Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan


Grace ,made physical.

(2016) Documentary (Abramorama) Wendy Whelan, David Michalek, Kay Whelan, Tyler Angle, Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky, Kyle Abraham, Josh Beamish, Peter Martins, Brian Brooks, Michelle Rodriguez, Dr. Marc Philippon, Gia Courlas, Emily Coates, Craig Hall, Adam Barrett, Phillip Neal, Alejandro Cerodo, Peter Boa, Wendy Perron, Lisa Ashe, Maria Scherer. Directed by Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger

 

When it comes to art in the United States, New York City is the pinnacle. The best art organizations in the country are, for the most part, there. Every artist worth their salt wants to perform or exhibit there. In many ways, the fine arts are appreciated there like nowhere else in the country, and why not? The best of the best are routinely available for the enjoyment and enrichment of New Yorkers.

Wendy Whelan has danced for the New York Ballet Company for 30 years, the last 23 as their principal dancer. While those unfamiliar with ballet may not know her name, she is widely considered one of the best ballerinas of her generation, if not the best. Her physicality and sensuality have set a standard for dancers around the globe and she has managed to do so without losing her Southern manners drilled into her by her parents during her childhood in Louisville, Kentucky; her relationship with her mother Kay is very strong and loving. She is unfailing polite and sweetnatured to everyone she meets, a far change from the haughty divas that once prowled the backstage of the NYBC.

At age 46, she has performed longer than many ballerinas have in a career in which dancers routinely retire before the age of 40. Despite having been afflicted by childhood scoliosis (we see a picture of her x-ray in which her spine looks like the letter S) she has overcome a full year in a back brace to pursue her love of dance and eventually, reach the top of her profession. She has lived, as she admits candidly to the camera, a fantasy life.

But reality is intruding. Years of dancing takes its toll on the body and Wendy is no exception. Over the years, all the graceful leaps and contortions has done damage to her hip, severe enough that surgery is required. There are no guarantees that she will ever dance again even with the surgery. For someone of Wendy’s determination and near-obsessive focus, betting against her would be a sucker’s bet.

But even overcoming the physical therapy, the pain and the frustration of being sidelined, the one foe she can’t beat is time. NYBC director tells her gently “We don’t want the audience to see you in decline,” explaining why she has been pulled from The Nutcracker Suite, one of her signature roles. Wendy admits that in some ways she hasn’t grown up but she is forced to contemplate what to do with herself when her career inevitably ends.

Whelan gives the filmmakers near-complete access, observing private conversations with her husband David Michalek and allowing cameras to film the initial incisions of her surgery which made me a bit queasy to watch knives going into the body of one of the premiere dancers of our time. She uses the camera as a confessional to a certain extent but one gets the sense that this is a woman who is unfailingly honest with herself and with those around her. While she is a bit self-delusional at times about how long she can perform at peak condition, one gets the sense that once she has endured and conquered the hip surgery that her outlook undergoes a much more realistic change.

As you’d expect with a film about a dancer, there are snippets of her work throughout her career but they are just that – snippets. I’m sure ballet lovers would have preferred to see longer dance sequences; I myself, not being as familiar with her work as the target audience of this documentary might be would have preferred longer sequences even if it meant less variety from her storied career. Near the end we do see footage from her NYBC farewell performance which does give an idea of her grace and physical strength but I think the filmmakers intended this to be less a biography of a dancer and more a portrait of a woman undergoing an existential crisis.

We see some backstage footage as well as sequences where Whelan is mingling with her fellow dancers in social settings – birthday parties, celebrations and meals. I have to admit that at times the camaraderie seems a bit forced as if those in attendance are aware of the presence of the cameras and are pandering to them a bit. Even Wendy, who is natural on-camera throughout, is not unaffected as the awkwardness seems to affect her as well.

But there are some genuine moments too, as we see students from the American Ballet Theater watching Wendy rehearse with fellow dancers Craig Hall and Tyler Angle for her farewell performance; at first it’s just a few awestruck students and then gradually its dozens. A similar thing takes place at the Farewell Concert in which the wings of the NYBC stage are packed with dancers past and present. After the performance, Whelan is nearly buried under roses and flowers presented to her by admirers and colleagues. It is truly a bittersweet moment.

