Category Archives: Documentary

Blu-ray reissue: The Atomic Cafe (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 6, 2019)

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The Atomic Cafe – Kino-Lorber Blu-ray

This cautionary 1982 documentary was written and directed by Jayne Loader, Pierce Rafferty and Kevin Rafferty; a cleverly assembled mélange of footage culled from U.S. government propaganda shorts from the Cold War era. In addition to the Civil Defense campaigns (like the classic “duck and cover” tutorials) the filmmakers also draw from military training films. Harrowing, perversely entertaining, and timely as ever… it’s a must-see for anyone who cares about the future of humanity.

Image quality of this 16mm production is excellent (be aware that not all the source archival footage has been restored, per se). Extras include a 2018 interview with the 3 co-directors, plus full-length versions of 11 vintage government propaganda shorts.

The Byrds and the beads: Echo in the Canyon *** & Model Shop (1969) ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 29, 2019)

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[The Beatles’ “She Said She Said” is] another psychedelic gem written by John, which in this case was literally inspired by psychedelics, because he came up with the idea for the song in the aftermath of an acid trip he took in 1965, while partying with The Byrds in L.A. (and you know that those space cowboys had the good shit, probably Sandoz). At any rate, the story goes that John got freaked out by Peter Fonda, who kept cornering him and whispering in his ear: “I know what it’s like to be dead.” Obviously, this unsettling mantra stuck with Lennon, who modified the final lyric, so that it became “she” said…I know what it’s like to be dead…

 – from my 2016 essay on the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ Revolver

“The Byrds were great; when [The Beatles] came to L.A. [The Byrds] came and hung out with us. That 12-string sound was great. The voices were great. So, we loved The Byrds. They introduced us to a…hallucinogenic situation, and uh…we had a really good time.”

– Ringo Starr, from the 2019 documentary Echo in the Canyon

Someone once quipped “If you can remember anything about the 60s, you weren’t really there”. Luckily for Ringo and his fellow music vets who appear in Andrew Slater’s documentary Echo in the Canyon, they’re only required to “remember” from 1965-1967.

That is the specific time period that Slater, a long-time record company exec, music journalist and album producer chooses to highlight in his directing debut. His film also focuses on a specific location: Laurel Canyon. Nestled in the Hollywood Hills West district of L.A., this relatively cozy and secluded neighborhood (a stone’s throw off the busy Sunset Strip) was once home to a now-legendary, creatively incestuous enclave of influential folk-rockers (The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Mamas and the Papas, et.al.).

Interviews with the likes of Roger McGuinn, Michelle Phillips, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Brian Wilson, Eric Clapton, the late Tom Petty and producer Lou Adler are interspersed with performances from a 2015 tribute concert featuring Jakob Dylan and some of his contemporaries like Cat Power, Beck, Norah Jones and Fiona Apple covering their favorite 60s songs by the artists who are profiled (director Slater helped organize the event). Dylan also conducts the interviews and serves as a tour guide.

Frankly, there aren’t many surprises in store; turns out that nearly everybody was (wait for it) excited and influenced by The Beatles, who in turn were excited and influenced by The Byrds and the Beach Boys, who were in turn inspired to greater heights by the resultant exponential creative leaps achieved by the Beatles (echo in the canyon…get it?)

Still, it’s fun to be a fly on the wall as Dylan and his cohorts lay down tracks at vintage L.A. recording studios, or just to watch the late Tom Petty noodle around on a 12-string electric Rickenbacker to demonstrate the rudiments of the 60s California folk-rock sound.

One comes away with a sense about the unique creative camaraderie of the era. Roger McGuinn once received a courtesy note from George Harrison that the main riff he used for the Beatles’ “If I Needed Someone” was based on the Byrds’ “Bells of Rhymney”. Apparently, McGuinn was totally cool with that (too bad for poor George that the publishers of the Chiffon’s 1963 hit “He’s So Fine” didn’t receive his melodic lift for his 1970 smash “My Sweet Lord” in the same spirit-they promptly sued him for plagiarism).

