I’m doing a week focusing on ‘very long’ (3hr+) films, but most of these have been made by men, perhaps overeager to flex their cinematic clout or show off their stamina (amongst other things). However, there have been plenty of directors working in television who have pulled off longer-form work in the guise of mini-series and multi-part episodic drama. One such figure, working in the documentary form, is Molly Dineen, who like a British Frederick Wiseman, has been profiling institutions and work throughout her career. Her longest films are The Ark (1993) and In the Company of Men (1995), which respectively look at London’s zoo and the British Army (as deployed in Northern Ireland), but she also has a number of shorter works to her name. Her most recent film, Being Blacker (2018) is one I haven’t yet caught up with, but everything else I talk about below. All of these have been released by the BFI on the three-part DVD set The Molly Dineen Collection, which is well worth tracking down.
Harking back to last week’s musical theme is this concert film of Aretha Franklin in 1972. Despite being filmed at the time, there were technical issues to deal with, not to mention Franklin herself, and was only released finally last year. As it is essentially a gospel concert filmed in a church, with contributions from Franklin’s own father and others in the same tradition, it provides a slice of African-American religious experience, albeit one that has been elevated and curated for a quite different audience.
We see director Sydney Pollack near the start, chatting to his camera operators as the church is set up, and then throughout the film we see him from time to time gesticulating wildly to get his cameramen to pick out something happening in the audience or away from centre stage. Indeed, because this concert was filmed in a church, there’s not really any space to hide and so, unlike many concert films, there are a lot of shots where we can clearly see all the cameras and sound recording equipment, and somehow that makes this feel all the more intimate and personable. But, as the familiar documentary marketing blurb goes, due to technical complications the footage was never released… until now. (Actually it seems it was ready a decade ago, but while she was alive Aretha Franklin blocked it from being released.)
Aretha is of course staggeringly good, but the film is wonderful in affording time to everything around her: the faces of the gospel choir are featured every bit as heavily, the well-practised patter of Rev Cleveland introducing the songs and helping out on the piano and vocals on a number of the more straightforwardly gospel numbers, and then there’s the audience, who are like a time capsule in and of themselves, getting to their feet, providing the call-and-response that Cleveland expects. On the second of the two nights, word has clearly got around, so Aretha’s father is there (hopping up to wipe down her sweating brow while she’s in full stride), Clara Ward (another gospel singer), even Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts can be spotted up the back in the audience.
Still, ultimately, this is Aretha’s film, and her performance is really spine-tingling, cementing it almost instantly as one of the all-time classic great concert movies.
Directors Sydney Pollack and Alan Elliott; Starring Aretha Franklin; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Wednesday 15 May 2019.
It wouldn’t be right to do a themed week around the musical and not cover at least one Bollywood film, an industry whose entire production in every genre seems to be somehow informed by the genetic material of the musical. It just so happens that some of them are rather closer to the form than others, and this film is at heart a film about music and the performance of it, as well as being something of a musical.
I suppose I was primed beforehand to be resistant to what appears (and, to a certain extent, is) the Bollywood reimagining of 8 Mile, with its aspirant rapper Murad (Ranveer Singh), who has to be coaxed into performing and then finds himself on stage trying out for the big time, with moneyed half-American hangers-on tempting him with their aspirational lifestyles. But really, this is a film that’s far more in its element when it’s dealing with the slums that Murad has come out of, about his secret relationship with Safeena (Alia Bhatt, whom I adore) — whose family are wealthier and whose parents would never consent to their being together — and about the difficulties he has just trying to live his life. After all, he has friends who are mixed up in carjacking and drug dealing, and so their easy access to money at times becomes too tempting. In some ways, class seems even more ingrained into the Indian films I’ve seen than in any other cinema, and it’s explicitly addressed here by the director Zoya Akhtar, as are the double-standards of Murad’s father, who has married a much younger second wife and then treats his first one badly — his actions are hardly excused, but we do get a glimpse into the grinding poverty and lack of opportunities he’s been given in life, and the extent to which he has given up hope of it ever changing. Given the film’s big-budget production background, none of this context was ever likely to be as gritty and depressing as it could be, but all the themes are very much there. Still, for all that, and for all the enjoyment in its big musical competition scenes, any lead character who could even think about cheating on Alia Bhatt will never fully have my sympathy.
