Movie review: “Solo: A Star Wars Story”

OK so “Solo”.

 

S
P
O
I
L
E
R

S

P
A
C
E

 

So I went and spent real American dollars to see “Solo: A Star Wars Story”, which, if you know how to read between the lines of movie marketing campaigns, is a bit like sticking to the order of lamb cutlet after the waiter has very carefully and deliberately raised their eyebrow at you. I knew what I was asking for, and I got it: an overcooked and uninspiring meal, “Solo” boasts only a few flashes of genuine flavor. And no wonder, with all the cooks racing through the kitchen: directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired and replaced by Ron Howard after 75% of principal photography was completed, accepting producers’ credits as payout. Whatever their contributions amounted to versus Howard’s, and how much was cobbled together in editing, is impossible to determine, but what has arrived in theaters is a dull-to-passable heist movie punctuated by a checklist of references:

 

Kessel Run, check.

 

A bad feeling about this, check.

 

Wookies ripping arms, check.

 

Spice mines, check; card game, check; Han shot first, check. One can only wonder how freely and joyfully the story might have flowed, had it not been obliged to hit all these artificial marks.

That better story would almost certainly have featured a larger role for Donald Glover, whose Lando Calrissian is note-perfect: charismatic and mysterious and projecting a riveting blend of charm and weltschmerz, and wrapped in a dazzling variety of stylish capes. He’s accompanied the new droid L3 (spectacularly voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who brings a level of exasperating humanity to her character that will either entertain, or annoy, the hell out of you. Like any well-founded character, you’ll be able to predict what L3 would do within about twenty minutes of having met her—in another good sign, you’ll have strong feelings about it. Every time this pair was on the screen, I felt the movie achieve liftoff; sadly, every time it was brought crashing back down by another obligatory hit of nostalgia. Want the origin for Chewie’s bandolier? No? Here it is! And why do we need a scene establishing where Han got his name, anyway? “Han Solo” is one of the all-time great fictional names; in three syllables, it imparts a wallop of information, wreathed in a whiff of romance. It needs no introduction; it is an introduction. In carefully cataloging the origins of nearly every iconic moment, phrase, and prop from the original trilogy, “Solo” feels like a movie not for the people who grew up playing with Star Wars toys, but for rather for the grown-ass people who collect them—only those with a hefty investment in humidity-controlled display cases could possibly have been waiting for the origin story of Han’s blaster. Hence the widespread response to this movie: “Who asked for this?” I saw variations of this cry everywhere, from friends and acquaintances and in the first sentences of reviews. Even a cursory advance focus group should have cued Disney to re-evaluate the need for a painstakingly explanatory origin story for one of the most indelible characters of all time. The filmmakers—all of them—should have trusted the essential sturdiness of Han Solo; the willingness of their audience to follow him on a truly new adventure; our ability to enjoy a character who simply is. Their lack of faith disturbs me.

 

Advertisements

First essay picked up by the Tempest!

I’m pretty proud of this: my very first personal essay has gotten picked up by Laila Alawa’s groundbreaking website, the Tempest!

Movie review: “Deadpool 2”

So Deadpool is back. How you react to him will probably be determined by your age and gender: as in the first installment, any twelve-year-old boys who manage to convince their parents to disregard the R rating will find their efforts rewarded with decapitations and dick jokes galore. The rest of us will probably feel a bit deflated to note that “Deadpool 2” follows that tired old formula: kill off the girl “won” at the end of the first installment to provide crude motivation for the hero in the sequel. Fridging has always been gross, but in the last ten years, it’s gotten both gross and boring. What’s odd is that I think the filmmakers know it—a series of gags in the opening credits and a plot wrinkle later in the movie both undercut the move. Which begs the question: if you know you’re employing a hack tactic, and you know it enough to apologize and sorta-kinda take it back in the mid-credits, why use it in the first place?

