(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
(2019) Documentary (Greenwich) Diana Kennedy, Jose Andres, Rick Bayless, Alice Waters, Frances McCullough, Abigail Mendoza, Claudia Kirking, Nick Zukin, Pati Juich, Gabriela Camara. Directed by Elizabeth Carroll
Modern cuisine owes a lot to early cookbook authors and television cooking show pioneers, like Julia Child, Graham Kerr and Diana Kennedy. The latter championed Mexican cuisine, travelling throughout the various regions of Mexico to gather recipes (whose authors she duly noted), ingredients and techniques. This British ex-pat has done more to popularize Mexican cuisine than all the taco trucks in the world have done.
95 when this was filmed (she’s 97 now), she lives on a self-sustaining ranch in the state of Michoacán where she continues to grind her own coffee beans that she also happens to grow in her impressive garden. For those ingredients she can’t grow, she drives 100 miles in her beat-up truck to Mexico City, where she prowls the market, haranguing some vendors for using dyes in their food, getting affectionate and chummy with others.
Kennedy, whose husband Paul was the New York Times correspondent for Mexico and the Caribbean, is a fascinating subject in many ways. She is passionate about traditional Mexican food, and loathe to make substitutions or changes; she is something of a conservator of traditional recipes and techniques, and her eight bestselling cookbooks advocate for patience in making some of the labor-intensive dishes. She gets irritated at the thought of adding garlic to guacamole, or using minced onions rather than finely chopped ones. She’s unapologetically opinionated and will get right in your grill if she feels it is warranted.
There are a few talking heads – notably celebrity chefs Jose Andres, Alice Waters and Rick Bayless, as well as Mexican chef Pati Juich – singing her praises, but mostly it’s the woman herself. We see her teaching cooking classes (which she continues to do from her home), or hosting her cooking videos from the 90s The Art of Mexican Cuisine with Diana Kennedy. Kennedy pulls no punches and swears like a trooper which is a little bit pause-inducing when you consider she’s a 95-year-old Brit. Not that the British never swear, mind you, but it sounds oddly jarring at times.
Kennedy is opinionated but we don’t get really in-depth with her that much. She does explain why she chose not to have children, or why she’s against marriage but mostly she saves her commentary for her two passions – cooking Mexican food and the environment, both of which she seems to be equally enthusiastic about. We never really get a sense of what drove her to become so loathe to make no substitutions, or why she feels so proprietary about the techniques that are used. Not everyone has a mortar and pestle in their kitchen.
In an era when cultural appropriation has become an ongoing debate in the culinary world, one could be excused from wondering why focus on a 95-year-old British woman as an expert on Mexican cuisine, but in reality, Kennedy is adored in Mexico, having been decorated with their equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor and chefs speak of her with respect bordering on reverence. Are there Mexican chefs trying to preserve the culinary traditions of their country and making sure that regional recipes and techniques don’t disappear forever? I am sure there are, but none have done it as successfully and as thoroughly as Kennedy. I guarantee you one thing: after watching this documentary, you will absolutely have a craving for authentic Mexican food, and I don’t mean Taco Bell or Chipotle.
The movie is playing in virtual theatrical release, meaning that it is being shown by local art houses online, with the art house getting a percentage of the rentals. Here in Orlando, the movie is available on Enzian On Demand for the next couple of weeks. You can rent it here. For those who’d prefer to wait, it will be on Video On Demand in June.
REASONS TO SEE: Kennedy is an irascible firecracker who makes for a compelling subject.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lacks depth in some ways.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a surprising amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kennedy served in the British Timber Corps during the Second World War, cutting down trees for the war effort. Since then, she has actively been planting as many trees as she can in order to make up for all the ones she cut down – which is where here ecological activism was developed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: 75/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski
(2019) Documentary (Greenwich) Parker Posey (narrator), Fran Lebowitz, Gay Talese, David Bergman, Jim Cummins, Glenn Horowitz, Bibi Mohamed, Rebecca Romney, Saul Roll, Adam Weinberger, Henry Wessells, Michael Zinman, Cara Schlesinger, Caroline Schimmel, Susan Orlean, Beth Young, Adina Cohen, Arthur Fournier, Syreeta Gates, Heather O’Donnell. Directed by D.W. Young
As a boy and young man, I took a lot of joy in wandering around the dusty bookshelves of a used book store. It was the ultimate recycling center; a recycling of knowledge, of imagination and of possibility. I have always loved books and I love to read. I love to be transported to other places, other times, other points of view.
Many people no longer read books. When they do, they are on electronic devices. Some don’t have the time to peruse more than a paragraph or two. This is how and why knowledge gets lost; we’ve stopped taking the time to grow and expand…other than expanding our bellies and our butts, mind you. The joy of sitting down with a good book, a glass of wine and a roaring fire is being lost.
If you are the sort of person who thrills at the discovery of a new book, this is your movie and these are your people. As the title implies, the movie concerns itself with those who sell antique and used books. It is a bit New York-centric (although there are a couple of outliers from London) which is as it should be – New York has always been the world headquarters for books. We see Book Fairs, and rare book auctions and dusty old caverns with crusty old owners.
If you think that all booksellers are middle-aged or older white (a large percentage of whom are Jewish) gents in tweed jackets with magnificent moustaches, well, some of them fit that description. Others, however, are young, African-American and/or women. The face of selling books is changing and the movie confronts that, often lamenting it. However, there are those like popular Pawn Stars contributor Rebecca Romney who aren’t so sure that bookselling is as endangered as people think. Younger people have taken up reading and there is some evidence that the people who are using Kindles and similar devices are largely right around 40 years old.
We also get a gander at collectors; people who collect science fiction, hip-hop culture stories, Beat generation writers, women authors and first editions. I’ve always wondered about those who collect first editions. Because of the expense (a notebook of Leonardo da Vinci went at auction for $30 million to an anonymous bidder who turned out to be Bill Gates) this is the province of the very rich and I’m sure that they regard these books as objects of investment. One wonders if they ever actually read their books; I would hazard a guess not, since damaging them could “ruin their investment” but it seems to me that defeats the purpose of the book to begin with. Books are meant to be read.
Some of the material is absolutely dry as a dusty bookshelf at the Argosy bookstore, the last remaining store on the fabled “Book Row” of 4th street in Manhattan. Once the home to more than 80 book stores, only one remains and it only survived because the owner had the foresight to buy the building it is housed in. Some might find their attention wandering midway through.
This is clearly made with a great deal of love, however, and there is always value in that. It is also a movie that celebrates the intellectual – those who seek to expand their horizons, not the party-killing know-it-all bores that the name has come to symbolize. In an era in which knowledge and learning have come increasingly under fire, there is value in that as well.
The movie is currently available as part of Greenwich’s Virtual Cinema Initiative, benefiting art houses nationwide in which a portion of the rental is given to various independent theaters who have been forced to shut their doors due to the pandemic. Although currently available only in Los Angeles and a few other areas, check with your local art house to see when the film will be playing for their benefit. You can also check at their website by clicking on the photo above.
REASONS TO SEE: Reminded me of the wonderful hours spent perusing used book stores back in the day before Kindle spoiled it all.
REASONS TO AVOID: Can get dusty-dry in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all family members.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Yonas is portrayed in the movie as a male toddler, the baby playing him is actually female.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Separation
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: They Shall Not Grow Old
(2018) Documentary (Greenwich) Bill 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
(2018) Music Documentary (Greenwich) Jakob 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