Class Action Park


Throwing sanity for a loop.

(2020) Documentary (Perennial Media) Chris Gethard, John Hodgman (narrator), Jim DeSaye, Jessi Paladini, Ed Youmans, Bill Benneyan, Esther Larsson, Bob Krahulik, Mary Pilon, Mark Johnson, Faith Anderson, Andrew Mulvihill, Tom Shaw, Matthew Callan, Jimmy Kimmel, Brian Larsson, Daron Fitch, Seth Porges, Joe Hession, Mark Malkoff, Eugene Mulvihill, Alison Becker. Directed by Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III

Anyone ever tell you that truth is stranger than fiction? Well, here’s a documentary that’s living proof of that aphorism.

In the rolling hills of Vernon, New Jersey Wall Street penny stock trader Eugene Mulvihill, having been playing a bit fast and loose with SEC regulations in his day job, decided he wanted to build a water park near New York City. Water parks were pretty much new back then in the 80s, and Eugene found a property in the rolling hills of Vernon, New Jersey that was a ski resort. Ski resorts, however, only make money in the winter so he building a year-round theme park would be the ticket. He called his property Action Park.

“Uncle Gene,” as his staff generally called him, didn’t care much for regulations and had the deep pockets of a Wall Street crony to give him nearly limitless resources. He decided to build attractions that were one-of-a-kind and they certainly were that, like Cannonball Loop, a water slide with a loop in it. Gene preferred using non-professionals to design his rides – they were much cheaper than guys with engineering degrees – and the proof of how dangerous the ride was came when an inspection revealed human teeth embedded in the lining of the loop where people’s faces had slammed at high speeds into the top of the loop.

There were cliff diving recreations that had people jumping into a pool that people were swimming in. There was a wave pool with a “death zone” in which people would get swept under (and it became a literal death zone when a couple of people drowned in it). That’s right – people died going to this theme park, seven of ‘em in five years.

But back in the halcyon days of the 80s, parents really didn’t care where their kids were so long as they weren’t bothering them. So in the tri-state area, teens would go to Action Park to test their mettle against dangerous rides, like go-carts that could reach speeds of 50 MPH and came dangerously close to the beer tent – oh, and the legal drinking age was just a suggestion so far as Action Park was concerned.

Mulvihill had a largely teenage staff who weren’t terribly interested in enforcing safety regulations; most of them were too busy getting drunk, high or laid to properly supervise rides. Vinnies from the Shore and from the City would show up at Action Park looking to get blasted and come away with scars of honor. Even the medical shed was a house of horrors; scrapes were treated with a skeevy orange liquid that was so painful that anyone so treated with it who could stay within a painted circle on the ground without writhing in pain outside of it won a prize (which was an Action park pen more often than not).

The filmmakers tell the story through home video recovered from videotapes, old advertisements, talking head interviews (comedian Chris Gethard, a regular at the park in its heyday, is particularly amusing) and animated recreations.

At first, the documentary is hilarious as you can’t believe the bizarre ideas that Mulvihill allowed to be created at his park. But then the Larsson family tells their story and the tone shifts. George Larsson Jr. was a teen with a bright future ahead of him, but while screaming down the mountain at sick speeds on the Alpine Slide, the flimsily built sled he was riding saw its brakes fail and he went head-first into a rock. It turned out that the insurance policy that Mulvihill was carrying was a complete fraud, one he used to launder money out to the Caymans. And when fined, or sued, Mulvihill just refused to pay. It’s amazing he didn’t end up in jail, but he learned from Donald Trump – who was at one time considering investing in the Park – and his powerful connections kept him out of jail. His son, who inherited the park, was one of the talking heads interviewed for the film and while he remembers his father fondly, he also remembers him without sugar-coating.

Ultimately the park shut down as the 80s gave way to the 90s and parental supervision became a little stricter. I think most of those interviewed agree that something like Action Park could never happen again, but I wonder about that. Despite the lawsuit-happy culture we live in, deregulation seems to be something that the conservatives thoroughly endorse; it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that safety regulations for theme and water parks might be struck down just as environmental regulations have been.

