Monthly Archives: May 2013

Baz Lurhman’s The Great Gatsby: Review

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The fast-paced, hyper-theatrical exuberance of Baz Lurhman’s style is like filmic Marmite. His first film, Strictly Ballroom was the perfect vehicle for his vision, a small-budget project made large with over-the-top performances and a cartoon-like quality that was funny, fresh and endearing. Since then, as Lurhman’s budgets have increased, the exuberance has grown and grown, while the endearment factor has relatively diminished, dipping to absolute zero in his last outing – the execrable epic that was Australia.

His version of The Great Gatsby crashes into our cinemas on a similar wave of hype to that which pre-empted Australia, but there’s no denying that Lurhman is the perfect director to take on a remake of F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel and maybe finally do it justice. After all, it’s a book that might have been the architectural blueprint for Lurhman’s house of cinematic cards.

In one of the director’s regular nods to the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz, as opening credits for this Gatsby unfold they morph from black and white to colour. There’s a sepia pallour to the opening scenes too, until the action shifts to Gatsby’s parties, and the colour explodes, over-the-rainbow style. There’s the quality of a colourised black and white photograph to the film, giving it an odd retro feeling that along with some disconcerting 3D effects, bring us into the hyper-jazz age action. Fatty Arbuckle or Clara Bow might pop out from behind one of the lush shrubs on Gatsby’s grounds, and you wouldn’t blink an eye. Lurhman plays around with 3D in a painterly way too. Words and numbers are etched on the screen and then dissemble and float towards you, snowflakes fall and dance right in front of your glasses.

The Great Gatsby is a story about male consumption, whether it is of fast cars, big houses, booze, or most importantly, women. It’s about the haves and the have-nots, and at its heart is a man who once had nothing, but now has it all, and still wants more. Gatsby’s reaching for the stars, and at the zenith is Daisy Buchanan, the woman he desires above all things but can’t own, because she belongs to another man.

Lurhman’s cartoonish style lends itself perfectly to the tale. It’s amped up so high that the tragedy of the have-nots, Myrtle and George Wilson – who represent the dull, eternal grindstone that is the underbelly of the American dream – gets lost in broad comedy and Grand Guignol performance from Isla Fisher and Jason Clarke, respectively. But that’s okay, because this Gatsby is not about the underbelly; it’s about the surface. It’s about possessions and possessiveness, and at its heart is a character putting on one hell of a show, like a swan that’s paddling crazily beneath the water.

This film is exactly that – one hell of a show, paddling hard. And it’s a very enjoyable show too. The casting of Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby is Lurhman’s trump card. He’s an actor of such depth that he can bring heart and emotion to the most frivolous of scenes, and even though he has to say “old sport” about 3,000 times, he wipes the floor with everyone else on the set, bar maybe the sharp-eyed Joel Edgerton as the Gatsby’s nemesis, Tom Buchanan.

Apart from her costumes, the usually brilliant Carey Mulligan is a disappointment. But then again, Daisy is little more than a cipher for all the selfish dreams the men in this story cradle. She has little to do but look stunningly beautiful, bored, wistful, or cry tears that look like diamonds running down her perfect cheeks. The edgy Elizabeth Debicki as Daisy’s friend, Jordan Baker completely outshines Mulligan.

The one character that appears in every scene is, of course, the narrator, Nick Carraway, as played by Tobey Maguire. His performance annoyed the woman sitting next to me, but I found him to be pitch perfect, in that you completely forgot he was there, even when his face was peering out at you in 3D. Tom Buchanan says to Nick early in the film, “I know you like to watch, and that’s fine with me,” and that’s fine with us too. He’s the human filter through which this story of a crowd of vaudeville performers can somehow be grounded in reality.

In the end, although it leaves us with a message about the meaning of life and all that jazz, you forget it instantly. The Great Gatsby is about spectacle. You exit the cinema remembering the costumes and the frenetic dancing more than any underlying serious theme. Fitzgerald might be turning in his grave – The Great Gatsby is supposed to be a Great American Novel after all – but as Lurhman proves, he deserves this kind of treatment.

