LEFTOVERS (2017, doc)

July 13, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. I can’t ever recall a documentary starting with the filmmaker explaining that the subject matter was neither a passion, nor even something he was particularly interested in. But that’s exactly how Seth Hancock opens his film. He claims to never have thought much about aging, yet was asked to make a film on hunger within the senior citizen community, based on his experience as a photographer.

“Food Insecure” seniors was a new description learned during the film. The statistics show 6 million seniors go hungry every day, and there are others who experience uncertainty over the when/where/what of their next meal. These are the ‘lost and forgotten’. It’s a national disgrace. Meals on Wheels was a major backer of the film, as were some other organizations that assist seniors.

Director Hancock divides the film into three parts: Learning to Care, Giving a S**T, and Looking for Solutions. He bounces around the United States and offers segments based in Marin County California, Owsley County Kentucky, Orlando, Detroit, and Austin. Each area has their own issues, but the problems are remarkably similar – we just don’t do a very good job of making sure the elderly have enough to eat, and are properly cared for.

It’s pointed out that these are the folks who fought our wars, built our towns, and educated our populace. They deserve better. There is a particularly interesting interview with Carla Laemmle, a former dancer and actress. She is the niece of the legendary Carl Laemmle who founded Universal Studios. Carla explains that without her daily delivery from Meals on Wheels she would be “stuck” in a retirement center or hospital, instead of living in her own home.

The film mixes in interviews with the CEO’s of Meals on Wheels and AARP, as well as numerous senior citizens and volunteers. Many statistics are provided throughout, and it’s noted that every dollar invested in Meals on Wheels saves up to $50 in Medicaid. Other statistics are equally stunning and eye-opening, including the projected number of seniors in 2020 and the importance of Social Security benefits as the bulk of income for seniors.

Frustration with government and politicians is expressed many times, as is the good-heartedness of so many folks (many of whom also are frustrated by bureaucracy) who strive to bring a little joy – and food – into the lives of unfortunate seniors. Health Care and Socialization are touched on, as is the contrast in Texas of the applications for handguns (1 page) versus food stamps (18 pages). The issue of hunger for senior citizens is not going away, and it’s time for real solutions – not just because it’s the humane thing, but also because the folks deserve better.


CITY OF GHOSTS (2017, doc)

July 9, 2017

Dallas International Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. Oscar nominated director Matthew Heineman delivered the stunning documentary Cartel Land in 2015, and here he once again proves his expertise as the messenger of important (and dangerous) stories that need to be told.

The film begins in the Syrian city of Ragga in 2012, and we see the beginning of the revolution against the Assad regime. The sayings “Death is Death” and “Danger has a special taste” come into play, and by the end of the film, there is a clarity that is devastating.

The courageous and dedicated Citizen Journalists are divided into two groups: the internal who risk their lives in Ragga uploading news stories and videos of ISIS actions and, the external who are based in Turkey and Germany and post regularly to social media outlets. Both groups live vagabond lives – always on the move in an effort to avoid capture. Their combined efforts and risk taking allow the real story to be told from their home city mostly cut-off from the outside world – as evidenced by the satellite graveyard.

Some quite graphic and violent video clips are used to bring poignancy and meaning to the words spoken by the brave individuals (rebels in the best sense) being interviewed. The clips are also in contrast to the quietly dignified, yet urgent approach they take in reporting developments.

RBSS (Ragga is Being Silently Slaughtered) is the movement spreading the truth about ISIS atrocities – including public beheadings, shootings, and bombings. It’s a terrifying story, never more so than during the professionally produced recruiting ISIS videos featuring young children. These courageous folks have had friends, family and neighbors slaughtered which inspires them to continue fighting the guns and bombs with the power of words. It’s breathtaking.

watch the trailer:


July 8, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s doubtful any other film blends these elements: 1980’s rock music, cancer, a band break-up, a love story, In Vitro Fertilization, The Sex Pistols, Mount Everest group climbing, bone marrow donors, and an inspirational message. The convergence of these elements in director Russ Kendall’s documentary comes courtesy of Mike Peters and his life story and mission.

