Category Archives: documentary

Family Band: The Cowsills Story

Family Band: The Cowsills Story ~ I would wager most of the folks reading this have zero idea who the Cowsills are, and I also think those that do know, only know the footnote.

The Cowsills did “Hair,” the title track from the Broadway show, the theme to “Love American Style,” and oh yeah, they were the inspiration for the Partridge Family – literally the real thing. Again, just a footnote. That’s pretty much all I knew as well until I watched this great documentary on Showtime.

The doc, done through interviews with the Cowsills, and their contemporaries, as well as footage of the time, tells the tale of the family band’s meteoric rise and eventual fall into oblivion. There’s a tragic side in the form of the manipulative and abusive father. It doesn’t end well, probably why you don’t remember them, but you should.

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Duck and Cover

Duck and Cover ~ Everyone knows about the classic civil defense film from 1951, but how many of us have actually seen it? I admit that while I have seen huge chunks of this thirty-two minute documentary, I don’t think I had seen it in its entirety until recently.

At the beginning of the Cold War, our greatest fear was nuclear attack from the Russians. This was a short subject shown in theaters to teach folks what to do in case the unthinkable happened – they dropped The Atomic Bomb. Talk about hysteria! They’d never do anything like today, it might upset someone’s sensibilities. Thank goodness for political correctness. Sarcasm mode off.

It’s got some great animation with Bert the Turtle, a very cautious (and very hysterically paranoid) fellow very good at ducking and covering. Very good at it, because, well, he’s a turtle. The thrust is if you heard the air raid sirens, you should duck and cover. This film urged school kids to crawl under their desks and cover their heads in case of attack. We did know what atomic bombs were capable of, right? That’s not going to keep anyone from being vaporized.

This instructional film is definitely a product of its time, so filled with paranoia and hysteria that it probably was a self-fulfilling prophecy, causing as much paranoia and hysteria as it itself was filled with. Probably the scariest thing for me was how scared the kids in this film looked. Both an entertaining and frightening time capsule.

Paul Williams Still Alive

Paul Williams Still Alive ~ I saw this great little documentary on Showtime one night when I couldn’t get to sleep, and I’m glad I did. I remember Paul Williams. He was everywhere in the 1970s on TV and movies. I knew he was a singer, and more importantly, a songwriter. A serious songwriter. If you listened to the radio in the early seventies, you heard dozens of Paul Williams songs. In a way, he was the seventies.

What immediately pulled me in about this documentary was that the narrator seems to think that as well. As a matter of fact, his perspective and sense of time and space were mine. That commonality made this doc somehow more personal.

By the time the documentarian is actually accepted by Paul Williams, I was hooked and in for the whole ride. Really I would have watched anything at this point, but man, what a treat that it was really good. Writer/director Stephen Kessler is that good, I would have watched a doc about squid if that’s what it became.

The actual doc subject however is Paul Williams. The thing is, this isn’t just a bio of an amazing songwriter, singer, and pop culture icon – it’s also a tale of his fall and redemption. At the time if this doc, Williams was not only on tour, but also twenty years sober and a licensed drug rehab counselor. And it’s also the story of the friendship between the filmmaker and his subject.

Whether you watch it as a Paul Williams fan, as a time capsule of the 1970s, or just as a darned good documentary, Paul Williams Still Alive is definitely worth watching. Check it out.

Tyson

Tyson ~ This 2008 documentary about prize fighter Mike Tyson is something of a phenomenon. Much of it is culled from over thirty hours of interview footage with the champ, giving a rather disturbing, and possibly unintentional, picture of the undisputed world’s heavyweight champion.

The director James Toback might be better known for his films like Bugsy and The Pick-Up Artist. One wonders how he got involved in this documentary. At times this film shows us a side of Mike Tyson rarely seen, not that of a modern gladiator and media star, but one of a mad monster to be both pitied and feared.

Toback films Tyson’s bizarre monotone monologues in such a way that they appear to be almost confessional, as if from a patient lying on an analyst’s couch. It is a fascinating and disturbing experience all at once. A study in psychosis worth watching.

Paul McCartney Really Is Dead

Paul McCartney Really Is Dead ~ This one has the also just as intriguing subtitle of “The Last Testament of George Harrison.” It comes from the gist of this documentary being tapes discovered by George Harrison disclosing the horrible secret that has burdened the Beatles for decades – that Paul really is dead. The tapes are George’s confession. Yeah, if you smell the Blair Witch, don’t worry, I do too.

Apparently all that nonsense, all those hints about the hoax that Paul was dead – it was all true. As suspected, Paul dies in a car crash. MI6 has a double, William Campbell, after cosmetic surgery, join the band as Paul. The remaining Beatles, under penalty of death keep quiet, while still leaving clues on their albums and in their music as to what really happened.