The filmmakers use a cinema verité style to tell the story and while there are some talking heads, it’s refreshing that the movie isn’t too interview-heavy. It makes sense that they’d use that style here however; dance is kinetic and a documentary about a dancer should also be. In that sense they achieve it, even during the slower-paced section of Ms. Whelan’s recovery from surgery.

I’m not so sure this will appeal to people who aren’t into ballet, although I will say that I am not a fan of dance but I still found this enjoyable and informative. Those that give this film a chance should also find it that way as well. Those who already love the beauty and grace of ballet may wish for more dancing and less documentary, but even they will appreciate getting an inside glimpse of the life of one of the most important and influential dancers of our time. Whelan makes an engaging subject and you won’t tire of her even for a moment.

REASONS TO GO: Watching Whelan’s journey is inspiring. The dance sequences are just marvelous.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes it feels like the subjects are hyper-aware of the camera. The surgical footage is not for the squeamish.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some occasional profanity, a few drug references and some graphic medical procedure footage.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; among the producers are rapper Common and comedian Reginald Hudlin.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: First Position
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Last Shaman


White privilege personified.

(2015) Documentary (Abramorama) James Freeman, Pepe, Sherry Haydock, Mason Wright Freeman, Ron, Guillermo, Kate. Directed by Raz Degan

 

Depression is not a medical issue to be trifled with. Every year, approximately 40,000 Americans take their own lives; anywhere from 50-75% of these suicides were motivated by depression. It affects over 25 million Americans, many of whom are unable to get treatment for it. In general, the medical industry treats depression with mood-altering drugs although regular psychotherapy is also used.

James Freeman has a severe case of depression. A young man born of wealth and privilege, both of his parents are physicians. They were able to afford to send him to the Phillips Academy, one of the most prestigious schools in the nation and a feeder school for Ivy League universities. However, schools of that nature put an enormous amount of stress on the students to excel. As Freeman graduated and later attended Middlebury College, he began to develop suicidal thoughts.

He did what he was supposed to. He saw psychiatrists, took the pills prescribed. He attended therapy sessions. As his condition grew more and more extreme, he even underwent electroconvulsive therapy, a kind of brain reboot which isn’t unlike electroshock treatment that is no longer practiced. Nothing worked. Freeman felt dead inside and his relationships with his parents and his girlfriend Kate suffered. James was a different person.

Desperate for solutions, he discovered testimonies about a plant found in the Peruvian Amazon called ayahuasca which had helped a number of people who were suffering from clinical depression. He decided to go down to Peru and find a shaman to administer the plant to him. His estranged father, who had approved of the electroconvulsive therapy, was not altogether pleased about the ayahuasca escapade; his mother also attempted to discourage him, but James was adamant. He felt that this was his last attempt to save his own life; if it didn’t work after ten months, he would be okay to kill himself as he would have tried everything.

So off to Peru and James finds that in some ways that ayahuasca is becoming commercialized. He meets several shaman and they seem more interested in money than in healing. Even a bantam-like America named Ron who had studied the rituals and knowledge of the Peruvian shaman ruefully exclaims “Every foreigner down here is out to exploit these people, myself included.” At one of the rituals, James witnesses the death by overdose of someone who shouldn’t have ingested the drug (and whom, the shaman emphatically states, he tried to talk him out of doing just that).

Finally, in a remote Shipibo village, he finally meets Pepe who refuses to take payment for his treatment. James is made to undergo a 100 day diet of tobacco and rice in isolation before undergoing the ayahuasca ceremony followed by being buried alive, for seven hours, then dug up and “reborn.”

During his isolation, James keeps a video diary and talks about having visions of the plants themselves (or representations thereof) talking to him and explaining that he is to be reborn. Following all of this we see James smiling, interacting with people and playing with local children. He seems to have been cured – but at a cost. Pepe is removed from the village for giving medicine away without charge. It seems the Non-Government Organization working with the village is trying to get them to use their medicines for profit and the betterment of the lives of the villagers. The capitalist rat race, it seems, has reached the Amazon.

