Category Archives: Documentary

Tribeca 2022: Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan and T. Rex ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 18, 2022)

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Flying saucer, take me away. In 1971, the year before Bowie brought Ziggy Stardust to Earth, T. Rex landed the glam rock mother ship with their breakthrough album Electric Warrior. Originally formed as the duo Tyrannosaurus Rex in 1967, songwriter-vocalist-guitarist Marc Bolan and percussionist/obvious Tolkien fan Steve Peregrin Took (aka Steve Porter) put out several albums of psychedelia-tinged folk before splitting in 1970. Mickey Finn replaced Took, and Bolan recruited additional personnel and shortened the name to T. Rex in 1970.

Bolan’s coupling of power chord boogie with pan-sexual stage attire turned heads, making him the poster boy for what came to be labeled “glam-rock” (although, to my ears Bolan’s songs are rooted in traditional Chuck Berry riffs and straight-ahead blues-rock…albeit with enigmatic and absurdist lyrics). Tragically, Bolan died in a car accident in 1977 at 29. An amazingly prolific songwriter, he left behind a substantial catalogue and a legion of fans.

Ethan Silverman’s film traces Bolan’s career, weaving in footage from the sessions for the 2020 multi-artist tribute album Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan and T. Rex (Silverman was also involved in the production of the album). In addition to archival Bolan interviews and T. Rex performances (much of the latter taken from Ringo Starr’s 1973 Born to Boogie doc), tribute album participants like U2, Nick Cave Joan Jett, and Rolan Bolan weigh in. There are also comments (some archival) from Gloria Jones, Elton John, David Bowie, Billy Idol, Tony Visconti, Ringo and Cameron Crowe.  While it may not be a definitive portrait, it’s a heartfelt nod to a rock icon whose lasting influence cannot be overstated.

Tribeca 2022: Billion Dollar Babies: The True Story of the Cabbage Patch Kids ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 18, 2022)

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Andrew Jenks’ documentary connects the dots between two uniquely American traditions: Appalachian folk art, and shoppers trampling each other at Black Friday sales (“USA! USA! USA!”). But seriously…Cabbage Patch Kids. I’m old enough to remember the phenomena, but when they hit store shelves in the early 80s, I was in my mid-20s and too old to care.

Irregardless, I found some parts of the origin story weirdly fascinating, particularly the brick-and-mortar “hospital” where purchasers could view their doll’s “delivery” (from a head of cabbage) and then sign official “adoption papers” (more akin to Motel Hell than a Disney movie). And then there were the plagiarism lawsuits. Not essential viewing, but if you’re in the mood for a fun wallow in 80s nostalgia, you’ll dig it (hey…it’s even narrated by Neil Patrick Harris).

Tribeca 2022: Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 18, 2022)

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Several years ago, I saw Tom Jones at the Santa Barbara Bowl. Naturally, he did his cavalcade of singalong hits, but an unexpected moment occurred mid-set, when he launched into Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song”. Jones’ performance felt so intimate, confessional and emotionally resonant that you’d think Cohen had tailored it just for him. When Jones sang, I was born like this, I had no choice/I was born with the gift of a golden voice, I “got” it. Why shouldn’t Tom Jones cover a Cohen song? I later learned “Tower of Song” has also been covered by the likes of U2, Nick Cave, and The Jesus and Mary Chain.

A truly great song tends to transcend its composer, taking on a life of its own. The reasons why can be as enigmatic as the act of creation itself. In an archival clip in Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s beautifully constructed documentary, the late Cohen muses, “If I knew where songs came from, I’d go there more often.” Using the backstory of his beloved composition “Hallelujah” as a catalyst, the filmmakers take us “there”, rendering a moving, spiritual portrait of a poet, a singer-songwriter, and a seeker.

Tribeca 2022: Lakota Nation vs. The United States ***½

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 18, 2022)

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The history of the Black Hills is a microcosm of America’s “founding” …discovery, expansion, exploitation, and genocide (and not always in that order). I put “founding” in quotes because, of course, “someone” was already here when Columbus (and eventually, the Pilgrims) landed. In the case of the Black Hills (1.2 million acres encompassing adjoining sections of South Dakota and Wyoming), those residents were the Očéti Šakówiŋ (aka the Sioux Nation).

Writer-director-narrator Layli Long Soldier makes it clear in the introduction to her film that it is not going to be a chronological history, with reenactments of key events. In other words, don’t expect a Ken Burns joint here…but that’s a good thing, because essentially her documentary is a tone poem that embodies the spirit of the Oyate people and beautifully conveys their deep connections to the Black Hills (after all, Long Soldier is a poet).

There is plenty of history in the film; sadly, most of it bleak, revealing an endless string of broken treaties and general lack of respect for sacred land (from the Indian Wars of the 1800s to President Trump’s boorish Fourth of July rally at Mt. Rushmore in 2020). But Long Soldier holds out hope for the future as well, with profiles of longtime Native American activists and a new generation of community leaders and organizers. Powerful.

Tribeca 2022: The Wild One ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 18, 2022)

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Tessa Louise-Salomé directs this biography of theater and film director Jack Garfein. A Czechoslovakian-born Holocaust survivor, Garfein (who passed away in 2019) only directed two feature films, The Strange One (1957) and Walk on the Wild Side (1961); but each was notable for tackling then-taboo issues (homosexuality in the former and rape in the latter). Garfein tells his own story, with a wealth of archival clips and photographs woven throughout.

Most affecting are his recollections of the concentration camps, and how this harrowing experience informed his work as an artist. He also recalls his longtime marriage to actress Carroll Baker (which I was previously unaware of) and his involvement with The Actor’s Studio in New York (he later moved to Hollywood and co-founded Actors Studio West). An engrossing and intimate portrait.

Tribeca 2022: The Lost Weekend: A Love Story ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 11, 2022)

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As a lifetime Beatle fan, I like to think that everything I don’t know about the Fabs wouldn’t fill a flea’s codpiece…but I’ll confess that I learned a new thing or two about John Lennon’s infamous mid-life crisis in this engrossing documentary, directed by Eve Brandstein, Richard Kaufman, and Stuart Samuels.

This “lost weekend” (coined as such by Lennon himself) lasted approximately a year and a half, from 1973 into 1974, and was precipitated by a rocky period in his storied marriage with Yoko Ono. According to the mythology, Yoko gave John “permission” to sow his wild oats for a spell.

She had a caveat…the couple’s devoted personal assistant May Pang was to accompany John as his “girlfriend”. No matter how you look at it, this was an unconventional separation. It’s no secret that Lennon and Pang became a very public item. History has not always been kind to Ms. Pang, who was arguably caught in the middle of a marital power struggle between her employers.

With this film, Pang finally gets a chance to tell her story…and it’s a real eye-opener. Her entrée into the rarefied air of the Beatles’ inner circle by the tender age of 19 plays like a fairy tale, especially considering her modest beginnings growing up in Spanish Harlem. Her parents were Chinese immigrants; a rocky relationship with her dismissive father drove her to seek solace in rock and roll music (and of course, to discover the Beatles).

The expected anecdotes associated with “the lost weekend” are here-Lennon’s purloined bacchanal with “The Hollywood Vampires”, the wild studio sessions with Phil Spector, et.al. (and a few you may not have previously heard). But the real heart of the film is the story of how Pang’s relationship with Lennon developed (more organically than has been generally assumed). Julian Lennon is also on hand to offer his perspective. A lovely and affecting memoir by Pang, and a treat for Beatle fans.

Tribeca 2022: Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 11, 2022)

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Since 1883, the Hotel Chelsea in New York City has been the center of the universe for bohemian culture. It has been the hostelry of choice for the holiest of hipster saints over the years, housing just about anybody who was anybody in the upper echelons of poets, writers, playwrights, artists, actors, directors, musicians, and free thinkers over the past century.

Maya Duverdier and Amélie van Elmbt’s documentary is an impressionistic portrait of the venerable landmark, vacillating between dredging up the ghosts of its past and profiling some of the current residents as they go about their daily lives (obviously selected for their, ah …colorful eccentricities). Nearly every tenant has an opinion on the extensive renovations that were in progress during filming; some welcome the upgrade, others see it as something akin to sacrilege (the latter camp tend to be longtime residents).

While it may lack cohesion at times, the film is beautifully photographed, with several compelling and hypnotic sequences, as well as unexpected emotional resonance.

Tribeca 2022: Chop and Steele ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 11, 2022)

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Is a moonlighting gig still definable as “a moonlighting gig” if you don’t have a day job? Self-employed presenters Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher are primarily known as creators (and curators) of the “Found Footage Festival”- the duo’s traveling roadshow of truly weird and wacky VHS-sourced clips. What began as a shared hobby for the long-time buds has turned into a years-long obsession with combing second-hand stores, garage sales and dumpsters for tapes…encompassing everything from commercially released special interest to obscure corporate training videos.

But that’s only half the story in Ben Steinbauer and Berndt Mader’s profile. Pickett and Prueher also have a second incarnation as elaborate pranksters. For a brief and shining moment, they became “Chop and Steele”, self-billed as “strongmen” (even if they certainly didn’t look the part). Almost unbelievably, they were able to book numerous appearances on locally produced “happy talk” TV shows, pushing the gag as far as possible before hapless hosts would catch on and immediately cue a commercial break.

