Linda and the Mockingbirds


For some, the border wall is more than just a barrier.

(2020) Music Documentary (Shout!) Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Eugene Rodriguez, James Keach, Lucina Rodriguez, Fabiola Trujillo, Marie-Astrid Do Rodriguez. Directed by James Keach

 

It is no secret that the current President made border security, specifically on our Southern border, a campaign issue, one which has carried over into his administration. The building of the Wall is much more than symbolic, particularly to those who have emigrated to the United States from Mexico and Central America to make a better life for their families – just as Irish immigrants did during the potato famine, as Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe did during the programs, as Vietnamese immigrants did after the fall of Saigon and as any number of immigrants did from all over the world over the past two and a half centuries.

It is also no secret that Linda Ronstadt was one of the most powerful voices and popular singers of the 70s into the 80s. Of Mexican descent, she remembered fondly singing traditional songs with her family, particularly her beloved grandfather who hailed from a small village in Sonora. After making an album of the music that she so loved as a child, she became aware of the Los Cenzontles Cultural Center (cenzontles is Spanish for mockingbird), founded by guitar virtuoso Eugene Rodriguez, dedicated to teaching youth of the San Francisco Bay Area music and dance forms that are largely dying out in Mexico. He was putting together a tour in Mexico for the kids to study with masters in Mexico and Ronstadt agreed to fund them and added a date to her tour to benefit the center. She has been a patron for them ever since.

As filmmaker James Keach was putting together the documentary of Ronstadt’s life, he found the artist – now unable to sing due to Parkinson’s disease – reluctant to do an interview for her own documentary. She suggested that they do the interview in Mexico, in the village where her grandfather grew up. Keach agreed, but was surprised to find that the reason for the trip wasn’t his film, but rather for the youth of Los Cenzontles to put on a concert for the village in the public square. Along for the ride was longtime Ronstadt friend Jackson Browne, who had been introduced to the cultural center by Ronstadt, and who was inspired to rewrite his song The Dreamer about the experiences of Lucina Rodriguez (one of the two main singers of the vocal group put together by the center).

The movie is about much more than a performance. It is about the modern immigrant experience, about the fear and disquiet many of them feel as they have been demonized by the current administration. Certainly, we are shown the frustration and even rage – but this isn’t an angry film. Rather, it is about the beauty of discovering one’s own culture, of how the music, dance and traditions of our past can help us find out who we are so that we may navigate the future. It’s a powerful message and one delivered over and over again in the film.

Ronstadt does on-camera interviews here, and in some ways they are disarming. She comes off at times like an ordinary Midwestern housewife, a sleeping two-year-old grandniece at her side, but there is also pride in her background and talking about the songs of her culture clearly energizes her. Of her medical condition not one word is spoken, not one word mentioned and if the only hint of its devastating effect on her life is a wistful “I wish I could sing with those kids” as some break into song on the bus ride into Mexico, you would never know she has Parkinson’s unless you already knew – and if you didn’t, you wouldn’t find out unless you read a review like this. Ronstadt has chosen not to become a poster child for her disease and while Michael J. Fox has elected to become a spokesperson for further research into a cure for it, Ronstadt prefers not to go that route, directing her energy into Los Cenzontles instead.

The movie is heartwarming and hopeful and full of amazing music, colorful handmade costumes and lovely dancing. It is a peek into the richness of Mexico’s (and Sonora’s specifically) cultural heritage, a very worthwhile endeavor particularly if your only exposure to it has been the occasional Tijuana Brass album or mariachi night at your local Chevy’s. At just under an hour long, this documentary is a worthwhile investment of your time.

REASONS TO SEE: The music is rich, passionate and warm. A frontline look at the immigrant experience.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some may find that the film pulls its punches a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some discussion of controversial current events.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ronstadt’s 1987 album Canciones de Mi Padre remains the biggest-selling non-English language album in U.S. history.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Synchronic

Herb Alpert Is…


The brass still gleams.