The jungle locations are breathtaking at times, and also Degan gives us a glimpse into the local culture which is also welcome. Both of these items are what make seeing this documentary somewhat worthwhile. Unfortunately, the director makes some serious missteps. Much of the documentary feels staged, from James’ massive mood change and the shots of him interacting with the locals to the mood shots of the mom staring out the window in concern and particularly the sorta-psychedelic shots that are meant to convey the effects of the drug on James. Those moments don’t help the documentary at all and take the viewer out of the experience every time Degan utilizes them, which is fairly often.

The documentary also has to overcome James himself. It’s hard to sympathize with someone who is able to afford to fly off to South America for exotic cures; most people who suffer from depression can’t do so. It’s not really fair to minimize depression; it’s a very real and often deadly mental illness and there’s no doubt that James had a severe case of it. Mostly, it’s the perception of the audience; James often comes off as privileged and a little bit arrogant. The scene of him being paddled along a stream to the Shipibo village reeks of colonialism, even if unintentionally.

The film also comes off as an advertisement for drug use. We get almost no scientific reflection on the use of ayahuasca and how efficacious it might be. All we get is essentially anecdotal evidence. It’s like the stoner claims that marijuana is completely harmless; the fact of the matter is that nothing not part of the body that is added in excessive amounts is harmless. Even water can kill you if you drink too much of it.

It also feels that James isn’t confronting the source of his depression but merely medicating it. Maybe that’s something he intends to do and maybe I’m overindulging in armchair psychology but a lot about this documentary feels wrong. This is the rare instance in which I wish there’d been more talking heads; some expert commentary from psychiatrists, pharmacologists and physicians would have been welcome. I have to admit that I would be hesitant to recommend this line of treatment for anyone and despite the disclaimer that comes during the end credits, I can’ help that the filmmaker is advocating for just that.

REASONS TO GO: The Amazonian backgrounds are absolutely gorgeous. The look into indigenous culture is welcome.
REASONS TO STAY: This feels very staged and self-indulgent. The movie has to battle “poor little rich kid” syndrome.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of drug use as well as a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The director got involved in the story after ayahuasca was used to help cure him of a respiratory illness and also helped his mother with her own depression.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mosquito Coast
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Pop Aye

Bang! The Bert Berns Story


This is what producing a classic rock track looks like.

(2016) Documentary (Abramorama) Steven van Zandt (narrator), Paul McCartney, Doug Morris, Keith Richards, Ben E. King, Wilson Pickett, Carmen de Noia, Richard Gottehrer, Jerry Goldstein, Mike Stoller, Ellie Greenwich, Joel Selvin, Robin Levine, Ilene Berns, Andrew Loog Oldham, Van Morrison, Jerry Leiber, Ahmet Ertegun, Solomon Burke, Brenda Reid, Cissy Houston. Directed by Brett Berns and Bob Sarles

 

We know who the great performers of the rock and roll/R&B era are. We know their faces, we know their music. The people who are behind the scenes may not necessarily be as well known other than a few like Phil Spector and George Martin.

Chances are that very few of you reading this have ever heard of Bert Berns, but you certainly know his music as both a songwriter and producer. He’s responsible for such classic songs as “Twist and Shout,” “Under the Boardwalk,” “I Want Candy” and “Piece of My Heart.” His career spanned a mere eight years but in that time he completely remade music in his image.

Berns was a Jewish kid from the Bronx and the last guy you’d think of as a one of the movers and shakers of soul music in the 60s, but truth is a strange motha. He was stricken with rheumatic fever as a boy and his heart was severely damaged. He spent most of his convalescence learning to play guitar and piano. His doctors warned his parents that it was unlikely he would survive past his teens; they were proven wrong but not by much.