Mr. Peters, the iconic Welsh rock musician who first made his name in music as leader of The Alarm, has an engaging and ever-present smile, and epitomizes the term magnetic personality. He is described as a truly genuine person and one who builds bridges between folks – bringing people together for a cause.

Director Kendall filmed over an 8 year period, and of course, we get even earlier clips of The Alarm – replete with the spiked hair and spiritual bond with fans. Instincts are mentioned a couple of times by Peters in regards to his songwriting (writing about what matters) and his childhood guitar playing (possibly viewing it as a way out of a challenging neighborhood). The revolution of punk rock music is what convinced a young Peters that it was possible to remake yourself – become what you want to be, instead of what you are. His charming mother Martha mentions she was “horrified” for him.

Childhood friend and songwriting partner Eddie McDonald co-founded The Alarm with Peters, and though they never reached the mass success of some super groups, the respect of other musicians and fans was above reproach. The all-too-common inner-band power struggle (with Dave Sharp) led to the 1991 breakup of the band, and Peters simply started over – playing his music in smaller venues and reinventing himself as a solo act.

1996 brought his first cancer diagnosis, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Peters’ spirit really begins to show his true colors as he chooses to “go to war” against his cancer. As a way to display his approach, he dons a military camouflage jacket and vows to wear it until he is cancer-free. His lovely (and strong) wife Jules supports him as they balance music, health and the pursuit of kids through IVF.

The “new” Alarm band forms in 2000 and in a remarkable strategy, exposes ageism within the music industry, forming the foundation for the film “Vinyl”. It’s not until 2005 when Peters receives his second diagnosis – Leukemia. His chemo treatments and continued musical outings are documented, but it’s his Love Hope Strength Foundation that inspires an increase in bone marrow donors (“Get on the List”). One of the most fascinating segments of the film has Peters organizing the world’s “highest” gig – a musical concert at Mount Everest Base Camp after a 10 day group climb. The event also raised funds for the construction of a new clinic in Kathmandu.

The film really captures the live-life-to-the-fullest spirit of Mike Peters, and how he remains dedicated to making the world a better place and helping others fight cancer. The increase of donor pools is crucial to treatment and it’s a virtuous and vital mission … by a man who understands both the challenges of cancer and the power of inspiring through music and actions. He describes himself as blessed despite the obstacles he has faced – and battles he continues to fight.

watch the trailer:

THE REAGAN SHOW (2017, doc)

June 29, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. More film footage exists of Ronald Reagan’s eight years as President than the previous five administrations combined. Under the guise of pulling back the curtain on how this was orchestrated by the actor-turned-politician, co-directors Sierra Pettengill and Pancho Velez instead seem more focused on delivering a hatchet job on the 40th U.S. President known as “the Great Communicator”.

With the exception of a few talking heads (Tom Brokaw, Walter Mondale, Peter Jennings, Sam Donaldson, etc), the film exists almost entirely of archival video and film footage from Reagan’s time in office. It kicks off on December 21, 1988 as Reagan and film crew prepares for his final interview with David Brinkley. The closing sequence shows Reagan’s final day in the White House as he leaves the Oval Office for the last time … and how it was choreographed for the cameras.

Two things are quite evident in showing what the filmmakers were after: an emphasis on the Cold War and the PR battles between Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, and the parallels and comparisons to the current U.S. President … though Donald Trump is never mentioned. Gorbachev was the only politician up to that time who could match, or even eclipse, Reagan’s comprehension of the value in controlling the public relations (as opposed to media relations). As a precursor to the Reality TV era, the 1988 Moscow Summit even featured TV shirts made in the United States!

The Trump comparisons seem endless and lightly-veiled as we see Reagan manipulate and clash with the media, while also strategically evading when necessary. With a slew of Democrats, journalists, and broadcasters casting aspersions and doubt on Reagan’s competency and commitment, there is even the accusation that he depended on his staff too heavily. This stands in stark contrast to what these days is reported on Trump – someone who doesn’t depend enough on staff and advisers. We can’t help but take note of how it’s always the media and opposing party making these determinations and judgments.

