Tag Archives: Documentary

Every Little Step

[4.5 stars]

A Chorus Line was not only a love letter to Broadway and performers everywhere, it became, quite literally, an anthem to everyone who had dreams and was reaching for success. A few notes from anywhere in its score, one of the most evocative ever penned, transports you into its world instantly. Because it was practically a seamless tale, once you are drawn in, it is almost impossible to pull yourself back out. Its raw emotion remains powerful to this day.

If you don’t know the show, that may appear to be hyperbole, but A Chorus Line remade not only what a Broadway show was, but how they were created and brought to stage. It marshaled the talents of some of the brightest minds and shattered records for years. This documentary captures a lot of that as well as remounting the show 16 years after its original 6137 performance run.

While some of the lyric references have become dated, there is nothing dated about the emotional core of the story itself. It is just as relevant now as it ever was, which is part of what this documentary exposes. Through its dual tracking between show auditions and the real life participants the timeless experience of casting for a show and of performers (or anyone) reaching for their dreams and making them tangible.

Every Little Step

This Film is Not Yet Rated

Even I’m appalled that it has taken me 11  years to finally see this documentary about an industry that I’ve been part of most of my life. Especially so as I’ve always felt the ratings system was bogus (at best). Despite its early, stated intentions to end the censorship era, the advent of the MPAA and the rating system simply shifted and made shadier the efforts to control content by a minority band of self-appointed moralists. If that statement left you in the dust, then you definitely need to see this movie.

The sad truth, however, is that even after 11 years nothing has really changed since this Kirby Dick (The Hunting Ground) documentary hit screens. The MPAA hasn’t changed tactics or efforts at all. They are still beholden to the same masters (studios) and are secretive and capricious (and even bigoted) in their decisions. (See 3 Generations for a recent example. )

On the up side, the lay of the land around the industry, in particular with the rise of Netflix and Amazon Prime, has provided distribution avenues that didn’t exist at the time this docu was made. Also, the rise of “Director’s” and Unrated editions of films, only just coming to prominence when this docu was made, allows for the intended vision of films to find their audience. All of this doesn’t nullify the very real concerns or issues raised, but it points to potential ways around the gatekeepers from an artistic point of view. It would be a great follow-up to see how the financial landscape and decisions may be changing (though even Netflix is starting to scale back after years of risk).

Not Yet Rated exhibits Dick’s devotion to the truth as well as his sense of humor and commitment to his subject. It is a set of qualities that has garnered him several awards and nominations. This particular documentary struggles with its narrative, but not its entertainment nor its ability to inform. Which is to say that while it all comes together and there is a lot of information and revelation, the focus is a little soft. However, if you’ve ever wondered where the heck those letters come from on your entertainment, how they are selected, and how we compare to the rest of the world, you need to see this film.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

We are X

Sometimes a trailer catches you by declaring similarity to something you do know. In this case, We are X claimed affinity with Searching for Sugar Man, which was a delightful and unexpected treat of a documentary. It was not an apt comparison by any stretch, but the movie has its own merits.

So, let’s start with the obvious: Who is X Japan? Probably the biggest band that you’ve never heard of. I certainly hadn’t, as their rise to popularity beyond Japan was outside of my music exploration days. Learning about their path was interesting, but not overly different from any other big rock group. They met young, they had trials, they had losses, and they had triumphs.

However, what sets this docu and the group apart is Yoshiki, the drummer (amongst other instruments) and primary brains behind the band (and primary filter for this movie). Not because of his songs or playing, though both are notable, but because of his drive. Yoshiki is definitely not the typical drummer personality. He is the primary lryics and tunes man, the business manager, and the primary front personality of the band. I couldn’t think of a single, prominent band that had a drummer in the same role, though I’m sure someone out there will prove me wrong now that I’ve stated it. Rush comes close, but they really are more ensemble.

The docu is much less about music than it is about artistic integrity and life. Sure, it is a little self-conscious and controlled, but it is also fascinating, empowering, and inspiring in many ways. What is missing is the insight into creation of their music. This is more an homage to X Japan and/or their fans (it sort of works in both directions). That is a great gift if you were a fan, but of less value if you didn’t know them going in.

Gimme Danger was a better look inside a band, in large part because a third eye was brought to the tale. History wasn’t only lensed through the eyes of the band itself, there was some critical thought to it all, however filtered.

Beyond the emotional journey, what We are X does have to offer is some nice behind the scenes views of their Madison Square Garden concert. No matter how many times you see that kind of event being put together, it is awe-inspiring what it takes to create it and how simple they make it look during performance.

This is an oddly compelling story. Seeing what an artist like Yoshiki will sacrifice (quite literally everything) in order to create is pretty fascinating. How much of this is promotion and how much bald fact, frankly there is no way to tell. And he did get me interested in digging out their tunes and learning more, so perhaps it served its purpose.

We Are X

The Salt of the Earth

I’m not entirely sure where to begin with this powerful piece. Perhaps the right way is with the director, which is counter-intuitive, but the result of this movie is directly related to Wim Wenders’ (Pina) involvement.