(2020) Music Documentary (AbramoramaHerb Alpert, Jerry Moss, Lani Hall, Sting, Quincy Jones, Billy Bob Thornton, Burt Bacharach, Sergio Mendes, Lou Adler, Terry Lewis, Bill Moyers, Randy Alpert, Jimmy Jam, Quest Love, Chloe Flower, Richard Carpenter, Eden Alpert, Hussain Jiffry, Ken Robinson, John Pisano, Chip Tom, Eric Pryor, Richard W. Lariviere, Bill Cantos, Aria Alpert Adjani. Directed by John Scheinfeld

 

In the early-to-mid Sixties, the biggest musical group in the world was the Beatles. All the kids listened to them. But it might surprise you to know what their parents were listening to; Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. The two groups were the biggest selling musical acts in the United States in 1965 and 1966. Even if you don’t know the name, you’ve heard “A Taste of Honey” at some point in your life. You’ve had to.

In the sixties, his music served as something of a soundtrack. It was used as incidental music on The Dating Game and could be heard in movies and of course, on the radio. As ubiquitous as his music was, he might be best remembered in the music business for being the “A” in A&M Records, whose roster of artists included at one time or another Janet Jackson, The Carpenters, Carole King, The Police, Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66, Bryan Adams, Soundgarden, The Black-Eyed Peas, Sheryl Crow, Peter Frampton, Styx, Amy Grant, Joe Jackson, the Neville Brothers, Atlantic Starr, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Human League, Oingo Boingo, Hugh Masakela, Iggy Pop, the Neville Brothers, Burt Bacharach, Quincy Jones, Cat Stevens, the Tubes, Simple Minds, UB40, Rick Wakeman, Supertramp, Bill Withers and the Stranglers.

These days, Alpert spends a lot of time sculpting and painting. Music has taken a back seat to the visual arts, although he still dabbles. He sold the record company years ago, and is able to live a pretty comfortable lifestyle. He’s reached a point in his life where people tend to turn inward and ask themselves “Did I do okay?” It is also the time of life when documentarians tend to come knocking on your door.

Scheinfeld has assembled some pretty impressive interviews, and Alpert himself, notoriously an introvert, actually proves to tell some pretty fun stories. The tone of the film is, as you might expect, somewhat reverent and if you’re looking for a “warts and all” portrayal here, you will likely be disappointed. Still, the archival footage is absolutely amazing – the TJB were making music videos back in the early Sixties before just about anybody else – and you get to hear a little bit more than just ten-second snippets of songs.

Alpert seems to be a pretty forward-looking guy as most artists tend to be. Still, in an era when looking forward tends to bring on depression, it was a pleasure to look back a bit. My mom and dad owned the South of the Border album and they played the heck out of it – I’m surprised it still plays (my mom still has the album somewhere). It represents a simpler, more innocent era to me, and I lived in Southern California – the perfect environment to hear Alpert’s music. Some today might mutter about cultural appropriation and watered-down version of Mexican music, but it was more than an accompaniment to chips and salsa at your local Mexican chain restaurant. It introduced a lot of people to a different type of music and made them receptive to hearing still more. Whatever you think of the TJB, you have to admit that Alpert made an indelible mark on the music industry and thus, on our lives. For my money, he done good.

REASONS TO SEE: The music clips are a little longer than usual for this genre. There is some terrific archival footage.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film occasionally descends into hagiography.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alpert got his start in the music business as a songwriter; among the songs that he wrote was the classic Sam Cooke song “Wonderful World.”
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/20.20: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews; Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Great Deceiver

Ronnie Wood: Somebody Up There Likes Me


Portrait of an artist at work.

(2019) Music Documentary (Eagle RockRonnie Wood, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Rod Stewart, Peter Grant, Malcolm McLaren, Charlie Watts, Imelda May, Damien Hirst, Mike Figgis, Sally Wood. Directed by Mike Figgis

 

Ron Wood, co-guitarist of the Rolling Stones alongside Keith Richards, stands out in rock and roll history as one of the finest and most influential blues rock guitarists to ever come out of Great Britain. He has been in bands with Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart, performing in such groups as the Birds (not the American psychedelic band), the Small Faces, the Jeff Beck Group and of course, the Stones – arguably the world’s greatest band.

Veteran British filmmaker Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas) presents Wood in all his working-class glory, the kind of guy you’d want to hang out with at the pub into the wee hours. His dad had the same kind of bonhomie, often falling asleep in random gardens on his way home from the pubs, not quite sober enough to make it all the way to his own door.

Figgis assembles a pretty impressive array of interview subjects, including three of his fellow Stones (although, oddly, there is very little footage of Wood performing with his current band, a rendition of “When the Whip Comes Down”) and Stewart, accomplished blues singer Imelda May (who performed with Wood early on in her career), alongside artist Damien Hirst (Wood is an accomplished painter as well) and, curiously, notorious Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant who had little if anything to do with Wood’s career, although he asks after Wood during an archival interview with Figgis and former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren (both Grant and McLaren have since passed on). Wood’s third wife, Sally, briefly appears to admit that she prefers her husband sober, although he is a pretty good drunk – Wood had the reputation of keeping things together even when sloshed. Wood’s first two wives and six children aren’t mentioned, nor is his session work.

Which is where the film falls down. We are given broad brush strokes, but few details, so overall the work looks a little bit like a house painter interpreting Manet. One wonders if there were logistical concerns here that prevented further participation from ex-wives, kids, or perhaps a rock historian or two to assess Wood’s place in rock and roll history, which is considerable. The movie is a scant 82 minutes and it felt like Figgis could have added another 20 minutes comfortably. This is one of those rare films that doesn’t overstay its welcome but quite the opposite; it leaves before you’re ready for it to go.

There is some terrific archival footage which is really the main reason some of his fans will want to check this out; the interview between Figgis and Wood is clearly a couple of old mates getting together and reminiscing, although Wood doesn’t spend much time in self-reflection. His philosophy of life is summarized in a Yogi Berra quote – “if you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Wood has led an interesting life and a charmed life – after having lung surgery following a half century of heavy smoking, his doctors told him he essentially had lungs that were as good as if he had never smoked at all. Wood’s delighted refrain was “It’s like a get out of jail free card – somebody up there must like me.” Plenty of people down here like him too, and for good reason; you just wouldn’t know it in this curiously uninformative documentary.

REASONS TO SEE: A chronicle of an interesting life.
REASONS TO AVOID: It’s a little disjointed and curiously incomplete.
FAMILY VALUES: This is a fair amount of profanity and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wood was invited to join the Rolling Stones after Brian Jones passed away, but his manager turned down the opportunity without informing Wood (until much later) because he already had a gig with the Small Faces, so Mick Taylor took the job. When Taylor decided to leave, the invitation was once again offered and this time Wood accepted.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Who: The Kids are Alright
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Social Dilemma

Jazz on a Summer’s Day


C’mon, Satchmo, blow that horn!

(1959) Music Documentary (Kino LorberLouis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Anita O’Day, Thelonious Monk, Chuck Berry, Dinah Washington, George Shearing, Gerry Mulligan, Chico Hamilton, Jack Teagarden, Jimmy Giuffre, Big Maybelle, Art Farmer, Jo Jones, Eric Dolphy, Buck Clayton, Willis Conover, Max Roach, Danny Barcelona, Patricia Bosworth. Directed by Bert Stern

 

In 1958, jazz had reached a turning point. Men like Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong were starting to get into middle age and beyond. They had dominated the jazz scene for 20 and 30 years, but there were some New Turks on the horizon, guys that were taking jazz into exciting new directions – guys like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk.

The Newport Jazz Festival, the nation’s oldest and some would say, most prestigious, didn’t seem to have gotten the word, judging from this beloved Bert Stern documentary. Stern, a New York fashion photographer, was motivated to take snapshots at the Festival which after what is euphemistically termed a “turn of events,” decided to make a film about the experience of a day at the Jazz Festival.

It was a bold idea – many believe that this was the first concert film in history, but it was evident that Stern was in over his head. His taste tended towards the more traditional jazz (and to be fair, so did the programmers of the Festival) and despite the presence of such luminaries as Davis, Sonny Rollins and Ray Charles, only a brief snippet of Monk’s Sunday morning performance of Monk’s blues – about a minute’s worth – made the final cut.