Additional pot shots occur around the Iran ‘arms for hostages’ scandal, and it comes across as if the filmmakers think the close relationship between Ron and Nancy (“I thought I married an actor”) somehow proves their point that he was disengaged as President. That’s right, the point of the documentary has little to do with how Reagan played to the camera (which is the premise being sold), but rather how they judge him to be style over substance. The footage utilized is excellent and the film is well structured, but most documentary viewers would prefer the filmmakers be upfront about their mission. Own it.

watch the trailer:



June 29, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. “I’m a revolutionary. I’m not a criminal.” So states Ishmael Muslim Ali (formerly Ishmael LaBeet), a man convicted of 8 murders at a posh country club in 1972 St. Croix. Director Jamie Kastner secures a fascinating on camera extended interview with the man who considers himself a victim – a political prisoner.

Ali is a well-spoken and somewhat charismatic man, while at the same time not exactly believable or likeable. Director Kastner retraces the original Fountain Valley Murders, and the subsequent questionable interrogations that led to Ali and four others confessing to the horrific crimes. Confessions allegedly garnered through torture (cattle prods and ropes/trees) and a sham trial are the focus of the film … predictably, St Croix law enforcement denies such activities, while others provide quite vivid details of such.

Adding intrigue to the saga is the 1984 New Year’s Eve hijacking of an American Airlines flight by Ali. He re-directed the flight to Cuba where he continues to live today. Interviews with the pilot, flight attendants and even passengers accompany the reenactments of the hijacking, and Ali later explains how he smuggled the gun aboard.

Kastner leaves little doubt that he believes Ali’s story, but in a show of balance, we do learn that Ali/LaBeet was dishonorably discharged from the military, and later joined the Black Panthers. He was described as the “most polite hijacker” and certainly has some outspoken critics, but the numerous interviews – especially that of Ali – will test your people-reading skills. Criminal or victim? You decide.

watch the trailer:


June 19, 2017


 The 6th annual Oak Cliff Film Festival ran June 8-11 and included even more local venues this year … further proof of the organizers’ commitment to spotlighting this unique neighborhood within the monstrosity known as the Dallas-Ft Worth metroplex. Despite the challenging schedule (much overlap, and only one screening per movie), the programming is a gift for true film lovers. I saw ten movies over the four days (it would have been 11 if not for the cluster of Sunday evening – more on that later) and not a single clunker in the bunch. For a festival that prides itself on unusual films and deep cuts, that’s quite a tribute to those responsible.

Below are quick comments on each of the films I watched, and at the end you’ll find some closing commentary on the OCFF.

Thursday June 8 – Opening Night

LEMON – When introducing the festival’s opening night spotlight feature, director Janicza Bravo described her finished project as “a bummer, but not a bummer”. She and her co-writer and lead actor (and real life spouse) Brett Gelman clearly had a great time with the film that took 5 years to complete. It’s an unconventional look at Isaac (played by Gelman), a guy so severely socially awkward that he might lose a two man race for “most likely to succeed” to Napoleon Dynamite.

Isaac’s girlfriend of 10 years (Judy Greer) is blind, and has lost all interest in their relationship. When she dumps him, Isaac’s life somehow becomes even more bizarre thanks to two Tiger finches, his job as an acting teacher, an attempt to get close with an actor (Michael Cera, sporting Gene Wilder tribute hair) and his near-criminal bonding moment with the elderly grandmother (Marla Gibbs) of his new romantic interest (a terrifically confounded Nia Long).

The cast is exceptionally deep for a low-budget indie and also includes Gillian Jacobs, Rhea Perlman, Fred Melamed, Martin Starr, David Paymer, Jeff Garlin, Jon Daly and Megan Mullally. Each of these talented folks offers up a dose of eccentricity to keep us viewers on our toes. There are many laughs to be had, and Mr. Gelman somehow delivers a performance that is a step backwards from deadpan. His walk alone is worth the price of admission, as is the use of such unusual music as “A Million Matzoh Balls”. The film is quite funny, but also a bit sad. Ms. Bravo’s description of her film is spot-on.

PORTO – Last year’s tragic death of Anton Yelchin becomes more heart-breaking every time we see him on screen. This is one of his final films and director Gabe Klinger and writer Larry Gross deliver a Portugal-based quasi-Before Sunrise story that mercifully chooses a much different path than the incessant babbling of that film.

Rather than narcissistic meanderings, this film explores how we deal with memories, as well as the fallout of an intense and short-lived connection formed mostly through a (prolonged and extended) sexual encounter between two otherwise broken people.

The film is divided into 3 sections: Jake, Mati, and Mati and Jake. In addition to the perspectives, the filmmaker utilizes multiple aspects and film formats (8mm, 16mm, 35mm), and we were fortunate to see it presented in 35mm. In addition to the human observations and insight, this is a film techie’s dream come true. So many various looks for a beautifully shot (by Wyatt Garfield) film is extremely rare for a low-budget indie. There is both a retro look and stunning shots such as those with Mati and the red umbrella, and the couple on a bench in the late night fog.

The splendid Lucie Lucas makes her feature film debut as Mati and the camera loves her, as does Jake … or at least he believes he does. She manages to capture both the flirtatious sparkle of the girl who first encounters Jake, and the less-energetic, more resigned to the future look of the woman who has made her life choice.

Toss in a Proust quote, some wonderful piano work, and the beauty of coastal town Porto Portugal, and the result is a piercing look at the fragility of humanity and passion of star-crossed connections.

Friday June 9

GOLDEN EXITS – Director Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Phillip) conjures up an odd blending of Woody Allen classics Interiors (itself a tribute to Bergman) and Hannah and Her Sisters (with the funny parts removed). The paths of families and characters cross sometimes organically, and sometimes by force. The film was nominated for a Grand Jury award at Sundance, and it features all of the usual relationship traits – insecurity and mistrust, and anything else that leads to disenchantment and unhappiness. Yet somehow voices are never raised and anger seems (mostly) a distant emotion.

Naomi (Emily Browning, Sucker Punch) arrives from Australia and begins working for Nick (Adam Horovitz, former Beastie Boy) on a project to archive his deceased father-in-law’s documents/materials. Nick was hired by the estate trustee and his bitter sister-in-law Gwendolyn (Mary-Louise Parker), and she seems to be less miserable whenever she is busting his chops about the pace of his work – and anything else she can target. Nick receives little support from his wife and Gwendolyn’s sister Alyssa (Chloe Sevigny), who has plenty of reasons to lack faith in her husband. Nick has unpure thoughts regarding Naomi, but she is focused on Buddy (Jason Schwartzman) despite his marriage to Jess (Analeigh Tipton, Crazy Stupid Love).

If it sounds like a mess, it surely is … but it’s also an intricate tapestry of lies, love, jealousy and deficiencies of those in relationships. The film opens with Emily Browning singing “New York Groove”, which perfectly sets the stage for this strong ensemble cast playing cold, reserved characters who talk about seeing films with “normal” people in them – much like this one.

A LIFE IN WAVES (doc) – By opening this documentary with footage of Suzanne Ciani’s appearance on an early David Letterman show, it’s as if director Brett Whitcomb is trying to convince us that she is a celebrity and someone whose story is worth learning. Of course he’s correct, even if her story and career require no added publicity or marketing.

Ms. Ciani is a talented musician known best for her synth music featured in numerous commercials (Coca Cola) and video games. Her innovative sound design and effects may be difficult to categorize (New Age?), but the effectiveness is beyond question. We learn about her mentor Don Buchla (inventor of a 1963 synthesizer), her Wellesley alumni award, and her battle with breast cancer that led to her relocation from NYC to California in 1992. Some amazing archival footage takes us full circle through the three stages of career, and by the end, we are in awe of her talent, and fully admire her as a person.

