No Direction Home: Bob Dylan

Dir: Martin Scorsese, 2005. Documentary.

Obviously Martin Scorsese is one of the most accomplished filmmakers of his generation, now into his sixth decade with a fairly diverse body of work. He has his great masterpiece, Goodfellas, and his next tier of classics: Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and maybe even The King of Comedy. All five of those are with his methody, then alter-ego, Robert De Niro; though not as extraordinary but still of note is his later Leonardo DiCaprio period. Interestingly, between all these films Scorsese has also unleashed many notable documentaries. After being one of many editors on Woodstock, he started with shorts, including a great bio/interview of a druggy hustler (who played the gun dealer in Taxi Driver) called American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince. But since his feature-length docs have mostly been made for television (with subjects ranging from film history to the New York Review of Books to Elia Kazan), his best have been about music. From his first feature doc, the concert film The Last Waltz, through the mini-series The Blues to his more recent outstanding George Harrison: Living in the Material World, the guy proves he loves and understands the world of musicians. It’s his respect for the little details and the big picture that make No Direction Home: Bob Dylan his true documentary masterpiece, and maybe secretly as great as anything he has directed (or at least right under Goodfellas).

Made for PBS’ American Masters series (the source of so many brilliant documentaries of the last thirty years), the film clocks in at over 200 minutes and was shown in two parts. Instead of his famous, show-offy visual flair, more than anything else he has ever done, No Direction Home shows off his storytelling skills. All of the footage was shot before he came on board, so in some ways his role as director was really that of lead editor (though the actual editor job is credited to David Tedeschi, who later was promoted to co-director with Scorsese on his NY Review of Books doc, The 50 Year Argument). Besides the incredible plethora of material (film footage and music, much not even of Dylan), the great choice Scorsese made is that instead of an entire overview of Bob Dylan’s life, he kept it small. After a quick run-through of Dylan’s childhood in Minnesota, the film ONLY really details his New York years from 1961 when he first hit Greenwich Village, until his famous motorcycle accident in ’66 (which let to a brief retirement and then a career reboot). But what an amazing five years that was. The film is also about the other music that was happening at the time that influenced Dylan (and which he would go on to influence) and really works as a history of folk music as well.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jul 30, 2015 12:49pm

Stories We Tell

Dir: Sarah Polley, 2012. Documentary.

They say history belongs to the victors, and right or wrong, the person who tells the story gets to make up their own version of history. Actress and filmmaker Sarah Polley’s brilliant (and frankly ingenious) documentary Stories We Tell uses fragments and pieces of memory to tell her own and her parents' story, but without giving away too much, there are many surprises and twists. With the opening narration by her father, actor Michael Polley (of the Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows), you think the film is through his eyes, but eventually you come to realize he may be reading from a text written by Sarah. He tells the story of his relationship with Sarah’s mother Diane, also an actress (who passed away when Sarah was eleven), which fully comes to life, aided by wonderfully edited-in apparent home movies. But as other family members and family friends tell the same stories from different points of view, you also come to realize nothing is as it seems. Everyone has different memories and different points of view, some only coming in fragments. What starts out as a complicated tribute to an artistic family eventually becomes almost a mystery as major family bombs go off. In the end, Stories We Tell becomes one of the most gripping and unique personal documentaries ever made.

Growing up, everyone thought Diane was a “good time Charlie”--an attractive life-of-the-party, a loving free spirit--even though she had two young children from a previous marriage. Michael was a dynamic young British actor on stage, but off, more of an introvert. He was private and she was outwardly showy. Looking back, Michael is convinced Diane fell in love with the characters he played on stage, and was disappointed with who he really was. Nevertheless, the two got married and raised a family. But after some years the marriage grew stale, especially as Diane grew more frustrated with Michael’s lack of career ambition. To both of their relief, Diane was offered a play in Montreal, while Michael stayed back in Toronto with the kids. After a long separation, the two were reunited and were able to rekindle the romance briefly, even having another child together, who turned out to be Sarah. After Diane’s death from cancer, Michael fell into depression, but was forced to raise his little daughter alone. It’s about at this point in the documentary that it starts to come out through different memories that Sarah must have been conceived while Diane was in Montreal and that dear old Michael might not be her biological father. And here Sarah begins to track down all the men who conceivably may have had an affair with her mother while she was away. And then the film takes a big new turn....

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jul 9, 2015 11:32am

Eyes on the Prize

Executive Produced by Henry Hampton 1987. Documentary.

