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.

Living is Easy with Eyes Closed: My review

C+ Road picture

  • Written and directed by David Trueba

Living is Easy with Eyes Closed is a very pleasant picture. For almost two hours, you get to hang out with three very likeable people who, in their travels together, meet other likeable (and some unlikeable) people. The scenery is lovely.

But the picture doesn’t get much beyond pleasant. Although the three leads are reasonably believable, and you can’t help rooting for them, the film never really explores the depths of their souls. There is nothing here to challenge your view of the human condition. Although set in a fascist country, the picture is primarily apolitical. There’s very little suspense, and the laughs are too few to call it a comedy.

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I enjoyed the movie–most of the time. But I often found myself wishing that something dramatic would happen.

The setting: Spain, 1966. Young people all over the world are enthralled with a new sense of freedom, and are all in love with The Beatles. But this is Franco’s Spain, and that sense of freedom is somewhat curtailed.

Antonio (Javier Camara) seems too old to be a Beatles fan (few over 30 were in those days), but he’s a fanatical one. A middle school foreign language teacher, he uses Lennon and McCartney’s lyrics to teach English. Knowing that John Lennon is in Spain making a movie, he sets out to meet his hero in person. (The movie being made, by the way, is How I Won the War. The title is never mentioned here.)

The movie location is in a small, beachside town far from Antonio’s home, so he takes a long weekend to drive there. On the way, he picks up first one and then another teenage runaway. Belen (Natalia de Molina) has escaped from a strict and authoritarian home for pregnant and unmarried girls (she’s not yet showing). Juanjo (Francesc Colomer) ran away from his large family because his cop father insisted he cut his hair.

Of course the two kids are going to fall in love. The considerably naïve Juanjo takes a long time to figure out that this gorgeous creature is interested in him.

Antonio becomes something of a father figure for the teenagers, although he hardly seems more mature than them. Goodhearted and generous, and reasonably well-educated, he seems to know little about the real world. (The film’s title is more than just a Lennon lyric.) His attempts to contact the well-protected Lennon are ridiculous and juvenile. But they aren’t anywhere near as funny as they should have been.

The movie is sweet, upbeat, and touching. But that’s about it.

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.

Last Man on Earth

I wrote this review in 2012, expecting that the film would eventually be released theatrically. It never happened, I’m publishing the review now. To my knowledge, this Italian film isn’t available with English subtitles.

B Science fiction drama comedy

  • Written and directed by Gian Alfonso Pacinotti
  • From a graphic novel by Giacomo Monti

The first two scenes lead you to believe that you’re about to watch a droll and very funny dark comedy. First, as the opening credits roll, we listen to a radio talk show where people worry about how the coming aliens will affect the Catholic Church or a local soccer team. Then we watch a very shy, awkward, deeply repressed man visit an aging prostitute in what appears to be a furniture store. Since he’s only a waiter, he’s not allowed to use a bed designated for more successful professionals.

For the first half of this unclassifiable Italian feature, the aliens are just background noise. Everyone knows that they’re here, but no one seems to know anything about them. Charlatans are making fortunes spinning their absurd tales about the new visitors. But the film is far more concerned with Luca (Gabriele Spinelli), the repressed waiter.

Luca is an emotional mess. A loner with only one friend (a transvestite prostitute), he LastManonEarthcan barely talk to his co-workers. He spies on an attractive female neighbor, and is utterly revolted when she passionately kisses her boyfriend. He occasionally visits his father, who lives by himself on a small, nearby farm.

After awhile, the aliens start appearing. And they look exactly like the most clichéd aliens imaginable. Worse, they look like people wearing badly-made alien suits. I don’t know if this was a creative decision or the result of a too-low budget.

The first alien, clearly a female, turns up at Luca’s father’s farm, and becomes a chauvinist’s idea of the perfect wife–keeping a clean home and cooking fantastic meals. Better yet, she understands Italian but never speaks.

That’s fine with Luca’s father, who’s no feminist. Indeed, in their scenes together, you can clearly see where Luca’s own mixed-up and arguably misogynistic attitudes about women originated.

As the aliens become more involved with human activity, they seem both loving and vengeful. They cure the sick and even the dead, and attack the evil. No one knows their ultimate plan.

But the aliens here serve the same purpose as the ones in Slaughterhouse-Five. They’re a form of fantasy relief (as opposed to comedy relief) in an otherwise grim and realistic story. Starting out as a comedy, The Last Man on Earth becomes quite serious, and contains one scene of shockingly horrific violence.

With all of its conflicting styles and approaches, the film never really comes together as a whole. And the big surprise revelation at the end (which no, doesn’t involve the aliens) seems forced and melodramatic. But the good scenes, and there are many, outweigh the weak ones.

Divorce Israeli Style. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

A Courtroom drama

  • Written and directed by Ronit Elkabetz, Shlomi Elkabetz

Viviane Amsalem moved out of her husband’s home years ago. But her remote and stubborn husband won’t give her a divorce. The resulting court case spans years in this chamber drama from Israel.

The filmmakers chose a simple, direct, inexpensive, and very effective way to tell their story. Although the film covers many years in the lives of the main characters, it’s entirely set in a small, plain judicial chamber, with a few scenes in an adjoining waiting room. As in a stage play, the characters’ lives outside of that room are only alluded to in dialog. Although the protagonist, Viviane, has a life and runs her own successful business, the limited settings emphasize that in a very real way, she’s trapped.

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Let me explain: Despite the fact that most Israelis are secular, Orthodox rabbis own a monopoly on Jewish matrimony. You can’t get married or divorced without their approval. And by their rules, only the husband can grant a divorce (gett in Hebrew). If the husband has been particularly cruel, the rabbis can put pressure on him, and even jail him. But only he can set his wife free.

And so the hearings continue. Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz) explains the nightmare of her marriage. Her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian) proclaims to be a good man and good husband. Witnesses speak on both sides. And little by little, we learn about their lives.

He’s deeply religious and keeps kosher. She grew up that way, and was Orthodox when they married, but now wants to leave religion behind her. And here she is, trying to win the sympathies of three Orthodox rabbis who may hopefully force Elisha’s hands.

Elisha is not a violent man, but he’s cold, self-centered, and horrifically stubborn. You can easily see what a nightmare it would be to be married to such a man. Even the rabbis–who one would assume are pre-disposed to favor an Orthodox man over a secular woman–hate him. But they can’t grant a divorce without him.

Over the years (scenes are separately by intertitles that tell us how many months have gone by), Viviane’s look and demeanor show her growing secular leanings. Her clothes get less modest and more modern over the course of the film.

The picture doesn’t tell us everything about Viviane’s life. For instance, we don’t know if she’s sexually active–quite possibly because she doesn’t want the rabbis to see her as an adulteress. But there are fleeting moments that suggest she has something to hide. And a few glances between her and her very handsome counsel (Menashe Noy) suggest a mutual, although probably not acted on, attraction.

There’s no question that Gett is a didactic film. It’s clearly meant as an indictment of the Israeli system of marriage and divorce. But it’s also an intimate tale of a very bad marriage, told in an atmosphere so claustrophobic that we only see the outside world twice–and both times through a window. And only twice, outside of the opening and closing credits, do we hear music.

Daring in its stripped-down style, Gett never makes you wish for a more expansive canvas. It may make you thankful for the first amendment.

Revisiting Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By

Anyone who cares about silent films has to read Kevin Brownlow’s mammoth oral history survey, The Parade’s Gone By. Not a history book in the usual sense, it describes early Hollywood primarily through the recollections of people who were there. Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford, Louise Brooks, and William Wellman were among the many filmmakers who Brownlow interviewed.

imageI first read The Parade’s Gone By in 1972, and wrote a book report on it for a film history class. The book was only four years old at that time, and the American silent era had been dead for 42 years. And now, 42 years after my first reading, I’ve re-read it.

We have far better access to silent films, and I suspect have far more silent film enthusiasts, than we did when I first read this book–or when Brownlow wrote it. Brownlow complains frequently about washed-out prints projected at the wrong speed–the most common way silents were screened in those days, if they were screened at all. Today, thanks to restorations, digital technology, film festivals, and especially thanks to Kevin Brownlow, that’s no longer the case. When I first read this book, I’d seen maybe six silent features in theaters and classrooms–two with live music–and maybe another five on broadcast TV. Now, there are weekends when I see more than that.

One example of how things have changed: When I first read Parade, I fell instantly in love with Louise Brooks. I would have to wait ten more years to actually see her in a film. Now she’s readily available everywhere.

Although the creations of the era are now readily available, the people who created them are long gone. And its these people that Brownlow had access to in the 1960s. Here we have Gloria Swanson describing the time Cecil B. De Mille filmed her with a real lion on her back for Male and Female. "Then they cracked their whips till he roared. It felt like thousands of vibrators. Every hair on my body was standing straight up. I had to close my eyes. The last thing I saw was Mr. De Mille with a gun."

Some of what they say is shocking by today’s standard–and even by the standards of image1968. Mary Pickford, recalling a fight with the American Legion over bringing Ernst Lubitsch to America, quotes a speech she planned but never had a chance to say, which including the argument "I’m white, twenty-one, and an American citizen." By then an old woman, she doesn’t seem to realize how offensive the statement sounds. Curiously, Brownlow put Pickford’s chapter in the section on directors, even though she never was one. She was a star, a producer, and ran a studio, but she never directed.

Decades-old recollections are notoriously inaccurate, but enough of them, well edited, can create a vivid view of the world they recall. I doubt that every incident described in The Parade’s Gone By happened exactly as written. But the general sense of a technical gimmick maturing into a major industry and a magnificent art form, then suddenly dying just as it reaches its peak, comes through. So does the sense of pioneers building something new. Those following today’s tech revolutions would do well to read this book.

Brownlow doesn’t stick entirely to his interviews. He has chapters on Griffith and DeMille, neither of whom lived long enough to be interviewed for this book. It includes chapters on art direction, editing, tinting, and, of course, the talkie revolution that killed one art form to create another. He also devotes two chapters to specific films: Douglas Fairbanks’ version of Robin Hood, and the original Ben Hur.

Although the first chapter is called The Primitive Years and the last one The Talking Picture, Brownlow doesn’t attempt a chronological history. He’s more interested in the flavor of the period, and the day-to-day work. He assumes, for instance, that you already know that Griffith was a beginning of cinema as an art form (an opinion that isn’t as widely held today as it was in 1968).

The British Brownlow focuses his book almost entirely on America, but he turns to Europe for two chapters near the end. The second of these chapters, and by far the longest chapter in the book, covers his hero, Abel Gance. In almost worshipful terms, using both Gance’s words and his own, Brownlow describes Gance as the French Griffith, and the greatest filmmaker of all time. He goes into great detail about the man’s life, and the making of his three most important films. He bemoans the fact that Napoleon (in Brownlow’s eyes the greatest film ever made) no longer exists in anything like its original form.

That was 1968. Today, Napoleon has been beautifully restored. We have Kevin Brownlow to thank for that. And not just for Napoleon. The current access to silent films that we all enjoy is, to a large extent, the result of Brownlow’s life work. And The Parade’s Gone By was the beginning.

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