Director Zoya Akhtar ज़ोया अख़्तर; Writers Akhtar and Reema Kagti ৰীমা কাগতি; Cinematographer Jay Oza जय ओझा; Starring Ranveer Singh रणवीर सिंह, Alia Bhatt आलिया भट्ट; Length 153 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 20 February 2019.
There are, of course, many ways for a film to be musical. As a genre, the musical is a narrative form with singing (and often dancing), but then there are films that deal at a more basic level with the performance of music itself. Some of these (such as concert films) are easy to separate, but the music video can be a form of narrative expression, and several artists have in recent years extended this form to feature length, not least Beyoncé in her solo work. In many ways, her ‘visual album’ Lemonade is a narrative, and certainly the film that accompanied its release has a structure that uses poetic voiceover to link what might be considered discrete music videos into something approaching a cohesive whole. She followed this with a tour that Homecoming ostensibly documents, although it also presents the performances in extensive chunks.
I feel like I could do that thing of saying what this hour-long visual poem/musical album reminds me of — because there are clearly visual and cinematic cues here — but I don’t really feel equal to that at all. Instead, I’ll observe that to me Lemonade feels both intensely personal (it has two key credited directors in Beyoncé and Kahlil Joseph, alongside many co-directors, but this is an auteur work by Beyoncé more than anyone else) as well as being something of a catalogue of Black visual representations in many styles, from many eras and in many places. In the sense of it being personal, I mean not that it’s a capital-S Statement by Beyoncé about her own life (it may be, but that’s not really what makes it interesting to me), so much as an engagement with a history and dynamic of representation, racism, misogyny, artistic heritage, motherhood, feminism, et al., as refracted through her own personality and shared experiences. I’m probably not really putting this very well, so maybe I should say instead that I think it’s thrilling and wonderful, poetic in style (and interspersed with literal poetry), densely elliptical in its thematics (but maybe that’s just because it’s not aimed at me). It’s not a collection of music videos; it’s a film. And it’s wonderful.
Directors Beyoncé [as “Beyoncé Knowles-Carter”], Kahlil Joseph, Melina Matsoukas, Dikayl Rimmasch, Mark Romanek, Todd Tourso and Jonas Åkerlund; Writers Beyoncé and Warsan Shire; Cinematographers Khalik Allah, Pär Ekberg, Santiago Gonzalez, Chayse Irvin, Reed Morano, Dikayl Rimmasch and Malik Sayeed; Starring Beyoncé; Length 65 minutes.
Seen at home (download), London, Wednesday 27 April 2016 and Sunday 8 May 2016.
Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé (2019)
A record of Beyoncé’s two headline Coachella performances in 2018, interwoven with voices and quotes from prominent Black intellectuals and artists, and backstage snippets of the huge amount of preparation and training that went into this event. Clearly Beyoncé is drawing on a huge range of influences, not least the energetic dancers and musicians of historically black colleges and universities of the American South, hence the Greek letters in the title, and the design of the logo prominently displayed on the performers’ clothing — as, after all, Beyoncé here seems to be creating her own sorority (Beta Delta Kappa) for this ‘homecoming’ to the stage of an historically white-dominated music festival.
Her huge phalanx of talented performers are largely seen on the pyramidal stage which forms the foundation of the whole spectacle — and I’d say it looks cool, which it undoubtedly is, but it’s likely there’s some deeper significance there as well, perhaps a hint at the masonic origins of the (historically white, and usually fairly exclusionary) Greek-lettered fraternities and sororities, or a nod towards her Egyptian forebears as a gesture towards an almost imperial dominion. After all, she also has huge lit-up letters forming the word DIVA, which are illuminated only for a very short period while she’s singing that song, and suggest a playful self-critique while also very clearly being a loud signal that no one should be messing with her.