 

Knowing Me Knowing You: Chapter 1

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AUGUST 1983

The Visitors

Maggie takes a pull on her cigarette with puckered lips, and emits three perfectly formed rings of blue smoke. ‘If your life was an Abba song, what would it be?’ she asks, her voice puncturing the silence, like the pop of a helium balloon.

She’s trying to ignore the insistent, buzzing headache at the front of her skull and the fact that her mouth is as dry as the Mojave Desert. It’s probably something to do with the two bottles of her father’s homemade wine she nicked from the garden shed yesterday evening – which seems a lifetime ago. It was ‘absolutely vile’, according to Dee, but they drank every last drop, passing one bottle and then the other between the four of them as the sun went down over the pointed tips of the pine trees on the eastern side of the lake.

Beside Maggie at the front of the boat, Daniel is silent. He hasn’t opened his mouth since they woke up this morning, their hair strewn with leaves, gritty traces of soil in Maggie’s mouth. Maybe it’s because he’s so quiet that she can’t stop talking.

Charlie’s saying nothing either, but he’s hardly what you might call a chatterbox. He’s taken off his windcheater, sweating with the exertion of rowing, and Maggie can see the flex and release of the muscles under his T-shirt as he pushes and pulls the oars through the soupy water, the rhythm bearing them relentlessly towards the shore and home.

She leans over the side of the boat to peer at her reflection. Even though it’s muddled by eddies from the oars, she knows she looks different from yesterday.

She takes another pull on her cigarette. ‘Bloody hell,’ she says. ‘Don’t all speak at once!’

‘I’m just thinking,’ says Dee, who’s sitting behind Charlie at the top of the boat. She’d plonked herself there when they’d got in, insisting she’d be the navigator.

A thin film of mist hovers just above the surface of the lake, mirroring a hazy white sky that will turn blue and cloudless before long. Even the birds are quiet. A twitter here or there as the oars cut soundlessly through the water’s surface, not the usual cacophony that greets the dawn.

‘Mine’s “Head Over Heels”,’ says Maggie, and when nobody answers, she adds, with an exaggerated sigh, ‘Anyone want to know why?’

‘Because you’re like the girl in it?’ says Dee.

‘Exactly!’ Maggie laughs, the words of the song playing in her head. ‘I’m a leading lady. Pushing through unknown jungles every day.’

‘Mine’s “Money, Money, Money”,’ says Dee, ‘because I’m going to marry a millionaire. He’ll have more money than Rod Stewart and we’ll live in a mansion in Beverly Hills, with a maid and a gardener and a pool and a Rolls-Royce …’

Maggie shifts her weight from one buttock to the other on the hard wooden seat. She’s had a hundred conversations like this with Dee, stretched across their beds in each other’s houses, flicking through issues of Abba magazine with their chins in their hands. Abba split up six months ago, but in letters Maggie and Dee wrote to each other, they swore to keep their love and devotion for them alive until the day they died. They’ve been Abba’s number-one fans since ‘Super Trooper’ was number one on Top of the Pops. And that was yonks ago, long before Dee was sent away.

Charlie shakes his head. ‘You’re a lunatic,’ he says to Dee, the corners of his mouth twitching. Any moment now he might crack a smile.

‘Takes one to know one,’ Dee retorts, shoving his shoulder.

Maggie wonders if something went on between them last night when they were at the rock pools on the other side of the beach together.

Originally she had come up with the idea for the Abba fan club because Dee had blurted that she fancied Charlie, the week she came home for the summer holidays. ‘I’ll tell him you fancy him,’ Maggie had suggested, jumping at the idea of helping her best friend, but Dee had squealed, ‘No! Please! Don’t!’ So instead they’d sat in the Coffee Bean, eyeing up Charlie and his twin, Sam, over mugs of hot chocolate, while Maggie tried to come up with some alternative plan.