The greatest documentary series in PBS history (or television history, for that matter) does not belong to Ken Burns (though arguably he would easily place a couple in the top ten). It belongs to the 1987 production Eyes On the Prize. The term "television landmark" may get overused, but this story of America’s mid-century Civil Rights Movement truly deserves that distinction. Produced for PBS by a little-known production company called Blackside Inc., the series can be broken down into two seasons: the original six episode masterpiece Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years 1954-1965 and then its less earth-shattering but still relevant follow-up Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965-1985 with eight episodes in 1980. With no credited director, it feels it like it directed itself, as if the world needed it and it sprang up (though Blackside founder Henry Hampton is credited as Executive Producer). The film is made up with talking heads of witness and historians and an avalanche of archival and news footage. There have been a number of significant documentaries about the Civil Rights Movement, including two other PBS docs, Citizen King and Freedom Riders, as well as the Spike Lee directed 4 Little Girls, but Eyes on the Prize is the official starting point, the all-encompassing encyclopedia on the subject.

Though there was an accompanying Eyes on the Prize book, the more in depth paper version would be Taylor Branch’s extra thick “America in the King Years” trilogy of histories. Like a book, Eyes on the Prize is made up of chapters (episodes) that unfold, building on each other and creating suspense and outrage. The first chapter, "Awakenings," is where the modern movement started with the Montgomery bus boycott (which in turn introduced the world to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.) and the murder of a young boy, Emmett Till, which stirred the conscious of so many. Episode Two, "Fighting Back," takes place after the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the battle of Southern school integration. Episode Three, "Ain’t Scared Of Your Jails," details the student takeover of the movement with their creation of The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the lunch counter sits-ins and the freedom rides. Episode Four, "No Easy Walk," sees King back in the leadership position as marches in Albany and Birmingham are finally met with the historic March on Washington. Episode Five, "Mississippi: Is This America?," focuses on activists trying to bring voting rights to the state; with the murder of the three civil rights workers and the assassination of Medgar Evers, peaceful activists are met with extreme violence. And finally "Bridge To Freedom," after King wins the Nobel Peace Prize, the fight moves to the streets of Selma and the back rooms of Washington, DC with the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
May 19, 2015 11:32am

Jodorowsky’s Dune

Dir: Frank Pavich, 2013. Documentary.

Like the documentary Lost in La Mancha, which tell the tale of Terry Gilliam’s never finished film adaptation of Don Quixote, Jodorowsky’s Dune appears to be a much more enjoyable ride as a lost film rather had it actually been made. After the midnight circuit cult success of his bizarro lo-fi films El Topo and Holy Mountain, Chilean filmmaker and all around artsy guru Alejandro Jodorowsky set out to adapt Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel Dune to the big screen. He assembled a a group of holy warrior artists intent on helping him realize his vision, leading them like a prophet. The entire enterprise eventually collapsed when the need for Hollywood big money entered the story. But while his ideas could have been visually fascinating (much of it is too ahead of its time), the overall metaphysical philosophies he was cramming into the story might have only made it another cult curio. Certainly for my taste, the story of the making-of is much more watchable than what might have ended up on the screen. On the other hand, with Jodorowsky’s charismatic storytelling skills it’s hard not to root for his mad-man belief in his dream and for that passion to go beyond mere storytelling to world changing.

Jodorowsky's background in experimental and avant-garde theater in both Paris and Mexico led to an even more unlikely film career. His surrealist and druggy early films found admirers in the midnight filmgoers as well as in French producer Michel Seydoux, who asked the director what he would like to do next. Jodorowsky said Dune and then begun putting together a creative dream team. For his FX Supervisor he failed to convince Douglas Trumbull (2001 and Silent Running) to join the carnival (not a spiritual warrior), but instead landed Dan O'Bannon (fresh off of Dark Star with John Carpenter). He would also convince comic book artist Jean Giraud (Mœbius), the surrealist Swiss painter H.R. Giger and British science fiction book cover illustrator Chris Foss to join the fun. As Jodorowsky apparently worked out the script, he also worked out his visions for the characters and sets with his artists. The ideas came to him in dreams and the talented group came up with some truly astounding art work for what the film would look like. He also supposedly got major rock act Pink Floyd to work on some of the score (as well as goofy French prog rock band Magma). For the cast he managed to gather Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger and Orson Welles (who besides his fee was also sold on the project by being guaranteed a free meal at his favorite French cafe every day of the shoot). The young hero of the film would be played by Jodorowsky‘s adolescent son Brontis (who at the age of seven was prominently featured in El Topo); he would take on around-the-clock sword and combat training for over a year in preparation. The documentary features many of the storyboards that were put in a large coffee table type of book to help sell the project to would-be investors. Needless to say, that book of art now looks like the ultimate Christmas present for any sci-fi geek.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Nov 20, 2014 11:45am

Facing Ali

Dir: Pete McCormack, 2009.

