Tag Archives: music documentaries

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.

Love And Mercy

Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road

by George Wolf

“Genius” is a term often thrown around too casually, but about one third of the way through Long Promised Road, a moment drops that leaves little doubt Brian Wilson fits the bill.

Veteran producer Don Was sits in a recording studio with the original masters of God Only Knows, the classic pop symphony Wilson wrote and produced for The Beach Boys in 1966. As Was isolates track after track of those ethereal harmonies, he’s left to just shake his head in amazement.

“I’ve been making records for 40 years, and I have no idea what he’s doing.”

Credited with being an innovator of recording studio possibilities and the architect of the unmistakable Beach Boys sound, Brian has a long list of music business admirers, and director/co-writer Brent Wilson lines up an array of famous faces to sing Brian’s praises. From Elton to Springsteen, Foo Fighters to Nick Jonas and more, we hear nothing but well-earned respect and praise for a once-in-a-lifetime virtuoso. 

And that’s great, but it’s not exactly anything new.

What makes Long Promised Road resonate is the time we spend with the man himself, in rare moments when Brian feels safe enough to let his guard down and revisit people and places from his life and career.

Our guide is the film’s co writer Jason Fine, a longtime journalist who gained Brian’s trust over the course of several years and many conversations. Brian started hearing voices at age 21, and he is still troubled by mental health issues which can make formal, sit down interviews uncomfortable for him. So instead, Jason and Brian take to the road for some engaging carpool conversation.

They tool around Brian’s old California stomping grounds (some of which are now actual landmarks saluting him and The Beach Boys) as Jason asks about the past and Brian answers, while often calling out song requests for Jason to cue up in the car. Through it all, Brian comes across as a dear, sweet soul with minimal ego (he excitedly introduces himself to Vanna White in a diner), full of deep feeling and affection for those who’ve touched his life (even his father Murray and his longtime doctor Eugene Landy – whose relationships with Brian were at best volatile and at worst criminal).

Director Wilson (Streetlight Harmonies) intersperses the conversation with some terrific archival footage, at one point layering film of a young Brian directing the famous “Wrecking Crew” of studio musicians alongside more recent footage of him onstage and in studio. It’s a wonderful juxtaposition that brings the film full circle, giving us both a warm and often moving look back with a fragile genius and an illuminating glimpse of the maestro in his element.

They Call Me…

Mr. Soul!

by George Wolf

Who do you think of when you hear the title “Mr. Soul!”?

James Brown? Otis Redding? Marvin Gaye?

Give writer/director Melissa Haizlip 104 minutes, and she’ll more than convince you the correct answer is her uncle, Ellis Haizlip, the trailblazing producer and host of the first “Black Tonight Show.”

Ellis and his team televised the revolution on Soul!, a landmark “love affair with blackness” which ran on New York public television from 1968 to 1973.

Under Ellis’s guidance as visionary producer and thoughtful host, Soul! confidently promoted the liberation of Black people. Tossing a truth bomb into the lily white television landscape of the late 60s, the show brought a focus on Black arts never before seen on screen.

Melissa Haizlip presents it all in absolutely riveting fashion. She primes us with the fascinating story behind the birth of the show and Ellis’s somewhat reluctant ascension to host, and then drops our jaws with a litany of archival performances that make the past crackle with new urgency.

Of course there are rousing musical segments from Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Gladys Knight, Billy Preston, Earth, Wind & Fire and more, but Ellis made sure Soul! also brought an overdue showcase to the “original avant-garde” of Black dance, writing and poetry.

Ellis’s goal was to share the Black experience first, and then educate and entertain. Bringing the brilliant work of Toni Morrison, the Last Poets, Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin to television audiences cemented Ellis’s vision, and Melissa provides context to transcend the decades and allow the voices to speak their truth to current power.

And as you would expect, Melissa makes sure we see the caring soul of her uncle. With help from Blair Underwood often narrating Ellis’s writings (Ellis died in 1991 at the age of 61), we get to know an openly gay man who raised the topic of homosexuality with his audience and guests, and filled his own production team with a majority of female staffers.

Of the new interviews that Melissa weaves into the history lesson, hearing from Amir “Questlove” Thompson seems especially fitting. Though Mr. Soul! was completed 3 years ago, a more widespread release now makes it the perfect complement to Thompson’s own Summer of Soul.

