Tag Archives: music documementaries

Sticky Icky

This is GWAR

by George Wolf

“People like getting spewed on.”

True enough.

Back in the early 90s, I tended bar on the Ohio State University campus, at a place right beside a concert venue that Gwar would invade on a regular basis.

I can attest that fans lined up plenty early for a chance to be in the firing line of Gwar’s goo, and the kids poured out at show’s end with fists pumping after another slimy soaking.

But This Is GWAR wants you to know that goo was FDA approved, and the band behind it has traveled a long and sticky road that’s worth a closer look.

Director Scott Barber rolls out plenty of archival footage and first person interviews, taking us all the way back to the band’s creation by a group of misfit artists at Virginia Commonwealth University in the early 80s.

Hunter Jackson and Chuck Varga were art students who were told their fantasy-leaning stuff was dumb, so they planned to make a movie called Scumdogs of the Universe. Dave Brockie was singer and bassist for a local punk band named Death Piggy.

Then they all decided to put on costumes from the movie and open Death Piggy shows as a heavy metal band of barbarians that would sacrifice fake animals…and Gwar was born.

And when that opening band started drawing bigger crowds? Jackson, Brockie and a constantly rotating group of musicians adopted garish latex costumes and names like Flattis Maximus to set off as “barbarian interplanetary warlords” on a quest to search, spew and destroy.

Barber’s approach is well-rounded and determined, looking to put together not only a complete history of the band and the art collective that’s propelled it for decades, but also a tribute that would satisfy longtime fans.

Of course, you’ll find the arcs of excess and conflict that once drove Behind the Music to the heights of cliche, but this isn’t your normal band biopic simply because this band isn’t normal. And even if “the sickest band in the world” isn’t your jam, its history and the circus of talented people that keeps it running is just interesting.

But at just under two hours, the doc’s expanse errs more on the side of Gwar devotees (like Weird Al, one of the famous fans Barber features) than neophytes, and that’s probably as it should be.

Wear that goo as a badge of honor, This Is GWAR and this is for you.

Swing Time

Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things

by George Wolf

Just One of Those Things has plenty of things going for it, but catch it right now, and you can add “timing” to the list.

Really, there’s never a bad time to be swept away by one of music’s all time great voices, but these 90 minutes seem even sweeter right about now.

Director Leslie Woodhead assembles a wealth of performance footage, archived interviews and even some home movies to trace Ella’s rise from reform school and homelessness to concert stages across the globe.

Buoyed by the tender narration from actress Sophie Okonedo, Ella’s story becomes one of happenstance, perseverance and one-of-a-kind talent.

Her original aspiration was to be a dancer, but when other dancers at the Apollo Theater’s amateur night in 1934 were too good, 16 year-old Ella decided to sing. From that night until her death in 1996, she mastered jazz, big band, the great American songbook, and of course, be-bop swing.

In fact, the film’s non-performance highlight is a truly fascinating, nearly clinical deconstruction of the otherworldly ability that made Ella perhaps the greatest “scat” vocalist the world has ever known. Watch and learn, hepcats, it’s amazing.

Though the bulk of the film is given a linear, by-the-numbers presentation, the musical history it recounts is essential. An important and timeless biography, Ella‘s got that swing.

Which, as you may have heard, means a thing or two.


Seeking Harmony

Gay Chorus Deep South

by Brandon Thomas

On Tuesday, November 8, 2016, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. Over the next few weeks and months, many Americans responded by organizing and protesting. The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus’s call to arms was quite different: tour the conservative American South. In the timely documentary Gay Chorus Deep South, director David Charles Rodrigues tackles the decades of discrimination, shame and emotion that led to this tour.

Choir director Tim Seelig has the best of intentions: he hopes to change hearts and minds with a tour of uncharted territory. Many of the choir’s members originally hail from the South, and they vividly remember the rejection and outright hate directed toward them. For these members, the tour is less about changing minds. This tour is about closing a chapter.

At times, Seelig and the choir wade directly into the belly of the beast. They appear on conservative talk radio. They meet with a church that ultimately doesn’t allow them to perform due to a newly-placed homophobic head pastor. Seelig expected these reactions, but it doesn’t soften the sting. 

The pain of past experiences vividly pours off the screen—tales of humiliation at the hands of adults who should’ve been there for protection. Seelig himself was separated from his children and cast out of the church he gave so much to. The film’s strength is in its devotion to these individual stories.

Through the choir members, Rodrigues is able to immerse the film in Southern culture rather than look at it entirely as an outsider. Seelig knows how to shrewdly navigate not only the Southern world but the religious one, too. The discrimination during the tour isn’t blatant as one would expect but is instead wrapped subtly inside the veil of Southern hospitality. This hypocrisy is something Seelig expected and isn’t afraid to constructively call out.

While politics is squarely at the forefront, Gay Chorus Deep South isn’t interested in political proselytizing. The “fish out of water” aspect to the film is political enough without dozens of talking heads telling the audience how to feel. Rodrigues wisely lets the choir members naturally move the story along as they navigate a complex, and at times uncomfortable situation.

While the music and performances are as impressive and moving as you would expect, the real heart of Gay Chorus Deep South is in those personal stories. Song and dance are easy to sell, but building community inside a structure of fear and hate takes conversation and empathy.