In the 50s he fell in love with Cuban music, particularly the mambo. He brought that love of Latin rhythms into his music. He sort of slid into the music business sideways, working as a $50 a week songwriter for a tiny New York publishing firm. He wrote a couple of songs that got mild airplay, including the novelty hit “A Little Bit of Soap.” He eventually was brought to the attention of Atlantic Records, then the giant of R&B music. One of the first songs he wrote while employed by them was “Twist and Shout.” It was brought to Phil Spector who did a version that ended up somewhat lame. Horrified, Berns determined to produce the records made of his songs. He took the Isley Brothers into the studio and did the song up right. A legend was born.

The documentary is definitely a labor of love, co-directed by his son Brett. The film is largely a parade of talking heads interspersed with archival stills but that’s largely a necessity. There wasn’t a lot of behind the scenes footage taken back then and performance video wouldn’t become a regular thing until the MTV era.

We get to hear from those who worked with Berns, from performers to engineers. We also hear from his siblings and most importantly, from his wife Ilene – a former go-go dancer. She pulls no punches and gets emotional talking about certain aspects of his life. She has a take-no-crap attitude that isn’t uncommon among true New Yorkers and compared to some of the others interviewed who are more circumspect, her testimony is rather refreshing.

The music business is full of sharks and Berns rapidly learned to swim with them. His friendship with Carmen de Noia was helpful to his career; while de Noia wasn’t a made man he was the sort of guy who knew a guy, if you get my meaning. Ilene had danced in a club owned by Morris Levy, not just the chief of Roulette Records but the front of the mob in the music business. Bert wasn’t uncomfortable rubbing elbows with these sorts. De Noia also is interviewed for the film and other than Ilene is the most interesting tale-teller of the lot.

Berns died way too young, his heart finally giving out on December 30, 1967 at the age of 38. It’s always the brightest flames that burn out the soonest. Moreover, he knew that his life would end prematurely – he beat the odds in surviving as long as he did. In fact, “Piece of My Heart” is actually about his heart condition, but there’s no need to feel sorry for him. In his time, he nurtured and developed the careers of Neil Diamond and Van Morrison; he also was one of the most prolific and successful producers in the history of Atlantic Records; he remains one of the few people who ever partnered with the main trio of Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler and Nesuhi Ertegun in founding Bang Records, a subsidiary of Atlantic and the namesake of the documentary.

His legacy is mainly in the music and the soundtrack is packed with it. It’s music that made the music of today what it is. You may not know the name of Bert Berns but you know his music and chances are, you love it. One viewing of this film and you won’t forget his name anytime soon. I guarantee you won’t want to.

REASONS TO GO: A soundtrack that is absolutely stellar. One of the forgotten geniuses of rock and roll finally gets his due.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is basically a parade of talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild profanity and lots and lots of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Berns-written hit “I Want Candy” got its title from a risqué book by Terry Southern.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wrecking Crew
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Circus Kid

Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary


John Coltrane in the abstract.

(2017) Music Documentary (Abramorama) Denzel Washington (voice), John Coltrane, Common, Carlos Santana, John Densmore, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins, Cornel West, Wynton Marsalis, Bill Clinton, Ravi Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Heath, Antonia Andrews, Oran Coltrane, Ashley Kahn, Ben Ratliff, Kamasi Washington, Benny Golson, Michelle Coltrane. Directed by John Scheinfeld

 

In the pantheon of jazz greats, alto saxophonist John Coltrane has to stand out among its most enduring and influential figures. While never as popular as, say, Louis Armstrong (although he did have a big hit in a revved up version of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music back in 1961) his music helped jazz evolve and changed, as Carlos Santana notes, the very nucleus of jazz.

This documentary starts in media res with a heroin-addicted and alcoholic Coltrane in 1957 being fired from the Miles Davis Quintet where he had begun to hone his reputation. He faced a crossroads and a vital decision; whether to continue with the heroin and end up like his idol Charlie Parker or to turn his back on the drugs and potentially embrace greatness. He would choose the latter, kicking heroin cold turkey which shows a strength of will that characterized his entire life.