This is Black history coming thrillingly, vibrantly alive, through the life of an enigmatic man earning that exclamation point.

Mr. Soul! Get to know him.

Wanna Take You Higher

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

by George Wolf

According to Amir “Questlove” Thompson, the first time he saw some of the digitized footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival concerts, he nearly wept.

How could this event have been ignored to the extent that even a musical aficionado such as himself had never heard of it? And why had all these hours of stunning performances gone unseen for decades?

The free concerts ran for six consecutive weekends at Harlem’s Mt. Morris Park in the summer of 1969, attracting over 300,000 fans. That same summer, the Woodstock festival was held about 100 miles away, but even when producer Hal Tulchin tried to market his reels of video as “the Black Woodstock,” there were no takers.

And so the boxes sat in a basement for 50 years.

Once Thompson committed to directing his first film, he immersed himself in the footage nearly 24/7, and Summer of Soul emerges as a triumphant testament to the music that drove a “Black consciousness revolution.”

From the gospel of Mahalia Jackson to the blues of B.B. King, from the 5th Dimension’s smooth pop to Sly Stone’s psychedelic funk, the musical styles blend gloriously in the summer sun and the goosebump moments mount.

A young Mavis Staples and an aging Jackson share one microphone; Stevie Wonder unleashes a furious drum solo; Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis. Jr. tear up recalling how important it was that the 5th Dimension’s perceived “white” sound be accepted as “black enough;” Nina Simone strikes a commanding presence as she challenges the crowd’s commitment to social change; and on and on and on.

But even more impressive than Thompson’s musical direction is the way he frames the entire festival through the context of time, place, and population.

Embraced by New York’s Republican mayor and sponsored by corporate giant Maxwell House, the festival was seen as a way to keep the Black community calm after the rising tensions of 1968.

But ’69 was – in the words of Rev. Al Sharpton – “the year Negro died and Black was born,” and Thompson layers the archival footage with new interviews that are equal parts poignant and timely.

We see festival attendees telling stories of what lengths they went to for a chance to be in the crowd, and how being there changed their lives. Starkly contrasting footage of white and black crowds being interviewed for reactions to the 1969 moon landing put a fine point on how sadly relevant yesterday’s civil rights struggles remain today.

And while the defiant cries of revolution and equality pulsate through Summer of Soul, they never eclipse the festival’s unbridled joy.

One man who was just a young boy in 1969 and had come to doubt his own memory over the years, cries with joy at seeing proof positive on film.

“I’m not crazy! And it was beautiful.”

It still is.

Girl, Uninterrupted

Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry

by George Wolf

Two hours and twenty minutes – plus an intermission – for a documentary on a teenage pop star? Isn’t that a bit indulgent?

When you put it that way, probably, but director R.J. Cutler hardly wastes a minute of the time we spend with Billie Eilish (born Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell – nice!). Bolstered by a goldmine of home and backstage video, The World’s a Little Blurry becomes a captivating window into the life of a talented young performer – and a generation coming of age in these often scary and confusing times.

Eilish first got noticed as a 13-year-old after she posted the song “Ocean Eyes” (written by her older brother Finneas O’Connell) on SoundCloud, and it became a million-streaming viral hit.

Billie describes her home-schooled L.A. upbringing as being “one big fucking song,” and there is no denying the family joy as we witness them all react to hearing “Ocean Eyes” on the radio for the first time.

From there, we see Billie and Finneas writing “Bad Guy” – the international smash that would springboard her to world tours and multiple Grammys – and this doc quickly becomes more than just another marketing project from the record label.

Billie is clearly a deep thinker – as insightful writers often are – and she isn’t afraid to put her darkness and vulnerability right there in the storefront window. But it’s clear that her family anchor is strong, and that big bro Finneas is not only a calming influence but a multi-talented musical MVP in his own right.

And along with the hits, Cutler gives us plenty of real human moments. From Billie getting her driving permit to meeting her idol Justin Beiber, from rolling her eyes at something her mom just said to embracing fans as “part of me,” the film captivates because it becomes the story of a family.

One member just happens to attract a little more attention.

That would be Billie.

Duh.

Speak Up and Sing

Truth to Power

by George Wolf

Serj Tankian is a passionate guy.

