Hare Krishna!


The swami and the snow storm.

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama) Srila Prabhupada, Allen Ginsberg, Armarendra Das, Edwin Bryant, Yogesvara Das, Rukmini Dasi, Larry Shinn, Shaunaka Rishi Das, George Harrison, Hari Sauri Das, Yamuni Dasi, Sumati Morarjee, Radhanaath Das, Sally Agarwal, Boy George, Mikunda Goswami, Thomas J. Hopkins, Ramesvara Das, Niranjana Swami, Gurudas. Directed by John Griesser and Jean Griesser

 

Most of those reading this probably are too young to remember what was a common sight in airports around the United States and indeed around the world; people in yellow robes and shaved heads, dancing and chanting/singing “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Hare Hare, Krishna Krishna, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Hare Hare, Rama Rama” and asking for donations – sometimes in a very pushy manner.

They are less a ubiquitous sight now than they once were but most people are aware of the Hare Krishna movement even if it is just through the iconic George Harrison song “My Sweet Lord” (Harrison had a deep abiding interest in Eastern religions and was extremely supportive of the movement). Few however are aware of how it started.

Srila Prabhupada a.k.a. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada came to New York City in 1965 at the behest of his guru to spread the word of Krishna consciousness to the West. He had no money, no contacts and a few translated copies of ancient sacred texts to help him. He was an educated businessman with a wife and son who had set all that aside to follow his spiritual quest.

Had he come to New York City in 2017 it would have been unlikely that he’d have made any headway but in 1965 the hippies were beginning to come into their own and they were looking for alternatives to the lifestyles and spirituality that they’d grown up with. The hippies turned out to be extremely receptive to Prabhupada’s rejection of the material and embrace of Krishna consciousness – a devotion to Krishna, an aspect of the Hindu godhead.

 

At first the movement was an ember, a dozen or so devotees living in a converted gift shop in the Village somewhat fortuitously named Matchless Gifts. After a gathering of chanting Hare Krishnas in a local park caught the notice of the New York Times, the ember became a spark. When the nascent movement caught the attention of the Beatles, he spark became a flame that spread around the world, even to the USSR where religion was forbidden and promulgating it a capital offense.

The movie is the work of insiders of the movement – although Griesser uses his birth name for the film, having adopted the name Yadubara Dāsa as a member of the religion – and as such we get some interesting insights. For example, did you know they adopted the yellow garments in order to stand out among the colorful fashions that were all the rage in London at the time? I didn’t and that’s the kind of thing that makes history a joy to me.

But it’s also a double edged sword. Critics have used the term “hagiography” – an uncritical biography that ignores the less savory aspects of the subject – in conjunction with this film and in all honesty the term fits here. The movie shows the Hare Krishnas to be essentially harmless Hippies in search of spiritual enlightenment despite the fact that the movement grew to the point that it had a bankroll of millions of dollars. There is no mention of the transgressions of self-styled Swamis like Keith Ham who created little hegemonies under the aegis of ISKCON (the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the sort of ruling body for the religion today) or the troubling anti-Semitic and racist remarks penned by Prabhupada himself. The movie would have benefited from a little bit more perspective as nearly everyone interviewed is a devotee with the exception of a few academics. As the song goes, never is heard a discouraging word.

Incidentally the full title of the documentary is Hare Krishna! The Mantra, The Movement and the Swami Who Started It All. I’ve chosen not to use the full title because it is unwieldy and takes up too much space as a title. I have to admit that I’m growing annoyed with the current need for documentaries to follow the lead of nonfiction books and possess secondary titles that are overly long and unnecessary – does anyone think the secondary title here is going to attract any more viewers than just titling the film Hare Krishna!?

The subject matter is an interesting one and I would have appreciated a more scholarly approach to it. This comes off more as a commercial for Krishna Consciousness and in that aspect I’m sure there are people who could benefit from the teachings of the late Prabhupada who passed away in 1977. However, this is a commercial that masquerades as a documentary and those expecting a balanced and impartial look at the Hare Krishna movement will not find it here.

REASONS TO GO: The historical footage is fascinating.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a lack of any sort of perspective other than that of the Hare Krishnas themselves.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scattered drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: John Griesser began documenting the Hare Krishna movement as a photojournalist in 1970.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wolfpack
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Dean

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
NEXT: Meat

New Releases for the Week of September 9, 2016


SullySULLY

(Warner Brothers) Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Anna Gunn, Jamey Sheridan, Holt McCallany, Valerie Mahaffey, Ann Cusack, Sam Huntington. Directed by Clint Eastwood

Chesley Sullenberger was a commercial airline pilot but on a routine flight in January, 2009, he became a national hero when his engines were crippled when a flock of geese passed through his flight path. He brought the plane down safely without a single loss of life, but the end of the passengers’ ordeal was only the beginning of his own.

