Best of 2017

Present-shopping and card-writing are the big items on the to-do this week as the holiday season hurtles towards us. Before we say farewell to 2017, here is a round-up of our best of the best from this year’s Strange Loops blogs.

BIG LITTLE LIES

This dazzling series was created and written by David E Kelley for HBO and is adapted from the novel of the same name by Australian author Liane Moriarty. It tells a dark comic tale of 5 families and the school their kids attend. The novel is set on Sydney’s northern beaches, but the story relocates seamlessly to Monterey in California for the TV series. The executive producers feature 3 powerful Australian women: Moriarty herself, Nicole Kidman (who also has a starring role) and Bruna Pandandrea.

A murder that has taken place is revealed in intriguing flash-forwards as the viewer gradually pieces together who is who and what is what in the intricate story. The victim and the perpetrator are not revealed until almost the very last scene. Everyone has a secret in those big gorgeous houses overlooking the ocean. And the music is great. There is no score to speak of, and songs are used sparingly but to smart effect. The opening song is Michael Kiwanuka’s ‘Cold Little Heart’, from one of the  best albums of 2016. Other featured artists include PJ Harvey, Agnes Obel and Leon Bridges. Have a listen here.

Big Little Lies is available to rent on iTunes.

BLITZED

Crystal meth seems like a modern scourge, but the drug was synthesised in Germany in 1937 and patented as Pervitin. It produced intense feelings of energy, focus and vigour and was used widely by the Wehrmacht in the second world war. Not only was the army off its collective face on crack, Hitler was also stoned for much of the war, thanks to the ministrations of his personal physician, Theodor Morel. In 2016, Norman Ohler, a German journalist and filmmaker, published a fascinating account of the drugged-up Nazis called Blitzedbased on new research in Germany and the US. This book review by Antony Beevor, the eminent WW2 historian, provides a clear and engrossing overview of this astonishing episode.

LUDIVICO EINAUDI

In February we had the pleasure of watching Ludivico Einaudi in concert, performing his latest work, Elements. Einaudi is an accomplished and enormously popular Italian pianist and composer who has scored numerous films and TV shows and has released a sizeable catalogue of works. His style combines neo-classical piano music with  contemporary elements. That’s what he does best and it works. He was supported by 5 good-looking musicians, all in black and all amazing players.

Einaudi performed the entire concert with his back to the audience, which was disconcerting at first. But it freed us up to gaze at the abstract images projected on to a backdrop, producing a drifting sense of movement. It was as if Einaudi and his minstrels were floating through space; and the entire event was engrossing, even transformative.

Listen to Elements here.

PATTI SMITH

I had just finished reading Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids when the announcement came she would be performing her album Horses live at Bluesfest in Byron Bay, and that this would be her last tour of Australia. So, I cast aside my misgivings about Bluesfest and bought a ticket for that one night in April.

And what a charge it was to experience the on-stage power of this 70 year-old woman with long greying hair and no hint of make-up. Her voice is undiminished and her presence is electrifying. With every note she sang, every word she recited, we — her congregation — were drawn deeper under her spell. As a number of the original musicians who played on Horses joined Smith, the performance was a mesmerising coming together of players and true believers.

Listen to the original recording of Horses.

JACKIE

What could it have been like to be Jacqueline Kennedy in the immediate aftermath of the assassination? This is the question that Pablo Larrain explores  in the feature film Jackie. Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay provides a fractured narrative that’s concentrated into poetic moments, almost like a ballet. Natalie Portman’s intense stare suggests the rage and desolation buttoned up in elegant suits. A bold and unsettling film.

The film’s composer, Mica Levi, is a young Brit. I heard her first score a couple of years ago to the strange feature Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson. Levi’s music is naturally discordant and other-worldly. A clever choice here. Her use of a simple descending glissando theme throughout Jackie makes you shiver.

Listen here to Mica Levi’s soundtrack.

Jackie is available to rent on iTunes.

FARGO – YEAR 3


Fargo – Year 3 is, to our minds, the best season yet of the Fargo TV spin-off, created by Noah Hawley from the Coen Brother’s 90s feature film of the same name.