There are all these kinds of things, a dense network of allusions and references, running through her performance, and it would be beyond me to try and understand (or even list) them all, but needless to say, it’s a glorious and sustaining piece of work.
Director/Writer Beyoncé [as “Beyoncé Knowles-Carter”]; Cinematographers Mark Ritchie; Starring Beyoncé; Length 137 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 18 April 2019.
I guess what’s good and also valuable about this documentary is a number of things. First off, it shows — without judgement or sneering — people of various age ranges who have all been enormous fans (“fangirls” if you will) of a boyband, getting the posters, collecting the paraphernalia, going to the gigs, just generally defining their lives for at least some period entirely around a band and their experience of that band. All four of the women interviewed in the documentary have their own respective boxes of mementoes that they retrieve from some corner of their cabinet, as if hidden away in concession to getting older. Some of them have moved on with their lives in interesting ways, but none have lost their fangirlish love of the band, and for all of them it provokes interesting digressions in their life stories.
And I suppose that’s another thing that’s really interesting about the film, in that it shows that being a fan is something that helps you through your life and does not (should not) mark you out as weird or beneath contempt. The film is keen to stress the positive, sustaining power of — in this case — being an enormous music fan, but I imagine it applies to anything else one might be a fan of. It creates social worlds and connections that can lead to love and happiness, it bridges experiences of trauma, it even connects generations. The women here have similar experiences, despite being separated by continents (there are two women in the US and two in Australia), and they are all very eloquent in talking about their lives, which it seems are more often than not unified by a feeling of being out of place. There’s the young Muslim-American women whose families in various ways find their daughters’ interests difficult, the elderly Australian woman who wasn’t allowed to pursue her own interests by her parents, or the younger one who was grappling with her own sexual orientation issues. Actually, a lot of the stuff that’s away from the fandom becomes an equally fascinating part of the story.
But most of all, there’s the filmmaker’s generosity of spirit in highlighting stories that are perfectly normal, perfectly healthy, and yet so often vilified or laughed at in mainstream culture, and this finally is what is wonderful about I Used to Be Normal.
Director Jessica Leski; Cinematographers Jason Joseffer, Simon Koloadin, Eric Laplante and Cesar Salmeron-Hoving; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Monday 7 January 2019.
Gurinder Chadha is the director most famous for Bend It Like Beckham (2002), though she made a splash with her first film Bhaji on the Beach (1993). She’s a British filmmaker, born in a British colony (as Kenya was) and who has lived in London for almost the entirety of her life, and is particularly good at locating stories of characters with South-East Asian backgrounds within a diverse cultural milieu that never feels suffocatingly white (as it sometimes can in other middle-class middle-brow British films). That said, of course, racism is a persistent issue in the background of her stories, and we still see those who are intent on denying the multi-ethnic nature of British society, like the skinheads in this latest film.
It’s rare to see a film this earnest and dorky, but it’s honestly very hard to take against it, however much I found it teeth-grittingly cheesy at times. The thing is, it takes its premise — the real life story of Javed (Viveik Kalra, based on the screenwriter Sarfraz Manzoor), a young Pakistani kid growing up in Luton discovering the music of Bruce Springsteen and finding connections to his own life — and plays it completely straight, without laughing at it or making jokes (though people certainly make fun of him). The first act sets up 1987 school life, complete with British versions of the classic American high school cliques, dominated by the sounds of the post-punk synth-based new romanticism of the mid- to late-80s, such that when our protagonist is handed some Bruce cassettes and starts listening to them, the music is quite different from what we’ve heard thus far. It even puts the lyrics up on screen to emphasise the effect, as he runs through a storm to the sounds of “The Promised Land” with back-projections on the council house walls: this is Gurinder Chadha’s version of total cinema, undoubtedly. It sorta works too, though I think I’d find it even more affecting to watch this on a plane, or on the couch when sick (that’s not a diss; it’s just one of those kinds of films, really comforting at a base soul level). The standout actor here turns out to be Javed’s Sikh best friend Roops (Aaron Phagura), who turns him onto Bruce, and whom I’d have been pleased to see a lot more of.
