Minding the Gap


Skating can be more than just a passion.

(2018) Documentary (Hulu/Magnolia) Zach Milligan, Keire Johnson, Nina Bowgren, Kent Abernathy, Bing Liu, Mingyue Bolen, Roberta Johnson, Rory Mulligan, Kyle, Eric, Vickie. Directed by Bing Liu

 

Sometimes a film presents itself in such a way that you expect one thing (and those expectations are might low) but are delivered another which is so much more than you thought it might be. Those are the moments of discovery when you realize that you have seen a movie that isn’t just entertaining or enlightening but life-changing.

The movie begins as a suburban skateboarding documentary and to be honest, I’ve seen enough of those. The main protagonists are shredding around Rockford, Illinois and during interviews talk about how they just want to skate, they’re not interested in being a traditional part of society and that they don’t want to be put into any sort of box. These are all things about skate culture that I found repelling, a kind of entitlement that is unearned. As it turned out I was wrong.

We see the last three years of the lives of these skaters, essentially, as Zach – the leader of this group of friends, wrestles with fatherhood as his girlfriend Nina gives birth. Keire, the lone African-American member of the group, feels a sense of belonging with his friends that he doesn’t have with his family and Asian-American Liu – who initially was planning to only be behind the camera – begins to realize that documenting his friends’ lives is opening up some of the rougher parts of his own.

All three of these boys (and Nina as well) are on the cusp of adulthood and they are being dragged into it kicking and screaming. They don’t always act responsibly and they don’t always say or do the right thing. In other words, they are just like all of us at that age. Some of the things they do are destructive, some of the things they do are sweet but in every instance there is a sense of being unsure that they are doing the right thing. Like all of us as we move from childhood to adulthood, they are flailing around in the dark and hoping that they’ll find something to hold onto.

The relationship between Zach and Nina begins to deteriorate. They fight all the time, leading to a screaming match in which Nina threatens to kill Zach. We sympathize with Zach as he seems to be doing his best – working long hours as a roofer – but then we hear Nina’s side of things. Zach, as it turns out, is not the guy we thought he was.

All three of the boys have issues with fatherhood – in the cases of Keire and Bing dealing with abusive fathers. As Keire wryly says early on, “Back then it was called discipline but what it’s called now is child abuse.” Their moms are interviewed as we see the toll that abusive fathers took on them as well and as the movie goes on, how the dysfunctional relationship between Zach and Nina takes a toll on her as well. Everyone in this movie undergoes big changes in maturity as the movie goes on; some for the better, others not so much.

There are a lot of scenes of the guys skateboarding, maybe a few too many but one thing you begin to realize is that skateboarding is not a hobby or even a passion; it’s a release for them. It’s a way for them to deal with their pain and it’s as necessary to their well-being as eating and breathing. The issues I had with skater culture suddenly evaporated as I watched this. Their need for non-conformity made sense now to me. I can’t always condone someone who believes that their way of living is superior to anyone else’s, but I can see why the lifestyle is chosen. In a lot of ways, surfer culture is similar.

This is a movie you should see. You might think “oh, another skateboarding film” but it’s not that. It’s a coming of age film, not in the traditional Hollywood state of mind but as it really happens to all of us. Nobody looks forward to responsibility and stress but nevertheless we want the opportunity to make our own decisions and live life on our own terms. That’s not always possible; circumstances often dictate what our actions must be, but that need for autonomy and to be ourselves remains with us even when you’re as old as I am.

REASONS TO GO: The film goes from being a skate kid doc to an unexpected treasure. I ended up getting a better understanding of skate culture. It’s very powerful in places.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a bit on the raw side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, some brief drug use and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Liu has been filming his friends since they were all teenagers (and in Keire Johnson’s case, 11 years old) and has incorporated some of that home footage into the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 91/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Street Kids
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Mute

Breaking a Monster


There's still room for a purple haze.

There’s still room for a purple haze.

(2016) Music Documentary (Abramorama) Malcolm Brickhouse, Jarad Dawkins, Alec Atkins, Alan Sacks, Annette Jackson, Kevin Jonas, Tracey Brickhouse, Moe Dawkins, Johnny Karkazis, Tabitha Dawkins, Douglas Wimbush, Q-Tip, Nile Rogers, Samantha Sacks, Jolene Cherry, Gary Adelman, Jimmy Webb, Ernestine Charles, Gloria Atkins, Annette Van Duren. Directed by Luke Meyer

 

The music industry is an absolute bastard to break into. Finding success in it is nearly impossible, particularly now in an era of digital downloads and pirated tracks. Success isn’t a function of how hard one works or how talented one is; the road to success is littered with the carcasses of hardworking, talented performers who simply didn’t make it. Sometimes it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time to meet the right person. Few other careers have luck play as important a factor.