According to Stephen Stills, there was so much musical badminton going on at the time that a little unconscious plagiarism now and then was inevitable. In one somewhat awkward scene, Dylan asks Eric Clapton about the suspiciously similar chord changes in Stills’ song “Questions” (by Buffalo Springfield) and Clapton’s “Let it Rain”. After mulling it over for several very long seconds, Clapton shrugs and concurs “I must have copped it.”

By odd coincidence, the day I previewed the film, a Rolling Stone obit caught my eye: 

Elliot Roberts, who managed the careers of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Tom Petty and many classic-rock legends, died Friday at the age of 76. A cause of death has not been revealed.

“It is with a heavy heart that we can confirm the passing of Elliot Roberts. No further details are available at this time,” a rep for Young wrote in a statement on behalf of Roberts’ Lookout Management.” Roberts, among the most respected and beloved music industry figures of all time, leaves an indelible footprint as a pioneer and leader in the business of artist representation. His uncanny intellect, unmatched, sharp wit, larger-than-life charisma along with his keen understanding of the music industry will remain unparalleled. Truly one of a kind, he will be missed always and by many.”

With his former colleague David Geffen, Roberts was one of the pivotal figures in the rise of the Southern California and Laurel Canyon music scenes of the Sixties and Seventies. Known equally for his business savvy and sense of humor, Roberts landed record deals for Young and Mitchell, co-managed Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, conceived the idea of Petty and the Heartbreakers backing Bob Dylan in the 1980s and helped launch the careers of Tracy Chapman and the Cars. […]

Born Elliot Rabinowitz on February 25th, 1943, Roberts was raised in the Bronx, ran with gangs and, after flirting with the idea of becoming an athlete given his basketball chops, opted for show business. He wound up in the mail room at the William Morris Agency, where he would meet fellow would-be mover and shaker David Geffen.

After he and Geffen rose up the ladder, Roberts heard a tape of Mitchell and soon became her manager, forming Lookout Management. At Mitchell’s urging, Roberts, then only 23, also began managing Young (following the breakup of Buffalo Springfield) and, soon after, Crosby, Stills & Nash. While trying to land the trio a record deal, Roberts realized he needed someone with more record company contacts. Alongside Geffen, he formed the powerful Geffen-Roberts Company. The management firm soon came to represent not just Mitchell (until 1985) but Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, America and many others. When Geffen started Asylum Records, its acts, including the Eagles and Jackson Browne, were also managed by Geffen-Roberts.

I believe I just heard an echo of The Bryds singing: “To everything (turn, turn, turn) …”

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Speaking of odd coincidences, there is a scene in Echo in the Canyon where director Andrew Slater mentions that one of the inspirations for his joint tribute concert/documentary project was Jacques Demy’s relatively obscure 1969 drama Model Shop (Slater weaves in snippets of Demy’s film throughout Echo in the Canyon).

Suddenly, a little bell went off in my head (talk about echoes…lots of space in that empty noggin), and I realized that I had a copy of that very film archived in my DVR (it recently aired on TCM). So, I figured-what the hell…sounds like a perfect double-bill.

While I am familiar with Demy’s work (mostly due to having Criterion’s excellent 6-film box set in my collection), Model Shop has somehow eluded me. The film represents a period in the late 60s when Demy and his wife, filmmaker Agnes Varda took a hiatus from their native France to explore America’s counterculture scene (speaking of which- Criterion’s 3-film “Agnes Varda in California” box is another great set I recommend).

Like many films of its era, Model Shop is a leisurely, episodic character study. It’s about a restless, late-twenty something Los Angelino named George (Gary Lockwood) who is experiencing possibly both the worst and best day of his life. His morning doesn’t start well; he and his girlfriend are awakened from their slumber by a repo man who is there to seize George’s beloved MG convertible. George manages to beg a 1-day reprieve, based on his promise to make an in-person payment of $100 to his bank by end of business day.

