Frank Zappa doc forces you to Eat That Question

B- Documentary

Directed by Thorsten Schütte

Early in this documentary on the legendary musician and provocateur, Frank Zappa insists that you can’t possibly know someone from an interview. It’s artificial; it’s unpleasant; it’s only two steps away from the Inquisition.

And that captures the film’s biggest problem. We hear a lot of Zappa’s words, but they’re public words. We don’t hear his private words, as we did in the Marlon Brando doc, Listen to Me Marlon. Nor do we hear from the people who knew and loved him. Fortunately, Zappa always made an interesting interview subject–blunt, opinionated, impossible to pin down, and often obscene. But still, this film never lets us see what made him tick.

Frank Zappa hit the cultural radar as the 1960s became what we think of as The Sixties (although there’s one TV clip with Steve Allen that appears to be from the 50s). With his long hair, his big mustache, and his vocabulary spiked with words that polite people didn’t say in those days, he seems to be the ultimate hippy–although he despised that word and preferred to be called a freak. He talked about artistic integrity and criticized American materialism. But he didn’t do or approve of drugs (other than tobacco–you rarely see him without a cigarette), and his tunes were often too complex and sophisticated to dance to. He also composed classical music.

Director Thorsten Schütte didn’t shoot new footage for Eat that Question, and if he interviewed anyone for this movie, it didn’t make the final cut. The film lacks a narration. Almost the entire runtime is made up of archival footage of Zappa performing or giving interviews. The rest is Zappa rehearsing, Zappa making TV appearances, and Zappa testifying before Congress attacking censorship. The entire film is pillarboxed in the pre-HDTV 4×3 aspect ratio in which all of these performances and interviews were shot.

Fortunately, the film has a good deal of concert footage–something that many recent music documentaries lack. Aside from the enjoyment of the music, these scenes show us how closely he controlled his band, The Mothers of Invention. Long before Bruce Springsteen became famous, Zappa was very much The Boss.

Zappa died of prostate cancer in 1993, less than three weeks before his 53rd birthday. At that point in his life, he was concentrating on classical music– selling out concert halls in Europe while Americans thought of him as a has-been ’60s rocker.

Frank Zappa deserves an excellent documentary. Here, he gets a merely good one.

The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

A- Music documentary

Directed by Morgan Neville

In the year 2000, cellist Yo-Yo Ma decided to take his musical career in a new direction. He gathered up musicians from various countries, all experts in their own cultures’ music, and created The Silk Road Ensemble. The idea was to find the beauty in their different traditions and create something special out of them.

Documentarian Morgan Neville (Best of Enemies20 Feet from Stardom) captures the enthusiasm these talented performers have for their work. While it looks at their problems and suffering (which are significant), it shows the consolation they find when playing–especially together.

The film follows the ensemble and several of the individual musicians within it, creating a study of world music, its importance, and what one has to go through to create it.

Not everyone approves of such musical mixing. Many members of the ensemble were criticized in their native countries for “diluting” their cultural heritage. Never mind that art constantly evolves; there are purists everywhere.

The musicians that Morgan focuses on include the Iranian master of the kamancheh, Kayhan Kalhor; Ma calls him his brother. There are others. Wu Man plays the pipa–a stringed instrument from her native China–and in one scene plays an electrified one. Spanish bagpiper Cristina Pato shows the charisma of Bruce Springsteen as she merges her Galicia musical roots with just about any genre–including rock.

And then there’s Yo-Yo Ma himself, who comes off as a modest, self-effacing, nice guy. Like Buster Keaton, he never really chose his career; fame found him as a seven-year-old prodigy. It’s given him incredible success, but at a price. He tells us in the film that in the 35 years of his marriage, he was on the road 22 of them.

Of course, Ma’s travails pale in comparison to those of the musicians who came from truly oppressive countries. Kalhor had to leave an Iran increasingly intolerant of artists who didn’t toe the line. Wu Man suffered in Communist China. The film becomes surprisingly political when discussing these issues. Damascus-born clarinetist Kinan Azmeh cries about the losses among his family and friends, all because of the current war in Syria. He boils in anger at the refugee crisis, as Neville shows us the crowded, snow-drenched camps where people are freezing to death hoping to be admitted into a safe haven.

Much as I enjoyed The Music of Strangers, I have to admit that it
suffers from the problem so prevalent in recent music documentaries: There isn’t enough music. I would have easily sat through another 30 or even 45 minutes of this film if those minutes were of concert footage.

A+ List: The Last Waltz (also Fargo & The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp)

Talk about the musical stars aligning perfectly. The Band decides to break up. Bill Graham produces their farewell concert–a Thanksgiving extravaganza filled with some of the greatest names in rock and roll. Then Martin Scorsese, fresh from Taxi Driver, brings together some of Hollywood’s brightest to record the event.

The Last Waltz captures one of the great nights in modern music history, puts it into a historical context, and stays focused on the musicians. Keeping the 35mm cameras (a first for a concert film) on tripods and using very long lenses, Scorsese and his team shows us the sweat, the comradery, and the joy of performing onstage with people you know are the best.

For the excitement in the music, the joy in performance, the interview sequences that fill in the story, and the brilliant filmmaking, The Last Waltz makes my A+ list. To qualify, a film must be a masterpiece, at least 20 years old, and one that I personally have loved for decades.

Before we face the music, here are two other A+ honorees you should know about:

Now, back to The Last Waltz:

The Band had an unusual history. Before they became The Band, and then became famous, they backed up other singers–specifically Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan. They went big in the late 1960s. Then, in 1986, they decided to quit.

Impresario Bill Graham turned their final concert into a very special event. Staged at Winterland on Thanksgiving and titled The Last Waltz, it included turkey dinner for the audience, an orchestra playing waltzes, and–of course–rock and roll. Guest stars that came onstage to perform with The Band included Neil Young, Joanie Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond (who looks like he’s performing in Vegas), and, of course, Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan.

But enough about the concert. Let’s talk about the movie.

Martin Scorsese came to the project with the eye of a narrative filmmaker. He shot the film in 35mm rather than the documentary standard 16mm. He brought in cinematographer Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and production designer Boris Leven (West Side Story, The Sound of Music); these were movie people, not music people or documentarians.

They created a visual style that put emphasis on the musicians as people. We see the performers almost entirely in close-ups–often with two or three big heads in one tight frame. You see them reacting to each other, smiling at a well-played riff, and waiting for a cue. There’s a moment when Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko (two members of The Band) watch Dylan intently while continuing to play, waiting for the cord that will signal the transition to another song.

You seldom see hands fingering guitars in The Last Waltz, except when Clapton comes on stage to perform Further on Up the Road. The song becomes a friendly guitar duel between Clapton and Robertson. Robertson wins.

In between the concert footage, Scorsese interviews the members of The Band. They tell stories of life on the road, shoplifting, working with certain artists, and how they acquired the name The Band. Many of these sequences set up the next concert sequence. For instance, a discussion on women on the road leads to Joanie Mitchell’s incredible performance of Coyote.

Scorsese wasn’t entirely satisfied with the live footage. So after the concert, he brought The Band to an MGM soundstage to film and record three songs with considerably more control. The studio version of The Weight, with The Staple Singers joining in, is one of the film’s highlights.

The post-Last Waltz history of The Band and its members is not a happy one. An attempt to revive the group failed. Three fifths of its members are gone now. But we still have The Last Waltz to remind us what music can do for the soul.

Salt Flats and Music: Tuesday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I saw two films, both documentaries, at the San Francisco International Film Festival on Tuesday. One was about the world coming to a previously isolated stretch of Bolivia. The other was about music of the world.

B+ Salero

Before the screening, Director Mike Plunkett told us that the film was “a passion project of mine. It took six years to complete.”

This exceptionally beautiful documentary looks at change from the point of view of someone who doesn’t want it, although the film itself seems neutral on the subject. Moises Chambi Yucra lives in the small town of Colchani , next to Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. A husband and father, he’s harvested salt all of his life. He cannot imagine another life for himself or his family.

But Lithium has been found in massive amounts in the area–enough to make Bolivia a significantly richer country. What’s more, the government is taking steps to bring tourism to Colchani. Moises life can no longer go on as it was.

Plunkett feels considerable empathy for Moises, but he also shows the considerable advantages that come from the changes–advantages that appear to be helping the people who live there. The film contains some of the most mouth-watering images seen at this year’s festival.

Plunkett did a Q&A with the audience after the screening. Unfortunately, I had to leave soon after it started, but I caught this comment:

“I was really just struck by the landscape. If the landscape could have a voice, it would say something.”

I saw Salero at the Roxie. It was the last screening of the film at the festival. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely to get a theatrical release.

A- The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

Before the screening, director Morgan Neville (Best of Enemies, 20 Feet from Stardom) told us that he was delighted to be in the New Mission‘s Theater 1. “I think I saw Nightmare on Elm Street 3 here.”

Since this film will get a theatrical release, I can only give a very short review here:

In the year 2000, cellist Yo-Yo Ma took his musical career in a new direction. He gathered up musicians from various countries, all experts in their own cultures’ music, and created the Silk Road Ensemble. The idea was to find the beauty in their different traditions and create something special out of them. This documentary follows Ma and other musicians as they work, play, and talk about their lives. Many came from repressive regimes and war-torn lands, and their stories are often tragic. But the beauty of making music keeps them going. The film’s one problem: Not enough music.