The answer may lie in the directorial swap that’s taken place between “Deadpool” and “Deadpool 2”; Tim Miller (for whom “Deadpool” was a directorial debut) has been replaced with David Leitch, who started out his career as a stuntman and then gained a significant amount of experience working on high-grossing and competent films like “Jurassic World”, “John Wick” and “Captain America: Civil War”, but also, alarmingly, “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters”, “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues”, “Atomic Blonde” and “The Wolverine”. Leitch has made such a habit of working on massive projects with multiple (credited and uncredited) directors that it’s hard to derive any sense of him as a director, which makes me chary to lay the bad decision-making at his door. I’m slightlymore inclined to blame the screenwriting team of Rhett Reese and Paul Warnick, carryovers from the first film (the sequel also credits lead actor Ryan Reynolds as a writer), but again: how do you reallyknow who decided to write a straightforward fridging-followed-by-rampage instead of taking a risk and writing something fresh and interesting? You can’t, on any corporate project of this size, so instead I will invite you to simply absorb the names above. Notice anything? Say it with me: when women aren’t in the room, female characters die. In shitty ways, and for really shitty reasons.

The imbalance in the executive room comes through in other ways. In place of the sparky Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), Deadpool (Reynolds) decides to protect and defend a lonely kid, Russell (Julian Dennison), who is being abused at a “re-education” school/orphanage for mutants. Fair enough, except that a large portion of the plot centers on stopping Russell from killing before he ‘develops a taste for it’ and murders everyone in the school, students included. “He’s just a kid!” Deadpool bellows multiple times to stop various other characters, including the time-traveling Cable (Josh Brolin), from killing Russell. “He’s a good kid!” Can you think of any reason why the characterization of a boy planning the murder of all his classmates as “just a good kid” might not go down as easily as it once did? I can think of a lot of reasons.

Signs abound that the movie’s creators have lost the pop culture pulse: a recurring joke about dubstep, which died as a trend six years ago. The total waste, in a microscopic cameo, of Terry Crews, who has been ripe for a serious comeback for the last year. A “Fargo” reference.

All this is not to say that the movie is hopeless, or un-fun: it’s not, at all. The introduction of the delightful Zazie Beetz as hyper-lucky Domino is a blast of fresh air, and Brolin slots his time-traveling mercenary into Deadpool’s team so effortlessly he feels as though he has always been there. I’ll watch this movie again, and be equally entertained and frustrated by it, and probably write some corrective fan fiction for it that gives Negasonic Teenage Warhead (reprised by Brianna Hildebrand) more than five lines, and I’ll dream of a “Deadpool 3” helmed by a team that can imagine more for women to do than die.

“Avengers: Infinity War I”

I review most movies after one viewing. I took two before reviewing “Avengers: Infinity War I”, because this is a movie that wants to be seen twice. An overstuffed, sprawling adventure ten years in the making, starring characters introduced at separate points through nineteen different movies, A:IWI seems like it was made without reference to a clock; it is two and a half hours long, and needs to be. Despite that, I’m ashamed to note that it took me those full two and a half hours to rumble what was up. The Russo brothers have accomplished the most difficult trick in the directorial book—to deliver exactly what is promised, and yet still surprise. I stumbled out of the theater feeling stunned and more than a little stupid: I had, after all, walked into the film knowing I was watching the first of a two-parter, and moreover a movie firmly in the “Empire Strikes Back” position of a larger three-part cycle, and yet I was still caught off-guard by the ending. This is a remarkable trick for a movie to pull off, and it’s worth exploring how it was done, at length, over beers with your friends afterwards.

The final thirty seconds are the film’s greatest triumph, but there are other, smaller wins along the way; every second spent with Tom Holland as Spiderman, for example. The wise choice to include the entire supporting cast of “Black Panther”, rather than just the star, and to ground the majority of the action in Wakanda, rather than the done-to-death battleground of New York City. And the movie makes tremendous use of small breakout characters with limited ranges of action: Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Groot (CGI/Vin Diesel), and the CGI cloak that acts as Dr. Strange’s protector and pet.

When it comes to larger characters, though, the movie has some stumbles: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow) have now broken up and gotten back together so many times that their once-buoyant romance now feels like a deathless slog; Vision (Paul Bettany) and Wanda Maximoff’s (Elizabeth Olsen) mopey relationship never got off the ground in the first place, but is now accorded central positioning and a baffling amount of screentime. (Other characters who fall into the Still Inexplicably Here category include the dessicated corpse of Don Cheadle as Rhodey and walking yawn Sebastian Stan as Bucky.)  Speaking of wasted time, delightful “Games of Thrones” star Peter Dinklage is buried in a MacGuffin-hunting sequence which goes on about ten minutes too long, and we spend a truly unforgivable amount of time dicking around in an empty train station in Scotland with Vision and Wanda (here, my companion reminds me that the sequence established some important power dynamics and allowed one character a memorable entrance, but I’m so bitter about potential Wakanda time going to these two mopes that I’m still calling the sequence useless).

None of these flaws end up mattering, though—the movie powers through on the strength of Josh Brolin’s incredible performance as Thanos, a villain now gearing up to star in “Avengers: Infinity War II” and an entire generation’s nightmares. Thirty years ago, Darth Vader’s horse-chuff breath and sparkling black mask traumatized everyone in grade school; now, a new crop of eight-year olds may learn to associate mortal terror not with a costume and a Death Star, but with a calm, reasonable tone and an earnestly presented plan that almost doesn’t sound like genocide. If Thanos were human, he’d have a large YouTube subscriber base and a rabid following on the lecture circuit. It’s only because he’s purple that we can’t see him when he’s right in front of our face, telling us exactly what he plans to do and how he plans to do it. It’s up to us to believe him.

Movie review: “Isle of Dogs”

Wes Anderson movies are the cinematic equivalent of licorice—a flavor so divisive that its fans are regarded with incredulity, even suspicion by its detractors. If you are in the latter camp, nothing in “Isle of Dogs” will change your mind: Anderson remains as devoted as ever to the twee stylistic idiosyncrasies that define his movies: limited color palettes, fussily symmetrical shot compositions, and deadpan delivery from absolutely every actor, at every moment, always. No other director could make “Isle of Dogs”, because it wouldn’t occur to anyone else to try—it is Anderson’s second film using stop-motion animation, a painfully slow and physically finicky process that takes a certain degree of insanity even to attempt. Think “changing a 737’s oil with an eyedropper” and you’ve about got it. If I were asked to make a stop-motion film, the result would be thirty seconds long, involve two characters in a single room, and take thirteen years to achieve. With Wes Anderson in charge, the result is… different. A dizzying array of backdrops and sets compose Trash Island, a futuristic garbage dump to which the mayor of Megasaki, Japan, has banished all the city’s dogs. It seems Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) is a cat lover. His ward, the twelve-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin), feels differently. To find his banished dog Spots, he has stolen a plane, crashed it on Trash Island, and teamed up with refugee dogs Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Ed Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). In any other director’s hands, this plot could threaten to become cloyingly sweet: wisely, Anderson keeps Trash Island bleak and hopeless, a place where the sky veers from dull silver to pollution orange, never pausing on anything resembling blue.

Strangely, the results are beautiful: every frame could be framed, from the compacted cubes of trash stacked in neat geometric arrays to the patterned paper collages indicating cuts to the movie’s many plays-within-plays. Noting the heavy-handed use of lanterns, geishas, outlines of Mt. Fuji, and other classic Japanese imagery, several critics have gently noted that we are, if not in the absolutely clear outfield of cultural stereotype and appropriation, at least skirting its edges. I think that’s very close to accurate, but given that this is a Wes Anderson picture, made with analog technology and an old-fashioned aesthetic, I am going to call his slightly overenthusiastic homage by an old-fashioned word: Japonisme. That’s what happened when the Impressionists got their first look at the art objects flooding out of a newly opened Japan, and went completely apeshit. Van Gogh and Renoir and Manet and Monet and Cassatt and Whistler all went in on the trend, giving their best interpretations of the Japanese aesthetic. Because they were geniuses, the results were some beautiful paintings. However, because they were not Japanese, and therefore lacked the cultural framework with which to fully understand what they were looking at, the results were not Japanese art. They were beautiful, colorful examples of what white Westerners saw when they looked at Japan—blind spots and all. I was reminded of that trend during the scene where Atari, greeting the dogs of Trash Island, enthusiastically explains his predicament in Japanese. The dogs look at each other in puzzlement. “I wish we understood his language,” one says. Anderson’s choice to partially translate the movie—the dogs speak in English, but only about half of the Japanese speech gets translated, by interpreter or on-screen captioning—means that we still get a sense of Japan as somehow unknowable, stubbornly resistant to foreign understanding. That’s an odd thing to emphasize in a movie meant to be an homage. I liked the movie, and found myself carried along on its current rather effortlessly throughout, but looking at it in retrospect, I have to admit that those in the anti-Anderson camp (where I assume they feast nightly on strong licorice) might have a point. I am curious to know what we’ll all think in thirty years.

