by Larry Carlin
December 11, 2016, marked a quarter century since I wrote my first movie review for Movie Magazine International. You can read my 25-year-review here, and also, you can read my very first review here.
May 29, 2019
1969 was a turbulent year in American history. Richard Nixon was sworn in as the 37th president, Ted Kennedy drove a car into a lagoon in Chappaquiddick, Charles Manson’s gang massacred a bunch of people in Los Angeles, Neil Armstrong took the first step on the moon, the Stonewall Riots took place in New York City, hundreds of thousands demonstrated against the war in Viet Nam, and perhaps most notable of all – at least, for this discussion – is that the Woodstock Music & Art Fair took place in August in upstate New York. 50 years later, in honor of that amazing gathering on Yasgur’s Farm outside the town of Bethel, there’s a wonderful new documentary titled Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation.
For those of you that are maybe too old to remember or too young to care, the three-day concert was put together by a group of guys that wanted to showcase some of the local musicians that lived in Woodstock, such as John Sebastian, Bob Dylan and Tim Hardin. Some of the guys had a recording studio, and they thought that putting on a concert would be great promo. Concerned about the hippie element that would be coming, the nearby town of Wallkill put the kibosh on the event, so the promoters scrambled to find another location on short notice, and they ended up 60 miles away in Bethel, but kept the “Woodstock” name, since posters and ads had already been made. Expecting maybe 50,000 people, 400,000 turned out for what became the greatest music concert in rock and roll history.
Instead of spending time talking with musicians or showcasing performances, award-winning director Barak Goodman combines previously unseen archival and festival footage with interviews of attendees, promoters, journalists and doctors. This is a behind-the-scenes look at the planning of the fest, how it happened, and how it forever affected the lives of those that were there.
“But wait,” you may be saying. “I already saw the three-hour 1970 documentary called Woodstock, which featured many of the acts that played the festival. Why would I need to see this new documentary?” While this is a valid question, I can guarantee you that you won’t be disappointed by this magical mystery tour back to a seminal moment in American musical history. And if nothing else – for all of you skateboarding, video game-addicted millennials out there – Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation will show you that you will never be as hip or as cool as your grandparents were.
October 4, 2017
The early 1960s were a turbulent time on the American music scene. The folk revival was starting to wane, the Beatles arrived in 1964, and Bob Dylan plugged in and played electric for the first time at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Amid this cacophony there was a young white harmonica player from Chicago playing the blues in a style not heard before. His name was Paul Butterfield, and he is the subject of the new documentary titled Horn From the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story.
Born to middle class parents in the Hyde Park section of Chicago in 1942, Butterfield had a “Leave It to Beaver” style upbringing, playing flute in the school band and excelling in sports. He earned a scholarship to Brown University for track and field, but a knee injury early on sidelined his sporting career, so he headed back to Chicago, where his life would take a dramatic turn in another direction. Back home, while attending the University of Chicago, he met guitarist Elvin Bishop. He started hanging out in blues clubs, watching legendary African-American players such as Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and Otis Rush, and he was inspired to start singing and playing the harmonica. Before long Butterfield started his own band, hiring Wolf’s rhythm section – which gave him instant credibility on the blues scene – along with Bishop on rhythm guitar and the young phenom Michael Bloomfield on lead guitar. They played clubs in Chicago and New York, and at the last minute they were booked to play at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, and it was there that they really made a name for themselves. Some of the bandmates were hired by Dylan to back him up for his set at the fest with their electric instruments, and that was a watershed moment in the folk music world. From there Paul’s groundbreaking multi-racial band began touring the country, and their debut album, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, was a huge success. They also got to play the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969, while band members came and went, and more albums followed. By 1971 the band dissolved, and while Butterfield formed new ensembles in the ensuing years, he never again attained the success he had in the late ‘60s. In 1980 he was diagnosed with peritonitis, and this, combined with excessive alcohol and drug use, led to his early demise at age 45 in 1987.
There’s an amazing amount of footage of Butterfield playing from his early days until the end, and filmmaker John Anderson has spliced it all together in this highly informative and entertaining documentary of a driving force in Chicago blues. Included here are interviews with Elvin Bishop, Bonnie Raitt, Maria and Geoff Muldaur, Nick Gravenites, former band mates, and family members.Paul Butterfield was an amazing talent who lived hard and literally played his Horn From the Heart.
October 4, 2017
As a working musician for the past four decades, I like to think that I’ve been around the block a few times while being part of some memorable shows. But my alleged musical career is just getting started compared to that of Chavela Vargas, who is the subject of a wonderful new documentary simply titled Chavela.
Born in 1919 in Costa Rica, Isabel Vargas Lizano was unloved as a child by her parents for being a tomboy. She left home at age 14 for the streets of Mexico, where there were more music opportunities than in her home country. She soon changed her name to Chavela, which is a pet name for Isabel. She played guitar and sang on the streets for many years, and she even had a brief friendship with the legendary painter Frida Kahlo. After turning professional in the 1950s, singing rancheras in her own unique style while dressing in an androgynous fashion, Chavela soon was filling nightclubs. She befriended well known ranchera singer Jose Alfredo Jimenez, one of the biggest stars in Mexico, and he helped her career immensely. Besides touring the world, she also performed for many years in Acapulco, a resort town where many artistic Americans went on holiday. Along the way got to hang out, and party hard, with intellectuals and the elite of Hollywood, but eventually the heavy drinking started taking its toll on her. So much so that she disappeared from the music scene for 15 years while dealing with her demons. In 1991, she returned to performing at a nightclub in Mexico City, where a wealthy Spaniard saw her sing. He took her to Spain, where she caught the attention of longtime fan and noted filmmaker Pedro Almodovor, who was in love with her singing. He cast her in some of his films, and he helped promote her career, setting up shows in theatres in Spain, and even going so far as underwriting her debut – at age 83 – at Carnegie Hall in New York City. She continued to perform until shortly before her death in 2012 at age 93. Along the way she recorded over 80 albums, and to the surprise of no one, came out as a lesbian at age 81 with the release of her autobiography titled And If You Want to Know About My Past.
Chavela had a long and illustrious 75-year career, the likes of which most musicians can only dream of. She even overshadows Tony Bennett, who, while still out there singing at age 91, has only been at it for 68 years.
After all of this, if you are still scratching your head and wondering just who this amazing and fascinating singer was, not only do you have to go on line to search out her music, you also need to get out and see the new documentary Chavela.
October 26, 2016
As a working musician for the past 40 years, whenever there is a music-related movie about to open I often get the call here at Movie Magazine. Playing mostly acoustic music, I was more than happy to cover the recent Glen Campbell, Carter Family, Leon Russell, and Wrecking Crew documentaries. But it was with much trepidation when I agreed to review a documentary about a mostly unknown – at least, in this country – Japanese glam rock/metal band called We Are X.
The band known as X Japan was founded in 1982 by childhood friends Yoshiki and Toshi. With wild hair, garish makeup and outlandish outfits – picture a combination of early David Bowie, KISS and AC/DC – and you’ll get an idea as to what the band looked and sounded like in their early years. They went on to become the most successful band in Japanese history, selling more than 30 million albums at home and while touring the world. Yoshiki – the handsome, charismatic and waif-like drummer and composer who has defied the odds having multiple physical ailments that would sideline most people – is one amazing drummer who often literally gives more than 100% during their shows. And incredible lead singer Toshi will astound you while singing in English, which he can barely speak while being interviewed offstage. But bands are tough to keep together for more than 30 years. Along the way, some bandmates committed suicide, and when Toshi joined a cult in 1997, the band split up for ten years. But now they are back together and touring again, and a big part of this documentary was the four-day build-up to their epic show at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 2014.
We Are X was an Official Selection at the South by Southwest Film Festival, and it won for Best Editing at the Sundance Film Festival. And included here are comments by Gene Simmons of KISS, Marilyn Manson, cartoonist Stan Lee, and even legendary producer of the Beatles, George Martin.
Whether or not you are a fan of X Japan and their music does not matter. This documentary is totally engrossing from start to finish, a visual masterpiece that is very well done, with interviews, old photos and amazing footage of the band playing on stage. While you may not be inspired to rush out and buy one of their albums after watching We Are X, you will be amazed and entertained from start to finish. Speaking of which, make sure you stay until the final credits, as this is when actual footage of the New York show can be viewed, along with some special guest commentary.
August 17, 2016
2016 marks 100 years since the Easter Rebellion in Ireland, an uprising that was short-lived yet led to the birth of the Irish Republic as well as the beginning of the end of England’s centuries-long rule of the Emerald Isle. To commemorate this occasion, filmmaker Alex Fegan got the clever idea to interview about thirty Irish centenarians that were born before the uprising began, and the result is his wonderful new documentary titled Older Than Ireland.
The Irish are known for having "the gift of the gab," and Fegan's subjects don’t disappoint here. A series of questions were presented to the folks, yet you never hear them being asked. They just talk very naturally, as if they are speaking directly to you. Questions such as what is the secret to living a long life, what are your memories of the Civil War, how have things changed over the years, where did you meet your spouse, what was the happiest moment of your life, what is your saddest memory, do you have any regrets, and how does it feel to live to be 100? The interviewees are from all walks of life, and as you might imagine, their answers vary, with many having vivid recall of events from many decades ago delivered very forthrightly. Some of the folks still live on their own, some still drive, and almost all of them are sharp as a tack. The numerous Celtic accents are really thick here, but fortunately subtitles have been provided by the filmmaker. Most have fond memories of a long-lived life, and their stories are told with touches of humor and sadness, but with very few regrets.
Full disclosure: I am of Irish/American heritage, so I may be a wee bit biased when I say that I absolutely loved this documentary. I see my parents and grandparents in many of these characters, so I feel a kindred spirit with a lot of them. The film features no famous people, no actors, no special effects, zombies or cartoon action heroes, no car chases, and no script written by a room full of writers. With their lives spanning a century, and often times with a twinkle in their eyes, this is just real people telling stories of their lives. And while everyone here is literally Older Than Ireland, we can only hope that we will be as witty while having the luck of these Irish in our own lives.
April 20, 2016
Lovers of bluegrass, old-time and early country music certainly know of, heard of, and have even sung songs by Johnny Cash and the legendary Carter Family from the 1920s. Some have even read the excellent book about the Carters from 2002 titled “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music.” But even if you have done all of the above, or if you have no idea who any of the family was, then you need to see the excellent new documentary called The Winding Stream: The Carters, The Cashes and the Course of Country Music.
In August of 1927, after seeing an ad in the newspaper, A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and A.P.’s sister-in-law Maybelle Carter, borrowed a car and drove from Maces Spring, VA, to Bristol, TN, to record some songs for New York record producer Ralph Peer, and three months later the first Carter Family records were released. They got paid $50 for each song they recorded and a percentage of each copyrighted song and record they released. So A.P. went around to various towns and hollers in VA to collect more songs, and between 1927-36, they recorded around 300 songs. Their big break came when they got a show on XERA Border Radio in Del Rio, TX, where their songs were broadcast all over the US. It was on XERA that a young Johnny Cash, in Kingsland, AR, first heard the Carters sing. Maybelle had three daughters called The Carter Sisters that also sang, and years later, after the Carter Family split up, Maybelle and the girls toured, and this is how the hot new country singer named Johnny Cash met his future wife and singing partner, June Carter Cash. They each had singing daughters from previous marriages, as well as a son they had together, and all of the offspring still carry on the Carter/Cash Family music tradition today.
The Winding Stream, produced and directed by Portland filmmaker Beth Harrington, weaves classic early film footage with cleverly animated sequences of the Carter Family singing their songs, along with using voiceovers and interviews with many family members such as Rosanne and John Carter Cash, and notable performers such as Mike Seeger, Jeff Hannah, Jim Lauderdale, Grey DiLisle, and Murry Hammond. There are also some scenes of current performers singing Carter Family songs and great outtakes from TV shows and concerts of Maybelle and The Carter Sisters, Johnny and June, and other members of the extended family. Most poignant of all are the clips of the late Johnny Cash in one of his final interviews, before he died in 2003 at age 71.
If you liked O Brother, Where Art Thou? and High Lonesome: The Story of Bluegrass Music, then you will absolutely love The Winding Stream, which will take you on a marvelous meandering journey through American musical history that you will never forget.
July 8, 2015
Sometimes years of hard work go by into the making of a film, and then the finished product never gets a general release, maybe goes direct to video, or is never seen by anyone. You would think that a filmmaker with the track record of noted Berkeley documentarian Les Blank – who was the author of almost three-dozen films over his career – would have had no problem releasing his film from 1974 that is titled A Poem Is a Naked Person. But amazingly so, it took 40 years to finally get it out on the big screen, and now you get to decide if it was worth the long wait.
The subject of this very oddly titled documentary is Rock and Roll Hall of Fame pianist/singer/composer Leon Russell, who in his younger days was a member of the renowned collection of LA studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. He played piano on dozens of well-known recordings by such notables as Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, Glen Campbell and Joe Cocker. From there he embarked on a solo career of his own, and in the early 1970s he had hits with such songs as “This Masquerade” and “A Song for You.” In this film, Les Blank followed Russell around for two years, shooting all kinds of footage that is interspersed with scenes of Russell playing a live show at an unknown venue. While the concert footage is some of the best part of this project, a lot of what is included here is pretty strange stuff with some even stranger people that are never identified – including a disturbing scene where some guy feeds a live chick to his pet snake. There is some nice footage of George Jones, Willie Nelson and folksinger Eric Anderson singing some songs, but it is never explained what they had to do with Russell. There are also some nice scenes of Russell singing and recording songs off of his country music project titled Hank Wilson Is Back, but I know about this because I have the recording. This part of Russell’s career is never explained here either.
The release of this documentary was delayed for four decades due to supposed “creative differences and music clearance problems.” Blank died in 2013, and his son Harrod spent the last two years working on the clearances. The film was produced by Russell and his one-time music partner Denny Cordell, but they had a falling out in 1976, which could be one of the reasons this flick was never released. In 2011 Russell told the Billboard trade publication that he didn't like the film, and that he didn't intend to release it. But now that it’s here, after watching this, you might find yourself scratching your head and wondering what it was that you just saw. If nothing else, longtime – and hopefully fully-clothed – fans of Leon Russell will be cueing up to see A Poem Is a Naked Person, and hey, if you want to see him play live, he is still out there touring, and he is coming to Bay Area this August.
May 27, 2015
“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” We’ve all heard this line before. We’ve also maybe worn hand-me-downs from older siblings, bought things from yard sales, or maybe picked something up from a vintage clothing store. But very few of us have learned to play classical music from instruments made from garbage, and this is the subject of the wonderful new documentary with the catchy title Landfill Harmonic.
Outside the city of Asuncion in the South American country of Paraguay, there is a giant landfill in an area called Cateura where the poor people, known as gancheros, sort through the trash looking for anything that can be sold or reused. These people live in ramshackle shacks adjacent to the site, where sanitary conditions, as you might imagine, are not the best. Favio Chavez, a recycling engineer with a musical background, wanted to help keep the kids from playing in the landfill, so he got the idea to start a music school and he began giving them music lessons. Of course, none of the kids could afford instruments, so Chavez and Nicolas “Cola,” one of the gancheros, began experimenting with making violins, cellos and drums out of recycled materials from the landfill. The instruments were made from oil tin cans, forks, bottle caps, x-rays, and whatever else they could find. Over time, the Recycled Orchestra was born, and the kids became more proficient on these homemade instruments. They got invited to play at an event in Rio in Brazil, and before long they became an Internet sensation. One of the kids wrote to David Ellefson from the heavy metal band Megadeth, and Ellefson went down to Cateura to visit the kids. Soon the Recycled Orchestra played a concert on stage in Denver with Megadeth, they toured some with Metallica in South America, and they have been featured on the TV show 60 Minutes.
But even though fame has come to the kids of Cateura, fortune has not followed. They still live in meager quarters, but their spirits are amazing. Some of the original members of the orchestra are now teaching music to the younger children of the town. As orchestra director Chavez states in the film, “Music is a unifying force, and it can change lives. Culture is a basic human need, and if you have talent and you work hard, it is possible to fulfill your dreams in life.” If you are looking for an uplifting and inspiring film to take the kids to this summer, skip the blockbuster BS and take them to see Landfill Harmonic.
May 6, 2015
April 30th of last week was the 40-year-anniversary of the fall of Saigon to the Viet Cong in Viet Nam, which essentially brought the fighting to an end. Almost 60,000 Americans needlessly lost their lives fighting an insane war over there, while close to 900,000 Vietnamese perished. While everyone of an advanced age knows about this lurid history, what few people seem to know or care about is that the country of Cambodia also suffered dearly as a result of this war, and there is a new documentary out called Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll that will help you remember.
From 1953-1970, under the benign tutelage of his father and then of Prince Norodon Sihanouk, Cambodia tried to remain neutral in the conflict that was raging next door, and the capital city of Phnom Penh – known as “the pearl of Southeast Asia” – was a thriving, Western-like metropolis that had developed its own pop and rock and roll music scene that evolved from influences by French, Caribbean and British musicians as well as by American radio that was being broadcast to the troops in Viet Nam. Sinn Sisamouth was a huge star who adapted and spanned many genres, and the lovely Ros Serey Sothea was also very popular. But in the late ‘60s, with Sihanouk struggling to keep his grip on power, the prince started making deals with the devil in order to keep his job, and one of those devils was a monster by the name of Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, who ended up using Sihanouk as a tool in his fight to take over the country. When the Rouge finally succeeded in 1975, they soon outlawed pop and rock music. Many people either fled the city or were forcibly relocated to the countryside, and before long the Rouge, while encouraging the peasants to rise up against the rich, not only destroyed everything foreign, they also began eliminating schools and religion while executing the doctors, artists and lawyers. Some singers were lured back to Phnom Penh under false pretenses to sing patriotic songs, and while both of the singers mentioned here did return, they were eventually killed by the murderous Rouge for being too influential to the masses. And so were two million others. For more details, just rent the Oscar-winning film The Killing Fields
There is some great footage in this film showing how amazing the burgeoning music scene was in Cambodia before the Talibanesque murderers ravaged the country between the years 1975-79. Filmmaker John Pirozzi presents a harrowing and horrible tale of cultural genocide, and this film should be required viewing in all high school history classes, because as philosopher George Santayana once aptly noted, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Once viewed, Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock And Roll will always be remembered.
April 1, 2015
Music has an amazing power that can take us back to revisit deep memories that we may not have thought about in quite some time. If you saw Alive Inside, the documentary from last summer, you saw what powerful effect music had on elderly patients in nursing homes. Well, now there is a documentary out called The Wrecking Crew that is going to cause most baby boomers to be making endless non-psychedelic trips down memory lane.
“The Wrecking Crew” was an unofficial name given to a collection of LA studio musicians in the ‘60s that played anonymously on hits for countless bands and performers. They were a group of about 20-30 players that would be hired by just about everyone to play on their records in the studio. While some went on to fame on their own – including Glen Campbell and Leon Russell – other notables of the core group include drummer Hal Blaine, bassist Carol Kaye, and guitarist Tommy Tedesco, whose son Denny is the director of the film. Tedesco started making the documentary in 1995, when his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and though it took him 20 years to get the project completed – including a Kickstarter campaign to raise money – The Wrecking Crew is well worth the wait. There are wonderful interview clips with Brian Wilson, Dick Clark, Glen Campbell, and the aforementioned Crew members, along with priceless photos and endless footage of the players in the studio. There are also some bittersweet moments, like when drummer Blaine talks about living on top of the world before losing everything to ex-wives and bad money management. And while there is a little bit of narration by Denny Tedesco, most of the time the players speak for themselves, all the while playing tunes that you will recognize from start to finish.
Some of the songs that the Crew played on include hits by The Association, The Beach Boys, Frank and Nancy Sinatra, Sonny and Cher, The Monkees, Mamas and Papas, and countless more, and they were also the musicians behind Phil Spector's “Wall of Sound.” They played on instrumental hits such as “The Pink Panther Theme,” “Hawaii Five-O,” “Mission Impossible,” “No Matter What Shape,” and “Classical Gas.” And there were numerous TV commercials.
Essentially, the Wrecking Crew played the soundtrack to the lives of anyone born in 1945 until the Crew’s recording era started to wane in the late ‘60s, when rock bands more and more began to play and produce their own songs. But this film is a must-see for music fans of any generation.
When you do get to see The Wrecking Crew, make sure that you watch it all the way until the end of the credits, because you will hear many of the songs they played on as well find out a lot more information about the Crew itself. The last line is the best of all, when the words read “No musicians were harmed in the making of this film, and no drum machines were ever used."
December 3, 2014
Adhering to the motto that “If it bleeds it leads, if it thinks it stinks,” the bloviating talking heads on the 24-hour news networks were out for blood when the Jerry Sandusky story first made national news three years ago this November. And now, before the story has even been resolved, there is a new documentary out about the sordid ordeal that is facetiously titled Happy Valley.
For any of you living outside of Central Pennsylvania, the Sandusky story may be a distant memory by now. He was the former longtime assistant football coach at Penn State who was accused of, and then later convicted of, 43 counts of child molestation while living in the town of State College, which is also referred to as “Happy Valley,” hence to title of this documentary. When he was first indicted by a grand jury in November of 2011, it was national news for a quite a while. Within days of the indictment, the revered head coach, Joe Paterno, was fired from the university along with the president, athletic director and chief of security, as they were all accused of complicity in the sordid affair. At one point along the way, Paterno was alerted to some wrongdoing by another coach who caught Sandusky in flagrante delicto with a young boy in the shower room. Paterno alerted the aforementioned higher-ups, but nothing was done about it. Paterno was axed with one game left in the season after 40 years of coaching there, and afterwards students marched in protest in downtown State College, causing thousands of dollars of damage. A special prosecutor was named, and in July of 2012 the Freeh Report was issued, laying blame with all of the previously named characters above, along with alleging a pattern of abuse in order to protect the hallowed football program.
There is plenty of archival footage here, along with interviews with some of the folks involved with or affected by the situation, with director Amir Bar-Lev laying out the scenario but not taking any sides. But there are no interviews with any of the main characters or the victims, yet there is one highly irritating football fan student who gets way too much camera time.
