Searching for Sugar Man
Like a real life Eddie & The Cruisers this British documentary by a Swedish director (Malik Bendjelloul) about a Detroit folk singer named Sixto Rodriguez who became an icon to a generation of white South Africans is both an in-search-of mystery and an inspirational tome to the power of music and survival. Searching for Sugar Man is another one of those documentaries that if it didn’t have “true story” stamped on it might be too crazy to believe. Not to mention that for someone my age to know that this person existed (and in my own childhood backyard of Detroit) and, like most of the world, am only now becoming aware of the stunning music that he created, it’s sad that Sixto Rodriguez's beautiful songs haven’t been on my heavy rotation all my life. But since seeing this movie they have become ingrained in my head and will never leave.
Coming out of nowhere for a handful of music business types in the late sixties, Mexican American Detroiter Sixto Rodriguez sounded like he could be the next big thing. He had a clear voice (that reminds me of Donovan) with sophisticated lyrics about love, heartbreak and socio-political ills in the Bob Dylan tradition. He recorded two albums and both were commercial flops. So Rodriguez (as he was known) went back to being an inner-city guitar-toting day laborer (and, of course, was screwed out of royalties for his songs). And that’s the end of that story. Or was it? Copies of the albums made their way into South Africa where they became massively popular to a generation of white Afrikaners who were coming of age and questioning the system of apartheid in which they grew up. A total police-state boxed-out from the rest of the world, South Africa was a little behind the times culturally and cut-off when it came to music information. The rebellion and loneliness in Rodriguez’s lyrics spoke to them. The rumor was that Rodriguez had dramatically killed himself on stage, putting an end to any kind of personal contact South Africans might have hoped to have with their idol. But the music lived on and came to define the decade for many.Continue Reading
Who would have guessed that an American Idol type of singing competition show could bring enlightenment, democracy and change to a nation? Of course not in the U.S. - our version only inspires cruelty and insipid syrupy belted versions of stale Whitney Houston songs. But in Afghanistan, their version of the show, Afghan Star, may just be dragging a country that has been plagued by decades of wars, poverty and tribal fighting into the twentieth century where everyone believes that becoming famous is the goal of life.
Directed by Havana Marking, the documentary Afghan Star is the most fascinating peak into Middle Eastern media since Control Room five years earlier. Here we follow four contestants, each with different ethnicities from different parts of the country who risk their lives to sing on television. If you think the divisions of the States or regions in U.S. can be tense, Afghanistan's animosity between neighbors keeps the country constantly on the brink of a mini-civil war. But after years of Taliban repression (where television and singing were banned) and still a strong conservative Muslim arm in the country, the contestants and the show’s producer/host Daoud Sediqi are convinced that what their country needs is music and they are eager to give it. Even having a woman sing on TV is still considered radical and leads to a number of dangerous incidents which are well covered in the documentary. The film also does a great job of humanizing the Afghan people who show that no matter how dire the country seems to be, the contestants and the show's audience (at least a third of the country are regular watchers) are still so full of hope. On Afghan Star the theme songs from The Sound Of Music and Footloose are still alive, playing out with life and death consequences.
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey
Kevin Clash grew up in a sizable family of humble means. He began watching Sesame Street as a young boy, which led to watching The Muppet Show. His ravenous interest in creating and performing his own puppet characters grew. He started performing for children at his mother’s day care center, which led him down a path that would ultimately blossom into a promising career as a puppeteer. But not just any puppeteer. He would ultimately become one of children’s most beloved icons, a little red fury monster named… Elmo! Not too shabby for a shy boy from the suburbs of Baltimore.
Halloween: 25 Years Of Terror
It’s been nearly 10 years since the Halloween Returns To Haddonfield 25th anniversary convention celebrating the release of John Carpenter’s now legendary film took place in Pasadena, California, and I’m sure at the time the organizers couldn’t have possibly predicted that the event would be the impetus for the documentary Halloween: 25 Years Or Terror, nor that that documentary would kick start and pave the way for similar retrospective films on the making-of horror franchise classics. Feature length retrospective documentaries were not anything new at the time of Halloween: 25 Years Of Terror’s release. Filmmaker Laurent Bouzereau was already producing some of the best making-of docs for DVD and Laserdisc releases of famous titles such as Jaws and Psycho; but the Halloween doc was the first to offer a feature length retrospective packaged completely on its own as the disc’s main feature with hours of bonus materials for the die-hard Halloween fans to soak up afterwards. Because of its success, we got a string of other horror documentary releases such as His Name Was Jason, The Psycho Legacy, Never Sleep Again and even More Brains!, a documentary focusing primarily on the first Return Of The Living Dead film! But it’s fascinating to go back and revisit where this particular sub-genre all began, which was with Halloween: 25 Years Of Terror.