Making a film about a photographer is fraught with issues. A medium of moving pictures trying to elicit an understanding of a medium that relies on single, frozen moments is practically at odds from the start. Wenders, who narrates a large part of the film, comments on that in a way at the top of this documentary. But Wenders was a perfect choice as a man who could take this story and make the film feel like a Salgado photo from beginning to end. He captured the sense, sensibility, and framing of the great photographer’s works and filmed Salgado commenting on his photos while looking at them. The overall feel is often like an intimate, private show.

Tackling this subject also meant finding the story of Salgado’s life, the narrative by which Wenders captures your imagination and exposes the root of the art. He went with the title as it is now, but it could also have been “The Life, and Death, and Life of Sebastião Salgado” given the shape of his life and tale. Salgado has led a fascinating life both in deeds and trajectory.  His story is as inspiring as his art, not only for its unlikely path but also for its intensity and dedication to the purpose and result. To discuss it would be to rob you of the journey and revelations, so I won’t.

I discovered Wim Wenders as a narrative filmmaker. His power, however, as a documentarian is proving to be equally or more emotionally and artistically impactful for me. He embraces his subjects and holds them close, for years in some cases, before embarking on trying to tell their story in the right way. This movie is no exception and the result is something that has to be seen.

The Salt of the Earth

The Tree of Wooden Clogs (L’albero degli zoccoli)

I tucked in for this 3 hour, year-in-the-life of late 19th century Bergamo peasants in Italy thinking it was going to be a story; that wasn’t exactly what I got. It is beautifully filmed and it has moments, but doesn’t really satisfy as a story. Because, if it is a story, the only message is that the Church destroys peoples lives, and I don’t really see that as the intended message. What I believe documentarian Ermanno Olmi, wrote and directed instead is a well-researched and nicely depicted slice of life.

Clogs released in 1978 and gathered up a number of awards. Today, if this film were to be made, it would probably have ended up as a mini- or event-series. There are through-lines, but no investment in a character by the audience is rewarded. People go about their lives, and life goes about its pounding of the peasants.

As an artistic achievement, it is quite the accomplishment. Criterion has also done a beautiful job on the restoration of the print and sound. If I had approached it as a documentary, my response may well have been different. If you are fascinated by, or curious about history, particularly the late 1880s in Italy, it is a must see. It is also disturbingly resonant with today’s world in both politics and economy. But as a movie, as a piece of fictional entertainment, it failed for me.

The Tree of Wooden Clogs

Gimme Danger

Music is a visceral thing. It gets into your head, your blood, and your bones as you grow up. It is all about time and life, love and loss. It is why a few notes can bring back memories, both good and bad, for just about anyone on the planet. The Stooges were a powerful force in the evolution of modern rock, by personality if not by talent. They fought manufactured music, created the stage dive, and were a large part of the force that ushered in what would become Punk rock.

Director Jim Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive) corners the members and gets from them some of the most jaw-droppingly honest interviews about an icon I’ve seen captured. Jim Osterberg/Iggy Pop, in particular just lays it all out there, not that he was ever particularly shy. But none of the interviews, current or past, try to hedge who they were and how utterly messed up things got for them. The film never devolves into wound-licking, however. It remains poised and comfortable with itself, perhaps a bit too much so as it glosses over some of the darker aspects of their lives. I don’t know if it is a weakness in this film that we never really see into that dark mirror clearly or a strength that it can be acknowledged and skipped over. You can infer a lot, but it does feel like you hear the story and, on reflection, realize you’re missing big chunks of information. If you want some nice intersections with their tale, watch CBGB and Velvet Goldmine within proximity to this docu; Iggy and The Stooges show up in both.

Jarmusch starts the story at the end of the band’s original career and then rebuilds your respect for and understanding of them. It is an intriguing way to attack such a seminal group; understanding how they dropped off the cliff is as much a part of how they climbed the mountain. Their collaborations, particularly in the UK, are mentioned, but a lot of that is also left to your own memory and/or researching.

There is a ton of archival footage and, of course, music. I would have liked a bit more of the latter, but it is just as interesting to hear how the band viewed their music and their approach to creating it; the structure under the chaos. This is a compelling film if you have any interest in rock music, particularly of the late 60s into the 70s and beyond.

Gimme Danger

I Am Not Your Negro

Probably the most brilliant aspect of Raoul Peck’s challenging documentary is that he doesn’t make you work to understand how it applies to today. Very often, the footage playing to Baldwin’s writing is from today. It is clear how far we’ve come and how far we haven’t. Another powerful choice was his selection of Samuel L. Jackson (Kong: Skull Island) as the voice of Baldwin. Though he pointedly tried not to imitate Baldwin, by his own interviews, it fits with all of the archival footage almost seamlessly.

James Baldwin was a scholar, an icon, and a man with the ability to bring an outsider’s view to the troubles and hypocrisies of American life and the history of the country. He was a quiet, but intense revolutionary bringing his intellect to bear in both printed and live forums. We could sorely use him today, but his lessons are all still applicable, if not any more as immediate.

