Tag Archives: documentaries

Sound + Vision

Moonage Daydream

by George Wolf

Longtime David Bowie fans know of his early fondness for the “cut up” method to writing songs – literally cutting up lines of written lyrics and then shifting them around in search of more enigmatic creations.

Director Brett Morgen takes a similar approach to telling Bowie’s story in Moonage Daydream, a completely intoxicating documentary that immerses you in the legendary artist’s iconic mystique and ambitious creative process.

Bowie’s estate gifted Morgen with the key to the archives, and the celebrated documentarian (The Kid Stays in the Picture, Jane, Cobain: Montage of Heck) pored through the thousands of hours of footage for moments that could stand on their own while serving a greater narrative. The result is a glorious explosion of sound and vision, revealing Morgen’s choice to trust himself as film editor was also a damn good one.

Anchored by atmospheric bookends that evoke Bowie’s image as the ethereal “man who fell to Earth,” Morgen unleashes a barrage of concert sequences, still photos and interviews clips, interspersed with bits of old movies, news reports and pop culture references. It’s a luscious and cinematic (especially in IMAX) mashup, and one that slowly unveils a subtle but purposeful roadmap.

The music is thrilling and visceral, of course, but the interview footage reveals Bowie to be tremendously inquisitive and philosophical. We see him as a truly gifted artist who felt satisfaction when he “worked well,” but apprehension with new projects (such as painting) that didn’t yet meet his standards.

At first, Morgen’s approach may seem scattershot, as he appears more concerned with blowing our minds than chronological purity. But what becomes clear is that Morgen’s commitment leans toward grouping slices of Bowie’s life that speak to who he was (i.e. juxtaposing a “Rock and Roll Suicide” performance from the 70s with comments about his “sellout” 80s period). And by the time Bowie’s looking back fondly on his first meeting with wife Iman, an appropriate and touching timeline has emerged.

Though the last years of Bowie’s life are skirted just a bit, Moonage Daydream is like no music biography that you’ve ever seen. It’s a risky, daring and defiant experience, which is exactly the kind of film David Bowie deserves. Expect two hours and fifteen minutes of head-spinning fascination, and a sense that you’ve gotten closer to one Starman than you ever felt possible.

The Work of Hope

Kaepernick & America

by George Wolf

I’ve been a fan of the San Francisco 49ers for about fifty years, so I had a Colin Kaepernick jersey long before he started taking a knee during the national anthem.

And when I continued to proudly wear that jersey, I quickly learned how effectively Kaepernick’s peaceful protest had been twisted into hateful knots of white grievance.

In Kaepernick & America, directors Ross Hockrow and Tommy Walker revisit the protest’s timeline with insight and proficiency. But the subtle power of their documentary comes from its patience in deconstructing how Kaepernick’s true motives were distorted to fuel a racist narrative and a divisive election year.

And for those who don’t know Kaepernick’s personal history, Hockrow and Walker wisely begin with his upbringing as a trans-racial adoptee, and then follow his journey to NFL stardom, to falling one play short of winning Super Bowl forty-seven, to essentially being kicked out of the league.

It’s then that the film gives Kaepernick’s worldview a more distinct social and political context through archival footage and interview commentary (including CNN’s Don Lemon, an executive producer on the film).

With the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement after the 2014 death of Michael Brown, Kaepernick sought to speak out against police brutality in America. His silent act of social disobedience eventually made news, and activist DeRay McKesson becomes instrumental to the film’s success at revealing the historical nature of the resulting uproar.

Opposing views are supplied by anti-Kaepernick protesters and political candidates of the time, effectively rebutted by former U.S. Green Beret and NFL player Nate Boyer. Though Kaepernick’s protest began as a sit-down, he switched to kneeling after Boyer’s advice on a more respectful action. As we revisit the accusations and troop-shaming that were aimed at Kaepernick, Boyer’s recollections are a vivid reminder about just who was interested in thoughtful dialog amid conflict.