Still, it’s hard to argue with the performances here. We watch in awe as Mahalia Jackson, quite likely the greatest gospel singer ever and certainly the best of her time, belt out the Lord’s Prayer with such conviction that its hard not to be moved even if you aren’t a believer. We see vocalist Dinah Washington giving an impassioned performance on “All of Me,” but taking the time to step away from the microphone and help out Terry Gibbs on the vibes.

We are surprised to find Chuck Berry, literally the architect of rock and roll, prowl the stage nervously on “Sweet Little Sixteen,” gradually warming to the crowd enough to do his duckwalk. We are mesmerized by pianist George Shearing, whose excellence was never acknowledged properly, as he takes charge of “Rondo” like he owns it. We are delighted by vocalist Anita O’Day, resplendent in a little black cocktail dress, heels so high she can barely climb to the stage, elegant gloves and a preposterous sunhat scat her way through “Tea for Two,” and deliver a rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown” that the Harlem Globetrotters never envisioned.

For most, though, the main attraction is Armstrong. He is not even at the top of his game here; by 1958 his best days were behind him and although he was still the consummate entertainer, he had long since settled for being an entertainer rather than an innovator. Still, when he takes to his trumpet there were no equals back then or now, and his charm and distinctive vocals bring a smile to even the most COVID-weary face.

The music is spectacular and the vibe is carefree. It is a joyful celebration of summer, as we see beachgoers and other revelers, with periodic shots of sailboats (the timed trials for the America’s Cup U.S. try-outs were ongoing that July 4th weekend as well). There are even a college jazz band driving through town in a beat-up old jalopy playing Dixieland. It was a different time, and there is certainly an air that the world was our oyster then.

Stern, as a fashion photographer, had an eye for faces and he concentrates very much on those in the audience; some rapt, some bored, some dancing (particularly during the Berry sequence) and some getting pleasantly smashed on Rheingold beer. And nearly every hand has a cigarette in it.

This is very definitely a time capsule piece, and it is fitting that the Library of Congress selected it for preservation nearly 20 years ago. What you’re seeing now, should you choose to find this on Virtual Cinema (see link below), is a 4K restoration that retains the vibrant colors and great sound of the original.

Older readers may wax nostalgic over the depiction of the time of their youth; younger readers may titter at the fashion, hairstyles and the essence of suburban smugness wrapped up in the civility of privilege. One thing that isn’t dated, though and that’s the music. It is timeless and amazing, the kind of music that demands respect no matter the age of the listener. One can lament the absence of the jazz greats I mentioned; also absent were Benny Goodman and his Orchestra, Joe Turner and Ray Charles. You can’t please everybody, but there is much here that make this movie absolutely precious. Stern would never direct a movie again, but he made his only film a good one.

REASONS TO SEE: Some absolutely breathtaking musical performances. A snapshot of an era when jazz was just beginning to evolve.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit dated at times.
FAMILY VALUES:  Other than depicting a lot of people smoking (how that generation didn’t completely die off from lung cancer I’ll never know), this is perfectly suitable for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stern donated his raw footage and outtakes to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library in exchange for them paying $50,000 in outstanding storage fees and shipping costs from the archive in Spain where the film had been languishing.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 1959: The Year That Changed Jazz
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Star Light

After So Many Days


Jim and Sam will play anywhere for anyone.

 (2020) Musical Documentary (Tiny RoomJim Hanft, Samantha Yonack. Directed by Jim Hanft and Samantha Yonack

Making music is something that many of us do in one way or another. It is an expression of our passion, in most cases. To do it professionally requires a different kind of passion; a kind of madness, really. The business of making music is a frustrating and often unforgiving one. Keeping your sanity given the kind of indifference and heartache that often follows in being a professional musician is no easy task.

So, one has to wonder about the husband/wife duo of Jim and Sam. Freshly married in 2017, they found their career was in a morass and their creative juices simply weren’t flowing. Rather than taking a break, which often leads to a much more extended absence than intended, they decided to launch themselves both feet into their mutual career – to play a gig every day for a full year.

So, yeah, you have to wonder if they weren’t a little crazy for even considering the plan. Like the Irish band the Black Donnellys who undertook a similarly difficult venture as documented in An Irish Story: This is My Home, Jim and Sam set out to take the bull by the horns, which had to be daunting when you considered the logistics. Heap onto that the fact that they didn’t plan extensively; when they set out on the road from their Los Angeles home, they had about three weeks of gigs planned and that was it. The road they were on would take them to 14 different countries, particularly Sweden where they had recorded their first EP and had a bit of a fan base, but they also ended up in Eastern Europe and the UK as well.

The two documented their ordeal and created an absolutely wonderful documentary from it. I don’t think that non-professionals will ever get a better idea of the obstacles faced by professional musicians than this film, which shows them in thick and thin; having financial issues and a looming eviction from their apartment, transportation issues, and canceled gigs leading to scrambling to play in front of someone, anyone that they could find, sometimes venturing into convenience stores, restaurants and tobacco shops to play impromptu sets. In one memorable scene, they stop by the side of the road and play for a very attentive herd of cows.

The two captured their gigs on cell phones, and inexpensive video cameras but even so, the quality is pretty good in terms of the cinematography. The two make for compelling subjects, and while they bicker from time to time, they seem to have gotten along extremely well considering the circumstances. Being together with anyone 24/7 for a year can put an enormous strain on a relationship. Hanft said in an interview that the two of them were forced to solve issues quickly, or risk long four-hour car rides angry with one another.

What you will take away most from this documentary, however, is the music which is really very special. Their harmonies are magical and their songs tuneful and full of lovely pop hooks. There are some sprightly uptempo numbers, and some melancholy reflective numbers. If you’re taste is anything like mine, you’ll likely be scrambling to find their music online.

Their solution to their musical malaise is not for every musician, in case you think something like this is going to solve all of your problems. The relationship was tested and so was their passion for their craft. They performed day after day, sometimes in front of indifferent audiences, occasionally nursing colds or the flu, whether they were in a good place mentally or not. While they did things largely on their own, they did have a manager looking out for them (in the film, he’s mainly a voice on the telephone until the final scenes).

“The show must go on” is a bit of an aphorism, but these two took it to almost ridiculous lengths but you have to admire their willingness to go all-in and their perseverance once they did. Whether you agree with me or not, you’ll have their music stuck in your head for a long time after the movie is over.

The movie will continue on the Festival circuit and looks to get a theatrical or VOD release in October of this year. Keep an eye out for it.

REASONS TO SEE: The music is exceptional. An inspirational DIY ethic.
REASONS TO AVOID: There are tantalizing snippets of songs that you wish you could hear more of.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jim and Sam met at a comedy show through a mutual friend; they began writing and performing music together a week later.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/31/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Falling Slowly
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Cured

CREEM: America’s Only Rock and Roll Magazine


Boy howdy!

(2019) Music Documentary (GreenwichDave Marsh, Cameron Crowe, Connie Kramer, Alice Cooper, Don Was, John Holmstrom, Rob Stark, Chad Smith, Dave DiMartino, Jaan Uhelszki, Greil Marcus, Ben Fong-Torres, Robert Christgau, Wayne Kramer, Jeff Daniels, Peter Wolf, Ann Powers, Michael Stipe, Suzi Quatro, Jeff Ament, Kirk Hannett, Gene Simmons, Dan Carlisle, JJ Kramer, Joan Jett. Directed by Scott Crawford

2020 Florida Film Festival Continue reading

Billie


The legendary Billie Holiday.

(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

Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things


The legend in action.

(2019) Music Documentary (Eagle Rock) Ella Fitzgerald, Sophie Okonedo (narrator), Sharon D. Clark (narrator), Ray Brown Jr., Judith Tick, Smokey Robinson, Norma Miller, Patti Austin, Andre Previn, George Wien, Johnny Mathis, Itzhak Perlman, Tony Bennett, Laura Myula, Margo Jefferson, Gregg Field, Will Friedwald, Kenny Barron, Norman Granz, Dizzy Gillespie, Cleo Laine, Alexis MorrastDirected by Leslie Woodhead

 

So many of the great musicians of the mid-20th century jazz scene are little more than names to most Americans now; some night even that. Ella Fitzgerald, the First Lady of Song, was a giant in her time, one of the defining voices of American music, one whose career spanned six decades.