Saturday June 10

LA BARRACUDA – Stuck with the festival’s least desirable time slot, co-directors Julia Halperin and Jason Cortland still managed to walk away as the Grand Jury Prize Winner – Narrative Feature. Filmed in Austin with Texas Hill Country pacing, the unconventional editing displays the messy legacy left behind by a deceased Country & Western singer of some fame.

The singer’s daughter Merle (Allison Tolman) is living her life of quiet desperation when she is surprised on her own front porch by Sinaloa (Sophie Reid), who claims to be Merle’s half-sister from England. Adding to the mess is Merle’s mother played by JoBeth Williams, who understandably wants little to do with Sinaloa. Ms. Reid plays Sinaloa in such a way that no one ever really knows whether her motivations are pure or vengeful. She’s quite creepy at times.

Musical director Colin Gilmore (son of Jimmie Dale Gilmore) ensures that the music throughout is spot on and crucial to telling the story. A campfire sing-a-long is a real ice-breaker for the sisters who share various mommy issues and daddy issues. Tack on Merle’s fiancé issues and work issues, and Sinaloa’s chip on the shoulder, and the scorpion line (it’ll come back to sting you) proves quite the foreshadowing. The rage within can rise up at any time and within any of us. The only questions are when, by whom and how severe.

TRUE CONVICTION (doc) – The people we tend to pull for in life are those who seemingly always find a way to turn the proverbial lemons into lemonade. Chris, Steven and Johnnie are the ultimate example of this. The three ex-convicts have decades of time served between them, and they also share exoneration after being wrongly convicted.

A Special Award winner at Tribeca, Jamie Meltzer’s film also took home this year’s OCFF Grand Jury prize – Documentary feature. These three gentlemen refuse to lash out at the system that did them wrong, and instead have formed an organization that researches and assists those in the same situation which they once found themselves in – behind bars and wrongly convicted. It’s an admirable cause and a career designed to turn a negative into a positive. We follow different cases as the men meet with a “false confession consultant”, as well as a prosecutor and detective from an old case gone bad. They acknowledge the danger in playing with the hope of convicts, and the film doesn’t shy away from the personal travails of all three. Steve and Chris face severe challenges, while Johnnie looks to start over in life. We never doubt the frustration these men have over the system that favors quick closure over accuracy, and more impressively, we are certain of their passion for their mission.

SANTA SANGRE (1989) – I typically avoid reparatory films at festivals, but made an exception in order to experience an Alejandro Jodorowsky double feature. At its core, this classic from almost 30 years ago is a horror film – and a very good one with the darkest of humor and surreal elements. But it’s also a psychological look at how childhood experiences form our character in life, and that’s not always a pretty sight.

Adan Jodorowsky plays boy magician Fenix, the son of a circus knife thrower (Guy Stockwell) and trapeze performer mother (Blanca Guerra). He befriends a young mute understudy Alma (Faviola Elenka Tapia in her only screen performance) who is horribly mistreated by the Tattooed Lady (a terrific Thelma Tixou). A particularly gruesome scene leaves Fenix traumatized and we then catch up with him some 15 years later (now played by Adan brother Axel Jodorowsky). Linked by witnessing the vivid violence, Alma tracks down Fenix in an effort to make things right for both of them.

Jodorowsky’s visuals are remarkable and are often tributes to those filmmakers he most admires. It’s certainly a movie for adults, but only those adults who are willing to dig in and follow the psychology of events that may seem cruel and meaningless – but often mean a great deal.

ENDLESS POETRY – The second half of the Jodorowsky double feature is the newest film from the famed director and it’s offered as a surreal autobiography – a story of his family and specifically, his time in Chile prior to leaving for Paris. The surreal part comes courtesy of his mother who operatically sings her every line, the head of a water buffalo perched above his parents’ headboard, an ultra modern bar that defies description – outside of the wakes held for customers/staff, and the inclusion of dwarfs and clowns (recurring in numerous Jodorowsky projects).

This is a continuation piece to Jodorowsky’s 2014 Dance of Reality, and features Adan Jodorowsky as the son (and also the film’s composer), and Brontis Jodorowsky as the father. Additionally, Alejandro himself periodically appears on screen in what works as kind of a live narration of his own thoughts during some segments of his life.

Life philosophy permeates every scene and every character. The mother experiences a run of frustration for every good-intentioned cake she bakes. There is an “ultrapianist” to showcase why you never want to invite one to your own party. The red-headed muse is a powerful character that seems to both make and break our protagonist, as does a relationship with a fellow poet, and life in an artist commune. All of these play into Jodorowsky’s apparent ideals of being fully engaged in youth, and then detaching in old age … making up what he calls “the sad joy of living”.

Sunday June 11

INFINITY BABY – Sometimes at film festivals we get a “work in progress”, and at only 71 minutes run time, it’s entirely possible that’s what we saw here – although director Bob Byington made no such claim in his pre or post screening comments. However, his comments and his films make it obvious he very much values comedy and laughter.

Filmed in Austin, two story lines intersect at a company run by Nick Offerman. His nephew and marketing representative is played (exceedingly well) by Kieran Culkin, who is the ultimate example of a shallow, self-centered millennial with commitment issues. His love life is a vicious circle that we witness: he falls quickly and hard for a woman, and then immediately begins finding reasons the relationship won’t work. In what’s supposed to be a test, he has them meet his “mother” (an awesome Megan Mullally) who proceeds to destroy their confidence and belittle their personality – putting an end to any further plans with her “son”. The other story revolves around two lackeys (Martin Starr, Kevin Corrigan) who report to Culkin. Their job is to deliver babies to the customers. What babies, you ask? Well, therein lies the hook.

In the not-too-distant-future, a stem cell experiment has gone awry and resulted in a batch of “infinity babies” that don’t age. Now anyone who has ever been a parent knows full well how frightening the concept of having a perpetual infant seems, so to think anyone would take on this duty for a mere $20,000 is absurd at best. And absurdity seems to be director Byington’s and writer Onur Tukel main objective, especially when we learn the truth behind Culkin’s momma scheme, and as it relates to the two lackeys making what they decide is a wise financial decision.

Also joining the terrific comedy ensemble cast is Noel Wells, Stephen Root and Trieste Kelly Dunn, who is a standout as one of Culkin’s girlfriends. The black and white look plays into the futuristic tale, and having Culkin’s character as one who is stuck in never-grow-up mode finely parallels the infinity baby story. Plenty of laughs here, but just be careful the next time a significant other invites you to “meet my mother”.

THE LITTLE HOURS – It’s not often when the obvious comparison to a movie is the classic 1975 comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and it’s even more unusual for such a film to be making the rounds at festivals where schedules tend to be loaded with serious and dark subject matter. Proving yet again that its programmers aren’t tied to convention, this was the third outlandish comedy I watched at this year’s Oak Cliff Film Festival.

The year is 1347 when writer/director Jeff Baena’s story kicks off outside a convent where it takes less than a couple of minutes to realize that these aren’t your usual nuns. Profanity spews forth, as does laughter from the audience. Dave Franco plays a servant who has a good reason to flee from his King (Nick Offerman) and agree to a cockamamie plan suggested by the local priest (John C Riley). The plan has Franco working at the convent pretending to be deaf mute, while struggling to decline the advances from the aforementioned nuns played by Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie, Kate Micucci (Unleashed).

Plot is barely an after-thought here, and most of the movie plays like interrelated Saturday Night Live skits. In fact, Fred Armisen and Molly Shannon are part of the ensemble, along with Paul Reiser and Adam Pally. Raunchy medieval comedies filled with debauchery and outrageously misdirected nuns could be classified as a bit of a stretch; however, Mr. Baena has adapted this from Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron”, and his use of modern day dialogue and attitudes, delivered by an ultra talented comedic cast, makes this one to watch after a particularly rough day or week of work. You’ll surely laugh and enjoy the temporary reprieve from real life … even without any killer rabbits or Knights who say “ni”.

