The Times of Bill Cunningham


He had an eye for ladies’ fashion and for life going on around him.

(2018) Documentary (GreenwichBill Cunningham, Sarah Jessica Parker (narrator), Mark Bozek, Editta Sherman, Diana Vreeland. Directed by Mark Bozek

 

Bill Cunningham was a beloved figure in New York; his two columns for the New York Times begun in 1967 were candid shots of mainly women on the streets of New York and out at fabulous parties became something of a visual history of fashion in the Big Apple for nearly 50 years. He mainly hung out at 57th Street and 5th Avenue, a corner which New Yorkers have petitioned to re-designate as “Bill Cunningham Corner,” a familiar presence on his bicycle and blue moleskin jacket.

The movie essentially revolves around a 1994 interview Bozek conducted with the photographer that was only supposed to last ten minutes but went on until the tape ran out. Although there was a previous documentary on his life, this one – which fittingly enough debuted at the New York Film Festival in 2018 – has more of the man’s voice in it, faint Boston accent and all.

We get a pretty good overview of his life, from his strict conservative Catholic upbringing in Boston, to his time working as an advertising minion at the high-end department store Bonwit Teller in New York, to his obsession with ladies hats leading to a career as a milliner (hatmaker) which continued clandestinely while he was stationed in France for the Army. We see his time working at Chez Ninon, a New York fashion house that catered to the wealthy, to his introduction to journalism at Women’s Wear Daily, to the serendipitous photograph of Greta Garbo – he didn’t know who it was he was taking a picture of, only that he admired the way she wore her nutria coat that led to his long association with the Times.

Cunningham is a marvelous storyteller and a charming, boyish presence on whom Bozek wisely keeps his focus. Former Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker is an appropriate narrator, although I wish the narration had filled in the blanks a little bit more; for example, we’re never told how he ended up in the Army and when was he a part of it. We also hear nothing of the autobiography that was posthumously published, nor is any material referred to from there.

However, we are treated to literally thousands of still images that were not only taken by Cunningham but also illustrated the various eras of fashion that he lived through. We get the joy that Cunningham took from his work – although he considered himself a fashion historian rather than a photographer and constantly downplayed his keen eye – but also there are moments that humanize him, as when he breaks down considering the toll AIDS took on those around him, particularly neighbor Carlos Garcia who was the subject of a documentary earlier this year himself and lived with Cunningham in the remarkable Carnegie Studio apartments above the legendary facility which are sadly scheduled for demolition to build offices and studios for the performers there. That’s a shame, considering that luminaries like Norman Mailer, Leonard Bernstein and Marlon Brando lived and worked there.

In any case, this is a joyful documentary that is a tribute to a life well-lived. Most New Yorkers, particularly those in or with an interest in the fashion industry, adored Cunningham; Anna Wintour, the notoriously catty editor of Vogue once quipped “We all get dressed up for Bill,” and there is a lot of truth in that. It was not unknown for the women of New York, eager to get their picture in the Times, to put on something fabulous and make their way to his corner. It was a kind of immortality, after all.

In that sense, Cunningham – who passed away following a stroke in 2016 – will outlive us all. His amazing collection of photos which he stored in his tiny studio apartment somewhat haphazardly, will continue to shine a light on how we lived and how we dressed for what future generations remain. There is nothing wrong with that epitaph.

REASONS TO SEE: Cunningham is a bubbly, effusive and self-effacing raconteur who makes for a charming subject.
REASONS TO AVOID: Fails to fill in some of the blanks.
FAMILY VALUES: This is suitable for all family members.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Cunningham was the subject for a previous documentary of his life in 2010 and attended the premiere, he remained outside while the film screened, taking pictures and never saw the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/22/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews: Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  Bill Cunningham: New York
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Echo in the Canyon


This concert is for the Byrds.

(2018) Music Documentary (GreenwichJakob Dylan, David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Jackson Browne, Tom Petty, Beck, Michelle Phillips, Lou Adler, Stephen Stills, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Brian Wilson, John Sebastian, Graham Nash, Fernando Pedromo, Regina Spektor, Cat Power, Matt Tecu, Norah Jones, Fiona Apple, Justine Bennett, Jade Castrinos. Directed by Andrew Slater

One of the mysteries of music is how often it coalesces in a single location – Liverpool and Greenwich village in the early 60s, Minneapolis in the 80s, Seattle and Manchester in the 90s – where all the right conditions of talent and opportunity create a marvelously creative Petri dish that gives birth to a new sound, reinvigorating the now 60 year old hoary beast that is rock music.

For an astonishingly narrow era – 1965 to 1967 – one such place was in Southern California and specifically, Laurel Canyon. Today the Canyon is a tony mixture of trendy hipsters and wealthy consumers that frequent coffee houses and boutiques at the base of the Canyon. Back then, however, it was a musician’s colony and bands like the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, Buffalo Springfield and even the Beach Boys (who were already big stars dating back to the surf era) were headquartered there. They would hang out at each other’s houses, share meals and drugs as well as play stuff they were working on for each other. The cross-pollination of the music that started with the Byrds’ foray into electric folk – which came to influence Folkie Number One Bob Dylan himself – and changed pop music forever, paving the way for seminal albums like Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Dylan’s progeny Jakob, himself a rock star with the Wallflowers, undertook the documentation of that scene after watching a French film called The Model Shop that starred Canadian actor Gary Lockwood as a Vietnam draftee wandering around L.A. and taking up with a French model who was trying to get back home to Paris. He started out interviewing the movers and shakers of the scene – David Crosby and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield, Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. He also spoke with some of those who were heavily influenced by the so-called California Sound – Eric Clapton (then of Cream), Ringo Starr of the Beatles, John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful, Jackson Browne and Tom Petty in one of his final interviews before his untimely death in 2017.

This is a movie that had to be made now as most of those musicians from back then are in their 70s and 80s and so many of those who shaped that scene are no longer with us. Director Andrew Slater – a former music journalist and CEO of Capitol Records – peppers the soundtrack with some of the most amazing music of any era, showing off close harmonies, and the simple yet unforgettable sound of a well-played 12-string Rickenbacker.

Dylan would organize a tribute concert in 2015 at Los Angeles’ Orpheum Theater in which contemporary stars like Beck, Fiona Apple and Regina Spektor played the hit songs of that era. Rehearsal footage and concert footage of the upstarts playing the iconic music of their predecessors illustrates how timeless that music remains.

My only real problem with the movie is that you begin to wonder if this is a labor of ego more than a labor of love. Dylan conducts all the interviews and is often nodding sagely at the remarks of his subjects. He is front and center at the tribute concert and much of the time the camera is focused on him. Dylan’s career has hit a plateau of sorts and one wonders if this isn’t a means for him to re-energize it. A little less Jakob Dylan and a lot more anecdotes from the original musicians would have been much more appreciated. Also, the film focuses on the more successful bands of the era. There were plenty of other bands in the Laurel Canyon scene whose music could have also been shared. Strangely, the Doors – who also lived in the Canyon – are not mentioned at all. I suppose their music wasn’t folk enough to mix with the ethos Slater and Dylan are creating here.

The movie’s demarcation point is Neil Young’s decision to leave Buffalo Springfield in 1967 which would see Crosby follow suit. Just two years later the innocence of the era would be cruelly shattered when a group of cultists went to the home of actress Sharon Tate in neighboring Benedict Canyon and brought the Sixties crashing to a halt. Still, the music that came before those grisly events remains and continue to influence artists to this day. The contributions of those who made it deserve to be properly acclaimed and recognized for what it was – the beginning of real innovation in rock and roll.

REASONS TO SEE: The music is, of course, fantastic. The stories that the musicians tell are mainly more compelling than the rehearsal and concert footage.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times feels more like a labor of ego than a labor of love.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some drug references, sexual references and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Clips from the 1969 movie Model Shop were used to add a sense of what it was like in Laurel Canyon and Los Angeles in the late Sixties.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Concert for George
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Little Woods