Creative Sensemaker

A group of girls stood on a rooftop

A rundown of the week’s cultural moments, books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency

By Matt d’Ancona    Above image: Rocks    Friday 18 September, 2020    Long read

Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media. The year 1989 is remembered as one of great geopolitical turbulence: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Tiananmen Square protests, the Iranian fatwa on Salman Rushdie. 

It was also, as it happens, the year of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure – Stephen Herek’s pitch-perfect satire of the stoner culture that would go on to find subsequent monuments in Douglas Coupland’s novel, Generation X: Tales For An Accelerated Culture (1991), Nirvana’s second studio album, Nevermind (1991), and Richard Linklater’s movie Dazed And Confused (1993).

The first Bill & Ted featured a young Keanu Reeves (showing that he had comic chops and was a true star in the making) and Alex Winter as two teen deadbeats flung into a pleasingly ridiculous time-travel adventure with the late, great George Carlin as their guide. 

The inevitable follow-up, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) was no more than a by-the-numbers sequel that squeezed the original joke dry. Reeves went on to Hollywood superstardom – most recently as an action hero in the John Wick franchise – and Winter developed a career as a serious documentary maker.

It seemed inconceivable that, three decades on, a third cinematic outing for the Wyld Stallyns – Bill and Ted’s band – could be anything other than an embarrassment. So it is most excellent to report that, against all logic and reason, Bill & Ted Face The Music (cinemas/ VOD) is that rarest of creatures: a retro triumph.

Now middle-aged fathers in crumbling marriages, Bill and Ted must once again travel through time – on this occasion, to recruit Mozart, Jimi Hendrix and Ling Lun to write a song that will save humanity and space-time itself. 

If it sounds ridiculous, it is. But the movie never loses sight of its own joyful absurdity, or the benign gormlessness of the undynamic duo. Why does this appeal in the autumn of 2020? Because, in a season of strain, anxiety and stressful complexity, Bill and Ted are welcome time travellers from what now seems a simpler past: ambassadors of innocence, rock-star hope and the best of intentions when they are needed more than ever.

Also: celebrate the week of Mexican National Independence Day – the anniversary of the rebellion against the Spanish in 1810 and ‘El Grito de Dolores’ – the famous battle cry of the priest, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla.

Most of the festivities have been digital this year, as you would expect. But there’s plenty you can do to mark the occasion. Try one of the dishes traditionally associated with Independence Day: pozole, menudo (beef soup) or birria de borrego (Mexican lamb stew).

What better excuse to watch (or re-watch) Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece, Roma (Netflix), set in 1970s Mexico City? Or curl up with Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth Of Solitude or Carlos Fuentes’ The Death Of Artemio Cruz? And, if you’re in New York, don’t miss the exhibition of Mexican muralists (1925-1945) at the reopened Whitney.
Two men with guitars

Jimi: All Is By My Side (BBC iPlayer)

A man in a blue shirt leaning over in a cell

Des (ITV Hub)


Rocks (cinemas)
Sarah Gavron is best known for Brick Lane (2007) and Suffragette (2015), but this is her finest movie to date. The portrayal of a group of teens in east London is marked by astonishing debut performances by Bukky Bakray as Rocks and Kosar Ali as her best friend, Sumaya. One of the most striking films of the year so far.

Enola Holmes (Netflix)
As weary as you may be of ‘fresh takes’ on the Sherlock Holmes stories, Millie Bobby Brown – playing the great detective’s sister – holds the camp conceit together with intelligence and wit. It’s also good to see the underrated Henry Cavill enjoying his turn as Sherlock, and looking ever-more comfortable without Superman’s cape.

Des (ITV Hub)
This three-part dramatisation of the case of Dennis Nilsen, who killed at least 12 boys and young men between 1978 and 1983, has been rightly hailed for the electrifying performances of David Tennant as the murderer and Jason Watkins as Brian Masters, his biographer. But top honours should go to Daniel Mays who is revelatory as DCI Peter Jay – a regular copper suddenly hurled into the abyss of absolute horror, fearing he may not be up to the task, but determined to see justice done. Superb.