George’s girlfriend (Alexandra Hay) is chagrined over witnessing a scenario she has experienced once too many times. This is obviously not their first fight over money; and it looks like the relationship is just shy of going “kaput”. George is an architect by trade; but has recently quit in a fit of pique (existential crisis?). George flees the escalating spat in his MG as he brainstorms how he’s going to scare up that $100 by 6pm.

George’s day (and the film) turns a 180 when he visits a pal who runs an auto repair shop and espies a lovely woman (Anouk Aimee) who is there to pick up her car. On impulse, he decides to follow her in his MG (yes, it’s a bit on the stalking side). He follows her high up into the hills over L.A., and then seems to lose interest. He stops and takes in a commanding view of the city and the valley beyond, deeply lost in thought.

In my favorite scene, he drives up into (Laurel Canyon?) to visit a friend who’s a musician in an up-and-coming band. George’s pal turns out to be Jay Ferguson, keyboardist and lead singer of the band Spirit (and later, Jo Jo Gunne). Ferguson (playing himself) introduces George to his band mates, who are just wrapping a rehearsal. Sure enough, the boys in the band are Ed Cassidy, Randy California, and Matthew Andes-which is the classic lineup for Spirit! The band also provided the soundtrack for the film.

After the band splits, Jay plays a lovely piano piece for George; a song he’s “working on”. After some small talk, George sheepishly hits Jay up for a loan. No problem, man. Jay’s got him covered. George delivers this short, eloquent soliloquy about Los Angeles:

I was driving down Sunset and I turned on one of those roads that leads into the hills, and I stopped at this place that overlooks the whole city; it was fantastic. I suddenly felt exhilarated. I was really moved by the geometry of the place…its harmony. To think that some people claim that it’s an ugly city, when it’s really pure poetry…it just kills me. I wanted to build something right then; create something. It’s a fabulous city.

When George calls his parents to hit them up for money, he gets some dark news from mom. He has just received something he’s been dreading…a draft notice, and he is required to report for processing in just a few days (Vietnam hangs heavily over the film).

By pure chance, he once again spots the woman he had followed earlier. This time, he is determined to meet her. He tails her around Santa Monica, where she eventually disappears into a “models for rent” studio, where clientele pay to take pictures of women in various stages of undress. Undeterred, George pays for a session with the woman he is apparently becoming obsessed with. Their first conversation is as awkward as you would imagine; however, it turns out that George’s interest in her is more heartfelt than prurient.

What ensues is a “one-night-stand” tale that is bittersweet and affecting. The film is a unique entry in Demy’s oeuvre. Interestingly, it is both very much of its time, and ahead of its time; a precursor to films exploring modern love in the City of Angels like Hal Ashby’s Shampoo and (especially) Alan Rudolph’s Welcome to L.A. Like those films, this is a gauzy, sun-bleached vision of a city that attracts those yearning to connect with someone, something, or anything that assures a non-corporeal form of immortality; a city that teases endless possibilities, yet so often pays out with little more than broken dreams.

SIFF 2019: Halston (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 1, 2019)

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Fashion…turn to the left! Beep-beep. If I had to name my two “least favorite” subjects, they’d be: sports, and fashion. I usually have to be dragged kicking and screaming into films dealing with either. However, it’s my duty as a critic to cover all the bases (how I’ve suffered for you people…and fashion). Nonetheless, I found this portrait of the enigmatic gentleman who designed Jackie K’s first pillbox hat to be fascinating and engrossing.

SIFF 2019: Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 25, 2019)

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Few artists are as synonymous with “cool” as innovative musician-arranger-band leader Miles Davis. That’s not to say he didn’t encounter some sour notes during his ascent to the pantheon of jazz (like unresolved issues from growing up in the shadow of domestic violence, and traumatic run-ins with racism-even at the height of fame). Sadly, as you learn while watching Stanley Nelson’s slick and engrossing documentary, much of the dissonance in Davis’ life journey was of his own making (substance abuse, his mercurial nature). Such is the dichotomy of genius.

