August 14, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. The opening credits are still rolling when we hear the very familiar chords and vocal growls that kick off ZZ Top’s mega-hit “La Grange”. Director and music documentarian Sam Dunn delivers quite a celebratory tribute to this ‘little ol’ band’, and it’s likely that even their biggest fans will learn something new.

We first see the three band members as they drive a classic convertible right up to the front door of the historic Gruene Hall. Their subsequent jam session inside the rustic dance hall acts as a framing device throughout the film – proving they’ve still got “it”. Director Dunn introduces us to each band member separately in the beginning. Dusty Hill walks us through his man-cave and explains his appreciation of Elvis both today and as a kid growing up in Dallas, and recalls playing with his brother’s band The Warlocks. Frank Beard reminisces about playing regular gigs in Ft Worth and meeting up with Dusty first, and later with Billy. Billy Gibbons takes us through his early years in Houston, having some success with his band Moving Sidewalks, and opening for the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

The film moves takes a traditional timeline approach, but there is really nothing conventional about this band. Superfan Billy Bob Thornton describes ZZ Top as “unique and eccentric”, and other admiring interviews include Steve Miller and Josh Homme. Discussed throughout is the “mystique” of the band, which apparently stems from their spurning of Los Angeles and New York, while choosing instead to blend Texas with Nashville. In the early days, many critics and music executives tried to label them a blues band, but Mr. Gibbons said it best when he stated they were “interpreters of the blues.”

Director Dunn utilizes some animated sequences to fill in bits of the historical timeline, and that technique proves quite fitting when the band’s music videos for MTV are described as presenting the band members as ‘cartoon’ characters surrounded by cool cars and beautiful girls. The influences of their manager Bill Hamm, and video director Tim Newman are noted, which goes to the underlying theme here. These 3 guys, despite incredible career success, remain quite grounded and humble.

It’s been more than 40 years since I first saw ZZ Top in concert, yet I learned more about the band and these men during this film than over all these years. The origin of the band name and their commitment to experimenting with music and sound and stage shows are all details that stand out. It’s said, “No one else looked like them. No one else sounded like them.” The iconic beards were originally grown as disguises, but soon became trademarks … although, ironically, drummer Frank Beard is the one without a beard! ZZ Top has played halftime of a Super Bowl and been inducted to the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, but having these guys tell their own stories confirms they realize how fortunate they are to have played with guys they want to play with for so long (they are the longest surviving rock lineup) … this little ol’ band has “legs”.

watch the trailer:



August 14, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been 50 years since the horrific and tragic Tate-LaBianca murders, and that has caused a renewed fascination with that era in general, and the Manson family specifically. History has rightly labeled Charles Manson as a monster and a madman and a demented cult leader, but it’s even more frightening to think of him as a human being … and that’s exactly what music documentarian Tom O’Dell does with his latest.

O’Dell examines Manson’s dream of becoming a rock star. If you’ve read anything about Manson, you are likely aware of his interest in music and quasi-affiliation with Dennis Wilson, Terry Melcher and other movers and shakers in the 1960’s music industry. But O’Dell digs deeper. We learn more of Manson’s childhood and early exposure to music. We learn of his dreams to become a songwriter and musician, and how many recognized his raw talent. And most amazingly, we hear clips from Manson’s actual recordings at Gold Star Recording Studio in 1967 … including the quite unique “Garbage Dump”.

O’Dell follows Manson’s journey after his release from prison. Attracted to communal nature and music scene, Manson made his way to Northern California. The Haight/Ashbury scene made famous by The Grateful Dead appealed to him very much, and it’s here where his charisma drew his first followers. Soon Manson and his followers headed to Southern California where the music scene was even more dynamic and offered even greater opportunity. He fell in with Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys, and Wilson’s musical partner Gregg Jakobson provides some insight into what it was like to have Manson around.

Others interviewed include Rolling Stone magazine writers Anthony DeCurtis and David Felton, Dennis Wilson biographer Jon Stebbins, Manson biographer Simon Wells, and former ‘family’ member Dianne Lake. Ms. Lake was 14 years old at the time she was swept up by the family, and her recollections are quite chilling … though fortunately for her, she left before the murders took place. It’s through these interviews where we fully understand Manson’s broken dreams, his magnetism, and his delusional state.

