Friday, 9 March 2018

Classic FM: 20 songs to determine your level of devotion to Fleetwood Mac

"I'd rather jack / than Fleetwood Mac," squawked the insufferable Reynolds Girls in 1989, but history has proved them to be a) culturally short-sighted, and b) absolutely shit. As we all know, Fleetwood Mac are in fact the greatest thing to happen to sound. But as we all know equally well, Fleetwood Mac come in several flavours, having gone through approximately 431 different lineups since their 1968 debut album. So how big is your love for the Mac? In an exercise designed to reveal the embarrassing limits of my music analysis skills, I've gathered what I believe to be the 20 best tracks with which to familiarise yourself depending on how much of a Macologist you'd like to be. If you don't think you want to be any kind of Macologist then you can quite literally go your own way (i.e. bugger off).

Thanks to the miracle of streaming, about which it's worth remembering that artists receive one grain of salt for every 10,000 plays, you can listen to all 20 tracks on this exclusively curated playlist while you read! Isn't the future amazing?

Level 1: Clueless novice
L-R: John McVie (bassing), Christine McVie (keyboarding and lady singing),
Stevie Nicks (lady singing and twirling), Mick Fleetwood (banging),
Lindsey Buckingham (man singing and guitaring)

The golden age of Fleetwood Mac lasted from 1975 (when soon-to-be ex-lovers Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined the band) until 1987, when Buckingham fucked off in a huff about how he was being, like, totally creatively stifled, man. This is the Mac you'll know even if you think you don't know Mac: the magical period when Buckingham, Nicks and Christine McVie's combined singer-songwriting produced some of the most gratifying aural sex your ears have ever juiced up for. Here's one track from each of the five albums they made during this precious time which you should listen to on a constant loop to achieve your GCSE in Basic Fleetwoodwork.

Rhiannon (Fleetwood Mac, 1975)
Stevie Nicks' best song is a smoky, swirling folk tale about a Welsh witch "taken by the wind", presumably after a cauldron full of dubiously-sourced lamb vindaloo. Lindsey Buckingham's undulating guitar riff stops the song floating off into mystical whimsy, while Nicks' voice is at its sultry, sexy best, before it started to resemble that of a distressed goat.

The Chain (Rumours, 1977)
Tough to pick between this and Go Your Own Way; The Chain is all about sticking together and Go Your Own Way is, erm, not, so I guess it depends how apanthropic you feel at any given time. The Chain is a masterclass in harmonies and texture though, not least in its surprising turn from faintly menacing chant to hammering, bass-driven rock anthem. If you know this only as the Guardians Of The Galaxy 2 song then I am shaking my head in condescending dismissal of you. It is quite obviously the Formula 1 song.

Tusk (Tusk, 1979)
John McVie's usually functional bass playing finds a simple but irritatingly catchy hook with which to surf Mick Fleetwood's drums in Tusk's short, bonkers title track about jealousy and paranoia. It's the addition of the entire University of Southern California Trojan Marching Band thumping their tubs to Fleetwood's tribal beat that lifts the song into orbit though; have a go on the 1997 live version for the full, definitely-not-overbrassed effect.

Hold Me (Mirage, 1982)
Mirage is not a great Mac album but Hold Me is probably its least average track, its MVPs being Buckingham and Christine McVie's voices laid over each other like syrup on sandpaper. It is possibly more notable for inspiring the band's first video: a typically early-'80s mess of ideas laden with meaningless faux-symbolism, in which Fleetwood and John McVie twat about in the desert unearthing guitars and pianos while Stevie Nicks (who doesn't contribute to the song) literally lounges around on her ass.

Big Love (Tango In The Night, 1987)
Lindsey Buckingham reluctantly yanked this from his own forthcoming solo album in order to keep the Mac juggernaut running, and thank Christ he did. It's a rolling boulder of pristine production, spiced up with weird sex noises at the end. And just to prove he could carry it all by himself, Buckingham does a mind-blowing live solo version that will have you wondering exactly how many fingers he has on each hand in order to play like that.

Level 2: Discerning muso
L-R: John McVie (bassism), Danny Kirwan (guitarism), Mick Fleetwood (drummism), Peter Green (singism, more guitarism), Jeremy Spencer (even more guitarism)

The savvy Mac fan will also be able to extend their appreciation further back in time, into the band's formative days as a group of British blues avengers assembled by Peter Green. An almost comical rotation of guitarists came and went between 1968 and 1974, their departures precipitated variously by booze, drugs, abduction into cults and inappropriate insertion of themselves into their bandmates' wives. While the band's sound during these heady days bears little resemblance to the later Buckingham/Nicks era, there are plenty of killer tunes to be found by the discerning, degree-level Macademic.

Oh Well, Part 1 (single, 1969)
Peter Green busts out Fleetwood Mac's single greatest guitar riff for this musical insight into what it's like to be unable to sing, not pretty and somewhat thin in the legs department, which might be why I identify with it so strongly. The last minute (and indeed the whole of its B-side Oh Well, Part 2) unexpectedly veers off into some weird Ennio Morricone territory, as if Clint Eastwood has just appeared and is considering just how many coffins would be required to put the band out of his misery, but for 140 seconds this is absolute peak early Mac.

The Green Manalishi (with the Two Prong Crown) (single, 1970)
The sound of a particularly ugly personal demon clawing its way out of a pit it should never have left, this dread-infused musical nightmare about the perilous combination of money and drugs sees Green go black as night. While he howls into an echoey void to the chugging of an insistent riff, the whole band are held down by a bassline so deep it's barely audible to the human ear. One man's Hell has rarely sounded so cool.

Lay It All Down (Future Games, 1971)
Guitarist and singer Bob Welch began nudging Fleetwood Mac away from the blues and towards a poppier sound on Future Games, where this bouncy highlight thrusts its hips around, yakking away about Moses and paradise and other Biblical stuff that's generally at odds with its funky swagger.

Remember Me (Penguin, 1973)
Christine McVie's impeccable talent for an absolute tune finally broke loose on Penguin's opening track, providing the clearest indication of the future Fleetwood Mac's signature tunesmithery. She has to provide her own backing vocals here, making you wonder how great this could have been with the Buckingham/Nicks machine behind it, but in their absence it still ploughs a solid groove.

Hypnotized (Mystery To Me, 1973)
Bob Welch gets a bit trippy in this UFO-inspired track that sounds like nothing else any iteration of Fleetwood Mac ever produced. Guitarist Bob Weston throws in some gorgeous jazz licks which Mick Fleetwood still speaks highly of, despite the fact that at the time Weston was having it off with Mrs Fleetwood. In ensuring his own imminent dismissal from the band, Weston unknowingly hinted at its future as a hotbed of intra-band sex shenanigans and ugly (but sexy) betrayal.

Level 3: Tedious completist
L-R: Stevie Nicks (hair), Mick Fleetwood (hats), Rick Vito (not Lindsey Buckingham), Christine McVie (friend's sexy mum), John McVie (rethinking waistcoat),
Billy Burnette (also not Lindsey Buckingham)

Post-Tango In The Night, Fleetwood Mac never regained the flawless alchemy of their decade-long purple patch. The three albums they made between 1990 and 2003 are all fine, but with Lindsey Buckingham largely absent from Behind The Mask, Stevie Nicks joining him in self-imposed exile for Time and Christine McVie sitting out Say You Will (despite Buckingham and Nicks' surprising return), the holy trinity's refusal to appear on the same album at the same time renders this period a minefield of thin ice for the ill-prepared listener. Gems are there to be dug up though, and the following represent the best of the deepest cuts for those studying for their master's in Mac.

Love Is Dangerous (Behind The Mask, 1990)
The void left by Lindsey Buckingham's departure was so vast that it had to be filled with two new singer-guitarists: Rick Vito and Billy Burnette, neither of whom seemed to have ever heard a Fleetwood Mac song before. Vito's contributions in particular suggest a man who had spent the past year listening to the Road House soundtrack on permanent rotation, but this duet with Stevie Nicks proved that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Love Is Dangerous may be lyrically uninspired (turns out love is, like, really dangerous?) but it rocks its balls off, Nicks in particular contributing the kind of climbing bridge that only she could pull off.

Sooner Or Later (Time, 1995)
Christine McVie tried her best to hold the songwriting fort on the Buckingham/Nicks-less Time, and this lament to lost love was one of the album's precious few highlights. A menacing rhythm section and simple, repetitive guitar line provide a dark counterpoint to McVie's honeyed vocals and unerring ear for melody, and you thank the gods that these guys' consistent inability to maintain a healthy relationship has provided so much fuel for their music.

Nights In Estoril (Time, 1995)
Christine digs into her big box of happy memories again, tainting them with the pain of inevitable sadness that seems to have accompanied her every romantic entanglement. Most of her songs on Time follow this pattern, and hindsight suggests she's talking as much about the band she was about to say goodbye to as the men she's left behind. Yet again though, a bouncy chorus distracts attention from the heartbreak, and as a bonus features the only reference in pop music to Portugal's famous tourist hotspot that I can think of right now.

Murrow Turning Over In His Grave
(Say You Will, 2003)
With Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks back to sing hate songs about each other but Christine McVie nowhere to be seen, Say You Will saw a welcome almost-return to form for the Mac. This Buckingham-penned rant about the parlous state of the modern press features an unwieldy title and chorus, but he spits his lyrics and guitar parts out with the kind of tangible vitriol that hadn't been heard from the band since Go Your Own Way.

Everybody Finds Out (Say You Will, 2003)
Beginning with a vocal treatment for Stevie Nicks that makes her sound like Rob Brydon's Small Man In A Box, this soon transforms into a thumping, sexually-charged monster that proves that a) Nicks can still wring new and ambiguous content from her decades-old split with Buckingham, and b) the two of them combined are so much more than the sum of their parts.

Bonus level: Insufferable bore
L-R: Lindsey Buckingham (had enough of this photoshoot),
Christine McVie (very nearly had enough of this photoshoot )

If you've made it this far, congratulations! You have achieved a master's degree in Fleetwood Macology and are sure to annoy your friends on poker night by asking Alexa to play only the most obscure Mac tracks while everyone else just wants to listen to Bruno fucking Mars or whatever, the ignorant MORONS. To achieve your full doctorate though, you'll want to dabble in those difficult side projects: the solo albums nobody bought and the offshoots that nobody in their right mind would admit to liking, let alone owning a vinyl copy that was really quite hard to track down actually and so what if my heart skipped a beat when I found it at that record fair full of like-minded losers. Take your Maccery to the darkest depths with the following five bonus bangers:

Don't Let Me Down Again
(Lindsey Buckingham & Stevie Nicks, Buckingham Nicks, 1974)
Back when Buckinicks were a solid, sexy and very hairy couple, they knocked out one excellent, country-tinged (wait, come back!) album that served as their job interview for Fleetwood Mac. Its arguable highlight is this none-more-seventies toe-tapper that wouldn't have been out of place on the next couple of Mac albums. As great as the music is, though, absolutely nothing beats that album cover for sheer, sexy hairiness.

Edge Of Seventeen (Stevie Nicks, Bella Donna, 1982)
The undeniable peak of Stevie Nicks' solo career came with this Destiny's Child-inspiring track full of typically Nicksian mystical symbolism and weird bird noises (who hasn't heard a white-winged dove singing "ooh baby ooh say ooh"?). That insistent, chugging riff carries Nicks' raw vocals on its shoulders for over five minutes of singalong fun, tempered only by the depressing realisation that the song is in fact about the death of John Lennon.

Go Insane (Lindsey Buckingham, Go Insane, 1984)
Due to its inclusion in the National Lampoon's Vacation movies Lindsey Buckingham's most popular solo song is probably Holiday Road, about which I'm sure he's delighted. But dig into his not-entirely-easy-listening solo career (the sound of which he's gone to great pains to distance as far from Fleetwood Mac as possible) and you'll find crackers like this title track from his second LP, which is about 16th century Belgian porridge farmers. LOL jk, it's about Stevie Nicks. They're all about Stevie Nicks.

One In A Million
(Christine McVie, Christine McVie, 1984)
McVie is, to be fair, a bit dreary by herself, but the strutting bassline on this track from her second solo album makes it a standout. She's accompanied vocally here by Steve Winwood, which improves the song but inevitably makes you wish she'd just got Lindsey Buckingham along to do it.

Too Far Gone
(Lindsey Buckingham & Christine McVie, Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie, 2017)
The release of 2017's snappily-titled Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie should have been the Fleetwood Mac reunion we'd waited years for, if only Stevie Nicks had bothered to turn up. The album misses Nicks, but with Mick Fleetwood and John McVie in support of the headliners it's the best we'll get for now. Too Far Gone shows this dysfunctional collection of pensioners can still turn out a stomping great party tune when required. And you just can't say that about The Reynolds Girls.


That's it, school's out. Your Fleetwooducation is now complete and your level of devotion to the Mac has hopefully been determined. In the highly likely event that you just scrolled past all those boring words in the hope of finding a playlist of all the songs mentioned, then you're in luck! But also I hate you.

Disclaimer: the version of Oh Well, Part 1 contained herein is a live version performed by Lindsey Buckingham, because Spotify can't be arsed to have the Peter Green version. Don't @ me.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Copacabana: The Movie

It should be enough just to know that a musical film exists based on Barry Manilow's 1978 disco-busting earworm Copacabana. When I spotted it in the BFI catalogue a couple of months ago I realised that my life could now be split into two distinct periods: ignorance of Copacabana the movie, and awareness of Copacabana the movie. The delight I felt knowing that my all-time favourite go-to karaoke standard is out there in expanded, visual form - with Manilow in the lead role, no less - could barely be contained. But humanity by nature is greedy, and I wanted more. I didn't just want to be aware of Copacabana; I wanted to see Copacabana.

Conscious of the fact that there was only one screening, I booked my ticket immediately, before it inevitably sold out and became the next Hamilton. By some miracle there were actually quite a lot of tickets available; perhaps the BFI's website had crashed under the sheer volume of traffic and I had somehow managed to head off the hordes of fanilows who had brought the site to its knees.
Priceless. (Actual price £9.00)

My natural assumption was that a 1985 TV movie comedy-musical, based on an unironically naff chart-topper by the maharaja of MOR and boasting his own hitherto (and, in all honesty, thereafter) undiscovered acting talent, might not be the Citizen Kane of under-appreciated cultural artifacts. And I'll be honest, the thought that it might just be absolutely, hilariously terrible filled me with even more glee. Sadly, this turned out not to be the case. Copacabana is, disappointingly, not rubbish at all. It isn't great either, by any stretch of the imagination, but it is agreeably sweet and occasionally quite mad, and therefore absolutely worth seeking out for fans of the song, i.e. anyone who has heard it. For the sake of context:

Copacabana (the song) is brilliant for many reasons, but primarily for the love triangle story that unfolds over just two narratively economical verses - with a tragic coda saved for the third - which evokes deadly, tangled lust in the nightclub underworld of the Caribbean. No doubt you're aware, even if you didn't just watch the above piece of Manilow magic, of Lola (showgirl, yellow feathers in her hair, dress cut down to there), Tony (always tended bar, worked from eight till four) and Rico (wore a diamond, escorted to his chair, went a bit too far). The tale ends with blood and a single gunshot, but Manilow leaves unanswered the crucial question of just who shot who. All we know is that thirty years later Lola survives, unable to let go of the past and drinking herself into madness.

Copacabana (the movie), then, takes these events as the bones upon which to add tasty, if somewhat cheesy meat: we learn about the characters' backstories, hopes, dreams, families, failures and quite remarkable costume choices. Peripheral characters and subplots are introduced (and occasionally abandoned), and a thrilling Havana-set rescue unfolds against the unlikely backdrop of a delirious pirate-based song-and-dance show called El Bravo.
Throughout all this, Barry Manilow - in the role of talented but frustrated songwriter and hero Tony Starr, naturally - is adorably goofy and charming. Gangly and awkward, he doesn't so much dance as clatter across the sets like a newborn giraffe, occasionally stopping to spread his jazz hands far and wide in his signature (and only) move. The peak of his performance comes as he attempts to hawk his new ditty to a series of unimpressed music moguls: each one demands he plays the song in a different style (in one of the script's scarce moments of genius, the song is called Changing My Tune), which he does with boundless enthusiasm and irrepressible charisma. Most of the time Manilow's acting is on a par with the average school nativity play, but given that we really just want to see him sing it hardly matters.

Initially dressed in conservative knitwear and bumblingly inelegant, Manilow plays Tony like Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent, which is appropriate given that Annette O'Toole - who was Lana Lang in Superman III just two years earlier - plays Lola Lamar. O'Toole is almost as delightful as Manilow, and clearly relishes vamping away in sleazy gin joints and bouncing about in the ridiculous outfits of her later career as the star of a Cuban cabaret. It's only in the film's bookend scenes (literal translations of that final, pitiful verse), where she's required to gaze at a comically ghostly Manilow, that she provokes unintentional giggles, but that's almost certainly down to the fact that she's buried under several strata of unconvincing old lady makeup.
Note yellow feathers in hair. Dress cut down to there just out of frame

What's perhaps most disappointing for a Barry Manilow-written musical is the forgettable roster of songs: only a couple - Man Wanted, sung initially in a sleazy jazz style by Lola before Tony sexes it up into a swing banger, and El Bravo, which accompanies the hijinks of the climax - really register. The big showpiece number Who Needs To Dream, with which Tony serenades Lola and magically transforms her initial dislike of him into unconditional love, is a saccharine dirge designed almost exclusively for Manilow to show off his vox chops. I'm sure I'm missing the point, but as someone whose Barry Manilow collection extends to that one greatest hits compilation you can find in any charity shop vinyl tub across the land, I'd have been much happier with a jukebox musical packed with all the hits.

There's plenty of fun to be had in the expansion of the song's story though, not least the discovery that the Copacabana club is located in Manhattan, revealing Manilow's claim that it's "the hottest spot north of Havana" as a barefaced lie: a cursory google reveals that setting it somewhere in south Florida would have been less geographically and meteorologically inaccurate. But it's great to see these characters in the flesh, particularly the dastardly Rico, gloriously described by a cop who's been after him for years as "the deadliest snake in the western hemisphere". That potentially exciting crime aspect is just one of the subplots that goes undeveloped, but if it's at the expense of the one in which Tony embarks on a jealousy-fuelled affair with a wealthy divorcée who shows him a world of champagne, caviar and double breasted blazers, then it's probably worth it. As for who shot who, well, that's a mystery you'll have to discover for yourself.
Look, the internet is not awash with hi-res production stills from Copacabana, OK

Tragically Copacabana remains the only entry to date in the MCU (Manilow Cinematic Universe). We can only dream of what might have been with movies of songs like Bermuda Triangle, in which Barry's woman mysteriously disappears with an alternate Barry in some kind of baffling space-time paradox, or Can't Smile Without You, in which Barry is doomed only to feel the emotions of others, feeling sad when they're sad and feeling glad when they're glad, or Could It Be Magic, in which Barry discovers that he's a wizard. Still, music and passion are always the fashion, so fingers crossed that somebody, somewhere, is ready to take a chance again*.

* Ready To Take A Chance Again is another Barry Manilow song

Friday, 23 February 2018

Gin Soaked Joy: The highs and lows of a day at the London Gin Festival

I made my annual pilgrimage to the London Gin Festival the other week because I love gin, and if someone's going to go to the trouble of holding a festival in honour of something I love then I feel it's my duty to pay my respects. I also feel it's my duty to spend waaaaaaayy too much money on the thing I love to prove that I love it more than everyone else, and that is an entirely healthy mindset with which to attend an event where you pretty much relinquish control of your judgement the moment you walk through the door and into an alcoholic fug of sweet junipery happy-fumes.

2018 marks the sixth year of Gin Festivals, and my third year of attendance at London's Tobacco Dock (they're actually held there twice a year, but I have to deny the existence of the summer event because neither my bank account nor my liver would survive the consequences). If you haven't been, it's essentially a chance to sample 25ml shots of a bewildering variety of gins from around the world, at the wallet-worrying price of a fiver a shot. Naturally if you fall in love with any there's the chance to buy a full bottle, and the aim of the game as far as I can tell is to come away with as many bottles of new gin as you can carry.
While avoiding the lightning-fast hipster bar staff, natch

Now the correct approach to this is to methodically scour the catalogue, cross-reference it with your spreadsheet of all the gins you've ever tried so that you don't waste money on something you've had before (don't pretend you don't have a gin spreadsheet), and basically plan your day with military precision to ensure maximum efficiency and minimum fun for your pals who mistakenly thought they were coming along to get tipsy and have a laugh. This is why I procured a catalogue months ago, exhaustively checking each gin in advance so that I knew exactly what I was after and wouldn't have to waste half an hour of precious festival time remembering if I'd already tasted, say, Braeckman Oud Jenever Kiekendief (I had, in 2016. According to the spreadsheet I thought it was fine).

So it was with an unprecedented sense of spine-chilling panic that, as I walked into this year's festival, I was cheerfully handed a new, updated and totally re-organised catalogue. I had already arrived about 17 minutes after the official start time due to a combination of the laissez-faire attitude of a café waitress that morning and the vagaries of Google Maps' navigational functionality, so to be faced with one more obstacle between me and the painstakingly-plotted consumption of injudicious quantities of gin was almost too much to bear. But what could I do?

Reader, I bore it.

I ushered my then-friends into a corner, told them all to sit down and shut up, and embarked upon the quickest cross-cross-referencing session you've ever seen at an event where most people are already too drunk to even say "spreadsheet". Within minutes I had reconceived my strategy for the day, and calculated that I had probably only used up the time it takes to sample one gin, so made a mental note to simply drink even more efficiently than usual.

Thanks to my unique skills as an intolerable fun-vacuum, then, I managed the arguably heroic feat of sampling no fewer than 28 individual gins in the space of three and a half hours. They weren't all 25ml shots, you understand; that would be dangerously ill-advised and also possibly too much fun. No, I insisted that my comrades and I all picked different gins and then shared each sample. There were four of us, so 28 gins meant just seven shots had been consumed by each of us at end of play - fewer alcoholic units than in a bottle of wine (on the offchance my doctor is reading this). Although I think I may have tagged an extra one on at the end because it was a lovely blue colour and smelled of bubble gum and by that point I was slightly less disciplined than earlier.

I feel like we could have done better, but the thing about the Gin Festival is that it's open to the general public - sadly, it kind of has to be - and if there's one thing the general public are absolutely on point at, it's getting right in the fucking way. Other things the general public do at gin festivals which are specifically designed to infuriate me include, but are not restricted to: loudly singing along with, and generally enjoying, the live band belting out Oasis' Champagne Supernova as if we're in a sticky-floored boozer in 1995; ordering the same gins within a group, apparently oblivious of the literally globe-spanning selection before them; drowning 25ml shots of precious, expensive gins with an entire 200ml bottle of tonic water so that each gin tastes exactly the same (i.e. like tonic water), and generally treating the entire event like some kind of relaxed, fun day out that can somehow magically be enjoyed without the aid of a spreadsheet.

Despite these hardships I was more or less satisfied with the day, and if you've been waiting patiently for any kind of discussion of the actual gin on offer, that patience is about to be rewarded, if only in a brief and dissatisfying way. I tended to stick to the European gins, because in all honestly most - but by no means all - of the gins on offer from the UK were London Dry gins which are virtually indistinguishable from each other. On the continent they tend to say bollocks to all that, and distil their gin with alpaca bladders, or vibranium, or a forward-thinking sense of unity and tolerance. As a result of this, Europe churns out shitloads of floral and fruity sweet gins which are lovely in and of themselves; the only downside is that after a few you do feel like you've spent a bit too long in the sweetie tin on Christmas Day.

I left the festival shop with two of these foreign fancies: Marula Gin from Belgium, which prides itself on tasting of the African fruit marula - "the forbidden fruit of the elephant tree" (if you've tried the Gin Festival organisers' own ludicrously delicious speciality, Tinker, it's not dissimilar), and Orkney Rhubarb Old Tom, which - as its name suggests - is an Old Tom (i.e. sweeter than London Dry) gin which tastes of rhubarb. And is distilled in Orkney. I needed something a bit serious and savoury to balance these two floozies out, so plumped for Norwich's St Giles, an enigmatic (i.e. I don't know how to describe the taste) gin which reminded me of another of my favourites - Willem Barentsz, which is unfathomably great - but with enough of a difference to warrant spunking 40 notes on a bottle.

(Side note: small-batch gin producers are producing such small batches these days that they often only sell 500ml bottles instead of the standard 700ml bottles, but the price - combined with the average punter's mental state at the end of a Gin Festival - convinces you you're getting more than you actually are. As I discovered when I got home.)
Other worthy offerings that I can recommend and will almost definitely consider when all these have gone (like tomorrow, right lads, weeeeyyyyy) include PJ Gin Elderflower (also from Belgium, does exactly what it says on the tin), Aduro Pink Passion (Italian, so fruity and sexy), Whitley Neill Quince (made in Liverpool and therefore well hard at 43% ABV) and Puerto de Indias Strawberry from Spain. On the savoury side I was intrigued by Aduro's Bell Pepper gin, which literally tastes of red pepper and is therefore nice but only a lunatic would want a whole bottle, and their Devil's Tail, the effects of which you could replicate by sticking eight of the world's hottest chilis in your mouth and swilling with gin. This was the only one we tried that we ended up chucking away, and everyone knows it's a sin to bin gin.

If any of this has somehow convinced you to attend a Gin Festival, then you're in luck - they're held right across the country all year round, and you can find the schedule here. One day I'll get round to announcing what are objectively and unquestionably The Best Gins, having done years of selfless, dispassionate research, but until then, get out there and have a bloody go on some gin. And don't forget your spreadsheet.

Non-disclaimer: I was not paid in cash or gin to mention or link to any of the products in this post, nor have I received any offers or discounts from Gin Festival, more's the pity. I'm @IncredibleSuit guys, just hit me up, it's so easy.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Mission Creep:
The Incredible Suit goes rogue

Hello. Neil here. You probably haven't noticed but I've been banging on about films on this criminally undercelebrated, literally award-losing website for nearly nine years now, minus a year off in 2013 when I was kidnapped by a jealous rival movie blog. My regular reader will know how comically infrequent updates are these days, and for that I would apologise if only anyone cared.

It's not that I've fallen out of love with films, or writing (although I do have a love/detest relationship with the latter), it's just that I kind of got a bit fed up of trying to find insightful and witty things to say about new releases, not least because I never succeeded. So in an attempt to stretch my limited talents to levels guaranteed to reveal just how deficient they are, I've decided to expand the remit of the blog.

As of now, The Incredible Suit is no longer a film blog. It's an everything blog. It's one of those tedious blogs where some idiot vomits their brainpuke onto the page regardless of expertise or reader interest. It's a dumping ground for me to witter inanely about whatever takes my interest and whatever I might feel strongly about after a couple of gins, including gin. It's a film blog, a booze blog, a book blog (lol as if I read books), a TV blog, a travel blog, a music blog (although almost certainly the only music covered will be the output of Fleetwood Mac between 1975 and 1987), and - if you're really unlucky - a blog about the crushing misery of attempting to simultaneously buy and sell a house, which is about the only thing in this list on which I am actually an expert.

The new dawn begins tomorrow, with a load of old shit that will only be of remote interest to the crossover in the Venn diagram of People Who Like Gin and People Who Like Festivals. You have been warned.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

The ten best films of 2017,
according to this idiot

They say that in 2017, web-based film commentary has been reduced to little more than highly subjective listicles that mean nothing to anyone but the writer, whose over-inflated sense of ego drives them to continually vomit their opinions onto the internet regardless of a total lack of insight and a steadily dwindling readership. I don't know if this is true because I've been far too busy ranking the films of Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese to take any notice of what anyone else is doing, but it seems unlikely. Anyway never mind that, here are my ten favourite films of the year!

Thank Christ there are filmmakers out there who actually like Batman enough to celebrate him and all his iterations no matter how ridiculous. The LEGO Batman Movie had love for the caped crusader coming out of its tiny, pointy ears, but that's not all - it dared to prod the Dark Knight's obvious psychological issues in a way that's somehow sensitive and fun at the same time. And not only did it feature a superhero team-up to beat Justice League, but also a supervillain team-up to beat Suicide Squad. All that said, I am deeply disappointed that Batman doesn't pay his taxes. That's not cool, kids!

The MCU's wackiest year yet peaked with this welcome return to a Spidey who looked and acted like a teenage nerd so excited about his superpowers that he could barely contain his own web fluid. After three forgettable Spider-outings, Kevin Feige's guiding hand steered ol' webhead back on track, not just restoring audience faith in Spidey but enhancing the MCU to boot: Peter Parker's father / son relationship with Tony Stark looks set to pay off in spades when the latter finally fires his last repulsor. Now if only Marvel could free themselves of the need to crowbar twenty minutes of tedious superhero-versus-supervillain punch-ups into the final acts of their terrific character-based comedies, they'd be streets ahead of DC by now. What's that? Oh.

Like a 21st century Euro-Kubrick, Yorgos Lanthimos turned out this gleefully horrifying companion piece to 2015's The Lobster with clinical black humour and an eye for unforgettably, hilariously grim imagery. Like real life but with the absurdity curtains pulled right back, Sacred Deer forced you to view humanity through a different lens; you might not have liked what you found there but at least you had an excruciatingly awkward and uncomfortable time while you looked.

Maybe it's the case that the more you love a movie franchise the more glaring its issues are. Overlong and bloated with unnecessary scenes, jokes and beats lifted from the original trilogy, The Last Jedi pushed its luck pretty hard. But for every terrible, overly-CG, Episode I-esque chase on alien horseback, there was a galaxy of new and wondrous moments searing themselves into Star Wars lore: an unexpected and shiver-inducing team-up; an iconic hero revealed to be less the infallible legend and more the wry old hermit; a dozen unforgettable images as instantly quintessential as anything in the series since 1977. Hope remains.

Deeply biting, genuinely thought-provoking and thankfully not-too-gory horror aimed precisely at liberal white folk who are a) possibly a little too comfortable in the belief they're not racist, and b) sick of jump scares and torture porn (hello). The writing here was sublime (there were so many clues in the first half that a rewatch was essential), and even if the last reel was a bit silly and rushed it didn't matter. In a world of socio-political message-movies that yell into an echo chamber, Get Out actually had something vital to say to the majority of its audience.

Martin Scorsese's most personal passion project since The Last Temptation Of Christ was uncommercial enough to keep audiences away in droves (in fairness, punters' choice in January was a 160-minute meditation on faith, or Ryan Gosling tap-dancing with Emma Stone), making back less than half its scraped-together budget. But Marty is long past crowd-pleasing, and Silence was the kind of film whose stature will only grow over time until it's rightly hailed as the late-period auteurist masterpiece it is. Essential Scorsese and soul-enriching cinema, but Jesus Christ on a cracker I am totally ready for The Irishman.

The story of a cursed soldier who manages to sink four of the five boats on which he tries to escape from a perfectly pleasant seaside town, Dunkirk was an assault on the eyes and ears (especially in IMAX) as well as the marbles, deliberately disorientating you with its director's trademark timefuckery. Visually breathtaking (not least when it took to the skies in horizon-spanning megavision) and aurally stressful, this tale of heroism, survival and sacrifice boasted 2017's most effective combination of action and music, to the point where it could just as well be described as Hans Zimmer's best album of 2017 featuring an ace video by Christopher Nolan.

Episode 2 of what is now looking like a fifteen-star trilogy (and there's no reason why they need to stop at three) repeated its predecessor's perfect alchemy of silent comedy and sharply-observed British humour, adding an entire hacking enquiry's worth of HRH Hugh Grant to push it into the stratosphere. Inexplicably hilarious while simultaneously heartbreaking, Paddington 2 provided the year's most thorough emotional workout: this and La La Land probably delivered my happiest moments of 2017, proving that cinema's capacity to make you feel absolutely fucking great isn't dead just yet, despite all the efforts of the DC Cinematic Universe.

Buried away in blockbuster season was this tiny, tender, thought-provoking beauty about life, death, love and the infinite. Its epic themes boxed up in a vignetted 4:3 frame, A Ghost Story provided big ideas on a small scale, as well as welcome relief from the empty noise that characterised most of this summer in the cinema. Also where else were you going to watch Rooney Mara eat a pie for five minutes? In The Lost City Of Z? I don't think so.

It is still unfathomable to me that there was a backlash to La La Land, but what are you gonna do? People are idiots. Regardless of how you feel it turned out, there was so much love poured into this film that it spilled out of the edges: love for movies, love for musicals, love for golden age Hollywood, love for dreams and dreamers, love for art and artists, love for love itself. I haven't been as happy to see a fictional couple fall in love or so sad to see them break apart since Han and Leia. I fell in love with La La Land at first sight and we're still going strong over a year later; check back in five years to see if we had to break up because it held me back from becoming a professional miseryguts.


The usual disclaimer: if you're reading this more than 24 hours since I wrote it, I've probably changed my mind. Up-to-date version, including everything else I saw from 2017, here.

Friday, 17 November 2017

The feature films of Martin Scorsese reviewed and ranked by a mook

After giving Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg a thorough seeing-to on these pages, I decided it was time to have a go on a director I've always admired but never quite loved: Martin Scorsese. Turns out I now love him too, possibly because I've spent much of this year up to my elbows in his unique, troubling and seductive world view. And what better way to celebrate his 75th birthday than to crassly reduce his life's output to a clickbaity listicle, as if the likes of Hugo were in any way comparable to the likes of Mean Streets?

An artist as fascinating as his art, Scorsese is visible throughout his work even when he's not slotting in one of his cheeky cameos. Most of his early films are metaphors for his own eventful trip through the 1970s (meteoric success, crushing failure, depression, drug addiction, dangerously self-destructive behaviour) and watching out for the symbolism in that incandescent phase of his career is half the fun. Then there's all the Catholic imagery, which has provided approximately 90% of my religious education, as well as the frequent self-referential nods to films and filmmaking that remind you that, at his heart, Scorsese is a movie nerd just like us.

Much like GoodFellas, Scorsese's career can be divided into two acts that might be considered a rise and a fall (it's a bitter irony that, chronologically speaking, that film is also the pivot point dividing the two), but even his late period is liberally scattered with moments of peerless brilliance and unexpected achievements - not least his last two movies, which make rather a mockery of my point. Maybe his decision to return to the genre with which he's most frequently (and inaccurately) associated for next year's The Irishman will help determine whether he's heading for Henry Hillish oblivion or Dalai Lama-esque immortality.

So wipe the ragù off your chin and the coke off your philtrum as we take a long, hot bath in Scorsese sauce from my leastest favouritest to my mostest bestest. And please forgive me for every time I refer to him as "Marty"; it's just that you'd get sick of reading "Scorsese" over and over again, plus he and I are very good pals and on first name terms so it just seems natural.

If Twitter had been around in 1997, "Martin Scorsese's Gandhi" could have been a suggestion in a game of #unlikelydirectors. But that's exactly what Kundun is: Scorsese's least Scorsesish film. Swapping out frenetic camerawork and cutting for stillness and sedate dissolves, violence for non-violence and excess for asceticism, his 17th picture seems to consciously reject almost all his familiar stylistic tropes and regular obsessions, bar spirituality. Obviously you can't criticise it for that, but you can criticise it for being something no other Scorsese film is, which is boring. It looks and sounds stunning (MVPs are, without doubt, Roger Deakins and Philip Glass), but Marty struggles to find much in the way of character in the Dalai Lama, whose serenity and inner peace are at odds with the fascinating conflict raging inside almost every other Scorsese protagonist. The lack of narrative meat renders Kundun more like a sumptuous documentary about 20th century Tibet than the life story of its most famous exile; Scorsese has discussed the difficulty in expressing drama through "inaction as action", and that seems to be the key issue here. A noble gesture but a failed experiment.

If you surgically removed all the joy from La La Land and replaced it with repetitive and overlong scenes of general unpleasantness, the result would resemble this flabby, coke-fuelled act of hubris; the Be Here Now of Martin Scorsese films. A tribute to old school MGM musicals, New York, New York has the tunes (thanks largely to Liza Minnelli's flawless pipes) but crucially forgets to include any likeable characters: Robert De Niro's insecure, lunatic saxophonist Jimmy is a rapey creep prone to bouts of extreme De Niroisms, while Minnelli does her best to bring life to Francine, an initially admirable but eventually pitiable singing doormat. The film almost redeems itself in its final act as Minnelli's frustrated warbler unleashes her talent with the spectacular "Happy Endings" fantasy finale, a clear homage to Singin' In The Rain's "Broadway Melody" detour. The sequence mirrors Scorsese finally allowing his creativity to bust out and alleviate the misery of the preceding two hours, but it's little compensation for having to spend every other scene waiting for De Niro to push the Angry Asshole button, which he does with tedious inevitability and regularity.

The point at which I began to seriously wonder if Scorsese's friendship with Leonardo DiCaprio was doing his films more harm than good, Shutter Island sees the still baby-faced star chronically miscast as the hard-boiled '50s dick who really should have been played by Mark Ruffalo. Even Ruffles couldn't have saved this, though: it's messy, silly and too in thrall to Kubrick and Hitchcock when "a Martin Scorsese picture" would've been just fine. It's clear that Marty feels no kinship with his characters, and his grasp of the plot is so slippery it's like we're watching him edit the film as it plays out. Don't even get me started on the fucking anagrams.

Spending his second film working as a hired gun for Roger Corman, Scorsese does what he can to add spice to this southern fried tale of a girl and her gang in Depression-era Arkansas. The script meanders and the characters are thinly-drawn, but Marty's direction and editing save the film from itself - not least in the spectacularly-choreographed climactic bloodbath. A Bonnie And Clyde wannabe with all the production values a Corman exploitation flick commands (i.e. barely any), Boxcar Bertha bears few of Scorsese's thematic hallmarks beyond a bizarrely incongruous crucifixion scene. His first One For Them, and it shows.

Having spent plenty of time locked away in dark rooms obsessing over old movies himself, you can see why Martin Scorsese might feel some empathy towards Howard Hughes. A maverick who took on the studio system and fought for his personal visions, Hughes could have been a proto-Scorsese if he hadn't shifted his focus from cinema to aviation and pissing into milk bottles. It's a shame, then, that we never really get under the charred skin of The Aviator's Hughes like we do with Marty's more memorable protagonists; DiCaprio works hard but you can tell that it's the actor, not the director, who's really fired up by his subject. Scorsese does glamour and paranoia almost as well here as in GoodFellas, and his edge-of-the-seat brilliance really takes flight in the airborne scenes, but that's not enough to sustain a near-three hour biopic. Hardly a plane wreck, but nor does The Aviator truly soar.

Although Scorsese effectively wound up his Italian-American obsession with Casino, his continued fascination with early mass immigration to the US (and its effect on the formation of his beloved mean streets) led to this shift of focus onto the Irish experience - not that you can tell from the accents, which bounce wildly across the Atlantic in search of a home. It’s a frustrating affair: Scorsese’s storytelling panache escapes him here, crushed under the weight of sumptuous costume and production design despite the best efforts of Daniel Day-Lewis’ unforgettable portrayal of literal O.G., Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting.

A straightforward revenge yarn set against a historically fascinating background, Gangs Of New York loses momentum and focus as it lumbers into its bloated, unnecessary third hour. The script throws in a few too many political complications when we’d rather see more of the effect Bill’s magnetic personality has on Leonardo DiCaprio’s resolve to gut him like a pig, and the Civil War and Draft Riot references with which Scorsese tries to make a point end up confusing matters instead. Still, there’s fun to be had seeing if Bill - a racist, nativist lunatic in a delicately poised position of power who wants to Make America Great and is hated by Leonardo DiCaprio - reminds you of any other awful bastards in the US right now.

Between the twin excesses of Cape Fear and Casino sits this uncharacteristically restrained entry in the Scorsese canon. Trading bullets and bastards for bonnets and bustles seemed like an improbable move at the time, but closer inspection of The Age Of Innocence reveals plenty of Marty’s usual preoccupations: a conflicted, tempted male protagonist; familial loyalty; New York City; fetishised food and a near total failure of men to comprehend women.

Like Michelle Pfeiffer swanning through the uptight high society of 1870s New York in a blood red dress, Scorsese brazenly foregrounds cinematic technique in a traditionally sedate genre. Irises in and out, blatant metaphorical cutaways and bold use of silence should keep costume dramaphobes from nodding off and Scorsesophiles delighted. The rituals and corset-tight social customs of the setting are anthropologically examined in forensic detail, but this richness leaves the strongest aftertaste in a film that should also be drowning in Brief Encounter-levels of repressed sexual tension. Daniel Day-Lewis’ removal of one of Pfeiffer’s gloves is as erotic as it gets (tbf it is pretty hot stuff), and his forbidden yearning for her never quite connects like it should. The final scene gave my heart a solid prod, but if I’d cared more about the film’s quietly simmering love triangle it could have ripped it clean out and stamped on it with an exquisitely-buckled boot.

No doubt innovative in its skewering of celebrity culture in 1982, The King Of Comedy now feels hamstrung by both its future and its past. Reality TV and YouTube have rendered the story of Rupert Pupkin's early-stage X Factor wannabe-slash-sociopath quaint and outdated, while six years previously Scorsese made the same point about the insanity of celebrity in a single pan across a handful of newspaper cuttings announcing Travis Bickle's unlikely ascent to hero status. De Niro and Jerry Lewis are a terrific against-type double act though, and Marty's inability to keep himself offscreen is visible in both Pupkin's desperate outsider and Jerry Langford's superstar all too familiar with the downside of fame. All that said, the hardest image to forget may be Sandra Bernhard tottering wildly down the street in high heels and underoos, in futile pursuit of her recently-absconded kidnap victim.

Scorsese continues the migration of his interest from Italian-Americans to Irish-Americans that began with Gangs Of New York, but while every Irish surname and Boston suburb mentioned here evokes a real sense of place, it never feels as intrinsically connected to the story as in his Little Italy-set adventures. There's a strong Catholic depiction of conscience, of course (especially in the case of Leonardo DiCaprio's guilt-laden cop), but The Departed is far more interested in repeatedly disorientating the audience than examining what really makes these characters behave the way they do.

It's impossible not to enjoy this cast reading this dialogue though, and the whole Face/Off role-reversal theme is fun, if a little over-complicated compared to Infernal Affairs, the Hong Kong hit on which this is based. Credibility is stretched to breaking point at times - none of Boston's finest detectives seem to notice Matt Damon phoning his "dad" every time someone tells him something; Damon's unwavering loyalty to Jack Nicholson's mob boss is never fully justified; Nicholson doesn't need DiCaprio so it's ridiculous to keep the only ex-cop on his crew on board when he knows there's a rat in the organisation - and the final shot is the very definition of a hat on a hat (or, perhaps more accurately, a rat on a rat), but Scorsese's energetic direction stops any of that mattering too much.

Eschewing the spectacle of traditional Biblical epics as much out of financial as narrative necessity, Scorsese's Jesus flick deliberately humanises literature's second-most famous magician by casting him as equal parts human and divine. I'm not sure the struggle between the two is entirely successfully conveyed over the film's 163 minutes, and if it hadn't been outlined in a caption at the beginning I wonder if I would have fully grasped what the film was about. Still, as a committed atheist, I've learned more about religion from Martin Scorsese than anyone else, and The Last Temptation Of Christ is at least good enough to hold even my sand-and-sandals-sceptic attention. It helps, of course, that Scorsese's JC continues a throughline that began with Who's That Knocking At My Door's JR, and is therefore both ancestor and descendant of the likes of Mean Streets' Charlie, Travis Bickle and Jake La Motta. The Noo Yawk accents, Harvey Keitel's hair and some weird casting are a little distracting (although Pontius Bowie is wonderful), but it's genuinely helpful and educational to see God's possession of Jesus as a curse to be wrestled with and mastered as much as it is a gift.

Scorsese's entry in the New York Stories triptych is easily the best, although it only really has Woody Allen's Oedipus Wrecks as competition; Francis Coppola's wretched Life Without Zoë sits in the middle of the anthology like a shit in a sandwich. Life Lessons is loosely adapted from Dostoevsky's The Gambler but feels typically autobiographical: the artist (Nick Nolte) is one of many Scorsese substitutes, while his muse (Rosanna Arquette) might represent New York itself - frustrating, fickle and irresistible. Marty's obsession with the nuts and bolts of filmmaking translates here into loving close-ups of paint and painting, thrillingly shot and edited at a breakneck pace not unlike his own work ethic. And in self-deprecatory fashion, he seems keen to point out that being a great artist is no substitute for being a good person.

Smart-mouthed mom takes smart-mouthed kid on a tour of shitty motels in an attempt to reach the misremembered Sirkian utopia of her youth, eventually realising that the hand she's been dealt is all she's got to play with. A comedy drama of compromised dreams and diner philosophy, Alice skilfully avoids soapy melodrama, painting a believable picture of real women making a surprising success / complete hash of modern life. In a body of work characterised by alpha males and downtrodden women, Harvey Keitel's cartoon lunkhead and Kris Kristofferson's limp hunk pale noticeably in comparison to Ellen Burstyn's richly textured heroine, Diane Ladd's wonderfully caustic waitress and Alfred Lutter's precocious pre-teen who specialises in torture by shit jokes.

An obsession with what Marty calls "the machinery of creativity" keeps the gears of Hugo turning, which means there's more sentimentality for lost films than for a desperate orphan living in a station - but then this is Scorsese, not Spielberg. The director's valentine to early cinema is bursting with detail, even to the point of adding visible dust particles everywhere as if it's being projected in a musty old fleapit, and references to Méliès, Lloyd, Keaton and Fairbanks bump up against Hitchcock (the vignettes featuring the station's amorous inhabitants evoke a less murdery Rear Window) and even Scorsese himself, with the inspiration for GoodFellas' final shot sneaking in there.

Nowhere is the film's real love story more richly felt than in the recreation of Méliès' glass studio and the depiction of his unique method of fusing ideas and technology to make magic: a combination on which all movies, books, art and poetry rely. Hugo is hardly one to keep the toddlers quiet for two hours (it could do with a few more gags for a start), but it is a heartfelt reminder that stories are gifts to be shared and preserved, no matter how trivial they may seem or how occasionally badly acted they may be.

One of those genre films that Scorsese will insist on making way more exciting than it deserves to be, not least by splitting it into three genres: sports movie, road movie and existential crisis movie. There's plenty of both Scorsese and Paul Newman in Fast Eddie Felson, the former precocious talent whose best days appear to be behind him, and more than a smattering of Tom Cruise in Vincent Lauria, the irritating and irritatingly good punk kid set to take on the world. The middle act drags a little as Vince takes forever to stop being thicker than his own hair, but you're never far from another onslaught of trick shots in the thrillingly-staged pool games. Nobody shoots pool like Marty: reminiscent of Raging Bull's fights, these ball-busting interludes are so much fun they threaten to overwhelm the quiet machinations going on behind Newman's massive shades. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio rounds out the weird family unit with a decent role that should have gone further, but in the games Scorsese plays, women rarely get a decent break.

As perfect double bills go, you'd be hard-pressed to beat pairing Taxi Driver with this, its crazier, funnier cousin. Another burnt-out shell of a man spends his nights cruising the infernal trenches of New York for a living, seeking redemption through salvation; this time Scorsese (with Taxi Driver co-conspirator Paul Schrader) uses the question of who needs saving the most to drive the film to a less cynical, more serene climax, but has a shitload more fun on the way.

Scorsese doesn't quite let Nic Cage go full Nic Cage here, instead allowing his ambulance-driving counterparts John Goodman, Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore to provide the sirens-blaring lunacy that offsets his character's spiritual crisis. Patricia Arquette manages to hold her own despite being saddled with the straight work, but as usual there's no question whose film this is: only Scorsese could devise those insanely shot and edited connecting sequences of the ambulance bouncing between calls, set to one of his most enjoyable mixtape soundtracks. Bringing Out The Dead’s predecessor Kundun may have uncharacteristically flatlined, but this was just the defibrillator hit required to jolt the old Scorsese back to life.

Marty goes full Hitchcock for what was both his first remake and his first truly mainstream, straightforward genre picture: Saul Bass' titles, Bernard Herrmann's music (respectfully reworked by Elmer Bernstein) and an unambiguously bad bad guy are all umbilically connected to the master, with Robert De Niro staring out of that Fourth Of July parade as if daring you not to think of Robert Walker's Strangers On A Train tennis-match glare. Scorsese brings along his usual baggage of sexual guilt, seductive temptation of evil, and salvation and redemption themes, but they're less effective when restricted by the disciplines of the psychological thriller.

Cape Fear is still exponentially daft fun though, with De Niro spitting ham as the Terminatoresque Cady, a superhuman angel of vengeance who absolutely will not stop, ever, simply because he's the unshakeable embodiment of the Bowdens' collective sins. The film feels like Scorsese kicking back and having fun after putting everything into GoodFellas, but he evidently struggled with the genre restrictions; you have to wonder about the parallel universe where, as was intended, Steven Spielberg directed this (a much more obvious fit) and Scorsese tackled Schindler's List.

With Scorsese frustrated by months of stalled attempts to make The Last Temptation Of Christ, it's not hard to understand his kinship with the hapless hero of After Hours. A decent guy with a straightforward goal thwarted at every turn by irritating and inexplicably obstructive people, unfortunate loser Paul Hackett is Scorsese if his life were a black comedy: "What do you want from me?!" he bellows at an uncaring God. "I'm just a word processor for Christ's sake!" Even Griffin Dunne's unkempt monobrow is suspiciously familiar.

Bouncing uncontrollably between a series of increasingly absurd encounters in the bars, diners and apartments of nocturnal Soho, Hackett is figuratively trapped in a living version of Munch's The Scream before voluntarily succumbing to literal imprisonment in a cheap facsimile. Scorsese avoids the broad comedy of near-contemporary single-night farces like Blind Date and Adventures In Babysitting, choosing instead to keep the audience permanently on edge with his trademark restless camera. The oddness is off-putting at first, but repeat viewings reveal this to be a smart, original entry in a canon already heaving with them.

