating version of "Children of the Revolution".
These moments of unbridled joy, where music is being made for the sheer thrill of instruments and instrumentalists interacting with each other, lift Born to Boogie far and above its in-concert conceits. It's just too bad that more of this material was not included (or recorded, for that matter). In a setting outside of the live one, Bolan seems less showy, and more centered, on making the music that really shakes the soul.
Not to say that the Wembley Arena shows (two were staged specifically for the film) are bad. Far from it. Indeed, Bolan's persona translates well across the faces of 10,000 screaming fans. Yet this is not the kind of performance that would normally sell a newbie on the star. Bolan is in his full fame mode here, acknowledged as a delicious deity and playing up that position with occasionally irritating regularity. Anyone who grew up going to concerts in the 70s (this critic included) understands the dynamic all too well.
Back then, live music was a natural part of the performance order. Bands released albums and singles, toured to promote them (no MTV then, kiddies) and, if they were lucky, they'd be popular enough to warrant a slot on American Bandstand - or in the UK, Top of the Pops. When you made it, it wasn't because of some carefully crafted video image dripping with a post-production ability to wipe away the stain of mistakes. People bonded with your live persona, and you traded on that to further your popularity – as well as your purse strings.
During the Wembley shows, Bolan is in complete crowd-pleasing mode, throwing hand signs and eyelash-batting glances at a mob that just wants to eat him up. The playing is perfunctory, but imminently catchy, and you too will find yourself under the crunch thump spell of T.Rextasy. But afterward, when the pubescent shouts have stopped and the hormones have raged and then regretted, the concert experience seems rather empty, almost as if we really didn't hear Bolan play at all. A song like "Jeepster" jumps from the speakers, but once we get into "Telegram Sam" or that overextended "Get It On" section, we begin to feel out of place.
This was music made for its time and situation, and as terrific as it really is in both musicianship and mania, it just can't properly connect with anyone outside the original fan base. Again, there is nothing wrong with the concert material. Bolan blows the doors off the place and the crowd loves every power chord cracking minute of it. But unless you too are a Marc man (or Bolan babe), you may feel you're seeing something that passed you by long, long ago.
The very same feeling comes from the scripted/fantasy sequences. With Ringo Starr behind the camera, much of this material plays like outtakes from The Beatles biggest blunder, the Christmas TV disaster also known as The Magical Mystery Tour. As great as the music was on that EP (and a look at the song list confirms its place in harmonic history), the accompanying goofball's holiday is still a hard voyage to visit. The love of all things cockeyed and whimsical, meshed with a strange sense of social message that actually never comes across, seems to mare both The Beatles as well as Bolan's ideals here.
More or less riffing on Alice in Wonderland (Bolan is a Mad Hatter, of sorts, while Ringo, dressed in a rodent costume, is the door mouse) which is in and of itself another English pantomime constant, there is nothing very novel or new offered. Bolan's naturally effervescent personality comes across, as does Ringo's good old reliable cheek. But during the dull dinner party where members of the group dine on hamburgers while others smear current jelly on their mouths, the overall impact is of something meaningless, not memorable.
Still, when it is placed together, when the concert connects to the fantasy foolishness and both breach the in-studio storm, something strange happens to Born to Boogie. It transforms from a set of diminishing returns into a superb snapshot of superstardom in full, fancy pants bloom. Everything appears to mirror its complimentary component, and what suffers in a singular setting soars when combined within the context of the other material. Naturally, this makes Born to Boogie quite disconcerting, but that was also part of Bolan's appeal. He was flash for a country completely lacking in same, rebellion in a world of stiff upper lips and unapologetic civility.
Even though he began his career as a fey folk troubadour who carried his guitar and a rug from venue to venue, simply looking for a place to lay his cosmic carpet before channeling the fairies with his lilting little songs, Bolan came balls-on once the joys of reverb touched his electric boogaloo. The same thing happens in Born to Boogie. All criticism melts away as the arcane and aggressive, the devastating and the dumb come together in prepackaged harmony to redefine the T.Rex reality for a fuzzy headed future generation. Many may still not turn to Bolan as a landmark of rock and roll riffing after this short souvenir finishes extolling its own virtues. But there is no denying his sentient star power. Marc Bolan definitely had it – whatever 'it' is – and even without a definition, 'it' is prevalent all throughout Born to Boogie.
Visually, Born to Boogie is a testament to the power of personal vision. Even though it is pieced together from varying 16mm elements, the beautifully restored 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is absolutely stellar. Sure, it looks like it was filmed in 1972, but that only means that there is a freshness, an authentic feel to the footage that instantly recalls the best of the era's technical aspects. The painstaking process of remastering is addressed elsewhere on the DVD, but for those who have only seen the film in faded, badly cropped VHS versions, you get the full, fantastic picture here with all its T.Rex wonderment intact.
