This hour-long documentary has some consistency with the later work of director Terry Zwigoff, which (like Crumb and Ghost World at least) is quite obsessed with the world of both blues and outsider art. In this case, its protagonist Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong is a fiddle player (amongst other instruments, including the mandolin) and also the artist of some odd little works, the chief one of which appears to be his own Bible of sorts, albeit about p0rnography. He is an interesting raconteur of course — the chief necessity of any documentary subject — and we get several extended clips of him playing his blues music with his little band of similarly elderly practitioners. It’s a charming little film about an odd and interesting life lived in the margins.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Terry Zwigoff; Cinematographers John Knoop and Chris Li; Length 60 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 5 May 2022.
In my round-up of favourite films of the year I’ve not yet posted reviews of, I touched on Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground yesterday, but probably the best music documentary of the year — also dealing with music in NYC in the late-60s — was this one made by Questlove (or ?uestlove if you will), the drummer for The Roots and multi-hyphenate artist and creator. It mostly presents (grainy, video-shot) footage of a series of concerts from 1969 in Harlem, following the classic documentary formula of ‘never before seen… until now!’ Thankfully the footage has enough quality to capture the vibrant performances but also the incredible level of music, and is interspersed with interviews with those surviving participants and organisers.
This documentary clearly needs a deluxe edition box set to include all the concert footage, but what it does is still pretty great. It takes the footage unearthed of this 1969 series of the Harlem Cultural Festival, a themed summer of gigs with gospel shows, jazz shows, soul, funk and R&B, from slick Motown pop to the fuzzed-out psychedelia of Sly & the Family Stone, straight up gospel from Mahalia Jackson and the Staples Singers, blues, African rhythms, Afro-Cuban and Puerto Rican sounds, Hugh Masekela on the trumpet, and finishes up with the peerless Nina Simone, all orchestrated to tell a story of a community and a people in a state of change. It links its story to recent history and civil rights of course, but also to wider cultural currents in fashion and hairstyle, revolution and self-actualisation, the celebration of African and Afro-Latinx heritage, and the powerful role of Christ and the church within all of these struggles, and does so in an accessible, glorious way using as the basis the colourful footage of the concerts themselves and interviews with surviving participants and audience members. It’s all pretty great, even when ambushed by Lin-Manuel Miranda at one point, and it needs that deluxe edition, or maybe a series of further films. It deserves it own cultural festival just to celebrate everything in here.
Director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson; Cinematographer Shawn Peters; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Wellington, Saturday 11 September 2021.
Among my favourite films of the year is this music documentary contender, which is almost teasingly pitched between a conventional talking head sort of style (John Cale still has plenty of style to spare in his interviews) and something a bit more experimental, in keeping with much of the direction of the music. There are split-screen effects, an interesting narrative structure and plenty of messing around at the edges of this film. Both informative even for those fairly au fait with the Velvets’ music, but also a good primer.
If there’s something I can say about Todd Haynes it’s that he’s not likely to do something that has no visual interest, even if he’s making what is ostensibly a fairly down-the-line documentary. Indeed, one does get the standard tropes — archival footage, talking heads (though not, let’s be clear, the band Talking Heads), and a largely chronological order. But nothing’s is quite so straightforward, so we often get these things intertwined or superimposed. Artfully shot interviews match the Warhol screen test footage of each of the band members, audio snippets, contextualisation from other artists, and of course a densely rich soundtrack all add up to a pretty great portrait of not just the band but also the culture ferment that produced them — and Cale, being the most alive and most eloquent of the band, leads a lot of that early material (and seems like one of the most interesting characters, both personally and musically, in much of this artistic scene anyway). I was surprised to discover that La Monte Young is still around, as an aside, but it’s nice to see Moe Tucker and hear from other collaborators of them, as well as those strongly influenced by their sound as well (of which there is hardly any shortage).
Director Todd Haynes; Cinematographer Edward Lachman; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (Apple TV+ streaming), Wellington, Saturday 30 October 2021.
I’ve already covered some of the range of documentaries at New Zealand International Film Festival. In some respects it’s surprising that the music ones have been the less formally innovative, given that both films (this and Poly Styrene) deal with boldly experimental artists working outside the mainstream. However, while both are fairly straightforward, they at least deal with very interesting subjects. I don’t think they both work entirely, but they serve as useful primers.
This film definitely deals with a topic I have a lot of interest in: I love the work of Éliane Radigue, which shimmers with barely perceptible fluctuating textures and tonalities like a pulsing sonic organism, and own releases by Pauline Oliveros, Laurie Spiegel and others covered here. So in that respect, I was very happy to see and learn more about these women working in a strange, dusty little corner of the music world which would come in time to have more prominence. But it’s undeniably also the case that this film is very much fixated on a certain type of electronic sound artist, which unfortunately means they all seem to have a similar kind of well-educated background, a similar intensity of expression, although the sounds they conjure range along a gamut. The addition of Wendy Carlos almost feels like an after-the-fact gesture (she’s not listed as one of the main profiled women in the end credits), and her music is dismissed somewhat as populist and light — which may well be her place within this particularly austere community, but the footage we see certainly shows she had plenty of ideas and ability to conjure incredible sounds from circuitry. But on the whole, this is a solid primer on the work of pioneering sound artists, from the boffins of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (Oram and Derbyshire) to the experimenters in France and America and is worth watching for those interested in sound.
Director/Writer Lisa Rovner; Cinematographer Bill Kirstein; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Wednesday 10 November 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Director Spike Lee; Writer David Byrne; Cinematographer Ellen Kuras; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Friday 27 November 2020.