This is a fascinating documentary that had me riveted from beginning to end. I lived on the opposite side of the country from Action Park, so thankfully I cut my teeth on theme and water parks that had a bit more consideration for safety. I suspect some remember the park fondly, but I’m reasonably sure that nobody would like to go back to it if they could.

REASONS TO SEE: Laugh-out-loud funny. Jaw-dropping in a “I can’t believe they got away with that” way. Captures the feeling of the Eighties very nicely. Lots of great clips.
REASONS TO AVOID: You might feel a little bit ashamed of yourself for laughing from time to time.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Johnny Knoxville based his movie Action Point on a short film Porges made on Action Park that preceded this full-length feature.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews, Metacritic: 69/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Action Point
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Behind the Lines: Escape to Dunkirk

After So Many Days


Jim and Sam will play anywhere for anyone.

 (2020) Musical Documentary (Tiny RoomJim Hanft, Samantha Yonack. Directed by Jim Hanft and Samantha Yonack

Making music is something that many of us do in one way or another. It is an expression of our passion, in most cases. To do it professionally requires a different kind of passion; a kind of madness, really. The business of making music is a frustrating and often unforgiving one. Keeping your sanity given the kind of indifference and heartache that often follows in being a professional musician is no easy task.

So, one has to wonder about the husband/wife duo of Jim and Sam. Freshly married in 2017, they found their career was in a morass and their creative juices simply weren’t flowing. Rather than taking a break, which often leads to a much more extended absence than intended, they decided to launch themselves both feet into their mutual career – to play a gig every day for a full year.

So, yeah, you have to wonder if they weren’t a little crazy for even considering the plan. Like the Irish band the Black Donnellys who undertook a similarly difficult venture as documented in An Irish Story: This is My Home, Jim and Sam set out to take the bull by the horns, which had to be daunting when you considered the logistics. Heap onto that the fact that they didn’t plan extensively; when they set out on the road from their Los Angeles home, they had about three weeks of gigs planned and that was it. The road they were on would take them to 14 different countries, particularly Sweden where they had recorded their first EP and had a bit of a fan base, but they also ended up in Eastern Europe and the UK as well.

The two documented their ordeal and created an absolutely wonderful documentary from it. I don’t think that non-professionals will ever get a better idea of the obstacles faced by professional musicians than this film, which shows them in thick and thin; having financial issues and a looming eviction from their apartment, transportation issues, and canceled gigs leading to scrambling to play in front of someone, anyone that they could find, sometimes venturing into convenience stores, restaurants and tobacco shops to play impromptu sets. In one memorable scene, they stop by the side of the road and play for a very attentive herd of cows.

The two captured their gigs on cell phones, and inexpensive video cameras but even so, the quality is pretty good in terms of the cinematography. The two make for compelling subjects, and while they bicker from time to time, they seem to have gotten along extremely well considering the circumstances. Being together with anyone 24/7 for a year can put an enormous strain on a relationship. Hanft said in an interview that the two of them were forced to solve issues quickly, or risk long four-hour car rides angry with one another.

What you will take away most from this documentary, however, is the music which is really very special. Their harmonies are magical and their songs tuneful and full of lovely pop hooks. There are some sprightly uptempo numbers, and some melancholy reflective numbers. If you’re taste is anything like mine, you’ll likely be scrambling to find their music online.

Their solution to their musical malaise is not for every musician, in case you think something like this is going to solve all of your problems. The relationship was tested and so was their passion for their craft. They performed day after day, sometimes in front of indifferent audiences, occasionally nursing colds or the flu, whether they were in a good place mentally or not. While they did things largely on their own, they did have a manager looking out for them (in the film, he’s mainly a voice on the telephone until the final scenes).

“The show must go on” is a bit of an aphorism, but these two took it to almost ridiculous lengths but you have to admire their willingness to go all-in and their perseverance once they did. Whether you agree with me or not, you’ll have their music stuck in your head for a long time after the movie is over.

The movie will continue on the Festival circuit and looks to get a theatrical or VOD release in October of this year. Keep an eye out for it.

REASONS TO SEE: The music is exceptional. An inspirational DIY ethic.
REASONS TO AVOID: There are tantalizing snippets of songs that you wish you could hear more of.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jim and Sam met at a comedy show through a mutual friend; they began writing and performing music together a week later.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/31/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Falling Slowly
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Cured

At the Video Store


When VHS was king.

(2019) Documentary (ArgotBill Hader, John Waters, Nicole Holofcener, Alex Ross Perry, Thelma Schoonmaker, Gus Van Sant, Penelope Spheeris, Ondi Timoner, Todd Haynes, Lance Bangs, Ehren McGhehey, Charles Mudede, Danny Peary, Milos Stehlik, Ted Hope, John Sloss, Aaron Hillis, Marty Arno, Zach Clark, Dana Harris, Catherine Tchen. Directed by James Westby

Film critics and film bloggers are also inherently film geeks; we love all things cinematic, whether it be genre films, foreign films, art house mainstays, classic movies, big mindless blockbusters or niche films. For many of us, that love begn in the video store.

Those of a certain age group will remember trips to the video store in the 80s and 90s, which started out largely as mom and pop operations until megachains such as Hollywood Video or, more to the point, Blockbuster Video, took over and put a stranglehold on the industry. Ironically speaking, there is but one Blockbuster store left; there are many more mom and pop stores that remain. That’s what karma is all about.

This documentary is a love letter to those mom and pop stores, where the clerks knew the tastes of their customers well enough that they could confidently recommend esoteric or rare movies. They were places where friendships (and sometimes romances) formed, lively debates ensued (“Was Godard better than Truffaut? Discuss!”) and memories were made.

The movie has lots of talking heads, from those who owned the stores that are fondly remembered or better yet, still in business, to those who went on to make an impact in the film industry themselves. There is a bit of the bittersweet in the overall attitude of the movie as Westby engenders a wistful quality to his nostalgia. They were simpler days indeed, before streaming (and to a lesser extent, Redbox) took over. Not that there is anything wrong with streaming, mind you – it’s the next logical step in home video evolution, but it lacks the personal touch of a video store. A computer recommendation isn’t the same as one coming from a teen kid in a Herschell Gordon Lewis t-shirt who knows the difference between Bloodsucking Freaks and Blood Feast and will tell you that the remake of 2,000 Maniacs is crap. An algorithm can only look at your rental habits and make a recommendation based on subject matter; it doesn’t distinguish between a hidden gem and a piece of trash.

The movie does tend to ramble a bit, and there are some curious choices; a musical interlude, for example. There are some original songs that nicely capture the feel for the old video stores, but they do get distracting after a while. Still, everyone who has ever debated the merits of Todd Solondz versus Paul Thomas Anderson will likely find this delightful. Those who could care less about those sorts of movies will likely feel like they are at a party where they don’t know anybody.

REASONS TO SEE: A must-see for film nerds.
REASONS TO AVOID: The musical number was unnecessary and the music was intrusive.
FAMILY VALUES: Some references to sex and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film took six years to make; several of the stores depicted went out of business in the meantime.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Surviving Supercon
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Apocalypse ’45

The Perfect Candidate


Roles in Saudi Arabia are changing.

(2019) Drama (Music BoxMila Al Zahrani, Dhay, Nora Al Awad, Khalid Abdulraheem, Shafi Alharthy, Tareq Ahmed Al-Khaldi, Khadeeja Mua’th, Rakan Abdulrahman, Nojoud Ahmed, Naser Al Algeel, Saeed Almana, Ahmad Alsulaimy, Reem Fahad, Bandar Hadadi, Bandar Alkhudair, Hamad Almuzainy, Ismaee Nasser, Muhammad Shaman, Abdullah Ateeg, Reema Mohammed. Directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an enigma to Western minds. While it remains one of the most pro-Western governments in the Middle East, its government remains at times painfully repressive of women, although it did lift the ban on them driving by themselves in 2018 – not even two years ago. Lifting the veil, so to speak, on the lives of women in the Kingdom is no easy matter.

But who better to do so than Al-Mansour, who was the first Saudi woman ever to direct a feature film with the wonderful Wadjda back in 2012. Her protagonist, Dr. Maryam Alsafan (Al Zahrani) has a medical degree and works at a small hospital in a small town near Riyadh. She is constantly belittled by male colleagues, and encounters an elderly patient (Almuzainy) who refuses treatment by a female doctor. When Maryam refuses to back down, her hospital administrator (Hadadi) orders that the man be treated by the male nurses.
Back at home, she helps her sisters Selma (Dhay) and Sara (Al Awad) prepare a Ramadan meal for their father Abdulaziz (Abdulraheem), one of the country’s most gifted oud players. He is still mourning the untimely death of their mother, a beautiful wedding singer whose unusual choice of vocation (for Saudi women, unusual) had made things difficult at times, particularly for the sensitive Sara who disapproves of anything that might bring scrutiny down on the little family.

With Abdulaziz leaving on a national tour, Maryam uses the opportunity to attend a medical conference in Dubai where she is more likely to be noticed and find herself a new, more prestigious job. But there’s a problem; as an unmarried Saudi woman, she needs the permission of her father to travel, and his signature is apparently out of date. Stuck at the airport, desperately trying to get approval to fly to Dubai and with her father unreachable, she tries a cousin (Alsulaimy) to fix the problem. The trouble is, the supercilious administrative assistant won’t let Maryam see him unless she is planning on running for a municipal council office, and she grumpily declares that she is and then is told that her cousin isn’t willing to break the law on behalf, but she decides to make a serious run at it, even though she is told that she doesn’t have a chance in hell of defeating the incumbent. With the support of Selma, an ebullient wedding photographer, and the surly resentment of her younger sister Sara, who remembers the difficulties her mom’s profession brought on the family,

While the movie is ostensibly a drama, it is lighthearted enough so that there’s never a sense of gloom or hopelessness. Things are changing in Saudi Arabia and, apparently, even women themselves seem to think that progress might be taking place too quickly. We see the ladies taking off their niqab – a mask-like veil that only allows the eyes to be seen – in their homes, and gathering in gender-segregated halls in western dress, something unthinkable not so long ago.

This isn’t the kind of political underdog film that Frank Capra might have made; one gets the sense that Al-Mansour has to tread a very tricky line in order not to be overly critical of her government (she isn’t) while allowing the changes to be celebrated, yet there is certainly an underlying feeling  that more needs to be done. At times the way women are treated is positively medieval.

Both Al Zahrani and Dhay are wonderful performers; Al Zahrani makes Maryam a force of nature when she gets a head of steam going, although early on in the film she is fairly subservient. Dhay, though, is a remarkable burst of fresh air, so joyful and supportive that you’ll want to be her sister too. g

At times, the story moves along at a snail’s pace and there is little in the way of dramatic tension, which you wouldn’t think for a movie with the kind of issues this one raises. It feels virtually sedentary, but perhaps that would have been too much to ask of a Saudi female filmmaker; I imagine she would have to tread fairly lightly if she wants to continue making movies in her own country (although she has established a career in the States as well by now). There are some delightful moments and others that are pedantic; they about even each other out. So, not the triumph that Wadjda was, but certainly not a failure either.

REASONS TO SEE: Al Zahrani is a formidable presence and Dhay injects much vitality into the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times it lacks dramatic tension.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some misogyny on display.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the official Saudi entry in the Best International Film category for the 92nd Academy Awards last spring.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews, Metacritic: 71/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saudi Women’s Driving School
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Uncle Peckerhead

Sputnik


A space oddity.