“Pacific Rim: Uprising”

“Pacific Rim: Uprising” opens on a group of four men ransacking the abandoned corpse of a Jaeger for spare parts. There is a metaphor here, for those who care to look for it.

Assembled by four screenwriters and directed by Whedon acolyte Stephen S. DeKnight, the second installment in the burgeoning franchise reiterates the stakes of the first, to lesser impact: Jaegers (skyscraper-sized robots) are once again called into service, this time to fight other Jaegers imbued with the muscle tissue, and antisocial tendencies, of the Kaiju (heavily reinforced sea monsters) they apparently only kinda triumphed over at the end of the last movie. In lieu of Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba’s character, killed at the end of the first installment), we now have his son, Jake Pentecost (John Boyega, being worn by a skimpy mustache), who has been drafted, against his will, into service against the new-ish Kaiju. “I’m not my father,” Jake mentions a time or six. Unfortunately, the screenwriters don’t seem to know how to show that, so they have him mention it another few times. Maybe that will make for a compelling journey!

Jake is joined by Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny), a short and scrappy scavenger who is haunted, conveniently, by flashbacks of her own family’s deaths-by-Kaiju. Both Jake and Amara are bullied, then befriended, then bullied a bit again, then sort of befriended, then flirted with, then ejected, then welcomed back by the other Jaeger pilots, who include a tall one, a short one, multiple interchangeably athletic-looking ones, a kinda scrawny nerdy-looking one, a Russian one, and one who is Clint Eastwood’s kid (you’ll know him because he looks exactly like Clint Eastwood). No further characterization is forthcoming, because personality simply doesn’t matter in “Pacific Rim: Uprising”—the movie has effectively abandoned the concept of “drift compatibility”, which forced the first movie’s Jaeger pilots to get to know each other on an uncomfortably therapeutic level before they could move the big robots in balletic unison. Now, the “neural handshake” which links Jaeger pilots together reads as nothing more than a formality—Jake is called away to discuss something more important during his and Amara’s first drift, and the idea is never referred to again. Jaeger teams are assigned at random, and clunky exhortations like “Let’s move some ass!” and “Now let’s save the world!” stand in for any sense of personal motivation or stakes. In a new low of laziness, the screenwriters recycle the climactic speech from “Pacific Rim” for the final battle: Jake once again reminds us that he is not his father, but that we “probably remember his big speech about canceling the apocalypse”. Who knew screenwriting was so easy? One shudders to think of the cinematic possibilities: perhaps in the next installment of “Star Wars”, the Force-Ghost of Darth Vader can ask if we remember how awesome it was when he told Luke he was his father.

The 27 Club Is Too Damn Small

It’s probably too late to mention this, but I think there’s still a way to save rock and roll. All we need to do is invent a time machine, go back to July 22nd, 1972—immediately after the release of “Never A Dull Moment”—and shoot Rod Stewart in the face.

Additionally, I move we travel to May 21st, 1971, for Joe Cocker; and to March 26th, 1974, for Elton John. I don’t really care how we kill them—machine gun or piano wire or acupuncture needles rubbed against the skin of poison dart tree frogs—but kill them we must, and starting with Rod.