Supposedly, the voice of George narrates a somewhat skewed history of the Beatles and thereafter, with these new facts inserted, creating a new truth. All the usual stuff is in here, along with some shocking new bits. One truly bizarre addition indicates that ‘Lovely Rita,’ who witnessed Paul’s death, is actually, wait for it, Heather Mills.

As a kid, it was always fun to find the clues, but come on, we all knew it was a hoax. I gotta give the producers props for trying at least. It gives new meaning to many lyrics previously thought indecipherable, a nice touch. A fun, if at times, rather sinister, faux documentary/conspiracy theory.

Quickies 12-21-2012

God Bless Ozzy Osbourne ~ This documentary produced by his son Jack explores the life, career, and addiction of the prince of darkness of the rock and roll world, Ozzy Osbourne. His early years, his time with Black Sabbath, his solo career, his reality television show, and of course, his addictions. Family, friends, bandmates and other musicians are interviewed in the in-depth, incisive, and surprising bio. Recommended.

Cedar Rapids ~ This overlooked film is a screwball slob comedy about an insurance sales convention in, where else? Cedar Rapids. While I prefer both John C. Reilly and Anne Heche in more serious roles, they shine here. Ed Helms stars as a naïve salesman whose job is in jeopardy as he attends the convention. Circumstances convince him to take chances and live life. Fun and mostly harmless, worth watching.

6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park ~ This intriguing documentary takes a look at the frantic rush to put together a new “South Park” episode each week, make it timely, make it funny, and make sure it gets on the air. It also explores the working relationship of creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and their recent success with “The Book of Mormon.” Fascinating viewing for fans of the show and even those who are not.

Alex in Wonderland ~ I saw this madcap 1940 one-reeler recently on TCM. Part of the “Broadway Brevities” series that seems to take a lot of its technique from the Three Stooges shorts, this one stars Walter Catlett and Eddie Foy Jr. as feuding brothers-in-law who end up at a upper class masquerade party where mistaken identity and pie-throwing ensue. Fun.

Jacqui Naylor – Lucky Girl

Lucky Girl ~ Sometimes the cosmos drops opportunities and coincidences in your lap. This is one of those times. Just a few days after discovering the work of Jacqui Naylor on my own, the producers of a documentary about the San Francisco-based jazz singer/songwriter approached me about reviewing that new film. I jumped at the chance.

Lucky Girl, subtitled A Portrait of Jacqui Naylor, follows “Naylor and her band for two years on the road and in the studio while they prepared new music for her eighth album, also titled Lucky Girl. The documentary chronicles Naylor on tour to several jazz clubs including Seattle’s Jazz Alley, San Francisco’s Rrazz Room, and the Istanbul Jazz Center in Turkey. Replete with performances, songwriting sessions, and behind- the-scene moments, the film transports the viewer through a series of musical montages and local flavors. Interviews with long-time band members and others close to Naylor give an intimate look at the life of this respected jazz artist who is also a practicing Buddhist and long-time San Francisco resident.” That’s the official press release talking there, and it pretty much tells the tale, but now it’s my turn.

As I said, I came across Ms. Naylor on my own, before I ever heard of Lucky Girl. My musical tastes are very eclectic. I’m crazy all over the board, from eighties metal to seventies story songs to old school rap to funk to new wave to punk to soundtracks to nerdcore – I love it all, but what I really love most are covers. I am a sucker for a good cover tune. That’s how I found Jacqui Naylor, through her covers. She does wonderful jazzy covers of, among others, the Stones, Talking Heads, the Kinks and even Rod Stewart. I absolutely love her mash up of “My Funny Valentine” with AC/DC’s “Back in Black” behind it. And then there’s her version of REM’s “Losing My Religion.”

Killer, isn’t it? That’s why I immediately agreed to review the documentary. I already knew Jacqui Naylor was something special. And almost like a gateway drug, the doc opens with the song in all its quiet thunder. Welcome to her world.

In Lucky Girl, we have the usual musical origin stories here, the how it happeneds, and the behind the scenes workings of artistic collaboration – all presented as an experience rather than just a documentary. But there is also Jacqui putting her own spin on things as well. She does what she calls ‘acoustic smashing,’ the technique referenced above with “My Funny Valentine” that has become her trademark. She feels if she has to do the jazz standards, she should make them her own. I love it. The effect is especially fierce on Jacqui’s Christmas album, Smashed for the Holidays.