Since three of the major players here have yet to go on trial, and there are now doubts about many aspects of the Freeh Report, it seems a little early to be releasing an incomplete documentary before the entire story is played out. Watching this now is like reporting on the outcome of a football game with one quarter yet to play. Happy Valley will have a very limited audience, and it will only serve to harden the stances of all sides of the issue, and after reliving this squalid story on the big screen, you may feel like hitting the showers yourself.
November 19, 2014
Rare is the time when a feature film comes along when the subject matter hits almost too close to home to a reviewer, and even rarer still is when a drama that is “based on a true story” sticks pretty close to the facts at hand. But such is the case in both instances with the new film called Foxcatcher.
Just about everyone is familiar with the corporate name DuPont, a so-called “World Leader in Market-Driven Innovation and Science” whose origins date back 200 years. In 1987, in the suburban Philadelphia town of Newtown Square – about five miles from where I grew up – there was a huge mansion and estate that was inhabited by two rather eccentric heirs to the du Pont fortune, one John du Pont, played by normally comic actor Steve Carell, and his elderly mother Jean, in a small role by the great Vanessa Redgrave. The name of the estate – and hence the movie title – was “Foxcatcher,” and lonely misfit John, while being extremely wealthy, spent most of his life trying to please his domineering mother. As an amateur wrestler, he convinced two Olympic gold-medal-winning wrestling brothers to come live at Foxcatcher with him so that they could train for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. John desperately wants to be their mentor and patron, as he also hopes to share their glory. But all is not well inside the head of Mr. du Pont, and soon after younger brother Mark Schultz – played by the totally believable Channing Tatum – arrives, John starts to behave a bit erratically. After older brother Dave Schultz – played by Mark Ruffalo – shows up to train his muscle-headed kid brother Mark, du Pont the enforcer tries to manipulate the brothers against each other to do things his way. But the older and wiser Dave starts to see that all is not well in paradise, and he begins asking too many questions. At the finish, you won’t believe that…uh, well, let’s just say that this is not going to be a fun-for-the-whole-family holiday movie. Whatever you do, don’t spoil the ending for yourself by Googling John du Pont or Foxcatcher until after you have seen this film.
If nothing else, Foxcatcher is worth the price of admission if only because of the performances of Carell, Ruffalo and Tatum. Especially Carell, who everyone knows and loves from his comedic turns in the films The 40-Year Old Virgin and Crazy Stupid Love, as well as for the TV series The Office. Given a greatly enhanced nose, he eerily embodies the role and looks a lot like the real John du Pont, and the betting here is that he will garner Oscar attention next year. The same goes for Tatum, who is perfectly cast as the short-on-smarts-but-big-on-brawn former Olympic gold-medal winner Mark Schultz. And wrestling fans everywhere will simply love this film just for the endless amount of wrestling scenes.
If you are hunting for something to watch this weekend at your local octoplex, catch Foxcatcher while you can before the lines get too long.
November 12, 2014
By now just about everyone either has heard about Alzheimer’s disease or they have had personal experience with it, perhaps dealing with an elderly relative. And anyone that is over 50-years-old has probably heard of the country/pop singer Glen Campbell, who had a string of big hits in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. But most people don’t know that he is now dealing with Alzheimer’s, yet very soon they will, when the new documentary Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me hits the theatres this week.
Back in the day the multi-talented Campbell was all over the place, with monster hits such as “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Rhinestone Cowboy,” “Galveston,” “Southern Nights,” and “Wichita Lineman.” Before he became well known, he was also an in-demand session player who was once part of the infamous Wrecking Crew band of studio musicians that played on countless hit songs in the early ‘60s. His first solo success was with the John Hartford classic “Gentle on My Mind,” he won four Grammys in 1967 alone, and he had his own TV variety show for three years. He was one of the biggest stars of his era, and he continued touring until two years ago, about a year or so after being diagnosed with the dreaded disease. But rather than just disappearing quietly from the stage, Campbell and his family decided that he would do a farewell tour and have a film crew along for the ride in order to show the world the first-hand effects of the debilitating and deadly Alzheimer’s. And this documentary doesn’t gloss over anything. If the movie theatres are smart, they will have boxes of tissues near at hand.
The 78-year-old Campbell was married four times and he is the father of eight children, ranging in ages from 28 to 58, and he has been married to his last wife Kim for 32 years. His three kids from his current marriage were also members of his touring band, and all are featured in this film. And while it’s painful for them to see what their father is going through, they are all very supportive. For the farewell tour Campbell needed a teleprompter for lyrics, and while there were moments backstage when it looked like there was no way that he was going to be able to survive on stage, it is simply amazing to see how well he could still sing and play the guitar once he was in the spotlight. But there are other heartbreaking scenes where he can’t remember his kids’ names, or even identify himself and other family members while watching old videos.