You have no idea how much you would love him if we did.

I know what you’re thinking. That Rod Stewart? The “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” Rod Stewart? With the pink silk shirts and the feathered blonde ‘do? Or worse: the “Great American Songbook” Rod with his pinstriped suit and his vest, looking like an extruded-plastic Tony Bennet melted to a shelf in Goodwill? Would you rather have a Rod Stewart who sings about statutory rape (“Hot Legs”) or a Rod Stewart who sings about building a ladder to the stars (“Forever Young”)? Here’s the thing: there is a third option. Listen to this track, which he recorded for “Gasoline Alley” in early 1970 with Ronnie Wood on guitar:

“It’s All Over Now”:

Spotify : https://open.spotify.com/track/78H0GpZn9EXwEI6gr2FZUA?si=ctPqc74aTS2iyW19uF0ZMQ

YouTube: https://youtu.be/znsFAe7S1rA

 

Or this track, which he recorded in the spring of 1972 for “Never A Dull Moment”:

“Mama You Been On My Mind”

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/track/4T2zZ5Po56xtYq8DXeGYkp?si=zVvH6dprSn2m2G53eBdeVA

YouTube: https://youtu.be/mHoqds0OgnQ

 

This Rod—young, lean, able to project longing and wistfulness and a triumphant sort of sad in one barbaric yawp—bears no resemblance to the lounge lizard of the 80s or the complacent crooner of the 90s and beyond. This Rod is still within sight of bars, soccer fields, the occasional oil change done yourself: in short, ordinary English life. You can hear it in his voice.

And what a voice. This Rod, at only twenty-seven, was able to take a song written by Bob Dylan at the very peak of his power and make it sound uniquely his, adding delicacy and regret and a certain abashed quality, as if he were equal parts embarrassed and proud of his vulnerability. That would be a tall order for Leonard Cohen; for Nina Simone; for Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra or Amy Winehouse or any of the other all-time great vocalists. The fact that Rod Stewart was singing like this at the very beginning of his career means we should all think of him in the same breath as Cohen, Simone, etc. So why don’t we?

Because immediately after the release of “Never A Dull Moment”, Rod Stewart entered a decades-long creative nosedive which he never really pulled out of, because it never stopped making money. It wasn’t just the disco, either. To hear his “Great American Songbook” records, of which there were four, is to be subjected to the limpest, safest, least inspired arrangements of classics ever committed to tape. His voice isn’t the problem; it never was. What made Rod Stewart unlistenable from the mid-seventies on were the instincts that lead him unerringly to the safe high center of every road; to platitudinous lyrics and treacly production values; to endless inspirational chimes and backing instrumentals not produced by instruments. Listen, if you can, to this track, off 1991’s “Vagabond Heart”:

“Broken Arrow” (Stewart cover; 2008 remaster):

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/track/654x2Iik9gYpiUXOA71KRq?si=D6Hq9yFOTHCGv069rhy0dw

YouTube: https://youtu.be/hS5Hp-LFNe0

 

Now, I’m going to admit something that’s going to make you lose respect for me: I’ve listened to this track a lot. In fact, it’s my breakup track. Rod Stewart’s cover of “Broken Arrow” is my go-to when I want to feel sort of vaguely romantic in a soft-focus kind of way, like I’m looking at the world through a shower door. It’s soaring and inspiring and doesn’t challenge me in any way.

But just for reference, this is what that track is supposed to sound like:

 

“Broken Arrow” (Robertson original):

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/track/3B7Ls05la3sGj1ql53lP8t?si=_aIkytpYQem_SrMvTo2q9Q

YouTube: https://youtu.be/nsZYq-51Njg

 

This is Robbie Robertson’s original recording of “Broken Arrow”, on his eponymous solo album released in 1987. It won him a Juno Award. I think we can agree it’s better, and furthermore that it’s absolutely not because Robbie Robertson is a better vocalist. It’s better because Robertson made more interesting choices with the song than Stewart did; because he aimed for a more complex emotion than just fist-in-the-air triumph; because he layered his vocals over an instrumental background that also had something to say. For his part, Stewart stopped making music that spoke in 1974; everything since then has been pretty, plastic, and vacant.