While the doc chronicles all the Halloween movies including its sequels in sequential order, it kicks off with the original and sets-up what was going on in the horror genre that led up to it; films like Night Of The Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and most importantly Black Christmas which paved the way for a film like Halloween to exist. A young filmmaker named John Carpenter was tapped by a pair of producers to direct a feature with the premise of “the Babysitter murders” and it was to be set on Halloween, a holiday that not only everyone could identify with since we all recognize it, but also one that hadn’t yet been fully exploited as the title of a movie. Paired with his writing and producing partner Debra Hill, Carpenter agreed to tackle the project as long as he had complete creative control and could have his name above the title. While Debra takes credit for writing the dialogue pertaining primarily to the teenage girls' conversations, she gives credit to John for creating Michael Myers and all the dialogue setting him up as evil incarnate. No one involved could’ve possibly predicted that Halloween would become the most successful and lucrative independent film ever made, maintaining that title for decades up until the release of The Blair Witch Project which came along and snatched the crown.
A Decade Under the Influence
Playing on the title of the groundbreaking John Cassavetes film A Woman Under the Influence, or maybe ’70s cokehead producer Julia Phillips’s memoir Driving Under the Affluence, the IFC-produced, three-part documentary A Decade Under the Influence is a fawning but wildly entertaining tribute to the films of the ’70s (actually 1967 onwards) and the maverick filmmakers who reinvented Hollywood. It’s the perfect film companion to Peter Biskind's incredibly readable book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which also spawned a BBC-produced documentary with the same name. The IFC series may come out slightly on top if only because it’s an hour longer and, at just 119 minutes, the BBC flick may not cover enough ground, while A Decade Under the Influence is crammed wall to wall with clips and interviews. For anyone who romanticizes this era in film (like me) this is three hours of pure, giddy love.
Episode One: Influences and Independents, begins with the big gaudy premiere of the crappy big gaudy musical Hello Dolly in ’69; the thesis: that bomb marked the end of the studio era. An intelligent group of interviewees, including Francis Ford Coppola, Dennis Hopper, and William Friedkin, give us the set up: the civil rights movement, Vietnam War, the women's movement, ’60s innovative rock & roll and later Watergate, the formation of the counter culture, and youth movement had a generation of people asking why and breaking the rules. For filmmakers who were seeing the art house foreign films of Godard, Kurosawa, Truffaut, Antonioni, Bergman, and Fellini (and of course Julie Christie throws in the working class films of early ’60s England) the current beach flicks, musicals, and romantic comedies of Hollywood no longer seemed relevant. When Arthur Penn took influence from the French New Wave (who were influenced by American film noir and gangster flicks) and came up with his sexually frank and violent Bonnie and Clyde, it opened the floodgates for a new kind of American film. With Roger Corman and BBS (Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, and Steve Blauner) creating a new class of filmmakers who could work cheap while learning their trade and John Cassavetes making his homemade indie movies, the idea for the “’70s flick” was solidified. Those early influential flicks of the era are recalled and analyzed, including Easy Rider, Targets, Midnight Cowboy, The French Connection, and The Last Picture Show. But it’s not all classics; less memorable movies like Joe and Hi, Mom! are also included and even Dirty Harry is given props as an obvious influence.
Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel
Even if you’re a casual film fan, you must have a general knowledge of who Roger Corman is and how important he’s been to the movie industry. You need look no further than the impressive roaster of names that speak about the prolific filmmaker in the documentary Corman’s World: Exploits Of A Hollywood Rebel. Jack Nicholson. Peter Fonda. Martin Scorsese. Peter Bogdanovich. Joe Dante. Ron Howard. Robert DeNiro. Bruce Dern. Dick Miller. William Shatner. And so on and so forth. Corman is responsible for helping to launch the careers of every one of those names I mentioned above and then some! So it’s somewhat of a surprise that a documentary of this type honoring the man and his large body of work has taken this long to come into existence.
