Rock in the Red Zone


The beauty of music is that it endures no matter the circumstances.

(2014) Documentary (The Orchard) Avi Vaknin, Laura Bialis, Robby Elmaliah, Kubi Oz, Micha Biton, Haim Uliel, Yoav Kutner, Noah Badein, Itai Avitan, Hagit Yaso, Lidor, Yossi Klein Haleui, Vishayahu Maso, Dr. Adrianna Katz. Directed by Laura Bialis

 

It is sometimes in these chaotic times a sad fact that the American left often wags its collective fingers at Israel for their treatment of Palestinians on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. There are plenty of really good documentaries that cover this subject. There aren’t many however that look closely at everyday Israelis coping with the bombs that are sent over on makeshift rockets called Qassams. Rock in the Red Zone has the distinction of being one of the very few.

Bialis became fascinated with Sderot, a small town of 20,000 on the western edge of the Negev desert that is subject to daily rocket attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah. Citizens get 15 seconds warning from a system called Red Alert; when the alarms go off, they drop what they’re doing, leaving their cars in the middle of the road and seek shelter at bomb shelters throughout the town and environs. They leave their windows open so that they can hear the warnings and escape in time; one of the city’s residents, musician Avi Vaknin remarks that the greatest fatalities occur when those who aren’t used to the way of life in Sderot don’t hear the warning sirens and continue driving on their merry way, unaware that death is rocketing at them from the nearby Gaza strip.

A two week stay made such an indelible mark on filmmaker Bialis that she chose to return for a lengthier stay to find out more ostensibly about the underground music scene (literally; much of the rehearsal and performance takes place in underground bunkers and converted bomb shelters). She moves in with Vaknin who introduces her to the music scene in Sderot which is surprisingly fertile; the band Teapacs which represented Israel in the Eurovision song contest are from there (their lead singer Kubi Oz speaks fondly of his embattled home town). More recently, the winner of Israel’s version of America’s Got Talent came from there.

Most of the residents come from Morocco, Tunisia and Ethiopia; Jews who found their way to Israel following World War II and were discriminated against by the European-based Jews who essentially founded the country. The music of those areas mixed with western Rock and Roll, blues, Klezmer and other musical forms. Much of the music has the kind of immediacy that comes from not knowing when you wake up in the morning if you were going to make it to see the sunset. It’s often quite poignant and very often compelling.

The major misstep that is made by the film is well into it when it becomes obvious that Avi and Laura have become romantically involved. From then on the movie becomes more about their relationship and essentially morphs into a home movie, complete with wedding footage. Bialis is a top-notch filmmaker but she breaks one of the cardinal rules of documentary filmmaking: don’t become the story. When Bialis starts to become the story, the movie falls apart.

That’s a shame too because up until then the movie is very compelling; the courage of the people of Sderot who are almost as angry at their own government for essentially ignoring their plight than they are at the Palestinians doing the bombardment. Even with all the stress and trauma (and make no mistake, every single resident of the town suffers from PTSD bar none – one of the most poignant moments is a woman dissolving into a shaking, shuddering mess during an attack) they find the humanity within them to keep soldiering on, living their lives almost in defiance of those who would seek to disrupt them. You can see the joy in their eyes when a concerted effort of activists brings thousands of ordinary Israelis to downtown Sderot to shop and dine. When you live on the razor’s edge, everything becomes magnified.

When the film concentrates on that message, the movie soars. When it becomes a love letter from the director to her husband, it stumbles. I don’t doubt the depth of her passion for her man nor his for her but it really undermines all the really good work she does up until that point. This is just one example of what happens when the heart rules the mind.

REASONS TO GO: The story is a tribute to everyday courage. The music is surprisingly diverse and effective.
REASONS TO STAY: The film loses focus during the final third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, disturbing images of the aftermath of the bombings as well as injured children and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is loosely based on the evacuation of Chinese citizens from the port town of Aden during the Yemen Civil War of March 2015.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Radial
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: No One Knows About Persian Cats
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Beast Stalker

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

Muscle Shoals


The fruits of success.

The fruits of success.

(2013) Musical Documentary (Magnolia) Aretha Franklin, Bono, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Rick Hall, Percy Sledge, Candi Staton, Clarence Carter, Donna Godchaux, Jimmy Cliff, Ed King, Roger Hawkins, David Hood, Clayton Ivey, Jesse Boyce, Spooner Oldham, Dan Penn, Alicia Keys, Steve Winwood, Jimmy Johnson, John Paul White. Directed by Greg “Freddy” Camalier

Most aficionados of great music will know the name of Muscle Shoals. A small Alabama town on the Tennessee River, it would become the site for the recording of some of the greatest songs in the modern pop music era. FAME studios, founded by Rick Hall back in the late 1950s above the City Drug Store, but relocated the studio to its current location in 1962 where the first hit, Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” was recorded.

From then on, some of the most recognized songs of the rock era were recorded there including Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1,000 Dances,” and Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman.” The house band, made up of session musicians Barry Beckett on keyboards, Roger Hawkins on drums, David Hood on bass, Jimmy Johnson on guitars and Spooner Oldham on organ were known as the Swampers and created a funk and country laced sound that became signature of the Muscle Shoals sound. Many artists, including Paul Simon (who recorded his seminal Here Comes Rhymin’ Simon there) were surprised to find out that the musicians were white.

