The Wrecking Crew: The hidden heroes of rock ‘n’ roll (my review)

B Music documentary

  • Directed by Denny Tedesco

Who supplied the addictive riffs on “Da Doo Ron Ron,” "California Dreamin’," “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and the theme music for Mission: Impossible? Despite what it says on the LP sleeves, much of the inspiration came from an unsung collection of Los Angeles session musicians informally called The Wrecking Crew.

Denny Tedesco, the son of Wrecking Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco, introduces these successful but little-known musicians in this mostly entertaining documentary. He interviews surviving members of the group, mixes in old footage, and explains the origins of the songs that became the background track of our youth.

The Wrecking Crew.

And if you’re thinking "Maybe your youth; not mine," you’re probably right. If you’re not a musician, a musicologist, or a baby boomer, this movie isn’t for you. But for me, a boomer who became a teenager in 1967, almost every tune brought back memories, then filled in details about those memories that I had never before thought about.

Not surprisingly, filmmaker Tedesco spends a good deal of the film’s time on his father, who died in 1997. Aside from being a brilliant musician, Tommy Tedesco was a funny guy. He clowned around in the studio, in seminars, and on TV on the Gong Show. He’s inherently fun to watch.

Denny and Tommy Tedesco

But my favorite of the profiled musicians was Carol Kaye, a woman working in a predominately male industry in the decade where Mad Men is set. Starting out as a jazz guitarist and turning to bass as she moved to rock, her driving riffs filled in many a great song., including "California Girls," I’m a Believer," and "These Boots are Made for Walking."

Carol Kaye

None of these musicians started out in rock. But they were young adults as the new genre materialized in the 1950s, and they found a niche where they could earn a good living while doing what they loved. They were not formally a group, but often found themselves working together from one gig to another. In huge demand, they worked round the clock from one session to another, ignoring their families but raking in cash.

Until it stopped. In the late 60s, rock got serious, and fans wanted to know that the actual band members were playing the music. The gigs didn’t disappear immediately–the Crew also worked on other genres and recorded movie and TV scores–but they gradually leveled off.

Except for Glen Campbell and Leon Russell, who became stars in their own rights.

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Clearly, this is a companion piece for 2013’s Twenty Feet from Stardom, concentrating on instrumental musicians instead of singers. But Tedesco can’t quite find the strong narrative line that made the earlier film so exciting. At times, especially in the middle, the discussions of one song after another become repetitive.

Another problem: Since the film is about session musicians, there’s no live performance footage. Studio work lacks the cinematic excitement of live rock and roll.

Aside from the Wrecking Crew veterans themselves, interview subjects include Dick Clark, Cher, Herb Albert, Lou Adler, and Brian Wilson.

Documentary Tearjerker: Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine

A Documentary

  • Directed by Michele Josue

I have a rule. If a film makes me cry, it deserves a high grade. If it makes me cry a lot, it gets an A. This documentary about the homophobic murder of a young gay man had me all but audibly sobbing.

Do you remember Matthew Shepard? In 1998, he was savagely beaten, tortured, tied imageto a fence, and left to die outside of Laramie, Wyoming. Not quite 22 at the time and extremely short for his age, he was emotionally fragile and had only recently come out to his parents (they had already figured it out). His death was exceptionally shocking and brutal.

Director Michele Josue was, as the title suggests, a friend of his. But she was smart enough not to make the movie about their relationship. For the most part, she interviews other friends, counselors, teachers,  and mostly his parents, who become the stars of the film.

Judy and Dennis Shepard come off as loving, practical, open-minded parents, and Christian in a way that doesn’t fit Bay Area stereotypes of white people in Wyoming. Photos, home movies, and Josue’s interviews take us through the joys of raising Matt, concerns about his emotional state in young adulthood (he was apparently gang-raped in Morocco), the horrifying days when his life was in the balance, and a media-heavy funeral marred by protests from the  Westboro Baptist Church (talk about the evil type of Christians). The Shepards also asked the prosecutor not to try for the death penalty, and founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation to fight homophobia in the schools.

On one level, Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine is terrifying and deeply sad. Coming out of the press screening, I wasn’t the only person with a stunned look on my face. On the other hand, the movie is inspiring, because you meet so many decent, loving human beings.

This one is a must-see.

I saw Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine at a press screening previous to its world premiere at the 2013 Mill Valley Film Festival. It opens Friday at the Elmwood.

