Miss Sharon Jones!


The show must go on - no matter what.

The show must go on – no matter what.

(2015) Musical Documentary (Starz Digital Media) Sharon Jones, Alex Kadvan, Austen Holman, Homer Steinweiss, Neal Sugarman, David Guy, Starr Duncan-Lowe, Binky Griplite, Saundra Williams, Joe Crispiano, Ellen deGeneres, Jimmy Fallon. Directed by Barbara Kopple

 

Music is something that has an ephemeral effect on all of us. It reminds us of our past; it strengthens us for our future. It gives us hope when we’re down; it gives us joy when we’re up. It connects us with one another and yet is highly personal and individual. Music redeems us and inspires us. Music for some of us is everything.

Sharon Jones is not a household name but by God she should be. For years with her band the Dap-Kings, she has singlehandedly kept the torch for classic soul music alive. With a delivery like Aretha Franklin and a stage presence like James Brown, Jones has been making a good living for more than a decade now, playing to packed houses of true believers. She’s irrepressible and charismatic in a way that a lot of modern pop stars could never hope to come close to.

In 2013 she was diagnosed with stage two pancreatic cancer and that is where the jumping off point is for this fascinating documentary. We follow along with her treatment in upstate New York, living with a friend who is also a nutritionist. We also see her band, struggling to make ends meet as their fourth album and subsequent tour are delayed while Sharon gets herself well. This adds extra pressure to Sharon who knows that there are a lot of people counting on her; she wants to get back on the road not just because of her love for performing but because she wants her band to get paid. Some of them are having a hard time financially because of Sharon’s illness. The band is family and the close relationship between Jones and her manager Alex Kadvan is truly heartwarming.

The performance clips are among the film’s highlights; we can see her with the spirit upon her at shows, shaking her booty and dancing like she’s possessed by the spirit of James Brown. She’s very cognizant of the roots of soul; in one of the film’s best segments, we see her performing Gospel during her recovery at a Brooklyn church. It’s a moving moment, particularly given her situation. Her faith is surely being tested but it’s no contest; there is a purity to her belief although she doesn’t state it as such. It’s just evident in her demeanor and in her performance. I don’t know that she’s a particularly religious woman but she is certainly moved by the Spirit here.

I am at a loss to decide whether the movie is about Sharon Jones, cancer or something else. Right now my gut leans towards the joy and healing power of music and the indomitable spirit of someone who refuses to let anything get her down. Jones recounts on several occasions how a Sony executive dismissed her as being “too dark, too fat, too short and too old” and how that nearly derailed her career before it started. Only her mama’s reassurance that she was talented no matter what people said kept her going. In fact, the only time Sharon Jones cries during the film is when she thinks about her mom, recently passed, and wishes she could see how strong her daughter was in kicking cancer’s ass.

This isn’t like most movies of this sort; yes, there’s a comeback concert at New York’s Beacon Theater but it’s certainly a work in progress; she forgets the lyrics from time to time and the energy, present in earlier performance clips, is muted a bit, understandably so. However, as we see through a montage of performance clips, as time went by she got stronger and her self-assured stage presence returned. Eventually we would discover that the new album, delayed for release until 2015, would be the first Grammy nomination of Jones’ career, something that she talks about during the movie as being a bucket list goal.

I can’t think that anyone who sees this won’t become a huge fan of Sharon Jones – not just as a performer (although I’m sure that once you hear her strikingly modern yet retro soul tunes you’ll be tempted to pick up an album or two) but more importantly as a person. Her spirit lights up the film like a torch that burns from the first frame to the last. There are musical experiences we have in life that are transcendent; they illuminate us from the outside in and allow us to see something of the meaning of what it is to be human. Sharon Jones represents the best of us and this documentary shows that even the music you’ve never heard of can sometimes lift us beyond what we thought possible and bring us into a very real sense of catharsis. This is an absolutely dazzling documentary.

REASONS TO GO: The music will transport you. The film will uplift you. The experience will remind you that the connection between music and life is an incredibly strong one.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scenes depicting the cancer treatments may hit too close to home for some.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some occasional mild profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  At the screening of the film at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival, Jones revealed that the cancer had returned and she would be undergoing further chemotherapy.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: One More Time with Feeling
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: A Man Called Ove

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Get On Up


The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

(2014) Musical Biography (Universal) Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Lennie James, Fred Melamed, Craig Robinson, Jill Scott, Octavia Spencer, Josh Hopkins, Brandon Smith, Tika Sumpter, Aunjanue Ellis, Tariq Trotter, Aloe Blacc, Keith Robinson, Atkins Eastmond, Jamarion Scott, Jordan Scott, Stacey Scowley, Ahna O’Reilly. Directed by Tate Taylor

James Brown has never really gotten his due other than by his peers and true music buffs. He never achieved the sales that one would assume that someone who revolutionized pop music should have gotten, and yet when you look at the latter half of the 20th century, the most influential figures to come out of it are the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and James Brown. He is the most-sampled artist in history, and virtually every song on your digital music storage device owes something to James Brown.