After being rejected by Terry Melcher (son of Doris Day), the highly successful music producer of The Beach Boys, The Byrds, and Paul Revere and the Raiders, Manson seemed to slip from reality, which fully formed the historical figure of which we are most familiar. It’s quite interesting to note the effects on Dennis Wilson. The Beach Boys’ drummer had fully supported Manson as a songwriter – taking the song “Cease to Exist” and changing the title to “Never Learn to Love” and adjusting the lyrics so the group could record it as a “B” side. Manson was paid for his original song, but this connection likely pushed Wilson over the edge after the murders.

The influence of The Beatles White Album and “Helter Skelter” (a song about a fair ride) are discussed, and we hear stories from sound engineer Stephen Desper and Manson’s fellow ex-con Phil Kaufman about the recording and release of “Lie”, Manson’s only album. The story is filled with the best and worst of ‘Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘n Roll, Violence, and a Race War”. We leave with a better understanding of how a rejected Manson corrupted a community built on love and peace. It doesn’t soften the blow of the tragedy, but it does help explain. O’Dell’s film works for those who ‘know all about it’ and those who are interested in learning more.

watch the trailer:


August 8, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Headliners for the eternal Rock ‘n Roll question, “Is he still alive?” are Keith Richards and the subject of this documentary, David Crosby. The two men epitomize the ‘sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll’ battle cry. Director A.J. Eaton and Producer Cameron Crowe team up to allow Crosby to tell his own story. It’s been 45 years since Crowe (whose story as an upstart reporter was the basis of ALMOST FAMOUS) first interviewed Crosby for Rolling Stone magazine, and this time Crosby is 75 years old and looking back on a life maybe not so well lived.

There is a mythology to the 1960’s and David Crosby WAS the 1960’s. He was a pop star who spoke his mind about politics and social issues … often to the detriment of his popularity or status within a band. The film states he has ‘been at the forefront of rock music for 5 decades”, and while it’s true he experienced tremendous success with The Byrds and Crosby, Stills and Nash, and later Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (Crosby considers those two separate bands), he has also spent an inordinate amount of time on the sidelines – fired from bands, strung out on drugs, and even serving jail time.

Most of the interviews we see are clips from the past. This includes Graham Nash, Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, and Chris Hillman. Roger McGuinn appears to be the only one who agreed to go on camera for the documentary. Crosby explains this by saying most everyone he created music with “hates” him and won’t talk to him … because he was an “a**hole”. Alienating 50 years of friends and collaborators is not an easy thing to own up to, but Crosby comes across as quite reflective during his time on camera speaking with Crowe.

Floyd Crosby, David’s father, was an Oscar winning cinematographer known for TABU: A STORY OF THE SOUTH SEAS (1931) and HIGH NOON (1952). The two were not close, but Crosby says his mother showed her love quite often. It’s fascinating to follow Crosby as he narrates the journey of his life: going sailing after being kicked out The Byrds, hanging with Mama Cass, discovering and loving Joni Mitchell, doing most every possible drug, and suffering health issues that include 8 stents in his heart, a liver transplant, and life as a diabetic. It’s mesmerizing to hear Crosby tell the story of Neil Young writing “Ohio” almost immediately after the Kent State massacre. We even meet Crosby’s wife Jan and see their lovely California home, replete with dogs and horses. Perhaps the most entertaining segment is when Crosby heads back to Laurel Canyon and visits “Our House” where Crosby, Stills and Nash were born with a 40 seconds take in the kitchen.

The only bit more amazing than Crosby still being alive is that stunningly pure voice has never failed him. It’s a voice that has appeared on so many records over the years, and now in this 70’s, Crosby has experienced a musical rebirth. The film would make a nice companion to the recently released documentary ECHO IN THE CANYON, but mostly it plays not like a story of redemption, but rather a farewell and apology letter. It’s quite possible that’s exactly the note Crosby wanted to hit.

watch the trailer:


July 31, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. When we think of terrorist groups, we usually visualize a shadowy, faceless group, all dressed in black, while carrying out some unspeakable act of violence. Director Anthony Wonke and writer Richard Kerbaj take a completely different approach – one we haven’t really seen before. This is a personal profile of one of the worst terrorists of all time, as well as a look at the marketing that goes into ISIS recruiting, and the international intelligence used to track the most organized of the terrorist groups.

Masked men in movies and TV shows are typically the bad guys – think cattle rustlers and bank robbers. In these stories, a covered face is often the mark of person evil enough to wreak havoc, yet cowardly enough to avoid being identified. In real life, it’s pretty much the same. The world was horrified in 2014 when terrorists began beheading hostages and posting the video on social media. The executioner was cloaked in black and, you guessed it, his face was covered.  His organization was identified as ISIS: Islamic State of Iran and Syria.

British Intelligence agents are quite forthcoming as they explain that although al-Qaeda was well known at the time, ISIS/ISIL was a new “brand”, and a horrific one at that. The British Intelligence agents also let us know that despite not being able to see the executioner’s face, they were able to identify him by his hands and voice as Mohammed Enwazi, a British Arab, degreed in Information Systems, and a previous ‘person of interest’. It was chilling to see the first video and the ones to follow. The hostage was required to read a prepared statement and then the execution was carried out. The international news media nicknamed the executioner Jihadi John after learning the hostages were referring to the four ISIS hostages with British accents as “The Beatles”.

The film dives into Enwazi’s background as a kid. It seemed to be a relatively normal childhood of a youngster who enjoyed sports and pop music. We learn that officials had identified him as a risk, and had tried to convert him to working for the country rather than transitioning to ISIS. It’s fascinating to learn of his influencers. We hear directly from one of his teachers, and also from hostages and the family members of those tragically impacted by the executions.

A widespread propaganda machine is exposed – the surgical target marketing efforts used by ISIS, including recruiting videos for specific sub-sets. The organization was well funded and well-structured, making it all the more dangerous. A religious backlash occurred and we learn that many in British and American intelligence circles view the takedown of ISIS as a personal mission. The incredible and devastating video clips include the precision drone strike in Syria that ended the run of Jihadi John. And for a moment, the world had a bit less evil.

watch the trailer:



THE CAJUN NAVY (2019, doc)

July 23, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Powerful hurricanes that make landfall cause massive property damage and create numerous personal tragedies. The government has a system in place to provide after-the-fact assistance, but the immediacy of the storm first hitting typically falls on the shoulders of those locally.

The Discovery Channel and Documentarian James Newton bring us the story of The Cajun Navy, a group of volunteers who respond immediately as storms hit, in hopes of rescuing those caught in life-threatening situations. Based in Louisiana, most of these folks are Hurricane Katrina (2005) survivors, and they are quick to hook up their bass boats and shallow crafts, and head directly to the most dangerous spots.

Much of the film is structured around the group as they provide assistance in Wilmington, North Carolina right after Hurricane Florence hit in September 2018. The footage is frightening and spectacular as these folks look to find those “caught” by fast rising flood waters, or those unable to help themselves. There is a particularly poignant sequence where the group is evacuating a nursing home, despite the home’s director’s insistence that they don’t have the authority. The efforts and energy of these volunteers is focused on saving lives and helping those in need … not in following all of the rules.

We get up close and personal with some of the volunteers and see some of the situations they deal with. One admits to feeling like he’s in a hostage negotiation as a lady adamantly refuses to leave her home, even as the flood waters rise up to her porch. The comments from the volunteers convey their attitude. One admits, we’ve “really never done anything until you’ve helped someone who can’t pay you back.”

The Cajun Navy may have funny accents, and their cigarettes and cigars are as ever-present as their courage and desire to help. They caution that hurricanes offer “more ways to lose your life than you can count.” The group is credited with rescuing more than 15,000 people, and three weeks after the work on Florence was wrapped, they were hitting the road again as mammoth storm Hurricane Michael reached land. Anyone with a boat is encouraged to help, but it’s the size of the heart in these folks that makes all the difference.

Discovery Channel – Facebook sneak peek:

LONG GONE WILD (2019, doc)

July 16, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. As described here, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2013 documentary BLACKFISH “changed everything” in regards to Orcas being held in captivity. But then Bill Neal’s documentary proceeds to lay out all of the problems that still exist and some new challenges that are occurring in Russia and China. So maybe everything hasn’t changed.

We are told that in North America, there are 22 killer whales in captivity, 20 of which are at Sea World parks. These “killer whales” are really Orcas, the majestic black and white creatures that are featured in Sea World shows and promotional paraphernalia. In the wild, they hunt and feed on Blue whales, the largest animals on Earth. In captivity, they are fed flash-frozen fish from a bucket, and forced to swim in pools too shallow to protect their skin from the sun … and worse, separated from their family and community.

The film provides a timeline and history of Orcas in captivity. 1965 was the year that Ted Griffin’s Seattle aquarium put Namu on public display. After that, Shamu became the stage name for the main attraction at all Sea World parks. Of course, the film touches on Tillikum, the main focus of BLACKFISH and the Orca involved with the publicized death of a trainer. Tillikum was also the sire to many offspring used in the Sea World community.

Filmmaker Neal includes interviews with authors, scientists, former trainers, and researchers. Author David Kirby (“Death at Sea World”) and Biologist Dr. Naomi Rose are two featured players who bring much insight to the topic. The “wildlife trade” now involves Russia capturing Orcas in the wild and then selling to China for millions of dollars. China is building marine parks modeled on what the United States had in the 1960’s, and the poor facilities are a major concern for those involved with protecting the species.

For many years, science and education were the defense offered for keeping these animals in captivity. It’s now very obvious that entertainment … or more precisely, profit, is the driving force. The film leaves us with the updated statistics. Worldwide there are now 60 Orcas being held in captivity in 15 parks throughout 8 countries. The heartfelt plea from those involved with the Whale Sanctuary Project is “Don’t buy a ticket”. If only everything had really changed.

watch the trailer:


July 1, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s hard to beat chowing down on a hot dog at the ballpark, and I’ve even been known to have one too many on occasion(s). What’s impossible to imagine is cramming a few dozen in my mouth in a 10 minute window – while a bunch of others are standing alongside me doing the same thing. That, my friends, is competitive eating. It’s a “sport” that became famous in the United States thanks to a 144 lb. Japanese wisp of a man named Takeru Kobayashi, and then it became even more popular when laid-back California dude Joey Chestnut began breaking records.

Documentarian Nicole Lucas Haimes pays tribute to the impact of both men, while providing the background for each … and still giving the competitions the attention they deserve. The film kicks off in Coney Island on July 4, 2006 at Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. Kobayashi wins his sixth consecutive World Championship title, and his closest competitor is newcomer Joey Chestnut, who is devastated by his loss – beginning the biggest rivalry in competitive eating.

Throughout the film, we learn more about each man, and just how important the contests are to them.  For Kobayashi, who came to America in 2001, he quickly embraced the notoriety and life as a celebrity. A frequent competitor, he joined right into the crazy marketing stunts – once losing to a grizzly bear in 2002. He became part of “The Simpsons”, “Saturday Night Live” and other mainstream vehicles.

2005 marked the first time ESPN covered the Super Bowl of Competitive Eating, and that was also Joey Chestnut’s first time to compete in the Nathan’s contest. He was shocked that a small guy like Kobayashi could out-eat him and was considered a God in the arena. He also learned about preparation, as Kobayashi was all about precision and training. Chestnut’s parents and brother are interviewed and we see how his approach changed as he became more serious. The quiet, somewhat shy Chestnut had his world rocked in 2007, and he has since become more comfortable with the fans and with his secure spot as a legend in the sport.

We are also introduced to George Shea, the director of Major League Eating (MLE), and how his devotion to marketing and hyping the sport, turned it into a televised international battle between Japan and America – all for the “mustard belt” and $10,000 awarded to the champion. Mr. Shea doesn’t come across as very likable or trustworthy, but is given his due for helping the eating competitions attract thousands of attendees.

Kobayashi’s story is a bit more poignant as he explains how hurt he was to be turned into the villain after being idolized as the name and face of the sport. He enjoyed the applause, not the booing and chants of “USA, USA” for Chestnut. Even Kobayashi’s wife and father offer some insight into the man that energized the sport … and who will always be linked to the rivalry with Chestnut. This is a personal story for both, despite the aggressiveness involved with shoving broken hot dogs and wet buns down their own throats.

*** This episode of “30 For 30” airs on July 2, 2019 on ESPN

watch the trailer: