Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving The Police


It rocks to be Sting!

It rocks to be Sting!

(2012) Musical Documentary (Cinema Libre) Andy Summers, Sting, Stewart Copeland, Kate Lunken Summers. Directed by Andy Grieves

In the heyday of MTV, the Police were one of the bands that were essentially made for the music video age. Blonde and good looking, sometimes the fact that they made really good music got lost in the image. Melding a variety of musical forms including (but not limited to) New Wave, reggae, jazz, blues with the occasional burst of discordant noise, they were often unfairly characterized as purveyors of disposable lightweight pop. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Behind the easygoing blonde facade were three strong personalities who often clashed. Bassist Sting was never much of a team player and said so; he would get into heated arguments with his band mates over things ranging from chord changes to which singles were released off of albums. The band member’s egos stemmed from the fact that all three were talented musicians and songwriters in their own rights, and recording sessions often became wars of attrition.

Finally, the band called it a day in 2006 which startled the music press and fans alike; their most recent (and it turns out final) album Synchronicity had been a monster success and they were considered by many to be the biggest band in the world. All went their separate ways, however; Sting to a successful solo career, drummer Stewart Copeland to TV and film composition and guitarist Andy Summers to a string of instrumental albums both solo and with other guitarists like Robert Fripp of King Crimson.

In some ways though, the way the band broke up left both the fans and the band itself feeling a lack of closure so in 2007, partly in honor of the 30th anniversary of the release of their first single “Roxanne” the band announced a reunion tour. It would be a one-time event; as Sting put it, “There will be no album. There will be no follow-up tour.” The tour would be the last hurrah for the band, a way of saying goodbye to their fans one final time.

Summers, prior to the reunion, wrote a book on his time with the Police entitled One Train Later and decided to do a documentary. Copeland, who had taken Super 8 movies of the band on tour, had previously released a documentary entitled Everybody Stares: The Police Inside Out back in 2006 but it wasn’t until well after the reunion had concluded that Summers and Grieve, assuming the director’s chair for the first time after establishing himself as a film editor, assembled both from archival footage of the band as well as newer footage from the reunion tour shot by Lauren Lazin.

Here we hear Summers laconically reading from his book over the images and video. Summers, who these days resembles comedian Eric Idle portraying a rumpled professorial sort, is not the most expressive reader ever; most of the voiceover is monotonic which can lull the viewer to sleep, or at least lead them to lose interest. To be sure, however, he’s a good writer and the prose is well-written.

One drawback is that the film is exclusively from Summers’ point of view. That’s a double edged sword; we get a very definitive, consistent viewpoint throughout, but that’s the only viewpoint we receive. While we hear Sting and Copeland in interviews talking about the band, there’s a kind of facade that is practiced by members of any band which is meant to keep the world at large out of the inner sanctum. Only from Summers do we get any kind of emotional resonance and while that is much appreciated, the film could have used more participation from his bandmates as well.

Grieve, with his background in editing, really weaves the footage from the 70s and 80s nicely in with concert footage from the reunion tour. It’s a nice effect although to be honest the songs don’t really change much in arrangement over time for the most part although once in awhile the band messed about with the arrangements to some of their lesser known tunes. We do get a sense that the divides that split the band up remain intact; they seem to be better friends outside of the band than within it.

There are some nice tidbits here; Summers, for example, was briefly a member of Eric Burden and the Animals prior to joining the Police. He was much older than his mates, who teasingly tried to convince an interviewer that the Summers who played in psychedelic bands like Dantalian’s Chariot and blues bands like Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band was actually the Police guitarist’s father. Another anecdote that was interesting was that the band’s first appearance on the influential British music show The Old Grey Whistle Stop nearly didn’t happen when a can of hairspray exploded in Sting’s face, necessitating a hospital visit to save his eye; he was forced to wear oversized sunglasses for the appearance because of it.

Summers does go into more personal aspects of his life, such as how the marriage to his wife Kate developed and then disintegrated due to his constant touring with the band, how he sunk into reckless behaviors after the divorce and how an interest in photography went from being a hobby into being therapy. Happily, the couple reconciled and remarried and have since given birth to twin boys in addition to the daughter they had during his Police days. These are some of the more compelling moments in the film.