The canon of films (both documentary and dramatic) about the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali continues to grow and has to be richer than that of any other athlete in history. It helps that Ali had such a fascinating, controversial and (eventually) revered life. The list would start with Ali playing himself in the 1977 film The Greatest. Then, a curiosity: the TV movie Freedom Road, which Ali starred in as an ex-slave who became a senator. Ali even provided his own voice for the short-lived Saturday morning cartoon series I Am the Greatest: The Adventures of Muhammad Ali. Will Smith played him in the underrated Michael Mann bio Ali. And on TV, Terrence Howard took his swing in King of the World, as did David Ramsey (a college classmate of mine) in Ali: An American Hero. Actors also pop up playing him in supporting roles in Don King: Only in America and Phantom Punch, while he is only talked about in the more recent Stephen Fears film Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight (as his fight with the United States over his draft status for the Vietnam war is decided by the Supreme Court). The documentary front has too many films to list, going at least as far back as 1970 with AKA Cassius Clay. Other highlights include Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story, Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World and The Trials of Muhammad Ali from earlier this year. And of course, the greatest of all is still the Academy Award-winning When We Were Kings. And just about every documentary on the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements usually has a chapter on the guy.

Finding a different angle on telling the whole Ali story is Facing Ali from 2009. Director Pete McCormack interviews Ali’s boxing opponents and surprisingly creates about as all-encompassing a documentary as there has been on the man. Whereas When We Were Kings really centers on the Ali/ George Foreman “Rumble In The Jungle” bout and veers off occasionally for backstory, Facing Ali moves back and forth on the timeline and manages to include all his historical highlights: winning the gold in the 1960 Olympics, the mega upset against Sonny Liston, joining the Nation of Islam, changing his name from Cassius Clay and infuriating the white press and boxing establishment, and of course, his heroic battle against the Vietnam draft (which put his career on hold for many years during his peak). But where the movie goes that can really excite a budding Ali-phile are the details of the non-historic fights, especially after his return in the '70s when he re-won and then lost the title of champ and then won it back.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Aug 14, 2014 10:16am

The Filth & The Fury

Dir: Julian Temple, 1999. Starring: The Sex Pistols. Documentaries.

“Because the work, at the end of the day, is what matters…and we managed to offend all the people we were f***ing fed up with.”

– Johnny Rotten

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Mar 7, 2014 2:59pm

We Are The World: The Story Behind The Song

Dir: Tom Trbovich, 1985. Documentaries.

Billy Joel famously told Rolling Stone magazine that most of the singers didn’t actually like the song and that “Cyndi Lauper leaned over to him and said, 'It sounds like a Pepsi commercial.'" Of course the song is pretty lame, but the spectacle of the one-night-only super-group, USA For Africa, recording the otherwise forgettable song, “We Are The World,” is one of pop music's most bizarre and fascinating stories. The infomercial/documentary We Are The World: The Story Behind The Song, hosted by Jane Fonda in the same stagey '80s home-video visual style as her hot selling aerobicizing videos, runs at a sparse 52 minutes (though the DVD is packed with extras on two discs), but I could have easily watched three more hours. It’s truly the greatest line-up in music history.

Back in 1984 Bob Geldof of the British band The Boomtown Rats became aware of the horrible starvation going on in Ethiopia and he gathered a bunch of his countrymen (and a few Americans) to record the wonderful little song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Calling themselves Band Aid, the super group was made up of then hot singers including Sting, Bono, George Michael, Phil Collins, Boy GeorgeSpandau Ballet, Duran Duran, Jody Watley, and a couple guys from Kool & The Gang. There were no older British super legends, it was the kids. No Bowie, no Elton John, no Jagger, not even a Ringo Starr. The song helped raise money and brought attention to the issue of African famine and, at the time, was the biggest selling UK single ever.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Feb 27, 2014 4:52pm

The Punk Singer

Dir: Sini Anderson, 2013. Starring: Kathleen Hanna, Carrie Brownstein, Kim Gordon. Documentaries.