Her career almost never happened. Part of the Great Migration of African-Americans moving from the South to the industrialized North in search of a better life, she moved to Yonkers as a child with her mother and stepfather. Her mother died when Fitzgerald was just 13 (the result of injuries incurred in a car accident), ending up living on the streets of New York after a stint in reform school where the abuse was so pervasive that she ran away. Only a victory in a 1934 talent show at the Apopllo Theater in Harlem would save her.

Discovered by the “King of Jazz Drummers” Chick Webb who led one of the most popular bands in New York at the time, Fitzgerald became a star after recording “A Tisket, A Tasket” – a jazzed up version of a nursery rhyme that Fitzgerald co-wrote) and she never looked back.

She embraced scat singing as World War II began and became one of its most accomplished practitioners. After the war, she recorded a string of hits for the Verve label (a jazz label founded specifically to market her) and became a mainstay touring around the world, often on the road for nine months of the year. That made it difficult to sustain a relationship with her only child, Ray Brown Jr., who became a musician himself although his relationship with his mother was often distant – the two rarely spoke during the last ten years of her life.

The movie utilizes archival footage that frames the times that Fitzgerald grew up in, as well as illustrating the racism that she faced throughout her life. When she purchased a house in Beverly Hills, she had to use her white manager Norman Granz to do it, despite the fact that she had more than enough cash to buy the house outright.

There is performance footage and we get a sense of the passion and the power of Fitzgerald’s craft. It could be said that she was married to her career; throughout most of her life it was her focus. She did love children and founded a foundation that helped provide food and healthcare to at-risk kids in the last years of her life, but mainly she expressed herself through her music; she was a highly private individual who rarely talked about her feelings in interviews, with a notable exception – a radio interview in 1963 when she finally spoke out against the racial injustice she had seen and that her people continued to deal with. The interview was never aired, a postscript that echoes through these uncertain and volatile times.

Her story is told largely in a chronological fashion, interspersed with interviews of contemporaries (both archival and modern), as well as a younger generation who recognize her influence on modern music. While the testimonials are glowing, the film largely fails to draw the lines between her music and modern music and when the movie ends, doesn’t really elucidate what her legacy is.

What survives first and foremost is the music and we get a fair sampling of  it and we are left to marvel at her control and her phrasing. The movie is available on virtual cinema for the next couple of weeks (fans can benefit the Tampa Theater, the Polk Theater in Lakeland or the O Cinema in Miami (see the virtual cinematic experience link for a line-up of theaters across the country). It is also playing at the Enzian for those who want the big screen experience which I would highly recommend.

REASONS TO SEE: The soundtrack is simply amazing.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is abrupt and really doesn’t analyze her legacy at as much as I might have liked.
FAMILY VALUES: There are depictions of racism including some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Fitzgerald won the legendary Apollo Theater’s talent contest in 1934, she hadn’t planned to sing but to dance as she had on Harlem street corners, but when she was preceded by the Edwards Sisters (two of the best dancers to ever come out of Harlem), she changed her mind and sang, believing she could never win against the sisters with dancing.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/28/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Keep On Keepin’ On
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Up From the Streets: New Orleans: The City of Music


The city of music, and a river runs through it.

(2019) Music Documentary (Eagle RockTerrence Blanchard, Wynton Marsalis, Harry Connick Jr., Ivan Neville, Sting, Robert Plant, Arthel Neville, Manny Fresh, Herlin Riley, Ben Jaffe, Jon Cleary, Alan Light, Steve Gadd, Aaron Neville, Dr. John, Cosimo Matassa, Michael White, Earl Palmer, Keith Richards, Allen Toussaint, Branford Marsalis, Irma Thomas, Charmaine Neville. Directed by Michael Murphy

 

New Orleans is a city unique to itself. Alone among cities in the United States, it has influences from France, Spain, Africa, and indigenous natives; all has blended into a flavor that can’t be duplicated elsewhere. New Orleans is well-know for its cuisine, for the beauty of its French Quarter, it’s resilience following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina but perhaps most of all, for its music.

New Orleans musicians had a hand in creating jazz, blues, rock and roll, and hip-hop. The music is infectious in the Crescent City. It is not music to sit down and contemplate your navel to – it is music to get up and shake your booty to. This documentary captures the spirit of the music perhaps better than my words ever could. Michael Murphy has crafted a documentary worthy of its subject, and that’s no easy task.

We get a sense of the history of how music had always been a big part of New Orleans, from slaves drumming in Congo Square, to the gospel of Mahalia Jackson, (whom many believe is the greatest gospel performer who ever lived and yes, she started out here) to the gumbo rock of the Meters, the Neville Brothers, the Radiators and Dr. John to the jazz of Louis Armstrong, Buddy Bolden, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Wynton Marsalis, Professor Longhair and Jelly Roll Morton, to the unforgettable rock/R&B stylings of pioneer Fats Domino and Allen Toussaint.

The passion for the music and the love of its residents for the city and each other is more than evident; it makes you want to move down there and be a part of it. You want to get out and dance in the streets with a brass band that just happens to wander by. You want to hang out at Preservation Hall and listen to the music that made New Orleans what it has always been. You’ll even want to share a plate of red beans and rice with some of these men and women who are musical royalty but also incredibly down to earth.

There’s enough material in the subject matter to do a mini-series (somebody please call Ken Burns) and you get a sense that the filmmakers are just touching the surface, but it’s nonetheless a satisfying movie with some wonderful archival footage of legends like Armstrong and Domino, along with more current footage of Mannie Fresh and the Radiators, as well as some performances by local heroes and legends but the amazing thing is the music. It’s the kind of music that was meant for a party, and best of all, we’re all invited. This is an essential documentary for anyone serious about American music.

For those looking to check it out at home, follow this link to order the film through the Enzian’s On Demand program. 50% of the rental fee goes to support the Enzian whose doors are closed currently due to the pandemic. While they have a lot of great films available for your viewing pleasure (eight at any given time), this is the one to order if you can only order one.

REASONS TO SEE: Amazing music. Fascinating historic footage. Captures the unique quality of New Orleans and the fierce devotion of its residents. Extremely informative. Leaves you wanting to explore the music of New Orleans further.
REASONS TO AVOID: The title is a bit unwieldly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Blanchard, whose father was an opera fan, will be the first African-American composer to have an opera staged at the Metropolitan Opera in New York later this ear.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews, Metacritic: 70/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ken Burns’ Jazz
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Dumplin’

My Darling Vivian


He walked the line for her.

(2020) Music Documentary (The Film Collaborative) Rosanne Cash, Tara Cash Schwoebel, Cindy Cash, Kathy Cash Tittle, Vivian Liberto, Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash. Directed by Matt Riddlehoover

We tend to mythologize our biggest stars. Their lives take on a quality that is spun by the inertia of tabloids and spin control. Often we get very one-sided portrayals of who they were and how they came to be.

Take Johnny Cash, for example. Most of us know him through his timeless music, country songs that have helped define American music over the years. Most of us know his story through the biofilm Walk the Line which justly won an Oscar for Reese Witherspoon. She played June Carter, who is depicted in the film as being the love of his life, the savior of him as he overcame his addictions. It is an American fairy tale romance.

Johnny was married before he met June, though, to a Sicilian-American woman named Vivian Liberto, whom he met in her hometown of San Antonio when she was 17 and he was 19. He was in the Air Force at the time and was soon after shipped off to Germany. That didn’t dim his ardor (or hers) any as he wrote more than a thousand letters, and sent her an engagement ring through the mail. Shortly after he came home, the two were married.

His career as a door-to-door salesman was unsuccessful and he decided to pursue a career in music. The couple moved to Memphis where they had no money and lived in a rundown apartment. However, he managed to get himself signed to Sun Records at a time where Sun was rewriting American popular music, with a line-up that included Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Cash found meteoric success and one of his first hit songs was “I Walk the Line,” written for Vivian.

Cash moved the family to pursue an acting career (as Elvis had before him) and eventually built a hilltop home in rural Casitas Springs north of L.A. The acting career fizzled, but Cash continued to be a hot commodity on the Billboard charts. He toured relentlessly, leaving Vivian in the house to take care of four daughters, all under six years old and one of them an infant.

On the road, Cash became hooked on amphetamines. His absences grew longer and longer and when he returned home, he was a changed man. Even his daughters noticed it. Vivian felt abandoned and the fights with her husband grew more vicious. Eventually, the couple divorced in 1966 and Cash took up with Carter, with whom he had been having an affair.

Vivian actually remarried before Cash did, to an ex-policeman. She wanted a man around because she didn’t feel safe. When Cash had been arrested in El Paso for bringing in pills from Mexico, she had gone there to bail him out. A newspaper picture captured her dark Sicilian complexion and full lips and many mistakenly thought she was an African-American. The backlash, particularly in the South, was enormous as interracial marriages were taboo in those days. She received death threats and in her isolated home stood vigil night after night, fully expecting an army of Klansmen to come to her door and murder her daughters.

But the mythology began to take hold as the years went by. Vivian had always been intensely private and rarely made public appearances while she was married to the country star. She began to be relegated to a role as a footnote in his career, so much so that when he died and a large tribute concert was thrown, she wasn’t mentioned except by former son-in-law Rodney Crowell and even that was edited out of the broadcast. Particularly galling was that Carter often took credit for raising the four daughters, when in fact she only saw them when they were visiting their dad.

Vivian didn’t live to see Walk the Line but her daughters did and were distressed, to put it mildly, to see her depicted as a whining, complaining lunatic who not only didn’t support her husband but drove him to drug use. It is all the more ironic since the title song was written for Vivian and not, as many have supposed, for June.

Most of this is told through the testimony of the four daughters which skews the narrative somewhat, but considering how short a shrift Vivian has gotten from history, is understandable. Even so, Vivian is not portrayed as a saint here – she had a temper and she could be cruel upon occasion. However, the girls certainly admire their mother and their love is plain throughout their interviews. We don’t hear much from outside the family other than through clips of archived interviews. We don’t even hear Vivian’s voice until near the end of the film.

Other than the interviews with the girls, the story is mostly told through archival footage, still photographs and home movies. Some of the home movies are fascinating as they usually are when it comes to catching people in the act of being themselves. We can see that Vivian had an exotic beauty, a cross between Sophia Loren and Jackie Kennedy, only with olive skin.

But her voice is plain to hear in other ways. Through the letters, many of which she published in an autobiography which didn’t sell very well (nobody likes to have their myths questioned), it is clear that Cash was deeply in love with her. It is also interesting to hear a recorded letter that he sent her, playing a song he wrote for her. She and Cash remained friends, particularly after Carter passed away, and near the end of his life, visited with the girls (Rosanne, who was on tour with her own band, was unable to attend).

This is a very different look at the life of a legend. While her life had its share of pain, there was an awful lot of love. The score of Ian A. Hughes is almost dirge-like and gives the documentary a funereal air it didn’t really need. This is obviously a labor of love (the producer is Vivian’s grandson and the director her grandson’s husband) and it’s a love that should be celebrated.

The film was set to premiere at South by Southwest in March until the festival was canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak. It is part of a selection of 35 films (both features and shorts) from the Festival that have been made available for viewing on Amazon Prime. Best of all, you don’t need a Prime account to watch; if you have a free Amazon account, you can see it for free for a limited time.

REASONS TO SEE: Some interesting material – and heartbreaking moments. A different side of the Johnny Cash story.
REASONS TO AVOID: The soundtrack is almost dirge-like
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Liberto met Cash at a roller skating rink in San Antonio while Cash was in the Air Force and based at nearby Brooks Air Base.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: 80/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Walk the Line
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
South Mountain