Director Gurinder Chadha; Writers Paul Mayeda Berges, Chadha and Sarfraz Manzoor (based on his memoir Greeting from Bury Park); Cinematographer Ben Smithard; Starring Viveik Kalra, Aaron Phagura, Hayley Atwell; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Tuesday 13 August 2019.
Certainly Hendrix had one of the stand-out sets at the 1967 Monterey Pop festival, so the single song he was allotted in the feature film released at the time (Monterey Pop) is expanded in Jimi Plays Monterey with what I presume is his full set, and released some years later in 1986. Most performers at the festival weren’t allowed more than about 20-30 minutes it seems, hence even the extended set’s somewhat abbreviated running time. That said, Hendrix packs a lot in, and while how he ended his set remains one of the iconic images of his short life — conjuring his fingers over a burning guitar — there’s plenty of other stuff to enjoy here, reminding me of how good he was when covering others’ songs.
Unlike the above pendant shorter film released more or less contemporaneously with this one, Shake! Otis at Monterey presents a musician’s set without contextualisation or narration (which for the Jimi film was provided by festival co-organiser, John Phillips). In this case it’s Otis Redding and one feels, given his demise very shortly after this was filmed (within six months), that a lot more context could have been given to his short but mercurial career. Luckily the music is riveting and Redding is an excellent performer, his backing band(s) among the tightest in the business. It’s only a shame he didn’t get more time, but what’s here, for 19 fascinating minutes, is great.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus; Cinematographers Nick Doob, Barry Feinstein, Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, Roger Murphy, Pennebaker and Nicholas T. Proferes; Length 63 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 September 2017.
If you’re a fan of classic 60s rock and pop music, then there’s plenty here to enjoy, with beautifully captured performances by the Mamas and the Papas (who helped organise the festival), Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and Ravi Shankar, amongst many others. Of course there are still a few of those acts whose legacy has been somewhat obscured by history (I have no idea who Country Joe are, nor much surpassing interest in finding out), but on the whole it’s a fine document. The filmmakers tend to prefer the close-up which can be a little frustrating at times, and their cameras wander to the audience with regularity, though plenty of little moments are captured thereby, the film being at times as much a document of late-60s counterculture fashion and style as of the music. But with the excellent soundtrack, it all coasts by very amiably.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director D.A. Pennebaker; Cinematographers Nick Doob [as James Desmond], Barry Feinstein, Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, Roger Murphy and Pennebaker; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 September 2017.
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).
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.
Ava DuVernay’s first feature-length film was this documentary (just up on Netflix) which focuses on a scene she was not only close to, but part of — the rap community based around the weekly hip-hop open mic nights at LA’s Good Life Cafe from 1989-1995 (we even get to see a short clip of her MCing, and she features in a lot of the talking heads interviews as part of her duo Figures of Speech). Formally, it’s very straightforward, blunt even: those interviews interspersed with video footage recorded at the time (and a few more recent clips to illustrate points being made, or subsequent careers). Sometimes someone will be remembering something (a notable MC’s flow, perhaps, or their distinctive stage presence) and then we’ll get the exact footage they are referring to — clearly, there exists plenty of documentation of the Good Life’s open mic nights, always good for this kind of project. If it seems raw and earnest, that’s hardly a failing, but comes from the love of filmmaker for subject. It’s good, too, to witness a scene explicitly founded in resisting what by that point were considered the boring tropes of gangster rap (so prevalent at the time, and this was around when Boyz N the Hood was filmically defining South Central Los Angeles). Much of the rap education I got from my ex in the early-00s was alternative hip-hop acts like Antipop Consortium and Blackalicious, and seeing this documentary makes it clear that other communities in the US were crafting lyrical, thoughtful reflections on the genre (leading to careers for rappers like Aceyalone and acts like Jurassic 5, the latter probably the most famous of the outfits which came from the Good Life scene). A film both inspiring and sweet.
Director Ava DuVernay; Cinematographer Isaac Klotz; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 11 January 2017.