Tony Visconti, famous for his work with David Bowie, also gave T.Rex their signature sound, and it's an aural blast that is captured perfectly on the Born to Boogie DVD. The influential producer was behind the boards when Bolan and the gang recorded their concerts, and he handled the job of reconfiguring the sonics to fit the modern discriminating modern ear as well. The work done here is amazing. The disc simply explodes with aural excitement, from the careening concert mix to the fabulous Apple Studio stomp. Offering four options – the original soundtrack (for purists), a Dolby Digital Stereo setup and a pair of dynamite Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround tracks (one in delightful DTS) – this it about as good as DVD sound can get. If Born to Boogie is celebrated for anything, it will be for this remarkable ambient package.
Where Born to Boogie leaps from a recommended relic to a must-own DVD primer is in the extras department. Spread out over two discs, the contents overflow with Bolan brilliance, as well as the chance to see how influential and important he was as an artist, musician, and public personality. Disc 1 contains a full-length audio commentary with producer Tim Van Rellim and a man named Mark Allen. Acting as moderator for the discussion, Allen lobs many pinpoint questions at Van Rellim. Sadly, the bloke is not up to the barrage. He can't remember very much about the shoot or the circumstances. But when he can come up with an anecdote, it is usually very erudite and important to understanding the T.Rex experience.
Also included on the first disc is a trailer for the film, which itself is rather funky and odd, as well as the entire evening concert from the Wembley Stadium shows. In the commentary, Van Rellim laments that the camerawork for the night shoot wasn't as good as the earlier matinee performance. He also argues that, while the filmmaking was flawed, Bolan and the boys put on a much better show the second time around. So the evening show (running for 1 hour and 5 minutes), which features "Cadillac", 'Jeepster", "Baby Strange", "Spaceball Ricochet", "Girl", "Cosmic Dancer", "Telegram Sam", "Hot Love", "Get It On" and "Summertime Blues" will be the better of the two showcases musically, but they will also perhaps lack some of the cinematic grace of the first filmic run through.
Disc 2, however, is where the true T.Rex meat really lies. Hosted by Marc's only child, Roland Bolan (who was just two when his dad died) we take a trip through another entire performance, a series of outtakes and deleted material from the shoot, a 47 minute documentary on Bolan and his rise to superstardom, as well as lots of additional technical bells and whistles about how this movie was restored. The Wembley day show (running about 1 hour and 2 minutes) is another chance to see the same set list. It's as powerful and as potent as the concert on Disc 1. Cosmic Rock, the behind the scenes film about Marc and his rise to success is VERY enlightening. We get to hear from ex-band mate Bill Legend, producer Tony Visconti, DJ "Whispering" Mark Harris, as well as a wealth of fans and friends, all of whom want to share their stories of Bolan for the camera. Anyone looking for insight as to why T.Rex and its founder are still fondly remembered today need look no further than this fascinating film.
The outtakes are just that – snippets of film and left over bits (all together totaling about 10 minutes) that really just present a preservationist view of the film. None of the material here is relevant or revelatory. To describe the process of bringing Born to Boogie back to life, we are treated to a 15 minute discussion of the restoration. Visconti talks about fixing the audio while various digital techniques and post-production tricks are used to polish and clean the poorly cared-for film.
The final batch of T.Rextras includes 17 MORE minutes with Visconti, another 10 with drummer Legend, and a series of visual and auditory experiments. You can see how the song "Cadillac" was filmed, with access to four of the five cameras shooting that day. Or you can hear the separate elements of "Jeepster" as they were recorded on the spot. "Children of the Revolution" is the subject of another restoration bit, while "See You Talking" addresses remixing the concert. The final find is a snippet of the original Tyrannosaurus Rex performing "Sarah Crazy Child" as part of a John Peel promotion. It's interesting to see Marc in his Donovan days. Even then, he had an icon's image. It was just waiting to be born.
Don't be confused by the mixed messages here. Born to Boogie is not some manner of magical musical testament, a concert creation to match Stop Making Sense or The Last Waltz. Nor is it an incisive, devastating documentary like some we've seen this year (End of the Century and DiG! come to mind). Instead, Born to Boogie is a celebration of Marc Bolan and his brightly burning flame as England's latest pop star answer to the Beatles. His ascent was immediate and intense, just like his string of hits. But something that burns this brilliantly is destined to burn out as quickly, and it wasn't long before Bolan was replaced by a generation sick of good time hippy dippy dumb rock and roll redundancy. If punk had simply stopped to take a good long look at itself however, it would find its roots right inside Marc's manic smile and his simplistic chord change concoctions. All they did was take its joy and turn it jaded, its peace/love poetry transformed into political paeans to hate and war.
Today, many from the scene will begrudgingly admit that Bolan opened up the doors for punk's eventual acceptance. He was the one who challenged conventions and social values. He was the one that pushed the dinosaurs aside to reset music for those who'd follow in his footsteps. After all, such sonic calibrations are necessary, less music grow stale and stodgy. And if there was one thing Marc Bolan was NOT, it was dull. Born to Boogie proves this. Though far from perfect, it's still a sensational time capsule.
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