After the screening, Neville and producer Caitrin Rogers came onstage for a Q&A. Some highlights:

  • How the project began: It’s one of those instances of jumping off a cliff. Yo-Yo called and wanted to talk about filming a concert. He started telling off-color jokes. I said “I’ll follow you with a camera everywhere.”
  • What role does culture serve in society? In the West, we tend to take culture for granted. It’s discounted because it’s a soft influence.
  • We started talking to Yo-Yo. Then we started talking to the ensemble, and we saw how much material there was.
  • On the film’s visual style, which involved a lot of moving, swooping camerawork: Early on, we decided the camera should float amongst these cultures.
  • Advice for new filmmakers: Get good sound. It’s the most overlooked thing in film. If you have great sound you can make a great film.
  • It’s become so much easier to make films because of the technology.

The film will screen once more for the Festival, Thursday, 4:00 at the Pacific Film Archive. But don’t worry if you miss it. It will open in Bay Area theaters June 17.

Music and exercise: Friday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I caught two movies Friday, a music documentary at the Roxie and a very unique coming-of-age story at the New Mission‘s Theater 1.

B+ Soundbreaking: Stories from the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music

Like The Wrecking Crew, Soundbreaking looks at how music–specifically rock and roll–is created in the studio. But it isn’t about session musicians. It’s about the producers who control the recording, handle the mix, and provide the singers and songwriters with another opinion. It’s also about how technology changes music.

I can’t really call this a movie; certainly not a feature. What we were shown were the first two episodes from an upcoming television documentary series for PBS; a dream of George Martin‘s that he didn’t live to see completed.

As you’d expect, there’s a lot of interviews with famous and not-so-famous people, a lot of anecdotes, and a lot of music.

The first episode concentrated on the producers, and the working relationships they have with their more-famous collaborators. Some were friends. Others, such as Martin, were father figures. Still others, such as Phil Spector (no relation, although I do have a brother named Phil), are feared dictators.

The second episode looked at the evolution of studio technology and how it has changed (and will continue to change) the music. As recording devices went to four-track, 16-track, to today’s virtually unlimited tracks, musicians and producers found new ways to create sound. And sometimes they went overboard.

After the two episodes, co-director Jeff Dupre did a Q&A with the audience. Some highlights:

  • On the structure of the series: The obvious way to start would be with Edison, but we wanted to start with when recording became an art.
  • On favorite interview subjects: Annie Lennox and Tom Petty were great. It was a total privilege to meet these people and talk to them about what they love.
  • On words in the interviews that can’t be said on PBS: I’m about to go back to New York and bleep a lot of things.
  • What the other six episodes will be about:
    • The human voice
    • Electric instruments
    • The rhythm track
    • Sampling and hip hop
    • Rock videos
    • Distribution formats, and how they dictated the music.

The first two episodes will play again tonight (Saturday) at the New Mission at 9:30. The series will appear on PBS starting in November.

A- The Fits

This impossible-to-categorize narrative film will get a theatrical release in June, so I’m only allowed to write 100 words about it now.

The Fits shows us the world of an inner-city gym through the eyes of pre-teen Toni (Royalty Hightower). She clearly idolizes her older brother, who works there while training to be a boxer. Quite an athlete herself, she joins the gym’s synchronized dancing team. But something strange is going on; girls are having fits, going out of control and shaking hysterically. Toni rarely talks in the film, but Hightower’s expressive face and athletic physicality says it all. Co-writer and director Anna Rose Holmer allows us to just watch and see, while being told almost nothing. It’s a very strong film.

After the screening, Holmer and Hightower came onstage for a Q&A. Some highlights, avoiding spoilers:

  • Hightower, on her working relationship with Holmer: We helped rewrite the lines because they didn’t feel right.
  • Holmer’s take: I was so excited with Royalty because I felt I had a collaborator.
  • It felt like we were making a feature-length fitness video.
  • How did this film change your (Hightower’s) life: It changed my life a lot. I was only known in Cincinnati; now I’m known all over the world.

The film has one more screening at the festival, on Monday at 9:15. But as I said, it will get a theatrical release come June.

Miles Ahead miles away from a biopic

B+ Music biopic (sort of)

Written by Steven Baigelman & Don Cheadle

Directed by Don Cheadle

Don’t expect anything like Ray or Walk the Line in this totally crazy story of Miles Davis in a turning point in his career. It’s more like a raunchy caper comedy set in the 1970s, but with great music and a few realistic flashbacks.

After five years in seclusion, Davis’ non-productive, hermitic lifestyle is interrupted by a music journalist (Ewan McGregor) hoping to get an interview . From the reporter’s point of view, the timing couldn’t be better. Davis has a tape of his first album in years, and no one else has heard it. The great musician, now strung out on coke, wants to be paid, but CBS Records won’t put up any more money without hearing what he’s done.