Before he was the legendary Godfather of Soul, James Brown (Boseman) was a young boy in rural Georgia. Abandoned by his mother Susie (Davis) at a young age and raised primarily by his alcoholic father Joe (James), he was dropped off with Aunt Honey (Spencer) who ran a brothel. There he grew up huckstering the house of ill repute for African-American soldiers coming into town on weekend passes, and going to the local church to listen to gospel music and watch the ecstasy of dance.

While in jail for stealing a suit, he met Bobby Byrd (Ellis) who led a group called the Gospel Starlighters. Byrd would end up bringing James home and bringing the talented young singer into their group which he would eventually rename the Famous Flames. A demo of the song “Please, Please, Please” ended up in the hands of promoter Ben Bart (Aykroyd) and label owner Syd Nathan (Melamed). Whereas Nathan never really got Brown’s music, Ben recognized that the sounds coming from the single were unique; it’s not about the song, he tries to explain to Nathan who never really gets it.

Brown was something of a control freak and he rebelled at playing along with the status quo. He dealt with venues directly rather than going through a promoter, bringing Bart aboard as an advisor and business manager, allowing him to retain a larger share of the gate at his shows. He is Mr. Entertainment, priding himself on putting on the best shows for his audience and giving everything he had night after night. People began to listen.

Success breeds excess however. Brown would become a drug addict although the movie glosses over this somewhat which would lead to legal troubles that plagued the latter half of his life. He could be mean and abusive which wreaked havoc not only in his personal life but also alienated many of those musicians whose talents helped elevate him to where he was. He demanded absolute control but as Byrd pointed out, he was a genius and it was on his coattails that his band would achieve legendary status but his demeaning treatment of them alienated them.

Taylor opts for an achronological telling of Brown’s story, starting out in 1988, jumping back to 1968 (good God!) and back again to 1939 and up forward 1955. Flashbacks within flashbacks, you might say. Writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth group events in his life thematically rather than chronologically, headlining them with nicknames he would acquire during his career – The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Soul Brother Number One, Mr. Dynamite. and so on. For the most part this works although some of the transitions between time periods are less smooth than others and the linking devices occasionally take us out of the story and make us realize we’re watching someone directing a movie. That’s a big no-no.

Boseman is absolutely incredible here. Richard Corliss of Time magazine has all but handed the Oscar to Boseman and while that may be premature, I do hope that his performance still remains in the memory of Academy members come nomination time. He certainly deserves consideration. While the vocals here are Brown, Boseman not only gets his mannerisms correctly he also manages to recreate Brown’s unique stage movement and presence. It’s a performance that really carries the movie and necessarily so.

Ellis also does a fine job as Byrd, the closest thing to a friend Brown has. Although their relationship was rocky, there was also genuine affection between the two. Ellis and Boseman have a strong chemistry which doesn’t really get enough credit. While this is definitely Boseman’s film, it wouldn’t be as strong without Ellis.

While the movie doesn’t hesitate to portray Brown as a difficult man to get along with, there’s a sense that they’re trying too hard to make a mythology about the man and that sometimes comes off like a child whining too much for recognition. Rather than have him appear to be thinking back on his life before – and sometimes during – his performances, those flashbacks could have been framed differently and more organically rather than framing Brown in heroic poses. We get that he was a genius and don’t need to have his mythic qualities shoved down our throats.

A great biography of James Brown is long overdue and while this isn’t the great film I would have hoped it would be, it is nonetheless a strong movie made stronger by the performances of Boseman and Byrd, along with Aykroyd as a kind of Jewish father figure/rabbi to Brown. Brown was in the eyes of many the personification of Black Power during one of the most turbulent times in our history and while he himself was more concerned with making money entertaining his audiences, he did embrace the importance of black culture and black empowerment in his art and in his life. For most, this will be the closest thing to witnessing a performance by James Brown as they will ever come (although there are many clips of his performances available online and of course some of his concert films available for purchase or streaming) but even Boseman’s performance doesn’t duplicate the raw, sweaty power of a live James Brown performance. His legacy is not just in the records he made but in the millions who fell under his spell at his concerts. You wouldn’t be wrong if you argued that he was the greatest live performer in the history of pop music.

REASONS TO GO: Awesome music. Boseman makes a formidable James Brown.