(2020) Sci-Fi Horror (IFC Midnight) Oksana Akinshina, Fedor Bondrachuk, Pyotr Fyodorov, Anton Vasilev, Aleksey Demidov, Aleksandr Manushev, Albrecht Zander, Vitaliya Kornienko, Vasiliy Zotov, Anna Nazarova. Directed by Egor Abramenko

It is said that in space, nobody can hear you scream; in a Soviet-era research facility slash prison, everybody can hear you scream – they just pretend not to.

It’s 1983 and do you know where your cosmonauts are? It is the last gasp of the Cold War and a Soviet space mission has crash landed, leaving one cosmonaut dead and the other, Konstantin Veshnyakov (Fyodorov) with amnesia. He is brought to a forbidding research facility by Colonel Semiradov (Bondrachuk), a fatherly sort who seems genuinely interested in finding out what happened. To that end, he enlists disgraced psychologist Tatyana Klimova (Akinshina) who cured a young teen of his fears by holding his head underwater. That’s apparently too extreme even for the USSR, so she’s about to experience an abrupt career change when she’s approached by Semiradov to see if she can rescue the memories from the cosmonaut, a national hero.

But it turns out that the hero isn’t alone inside his body. He has an alien hitchhiker, translucent and almost jelly-like, able to fold itself into a much smaller space – say, a man’s esophagus – and come out at night to feed. And what does an alien parasite – or is that symbiote? – eat? Cortisol, the pheromone of fear. And then, he tears off the head of the victim and feeds more conventionally.

Tatyana is determined to suss out Konstantin’s secrets and is remarkably successful, in more ways than she can imagine – she begins to develop sympathy, and then maybe emotional attachment – to Veshnyakov. When it turns out that the government is interested in the little stowaway and has some pretty nasty plans for it, she knows she and Konstantin need to make a run for it, but where can they go that would be safe from the creature inside?

In a lot of ways this harkens back to the creature features of the late 70s and 80s, particularly Ridley Scott’s Alien and the other films (and there are many) that it inspired. The parasite/symbiote is no xenomorph, but it is virtually indestructible and very, very aggressive. Tatyana wants to get the creature out of Veshnyakov without killing him; she is the conscience. Veshnyakov is the id, where the monsters dwell. Semiradov, who comes off something like a Bond villain here, is the cold logic unencumbered by compassion. In a sense, he is as much a monster as the alien.

Abramenko has assembled a slick-looking film that takes good advantage of Soviet-era brutalist architecture and of the horror tropes of the era that the film is set in. It is a bit of a slow burn, but it does heat up until it gets to its preposterous yet nevertheless satisfying ending.

The creature design is off the chain; it’s scary as hell, completely alien but makes logical sense. Akinshina and Fyodorov do good work as the heroic leads, but it is Bondrachuk who really shines as the kindly-on-the-surface-but cruel-to-the-core Colonel, whose absolute loyalty to the state will ring a troubling chord for some who have seen this kind of obsession all too often these days.

This is another great horror film for 2020, a year that seems to be destined to be remembered as a horror film in and of itself. I had a few quibbles – the creature is introduced far too early, robbing it of some of its effectiveness, and the pacing is a little uneven and there are a few too many clichés at work, but overall, this is a stellar horror film that is bound to have you wishing for a brightly lit place to repair to immediately afterward.

REASONS TO SEE: Does a good job building the tension. The creature effects are solid. Spartan production puts emphasis on the story.
REASONS TO AVOID: Reveals the creature far too early.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of violence, gore and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the performance footage was originally filmed in black and white, but was restored to full color for use in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews, Metacritic: 61/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Apollo 18
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Hole in the Ground

The Outside Story


From the inside out.

(2020) Dramedy (Sub-Genre MediaBrian Tyree Henry, Sonequa Martin-Green, Sunita Mani, Olivia Edward, Asia Kate Dillon, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Michael Cyril Creighton, Matthew Maher, Hannah Bos, Maria Dizzia, Jordan Carlos, Lynda Gravatt, Paul Thureen, Nadia Bowers, John Esposito, Fernando Mateo Jr., Chris Roberti, Rick D. Wasserman, Jordan Kenneth Camp, Suzette Gunn. Directed by Casimir Nozkowski

Our society has become increasingly introverted. Socializing has almost become anathema, especially now that there’s a deadly virus out there (which wasn’t the case when this was filmed). We live and die by our smart phones; we eat meals that are delivered to us. Our groceries are delivered to us. Many of us work at home, even before the pandemic. The need to be around other people is seemingly being bred out of us.

Charles Young (Henry) is at a crossroads in his life. He’s a film editor who works for TCM; whenever a star of yesteryear dies, he’s the one who assembles an “In Memoriam” feature to run for the channel. In a particularly morbid twist, the network keeps a number of these features on hand for stars who are aged enough or infirm enough that they might be next for the “In Memoriam” treatment. Charles finds this morbid, but not enough to switch jobs.

He once was a documentary film maker and has started avoiding friends who ask about the project he was working on. That’s kind of a sore point with him. He has a nice brownstone in Brooklyn where he lives and works. His girlfriend, Isha (Martin-Green) also lives there – until today. You see, she cheated on Charles, which she admitted to and apologized for. “It was a mistake,” she noted. Charles, however, can’t get past the thought of her with – in this case – another woman, and has broken up with her and asked her to move out.

Charles has been tasked with moving her car regularly so she doesn’t get a parking ticket until she comes to fetch her car and her things. When a delivery man (Carlos) brings over his favorite take-out Mexican, he accidentally brings her car keys instead of the house keys and ends up locked out of his apartment. With Isha possessing the other set of keys and not available until later, he at first tries climbing out on the fire escape to get in his window, but it’s locked. About to break his way in, the police officer (Mani) who has been issuing parking tickets all up and down the street stops him. Having run out without shoes or identification, he finds himself having to reach out to strangers – that he has lived alongside for years but never bothered to meet – to help him get in, especially since he has a deadline fast approaching.

Henry is a big, likable teddy bear of  a guy and after years of being a supporting player gets to shine on his own, and he makes the most of his opportunity. His comic timing is right on (he gets the best line of the film, as he is being arrested for trying to sneak into his own apartment before being rescued at the last minute and exclaiming “I couldn’t hear you over the injustice,” which about sums up our times). I hope Hollywood casting directors sit up and take notice; he should be getting bigger roles and more lead roles as well.

Usually one doesn’t notice the editing of a film, but it is surprisingly noticeable here – maybe because the lead character is a film editor. It’s choppy and abrupt, which is jarring at times. With a little bit of care, it wouldn’t have been a problem and when your lead character is in that particular line of work, it calls attention to the deficiency a little more broadly.

Star Trek fans will note the presence of Sonequa Martin-Green of Star Trek: Discovery in the cast, but she is sadly underutilized here – perhaps she was busy filming Season 3 of the CBS All-Access series at the time. She shines when she’s onscreen, and hopefully we’ll see more of her in coming years. For my money, she’s even better here than she is as the cold, logical Burnham.

The movie does point out how isolated we’ve become as a society, with neighbors scarcely knowing each other (although everyone seems to know the more outgoing Isha). Even in New York, perhaps the most densely packed city in the country, there is that sense of people living in cocoons. That tendency has been exacerbated lately; chances are that it is going to continue to evolve in that direction, at least for the time being. At some point, the human need for socializing is going to outweigh the need for convenience.

Some movies are suited for rainy day viewing, and this one fits the bill to a “T.” It’s the kind of movie you want to watch in your stocking feet, with a warm blanket pulled over you and a bowl of your favorite snacks within arm’s length – and perhaps with your own sweetie cuddled against you. I can think of few better ways to spend an afternoon.