More concerned with correcting the record than breaking new ground, Kaepernick & America seems graceful and unassuming when placed against the vitriol spurred by the taking of a knee. But the film reminds us that protest is “the work of hope,” and ultimately looks toward a future of redemption for Kaepernick, and healing for a nation.

Double Fault

McEnroe

by George Wolf

Start typing “John McEnroe” in the search bar, and “angry moments” still pops up as one of the top choices.

But why was he so angry? And why are we still drawn to his legendary outbursts?

Answer the questions, jerk!

Showtime’s McEnroe doesn’t shed much insight on either one, but it does serve as a fine celebration of a great champion and a fascinating personality.

Director Barney Douglas interviews McEnroe over the course of one long night in his native New York. John tells his tales in a sit down Q&A, then wanders the streets in the wee hours while the occasional passerby shouts his name.

And what do we learn? That John’s father was a perfectionist who withheld affection, and John is also a perfectionist who rarely let himself enjoy success. Not much is said about John’s relationship with his mother, which leaves a noticeable blank space in the film.

Douglas weaves in the archival footage to great effect, with thrilling tennis sequences and charming callbacks to pop culture of the late 70s and early 80s. There’s also a steady stream of commentators that ranges from Billie Jean King to Keith Richards. It’s all completely entertaining.

And ultimately, John is capable of some honest self-reflection, revealing late in the film how he recognizes his failures as a father and a husband (to Tatum O’Neal, who does not participate, and current wife Patty Smyth, who does), and is committed to being a better man.

But he’s not asking for us to feel sorry for him. And that’s good, because it’s hard to. John admits he had it pretty good growing up, he just wanted a better relationship with the old man. He excelled in a “sport for killers” by exploiting his opponents’ weaknesses and compartmentalizing his frequent anger. Fair enough.

So don’t come to McEnroe looking for a breakthrough psychoanalysis, you cannot be serious! Come to McEnroe to remember why we care about him in the first place.

Jerk!

Days of Future Past

My Old School

by George Wolf

Brandon Lee was a mystery wrapped in an enigma inside the body of an awkward Scottish high schooler.

Or, maybe he was something else. My Old School revisits those teenage days for a light and entertaining look at a head-scratching scammer.

Brandon’s story was set to be told in a Mid-90s movie starring Alan Cumming. That project never got off the ground, but now Cumming finally gets his chance to play the part, lip-synching Brandon’s interview audio because the real guy won’t show his face.

And why is Brandon still hiding?

Well, that’s one of the mysteries writer/director Jono McLeod hopes to unravel.

Talking to Brandon’s former classmates and often re-creating their memories through animation, McLeod introduces us to the boy his peers first knew.

In 1993, Brandon enrolled as a 16 year-old at Bearsden Academy, a secondary school in an upper class section of Glasgow. His intelligence and behavior made him a favorite of the staff, but the kids found him weird.

Getting cast as Lt. Cable in the school’s production of South Pacific changed Brandon’s social status. And soon there were friends, holidays, brushes with the law, multiple passports and…oops.

Obviously, knowing as little as possible about this case benefits how the film will hit you, but even the biggest revelations don’t land quite as hard as McLoed seems to think they will. There are no jaw-on-the-floor twists on the order of 2012’s The Imposter, but some interesting questions are raised about selective memory and a belief in Jedi mind tricks.

An animation style that recalls MTV’s “Daria” and the laugh-it-off vibe of Brandon’s old classmates only fuels the feeling that the film is a little too forgiving of its subject.

Looking back, most everyone involved now admits that they should have looked closer at Brandon Lee. Entertaining a yarn as it may be, My Old School might have been more compelling by doing the same.

Secret Chords

Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song

by George Wolf

For longtime fans of Leonard Cohen, the continued pop culture embrace of “Hallelujah” can sometimes feel bittersweet. Other times it just makes you want to scream.

Jeff Buckley didn’t write it! It’s not a Christmas song! And for God’s sake, stop messing with the lyrics!

And even though that’s satisfying to yell when another TV talent show contestant attacks Cohen’s masterpiece with more bluster than feeling, you can’t deny you’re guilty of an equally false claim of ownership. As singer/songwriter Brandi Carlile rightly points out, by now the song “Is its own person. It has a life of its own.”

So, how’d that happen? Back in the early 80s, “Hallelujah” was DOA, buried on a Cohen album that Columbia Records dismissed outright as unworthy to release.

Alan Light first tracked the song’s ascent in his 2012 bestseller “The Holy or the Broken,” and Light serves as a consultant to co-directors Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine for their documentary examination. Straddling the line between biopic and expose, the film gives the uninitiated an overview of Cohen’s background while indulging veteran admirers with a deeper dive into his most acclaimed composition.

Geller and Goldfine interview fans, friends and journalists, tracking Cohen’s unique troubadour life alongside the gradual wave of “Hallelujah” cover versions. It seems only right that Bob Dylan was one of the first to recognize the song’s genius, and it’s a treat to hear his interpretation set the stage for the mainstream breakthrough that came via Jeff Buckley and Shrek (John Cale in the film, Rufus Wainwright on the soundtrack).

But the film’s strongest moments come through the intimacy of hearing from Cohen himself, and getting closer to his often tortured songwriting process (“If I knew where songs came from, I would go there more often”). We see notebook after notebook full of lyrics, while handwritten lines appear and disappear as guesses are made as to just how many verses (100? 180?) Cohen wrote for “Hallelujah” alone.

At times Geller and Goldfine lean back on biography just when the musical detective work is cooking, but A Journey, A Song ultimately connects the two with a resonant thread.

Leonard Cohen was a seeker, always striving to reconcile the primal with the spiritual. The process may have taken several years, but he wrote a song that lays that search bare with unparalleled eloquence. And though Cohen himself admitted before his death that “too many people sing it,” Geller and Goldfine are smart enough to include plenty of footage of Cohen performing the song himself, and to close with k.d. lang’s goosebump-time version that Cohen hinted was his favorite.

Standing Her Ground

Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down

by George Wolf

If the title Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down immediately has you humming a certain Tom Petty tune, that’s fine. In fact, the way the film incorporates that and other hits, and music in general, is one of its many charms.

Giffords was an Arizona Congresswoman and a rising star in the Democratic party when she was shot in the head while meeting constituents in Jan. of 2011. Music therapy was pivotal to Giffords’s quest to regain her speech, and directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West are gifted with intimate home video footage that conveys the magnitude of her comeback story.

Giffords chances of surviving the gunshot were less than ten percent, and in fact her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, was at one point informed that his wife had died. But when Gabby fought back, Kelly was convinced she would one day want to look back on her journey, so he picked up a video camera.

There’s little doubt that Cohen and West (the Oscar-nominated RBG) have a healthy admiration for Giffords, but they make a pretty compelling case why the rest of us should be “Gab-ified,” too. Her courage, strength and determination cannot be denied.

Archival footage and interviews with fans (including former President Obama) outline Gabby’s transition from manager of the family’s Arizona tire store to fresh-faced Washington centrist. She’s nearly impossible to dislike, while her partnership with the space-traveling Kelly sends the all-American appeal into the stratosphere.

And when Cohen and West line up footage of Gabby’s brain surgery alongside her husband’s intricate space station docking maneuver, it’s game over and the feels have won.

So when the film transitions to the horrors of America’s gun violence epidemic, it seems at first like too much of a tonal clash. But as Kelly is elected to the Senate and Giffords focuses on her Gun Owners For Safety movement, it’s clear that the issue is just as much a part of Gabby as is the music she loves. Avoiding her current advocacy would result in an incomplete picture.

Don’t be fooled by the relentless positivity here. Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down isn’t simply a greatest hits mixtape made by fans for more fans. It’s a gritty story of survival, and of making a commitment to making a difference.

And the joy of jamming to the 80s. Can’t forget that one.

Ghosts in the Machinery

Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel

by George Wolf

If you don’t really know anything about Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel, don’t come to Dreaming Walls expecting a thorough biography.

But even if you’ve heard only a bit about the legendary building that has known “all the immortals of the 20th century,” check in to this enigmatic documentary for a dreamlike trip through time and headspace.

Opening in 1884, the Chelsea was designated a New York City landmark in 1966, and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in ’77. Along the way, its guestbook has seen names such as Janis, Marilyn, Dali, Cohen, Warhol, Ginsberg, and two Dylans (Bob, Thomas). Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001 while staying at the Chelsea. Nancy Spungeon was stabbed to death there.

To put it mildly, the place has a history. But co-directors /co-writers Maya Duverdier and Amélie van Elmbt (along with executive producer Martin Scorsese) root their story in the present, and in the lives of current Chelsea tenants hanging on to ghosts of old New York.

Duverdier and van Elmbt artfully project some of those famous ghosts onto the Chelsea walls themselves. Others come to life through the deft weaving of old and new footage, creating touching moments such as tenant Merle Lister Levine effectively dancing with her younger self via choreography she first performed at the Chelsea decades ago.

Those were the halcyon days of a glorious bohemianism, days remembered by Merle and other current tenants while jackhammers and lawsuits bring the march of time and money to their apartment doors.

The Chelsea has been undergoing renovations for almost a decade. And the plan for a new, lavish and extremely expensive hotel has been prolonged by the legal maneuverings of longtime tenants fighting to stay.

As these residents compare the construction to “the slow motion rape of the building,” and “a grand old tree that’s been chopped down,” a compelling and bittersweet narrative emerges.

These rich personalities push aside the caution tape and stacks of knick knacks, inviting us in to honor the legacy of a place they call home. And, as the best of these stories often do, the intimacy actually allows for a more universal resonance.

Dreaming Walls is a story of art and commerce and bricks and mortar, of glory days usurped by time, and some wonderful, weary souls who find comfort in ghost stories.

Bloody Water Everywhere

A Taste of Whale

by George Wolf

Filmmaker Vincent Kelner knows you don’t want to see what he has for you.

But while his documentary A Taste of Whale doesn’t shy away from blood in the water, his ultimate goal lies beyond the killing grounds.

In his feature debut, Kelner takes us to Europe’s Faroe Islands, where every year some 700 pilot whales die in a traditional slaughter known to locals as the “Grind” (pronounced like “grinned”). Though the Faroes is a constituent country of Denmark, the people live under their own constitution, just one of the reasons many natives believe it’s a privilege to call the Faroes home.

And Kelner lets many Faroese defend the Grind with conviction, pointing to mischaracterizations and misunderstandings, while labeling visiting activists as “tourists.”

But there are some on the island that are willing to admit their hunting methods have strayed far beyond the traditional, and that maybe some of the protesters have a point.

Kelner does an admirable job tackling the issue from opposing sides, even drawing a subtle parallel between pragmatic approaches to behavioral change and recent pandemic mandates here at home.

But Kelner’s understated hand begins to apply more pressure once someone comments on the disconnect between not wanting to see things die, but still wanting to eat things that are dead.

If you turn away in horror at Kelner’s graphic footage from the Grind – and later, from slaughterhouses – A Taste of Whale stresses that this bloodshed will always exist “wherever you have meat for food.”

It is a bit of rope-a-dope from Kelner, but he wants you to be horrified. And when you are, he’s waiting to challenge your convictions with a lifestyle change that’s framed as the only logical choice.

Love Story

Lucy and Desi

by George Wolf

You’ll see famous faces expressing some well deserved admiration for the legendary subjects of Lucy and Desi, but none come close to eclipsing the voice of the face you never see: director Amy Poehler.

The love and respect Poehler has for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz is evident in every frame, as she leans on a goldmine of archival footage to inform, entertain, and giddily geek out.