This blacker-than-black comedy/crime-drama  works as an anthology — each series has its own self-contained narrative and they are all connected by the Minnesota setting . The main characters always include a smart police woman, a sinister outsider and a naive schmuck who gets caught up in the maelstrom. This time around, Ewan McGregor excels in playing the dual roles of  warring brothers, Emmit and Ray Stussy. David Thewlis sports some truly disgusting teeth and emits quiet menace as the evil VM Varga.

The music is equally riveting. Jeff Russo (The Night Of) is the series composer and Maggie Phillips handles music supervision. The song choice is so damn refreshing (take note, Australian TV networks and producers) —from Son House’s John the Revelator to Mac Davis’ It’s Hard to Be Humble; from Lambert Hendricks & Ross’ Moanin’ to Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats’ S.O.BThrow in some expertly chosen classical works, Russian folk songs and jazzy marching band tunes and you have a heady aural mix.

Listen to Jeff Russo’s score.

Fargo – Year 3 is available to rent on iTunes.

GLOW

The title is an acronym for Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, but don’t let that put you off.

GLOW is set in the 1980s (of course) and it’s a TV series about the making of a TV series about a women’s wrestling troupe. At the beginning none of the women can wrestle. Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) is an out-of-work actress desperate for a gig. As the series progresses she learns a few moves and is reborn as the despised Russian ‘Zoya the Destroyer’. Zoya’s wrestling opponent is the all-American ‘Liberty Belle’ who is played by  her ex-bestie, and ex-soapie actress, Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin).  The mayhem is directed by the moustachioed, coke-snorting  philanderer Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron). They are all well realised characters, hilarious but complicated.

Craig Wedren is the series composer and Bruce Gilbert the music supervisor. Both have a ball recreating the sonic highs and lows of the 80s. The soundtrack is chock-full of some of the best (Dream Academy’s Life in a Northern Town) and the worst (Warrant’s Cherry Pie) songs of the era.

GLOW streams on Netflix.

BANGARRA

Image of Bennelong, Bangarra Dance TheatreThis year saw Bangarra Dance Theatre tour their latest production, Bennelong. It relates the life of Bennelong in a series of compressed and confronting dance vignettes set to music by Steven Francis. It is visually arresting throughout. At the end dancers methodically, panel by panel, entrap Bangarra in a shiny box until he is completely entombed, creating a heart-wrenching image of a man both erased and discarded. The score features snatches of the cultures that are entwined in the story: old sea-shanties, a concerto by Hayden, ‘Rule Britannia’ and native languages. Artistic director and choreographer Stephen Page was assisted by the dramaturg Alana Valentine and when the work was in development she would send him poems that captured her impressions. Some of these words also make their way into the score. Needless to say, the dancing is superb.

Bangarra Dance Theatre represents the high water mark of Australian artistic vibrancy and originality. You don’t have to be a dance lover to be hooked in.

NEIL FINN

Neil Finn is one of Australia’s greatest living songwriters (and NZ as well, of course) and his new album Out of Silence could well be his magnum opus. He rehearsed and recorded it over 4 Friday nights in August 2017 and live-streamed it to his Facebook page. It’s a thoughtful, elegant and mature collection of songs. Musically it’s piano-based orchestral pop, augmented by sparse drums and percussion; Nick Seymour’s unmistakable fluid bass lines; beautiful string arrangements courtesy of Victoria Kelly; and a choir comprised of friends and family. Beneath all that, the existential melancholy of the writing — ‘freaking out with the knowledge that everyone dies’ —  tears your heart out.

Listen and listen again and again. Hands down, my album of 2017, if not the decade.

SUMMER MIXTAPE

And finally, a selection of the latest tunes to grab our attention. New cuts from the likes of Charli XCX, Peking Duk, Mansionair & St Vincent together with some impressive releases from newish artists Stella Donnelly, Mallrat, Ciggies After Sex, Superorganism and Cool Party. All this and lots more. Listen-up!

Strange Loops is a blog that celebrates the mysterious power of words, music, dance and the moving image. Each month or so we present a roundup of the best of what we're reading, what we're viewing and what we're listening to right now.