Not that Corman hasn’t gotten due credit and praise in the form of supplemental material before. Over the course of the last year, Shout! Factory obtained the license for dozens of his famous films and has been putting out great special edition DVD’s and Blu-Ray’s with extensive retrospective documentaries covering the making of each of those individual movies. There was also the fantastic documentary Machete Maidens Unleashed released last year from filmmaker Mark Hartley (who also did Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation) which had a large segment talking about the low-budget “women in cages” movies that Corman produced in the Philippines, which also launched the acting career of Pam Grier. But as much as I thought I knew about Corman from the above mentioned sources, there was still plenty I learned from Corman’s World.
When We Were Kings
More than just a documentary about boxing or a boxer or a fight, Leon Gast’s astoundingly epic documentary When We Were Kings captures a fascinating period of history and tells the story of how a cocky young fighter named Cassius Clay became the worldwide icon known as Muhammad Ali. The biggest event in boxing history—and maybe the biggest event of the decade—was when boxing promoter Don King got the latest champ, the hard-hitting monster George Foreman, to take on the supposedly washed up 33-year-old ex-champ Ali in Zaire in ’74, in the event known as “the rumble in the jungle.”
Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!
While Peter Weir and Fred Schepisi were putting Australian cinema on the map in the 1970s with films like Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Devil’s Playground, an amazing underworld of exploitation cinema was also happening Down Under full of sex and violence, exuberantly captured by director Mark Hartley in his slam bang documentary Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! Like his more recent ode to Filipino exploitation flicks, Machete Maidens Unleashed, Hartley has found the perfect formula for honoring the less honorable world cinema. Tracing Australia’s growth from sexploitation through stuntploitation and finally peaking with George Miller’s masterful Mad Max and Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (known in the U.S. as The Road Warrior). With a plethora of wall-to-wall clips and both informative and entertaining talking heads telling the story including Quentin Tarantino, George Lazenby, Brian Trenchard-Smith, John Waters, and Richard Franklin, this movie is an absolute blast.
While films were filmed in and about Australia, they were usually films like Wake in Fright and Walkabout that were made by foreigners; originally Australia’s most popular film exports were soft porny sex comedies with such titles as The Naked Bunyip, Alvin Rides Again, and Again! And Again! And Again! and The Sex Therapist. While Australians were enjoying idiotic homemade comedies with the “Ocker” films (which crudely made fun of Australian hick values) like Alvin Purple, Stork, and The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (directed by Bruce Beresford who would eventually go more high brow with his Australian masterpiece Braker Morant).
For over thirty years director Errol Morris has been redefining the visionary guidelines of what a documentary is and can be. He brought a deeper understanding of visual and sound construction techniques that pushed the documentary into a more compelling medium than the films that preceded his work. In the ‘80s, his film The Thin Blue Line helped get a guy off death row, but maybe more importantly, it brought the documentary genre into the mainstream and helped expose a lot of audience members and future filmmakers to the new possibilities that documentaries can achieve both socially and technically. Where many of the acclaimed filmmakers of his generation have lost their golden touch, every few years he keeps turning out a new film and he may of peaked with his last one, Tabloid, an insanely epic story of love and loss and the seedy nature of our voyeuristic society.
Morris, at his best, finds grand stories of people who live on the fringe of our culture with twisted obsessions, whether pet cemeteries (Gates of Heaven), holocaust denying (Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.) or mole rats and trapezes (Fast, Cheap & Out of Control). Morris has a canny ability to park his camera inside the brains of these kooks and come to understand or appreciate their causes. His best films have been his eccentric bios, also usually about a sort of obsession that eats at his subjects like Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time) and Robert S. McNamara (The Fog of War). Tabloid is almost an accumulation of his life’s work, combining all of what he does best and turning the dial up. It’s a bio of a former beauty queen named Joyce McKinney who sits on camera and tells her crazy and kinky story, aided by other talking heads and archive footage and a lot of press clippings. Without moralizing or taking sides, this is Morris’s most creatively laid-out spectacle, yet the quirkiness and perversion never outweigh the filmmaking.
After the success of student lunch counter sit-ins, anti-segregation forces, led by a little know group called CORE (Committee of Racial Equality), decided to push the envelope in an attempt to secure their rights and bring attention to the discrimination of black Americans in the psychotically racist American South. PBS’s American Experience does it again! Freedom Riders is another historical masterpiece; with spectacular archive footage and engaging talking heads, director Stanley Nelson perfectly lays out this dangerous and complicated story. Along with the epic Eyes on the Prize, Freedom Riders is essential viewing for anyone interested in the civil rights movement or just a fascinating and entertaining slice of brutal American history.
In a post-World War II America, blacks were experiencing new gains both economically and socially in much of the country. By the mid-'50s the Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education brought a new promise for equal rights in schools, but the South was doing everything it could to stifle integration in education leading to a number of famous conflicts. In Montgomery a young pastor named Martin Luther King became an international superstar of peace leading their city’s bus boycotts. By 1960 black Southern college students took up the call first in Greensboro and then Nashville, doing lunch counter sit-ins to desegregate the powerful downtown department store restaurants. This all led to a discussion by a bi-racial Northern group called CORE to test the limits of a federal order to desegregate interstate bus travel including Southern bus station waiting rooms, cafeterias, and bathrooms that still had signs declaring “white” and “colored.” The South was not going to let the Federal Government tell them to change their culture and Kennedy’s White House had no interest in getting involved and alienating Southern white Democrats.
CORE’s leader James Farmer put together a motley mixed-race, mixed-sex crew of pacifists, liberals, and college students (including Nashville student sit-in veteran John Lewis, who would become one of the movement’s most visible leaders) to test the laws. Mixed-race groups, known as Freedom Riders, would sit together on the buses (illegal in most of the South) and then test the limits of the restroom racial laws. They put two groups on two buses setting out from Washington, DC heading to New Orleans. They would travel through the milder Eastern South and then hit Alabama and Mississippi, two quasi-police states, where violence against activists was sanctioned by all levels of their state governments. If any violence came to them, they hoped that it would force Washington to enforce federal laws.
As soon as the buses hit Alabama the violence ignited. One bus was burned down as the passengers were attacked out on a country road. The other bus arrived in Birmingham and the Freedom Riders were attacked by a massive mob out for blood. Even a Kennedy Administration official, John Seigenthaler, (who was keeping tabs on the riders) was attacked and ended up in a hospital after getting hit by a pipe. The beaten, bruised, and defeated Freedom Riders eventually were taken by plane out of Alabama as no bus driver would drive them, fearing more violence (their airplane was threatened by bomb threats delaying their journey even longer).
As it began to look as though extreme violence was the only way to stop the movement, Lewis and his Nashville colleagues, lead by the courageous Diane Nash, came down to Birmingham and took over the Freedom Rides, bringing an even bigger spotlight to the action and an even bigger threat of violence to the new recruits. They wanted the country to know that no matter how much pain was inflicted, the movement couldn’t be stopped. Martin Luther King, The Kennedys, Alabama Governor John Patterson, and the state military all became players in an ever growing story. They saw the jails fill up as more and more people came south to join the Freedom Ride and eventually brought an end to Jim Crow for interstate bus travelers.
The Freedom Riders may be the single top accomplishment for the fledgling Civil Rights Movement. It’s about the last time that a quick direct action would pull the nation together and force the government to act. The next few years would see the movement change its focus to voter rights in the South. It would be a long-suffering struggle that depended on a slow bureaucratic process to create and enact new laws culminating in a more symbolic than actual accomplishment. The Freedom Rides also created a new generation of full-time activists who were no longer afraid of going to jail in the name of human rights. The young people spread out with the creation of their own organization, SNCC, which continued to train students in activism. This is where many of the anti-Vietnam War leaders first got a taste of rebellion and America would never be the same.
The PBS American Experience series of documentaries, most available on DVD, has become the best archive of 20th century American life and Freedom Riders is no exception. All the available witnesses and performers in this real-life drama are present on camera to reflect and tell their side of history. These include Farmer, Lewis, Nash, Seigenthaler, and even Patterson who, in an effort to cover his own diabolical politics, now seems to claim that segregation was not about race or racism, but was instead a state’s rights issue. It should be stressed that watching Freedom Riders is not a dull homework assignment but an enjoyable fast ride—a ride I would recommend and urge everyone to take.