And the key to the family vault comes from daughter Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, interviewed poolside while explaining her parents’ fondness for filling countless audio tapes with thoughts and recollections.

What a gift for Poehler and veteran documentary writer Mark Monroe, who weave Lucy and Desi’s own voices around home movie footage, news reports, both classic and rarely seen TV clips, and those raves from admirers to cast a spell that nearly glows with warmth.

Poehler, in her debut doc, shows a fine instinct for knowing killer from filler. She’s able to remind us of Lucy and Desi’s trailblazing show biz greatness, teach us some things we may not know (they aired the first “re-runs”), and take us behind the scenes of both their work and home life, without wasting even one of the film’s ninety some-odd minutes.

And yet, whether or not you’ve seen Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos (and if you have, this is a necessary companion), it’s hard not to feel like Poehler is pulling one big punch. Here, the end of Lucy and Desi’s marriage is attributed to the pressures of running their iconic DesiLu studios. Desi may admit to late nights “at the track” and a general lack of moderation in life, but the rumors of his affairs are never addressed.

But it’s clear that to Arnaz Luckibill, her parents’ journey together (one that ends with a very touching phone call) is only about “unconditional love.” So it may be that getting her on board (Desi, Jr. is heard from briefly, and seen only in old clips) came with a stipulation.

If so, that’s a deal Poehler had to take. Much like Linda Ronstadt’s first person storytelling made The Sound of My Voice so compelling despite a refusal to discuss her relationships, seeing and hearing Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz narrate their own lives is what gives the film the intimacy that enables it to soar.

Two people loved each other deeply, ’til the end. Those two people are legends for some damn good reasons. That’s the point of Lucy and Desi, and it’s one well taken.

The Story of My Life

Flee

by George Wolf

Like so many other headlines of numbing enormity that we regularly scroll past, stories of the worldwide refugee crisis rarely come with an intimacy that makes the stakes feel palpable. Flee brings an animated face to the discussion, using one man’s incredible story to re-frame the issue with soul-stirring humanity.

Director and co-writer Jonas Poher Rasmussen identifies the man as Amin Nawabi. Amin’s on the verge on marriage, a life change that seems to compel him to reveal the secrets of his life story for the very first time. Despite happy plans for the future, the fact that the name Amin Nawabi is a pseudonym comes as a bittersweet reminder of how the past continues to haunt this soul’s present.

Amin’s earliest memories are of his native Kabul in the early 1980s when the Mujahideen took charge in Afghanistan and the dangers began. Amin’s father was deemed a “threat” and arrested. While his older brother was able to escape the bloody battles with U.S. troops, Amin and the rest of his family begin years of attempts to flee the country.

But even under such a harrowing veil, Rasmussen finds a sweet innocence to propel Amin’s coming-of-age story. Bedroom posters of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris wink back at the young Amin, as his gentle adult voice recounts an ever-present realization that he was attracted to men, and that he had one more reason to always be on guard.

A successful cross into Russia only changes the specifics of oppression, leaving Amin under constant threat of discovery, deportation and corrupt police. (One incident where Amin manages to escape their greed leaves a lasting scar on him, and on us.)

The animated wartime recollections — punctuated with scattershot live action moments — do bring the Oscar-nominated Waltz with Bashir to mind, but Rasmussen may well have preferred a completely live action narrative if he did not have an identity to protect. Using Amin’s actual voice in their conversations adds startling depth to the reenacted memories, and as our childlike comfort with animated scenes clashes with the uncomfortable scenes depicted, Flee‘s bracing resonance only intensifies.

And after all that Amin endures, as the horrors in his story gradually diminish and we see his fiancé Kaspar gently nudging Amin to accept the peace in the next stage of their lives, the full weight of the struggle emerges.

We yearn for Amin to let go of the past even as we know it is what defines him. He lives each day as a testament to those whose sacrifices enabled him to finally find something that feels like home.

What’s left is a hope that giving voice to his burdens may finally set him free, and lead to a greater understanding of the many voices yet unheard.