They even finagled a taping on America’s Got Talent (although their bit wasn’t aired…and you’ll see why). Chop and Steele’s “career” abruptly ended when a media company brought a lawsuit against Pickett and Prueher. Entertaining, with thoughtful sidebars regarding the sometimes-tenuous relationship between comedy and the First Amendment. Howie Mandel, Bobcat Goldthwait and other admirers add their two cents.

You’re nice people you are: Box of Rain (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 7, 2022)

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“If you can remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there”. Don’t you hate it when some lazy-ass writer trots out that old chestnut to preface some pompous “think piece” about the Woodstock Generation?

God, I hate that.

But I think it was Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane who once said: “If you remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there.” Or it could have been Robin Williams, or Timothy Leary. Anyway, whoever did say it originally, probably can’t remember if they were in fact the person who said it first…so it’s moot.

Here’s the good news. While the ethos that informs Lonnie Frazier’s Box of Rain has inescapable, foundational roots in 60s counterculture, I’m happy to report her documentary about the “Deadhead” community features minimal archival footage of antiwar demonstrations and love-ins, and “Fortunate Son” is nowhere to be heard. Nor will you even hear any Dead songs…which I assume is due to a licensing issue.

That said, Frazier’s film isn’t so much about the Dead …or their music per se, as it is about a multi-generational community of devoted fans blissfully nonplussed by ever-shifting musical trends (the band’s final studio album was 1989’s Built to Last ). As Jerry Garcia once observed “We didn’t invent the Grateful Dead, the crowd invented the Grateful Dead. We were just in line to see what was going to happen.”

This uniquely symbiotic relationship between the Dead (arguably the first “D.I.Y.” band) and their fans was the impetus for their famously mercurial live performances-which could run 1 hour…or 5 hours, depending on the vibe between audience and artist:

The [1972] Bickershaw Festival [in the UK] brought together a number of West Coast American acts such as Country Joe McDonald, the New Riders, and the Dead with some of the big British names, including Donovan and The Kinks. The Dead played on the last day of the three-day festival. And by the time they came out, the crowd had been drenched and muddy for the entire time. Not had it rained throughout at the flood-prone site, but the organizers had emptied a pool used for a high-dive act – there were various circus-type performances – right in front of the stage. But none of this dampened the Dead’s playing or the crowd’s enthusiasm for it. Reportedly, Elvis Costello – just an eighteen-year-old unknown pub singer – stood in awe throughout the [nearly 5-hour] set and convinced him he should start a band.

Now that’s dedication. Or something. Whatever “it” is, it enables thousands to feel “at home” hippie-dancing in the mud for 5 hours (creating a psychedelic maelstrom of paisley and tie-dye you could see from space). Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as long as everybody had a good year, everybody let their hair down, and nobody got hurt. And if “home” is (as they say) where the heart is, then the heart of Frazier’s film is about how she found a home away from home as a Deadhead.

In the intro, Frazier intones “Most dictionaries define ‘home’ as the place where one lives permanently, as the member of a family. Home is a place where you feel safe, loved, accepted, and where you feel like you belong. But what if the family you’re born into doesn’t offer you these things? When the house you live in looks perfect from the outside…but feels quite the opposite behind closed doors?” She then recounts a traumatic experience that plunged her into a suicidal depression at age 17.

I know what you’re thinking. “Isn’t this supposed to be about peace, love, and good vibes?” Patience, grasshopper. Fortunately, a free ticket to a Dead show proved to be a deus ex machina that placed her on a path to healing and happiness. Frazier looks up the two friends who hooked her up with the ticket and retraces the road trip the three women took in 1985 to see the Dead perform at Red Rocks in Colorado.

However, this isn’t solely a stroll down memory lane, but a Whitman’s sampler of the fan culture, direct from the mouths of beatific Deadheads. I know we live in a cynical age and all, but these folks seem so genuinely…nice, and the interviews do convey a lovely sense of “family” within the Deadhead community. It’s a breezy enough 72 minutes, even if I found the road stories and “favorite concert” minutiae less than gripping; but hey, man-I’m only a casual fan who never felt compelled to go see the Dead live, so you can take my opinion with a grain of salt …and a touch of grey.

“Box of Rain” is streaming now on various digital platforms.

SIFF 2022: Sweetheart Deal (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 23, 2022)

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Dopesick and finding temporary solace from an RV-dwelling man of means by no means dubbed “The Mayor of Aurora Avenue”, four sex workers (Kristine, Sara, Amy, and Tammy) strive to keep life and soul together as they walk an infamous Seattle strip. With surprising twists and turns, Elisa Levine and Gabriel Miller’s astonishingly intimate portrait is the most intense, heart-wrenching, and compassionate documentary I have seen about Seattle street life since Streetwise.