See the trailer, interviews, clips and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for some peril and brief strong language)

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years

(Abramorama) Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr. This documentary directed by Oscar winner Ron Howard chronicles the live shows and tours of the Fab Four starting from their days in Liverpool at the legendary Cavern Club to their final show at Candlestick Park in San Francisco in 1966. While this documentary is scheduled to be released on Hulu the same day, the theatrical version will include their legendary 1965 Shea Stadium concert in New York City in its entirety.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard (Two nights only; Thursday (sold out) and Friday September 16)
Genre: Music Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: NR

The Disappointments Room

(Relativity) Kate Beckinsale, Lucas Till, Michaela Conlin, Gerald McRaney. A young family moves into a fixer-upper in a quaint Eastern seaboard town. While renovating the home, they come upon a small door in the attic that is locked and for which no key appears to work. The room behind the door doesn’t appear on the home’s blueprints and so their curiosity is piqued. Some doors, however, are better left locked.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for violent content, bloody images, some sexuality and language)

When the Bough Breaks

(Screen Gems) Morris Chestnut, Regina Hall, Romany Malco, Jaz Sinclair. A young professional couple, desperate to have a baby, finally goes the surrogate route when every other option fails. At first, the woman they choose as their surrogate seems to be a dream come true and after a harrowing event, they invite her to come live in their home with them. However, she becomes obsessed with the husband and proves to be far more dangerous than they thought possible.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for violence, sexuality/partial nudity, thematic elements, some disturbing images and language)

The Wild Life

(Summit) Starring the voices of Yuri Lowenthal, Jay Jones, Lindsay Torrance, Dennis O’Connor. The tale of Robinson Crusoe is retold (not so faithfully to the original I would imagine) in this animated adventure but in quite the twist, not from the point of view of Crusoe but through the eyes of the animals who inhabit the tropical island which isn’t so deserted after all.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for mild action/peril and some rude humor)

Good Ol’ Freda


Best. Job. Ever.

Best. Job. Ever.

(2013) Documentary (Magnet) Freda Kelly, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, John Lennon, Tony Barrow, Billy Kinsley, Billy Hatton, Elsie Starkey, Louise Harrison, Harold Hargreaves “Harry” Harrison, Maureen Tigrett, Brian Epstein. Directed by Ryan White

Most of us have a sense of the Beatles largely through the many biographies – most of which are written by outsiders – or through media accounts of the group. Few in their inner circle have stepped forward to give their accounts of Beatlemania.

Freda Kelly was a 17 year old devotee of the band who worked in a secretarial pool in Liverpool and would see the band play at the Cavern Club during their lunch hours. She got to know the boys in the band who would often give her lifts home when she would go to see them in the evening hours. When Brian Epstein took over the management of the band, he knew that they would need help in the office and asked Freda if she was up to the task. She would work this job until the band broke up, as well as running their fan club which was how many of the band’s fans got to know her name.

She rarely spoke of her time managing the fan club or the secretarial needs of the Fab Four even to her own children. Although she has scrapbooks and old fan club magazines, much of the memorabilia that she collected over the years she gave to the fans. Kelly, who began as a fan herself and continued to be after the demise of the band, empathized with them and felt a responsibility to the fans as well as to the band.

In this documentary, she talks about her time with the band but true to form she’s reticent to dish any dirt. Fiercely loyal, she feels bound to keep private those things that are personal about the band even though forty years have passed and half the members have passed on. There’s something to be said for that.

Freda has a certain charming guilelessness about her. She never sought the spotlight nor is she really seeking it out now. She felt that she wanted to get her story out so that her grandchildren would know what she did, motivated by the untimely death of her eldest son. In fact, her surviving daughter says on camera that she never really spoke about her time with the band when they were growing up and even today her friends are shocked to discover that she once worked with the Beatles.

She certainly hasn’t profited by her time with the band, although she might have with a tell-all book as some have done in the past. She’s a working class girl from a working class town who has just gone on about things. She isn’t particularly charismatic which might be the secret to her anonymity and may have saved her from the savage side of that spotlight.

Some critics have groused about the lack of focus on the Beatles but this isn’t about them. It is about living with them, just out of the limelight but certainly affected by it. The documentary has a lot of Freda’s personal photos of her with the band, or her at the office. We get a bit of a view as to what it took to run the empire but mostly through the days of Beatlemania – the later days when the band got into drugs, Eastern religion and psychedelia and began to implode are pretty much glossed over. Some may well find that disingenuous.

Still, you can’t help get a warm glow of nostalgia in your bones leaving the theater, particularly if you lived through the era or were simply a Beatles fan. Me, I’m both so I have to say that Good Ol’ Freda might get a bit more of a pass from my sort than it might from younger critics. After all, I’m a fan just like Freda Kelly was – perhaps not to the extent that I would have asked for a lock of Paul’s hair or a bit of John’s shirt, or asked Ringo to sleep on a pillowcase and have it returned to me. There’s a fine line between fandom and obsession after all. Still, I loved the band and their music made up the soundtrack of my life to a large extent, and one has to recognize the band’s importance in pop culture and music in general even if one is a snot-nosed young critic. Or a starry-eyed old one.

REASONS TO GO: A good way for people of a certain age to get the warm fuzzies. Some priceless behind-the-scenes pics and anecdotes.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally repetitive.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a whole lot of smoking and a few sexual and drug references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film title comes from the band’s 1963 Christmas message in which they namecheck their secretary and fan club president (the message is played at the beginning of the film).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/2/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Imagine: John Lennon

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Philomena

New Releases for the Week of November 29, 2013


Frozen

FROZEN         

(Disney) Starring the voices of Kristen Bell, Idris Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana, Alan Tudyk, Ciaran Hinds. Edie McClurg. Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee

In a kingdom of eternal winter, an optimistic and brave girl teams up with a rugged mountain man, his loyal reindeer and a bumbling snowman to take on the forces of magic that have locked it there. The trouble is that the evil witch holding the kingdom spellbound is her sister.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for some action and mild rude humor)

Black Nativity

(Fox Searchlight) Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, Jacob Latimore. A streetwise teenage Baltimore boy is forced to spend the holidays with his strict and devout relatives the Rev. Cobbs and his wife. Unwilling to live by the strict rules imposed by the pastor, he decides that he will return home to his mother, opening himself up for an unexpected Christmas miracle.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Holiday Drama (opens Wednesday)

Rating: PG (for thematic material, language and a menacing situation)

The Book Thief

(20th Century Fox) Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Sophie Nelisse, Roger Allam. During the Second World War a spirited young girl is sent to live with a new family in Nazi Germany. In a place where books are routinely burned and ideas that conflict with official state policy are dangerous, she  finds courage in the immense power of words and books.

See the trailer, a clip and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material) 

Bullett Raja

(Fox STAR) Saif Ali Khan, Sonakshi Sinha, Vidyut Jamwal, Jimmy Shergill. An ordinary man is pushed to the limit and turns to a life of crime. Now a powerful criminal, he declares war on Indian society in an effort to take down the corruption that forced him to the other side of the law.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Good Ol’ Freda

(Magnolia) Freda Kelly, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr. As a shy young teen in Liverpool, Freda Kelly was asked to work for a young local band with great aspirations. She became the secretary to the Beatles as well as their friend and confidante. This documentary tells her story set to the music of the Fab Four, offering a whole new perspective on the band that changed popular music – and world culture – forever.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: PG (for some thematic material and smoking)

Homefront

(Open Road) Jason Statham, James Franco, Winona Ryder, Kate Bosworth. When a DEA agent’s wife passes away, he leaves the agency to settle down in a small town community to raise his daughter quietly and get past his own grief. Unfortunately the town he chooses is far from quiet or quaint and soon he finds himself in a war that he will have to go all out to win and keep his daughter safe.

See the trailer, a featurette and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: Action

Rating: R (for strong violence, pervasive language, drug content and brief sexuality)

Oldboy

(FilmDistrict) Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Samuel L. Jackson, Sharlto Copley. An ad executive and family man is kidnapped and held in a locked room for 20 years. In that time he discovers that his wife has been murdered and that he has been framed for the crime. When he is just as suddenly and as inexplicably released he goes on a quest to discover who imprisoned him and why. The more he discovers however, the more he realizes that his torment is far from over.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for strong brutal violence, disturbing images, some graphic sexuality and nudity, and language)

Philomena

(Weinstein) Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham. An elderly woman and a BBC reporter go on a journey to find her son who was conceived out of wedlock and given up for adoption to an American couple. Although she had signed a waiver promising never to look into her son’s whereabouts, she still feels that connection and defies the Catholic Church and convention to reunite with the baby she gave up so many years ago.

See the trailer, a clip and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and language)