In some ways this is an ego project for Summers but I suspect he’s okay with that characterization; this is more “Andy Summers and the Police” than a fair, balanced portrayal of the band and their music. Summers says, with some pride, “We were allowed (to have egos) because we were really good musicians” without any hint of irony, and deservedly so. This is a band that really never got its critical due during their existence and even less so afterwards. They were more than just a trio of pretty boys that grew out of the punk clubs of England and escaped into pop superstardom; they wrote some amazing songs that still sound good today. I just would have wished for a documentary that was a little less one-sided.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice interweaving of archival concert footage with more recent stuff. Informative.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too Summers-centric in a self-aggrandizing way. Lacks energy.
FAMILY VALUES: Some minor swearing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The comic book character John Constantine (who appeared in a sadly now-defunct NBC series this past season) was based  visually on Sting.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Some of Summers’ photos appear in a photo gallery; there’s also a Q&A session with Summers from the film’s L.A. premiere, a promo piece on his solo album Mysterious Barricades, an interview with Summers and finally a Summers-made trailer for the film (in addition to the official one).
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $23,262 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental Only), Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Soul Boys of the Western World
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Hitman: Agent 47

Magical Universe


Even in black and white Al Carbee's world is full of magic.

Even in black and white Al Carbee’s world is full of magic.

(2013) Documentary (Wheelhouse) Al Carbee, Jeremy Workman, Astrid von Ussar. Directed by Jeremy Workman

Florida Film Festival 2013

Art means different things to different people. Some prefer the more traditional, others the Avant Garde. Some people will take two blocks of wood, nail them together and proclaim it art. Others will nail those same blocks of wood to their head, film it and proclaim it art. There are some who think that it isn’t art if it isn’t challenging you or pushing your boundaries.

Al Carbee thought a lot about art and the artistic process. You see, he had this thing about taking pictures using Barbie dolls as models. His late wife never really understood it and was actually kind of embarrassed about it but Al just kept things on the down-low. He created these elaborate environments for his pictures and created collages with them. They began to look more and more like art.

Jeremy Workman, a young filmmaker, was vacationing with his girlfriend Astrid von Ussar in the area around Saco, Maine when he got a call from a newspaper editor friend telling him about Carbee, so Jeremy went and shot some video of Al and his work. He made a documentary short called Carbee’s Barbies which you can Google – I believe it’s available on YouTube and if not, he shows it in its entirety during the film.

In most cases like this, that would be the end of it but Jeremy and Astrid continued to correspond with Al who’d send long, rambling letters, sometimes with pictures. Soon the idea came up for Jeremy to do a feature film on Al. Jeremy was agreeable and began to do just that. He showed some of the early footage to Astrid who to his surprise was not very happy. “You’re making him look like a crazy person,” she admonished sternly, “You need to put Al in there.” And she was right, Jeremy realized.

Frankly put, it’s pretty easy to go down that road. On the surface of things, Al is pretty much a whacko and I leaned over to Da Queen several times and said so. To her credit she said nothing and held her opinion to herself (until after the movie of course – Da Queen isn’t shy about sharing her opinions with me or anyone else for that matter). As the movie progresses you get quite a different opinion of Al than just a lonely old man playing with dolls.

Much of the film is wrapped around an exhibition of Al’s work at the local art museum, an event which really seemed to vindicate Al and bring him some satisfaction. It’s not that he needed an audience for his work – he mostly made it for himself I suspect – but to be validated as an artist, to be told his pictures have some value. That was important to him.

Throughout the time that Jeremy knew him Al was having money troubles. He was deeply in debt and had to improvise his environments using whatever he could find. Most of his Barbies were found in thrift stores and at tag sales (that’s New England for yard sale or garage sale if you’re reading this on the West Coast).

Although Al had made substantial renovations to his home, they were almost all his own handiwork and to a certain extent somewhat Winchester Mystery House-like in their layout – the house is described as something of a labyrinth by one of the few who were given access to the inner sanctum (Al had also dug a cavern in which he placed Barbies in an atmosphere that was described as “magical.” Unfortunately, Al passed away a few years ago after a brief illness and his landlord, who had waited with baited breath for Al to go, bulldozed the property and much of his art (although his nephew apparently saved quite a bit according to Workman). Mostly, this film remains as a testament to what he accomplished.

Da Queen thinks he’s an artistic genius and maybe he is. I’m really not going to make that determination; that’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself. What I can say is that this documentary takes you inside his world, allows you to experience his art and more importantly, allows you to experience the man as well. In my book, that makes this a crackerjack documentary that is worth seeking out and given the glut of documentaries out there that don’t even do that, that’s pretty solid praise.

REASONS TO GO: Not your standard documentary. An interesting look at the creative process.

REASONS TO STAY: Some people might be uncomfortable with the concept (hopefully they’ll watch the film and come to a different understanding about it however).

FAMILY VALUES:¬† While the concept of an old man taking pictures of Barbie dolls – some without clothes – is a bit creepy, there isn’t anything here I wouldn’t feel comfortable letting a kid watch.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Workman has directed several documentary features and shorts, he is best known in the industry as an editor for which he has an Emmy nomination (in 2002 for the Oscar telecast).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/19/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the film made its world premiere at the Florida Film Festival and will doubtlessly be hitting film festivals around the country for the foreseeable future.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Universe of Keith Haring

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: 42