A GHOST STORY – though this was #1 on my list of films to see during the festival, an extremely long line penalized those of us who watched the movie immediately preceding the screening. So even though I’ll have to catch this one later, the crush of humanity awaiting entry was a reminder that the OCFF has arrived.


This year’s Oak Cliff Film Festival gave every indication that the previously little-known neighborhood event had officially grown into a full-fledged nationally recognized festival. Of course, with that comes the good and the bad. In the positive column, a diverse and sought-after programming schedule now includes some films from large festivals (Sundance, Toronto), and also ensures the attendance of many writers, directors and producers. The challenges brought by success include crowd size that is difficult to manage … long lines for drinks, concessions and theatre entry, and of course, the cluster brought on by the closing night film and the penalty for those in the previous screening. On the whole, it’s wonderful to see such devoted folks finally receiving the recognition they deserve for building this dynamic event from scratch in a neighborhood they have helped revitalize.


June 14, 2017

Dallas International Film Festival 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Some people remember movies by recalling the story … others by picturing the actors … still others by crediting the writer and director. Surprisingly, it’s the film’s music that we subconsciously carry with us. Even years later, a theme song can trigger an emotional tie to our favorite movies. The magic of movies and their scores are so inter-connected that you often can’t think of one without the other: Jaws, Star Wars, The Magnificent Seven, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Psycho, Gone with the Wind, James Bond, Batman, Titanic, Chariots of Fire, and Jurassic Park (to name a few). Chances are, just reading that list caused you to hear the themes!

Director Matt Schrader, in his directorial debut, takes us back to the beginning by explaining that silent films were never actually silent. There was invariably live or recorded musical accompaniment to help muffle the sound of the projector. But it was Max Steiner’s score for King Kong in 1933 that really changed the game. His music transformed that film from a schlocky special effects B-movie into a tense, thrilling cinematic experience – one still enjoyed today.

This is so much more than a history of important and beautifully written scores. Director Schrader interviews most of the well-known film composers working today. He gains insight into their writing process, commentary on the ground-breakers who came before them, and uncovers how technology, new instruments, new styles, and a different approach are always in the works.

Some of those interviewed include Rachel Portman (the only female composer included here), Randy Newman, Danny Elfman, Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, and Thomas Newman (son of Alfred). There is also a well-deserved segment reserved entirely for the great John Williams, and we get reminded of the revolutionary composers like Jerry Goldsmith (Planet of the Apes, Chinatown) and Bernard Hermann (Psycho), as well as Henry Mancini (The Pink Panther), Monty Norman (James Bond), and Ennio Morricone (classic westerns). A quick segment that proves quite entertaining focuses on Mark Mothersbaugh (formerly of Devo) telling the story of how he used a toy piano for the score of Rugrats, but regrettably no longer has possession of the little piano.

Oscar winning composer Hans Zimmer is a recurring voice throughout and provides some structure to the numerous interviews and segments. It’s quite humorous to see this highly accomplished, world-renowned composer in his early days as a keyboardist for The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” (the first video played on MTV). More importantly, Mr. Zimmer discusses the insecurities and pressures that go along with the job, and how change (such as his aggressive sounds) isn’t always welcomed openly.

The technical aspects of creating the score are certainly not ignored. We get a glimpse inside Abbey Road Studios, and how thrilling it is for a composer to hear the live orchestra bring his or her music to life that first time. It also serves as a reminder that film composing employs a significant number of the live orchestral musicians working today, and that we all hope technology doesn’t replace that imperfect beauty of the real thing.

Adding a scientific perspective was a nice touch. Learning that our brains respond to movie music in a similar manner to chocolate and sex made a great deal of sense, as I’ve often wondered if film scores are more manipulative or complementary in nature. If there is a disappointment in the film, it’s that the recently deceased James Horner seems woefully short-changed, with only a brief post-credits segment featuring director James Cameron who, as usual, spends the time talking more about himself than the impact of Horner. This documentary is a must for movie lovers and music lovers, and on a personal note, made me miss my friend Adam very much. He would have certainly enjoyed this one and had a great deal to say about it.

watch the trailer: