Selena (1997)

I’ve dedicated this as a year of catching up with classic movies, and 20 years on from Selena‘s release, I’d heard this film had become something of a classic — at least, amongst those whose experiences it reflects. After all, like I’m sure plenty of British people, I don’t know anything about Tejano music or cumbia, or indeed about the singer at the heart of this story. Incredible as it may be, it’s true that this film wasn’t made to reflect or reconfirm anything I experience or know about the world — but that’s a quality I like in films and I like it here. Sure you could say it’s about all those ‘universal themes’ (growing up under a demanding father, finding your voice in the world, love against the odds or at least against aforementioned father, all that kind of thing), but it’s grounded in a specifically Texan (or ‘Tex-Mex’) reality, of sparkly 90s fashion, and of music I have already confessed to knowing nothing about (so won’t say anything about). I do like that the director enters the story via mainstream ‘white’ music with the backstory of Selena’s father Abraham cross-cut with her 1995 set at the Houston Astrodome, which incidentally illuminates the outsider experience of America — a fascinating topic now as ever. I like too Jennifer Lopez’s performance, but I’ve always been a fan of her acting. It’s a full-throated biopic that tips occasionally into melodrama and has the hint of hagiography but on the whole is radiant with life and colour (where it could easily have been about death and tragedy).

Selena film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Gregory Nava; Cinematographer Edward Lachman; Starring Jennifer Lopez, Edward James Olmos, Jon Seda; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 28 January 2017.

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Talk to Me (2007)

I’m still of the opinion that Kasi Lemmons is among the most underrated of directors currently working (if, as ever with African-American women directors, not nearly enough). Her film Black Nativity was largely ignored (though delightfully odd), and here, working within a fairly mainstream period biopic vein, she manages to wring something that feels fresh. Of course it helps to have such a great cast — and Cheadle, Ejiofor and, most of all, Taraji P. Henson are on top form. It takes the story of a Washington DC radio personality, Petey Greene (whom I’d never heard of, but that’s on me), and uses it as a starting point to make a story of America in the 60s and 70s. It’s not perhaps the deepest of works, and undoubtedly it takes liberties with the real Petey Greene’s story, but it works as a film and it’s made with grace and passion.

Talk to Me film posterCREDITS
Director Kasi Lemmons; Writers Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa; Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine; Starring Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Taraji P. Henson, Martin Sheen; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 10 January 2017.

Bessie (2015)

I may not always have felt bowled over by the filmmaking here — attractive and well-staged as it is, there is a sense of conventionality to its telling, with a script that rushes through Bessie Smith’s career, pausing for some portentous slow-motion flashbacks and overlaid by an orchestral score that often drowned out any subtlety — and yet, YET. The performances are all uniformly fantastic, starting with the wonderful, too often underrated Queen Latifah as the blues singer of the title, all a-sparkle in those glamorous 20s and 30s show dresses, but also conveying a naked vulnerability and a streak of wilful non-conformism. Latifah has been doing great acting for at least 20 years (at least in the roles that I’ve been seeing her in on screen, starting for me with 1996’s Set It Off), but the plaudits extend too to all the supporting cast. As this is an HBO production, many of them are most familiar from their television work (Michael K. Williams as Bessie’s partner, and Khandi Alexander as her sister are only the most prominent), but I don’t think anyone argues anymore that this is any lesser a platform for screen narratives, and I found myself wishing at times this had been a mini-series instead. But no, Latifah makes Bessie greatly watchable with a performance worth celebrating, whatever other drawbacks the film may have.

Bessie film posterCREDITS
Director Dee Rees; Writers Rees, Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois; Cinematographer Jeff Jur; Starring Queen Latifah, Michael K. Williams, Khandi Alexander, Mo’Nique; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 20 October 2016.

Bayou Maharajah (2013)

This film seems to have had a long trail from festivals to release, and as there’s a 2016 date at the end of the credits, I assume there’s been some re-editing in the interim. It’s certainly an interesting piece, not least because its subject is himself an interesting character (James Booker, a multi-talented largely-jazz pianist from New Orleans; black, gay, one-eyed) but also one who is relatively obscure: obviously this isn’t more than anecdotal evidence, but I’d never heard of him. That said, the director here makes the choice to present much of his music in full and that’s a strong statement about the quality of his playing, something a lot of music documentaries (even ones about acknowledged ‘geniuses’) don’t do. And yes those performances are worth watching in full.