REASONS TO STAY: Era jumping smacks of “Look Ma, I’m Directing.” Over-mythologizes.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of sexual content, drug use and foul language as well as a couple of instances of violence in the form of child and spousal abuse.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Aykroyd appeared with the real James Brown in The Blues Brothers while Ellis appeared with Brown in Undercover Brother.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ray

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Guardians of the Galaxy

Young @ Heart


A Chorus Line

A Chorus Line

(2007) Documentary (Fox Searchlight) Joe Benoit, Helen Boston, Fred Knittle, Jeanne Hatch, Louise Canady, Jean Florio, Steve Martin, Eileen Hall, Donald Jones, Stan Goldman, Elaine Fligman, Brock Lynch, Ed Rehor, Bob Salvini, Norma Landry, Bob Cilman, Stephen Walker. Directed by Stephen Walker and Ruth George

Every day we grow older. Days pile upon days and become weeks, months, years. We grow older. We lose that youthful glow, the spring in our step becomes creaky and our hair turns silver, white or disappears entirely. Our skin becomes blotchy. Our aches and pains become the central reality of our lives. We watch those we grew up with one by one pass away. Our children have children; our grandchildren have children.

It is reality that we move toward old age throughout life, some more gracefully than others. Those that arrive there have a dilemma; to stay active, to keep their minds and bodies occupied, or to sit down, eat their pudding and wait for the night they go to sleep and don’t wake up the next morning.

There is a chorus based in Northampton, Massachusetts at the Walter Salvo Rest House, a housing project for the elderly. Members must be at least 70 years of age and the average age is above 80. You would think a chorus of this age would choose musical selections that fit their age group.

But that would not be the case here. Under the direction of Bob Cilman, this amazing group of people are performing contemporary songs by artists as diverse as David Bowie, Sonic Youth, Allen Toussaint, James Brown, Coldplay and the Talking Heads. The attitude of the chorus is a collective Why not? and they bring such joy and spirit to this music it reminds me of the adage that you’re only as old as you choose to be.

It isn’t always easy; some of the song choices prove to be a little tricky, like “Yes You Can-Can” which at one time has the word “can” sung 71 in a short span. It’s not easy for anyone to get the staccato rhythmic repetitions and at times it’s clear that Cilman gets exasperated as do the singing seniors. Still they soldier on and some of these songs take on an especially poignant meaning.

We get glimpses of their daily lives; some alone and ignored whose lives seem to begin and end with the chorus, which shares it’s name with the movie – Young @ Heart. Others seem more sociable, like Joe Benoit who hangs out with other members of the chorus and never met a pun he didn’t like. Eileen Hall, the eldest of the bunch singing into her 90s, has a brassy demeanor.

But this isn’t all about plucky seniors singing songs that were written when they were well into their 70s; two members of the chorus pass away during the course of the movie, including one just a week before the big concert at a theater in Northampton that the group has been preparing for throughout the movie. For the first, they sing “Forever Young” at a prison concert which is a bit of a rehearsal shortly before the big show.

The second member was to have performed a duet with retired member and close friend Fred Knittle who was on oxygen and was no longer able to tour with the chorus. Knittle comes out on stage and sits down. Once the applause dies down, he starts singing the song he was to have performed with his friend – Coldplay’s “Fix You.” Knittle’s baritone is a little rough but it is a beautiful, soaring voice nonetheless. The emotion behind the song and the release it provokes not only in the audience at the concert but in the viewer of the movie takes one’s breath away. This one moment, not quite four minutes long, made this the best film of 2008 for me (although it premiere on the film festival circuit in 2007, the movie didn’t get a release in the United States until the following year).

The movie was originally a documentary on the BBC and in the manner of Beeb documentaries the narration from filmmaker Stephen Walker could be overbearing, smug and intrusive. He also interrupts the movie to play some mock videos of songs that the chorus was singing including “Road to Nowhere” by the Talking Heads.

What the movie really does well is change your outlook on aging. It’s not a pleasant reality that we’re all going to get old assuming we survive long enough to get there. However, it doesn’t have to be an awful thing. We don’t stop living when we start dying. Sometimes that’s just when we start living. This is definitely a film that I can recommend without hesitation to anyone and everyone.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazingly powerful and thoroughly charming. A film that might just change your outlook on aging.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Were the videos really necessary? Walker’s voiceovers could have been less intrusive.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few bad words here and there and some of the thematic elements might be a bit too heavy for younger viewers.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The mock-video for David Bowie’s “Golden Years” was filmed at Six Flags New England and at the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a five minute clip of the chorus performing in Los Angeles.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7.1M on an unknown production budget;  I would guess the movie was a resounding box office success.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cocoon

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Tekken