In 1969 the Swampers decided to become their own bosses and founded their own studio across town. Muscle Shoals Sound would become home to Lynyrd Skynyrd who recorded some of their seminal work there (the Swampers are name-checked in the iconic Skynyrd tune “Sweet Home Alabama”) as well as other class rock mainstays including the Rolling Stones who recorded “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” there. Hall was understandably upset, seeing the defection as a betrayal as he had just signed a big deal with Capital. Muscle Shoals on the other hand had made a deal with Jerry Wexler at Atlantic and this drove a further wedge between Wexler and Hall who’d already had a falling out. Hall however persevered, bringing country artists like Mac Davis and Jerry Reed and continues to bring in some of the best rock, R&B and soul artists in the world to his studio which thrives to this day. Meanwhile Muscle Shoals Sound has moved to a larger facility and the new owners of the building they were originally in have plans to turn it into a music museum.

First-time director Camalier intersperses interviews with beautiful shots of the Tennessee River, the rural area around Muscle Shoals and the quaint small town environment of the town itself. Most of the interview subjects refer to a “magic” that permeates the air around Muscle Shoals – well, the white ones do at any rate.

During the ’60s black artists weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms. Hawkins, a white man, talks about the looks he’d get from locals when he’d take black artists to the local luncheonette on a meal break. One of the film’s great faults is that this is glossed over to a large extent; we hear more about the white artists’ impression of the situation than with black artists like Carter and Sledge. I would have liked to hear more of their viewpoint of a situation in which they had complete artistic freedom and respect in the recording studio but once outside it became second class citizens. I got the sense however that things in Muscle Shoals weren’t as bad as they were elsewhere.

Much of the film really concentrates on the glory days of the area in the 60s and 70s. We do see Alicia Keys recording a song at FAME but largely there is little about either studio past 1980. The interviews sometimes overlap on the same ground and I would have liked a little more examination a to why a small town in Alabama was able to have such a major impact on popular music – at the end of the day however I think that there are a whole lot of intangibles having to do with the right place, the right time and the right people.

The soundtrack is pretty incredible as you might expect and some of the stories that the artists tell are worth the price of admission alone (Keith Richards asserts, for example, that he wrote most of “Wild Horses” in the bathroom moments before recording it). While this isn’t the most informative documentary you’re ever going to see, it is nonetheless essential viewing for anyone who loves rock, soul and country.

REASONS TO GO: Great music. Gives a real sense of time and place and its importance in making musical history.

REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t really spend much time in the present. Can be repetitive.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly foul language, smoking, drug content, a snippet of partial nudity and some adult situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio founded by the Swampers was located in an old casket factory.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/10/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Frozen

Bedazzled (2000)


Bedazzled

This devil will make you do just about anything.

(2000) Romantic Fantasy (20th Century Fox) Brendan Fraser, Elizabeth Hurley, Frances O’Connor, Miriam Shor, Orlando Jones, Paul Adelstein, Toby Huss, Gabriel Casseus, Brian Doyle-Murray, Jeff Doucette, Aaron Lustig. Directed by Harold Ramis

Making a deal with the devil has become almost commonplace these days. I mean, how else can you explain Justin Bieber?

Elliot Richards (Fraser) is the guy at work that causes you to reverse direction, exclaiming “Oh my God! It’s HIM!!!” every time you see him. Socially awkward doesn’t even begin to describe him; if there’s a way of rubbing you the wrong way, Elliot is probably already doing it, perfectly unaware that he’s driving you crazy. In short, he’s a real nebbish.

His co-workers at the high-tech company in San Francisco where he works include the lovely but unattainable Allison (Frances O’Connor), for whom Elliot pines. However his every attempt (few and far between though they are) to talk to his dream girl ends in defeat every single time.

Enter the devil (Hurley), who in this case is a luscious, lurid wench played with more than a bit of a twinkle in her soulful eye. She promises him seven wishes, whatever he wants — including Allison — in exchange for his soul. Elliot readily agrees. As those who have ever made a deal with the devil can tell you, not a wise move on Elliot’s part.

Of course, the devil being what she is, the father of lies – oops, the mother of lies, the wishes go terribly wrong, one at a time. For example, Elliot wishes to be rich, powerful and married to Allison. He gets all that as a Columbian druglord whose wife is cheating on him and whose underlings are plotting to kill him. You get the picture.

This movie was made once before, in 1967 (and in turn was based on the legend of Dr. Faust), with Dudley Moore in the title role, and writer/director Peter Cook playing the devil. That version has a lot more wit and charm than this one, although Fraser has plenty of both, making the movie way more recommendable. Hurley is absolutely delicious as Beelzebub, not only easy on the eyes but veritably defining the word “naughty.” I was surprised I enjoyed her performance as much as I did; I thought she was OK in the first Austin Powers movie, but she certainly has the makings of a fine comedienne, which sadly she chose not to pursue.

Director Harold Ramis doesn’t have the deft touch that Cook does; he tends to use a bludgeon when a silk scarf will do. He has a formidable task, making essentially seven mini-movies with a linking device. Fraser pulls off seven completely different characterizations of the same man (with accompanying make-up and wardrobe changes) and that helps make this more palatable.

 As comedies go, Bedazzled isn’t bad – there are several good laughs to be found here. It isn’t as consistent as it could be, but the performances of Fraser and Hurley make up for it. G’head and rent it; if you don’t like it, well, the devil made you do it.

WHY RENT THIS: Charming performances by Hurley and Fraser. Some genuinely funny moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Vignettes are wildly uneven. Tends to use a cudgel when a rapier would be more suitable.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexual innuendo and some drug content.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: In the beach scene, the Devil’s dogs are named Peter and Dudley, a nod to the stars of the original Bedazzled.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed, although there is an Easter Egg leading to a deleted scene which was more “R” rated due to drug use, foul language and sexual content. You may find it on the DVD by going to the second features page, highlighting the first item on the list, then clicking on your “go right” button. A devil should illuminate on Hurley’s shoulder; click on it and voila.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $90.4M on a $48M production budget; the movie more or less broke even.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan