NZIFF 2021: Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (2021)

In looking at the documentaries featured at the New Zealand International Film Festival, this is formally one of the less interesting ones. It’s a TV documentary originally, and though it has a sweet framing story whereby her daughter learns something about her mother’s past, the real interest is in the subject, who is endlessly fascinating, a mass of contradictions and relentless energy.


In learning about and listening to punk music when I was younger, I somehow contrived never to really engage with X-Ray Spex, although I certainly was passingly aware of its singer and frontwoman/band leader Poly Styrene. This film is as much about her daughter (the co-director Celeste Bell) learning about her mother and retracing her footsteps, as it is about Poly Styrene herself, and so some of it feels a little bit meandering. However, it presents enough interesting archival footage and testimony to fully justify its feature length, as Poly Styrene makes for a riveting central character. Watching those early performances, you can see just how young she was, writing from a very specific place of identity and anger, but whose ideas were clearly still under construction, being in her late-teens when she first took the stage. We discover her real name was Marianne Elliott and that there was a certain amount of pull between these two identities that she was never fully comfortable with, but clearly there was also a lot in her life that was uncomfortable, and it made relations with her daughter and family difficult at times. It’s lovely to see her and to hear from those who knew her and were influenced by her (we never see any of the voices on screen except for Poly and her daughter — this film is about a moment for each of its two protagonists, not about ageing, or speculating on how those we see in 40-year-old images might look now) and as a result she is now my favourite punk persona and I urgently need to listen to those albums.

Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (2021)

CREDITS
Directors Paul Sng and Celeste Bell; Writers Sng, Bell and Zoë Howe; Cinematographer Nick Ward; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 6 November 2021.

Aline (2020)

I was uncertain about whether to even go to this film in our local French film festival (I’ve barely engaged with Céline Dion’s music, though I greatly enjoyed Carl Wilson’s 33 1/3 book Let’s Talk about Love), but it turned out to be a highlight. It’s bonkers, let’s be clear, it is a gonzo piece of filmmaking, largely due to the writer/director’s casting of herself, starting with playing Dion in childhood (no younger stand-ins for this biopic). It’s also fictionalised, as I can’t imagine Dion ever giving her blessing to a film about her, certainly not this one, but it feels consistent with Dion’s own persona to be this far out. It’s good fun, though I can easily imagine someone hating it as much as I enjoyed it.


There is something self-indulgent about directing and writing a film about a Canadian pop culture icon and then casting yourself as the lead, but I have to applaud it. The move of then having you, a fully middle-aged woman, playing her as a child as well is the stuff of nightmares, but luckily that section only lasts a short while. Given the (lightly fictionalised) biopic nature of this — Aline Dieu is actually a stand-in for Céline Dion, as is clear from the very opening credits — it has a slightly episodic feel to it, as her life and career is rushed through. Nonetheless, it manages to hit all the requisite emotional crescendos, particularly around her large but supportive family (particularly her doting mother and father), her relationship with her much older manager, and her rather quirky looks — a sort of unkempt gawkiness that the actor/director/writer Valérie Lemercier captures well, without quite looking like the original (but that’s fine; it’s fictionalised after all). I’ve come across Dion in a number of pop cultural contexts, and she always comes across as an appealing personality to me, including in this film, so I really should actually engage with her music at some point in my life. In the meantime, for those of you who don’t really know her songs at all (like me), I can say that the film affected me despite that.

Aline (2020)CREDITS
Director Valérie Lemercier; Writers Brigitte Buc and Lemercier; Cinematographer Laurent Dailland; Starring Valérie Lemercier, Sylvain Marcel, Danielle Fichaud; Length 128 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 20 June 2021.

Dawn Raid (2021)

I’ve already done a week themed around NZ films, but look, I’m here in this country now, and I’m doing another, because I have, after all, seen more of them since arriving. There’s a new one out this week called Cousins, so I’m aiming to finish the week with a review of that, but in the meantime, this documentary I’m reviewing below is the first 2021 film I saw in cinemas, and it brings me up to a speed a bit with the years I missed while in, um, exile? It’s also worth thinking about because it’s at least partially a portrait of an underprivileged area of Auckland, Papatoetoe specifically, which has been much in the NZ news recently for being where some Covid-related lockdowns have originated, largely because its residents hold the lower-paid jobs for large international industries located nearby, including the airport.


Having recently relocated to NZ after a couple of decades away, it’s fair to say I was familiar with precisely none of the people in this film (aside from the American rappers who show up or are referenced periodically). I don’t know the South Auckland-based music label this documentary is about, I don’t know the key figures in that company, and I don’t even know any of the musical acts, but the very least I take from it is that there was and is plenty of talent in this impoverished part of NZ’s largest city. It’s a story of two grifters, young lads from difficult backgrounds who’d dropped out of high school and we’re trying to get their lives back on track in their early-20s via business college, who soaked up the lessons quickly and decided to start an empire on the streets of Papatoetoe (literally, not just making music, but owning food outlets, a barbers shop, office space, and who made much of their money via T-shirt sales). Although things go the route you sort of expect them to, along the way Dawn Raid Entertainment seem to have done a lot of good for their community, even if it is initially odd seeing this ginger-haired white guy explaining how his line of t-shirts reclaims derogatory terms used for Pacific Islands people (and perhaps, hidden in there somewhere, you can see a slight haze of hagiography even if not all the label’s artists in their interviews are quite as positive about its founders as the film tries to be). Ultimately it’s a documentary about community, and though I went in not knowing anything about the scene it covers, I ended up feeling rather fondly towards the two.

Dawn Raid film posterCREDITS
Director Oscar Kightley; Writers Matthew Metcalfe and Tim Woodhouse; Cinematographer Fred Renata; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at the Light House Cuba, Wellington, Thursday 28 January 2021.

Work It (2020)

If there’s one thing you can rely on Netflix for, it’s formulaic teen movies and romcoms, and then maybe the intersection between those. They have lots of examples, yes, I’ve seen plenty, but mostly they’re pretty likeable I find, and it’s a genre they seem able to do quite well. So here’s another teen film and another dance competition film, with a little bit of romcom to it but not too much.


It would be easy to write this film off as formulaic, because after all it is formulaic: it follows the ‘let’s form a team and beat our peers in the big finale’ and it cleaves tightly to all the rules as we understand them. Plus, being set in a high school, it folds in all the rules around teen high school movies too (all those cliques to introduce). And then there’s the team in question, which is a dance troupe, and already this film feels very mid-2010s because we’ve seen all those movies already, and clearly so have the filmmakers. But I can’t write it off, because dance movies still spark joy in me however formulaic they may be, and this one isn’t entirely witless. Sabrina Carpenter in the lead is pretty good (except at pretending to be bad at dancing), her band of high school misfits endearing in almost exactly the same way as, say, Pitch Perfect, and the love story is almost perfunctory, but I found it all very likeable and watchable, once you get past the initial wobbles (where the screenplay tries to throw in of-the-moment buzzwords like ‘being cancelled’ in a really clunky way).

Work It film posterCREDITS
Director Laura Terruso; Writer Alison Peck; Cinematographer Rogier Stoffers; Starring Sabrina Carpenter, Liza Koshy, Jordan Fisher, Keiynan Lonsdale; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Sunday 14 February 2021.

Sylvie’s Love (2020)

This didn’t make my favourites list last year, but it was recently released on Amazon Prime streaming, and it’s a gorgeously-mounted period piece about Black people in New York, which makes a change from the usual 1950s NYC milieu.


There’s a lot I really like about this romance film, most of which boils down to the sumptuous setting. It’s late-1950s to early-1960s New York City, and Tessa Thompson is our lead actor, as she falls for the rather earnest (and a little bit wooden) saxophone player Robert Holloway (Nnamdi Asomugha). It’s not ironic or winking at us in any way, nor is it a romcom. I don’t know why I associate this genre primarily with African-American themes, but maybe it’s because some of the greatest recent examples of romance films have been from filmmakers like Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball is practically a template) or have been films like Love Jones. This is hardly as well-written or developed as either of those classics, but is played entirely straight, a period drama that doesn’t pivot around virulent violent racism, but instead is a story about two people in a place learning to navigate their feelings for one another. It’s very sweet, and entirely lovely.

Sylvie's Love film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Eugene Ashe; Cinematographer Declan Quinn; Starring Tessa Thompson, Nnamdi Asomugha, Aja Naomi King, Lance Reddick; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at hotel (Amazon streaming), Picton, Monday 28 December 2020.

David Byrne’s American Utopia (2020)

It’s coming up to the end of the year, which means that desperate period when I try to catch up with the best films I haven’t yet seen. My own lack of home internet at the moment and the vagaries of global distribution, especially this year, mean that I probably won’t be able to see some of people’s favourites, and it will presumably be yet another year end that passes without me having seen the latest by Kelly Reichardt. Anyway, there are a few films from 2020, or new to me this year, which I’ve seen and haven’t yet reviewed, so I’m using this week between Christmas and NY to post them up, starting with a concert film by David Byrne, whose Talking Head doc Stop Making Sense is a touchstone of the genre (and whose 1994 concert film Between the Teeth is also great, and never really gets mentioned, though it doesn’t seem to be easily available anywhere).


A couple of years ago I saw Byrne on this tour, more or less on a whim — and I’m glad I did — but I feel like I’m getting a lot more from this film document (not least because being up in the rafters at London’s least atmospheric gig venue is hardly the best way to experience Byrne’s vision or his music). Instead director Spike Lee has his cameras at a rather more intimate theatre venue in New York City, and we even see the stage team riding around Manhattan on bicycles over the end credits (which in some ways might even be my favourite bit, as it’s accompanied by an upbeat cover that Byrne speaks about in a memorable bit of his stage repartee). Still there’s clearly an aesthetic at work here and even a bit of a narrative, as Byrne leads us through his songs, starting small and talking about being disconnected from people through to a huge ensemble on stage pleading with people to get involved and be part of a community, performed by musicians wearing matching grey suits (and their instruments) on a minimal set where it’s the human interactions and movements that are the key. It’s all a little bit heartwarming, and the stylish filming belies the rather monochrome costuming.

David Byrne's American Utopia film posterCREDITS
Director Spike Lee; Writer David Byrne; Cinematographer Ellen Kuras; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Friday 27 November 2020.

Global Cinema 19: Benin – Gangbé (2015)

Another small filmmaking nation with only a handful of films is Benin, a neighbour to the much larger Nigeria, but poorer by comparison and certainly with an undeveloped cinematic history. As such my film today is a documentary by a Swiss filmmaker about a musical band journeying to Nigeria, and thus ticks a few boxes for, I suppose to Western eyes, a level of comfortable African cinema, though the music is great.


Beninese flagRepublic of Benin (Bénin)
population 11,733,000 | capital Porto-Novo (264k) | largest cities Cotonou (679k), Porto-Novo, Parakou (255k), Godomey (253k), Abomey-Calavi (118k) | area 114,763 km2 | religion Christianity (53%), Islam (29%) | official language French | major ethnicity Fon (38%), Adja/Mina (15%), Yoruba (12%) | currency West African CFA franc (CFA) [XOF] | internet .bj

A West African country formerly known as Dahomey, it borders the much larger Nigeria (which lies to its east), as well as sitting on the Gulf of Guinea where most of its population lives. The name possibly refers to ancient inhabitants, the Bini. The modern state combines coastal city-states and inland tribal regions. By the early-17th century, the Kingdom of Dahomey (made up of Fon people) and related to the nearby Oyo Empire, began taking over coastal areas, and had a rivalry with the area of Porto-Novo (the modern legal capital, though government is based in Cotonou). Dahomey’s war captives were killed or sold into slavery, encouraged by the Portuguese who had some settlements. As a colonial power, the French became pre-eminent by the late-19th century, ruling Dahomey as part of the “French West Africa” region, though granted it its independence on 1 August 1960, under President Hubert Maga. Ethnic strife ensued, as well as periods of military rule (including being proclaimed a Marxist state in 1974), and it was renamed as the People’s Republic of Benin in 1975. The “People’s” bit was dropped in 1990 when Marxism was officially renounced. The President is democratically elected, and is well-regarded on scales of rule of law and human rights.

Cinema in Benin can be traced back to the 1950s or 60s, with a small amount of production in the early years of independence. Most output from the country is in the form of documentaries, but there have been a handful of fiction features, though no indigenous directors are widely known beyond the country.


Gangbé (2015)

I love a low stakes movie, and this one really delivers. It’s about the Beninese band of the title, whose dream is to perform at Fela Kuti’s club The Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria, and having booked the trip, the biggest drama is when the Nigerian customs officer asks to look inside the sousaphone case. (He finds a sousaphone.) But the music is good, you can’t fault that horn-driven African big band sound that owes a lot to Kuti, but also a legacy of juju and other traditional music. Naturally I don’t know very much about Benin, but we get a bit of the largest city, Cotonou, at the start, before it moves into the journey — which is as much spiritual as anything else, of course, especially when they record with Fela’s son Femi.

Gangbé film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Arnaud Robert; Cinematographer Charlie Petersmann; Length 58 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Friday 11 September 2020.

Two French-Tunisian Films about Musicians: Satin rouge (2002) and As I Open My Eyes (2015)

For my week of North African films, I have looked at a couple of Egyptian films by Youssef Chahine and an Iranian-Tunisian co-production fusing a spirit of the entire MENA region. Today I have shorter reviews of two films directed by Tunisian women, both which touch on musicians and musical performance, which are central parts of the culture of the country it seems. I think they say plenty about their society, the latter film explicitly so in dealing with the intersection between music and the Arab Spring events of 2011.

Continue reading “Two French-Tunisian Films about Musicians: Satin rouge (2002) and As I Open My Eyes (2015)”

Black Is King (2020)

I’m posting a second recent film today, which I don’t usually do… however, this new ‘visual album’ from Beyoncé was released today, therefore I watched it and present my thoughts below.


I haven’t seen the 2019 remake of The Lion King nor have I listened to the compilation that Beyoncé curated for that film’s release (The Lion King: The Gift), but I’ve seen this film now, and it obviously ties in stylistically to what she’s been doing for the last few albums, most notably with Lemonade (2016). Again there are the musical segments, choreographed and beautifully designed and costumed, sitting alongside the poetic fragments of voiceover (Warsan Shire’s poetry pops up once more, along with what I assume are clips from The Lion King film). If that previous visual album was harking back to a specifically African-American history, this one obviously looks to Africa instead, and Beyoncé has recruited a range of co-directors both from the continent and from its diaspora to capture the textures, colours and rhythms of some of the countries within it. It’s impossible (for me) to really meaningfully critique this work: it stands or falls on how much you love Beyoncé I suspect (and I do), but it’s also bold in the way it takes its influences and shapes them into something hovering right on the edge of narrative, neither a music video nor a feature film as most of us understand them, but something beautiful and opaque and fascinating.

Black Is King film posterCREDITS
Directors Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Kwasi Fordjour, Emmanuel Adjei, Blitz Bazawule, Ibra Ake, Jenn Nkiru, Jake Nava, Pierre Debusschere and Dikayl Rimmasch; Writers Knowles-Carter, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Clover Hope and Andrew Morrow; Cinematographers Muhammad Atta Ahmed, David Boanuh, Michael Fernandez, Santiago Gonzalez, Ryan Marie Helfant, Erik Henriksson, Danny Hiele, Laura Merians, Nicolai Niermann, Kenechukwu Obiajulu, Malik Sayeed, Benoit Soler; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (Disney+ streaming), London, Friday 31 July 2020.

Elder’s Corner (2020)

There are no shortage of good music documentaries — even in the same film festival I’m covering this week on my blog (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects 2020) I saw Shut Up Sona and The Go-Go’s (and there were a few others besides that I missed). Nor is there any shortage of stories from the continent of Africa when it comes to music either — it’s an enormous place of course, with so many different cultures, languages and traditions — but even if African cinema may never have been given the chance to develop as much as that in the west, there has never been any lack of music. A few years ago I reviewed They Will Have to Kill Us First (2015), about music in Mali, for example, but this documentary deals with nearby Nigeria, which as the largest country in Africa has plenty of its own distinctive sounds and traditions.


Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, so you’d expect it would have a lot of stories, and when it comes to the arts, its music has provided the soundtrack to so many momentous events. Typically, it’s the work of Fela Kuti who gets the attention — and he is of course a force of nature with the kind of story filmmakers love to tell — but it’s great to see a film which largely focuses on other, less well-remembered, figures from the nation’s long history of music. In that respect, this reminds me a little of Faaji Agba (2015), which shares a few interviewees in common, though Elder’s Corner provides a lot more context. It’s told by an expatriate Nigerian, the writer/director/producer of this film (born in London, living in NYC), who is prompted to make the film by the nostalgia of listening to his friend’s record collection. We see these crates of amazing, obscure and well-loved records at the start, and it’s eye-opening, but the real journey is the one he takes in Nigeria, talking to a lot of the older generation, getting them to reminisce about the origins of Highlife music, of Juju and (yes, eventually) Afrobeat, and also to take about the changeable fortunes of the country, taking in the grand attempts to celebrate the country’s artistic heritage at FESTAC 1977 but also the governmental corruption that was behind that and its subsequent decline, but also the Biafran War before that, through which many of the musicians interviewed lived. As you can guess from the title, this is a film very much a film giving voice to the older generations of musicians, and the legacy they leave behind (a number of them have passed since interviewed for this film), and that’s a story that’s always worth celebrating.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Siji Awoyinka; Cinematographers Kay Hung, Oluwaseye Olusa, Awoyinka, Edel Kelly and Tunji Ladoja; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Wednesday 8 July 2020.