As frontman for System of a Down (and as a solo artist), he’s passionate about music. As an American of Armenian descent, he’s passionate about America’s foreign policy – specifically the U.S. stance on recognizing the Armenian genocide of 1915.

In Truth to Power, director Garin Hovannisian not only gets us closer to a charismatic and multi-talented performer, but he also tackles the sometimes thorny relationship between art and activism.

For Tankian, shutting up and singing is a ridiculous notion. And though he freely admits he seldom knows what he’s going to say before an onstage rant, Tankian’s social consciousness only increases when the lights come up.

Hovannisian gives us a satisfactory trip through Tankian’s life story and the forming of SOAD with three other Armenian-Americans, then brings us along as the band plays its first Armenian show in 2015. Tankian especially is regarded as a national hero, and the intimate moments where we see how deeply this treatment touches him are among the film’s strongest.

But the broader focus is on Tankian’s push for Turkey to admit to the Armenian genocide, as well as his inspirational role in the Armenian revolution of 2018. And though the film makes an often powerful case for art’s ability to affect change, it ignores a very obvious conflict.

In the last few years, SOAD drummer John Dolmayan has been an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump and various hard right political postures. Though we hear Tankian worry about the rise of such views, Hovannisian never broaches the subject of how the band members co-exist.

Even if the bulk of the film was completed before Dolmayan spoke out, the somewhat slight running time suggests an epilogue would only add relevant context to the entire conversation.

Without it, there’s a pretty major question just sitting there unanswered, and Truth to Power – despite its commendable passion – feels incomplete.

The Beat Goes On

Yung Lean: In My Head

by Brandon Thomas

Thanks to the internet, the world of new music is vast and wide. Anyone can put a song on their website, or upload a poorly produced music video to YouTube. Most of it goes unnoticed. That lack of notice is usually justified.

And then occasionally someone like Yung Lean comes along. 

In the early 2010s, a group of Swedish teens began uploading rap demos to Tumblr and Soundcloud. The same group gained even more notoriety when they began uploading videos to YouTube. This trio, the “Sad Boys,” and their de facto leader, Jonatan Leandoer Hastad (Yung Lean), soon found themselves on a meteoric rise across Europe and then the rest of the world. 

Music documentaries have become a popular subgenre in recent years. The Beatles, Amy Winehouse, and The Beastie Boys have all been the subject of recent, popular docs. Of course, these are artists already known and immortalized through their music and pop culture. The beauty of Yung Lean: In My Head is how the film uses Lean’s underground status to its advantage. The air of mystery is half the point. 

This documentary isn’t one that suffers from a lack of involvement from the principals. Lean’s story is told through his friends and collaborators, video footage shot while on tour, and family photos and video. Thankfully, the film doesn’t get too caught up in talking heads explaining every little detail. The copious amount of footage shot during the American and Canadian tour helps paint a picture of artistic freedom that slowly unraveled into drug-fueled chaos. 

Lean’s story takes a dramatic turn later in the film, one that shifts the focus away from music. This is an area where other films might stumble or even choose to not devote much time at all. Instead, In My Head pivots with ease. The focus was never just the music – it was Lean himself. 

In My Head may not have a subject with the culture cache of the Fab Four or Elvis Presley, but what Yung Lean does have is a compelling story born out of artistic creation and personal perseverance. 

School of Hard Rocks

Rock Camp: The Movie

by George Wolf

“Thanks for coming out tonight, we’re Motley Jüe..oy!”

Yes, Motley Jüe was a real band, at least for a few days. Picking the perfect band name is just a small part of the fun for the wannabe rockers at Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp. Rock Camp: The Movie takes us inside the experience that bridges the gap between stage and the Gold Circle section.

Because, let’s face it, those in the cheap seats can’t afford this, either. But for the fans that can swing it, RCTM shows us an indulgence that’s a lot less worthy of the kinds of jokes it inspired in year one.

Promoter David Fishof launched the first camp in 1997, to minimal interest. He got the idea from a practical joke played on him backstage by members of Ringo’s All-Starr Band (that home video footage is priceless), though low attendance the first year seemed to signal failure.

But after the camp was featured in various TV and commercial segments, it gained a foothold in popular culture. That brought some big rock stars into the fold, and Fishof (an interesting guy who could merit a documentary himself) suddenly had a hit.