He grew up in North Carolina in a home where both his grandfathers were preachers which gave him a spiritual influence that remained with him all his life. Although he didn’t adhere to a single religion, he studied nearly all of them and incorporated them into his inspirations. He joined the Navy as World War II was ending and his first known recordings were as part of a Navy jazz band and, as Wynton Marsalis put it kindly, didn’t sound like he had much potential.

But he had the good fortune to play with Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and after being fired from that gig, Thelonious Monk – all jazz legends – which helped him find his confidence to grow and embrace change. Davis would accept Coltrane back for a second stint that would include one of Davis’ pivotal albums, Almost Blue which Coltrane recorded simultaneously with his own breakout album, Giant Steps. Shortly after that, Coltrane struck out on his own.

Although his career was short in years (he would die suddenly at the age of 40 of liver cancer), he was prolific releasing some 60 albums in the last decade of his life. Scheinfeld closely follows the arc of his influences, from bebop to free jazz to music that can only be called Coltrane. It is somewhat daunting to wonder what he would have come up with and how further he would have changed music had he lived another 20 or 30 years.

The archival footage and photographs are fascinating and the interviews – particularly with social commentator, activist and academic Cornel West (who at times is almost testifying to Coltrane in a religious fervor) and former President Bill Clinton who is surprisingly insightful into Coltrane’s art. While actor Denzel Washington reads from Coltrane’s writings, we never hear the jazz legend’s actual voice; he was notoriously interview-shy. While we don’t hear Coltrane’s actual voice here, his music does the talking. It’s as much an expression of his inner soul as we are going to find. Of particular note in that regard is “Alabama,” inspired by the speech Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave at the funeral of the victims of the Birmingham church bombing in 1963. The piece is mournful and yet hopeful; it follows the cadence of Dr. King’s speech and uplifts even as it grieves. It is as compelling a composition as has ever been written.

While we don’t hear Coltrane’s voice directly his personality comes to the fore mainly through the interviews with family and friends; his stepdaughter recalls him walking home late at night from a gig so he could spend his cash on shoes that she needed the next morning rather than spending it on cab fare. His childhood friend Jimmy Heath recalls how much he practiced, sometimes just fingering the sax in hotel rooms after angry guests complained about the noise.

In some ways the movie serves as a jumping off point for the music of Coltrane, although those who don’t “get” jazz may not necessarily find it compelling. However, the hope is that the film will introduce new generations to music that is sometimes described in overly enthusiastic terms. I don’t know that Coltrane’s music will change your life but it conceivably could; it has done so for many, many listeners and not all of them jazz aficionados. I don’t know that this is the ultimate tribute for Coltrane – there are an awful lot of talking heads and we don’t get as much context into the music as I might have liked  but this is an excellent place to start.

REASONS TO GO: The music is just incredible. The footage of Coltrane and his band is fascinating. The use of graphics is innovative.
REASONS TO STAY: There are too many talking heads. The film may not appeal to those who aren’t into jazz.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some drug content and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the studio footage of Coltrane recording was discovered in a California garage while production was underway; the filmmakers arranged for the footage to be incorporated into the film and this is the first time it has been seen anywhere, or at least for decades.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns
FINAL RATING:7.5/10
NEXT: Kong: Skull Island

Love & Taxes


Josh Kornbluth gets troubling news.

Josh Kornbluth gets troubling news.

(2015) Comedy (Abramorama) Josh Kornbluth, Sarah Overman, Helen Shumaker, David Keith, Robert Sicular, Nicholas Pelczar, Harry Shearer, Robert Reich, Nile Acero, Misha Brooks, Menachem Creditor, Carrie Paff, Anthony Nemirovsky, Jeff Raz, Kay Kostopoulos, Jenna Davi, Katherine Celio, Lorri Holt, Amy Resnick, Patricia Scanlon, Cindy Goldfield. Directed by Jacob Kornbluth

 

The art of the monologue is somewhat different than the art of stand-up comedy. The latter is joke after joke after joke; the former is a story, generally a humorous one. Louis C.K. is a stand-up comedian; Spalding Gray is a monologist. You’re far more likely to get rich and famous doing stand-up than you are reciting monologues, but that doesn’t stop plenty of people from going the latter route.