SIFF 2019: Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 1, 2019)

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Just when I thought I knew everything about the Warhol Factory scene, this fascinating documentary introduces an overlooked player. Barbara Rubin was a Zelig-like character who moved to NYC at 18, became enmeshed with some of the era’s most culturally significant artists…then became one herself as a pioneering feminist filmmaker. And many years before Madonna dabbled in Kabbalah culture, Rubin embraced it full-bore, taking the traditionally patriarchal Orthodox Jewish community head on while re-inventing herself.

SIFF 2019: Enormous: The Gorge Story (***)

By Dennis Hartley

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The Gorge is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the mall, but that’s just peanuts to the Gorge (with apologies to Douglas Adams). I refer to Washington State’s Columbia Gorge, 140 miles from Seattle. For music fans, the Gorge has become synonymous with memorable concert experiences. This amiable doc traces its transformation from a homemade stage built in the 80s to accommodate a wine-tasting to a now legendary music mecca. Employees, fans and artists (Dave Matthews, Mike McCready, Steve Miller, John Oates, Jason Mraz, et. al.) share favorite memories.

SIFF 2019: Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 25, 2019)

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Janice Engel profiles the late, great political columnist and liberal icon Molly Ivins, who suffered no fools gladly on either side of the aisle. Engel digs beneath Ivins’ bigger-than-life public personae, revealing an individual who grew up in red state Texas as a shy outsider.

Self-conscious about her physicality (towering over her classmates at 6 feet by age 12), she learned how to neutralize the inevitable teasing with her fierce intelligence and wit (I find interesting parallels with Janis Joplin’s formative Texas years). Her political awakening also came early (to the chagrin of her conservative oilman father).

The archival clips of Ivins imparting her incomparable wit and wisdom are gold; although I was left wishing Engel had included more (and I am dying to know what Ivins would say about you-know-who).

SIFF 2019: Kifaru (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 1, 2019)

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I haven’t cried like this over an animal movie since I saw Old Yeller as a kid. But there’s a palpable sadness running throughout David Hambridge’s extraordinarily moving documentary about the life and death of “Sudan”, the last male white rhino. The film is as much about his dedicated caretakers James and JoJo, workers at Kenya’s Ol Pejeta wildlife conservancy. Thankfully, we are given hope for the future (thanks to the miracles of modern science).

SIFF 2019: Eastern Memories (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 25, 2019)

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Using excerpts from 100 year-old journals by Finnish linguist G.J. Ramstedt as a narrative, directors Niklas Kullstrom and Martti Kaartinen retrace his experiences in two countries. He was sent to Mongolia to study and compile a written record of the language, then was later assigned to a diplomatic post in Japan-where he studied the Korean language (I know-a little confusing).

While his studies were primarily academic, his journals reflected a more subjective take on the geography and people of the respective countries. The directors juxtapose Ramstedt’s century-old musings with modern travelogues of the locations he wrote about. Despite the intriguing premise, the film is deadly dull in execution-not helped by dry and perfunctory narration.

SIFF 2019: Who Let the Dogs Out? (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 18, 2019)

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Who let the dogs out? Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn, because I have hated that tuneless ear worm since I first heard it in 2000. That said, my opinion holds no sway in the grand scheme, because it remains one of the most ubiquitous anthems of the last 20 years.

For me, the biggest question is: “Why?” However, for “cultural curator” Ben Sisto the nagging question is “Who?” …as in, who actually wrote the song? Triggered by a “sloppy” Wikipedia entry regarding authorship of the Baha Men’s one-hit-wonder, Sisto went on an 8-year quest to solve the mystery. As Sisto runs the chalk backwards, the story becomes curiouser and curiouser; both Roshomon-style mystery and treatise on the objective psyche.