The lust for excess that was born in Mean Streets and bloomed in GoodFellas reaches full maturity here, reflected in every gaudy costume and shiny trinket over which the camera lingers for slightly longer than is necessary. A love letter to a Las Vegas run by good old-fashioned murderous mobsters instead of soulless (but equally nefarious) entertainment corporations, Casino celebrates ambition and mourns the second death of the wild west. In this uniquely American tale, the idea of immigrants from the east seeking success in the west must have appealed to Scorsese, a New Yorker who’s never felt comfortable as a Hollywood player. Those deep-rooted fears of failure are thoroughly worked out here, and it’s comforting to see Marty allow his protagonist to survive his story doing the only thing he knows, even if it’s on a smaller scale than he might prefer.

To sustain a three-hour epic with this kind of energy is remarkable in mainstream Hollywood; few directors could manage it, and even Scorsese couldn’t do it without Thelma Schoonmaker at his side. As delirious as Casino is, though, it suffers in the unavoidable comparison to GoodFellas that Scorsese invites - it’s nowhere near as much fun as its predecessor, and while Ace Rothstein’s rise is almost as vertiginous as Henry Hill’s, his fall is a protracted and less dramatic experience, over-punctuated by extended bouts of Sharon Stone shrieking. The religious metaphors are still fun to spot though: Stone’s Ginger, for example, is the Eve to Ace’s Adam (with James Woods’ sleazy pimp as the serpent), ensuring the inevitable fall of man teased in the title sequence. Casino’s moral is a familiar one too - “That’s that,” laments Rothstein after warning that greed and ambition are no guarantees for happiness - but it's unusual for Scorsese's protagonists to be so self-aware. Could it be that they’re finally learning? (Spoiler: No.)

The cinema of Martin Scorsese emerged fully-formed in his first feature, a ratatat morality tale of small-time, movie-obsessed Italian-American hoods. Its (and, by definition, Scorsese's) first shot - a statuette of the Madonna and child, watching over Mama Scorsese as she bakes meat loaf in her kitchen - looms over the film as largely as it does over Marty's entire canon, and the subsequent pop-soundtracked street violence is a scrappy taster of things to come (not least Mean Streets, of which this is a fascinating prototype). Shot and edited with a New Wave swagger, Who's That Knocking At My Door shows off its director's innate understanding of pacing, structure, tension and skin-pricklingly effective use of music. It frequently looks like a student film (a rogue boom mic makes a prominent appearance in an early scene) simply because it is, but Scorsese is the one schooling the whole of American cinema with this fierce, fiery debut.

As every scene escalates towards more explosive hedonism than the last, Scorsese implicates his audience in the on-screen awfulness by rendering it so breathlessly entertaining you can’t help but be simultaneously appalled and entranced. Tapping into the same twisted mindset that keeps us hungry for Donald Trump's latest abhorrent mouth-shart (consider how easily the line "You can do anything… grab 'em by the pussy!" would slot in to Leonardo DiCaprio's shit-eating voiceover), Marty knows we'll accept Jordan Belfort's wealth-derived immunity despite his vacuum of moral decency because no matter how much we want him to come a cropper we enjoy our own outrage too much. The Wolf Of Wall Street is an eye-popping late-career surprise from the then-71-year-old director, who is rarely more energised than when telling a thinly-veiled version of his own rollercoaster rise and fall in the late ‘70s, and as a bonus produces the best lead performance of all five Scorsese / DiCaprio collaborations. Plus there is totally a chimp in a nappy on roller skates.

Being the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are Catholicism, ultraviolence and the Rolling Stones, Mean Streets is Scorsese's youth splashed across the screen in deathly blacks and hellish reds. The documentary style sells the Little Italy setting so hard you can almost taste the tamayto sauce, while Keitel's Charlie is Marty's first fully-realised character: a low-level hood whose ambitions and conscience (represented by his opposing role models - his caporegime uncle and St Francis of Assisi) are in eternal conflict. Not helping in any way at all is Johnny Boy, played with such blazing heat by De Niro that it's a miracle Scorsese got him to fit inside this authentic little family drama. Evocative and original, this is effectively Ground Zero for both the Scorsese brand (notwithstanding Who's That Knocking At My Door) and decades of pale imitations to come.

If you're as ignorant and dismissive about religious faith as I am, Silence is an educational marvel, delicately explaining and questioning its themes as it journeys further into its own heart of darkness. Perhaps more crucially though, it's the Rosetta Stone that unlocks much of Martin Scorsese's early work: the moral and spiritual dilemmas faced by Who's That Knocking At My Door's JR, Mean Streets' Charlie or even that guy from The Last Temptation Of Christ gain a vital clarity in the light of everything that Fathers Rodrigues, Garupe and Ferreira experience here. On its own terms, meanwhile, Silence is an outstanding entry in both the Scorsese canon and modern mainstream cinema; a reassuring reminder that its director remains dependably unpredictable and creatively untouchable.

Travis Bickle's Dantean journey through a rotten Big Apple is perhaps Scorsese's first film (of many) to draw on a thousand cultural influences and still come up with something staggeringly original. Channeling everything from Dostoyevsky to Hitchcock, Taxi Driver is a unique, hallucinatory tale of shattering loneliness and misguided vengeance; the story of a man gliding disgustedly through a world so sick and ungodly that you'd think it was 2017 or something. From Bernard Herrmann's schizophrenic opening theme to that final, possibly figmental fare, Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader command a restless, nagging din of inscrutable characters and mysterious stylings to accompany Bickle's descent from amusing social awkwardness to ferocious, guns-blazing psychopathy. And while he's always been a collaborative filmmaker, the unholy trinity of Scorsese, Schrader and Robert De Niro hungrily feed off each other here; the product of their union an unsettling neon nightmare.

The entry-level gangsters of Who's That Knocking At My Door and Mean Streets may have grown up and become more powerful, but Martin Scorsese's wiseguys never rise high enough that they don't have to worry about looking over their shoulder. The paranoia of that world bleeds out of every bullet hole in GoodFellas, where something as innocent and everyday as a potential flat tyre could erupt into grisly violence at any second.

Scorsese's mid-career masterpiece is almost a fantasy autobiography for its director: set in a parallel universe where he actually joined the life he only ever observed from the sidelines as a kid, GoodFellas is shot and cut like a 145-minute trailer for a morality tale about the dangers of temptation, excess and titanic drug use - all of which he was only too familiar with. As such it also plays as a searing indictment of the avarice of the '80s, and Scorsese lures you into that world with glamour and privilege before pulling back the curtain to reveal a total void of decency behind the overwhelming richness of detail.

Breathlessly entertaining and unconventionally structured (it's essentially two acts, comprising Henry Hill's meteoric rise and dizzying fall over a series of short, elliptically-edited scenes), GoodFellas feels like the culmination of Phase One of Scorsese's output; the picture he'd been building to since film school. A handful of his movies since have come close, but this would be the Lufthansa heist of his career: spectacular, audacious and long-investigated.

Pummelled by the reaction to New York, New York and on the ropes following a near-fatal drug overdose, Scorsese puts himself into therapy with Raging Bull: a bruising comeback fight that spatters the director's own self-destructive tendencies across the canvas in stark, unforgiving monochrome. De Niro's Jake La Motta attracts violence wherever he goes, but never is it more focused than in the peerless, abstract boxing sequences, directed with woozy expressionism and a Catholic's obsession for brutal penance. Almost all Scorsese's protagonists are sinners, but La Motta might be the only one who embraces all seven deadly sins over the course of his story: a victim of his own wrath, lust and envy whose shameless pride and greed for success eventually give way to gluttony and sloth. Now that's entertainment.