Based on a semi-autobiographical monologue by Josh Kornbluth who is shown performing it onstage enhanced by re-enacted portions of it, the cleverly titled film (Death and Taxes mixed with Love and Death, a Woody Allen – clearly a major influence on Kornbluth – film) shows Kornbluth who admits to his tax lawyer boss that he hadn’t paid his taxes in seven years.

To make this further ironic, Kornbluth works for a corporate tax lawyer (Keith) to pay the bills while he struggles to get his career as a monologist going. When Keith finds out that his employee hasn’t filed, he immediately sends him to a personal tax lawyer named Mo (Shumaker). Holistic and a bit New Age, Mo sees his failure to file not so much a tax problem as a tax symptom. Josh has memories of his father (Sicular), a testy communist, refusing to pay his taxes. A revelation, perhaps?

And filing his taxes seems to have helped Josh in many ways. He starts getting bigger crowds at his gigs. He gets the attention of a cheesy Hollywood producer (Shearer) who has Josh living in L.A. five days a week to write a screenplay in hopes that a studio will pick it up. He also gets the attention of a groupie named Sara (Overman) who is nearly as neurotic as himself, but in a complimentary way. Soon they are living together and talking marriage – particularly when Sara gets pregnant.

But Josh’s tax struggles are far from over and soon he finds himself in a bigger hole than he could imagine. Sure enough, things go from blessed to cursed in a big hurry. It’s a condition known to most of us as life.

Josh is a charismatic and engaging personality. He’s a cross between a Berkeley liberal and a Brooklyn Jew which makes for an interesting personality. He’s no matinee idol but he nonetheless keeps your attention whenever he’s onscreen, something that some matinee idols have trouble with. His stage sequences make you want to run right out and catch his act, which I suppose is what he was after all along.

While the movie could have used a little more editing (it drags a bit at the end of the second and beginning of the third act) it still doesn’t ever really wear out its welcome. It’s not the kind of film that is going to have you screaming with laughter but instead elicits a quiet chuckle – a whole lot of them, in fact. The interweaving of stage monologue and ensemble film sequences works well together, keeping the movie humming along for the most part. Sometimes there is a little too much shtick but by and large this is an entertaining and funny movie that is an improvement on Haiku Tunnels, the first film collaboration between the Brothers Kornbluth. I hope the two of them continue to make movies if they’re going to come up with stuff this good.

REASONS TO GO: The weaving of the stage monologue and the acted re-creations is nicely done. Josh is an engaging storyteller.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie runs a little bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of mild profanity as well as some mild sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is adapted from a monologue that Kornbluth first staged in 2003 in San Francisco; he later refined it in the Sundance Theater Lab, San Francisco’s Z Space Studios and Washington DC’s Arena Stage.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/2/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Producers (1967)
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Last Laugh

Blood on the Mountain


Beautiful West Virginia is paying the price for its coal.

Beautiful West Virginia is paying the price for its coal.

(2016) Documentary (Abramorama) Chris Hedges, Davitt McAteer, Chuck Keeney, Richard Trumko, Rev. Ron English, John Cavendish, Doug Estepp, Rev. Matthew Watts, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (archival footage), Peter Galuszka, Bruce Stanley, Terry Steele, Denny Tyler, Dr. Rahul Gupta, Chuck Nelson, Jack Spadaro, Charlotte Neilan, Maria Gunnoe. Directed by Mari-Lynn C. Evans and Jordan Freeman

 

I’m sure not many of us thought that coal mining would be a major controversy in 2016. President-elect Trump has vowed to bring more jobs to coal country, particularly West Virginia. At the same time, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to bring to a vote the Miner’s Protection Act that will protect the pensions and rights of tens of thousands of coal miners, all the more heinous because he represents a coal state.

This documentary, co-directed by West Virginia native daughter Evans and activist Freeman, takes a sober look at the history of coal mining, starting with the labor wars of the first part of the 20th century on through the reforms to working conditions brought about by the union, the erosion of the union in the latter part of the century and how the mining companies, particularly Massey and it’s absolutely amoral chairman Don Blankenship, has exploited the miners as surely as they’ve exploited the environment.

Of late, mining is mostly done by the mountaintop removal method, which causes egregious harm to the ecology, leaving pristine mountains scarred and as lifeless as the lunar surface, and yet the people of West Virginia have been solid supporters of coal companies who are the main providers of jobs in the Mountain State.

Evans and Jordan don’t pretend to be impartial; there’s a bias here and while I admit it’s hard to argue against them, there isn’t much of an attempt to address the concerns of the people of West Virginia regarding jobs and employment, a key issue in the recent election and certainly one of the big reasons West Virginians voted for Donald Trump in overwhelming numbers.  As a liberal, I have to admit that the left has fallen down on addressing the people of West Virginia (and other states like it), rather almost telling them “we know what’s good for you.” In West Virginia, jobs are good for them.

And yet West Virginians have not done well by the coal industry. Coal mining has killed scores of West Virginians, from black lung to mine explosions, floods and mine collapses to labor disputes over the decades. Coal miners have worked in some of the most abysmal conditions in human history, but the feeling is any job is better than no job. Coal companies created company towns, often putting their employees into what amounted to slave labor, paying their employees in scrip which they could only spend at company stores at vastly inflated prices, the workers knowing if they rocked the boat they’d be forcibly evicted from the company-owned home they live in with their families.

It is a mournful litany of abuse, corporate greed and political spinelessness, buttressed by archival footage and talking head interviews, with intervening footage of the natural beauty of West Virginia – one of the most beautiful states in the Union – and the results of the Big Coal’s irresponsible lack of regard for the consequences to the environment of their actions.

This is one of those documentaries where the content is so compelling that I end up overlooking that the actual craft of the documentary could be better; the filmmakers leap around in time and subject to sometimes dizzying effect. A more linear narrative would have served the film better. I also would have liked to at least hear more from West Virginians concerned about jobs over environment and health; they are rendered here mainly to hysterical screaming mobs. There are some intelligent people on the other side and their point of view certainly should have been heard. Still, this is something that in the words of former Rage Against the Machine guitarist and activist Tom Morello every American worker should see, and I agree with him. While this focuses on coal, one of the most egregious industries in terms of abuse of its workers in American history, it is also the story of all workers in America. It is time their voices were heard.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the archival footage is nifty. The film is a timely look at the state of the labor movement.
REASONS TO STAY: There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of impartiality here. The filmmakers could have tied the struggle here more in with the current political climate.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s tagline “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living” is a quote from Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, an ardent union organizer and the person for whom Mother Jones magazine was named.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harlan County, USA
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Rules Don’t Apply

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years


The Fab Four in their glory years.

The Fab Four in their glory years.

(2016) Musical Documentary (Abramorama) Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, John Lennon, Whoopi Goldberg, Richard Lester, George Martin, Elvis Costello, Larry Kane, Eddie Izzard, Sigourney Weaver, Neil Aspinall, Richard Curtis, Brian Epstein, Kitty Oliver, Howard Goodall, Jon Savage, Debbie Gendler. Directed by Ron Howard

 

It is safe to say that the Beatles are one of the pop culture touchstones of the 20th century. Their influence on music and the world in general is incalculable. It has been half a century since the Fab Four played a live show and generations have been born since, some not even knowing who they are but regardless feeling the effects of their contribution on popular music.

Beatlemania is something we’re not likely to see again; the emotional effect that the Beatles had on their female fans was something that the world hadn’t seen prior to that (except maybe for Elvis) and not really since; girls would scream nearly non-stop in their presence and faint from the emotional outpouring. It was a phenomenon that had to be experienced to be believed and even just having seen it as I did on this documentary it still doesn’t carry the impact it must have to be in that presence.

Their popularity can’t be underestimated either. They are the only band to hold the top five position on the Billboard singles chart in the same week and given how the music industry is today that is extremely unlikely to ever happen again. They ushered in the British invasion and paved the way for bands like the Rolling Stones and the Who, among others.