The doc is unlike most music documentaries. I mean, the structure is the same. There are interviews interspersed with the music and performances, but there seems to be a more heartfelt and almost celebratory atmosphere. The musicians and crew Jacqui works with are her family. Her husband Art Khu is also a musician and collaborator and ‘real’ family. There is much love here. We see Jacqui in her home, in the studio, on the road, and there is always love and passion.

This really is a must see documentary. If you don’t know Jacqui Naylor, you will. If you don’t like jazz, you will. It will sneak by and hug you lovingly. I guarantee you’ll end up doing what I did as I watched Lucky Girl – hitting pause, and going to iTunes to purchase the great music you’re hearing. This is sooo recommended. The DVD drops on Tuesday, and if you get the chance, go see her on tour.

Beats, Rhyme & Life

Beats, Rhyme & Life ~ One of the misnomers I hate most is the term ‘one hit wonder,’ mostly because it’s rarely true. It’s one of the reasons I started the sub-blog here called “Lost Hits of the New Wave,” because things were not as we are currently told they were. For instance if I was to mention to you A Tribe Called Quest, most folks, and a great majority who were not around when they were happening will use that term ‘one hit wonder’ and say they love “Can I Kick It.” Just not true.

The truth is however that I came to the Tribe later than most folks. I loved “Can I Kick It” but I also began to notice that every time I heard a song by the group, I dug it. When I realized this, I got into them. As I said, later than most folks, but I love them, and let me assure you, A Tribe Called Quest is no ‘one hit wonder.’ The documentary Beats, Rhyme & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest directed by actor Michael Rapaport is a testament to that legacy.

Through interviews and of course music the film documents the group’s beginnings in Queens and we get to know Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White as they came up and became stars in the hip hop music world. Like a cool extended episode of “Behind the Music,” we get the lowdown on why they looked like they did and especially how Q-Tip was sampling before samplers and melded jazz into hip hop. It also takes the group to the end of the road as well.

This documentary is the real thing, it’s about friendship, music, culture, and passion – and the evolution that all of it goes through over the years. Check it out, recommended.

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Just a reminder, The Virtual Book Tour for THE HUNGRY HEART STORIES by Fran Metzman is featured today at Marie Gilbert’s blog with an interview with the author, and continues tomorrow on Mieke Zamora-Mackay’s blog. Don’t miss it! For a full list of Blog Tour stops, go here.

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Best Worst Movie

Best Worst Movie ~ What’s the worst movie ever? That’s a question of much debate. For myself, I immediately discount stuff like Plan 9 from Outer Space and Glen or Glenda? because however cheaply made or haphazardly written, these are still hilarious and entertaining, no matter if it ‘s unintentional. In the same way, anything that falls into the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” category doesn’t count either, as it’s interactively entertaining.

That said, I would put MST3K alum Manos: Hands of Fate up for worst film ever. It’s intolerable to sit through. I would also throw in Barfly and 1989’s Blue Steel up on the butcher block as well. And don’t get me started on The Dark Knight or Moulin Rouge!. This documentary makes a case for the infamous Troll 2.

Written and directed by one of the childhood stars of Troll 2, Michael Stephenson, this is an examination of the cult classic status of the flick as the worst movie ever. He interviews one of his co-stars, a dentist-turned-actor, and the Italian filmmaker that made the flick possible, among others. This documentary is a fun romp for fans of film and fans of bad camp horror movies alike. Check it out.

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Food, Inc.

Food, Inc. ~ I am never happy when confronted with propaganda presented by the Health Nazis but I always walk into such situations with an open mind. But I have to say that the hard-to-negotiate DVD menu and the lack of proper subtitles did not put me and Food, Inc. off to a good start. The film was based on two books, “Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlosser and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan, both leaders in the Health Nazi movement.

Director Robert Kenner begins by suggesting we have been hoodwinked by the traditional perception of farming, but have we really? Anyone who can read, use the internet or otherwise think and explore for themselves will tell you it’s no secret. There is no conspiracy here, except to the ignorant, otherwise the two books mentioned above would never have been published.

Kenner falls into the Michael Moore school of filmmaking – give your mission statement and then only present facts to back that up and nothing that disproves it. At least Kenner doesn’t set anyone up or make things up, and also unlike Moore, he’s a good filmmaker. His thesis is that fast food is bad. And over an hour and a half goes toward proving that. There is some hard to watch footage here and some rough knowledge but it’s a brutal necessity if we want to continue to eat as we do.

Also, added to the list of things that are bad should be money and technology. It should be noted however, without both of those, this film would not be possible, but they’re still bad. PETA, and the Academy, will love this documentary, and so will Michael Moore, I suspect. I also suspect that Mr. Moore has had his share of fast food as well. And there you go.

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