Three young Brooklyn boys have had a yen for heavy metal ever since their dads took them to wrestling matches where the ring entrance music of the wrestlers is almost always metal; also their favorite videogames tended to have a metal soundtrack. Soon Malcolm Brickhouse, Jarad Dawkins and Alec Atkins – three lifelong friends – began to put together a band of their own. Doesn’t sound too unusual, right? Throw in that all three are African Americans (a rarity in the metal world which is almost uniformly white) and that they all hadn’t reached their teens as of yet and you’ve got something different. Add in that they are extremely talented musicians not just for their age but period and you have something special.

The boys practiced in their basements and eventually went to Times Square to play. A passerby caught their performance on video and uploaded it to YouTube. That video went viral and soon it caught the attention of industry veteran Allan Sacks, who on paper wouldn’t sound like a particularly good fit. In the 70s he was in the television industry and helped create the classic sitcom Welcome Back Kotter and by the 90s had switched to the music industry where he helped discover Demi Lovato and the Jonas Brothers. He flew out to New York from the West Coast and signed the band to a management contract. Good fit or not, his clout helped open doors and the septuagenarian manager soon had the band signed to a two-album contract with Sony for a cool $1.8 million.

Most of the film takes from the contract signing onward and gives us a good idea of how the work really begins after the contract has been notarized. The boys meet with stylists who select clothes for them to wear onstage and Malcolm gets a vocal coach which he sorely needs. One of the worries that Sony has about the band is that Malcolm’s voice hasn’t dropped yet so it’s impossible to know what his voice is going to sound like when it does and whether or not he’ll be an adequate singer; for the time being his vocals are…let’s just say raw and leave it at that.

Plus we’re talking about 8th grade kids, not seasoned professionals. The label wants them to do interviews, festival appearances and promotional interviews; the boys just want to play videogames. Malcolm in particular likes to skateboard which gets Alan and Sony all up in arms; the risk of injury is too great and could put Malcolm’s career in jeopardy if he injures his arms or his head. Skateboarding is henceforth forbidden, which turns Malcolm’s mood extra-sour.

Compounded with that is that the band wants to make a record and Sony doesn’t think they’re ready for it. Consequently they put pressure on Alan to get them into the studio and while he counsels patience, have you ever tried to tell a young teen boy to be patient? Ain’t happenin’ folks.

The boys themselves are engaging and charming. They are a bit more focused than the average 13-year-old but that’s not saying much. You don’t get a sense that the fame and money has changed them much, although they do sometimes express that it has changed the way others perceive them which is to be expected. They seem genuinely nice boys and one hopes that the pitfalls of the music industry don’t sour them too much; it’s a cutthroat industry and it takes a tremendous ego to survive it.

What matters most is the music and quite frankly, it’s pretty good. Not good for kids their age but good period. The single that they do record, “Monster” has a terrific hook and some nimble guitar work. Even if you don’t like metal, you can’t help but admire the skill that went into the song. Producer Johnny Karkazis (better known as Johnny K) works with Malcolm patiently trying to get the vocals down, even helpfully suggesting that he clench his fist and pump it during the final chorus to get the right tone. It works.

In fact, I have to say that the overall tone works for the film as well. This isn’t a story that is all that different than any other “making of the band” documentary has covered other than the fact that these are African-American kids trying to make it in a world of grizzled old white guys. In fact, when the point is raised that Sony may have signed them because of the novelty of their situation, in one of the more charming scenes Brickhouse acknowledges it but also follows that with “I don’t care!” Any means of getting the foot in the door will do and Brickhouse at 13 is worldly enough to realize that. In and of itself, that may be the most impressive thing about him of all.

REASONS TO GO: The subjects are engaging and likable. Meyer is wise enough to be an unobtrusive “fly on the wall.”
REASONS TO STAY: In many ways, this territory has been covered before.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity is uttered.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Unlocking the Truth continues to play as a band today; however they were dropped by Sony shortly after filming was completed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/26/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wrecking Crew
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Southside with You