Peck took Baldwin’s surviving notes for a planned book to create this film. It is full of archival footage and, as mentioned, brilliant voice over of Baldwin’s writings. As a window on the soul of this country, and any country where there was an institutionalized underclass, it is more than a little disturbing and unflinching. The power of the message and insight is uncomfortably bare and unavoidable.

As a film it is a bit less effective. Though there is the stated conceit of telling Baldwin’s life through his friendship with Medgar Evers, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King Jr., it isn’t really about that at all, though they all play roles in the narrative. We get little of Baldwin’s personal life… instead, the material lectures (brilliantly) on the world around him.  While impactful, it doesn’t feel personal.  It is more of a survey course of American history with the touch-points of the assassinations. Part of Peck’s challenge, no doubt, was the incomplete outline that had survived Baldwin he was working with, which was all framework and little flesh.

Regardless, this is a film worth seeing; particularly now. The reflection of today against the past is chilling, even if you have already recognized the similarities. We all want to believe that as we move forward as people and as a country we learn and improve. I Am Not Your Negro reminds us that mistakes, beliefs, fears, and self-delusions are not so easily shed and remain as ongoing subtext or repeat themselves until they are acknowledged in full and faced.

I Am Not Your Negro

Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq

As a documentary, writer/director Nancy Buirski’s (The Loving Story) efforts are mixed in this film. She builds up an interesting story, but often has weak visual support and has some challenge with the through-line of the piece. It is still fascinating, but not as crisp as it could have been. As her second documentary, however, it certainly shows promise.

Faun is filled with interviews, archival footage, and photos that provide intriguing insights into American dance. Tanaquil Le Clercq (Tanny), the focus of the tale, was muse and influence to two of the most impactful choreographers in modern ballet and Broadway: George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. Her life is a study in perseverance, drive, and not a little luck.

The title is an interesting choice as well, and telling, though not really ever discussed. Afternoon of a Faun is both one of the most recognizable and one of the most notorious pieces in dance. Typically the first performance it elicits in memory is that of Nijinski’s for the tumult it caused when first performed (view a version here). It even came back into culture with a notorious version in Queen’s I Want to Break Free.

But in the case of Tanny, it is a more contemplative reference to the trajectory and pace of her life. It opens and closes with a ground breaking interpretation by Robbins of the title music danced by Tanny. It is charged with all the same aspects of Nijinski, but in a more intriguing venue and approach. But the intent is to consider the moment in time, its perfection and its brevity.

This is far from a brilliant documentary, but as a piece of history, told often from first person accounts, it is interesting. If you have any interest in dance, particularly modern dance, it is a great education. It is also a nice complement to Pina, if you’re looking for some of the impact and overlap of influence that Le Clercq had.

Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq

 

Dark Horse

Documentarian Louise Osmond (Deep Water) has a great eye for the human story behind the facts. Dark Horse is a great tale of “can do” spirit, both by the animal and the ad-hoc pub syndicate that decided to take a shot at the exclusive world of steeplechase racing.

This is a movie for anyone needing a sense of the possible, but also for anyone looking for perspective and balance when it comes to hard choices. While Osmond mentions the hard work and sacrifices of all involved, it really is focused less on the tasks and more on the emotional costs and choices to be made. It leads to some interesting editing choices. One, near the end, is quite jarring, but it makes sense as the film came into higher focus. It was a brave choice on Osmond’s part and it is the strongest example of her control and vision as a director.

I definitely recommend this documentary, despite any lack of high quality video or gaps in detail. The story it tells is compelling and touching; it is a sensibility that will enrich any viewer. And the story isn’t over yet.

Dark Horse

Codebreaker

When I first saw The Imitation Game, I felt it was missing something. It was well done and superbly acted, but there was so much more to the story than it covered… much I knew and some I didn’t. At the time, I had tripped across this 2011 documentary from the BBC but I only finally got my hands on it recently.

I admit that it is a bit staged in its re-enactments, but they are all based on recorded facts and add a level of humanism to what is a fascinating and tragic story. A story, I must say, feels even more relevant today than when it was released or even since Imitation Game hit screens a few short years ago.

This is as much a story of modern computing (with a bit of a snub to Babbage and Lovelace) as it is about prejudice, governments, and abuse of power. All very topical subjects these days.

Paul McGann (Luther) narrates well and unobtrusively. Turing, played by Ed Stoppard (Youth), equals Cumberbatch in skill, though with only short scenes to go by it isn’t a completely fair comparison. And Henry Goodman (Avengers: Age of Ultron) as his psychologist, friend, and confident is suitably open and sympathetic. These dramatized moments interposed with interviews and explanations very much help to ground the story and give is a face. In the end, it is a view of Turing that even Whitemore’s play, Breaking the Code, didn’t manage to fully capture because in both cases, movie and stage play, they decided to pick a focus rather than to absorb the whole.

If you have an interest in Turing or want to know more about the genesis of the modern computing age, this is an excellent way to learn more.

Codebreaker