The Beatles had a very limited shelf life; essentially they were only making a global impact for seven years before going their separate ways. They only toured for four of those years, and after giving up touring only played together publicly just once – on the rooftop of their Apple Records office in London, which the film appropriately closes with.

Still their touring years were some of their most productive and it was a grueling schedule. They made two movies during those years on top of the grueling tour schedules that would take them to 25 cities in 30 days. It was certainly a different era; their concerts generally lasted about 30 minutes long, including encores. They were the first band to play in stadium-sized venues and often their amplifiers went through the stadium sound system. The screaming of their female fans would be so loud that the band couldn’t hear themselves play; drummer Ringo Starr kept the beat by watching his bandmates sway at the microphone so that he’d know where they were in the song.

Director Ron Howard, an Oscar winner in his own right, has compiled archival interviews as well as contemporary ones with the surviving Beatles (Starr and McCartney) and with celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg and Sigourney Weaver, both of whom were at the historic 1966 Shea Stadium concert in New York City – Goldberg recalls not thinking of the band in terms of black or white but just as “guys” who gave her a feeling of empowerment that helped her determine her course in life. New Wave legend Elvis Costello remembers not liking the Rubber Soul album because it didn’t sound anything like their previous music, only appreciating what it represented years after the fact. Some of the best insights though come from Larry Kane, a Miami-based reporter who accompanied the band on two of their tours and filed regular reports from the front lines of Beatlemania. His take on the phenomenon is fascinating to say the least.

There is also home movies that the Beatles themselves took, backstage and rehearsal studio audio that shows us how some of their classic songs evolved. And of course plenty of concert footage; we never get a sense at how accomplished musicians they were (and Starr and Harrison were both much underrated in that regard) but we get more of a sense of the power they had over their audience. That power was considerable, too; the band was literally under siege from the press, their fans and their record label for that entire period. Starr remembers not getting a moment to relax for three years and the toll it took, but nearly everyone who was there comments on how unified the band was and how they looked after each other like brothers. That was a far cry from how they ended up, acrimonious and sniping at one another through the press.

I will admit that this is a bit of a puff piece. There isn’t a lot here that is negative and maybe it wasn’t Howard’s intention to look at the band objectively. We do get a sense of their impish sense of humor as well as their resolve; when they found out that the venue in Jacksonville they were going to play at was segregated, they refused to play unless it was full integrated. Manager Brian Epstein had that written into all of their performing contracts from that point forward. They were one of the first performers in history to make that a standard clause in their contract.

Their last concert other than the one-off Apple rooftop concert was at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The band was tired and frustrated; Harrison had been expressing dissatisfaction with the live shows and now all of them were picking up on it. They were taken out of their last concert in an armored car with no seats in the back. As the car drove recklessly out of the park the band were jostled about in the back and that was the final straw; they chose as a group to stop touring, even though that was their primary source of income. Canny Brian Epstein, their manager, formed a corporation with him and his four charges as co-chairs; it was the first of its kind and would set the stage for other artist-owned production companies in the performing arts. They would get more control over their career than any entertainer before them.

I will admit to having been a fan of the Beatles since childhood; my parents listened to their music and they were my favorite group from day one. This is a film tailor-made for fans like me and if you love the Beatles, this is pretty much required viewing. It gives you a bit of an insight as to the pressures they were under, their lives on the road and how it drew them closer together. It’s no coincidence that the band began to fracture only after they stopped touring. Still, this is a reminder of a much simpler era, when something like this could happen. We will never see the like of the Beatles again.

REASONS TO GO: Definitely will send you on a trip down memory lane. Amazing footage and amazing music throughout the film. There are some insights into Beatlemania that you may not have had otherwise.
REASONS TO STAY: It is something of a puff piece.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The digital remastering of the songs for the soundtrack was engineered by Giles Martin, son of the legendary George Martin who produced the Beatles.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Waltz
FINAL RATING: 8/10
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