REASONS TO SEE: Henry is extremely likable. A great commentary on how isolated our lives have become even before the pandemic.
REASONS TO AVOID: The editing is a bit choppy, which is somewhat ironic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its debut at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sparrow’s Dance
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Greta

Billie


The legendary Billie Holiday.

(2019) Music Documentary (Greenwich) Billie Holiday, Linda Lipnack Kuehl, Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Sylvia Syms, Billy Eckstein, Bobby Tucker, Jo Jones, Charles Mingus, Sarah Vaughan, Skinny Davenport, John Fagan, John Hammond, Myra Luftman, John Simmons, Artie Shaw, Al Avola, Les Robinson, Luis McKay, Irene Kitchings, Mae Weiss. Directed by James Erskine

That she was a jazz legend there is no doubt, but much of the life of Billie Holiday remains an enigma to modern listeners. When she died in 1959 at age 44, she was nearly penniless, victimized by abusive husbands and managers who stole nearly every penny she earned, and did nothing as she sank into alcohol and hard drug abuse. Given a childhood in which she was raped as a pre-teen and began work as a prostitute at age 13, perhaps that descent was inevitable.

The movie had its genesis in a book that was never written. In 1971, journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl, a big fan of the singer, decided to write her definitive biography (there was an autobiography in 1956 that was later criticized for being factually inaccurate, and was apparently threatened with legal action if certain aspects, such as her relationships with Charles Laughton, Tallulah Bankhead and Orson Welles were not removed) and spent the next eight years amassing interviews with those who knew her best, including jazz luminaries like Count Basie and Tony Bennett. However, before she could write the book, she passed away in 1979 in what was deemed by the Washington DC police as a suicide, although she left no note. Her family to this day contests the finding; Erskine attempted to look into the matter but all of the evidence collected by the DC police had been destroyed.

Erskine peppers the audio interviews with archival footage of Holiday performing some of her most memorable songs, as well as contemporaneous interviews with Lady Day herself (a nickname granted her by the musicians in the Count Basie orchestra with whom she sang early on in her career). Holiday once told her friend Sylvia Syms that the trick to performing was this: “If you almost laugh, the audience will laugh. If you almost cry, the audience will cry.” We see the evidence of that in her performance in which all the pain of her life – and all the joy – was very much in evidence in her face and in her body language.

Notably, we see a television performance of “Strange Fruit,” the at-the-time controversial song about lynching, late in her life. Her eyes are nearly deadened, numb with the horror of that which so many African-Americans of her generation had to grow up with and are now facing again, albeit in a much different way. The interviews are also fascinating, including one with the man who was her pimp during her prostitute days, who chuckles at the memory of beating her up when she got out of line; “the girls liked it,” he chortles. It’s enough to turn your stomach.

The film spends a little too much time on the journalist’s story, which although fascinating tends to detract from the story of the singer that she was trying to tell, something I imagine that the writer would find ironic if not disturbing. I think that she might have been gratified, however, if she knew that if you do an image search on her name, pictures of Holiday turn up (and a few of Linda Ronstadt, whose musical biography was also released by Greenwich last year).

It’s the music that Holiday will be remembered for, however, and there’s plenty of it here and you will be taken by the sheer force of her vocals. She was the greatest singer of her age bar none, and if you aren’t familiar with her work this is a dandy place to start. If you are familiar with her work, then the interviews about her will be a treasure trove.

Although iMDB gives a June release date for the film, that was a pre-Coronavirus entry and the movie remains on the festival circuit for the time being. For those looking to see it on the Florida Film Festival virtual festival, it is unfortunately sold out. Keep an eye out for it though – it is one of the best documentaries you’ll see this year.

REASONS TO SEE: Holliday’s story is tragic and compelling. Some wonderful performance footage. Judging from the interviews, this would have been an amazing book. Gives due to one of the most important figures in American music of the 20th century.
REASONS TO AVOID: Spends a little too much time on Kuehl’s story.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of profanity (Holliday swore like a sailor), plus plenty of drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the performance footage was originally filmed in black and white, but was restored to full color for use in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
The Outside Story