Magician: The life and times of Citizen Welles

B+ Documentary

  • Directed by Chuck Workman

Every cinephile has to contemplate the strange phenomenon named Orson Welles. He had conquered radio and the New York stage, and had signed a Hollywood movie contract that turned established directors green with envy, before he turned 25. His first film, Citizen Kane, has been called the "greatest film ever made" more often than any other contender.

And yet he spent most of his life a failure. He continually scrambled to raise money to make his films, few of which made any money back. With the exception of a handful of Hollywood projects (Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil), much of his work is fractured and problematic–both loved and despised by the type of audiences most likely to appreciate his work.

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Chuck Workman’s documentary covers that life in chronological order, from his 1915 birth to his death from a heart attack in 1985. In between, it follows his early recognition as a theatrical wunderkind, the highpoint of his career with Kane, and his parallel careers as a successful actor and a struggling auteur.

Workman wisely avoids the usual voice-of-god narration. In its place he presents interviews–both archival and original–with friends, co-workers, admirers, lovers, and, of course, Welles, himself. That exposes us to different points of view. In one sequence, Workman cuts between two interviews where Welles tells different versions of how The Lady from Shanghai got made. When interviews can’t provide the needed information, Workman provides written text on screen.

But the picture is hardly objective. Among the many people interviewed–including Steven Spielberg, Richard Linklater, Oja Kodar (Welles’ companion for the last two decades of his life), and Peter Bogdanovich–you won’t find David Thomson, author of Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles. Thomson’s biography paints a far less positive picture of Welles than Workman’s.

Orson Welles was one of cinema’s greats, and it’s tragic how often the money men took over and recut his films. But I’ve read enough about Welles to understand that his own emotional immaturity was a major part of the problem. Judging from this documentary, you would think that evil studio executives were the only cause.

Magician suffers from a biased look at its subject. But it’s still an informative and entertaining look at a very entertaining (although not very informative) artist. If you love Welles’ work, you’ll enjoy Magician. If you haven’t seen his work, see the films first.

To be a Gay Japanese-American Sci-Fi Actor and the Subject of To Be Takei

B+ Documentary

  • Directed by Jennifer M. Kroot

Who would have guessed that, almost 50 years after Star Trek first premiered on NBC, George Takei would be the most beloved member of the original cast. But why not. He has a warm, upbeat personality and a great sense of humor. He’s been a political activist for decades, but always came off as a nice activist. He’s a master of social media. And by publically coming out late in life, he’s provided his story with a happy ending of triumph over bigotry.

Jennifer M. Kroot has created an ordinary documentary about an extraordinary man. It’s a typical collection of interviews, video of Takei and his husband Brad Altman going about their daily business (except that this time there’s a camera on them), and old movie and TV clips. But it works because Takei is such an interesting and likeable personality, with has a great life story to tell.

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The bigotry started early. As a young boy living in Los Angeles, he and his family were rounded up by the army and sent to an internment camp for the sin of being Americans of Japanese decent. After spending three years of his childhood behind barbed wire, he returned to a civilian America that had been taught to despise all "Japs."

As a young, struggling actor, he found that his race limited his roles to dubbing Godzilla movies and playing comic stereotypes.

And then there was his sexual orientation. To publically come out was professional suicide, and remained so long after the gay rights movement really got going in the ’70s. So he lived a lie, hiding his long-term relationship with Altman, until he publically came out at the age of 67. But instead of destroying his career, it rejuvenated it.

Kroot’s techniques don’t always work. In one sequence, she cuts between different venues where Takei gives the same speech about the internment camps. Rather than providing visual variety or showing his commitment, the cutting emphasizes that he’s repeating a memorized and rehearsed speech.

Another problem: Although Takei is funny and charismatic, Altman is none of those things, and we see almost as much of him as we see of Takei. It takes a while to warm up to the practical, pessimistic Altman (who now uses the last name Takei). He comes off as a decent person, and obviously the right man for George, but too normal to be a major player in a documentary.

But Takei is interesting, as are the other Star Trek veterans interviewed. (Yes, Takei and William Shatner really do dislike each other.) The film and TV clips are fun. We get a brief section about the gay-porn aspect of Star Trek fan fiction (which concentrates on Kirk and Spock). And it’s rare to see a documentary with such a sense of triumph.

To Be Takei really does feel like a happy ending.

A Life Itself at the Movies

A- Documentary

  • Directed by Steve James

The first thing you have to understand about Life Itself, Steve James’ biographical documentary about Roger Ebert, is that James is hardly a dispassionate observer. He was not a close friend to Ebert, but he owed a lot to the famous film critic. It was Ebert, and his partner Gene Siskel, who championed James’ first feature, Hoop Dreams, and made him an important filmmaker.

The next thing you need to know is that Life Itself is no rehash of Ebert’s autobiography. The book, like all autobiographies, is told from one point of view–Ebert’s. The film shows Ebert’s life from many points of view. Friends, family, co-workers, filmmakers, and other critics–some of whom didn’t care much for Ebert–get their chance to discuss the brilliant writer, passionate cinephile, and overweight alcoholic who became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, and then the most influential film critic of all time. And one of the best.

Siskel and Ebert in the early days

Overall, the film gives us a far more positive view of Ebert than modesty would have allowed him to say about himself. But others can gush about Ebert’s fast yet concise writing style, his advocacy for rare and wonderful films that might never have had a chance without him, and his enthusiastic lust for life. And, of course, his courage in the face of cancer and the botched operations that robbed him of the ability to eat, drink, or talk.

James started working on the film just before Ebert went into the hospital once again, in what they didn’t know at the time was the beginning of the end. As it turned out, this was the beginning of the end for Ebert. The film cuts between two timelines–the physical deterioration of his last months and his entire life. Obviously, the two stories come together in the end.

Be prepared. This film spends a lot of time looking at a man without a jaw. Well, he sort of has a jaw–a u-shaped piece of flesh–sans bones and muscles–hanging below his gaping mouth. And when you look into that mouth, you see his neck or, depending on the camera angle, what’s behind him. It’s pretty disturbing at first, but his upbeat and joking personality helps you adjust.

We hear a lot of Ebert’s words in Life Itself. Sometimes, they’re from old recordings. Sometimes they’re his computer voice. Other times it’s an actor–one who sounds very much like him.

The film has another hero: his wife (and now widow), Chaz. Ebert didn’t marry until he was 50–to a woman who already had grown children. It’s clear that she has been his rock through the tribulations of his final decade. It’s a touching romance, and like all near-perfect love stories, it has to end in death.

And yes, there’s a lot about movies here. We see clips from films as we hear his reviews. Many of those movies are now classics and readily available. But the film’s real nostalgia comes from clips of the TV shows, with Siskel and Ebert agreeing or arguing about one film or another. (Richard Roeper, who became Ebert’s on-screen partner after Siskel died, isn’t even mentioned. I’m not complaining.)

Steve James has given us a completely biased look at Ebert’s life. But it’s also an entertaining and informative work about a man who joyfully embraced both the pleasures of cinema, and of life itself.

Cinematic Romance: My Review of Liv & Ingmar

B Film history documentary

  • Directed by Dheeraj Akolkar

Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann comprise one of the great teams in film history. Their collaborations include Persona, Cries & Whispers, Scenes From a Marriage, and Autumn Sonata. As a romantic couple, they lasted only five years. But their artistic collaboration, and their friendship, lasted nearly 40, until Bergman’s death.

Dheeraj Akolkar tells the story of that romance and friendship (but not much about the collaboration) in this concise, interesting, but flawed 83-minute documentary.

Actually, Akolkar doesn’t really tell the story. He points his camera at Ullmann, and lets her do the talking. We occasionally hear Bergman’s letters to Ullmann, read by an actor, but there’s no question that this is Ullmann’s version of the relationship.

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And no, she doesn’t come off as angry, even though she has good reason to feel that way. The two met in 1965, when the famed director cast her in Persona. She was 25; him, 46. They were both married. But they fell in love on the set, and she became pregnant with his child. They divorced their respective spouses and she moved in with him on his private Scandinavian island.

She never uses the words, but it’s clear from what she says that Bergman was a domineering and abusive lover. He kept a close eye on her and severely restricted her ability to socialize with other people–even the close friends with whom they made great films. He was often cruel to her when shooting those films. That’s all the more shocking considering his reputation for keeping a happy set.

She eventually left him, but they remained friends, and she remained an important member of his repertory company. She became an international star, lived briefly in Hollywood, but was always ready to work for Bergman. She even directed Faithless, a film he wrote late in life.

Hallvard Bræin’s camera spends most of the documentary watching Ullmann’s face , imagestill attractive in her mid-70s, as she talks about her past. She speaks in English, which is odd for a Norwegian film about a Norwegian actor who spent most of her carrier in Sweden.

When we’re not watching today’s Ullmann talk, Akolkar uses clips from Bergman’s film to illustrate the behind-the-camera emotions. For instance, after Ullmann discusses the growing restlessness of their relationship, he shows us a scene (I’m not sure from what movie) where Ullmann and Max von Sydow have an argument at the breakfast table. The technique is effective, but also a little odd. We’re looking at von Sydow and hearing about Bergman.

Akolkar never identifies the films. If you don’t know them, you’re stuck wondering.

Which brings us to Liv & Ingmar‘s biggest flaw: It’s not much interested in Bergman’s and Ullmann’s work. What makes their relationship more interesting than Dick and Jane’s? The fact that they’re Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann. What was it like to be directed by a cinematic icon–especially one who’s also your once-abusive ex-lover? But if Ullmann talked extensively about working together, it all ended up on the cutting room floor.

As the story of a love affair and a long friendship, Liv & Ingmar proves interesting. But it misses the main point. How, in the various stages of their relationship, did they collaborate on such great works of art?

Sweet Dreams: Drumming, Ice Cream, and the aftermath of genocide

C+ documentary

  • Directed by Lisa and Rob Fruchtman

This upbeat, everything-turns-out-okay documentary tries to tell three different stories in 84 minutes. While it has its high points, it doesn’t do justice to any of them.

The location, modern-day Rwanda not quite 20 years after the genocide, promises something fascinating and disturbing. In 1994, one of the country’s two major ethnic groups, the Hutus, took part in a massive genocide of the other, the Tutsis. This wasn’t like Germany’s Holocaust, where a special military unit did the killing and civilians could pretend they didn’t know. Vast numbers of Hutus, machetes in hand, searched homes, workplaces, and fields to slaughter their neighbors.

How can a nation heal from something like that? Death toll estimates reach as high a million people–20 percent of the population. More than 100,000 mass murderers are now imprisoned for their crimes. Today’s young Hutu adults, whose parents were murdered and who barely escaped with their lives, must live with young Tutsi adults whose parents are imprisoned for the most horrible of crimes.

What a great subject for a documentary!

But Sweet Dreams is only peripherally about the scars of genocide. It concentrates mostly on drumming and starting Rwanda’s first ice cream parlor. On some level, that’s supposed to be symbolic of the country’s healing.

As such things go, drumming seems a better way to heal a nation than selling ice cream. The drummers belong to Ingoma Nshya, Rwanda’s first and–according to the film–only women’s drumming troupe. They’re a great team, and a lot of fun to watch. And the members of the group becomes the film’s stars, telling their stories of the genocide and their lives afterward.

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But there isn’t all that much drumming in the movie. And I suspect that a lot of drama was left out, as well. For instance, early in the film, Ingoma Nshya founder Kiki Katese explains that drumming had always been a man’s prerogative–forbidden to women. Creating a women’s drumming group was an act of courageous defiance. But as far as what the filmmakers tell us, no one objected. Apparently, not a single male chauvinist remains in Rwanda.

In fact, the Rwanda pictured here seems a paradise of tolerance–pretty good for a country that was convulsed with the worst possible ethnic cleansing less than 20 years before.

So Kiki decides that, in addition to drumming, the group is going to launch, and run, Rwanda’s first ice cream parlor. Most of the people there have never tasted ice cream. She pairs up with the owners of a Brooklyn parlor, and the group starts on their new endeavor. Of course you’re rooting for them, and you can’t help wondering about the difficulties ahead. A mechanical problem on the day before opening provides the film with a suspenseful climax.

Sweet Dreams is at its best when it ignores the rose-colored present and concentrates on the horrible past. The women’s stories horrify. The film’s best sequence takes us to a stadium for a national event recalling and mourning the horrible events. As images of the genocide flash on the jumbotron, people in the audience go into shock and have to be carried out. What are they remembering?

I wanted more of this. I wanted to go into depth about how a country heals after something like that. I wanted sustenance. But for too much of Sweet Dreams’ running time, I just got ice cream.

Great drumming, though.

Sweet Dreams opens Friday in San Francisco and Berkeley. It will also screen Sunday in San Rafael.

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