Bayou Maharajah film posterCREDITS
Director Lily Keber; Writers Keber, Aimée Toledano and Tim Watson; Cinematographer David S. White; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 18 July 2016.

Miles Ahead (2015)

This biopic (of sorts) about Miles Davis is clearly a labour of love for director, writer, producer and star Don Cheadle, but it’s only intermittently successful as a film. Cheadle is excellent, though quite how much he captures of the famously prickly Davis is certainly debatable, but the real issue is the way it makes Ewan McGregor’s Scottish music journo the way into the story. McGregor is largely pointless, and indeed spends a lot of the time on the sidelines distracting attention by repeating inane profanities. Perhaps he’s there, though, to allow Davis someone on whom to unleash his violent temper, for he had a rather more disturbing tendency for spousal abuse, little of which we see here except for one music-led sequence with his first wife Frances (a powerful Emayatzy Corinealdi, probably the film’s best performance). That said, it’s far from a hagiography, and while it comes with the imprimatur of the musician’s estate, it also doesn’t downplay his irritable, violent and self-destructive sides. Indeed, much of the film is taken up with a boisterous (and freewheelingly invented) chase sequence as Davis tries to track down some purloined master tapes from his late-1970s ‘comeback’ (he dropped out of the business for five years), though flashbacks to the first flush of his late-1940s and 1950s success recur throughout. I wanted to like this a lot more than I ended up doing, but it’s a noble attempt to capture something of this jazz legend.

Miles Ahead film posterCREDITS
Director Don Cheadle; Writers Steven Baigelman and Don Cheadle; Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer; Starring Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Friday 22 April 2016.

Mavis! (2015)

There’s no shortage of strong, feel-good films about performers (indeed it was only a few weeks ago that Janis: Little Girl Blue was released), and like those, Mavis! — complete with an exclamation mark somewhat like its subject, singer Mavis Staples — leaves a smile on the face. We see Mavis, accompanied by her surviving sister Yvonne, play to appreciative audiences, before cutting back to her earlier life as the lead vocalist of the Staple Singers, a group started by their ‘Pops’ Roebuck in the late-1940s primarily in the gospel tradition, though later moving into more secular areas throughout the 1950s and 1960s. It’s fascinating to see his centrality to this group in archival footage and interviews, bringing the group in as backing singers for Martin Luther King and taking them to the Newport Folk Festival, with in later years his shock of white hair and good-natured charm. Still, it’s Mavis’s voice and personality which shines through most of all, and if the film doesn’t take any great departures from established documentary practice, it coasts by on the likeability of its subject and her storied life.

Mavis! film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jessica Edwards; Cinematographer Keith Walker; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Saturday 20 February 2016.

Janis: Little Girl Blue (2015)

I was born in the late-1970s, so I never really got exposed to Janis Joplin’s music much, which means I never really had much of a sense of her life or her career. She’s famous now, it seems, largely for dying young — the kind of story that’s sadly all too common — so this documentary makes a concerted effort to be more about a celebration of Joplin’s life and voice, rather than her demise. It leans heavily, as you’d expect, on archival footage of concerts and TV appearances, as well as the talking heads of friends, lovers and fellow musicians, who of course are all now in their 70s — giving that extra layer of disconnect when matching up these lined and aged faces with the youthful hippies in the old footage. A lot of this doesn’t really transfer well to the cinema screen — blown up, a lot of the sources look grainy and disfigured by digital compression — but what comes across clearly is both Joplin’s tremendous voice, but also her intelligence. As fond as she was of drugs, sex, dressing up and acting wildly in the public eye (an act that is perhaps stretched closest to breaking when she goes to a high school reunion in her small southern home town), she’s more often seen in interviews trying to make serious points while surrounded by a bunch of blokes whose progressive stance on free love and drugs just as often seems like little beyond schoolboy laddishness — though they’re nothing compared to the 50s-holdover model of masculinity as buttoned-down square so evident when she’s quizzed on a talk show appearance by Don Adams. Her mortal dalliance with drugs aside, Joplin comes across quite clearly as someone with talent and compassion and a far more interesting and appealing role model than perhaps she’s given credit for. And that’s the Joplin that Little Girl Blue is interested in.

Janis: Little Girl Blue film posterCREDITS
Director Amy J. Berg; Cinematographers Francesco Carrozzini and Jenna Rosher; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Monday 8 February 2016.