The film is the debut feature for co-writers/directors Renee Barron and Douglas Blush, which often shows. Their focus can wander, and much of the production isn’t far removed from a marketing video. Plus, there’s no escaping that fact that much of the footage – judging by the look of some very famous faces – is clearly less than recent. The overall context of regular folk taking a chance to follow their passion, though, does help these rough edges seem appropriate.

Profiles of fewer campers might have allowed time to foster a more intimate feel, but the dreamers Barron and Blush introduce are worth knowing. We see lives uplifted, families strengthened, and true talent given the chance to grow.

Perhaps most surprisingly, we see rich and incredibly successful musicians truly moved by their students, and reconnecting with the simple joy of music that set them on their path. And some of them – Roger Daltrey, Paul Stanley and Sammy Hagar especially – seem like really nice people.

Yeah, Gene Simmons is still obnoxious. Even fantasies have their limits.

Club Champion

If These Walls Could Talk

by George Wolf

If you’ve lived anywhere near Columbus, Ohio during the last few decades, you’ve probably got some great memories of the longest continually running rock club in America: Newport Music Hall.

Full disclosure: I tended bar right next door for two years, was lucky enough to meet many of the Newport headliners, even used the access from the shared basement storeroom to sneak some behind stage access a time or two.

My wife and I had our first date there at a Warren Zevon show in 1990. Years later we dropped our teenage son off to see some band I can’t remember.

Still, I instantly think of an electric James Brown concert in 1986. It was the second of two sold out shows at the Newport, and Mr. Dynamite was riding a smash with “Living in America.” He loaded the stage with about 500 band members, never letting up until we begged for mercy.

Pure funky magic.

The Newport has enjoyed countless nights of magic in the 50 years since it began hosting live shows as the Agora in 1970. If These Walls Could Talk gives the club the respectful, nostalgic salute it deserves, one full of history, some rockin’ archival footage, and plenty of damn good stories.

Ted Nugent threatening a sound man’s life. Melissa Etheridge going acoustic when the power went out. Todd Rundgren staying up all night to fix the sound system. Future O.A.R. members walking to class at Ohio State and dreaming of playing on the Newport stage. U2 live for four dollars and fifty cents.

And offstage, the tale of how Scott Stienecker saved the North High St. venue in 1984 ain’t bad, either. The short version: sorry Walgreens, hello Newport.

The film effortlessly cements how important the Agora/Newport has been not only to Columbus, but to the entire live music industry. Executive Producer Jason Corron understandably has more footage from recent concerts at his disposal, but he creates enough of an overall sense of history to make the classic moments that much more resonant.

No director is credited, and there are some moments of bumpy production values (sound mix transitions, especially) that could have benefitted from an experienced filmmaking hand.

But If These Walls Could Talk will have fans practically salivating for the return of live music. It will remind you how unforgettable the intimacy of a small club can be, and just how much of a gem we have right here in our backyard.

50 years. Here’s to 50 more.

If These Walls Could Talk airs in a free, one time event Nov. 4th at 8pm on the PromoWest YouTube channel or PromoWestlive.com.

Your Favorite Band Sucks

Other Music

by George Wolf

The store was called Other Music because it was directly across the street from a Tower Records in the East Village of Manhattan. So from day one, the message was clear: if you’re looking for other music, come in here.

For twenty years, they did. And they often came in droves, trusting recommendations from the eclectic staff, seeing great new bands such as Vampire Weekend perform live in-store, and coming to feel like they had “found their people.”

But like so many other parts of society, “the way people consume music changed,” and Other Music closed up shop in 2016.

The first directing feature from music video vets Puloma Basu and Rob Hatch-Miller is a bittersweet ode not just to a beloved record store, but to a type of community that now seems longer gone than it actually is.

This film is funny (notables such as Jason Schwartzman and Regina Spektor speak on the staff’s intimidation factor), it’s touching, and it has a good handle on how to rise above the field of similar “last day” docs by not forgetting the valuable context available outside the actual store.

You can file it under “music nerdery,” but spend some time with Other Music and you’ll find a mix of celebration and eulogy. Both are worthy, for a small business in NYC and the similar culture of community disappearing from just about everywhere else.