Rock’n’Roll Vaudeville

Ray Davis in Imaginary Man (Julian Temple) 2010.

Ray Davis in Imaginary Man (Julian Temple) 2010.

 

Slagged off by the band’s guitarist as “only a promo video,” Julien Temple’s short for the 1983 Kinks single “Come Dancing” exploded on a fledgling MTV, relaunched the Kinks back in England, and revealed a prodigious, under-recognized gift their lauded singer-songwriter used mostly behind the scenes. In the video, Ray Davies appears in two different roles: a slick, mustachioed cockney swain who narrates the opening set piece in a post-war London dancehall; the present-day rock-star Ray Davies, whose Kinks play the same venue decades later. The video culminates in a moment Temple overheard Martin Scorcese praise in a Manhattan bar during its heavy rotation, comparing the clip’s end to that from, of all things, Buñel’s Simon of the Desert. In Buñel’s 1965 surrealist allegory, Satan plucks the titular ascetic from atop his lonely 4th-century pillar, wormholes him into a mid-60s nightclub, and forces him to gaze morosely on as hipsters frug to a rock’n’roll band. In Temple’s video, a wide shot takes in the crowded second-floor balcony of North London’s Illlford Palais. Amidst its joyous tumult, the camera closes in on a figure frozen at the center. His face a mix of cold hatred and comic disdain, Davies’ pinstriped cockney peers down at the stage where the Kinks play the kind of rock’n’roll that drove dancehalls to extinction. And unlike any rock star in any film, Davies shines brightest in the role that’s not himself. Gripping the rail, his swing-time Banquo’s ghost holds his icy stare for several beats, casts a quick withering glance at a New Wave girl, and darts out of the frame. “He did it beautifully,” Temple said. “I think Ray could have been more of an actor. He has a great, deep sense of film.

Perhaps Davies remains an elusive film presence because he often blended seamlessly into the medium. Tall, dark, and angular, the young Davies certainly came well equipped for film, his mischievous twinkle and gap-toothed smile offset by the slight vulnerability of his treble voice. All this enabled his more-than-credible debut as lead in “The Long Distance Piano Player,” premiere episode of the BBC’s flagship Play For A Day, early venue for directors Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh and, here, future Hollywood fixture Alan Sharp, who consigns Davies’ Pete to the Beckett-worthy prop of piano stool in a dreary pub. Here, he undertakes what his shady manager (Norman Rossington) promises is a star-making four-day piano-playing marathon.

While Sharp credits his plot device to the novel They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, his teleplay feels like a mash-up of The Hustler and The Iceman Cometh, whose rote social realism Davies elevates merely with his presence. Caressing “Claire de Lune” from the piano keys, his gaunt, Rimbaud-like Pete softly responds to his wife’s pleas and his manager’s bullshit, gazing over the piano’s lid at some more immutable challenge, while his piano playing charts a psychic decline, devolving from light classics and pop standards to a plodding, coal-miner’s take on Satie’s day-long gag “Vexations.” Pete slams one last dissonant chord on his way down to the floor, then staggers up and out into the rainy night—a broken man but free. That this compresses the prior three years of Davies’ life and career might be a clue to this actor’s method.

While David Bowie built his screen and rock personas from study of pantomime, Davies’ acting training was osmotic: a childhood of music-hall fandom, a fraught relationship with his era’s culture, a career that often found him in extremis. Piano Player was shot only five years after the punk precis “You Really Got Me” made Davies a star at age 18. Banned from the U.S. after the Kinks’ first tour, he’d turned to catchy social satires and mod-Dickens vignettes written with such empathy and detail that he seemed at times both actor and director.

Davies belatedly turned to filmmaking in 1984 with Return to Waterloo, whose song-linked narrative follows a middle-aged “Traveller” (Kenneth Colley) on a Ulysses-like commute from Guilford to Waterloo Station, during which his lurid daydreams unspool to a collection of uninspired, early-Eighties Kinks songs—the film suffering most from its onsceen absence of their author, who makes a cameo as tube busker. Two years later, in Temple’s widely pilloried, studio-bankrupting musical Absolute Beginners, Davies, as the blithely beleaguered dad Arthur, performed his own music-hall ode to denial, “A Quiet Life,” soft-shoeing from one room to another in a cutaway boarding-house set, looking like such a vaudeville pro he escaped unscathed, and possibly, unrecognized.

While this was Davies’ last real screen role, the modern Victorian figure he cut as a Kink shaped cinema far beyond. The raga-like 1965 hit “See My Friends” is a virtual Rosetta Stone for The Darjeeling Limited, into which Wes Anderson imported a range of Kinks motifs, plus three songs from their 1970 album Lola versus Powerman. This, after composing a Rushmore soundtrack solely of Kinks songs. It’s easy to imagine Anderson’s attraction to a figure who seems to step into and out of his era at will.

In “Imaginary Man,’ Temple’s exceptional 2010 episode on Davies for the BBC arts program “Imagine,” the Kink says he has always been many different characters when performing. Though after around 1966, he admits, they all became “almost grotesquely English.” So English Davies seems, at times, to channel the green, pleasant land itself. In “Imaginary Man,” A blue-tinged shot opens on the present-day Thames beneath spectacular cloud formation, as modern cars whizz past the camera and a tall fedora-topped figure strides up the walk. Until now, Davies has drifted into sung lyric memories triggered by each idyll visited thus far. Now he smiles tightly. “I will not sing anything as I’m walk across this bridge,” he says.  Instead, a descending melodic intro cuts to a period Kinks performance of “Waterloo Sunset,” esteemed by critic Robert Christgau “the most beautiful song in the English language.”When the camera returns to the aged Kink, strolling westerly, Davies leaves you with the impressoinhe has scores more movies inside him.