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict (2015)

One of the strengths of a traditional documentary is to shine light on something that is perhaps less well-known and bring it to life in some way. I can’t claim that this film makes any great formal advances, and some of the titling is a little clunky if I’m trying to pick holes, but it takes the life of a person I did not know very well except in passing as a name engraved on art museums (although her uncle Solomon is the Guggenheim behind the more iconic ones), and makes it into an enjoyable and fascinating story. The life of Peggy Guggenheim is told via talking heads interviews with those who knew and worked with her, archival photos from her life, snippets of film, images of the most famous artworks she collected and the places where they hang, but primarily via a voice recording she made with her biographer late in her life. This trope of ‘these recordings were believed lost, but have been rediscovered and are presented in this film for the first time’ is becoming one wearily familiar in the documentary world; I’ve seen a few already this year. However, Peggy’s voice is a wonder to hear, not just for her idiosyncratic delivery, but for her willingness to candidly talk about all kinds of subjects (her biography is noted by one interviewee as being a catalogue of the people she’s slept with). Her life becomes a distillation of bohemian allure and hard-nosed business deals, taking her from New York to Paris to London to Venice, combined with her winning ingenuousness and delight at the modern art she loved so much. It’s only a pity she’s no longer around, but her art galleries remain a testament to her vision.

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict film posterCREDITS
Director Lisa Immordino Vreeland; Writers Bernadine Colish and Vreeland; Cinematographer Peter Trilling; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Tuesday 15 December 2015.

Brand: A Second Coming (2015)

There’s not a great deal to say about this new film from Ondi Timoner, the director of the enjoyable bitter-rivalry music documentary Dig! (2004). It premiered at the London Film Festival, was in cinemas a week or two later, and now already is on Amazon Instant Video, which may suggest it’s not that good, but actually just means that its real audience is largely online. Most people in the UK, after all, are likely to have an opinion about Russell Brand, because he’s certainly not been shy in broadcasting his own personality and views far and wide. He’s already been the subject of one documentary this year (somewhat more hagiographic one presumes), but this one purports to dig a little deeper beneath the surface. Whatever my own opinion about the man, it’s certainly clear that many of his views have been misrepresented by the media, or — perhaps more accurately — not addressed at all, through gales of mocking laughter, a lot of which has the nasty tinge of classism (Brand comes from an impoverished Essex background). A few of those media figures (like news anchor Jeremy Paxman) are interviewed here about Brand’s political statements, while Timoner is able to convey a sense of Brand’s life, his comedy, and his very public struggles with his family, with his relationships, and with drug addiction. It’s never particularly boring, but it certainly may suffer in your opinion if you’ve already got a strong dislike for Brand’s antics. I can’t say it gave me a new-found insight into Russell Brand, but I do believe it at least gives his views a fair hearing.

Brand: A Second Coming film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ondi Timoner; Cinematographer Svetlana Cvetko; Starring Russell Brand; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Saturday 14 November 2015.

Orion: The Man Who Would Be King (2015)

From the prominent BBC Storyville credits, I’m assuming this documentary was made for TV, and in a way it’s sort of appropriate to that format as it’s about a guy that time and fate has pushed into the background. Jimmy Ellis, who performed under a mask and the stage name Orion for a period in the late-70s and 1980s, was a tall man from Mississippi with a very distinctive singing voice, in that he sounded exactly like Elvis. However, he was no impersonator — he tended to distance himself wherever possible from Elvis — but just desperate to pursue a singing career. This is how, despite being brought up on a farm, he ended up taking a gig following the death of Elvis as the mysterious masked Orion, a mystique that his manager at Sun Records insisted upon as a way for him to succeed. The documentary makes its way through his life with some talking heads (including surviving family members) and testimony as to both how much he wanted the life, and how much he was exploited by those who saw the chance for a quick buck (very little of which Jimmy saw) out of this beautifully-voiced but fairly ingenuous guy. It’s a fascinating story for those of us (like me) unfamiliar with the legend, and a sad one, though that much seems clear from the outset — you never get the sense that Ellis was ever destined for real stardom. Still, it’s a sweet little film. Ellis seems like he was a gentleman, and those left behind remember him fondly, plus there are some surprises along the way (specifically about his possible genealogy), so it holds the viewer’s interest.

Orion: The Man Who Would Be King film posterCREDITS
Director Jeanie Finlay; Cinematographers Mark Bushnell and Steven Sheil; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Tuesday 29 September 2015.