Then a couple of sleaze balls steal the tape, and Davis and the reporter set out to retrieve it. Their quest involves shootouts, drug deals, paying for cocaine by signing LPs, and even a car chase.

The tape essentially becomes Miles Ahead‘s McGuffin–the physical object that everyone wants and thus turns the plot. But that part of the film stretches credibility. Who would possibly think they could violently rob and attempt to kill Miles Davis, and then try to sell the original master tapes that they stole from him. It’s like stealing and trying to sell the Mona Lisa; everyone knows that it’s very hot and that you’re very guilty.

The flashbacks all turn around Davis’ tumultuous relationship and marriage to Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi). These scenes are played straight, and help anchor the silly story with at least a semblance of reality. It’s only here that Davis comes off as a fully-formed human being–although not always a good one. We have no trouble understanding why Taylor left him.

Don Cheadle gives an excellent performance (has he ever given anything else) as both the charming musician who successfully charms Taylor into marriage, as well as the crazy, coked-out has-been waving a gun at anyone who gets in his way. This is Cheadle’s project; in addition to starring in it, he directed, co-produced and co-wrote it.

McGregor is a good actor with a likeable presence, but I found the casting choice worrisome. I wondered if the money people insisted on a white sidekick.

Although I like Miles Davis’ music, I came into Miles Ahead without knowing anything about his personal life. I suspect I still don’t. As near as I can tell, McGregor’ reporter is completely fictitious. Much of the rest of it smacks too much of a good story to be believable.

But that’s okay. I don’t require historical accuracy in narrative cinema.

If you want to understand Miles Davis, listen to his music (there wasn’t enough of it here). If you want to know about his life, read Wikipedia. If you want a good time, see this movie. Just don’t expect much more than a good time.

New Janis Joplin doc captures a little piece of her heart

Music documentary

Written and Directed by Amy Berg

I’m giving Janis: Little Girl Blue an A, but I’m not sure if I’m praising filmmaker Amy Berg or the subject of her documentary, Janis Joplin. I think it’s a little of both. If nothing else, Berg should be praised for concentrating on a great artistic and cultural figure, and then doing her more than justice.

Janis Joplin’s voice seemed to come out of nowhere. But in reality, it came out of the pain and joy and despair and sexuality of a young woman brimming with so much emotion that you felt she might explode. And she did, dying of a heroin overdose in 1970, at the age of 27.

Janis (I feel odd calling her Joplin) left behind a handful of albums and recorded concerts (some filmed) that electrify the soul. Her voice was a cry for help, a carnal wail, and a call for revolution. If you’ve ever loved Janis Joplin’s work, this film will reignite that love. If you don’t understand what she was all about, this film will help you understand her, and introduce you to one of the greatest and most influential performers in popular music.

As you would expect from a documentary about a performer who died in living memory, Berg’s film contains plenty of concert footage, letters home, and interviews with people who knew and loved her. But the filmmaker understands that we love Janis primarily for her music, and therefore keeps the songs front and center. The music constantly plays as a background to the movie, and it almost always seems to be just the right song.

The interviewed subjects include Clive Davis, Bob Weir, Country Joe Macdonald, filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, Kris Kristofferson, and Janis’ two siblings. There’s some archival interview footage with Janis herself –including one very funny moment with Don Adams of Get Smart–but she really only reveals her heart in the letters she writes to her family. And, of course, in the songs. Even the ones she didn’t write tell her story. She owned every song she recorded.

Much of the old footage here has been seen before, especially in Howard Alk’s 1974 documentary, Janis. Berg has a better sense of character and story telling–as well as four decades of historical perspective. And she includes a disheartening clip of Janis’ messed-up performance at Woodstock that I’m pretty sure I never saw before.

I said earlier that we love Janis primarily for her music, but we also love her for what she represented. Born and raised in Port Arthur, Texas in 1943, her plain looks and progressive views made her an outcast. So she came to San Francisco, embraced free love and a free life, and became a star just as the Summer of Love began. As much as anyone, she represented the sexually-charged, essentially humane, ecstatic joy of the hippie movement.

But in the end, she represented the negative side of that movement as well, dying alone in a motel room from one too many hits of smack.

What would have happened had she cleaned up and lived a long life? Would her voice have blown out before she was 35? Would she have matured as an artist and found new ways to use that voice? One interview near the end suggests that she might have done just that.

Those were the questions I asked myself as the movie came to its end. Janis Joplin was a bright comet that streaked across the sky. Amy Berg has captured the best record yet of that ball of fire.

After its theatrical release, Janis: Little Girl Blue will screen on the PBS series American Masters. I suspect it will be heavily censored.

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