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.Continue Reading
The Filth & The Fury
“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 RottenContinue Reading
We Are The World: The Story Behind The Song
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 George, Spandau 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.Continue Reading
The Punk Singer
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.Continue Reading
Woody Allen: A Documentary
At 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).Continue Reading
Recently 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.Continue Reading
I'll never forget seeing The Celluloid Closet, the documentary based on Vito Russo's seminal overview of LGBT representation in American film. I was 19, a college student in Lawrence, Kansas watching it in a documentary film class. It was like oxygen - for the first time I was seeing a film that confirmed gay stories and a gay sensibility had always been a part of Hollywood Cinema. You just had to know where and how to look.
Vito Russo's work as a film scholar synthesized a whole history of gay images and themes in film. The Celluloid Closet is an ecstatic celebration of such iconic gay images as Marlene Dietrich in a tuxedo in Morocco and the gut-wrenching ensemble piece about life in New York for a group of gay male friends in The Boys in the Band. The movie also serves as a scathing indictment of Hollywood and its "morals" code, a system that perpetuated the false notion that homosexuals didn't exist and, if they did, they had to die by the film's end. It was sobering, educational, cathartic, and celebratory. And the man responsible was not alive to see it because he had died of AIDS years earlier.Continue Reading
Dig! is a completely unreliable documentary about two rock bands who were around in the late 1990s -the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. You do not have to be fans of these bands to find this movie entertaining. I didn’t believe for a second that what I was watching was anything more than some amateur footage of two bands with a clumsy narrative about success, art, commerce and “selling out” (one of the really quaint concepts that shows you how different things are now) grafted on, but it’s worthwhile because it’s a film with some genuine characters – goofballs, sleazy good time Charlies, and actually some really good music. Part of the charm of these bands is how little they had in common with the music scene at the time.
I present a recap:Continue Reading
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.