Charlie and Sam Jones. Identical straight blond fringes, spot-free sallow skin and big white teeth, like Americans, although they’d moved to Sligo from Ballinasloe, which was the arse end of nowhere. Brand new in town since Easter, they’d already been snapped up for the grammar-school football team.

‘I don’t think they’ll be into Abba,’ Dee had said, when Maggie suggested her new strategy. ‘Look at them. They’re so cool.’

At the Coffee Bean, Charlie and Sam were already surrounded by girls who wore royal blue Mercy Convent uniforms when they weren’t on school holidays, not muck-brown Ursuline ones, like Maggie’s. Girls who had giggles that rang out like pealing bells, books clutched against their perfectly pert chests and hair that fell in bouncy, honey-coloured curtains down their backs, as if they’d all just stepped out of a salon. Girls who looked nothing like Maggie, with her bush of carrot-orange curls. Or Dee, who was at least a foot shorter than every other girl their age.

Dee had been right. Sam had given a derisive snort when Maggie had walked up to the twins and suggested the Abba fan club. ‘Get lost,’ he’d said.

Later, outside the Coffee Bean, Charlie, who had said nothing at all during the exchange, was waiting for them. ‘Can I be in the club?’ he’d asked, in a voice that was a little deeper than his brother’s but also a little less sure of itself. Maggie linked her arm in his and said, ‘Of course.’

They’d walked partway home with him, Maggie chatting about ‘The Winner Takes It All’ and how she knew all along it meant the absolute end, and that no matter how uncool people thought Abba were, no other band in the history of the world was as good, including the Beatles.

Typically, all Charlie’s attention was on Dee, who was walking on his other side. She barely came up to Charlie’s shoulder and she was a bit chubby underneath her oversized sweatshirt, her Levi’s 501-clad bum sticking out from the bottom of it, like a Zeppelin (Dee’s word, not Maggie’s). But boys always went for her, much more than they went for Maggie.

‘We’ll call for you tomorrow,’ said Maggie, when they’d got to the bottom of Charlie’s road, which she did literally after breakfast the next day, even though from that day on it was plain as the nose on his face that Charlie had eyes only for Dee. He never said much, but most of the time he was taking her in.

Daniel’s hand is flat, his fingers splayed on the peeling red-painted seat of the boat, almost touching Maggie’s. Last night, when they were lying together on Daniel’s PLO scarf, spread across the ground as a makeshift blanket, he had begun to cry. Maggie had put her arms around him and made

soothing sounds as his body was racked with silent sobs. She hadn’t asked him why he was crying, but she thought she knew. It was about his mother. The memory makes her want to reach over and put her arms around him again, to pull him close. She feels a surge of something, the same waves crashing through her blood that she experienced last night when they were doing it.

She catches his eye and sees that he’s smiling, as if he’s thinking the same thing.

It’s funny. You couldn’t call Daniel handsome, not in the way Charlie’s handsome anyway. His black hair hangs lankly down over his eyes, which are too close together. His front teeth stick out a little over his bottom lip and his chin has more acne on it than hers but, bizarrely, when he first showed up Maggie was reminded for a fleeting moment of a man from one of the black-and-white films her mother likes to watch on Saturday afternoons.

‘What do you think your parents will say?’ he asks, reminding her that they are approaching the shore.

 ‘I don’t give a fuck,’ Maggie replies, holding his stare.

She’s going to be in big trouble, though. The wine, the boat, the island were all at her instigation. She’d giggled as she untied the boat from its moorings, insisting no one would notice it was gone and they’d be back before anyone knew it. Then it had been her idea to stay the night, even though they’d told no one at home that they were going anywhere. They’d just disappeared.

At the time, buoyed up by the wine, she was thrilled by the recklessness of the adventure that staying on the deserted island would be, but now that Daniel has mentioned her parents, her heart is sinking.