Cults can be wonderful, as The Punk Singer—Sini Anderson’s admirably idolatrous celebration of punker Kathleen Hanna—makes clear. Hanna always inspired a devoted few and it never seemed to matter if her fundamentalist fervor, totally understandable hypocrisies, or bratty indifference to anything more politically nuanced than “Suck My Left One” made her look simplistic to outsiders who wondered what the fuss was about. Hanna’s fans did not care and honestly I salute them. As The Punk Singer makes clear, once the Riot Grrrl movement got national media attention and some stories were written that Hanna’s band Bikini Kill disapproved of they reacted with a media blackout. They stopped talking to journalists because it was assumed they couldn’t be trusted to “get it.” As one of her next band’s (Le Tigre) songs went: “It’s just a joke man; it’s just an interview. You wouldn’t get it; I guess this shit is too new.”

Well, yes and no. Though little is said about the punk front women who preceded the punk of The Punk Singer, there were tons! Where to begin? Ari Up, Poly Styrene—it would be useless to even attempt to cover those bases here. But suffice to say Hanna worshipped those women even if the film about her doesn’t credit them for blazing a trail for her to follow. Still, Hanna was undeniably captivating right from the start. She looked great and she made people uncomfortable which is a really good combination for anyone fronting a rock n’ roll band.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Feb 11, 2014 2:32pm

Woody Allen: A Documentary

Dir: Robert B. Weide, 2011. Starring: Woody Allen. Documentaries.

Woody Allen A Documentary coverAt over three hours Robert B. Weide's documentary (originally shown as part of PBS’s American Masters series) is almost “everything you always wanted to know about Woody Allen - but were afraid to ask." As a rabid fan I still have some unanswered questions, but I couldn’t ask for a more entertaining examination of the fascinating career of one of cinema’s true masters. Though autobiographical snippets have appeared in most of Allen’s films, he has remained massively private and almost mythically close-mouthed about his filmmaking (for instance never giving any DVD extras), though in recent years he has done more film promoting and made more public appearances (as have guys like Robert De Niro, as the economics of promoting films have gotten more intense and needy). In ’97 Allen was the subject of a fun, lightweight documentary, Wild Man Blues, which was more about his clarinet playing career and his bizarre relationship to his one time step-daughter and now wife, Soon-Yi Previn. For fans that was the closest glimpse into the man (along with Eric Lax’s 1991 book of conversations with Allen). But with Woody Allen: A Documentary, Weide (mostly known as a TV director with credits that include Curb Your Enthusiasm) has gotten the most in depth, on camera heart-to-heart with Allen. Filled with wall to wall clips, the film mercifully spends most its time on the rarer early career of Allen and less on the stink he has mostly been putting out for the last 20 years.

Woody’s life growing up in Brooklyn is now the stuff of legend. As a teenager he started giving jokes to newspaper columnists, which led to some writing gigs that eventually put him in a room with future celebrated writers Neil Simon, Mel Brooks and Larry Gelbart writing for Sid Caesar. He would continue writing for comedians until hooking up with high-end managers Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe who talked him into hitting the stage and telling the jokes himself. A neurotic and shy young man, Allen never dreamed of being a performer and it often showed. It was a slow rise but eventually, as cerebral comics like Mort Sahl were coming into fashion, Allen found his voice and an eager audience in the groovy coffee house scene of New York’s Greenwich Village at clubs like The Bitter End. Allen soon became a showbiz fixture on the TV comedy circuit; exposure was the goal and here Allen admits nothing was beneath him (the documentary even includes a bizarre clip of Allen boxing a kangaroo a show called Hippodrome).

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jul 24, 2013 5:49pm

Detropia

Dir: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady, 2012. Documentaries.

Detropia PosterRecently I had to re-watch Michael Moore's muckraking sort-of masterpiece Roger & Me (1989) a film that would mark the start of Moore's ascendency to deified portly prince of the Left. Roger & Me was effective as a scathing satire of Reaganomics but also full of fabrications and inaccuracies, which were entirely unnecessary. He had a great story but, much like his lardy lad appetite for tasty sweets, he could not help himself and had to greedily embellish details to make his story that much more shocking. It was a dumb thing to do because it distracted from the important stuff his film addresses.

Still, no one doubts that Moore shined a light on important issues for an audience that could never be reached by The Nation or Mother Jones. He is probably right that professional jealousy accounts for at least some of the sour grapes that his adversaries on the left have been sucking on for some time. But I submit to you that they have a point. (Check out Manufacturing Dissent – a leftist critique of Moore – available illegally, I think, on YouTube.) For all his success it is true that he has dumbed down the discourse surrounding issues of systemic inequality embedded in a classist, white privilege-based society such as ours. He makes his films all about him and like a Leftist Charles Foster Kane he sounds paranoid and overly reactionary about anyone who dares criticize him or his methods.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Jul 22, 2013 1:25pm
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