Speaking of which, what’s Elton John been up to lately?

 

Oh.

 

“Hello Hello feat. Lady Gaga” from the “Gnomeo and Juliet” soundtrack

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/track/51jloR6rJcBkT1f8n3paRW?si=p23dcPdSTSeoGFbtIxdd9Q

YouTube: https://youtu.be/Hxq8mqLYugI

 

Oh God.

 

“Blue Wonderful”

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/track/5goFdE9LTs1r0JgVvOdMZ8?si=7aQZRXCVTU2-wilknGRmWQ

YouTube: https://youtu.be/7QmgP1hf_Ec

 

Oh sweet Jesus make it stop.

 

“Candle In The Wind 1997”

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/track/3DUcaEvPO72PijivCjtZcU?si=GM_SfHQKR3mneYhorfvbjg

YouTube: https://youtu.be/OefdqK3jKi0

That should be enough. If you didn’t have the fortitude to sample all three, I don’t blame you. Besides, the titles tell you everything you need to know. Blandly commercial, sentimental as Hummel figurines and twice as twee, these songs race through the brain like Taco Bell through a digestive system—leaving much the same byproduct behind. For most people listening to new music today, this is what Elton John has always done. Songs for bad children’s movies, wine tastings, and dead princesses.

But here is what Elton John used to produce:

 

“Amy”

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/track/06jttXe119nc0r9Brkpn8a?si=KCocFBeTRZWT0e-tE8fQHA

YouTube: https://youtu.be/HE1c3li_FxM

 

Listen to how easy he makes it sound; how casually he tosses off that piano line, even as he runs circles around the beat of the song. Billy Joel said of him that “Elton knows what his instrument is capable of. The piano is a percussion instrument, like a drum. You don’t strum a piano. You don’t bow a piano. You bang and strike a piano. You beat the shit out of a piano.” You can still hear that pugnacious attitude in John’s playing, right up to “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, an album that goes right to the summit of his abilities—and starts the descent down the other side. There is the immortal banger “Bennie and the Jets”, one of the most remorselessly economic grooves ever laid down; but there is also the mawkishly sentimental “Candle in the Wind”. There’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”, a song that could revive drowning victims; but then there’s “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”, which is exactly as unlistenable as the title suggests. The rest of John’s career is not worth sticking around for—sure, there was the occasional glimmer of his old self (“I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues”; “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”) but the vast majority of it is treacle. “Nikita.” “Can You Feel The Love Tonight.” “Circle Of Life.” Pre-chewed food for easy swallowing.

When it comes to soft rock for soft people, however, Elton isn’t even close to the king. That crown belongs to someone a little… hairier.

 

“You Are So Beautiful”:

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/track/1gJOqXpRjz9GeEEwQpcujK?si=VEXUcjeaRH-5zmhuZoI62g

YouTube:  https://youtu.be/WvAr9umnZ54

Joe Cocker’s career, much like Rod Stewart’s, can also be bisected neatly into two parts: about six years of the best blues rock on the planet, and then about five decades of mom-pleasing nonsense like this. The auditory equivalent of a white pillar candle and a bedspread strewn with red rose petals, “You Are So Beautiful” is a cue that you are in for an overplanned and ultimately unsatisfying romantic experience.

Let’s just try for a quickie instead:

 

“Cry Me A River – Live At The Fillmore”

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/track/2Ny4hn5r2Y71lkKbj9TYIS?si=bv0DiIYwTyeOx4k_Ee8cMQ

YouTube: https://youtu.be/gRDe0PIPqj0

 

Hot damn! If this track were a vehicle, it wouldn’t be a Maserati or a Ferrari—it would be one of those long, swinging arms they strap astronauts into to simulate G forces. At least eighty percent of the credit has to go to the backing band Cocker surrounded himself with: when your backup singers are Rita Coolidge and Claudia Lennear, you’ve done something right. But Cocker himself can stand in front of a band where Leon Russell is just the piano player and not seem ridiculous. Listen to that voice, like a match struck off an old boot. Doesn’t it sound like he could light fire to the roof with that thing?

He was twenty-five.

The 27 Club is a figment of our collective imagination. There’s no statistical spike in musician deaths at that age; we just perceive one, because there are a few big deaths clustered together: Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones. Later on, Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain. But the idea makes sense, beyond the upsetting similarities of the club’s actual, highly self-destructive members. For most people, twenty-seven is a godawful year. Their parents are starting to noticeably age; their last surviving grandparents are dying off. They are just far enough out from college to be disillusioned in both their careers, and in the first romantic partners they thought would sustain them beyond college. Many of us can easily imagine an alternate reality in which we did not survive twenty-seven, and thank heaven that we lived to see the calmer waters of our thirties. But the flip side of gratitude is forgetfulness—we shudder to think how close we came to self-erasure, then get busy prettifying the memory. We forget our inertia, our selfishness, our self-absorption: we reminisce endlessly about the cheap apartment in which we learned to make soup stock; to roll a joint; to feed ten people on as many dollars. And the farther away we get from that free, indolent, slightly shiftless version of us, the more we romanticize the potential of that person, and forget the pain.

The members of the 27 Club serve as avatars of that remembered, mythical version of us: frozen in amber, fists aloft, as brilliant and self-extinguishing as fireworks, they are everything we tell ourselves we were—or could have been—when we dig up the half-completed novel from the dresser drawer, the acoustic guitar from the back of the closet. Our fascination with them isn’t mourning: it’s envy. By dying at an age when most of us haven’t yet committed to anything more permanent than a bad tattoo, the 27 Club members get to inhabit forever the what-if world that the rest of us eventually leave. They will never have a mortgage, or an aging parent to care for, or a permanently busted knee—or voice. They will never be locked into a career path; an underwater mortgage; a nursing home. They will never confront a gradually diminishing number of possible pathways and options, until the last choice gutters out. So we study their tiny catalogs for clues, imagining the musicians they would have become if granted the chance, pressing down on the bittersweet bruise of our own lost potential. There’s a certain consolation in listening to “Back to Black” at thirty-five, an age Amy Winehouse will never get to be. We may never open our mouths and summon a thunderstorm, but we get to sit on a warm bedroom floor and be consoled by Amy Winehouse, a trick she never managed.

But it’s not all about us. The 27 Club confers certain posthumous benefits on its members. Jim Morrison was talented, but does anyone really believe he would be taken seriously as a rock god if he’d died at sixty-eight, with a softened jawline and a non-existent six-pack? Ditto Kurt Cobain, whose appeal was inextricably tied up with his stringy, blonde-Jesus look. Janis Joplin’s voice might have improved with age, but could it have survived middle-aged contentment? Does anyone really need the collaborative album Jimi Hendrix would have inevitably made with a past-their-prime Aerosmith—or Eric Clapton? (Remember Carlos Santana’s “Supernatural”? Remember how inescapable that fucking album was in 1999? We should all be thanking God nightly that Jimi didn’t live long enough to play backup to Rob Thomas.) Early death saves artists not only from the ravages of time, but from the chance to sell themselves short. And no three have put themselves on the auction block for quite so cheap a price as Stewart, Cocker, and John. It’s difficult to describe to the uninitiated how much we’ve all missed out on as a result. (Though Greil Marcus did, in a 1979 essay on Stewart so good it nearly made my suggestion of time-travel/assassination redundant.)

By burying their best years under a thick layer of sonic mulch, all three betrayed their own legacies, guaranteeing that no one under the age of sixty would ever discover the tiny handful of albums, made by each, that stand among the best and most human works of art ever produced by voice, piano, drum and guitar. No one did this to them—there is no dastardly producer to blame, no flood in a record company basement, no arson amongst the master tapes. Stewart and Cocker and John did this to themselves, and everyone with ears is the poorer for it. It is a reflection of the magnitude of the crime, that I suggest the ultimate penalty.