‘So, what’s yours?’ she asks him, in an effort to buoy herself back up.

‘My what?’

‘You know. If your life was an Abba song …’

‘I’m still thinking,’ Daniel replies. On the wooden seat, his little finger reaches out to and touches hers. She hooks her pinkie around his, and squeezing tight, experiences an exquisite burst of happiness.

‘Let’s make a promise,’ Dee pipes up. ‘Let’s promise that if Abba ever gets back together we’ll go to see them.’

‘They won’t get back,’ says Maggie. ‘Björn said it would never, ever happen. And Agnetha. I think they all hate each other now.’

‘Never say never,’ says Charlie, resting the oars for a moment.

Daniel shrugs. Suddenly the couldn’t-care-less boy from England, who’d replied to their ad on the supermarket noticeboard because he had nothing better to do, is back.  ‘In ten years’ time nobody will have heard of Abba,’ he says.

‘I’ll still love them,’ says Dee. ‘In a hundred years I’ll still love them.’

‘When you’re a hundred and fifteen,’ Charlie quips, and half smiles again.

‘I promise!’ says Maggie. She feels it fervently.

‘Me too,’ says Charlie, stretching out the oars again.

‘Me three,’ says Dee.

‘What about you?’ Maggie asks Daniel, her finger still linked around his.

‘Trust me. They’ll be history,’ says Daniel. ’But if they’re not, I promise too. If you promise to shut up.’

Maggie guffaws. ‘I’ll shut up when you tell me what your Abba song is,’ she retorts. ‘You can’t fool me, mister. You definitely have one.’

‘That’s for me to know and you to find out.’ Daniel smiles again and his eyes are boring into Maggie’s.

Maggie experiences the waves in her blood, pushing out through her chest. She’s never felt anything like it before. She turns and holds her hand over her eyes to shade them so she can see how close they’re getting to the shore. It’s about five minutes away, she figures.

Turning back to Daniel, she laughs again, even though a cold shudder has made its way up her spine. ‘I think I know what it is,’ she says. ‘It’s dead easy.’

‘Go on, then,’ says Daniel. ‘Guess.’

She glances at the approaching shore again. She doesn’t know that, after the boat reaches its mooring, Daniel will disappear from her life so completely, it will be as if he hadn’t even existed. She doesn’t know that she will never again be the Maggie who is on this boat in this perfect moment, trying to work out what Daniel’s Abba song is. 

Click here to find out what happens to Maggie, Daniel, Dee and Charlie 30 years later, when ABBA reform in Stockholm for one concert only and they all reunite to go…

A without the BBA: Reading between the lines of Agnetha Fältsgok’s BBC Interview

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In the 31 years since ABBA split up, Agnetha Fältsgok has avoided or made light of questions about her time with the world’s second bestselling band of all time. But last week, during an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Frontline, she opened up at last about the highs and lows of the superstardom she eventually shunned. Or so it seemed.

 

 She talked about breaking up with Björn, about how difficult it was for her to be on the road, about the experience of singing The Winner Takes It All – the song her ex-husband wrote about their divorce. But at the same time, she said nothing new at all.

 

These are well-known, rehearsed facts about Agnetha and ABBA. Although it seemed as if she was baring all, she wasn’t telling us anything new at all. But then John Wilson tried to get beneath the surface story. He asked her if she’d be going back to Stockholm for the opening of ABBA: The Museum on May 7, to which she replied:

 

 “I’ll still be here in London, I’m afraid.”

 

Wilson sounded shocked that she wouldn’t be going and then asked: “Would you like to sing in public together again, the four of you?”

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Agnetha gave a soft laugh and then said: “I think we would like it, but I don’t think that we’re going to do it because we have our separate lives now, we are much older, and I can’t see a reason why we should do it, really.”

 

Wilson wasn’t taking no for an answer. “You must wonder what it would be like of the four of you got together in a room, and just to hear what happens in the air when the four of you sing,” he said. ‘You don’t think that will ever happen again, even in private?”

 

“No,’ said Agnetha. “I don’t think so.”

 

 ABBA do reunite in my novel, Knowing Me Knowing You. It’s a dream that may never come true, but at least with fiction we can try to write between the lines. Between the lines of Agnetha’s interview there was a very different story going on.

 

It’s hard to match up what she said earlier:  “I think we would like it”, with her flat, firm refusal to even broach imagining singing in a room privately with Bjorn, Benny and Anni-Frid, which leads me to think that her excuses for not getting back together – separate lives, too old, no good reason – are yet more surface statements, and Agnetha isn’t letting anyone in at all.

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Her new album is simply titled ‘A’, a direct reference to her initial being used as part of ABBA. She’s taken it back, and it’s as if she’s saying that although ABBA still retain their epic popularity, her initial will never be linked up to B, B and A again in real time.

 

 There’s a mystery at the heart of this that may never be made public, but you can’t help but wonder if Agnetha’s lack of enthusiasm isn’t somehow linked to the other A in ABBA. 

 

What to call it? The Journey Towards a Book Title

I originally came up with the concept for my new novel while cycling in Dublin (often my ideas come while biking, there’s something about the rhythm of it that makes my thoughts flow). I remembered a story I’d written for a comedy newspaper I produce every now and then for my family, about my youngest brother who as a teenager was big into Eminem. The story said that he was spotted coming out of an Abbaholics Anonymous meeting.

Suddenly I had it. I would write a book about an ABBA fanclub who reunite to go to Stockholm to see an ABBA reunion concert. I would call the book Abbaholics Anonymous.

I pitched the idea to my publishers, who liked it, and so the long and hard work of writing Abbaholics Anonymous began.

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Cut to a year and a half later, when my second draft was finished, and my editor says she wants to have a meeting. Nobody in the publishing house likes Abbaholics Anonymous as a title, she tells me over coffee. Can’t we call it something else?

I argued hard. I thought the title was comedic and would leave people in no doubt about the subject matter, but my editor argued that the book was about so much more than just an ABBA fanclub and an ABBA concert. They were just the hangers on which the full wardrobe of the novel were hung.

Eventually I had to agree. I let go of Abbaholics Anonymous (although I did keep the phrase part of the novel itself) and started casting around for a new title. It wasn’t easy. I looked through the ABBA catalogue over and over again, but nothing was jumping out.

The the publishers suggested The Day Before You Came. But I felt the song was too obscure, that only diehard ABBA fans would instantly remember it looking at the cover. I wanted it to be more instantly grabbing.

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My editor’s instincts were spot on, in one respect. ‘The Day Before You Came’ is not only ABBA’s masterpiece (to my mind), but it has a real sense of story to it. As a title it suggests a past, present and future – the hook telling the browser that something interesting is going to happen in the course of this book.

Voulez Vous? “No,” said my editor. It’s too 1970s sexual.

Thank You For The Music? “No, it sounds like an ABBA biography.”

S.O.S.? “No, it sounds like a cry for help.”

I had suggested Knowing Me Knowing You early on in the process, but we both dismissed it because it was once the catchphrase of Alan Partridge, and people automatically delivered back comedic “Ah ha!” at the end.

But then one day I was driving to Sligo, my hometown (and where the teenage sections of the novel are set) and ‘Knowing Me Knowing You’ came on the radio. I listened to the lyrics and found that they fit my story in so many ways.

It’s a book about love lost and found, friendships that have fallen by the wayside, and what happens in the aftermath of people’s lives. In it my characters get to rekindle romance and friendship 30 years after the summer they were feeltingly friends, and in a way it’s a book about knowing another person, really knowing.

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When the cover designs for the book came through, it was Knowing Me Knowing You that stood out by a mile. It was perfectly right. I saw it in a bookshop, staring out from the shelf at me the other day, and thought: Abbaholics Anonymous? What was I thinking?