Utopia (Amazon Prime Video)
This US adaptation of an original Channel 4 series – comic book nerds, conspiracy theories, and the porous border between reality and imagination – has already divided critics. But anything written by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), featuring John Cusack and a spookily contemporary pandemic storyline, is worth taking for a spin.

Jimi: All Is By My Side (BBC iPlayer) 
John Ridley’s 2013 biopic, mostly set in London in 1966 and 1967, lacks narrative structure and (much worse) Hendrix’s own music, to which the moviemakers were denied access by his estate. No matter: André 3000’s performance as the legendary guitarist is mesmerisingly good; an order of magnitude better than Rami Malek’s as Freddie Mercury or Taron Egerton’s as Elton John. Lurking within this forgotten B movie is what could have been one of the great rock’n’roll films of all time.
An illustration of a woman wearing a hood
Books on a grey background


JFK: Volume 1: 1917-1956 by Fredrik Logevall
Devotees of Robert Caro’s magisterial, multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson will relish this first instalment of Logevall’s long-awaited life of the man whom LBJ served as vice president. From Kennedy’s birth to his decision to run for president, we trace the formation of a dynastic scion whose upbringing was full of tension, tragedy and complexity. Don’t be deterred by its scale (800-plus pages) – this is a book worthy of its subject.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
Now available in paperback, Atwood’s Booker Prize-winning sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale enriches our understanding of Gilead, the patriarchal dystopia introduced in the first book 35 years ago. It’s also full of unsettling contemporary resonance.

Agent Sonya: Lover, Mother, Soldier, Spy by Ben Macintyre
Since his first book, Forgotten Fatherland, in 1992, which told of Elisabeth Nietzsche’s founding of an Aryan colony in Paraguay, Macintyre has essentially created his own personal genre: meticulously researched history that has the added attraction of true narrative pace and rich humanity. His latest tells the extraordinary story of Ursula Kuczynski, the spy who handed atomic secrets to Stalin, while leading the life of a scone-baking housewife in Oxfordshire. Among the many things that Macintyre’s books teach us is that history is invariably stranger than fiction.
A night time scene

The Universal Want by Doves

A black and white photo of a boy

I Just Wanna Live by Keedron Bryant


Immigrants by Nitin Sawhney
Though the full album has been postponed until the spring of 2021, three of its singles have already been released, with a fourth expected later this month. Since his breakthrough album, Broken Skin (1999), Sawhney has been one of the most consistently exciting and innovative musicians working in this country – radical in his stylistic eclecticism, as well as his politics. He is an artist whose response to the traumas of 2020 one simply cannot ignore.

The Universal Want by Doves
It’s always been a bit pat to describe the Mancunian trio as ‘ravers who became rockers’. Still, Doves’ first studio album since Kingdom Of Rust (2009) shows that there is a germ of truth in the cliche – entangling as it does electronica with uncompromising guitar work. Immense and powerful.

I Just Wanna Live by Keedron Bryant
Bryant was only 12 when the title track of his first album – written by his mother – went viral; a heartbreaking anthem for young African-Americans confronted by the murder of George Floyd. His voice is astonishing and will become more so, and his music is a reminder of the rich connection between gospel and modern R&B. Most remarkable of all is the spirit of hope that infuses these songs that have arisen from a wretched hour in American history.


Titian: Love, Desire, Death – The National Gallery
The six paintings in this exhibition, inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses, have not appeared in the same room for more than four centuries. Book online; runs until 17 January 2021.

Do let us know what cultural treats you are enjoying and that you would recommend by sending them to

Stay safe – and, like Bill and Ted, be excellent to each other.

Best wishes,

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
Tortoise Media
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