Whether you are a fan or not of the amazingly talented entertainer, this is a very powerful and poignant film that will touch you in the deepest recesses of your soul. The Campbell family is to be lauded for presenting this sad and agonizing story for the entire world to see, and look for Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me to be in the running for Best Documentary at next year’s Oscars.
September 17, 2014
The San Francisco/Oakland Bay Area is a cornucopia of all kinds of music, and as a fledgling musician almost four decades back, this is one of the things that got me to move out here from Pennsylvania 35 years ago. On any given night you can find clubs and concert halls that feature anything from bluegrass, blues, country and Cajun to rock, pop, jazz and Zydeco. And one of the main reasons why there are so many different styles found around here is due to a man named Chris Strachwitz, the subject of the wonderful new documentary called This Ain’t No Mouse Music!
Strachwitz is not a musician, nor did he grow up in a rural, Southern setting. Originally from Germany, his family fled their home in Silesia and the Nazis in 1945, and he ended up in California, where he somehow discovered and fell in love with the sounds of the Western swing music of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, blues and bluegrass. After teaching German in high schools near San Jose for a while, in 1960 he decided that what he really wanted to do was to record ethnic musicians in their natural habitats, so he and folklorist Mack McCormick headed to Texas where they sought out blues legend Lightnin’ Hopkins, who told him about blues guitarist Mance Lipscomb, who ended up being the first artist that Strachwitz recorded. 54 years later, and now at age 83, he shows no signs of slowing down.
After recording many blues, Cajun, jazz and Zydeco artists, he started his own record company, which, at the suggestion of McCormick, he called Arhoolie Records – “arhoolie” being a field holler. He also recorded and got the publishing rights to “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die-Rag” by Country Joe McDonald, which became famous at the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969, and with the money he made from this song he opened up Down Home Records in El Cerrito, where he could sell the recordings that he was making. Strachwitz loves recording but he doesn’t like to record in studios. He says, “I don’t produce music, I just catch it where it is.”
Filmmakers Chris Simon and Maureen Goslin – who were longtime protégés of the late/great Bay Area documentarian Les Blank – have known their film subject for over 35 years, and here they went on the road with Strachwitz to visit places where the music is from. They include wonderful archival footage of musicians from long ago that is interspersed with interviews with such current notable players as Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, Richard Thompson, Flaco Jimenez, Michael Doucet, and the Savoy Family.
As for the title of this documentary? You will have to watch it yourself to hear the explanations. One thing is for certain – you won’t be hearing one note of any mouse music in This Ain’t No Mouse Music!
August 20, 2014
2014 is shaping up to be the year of the first-name film. Noah, Godzilla, Hercules, Lucy and Tammy have already opened, and soon we willhave Annabelle and Jessabelle. One more name you can add to the list is Frank, a rather dark film that is about a group of strange musicians trying to make it in the music biz.
In the beginning, young, dweeby piano player Jon works his day job in a cubicle all the while trying to write songs. On lunch break one day he happens upon a band whose keyboard player is having some serious personal issues. Jon tells the band manager that he plays keys, and a few hours later he’s sitting in with the highly dysfunctional avant-garde group at a local club. The lead singer in the band – a presumed genius named Frank – wears a giant papier-mâché head at all times. Before he knows it, the next day Jon is off in the van with the band to a remote cabin where they spend the next year trying to record an album of bizarre original songs written by the enigmatic Frank. Even though the band members hate one another and him, Jon perseveres because he thinks this is going to be his big break. Via the Internet he even gets them a slot at South by Southwest, the yearly music festival in Austin, TX. Without giving too much away, things don't turn out the way they hoped, and the band – whose name is unpronounceable – has to figure out what to do next.
To be Frank, one of Hollywood’s handsomest lead men, Michael Fassbender, had to wear a giant fake head for the entire film. I only have to wonder if he owed the director Lenny Abrahamson a favor or something, because it doesn't seem like a wise career move. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the angry and controlling Clara, and Domhnall Gleeson – son of well-known Irish actor Brendan Gleeson – plays the innocent and idealistic Jon.
As a longtime working musician, I can identify with these characters and the situations they end up in, but I don’t know if the movie-going public will get a lot of the insider music jokes or if they will care about these not-ready-for-prime-time-players. There are some funny moments, like when Frank has to describe his facial expressions that you cannot see because of his big head. Or when the band thought they would be famous in Texas because they had 7,000 hits on their YouTube music video.
Frankly speaking, director Abrahamson’s homage to fake-headed singer Frank Sidebottom, the alter-ego of the late British comic Chris Sievey, really doesn’t hit the big time. While Frank is a very odd role for Fassbender to be have taken on, it is a nice starring vehicle for the young Gleeson. But if you really want to see a member of the renowned red-headed Irish acting family in a movie this weekend, you may want to see dad’s new film Calvary instead.
August 6, 2014
Everybody loves music. Maybe not the same kinds, but whether it be classical, country, bluegrass, folk, pop, or whatever, everyone has their favorite style that they like to listen to. Music can have a magical effect on people, and as a professional musician for 40+ years now, I never realized just how much power music can have until I saw the new documentary called Alive Inside.
Dan Cohen had been a volunteer at assisted living homes for many years, dealing with seniors with dementia, when he discovered how some of the patients reacted when they heard some music that they were familiar with from their younger days. He invited documentary filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett to come and follow him around for one day, and Rossato-Bennett ended up following Cohen for three years. There are many heartwarming examples of heavily sedated seniors sitting practically comatose in wheel chairs that can’t even tell you their names or recognize themselves in photos. But when Cohen slips headphones on them and plays music from their era on an iPod, their eyes and faces come alive with joy as the music takes them back to a happier time in their lives. A few years back there was a six-minute video going around on the web featuring 94-year-old Henry, one of the people featured in this film, and the video has since racked up over 10 million hits on YouTube. Henry didn’t even know his own daughter when she came to visit. But when Cohen plays him big band music from the ‘30s, you’d better have tissues nearby, because the way that Henry reacts is guaranteed to bring tears to your eyes. And while brief appearances by Dr. Oliver Sacks and singer Bobby McFerrin give Alive Inside star power, the real stars of this story are the seniors.
Cohen has since founded an organization called Music & Memory, and through his tireless efforts – and all the while battling a moribund medical system that relies heavily on keeping patients medicated – he has now gotten music into over 650 assisted living facilities. But there is still a long way to go towards changing how we treat our elders. As filmmaker Rossato-Bennett states at the end of the film, “Together we’re going to bring life into the places where it’s been forgotten, and together, we’ll listen.”
Having performed countless times in retirement homes for special needs patients for the amazing Bay Area organization called Bread & Roses, I have to tell you that some of my most memorable and gratifying moments while playing music have been on these occasions. As the Greek philosopher Plato supposedly once said, “Music gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” This weekend, you will have the chance to witness this yourself when you go to see Alive Inside, the winner of the Audience Award at 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
November 20 , 2013
Over the decades there have been monumental movies and TV shows that have featured bluegrass music and really helped put the genre in the spotlight, with The Beverly Hillbillies TV series and the films Bonny & Clyde, Deliverance and O Brother, Where Art Thou? being the big four. The new film from Belgium called The Broken Circle Breakdown has lots of fine bluegrass music in it, but oh brother, it is even darker than Deliverance and Jed Clampett and Granny would be rolling over in their graves if they were still alive today to see this story on the big screen.
Banjo player Didier leads a bluegrass band in the town of Ghent, Belgium, and he lives on a farm that looks like something in West Virginia. Right at the start he and his wife Elise are dealing with the horrific news that their little seven-year-old daughter Maybelle – named, of course, after country and bluegrass legend Mother Maybelle Carter – has cancer, and from that point on, you get a sense that this is not going to be a happy film. Suddenly the story flashes back seven years earlier to happier times, when Didier first meets the pretty young tattoo maven Elise while strolling by her shop, and they start talking about music. Didier says he loves America, even though he has never been there, and Elise says that “Elvis was the greatest.” Didier replies, “No, Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, was the greatest.” He then invites her to go and see a bluegrass band that he knows of that will be playing nearby later in the week, and when she does, to her surprise she sees Didier picking the banjo and singing the classic song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” with his band on the stage. Next thing we know, in short order, Elise is moving in with him, singing with the band, and she becomes pregnant. Then we’re shifted back to the present, and without giving away too many details, things take a turn for the worse with Maybelle, the story devolves into a tragedy of breakdowns in communication and of the mental variety, and, if you can imagine, then goes even further downhill from there.
Broken Circle also touches on the subjects of politics, religion and science, with stem cell research being one of the underlining themes, and it also has some steamy sex scenes that you don’t normally find in a movie with a bluegrass soundtrack. And the editing of the story is a bit confusing at times, as it takes a while to figure out if the story is still in flashback or in the present.
This is not a film for the family to see, but if you are feeling down as the holiday season approaches, you’ll probably feel a lot better about yourself after seeing The Broken Circle Breakdown. While the performances are good, and the soundtrack and tattoos are great, this film is not going to make it onto anyone’s must-see list.
This page updated 12/8/16