AMERICAN GADFLY (2021, doc)

January 4, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Since I was unsure of the definition of “gadfly”, I was equally unsure of what I was getting into when I agreed to review the first feature-length documentary from Skye Wallin. It turns out, Wallin anticipated that particular uncertainty and kindly provided the definition in the opening for the film. A gadfly is one who provokes or annoys in regards to certain topics, and in this case those topics are political and societal in nature. The titular gadfly is not one person, but rather a few unusual collaborators: a group of smart and idealistic teenagers and an 89 year old former Senator.

Our ‘old-timer’ is Mike Gravel, who served as US Senator for Alaska from 1969 through 1981. He’s probably best remembered for reading the Pentagon Papers into the official record in 1971. The Pentagon Papers were the focus of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar nominated film THE POST (2017), but here they serve as background on Mr. Gravel, a lifelong fighter for ideals (think first edition Bernie Sanders). He ran a campaign for President in 2008, but had since lived a quiet life until contacted by a group of teenagers looking to raise awareness for the shared causes they believed in: anti-war, anti-corruption, etc.

The Gen Z activists convinced Gravel to run for President (the 2020 election) on a platform that mirrored his long-standing beliefs. Once Whitney, Gravel’s initially dubious wife, was on board, things clicked into overdrive. The smallest bit with the most impact was Gravel turning his Twitter account over to the youngsters. Make no mistake, this was a social media campaign fueled by the passion of a group of teenagers hoping to drive change. Mr. Gravel clearly admired (and shared) their passion, though he was not able to physically engage like he had early in his career.

Obviously these youngsters had no experience running a campaign, but their instincts were sharp as they drew in thousands of followers who shared their vision. Their goal of gaining an invitation for Gravel to one of the televised debates was both impressive and disappointing. A painful lesson about rules and a structured system led to a learning experience, rather than a successful mission.

Along the way, the group crossed paths with the likes of Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard, Marianne Williamson, Rick Santorum, and yes, even Bernie Sanders … each candidate expressing their admiration for the group’s work, and some even offering valuable assistance. Throughout history, the passion of youth has generated waves of change. The impacts aren’t always immediately noticeable, but the desire for a better world should drive us all, regardless of age or political affiliation. Skye Wallin’s entertaining and informative film reminds us of this.

*Note: Mike Gravel passed away in June 2021

VOD on January 4, 2022

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SUMMER OF SOUL (2021, doc)

December 31, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s directorial debut is a history lesson wrapped in a concert film, and it’s just the blended spoonful we need. You might know Questlove best as the bandleader/drummer on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon”, and with this documentary, he has proven his skill in balancing the visuals with the message. The Harlem Cultural Festival was held over six weekends in the summer of 1969. Yep, the same summer as (and only 100 miles from) the infamous and celebrated Woodstock festival. A total of 300,000 people attended the free events held in Mt Morris Park in Harlem, and Questlove’s film brings back what has been forgotten.

TV director Hal Tulchin filmed each week’s concert in hopes that it would have market value as a broadcast event. When he was unable to market the footage, all 47 reels remained stashed in his basement for 50 years. Questlove weaves a magic carpet that injects interviews, statements, and news clips over the powerful music being performed on stage. We get interviews with festival attendees, musicians, NY Times reporter Charlayne Hunter-Gault, and historical perspective from news clips of Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War, and the assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. The festival was organized to commemorate MLK’s death the previous year, and at a time when the black community felt much anger and unrest. The Black Panthers were brought in for security as drugs had spiraled out of control in Harlem.

It was never just about the music, but what music it was! Gospel, blues, soul, and R&B filled the air, as the crowd cheered, danced, and sang along. We learn Maxwell House coffee served as the key sponsor, and there is a segment on NYC Mayor Lindsay, who supported the festival and was well-respected in the Black community. Tony Lawrence, a lounge singer and radio DJ, served as the festival’s host and producer. He introduced each of the acts, and did so with quite a flair for fashion.

The performers aren’t necessarily shown in the same order as the festival, but that matters little. Stevie Wonder is at a decisive point in his career, and his drum solo (yes, drums) is energizing. We also get to see and hear such acts as BB King, the 5th Dimension, the Staples Singers, Mahalia Jackson, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Nina Simone. There is an audio recording of Mavis Staples recalling how “unreal” it was for her to sing with Mahalia. Other highlights include David Ruffin hitting and holding a high note on “My Girl”, the Edwin Hawkins Singers performing “Oh, Happy Day”, Hugh Maskela jolting the crowd with “Grazing in the Grass”, and Sly and the Family Stone (and their “white drummer”) leading the audience through “Higher”. The late Nina Simone comes across as especially regal and powerful in her time on stage. There are clips of comedian Moms Mabley performing, as well as Jesse Jackson orating. Lin-Manuel Miranda discusses the music of Puerto Rico and Spanish Harlem, and one of the most touching segments finds Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr recalling the backstory of how The 5th Dimension came to record “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine in”.

Early marketing attempts re-branded the festival as “Black Woodstock”, but that didn’t change the fact that the market was limited at the time. Festival-attendee Musa Jackson is interviewed as he watches the film, and it’s clear that it’s an affirmation of the era. It’s also fascinating to hear Charlayne Hunter-Gault recount how she fought the NY Times over her preferred description of people as “Black” rather than the previously utilized “Negro”. Questlove’s film immediately becomes a historical time capsule and one that should be viewed by many.

Available on Hulu

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TO WHAT REMAINS (2021, documentary)

December 9, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes it feels pointless to write about a film, while sometimes it seems that the right words escape me. I don’t have the right words for this documentary from Chris Woods, yet I do know that it should be seen by as many folks as possible. As the divisiveness of our country continues to fester, this story about real people takes us to a time when heroes fought for freedom against real enemies, while so many families sacrificed for the benefit of all. Millions lost their lives in World War II, and Woods focuses on one small organization doing everything possible to bring closure to the especially brutal Battle of Peleliu.

Today, the island Peleliu is a breathtaking tropical paradise. However, the beauty hides many secrets of the past. More than 200 aircraft were shot down over Palau, and Dr. Pat Scannon founded Project Recover with the mission of locating and recovering as many aircraft and soldier remains as possible. We go along on some of the expeditions, and witness remarkable underwater footage. We see the crew successfully locate remains, and we also get a sense of disappointment when they don’t … a very frequent occurrence, as explained by Dr. Scannon himself.

Included here are interviews with WWII veterans and their family members. These are emotional moments, and we especially feel for those families who have only a photo of their loved ones. This is what inspires Dr. Scannon to continue his search. Repatriating those who have been MIA for 75 years provides a much-appreciated closure for the families, and for the country. There is even a segment where a veteran of the Battle of Peleliu returns to Orange Beach, and we feel his strength as he recalls his many lost cohorts. Of course other veterans prefer to keep this in the past, and we certainly understand that preference.

Director Woods includes many photographs and archival war footage, but it’s the people who make the impact. Seeing a family find closure when their loved one’s remains are returned to U.S. soil is a unique emotion that’s difficult to describe. We even hear about the ship sunk by a pilot named George Herbert Walker Bush, the future President of the United States. The film premiered at AFI Fest, and leaves us with the faces of those who fought, and the mind-boggling statistic that 80,000 American war veterans are still Missing in Action. For more information on Dr. Scannon’s organization, go to www.ProjectRecover.org

The film opens in select theaters on December 10, 2021

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CITIZEN ASHE (2021, doc)

December 4, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Growing up, I loved watching Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe play tennis. Their talent was unmistakable and they had a certain flair for dramatic moments. But even as a kid, I was more drawn to the personalities of Bjorn Borg and Arthur Ashe – two champions who carried themselves with a quiet dignity and respect for the game and their opponents. They acted like grown-ups, not petulant kids. It wasn’t until later that I really understood the obstacles Ashe faced, and co-directors Rex Miller and Sam Pollard expertly handle this remarkable man’s story.

Ashe’s championship at Wimbledon in 1975 was likely the peak of his tennis career, yet not of his impact on society. It took more than a trophy for him to be labeled “the Jackie Robinson of Tennis”. The film takes us back to his childhood in Richmond, Virginia, described here as ‘the heart of Confederacy’. Many of those memorial statues that stood when Ashe was young have now been removed, but at the time, he accepted that his tennis playing was limited to the court at the public park next to his house. It wasn’t until Althea Gibson’s mentor, Dr. Johnson, brought Ashe into the fold that he began to hone his talent, as well as his demeanor.

Against the odds, Ashe was awarded a tennis scholarship to UCLA in 1966, and there is some terrific footage and photographs of him on campus. Ashe later served in the US Army, and won the 1968 US Open. Some of the archival footage stands on its own, and especially insightful are the numerous interviews where we get to hear Ashe in his own words. Of course, others also have much to say, including his brother Johnnie, and Civil Rights activists Harry Edwards, (Olympian) John Carlos, and (US diplomat) Andrew Young. Tennis players Billie Jean King and John McEnroe also offer personal memories.

 This is not really a tennis documentary, but it’s quite interesting to hear Ashe reveal the “why” behind his strategy against the aggressive Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon. Ashe was also a dynamic supporter of the Davis Cup and believed playing for one’s country was an honor. Of course, Arthur Ashe is remembered as a tennis player and Human Rights Activist. He pushed to play in South Africa while Nelson Mandela was imprisoned to show the population what a free black man could do. He and Mandela later became friends. The personality contrast is also distinct between Ashe and fellow sports activists like Muhammad Ali and Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and it’s pointed out that although the approaches differed, Ashe’s words carried significant weight. This is quite apparent in the clip of the roundtable discussion featuring Ashe, Harry Edwards, and Jackie Robinson, amongst others. The respect for Ashe is evident.

Genetics caused a heart attack at the early age of 36, and blood transfusions during his medical procedures led to his being HIV-positive. As you would expect, Ashe turned his attention to raising money and awareness for AIDS research, all while never losing his elegance and grace. It seems fitting that the story of Arthur Ashe is being told at the same time KING RICHARD is playing in theaters. Ashe clearly opened the door for black athletes like Venus and Serena Williams, and also inspired their activism, as well as that of athletes in other sports. The video footage and interviews allow this story to be told, and it leaves us with the message that Ashe never forgot his race … the human race.

In theaters and On Demand beginning December 3, 2021

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THE BEATLES: GET BACK (2021, doc)

November 28, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s a lot of Beatles. The three episodes total more than 7 hours of run time. It will be likely be too much for most folks. Not for me. In fact, I envy Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson, who got to go through every minute of 60 hours of video and 150 hours of audio from the 1969 sessions that led to the “Let it Be” album and documentary, as well as the band’s infamous rooftop live performance atop Apple Studios. The 1970 film won the band an Oscar for best original music, but unfortunately, that 42 minutes on the rooftop would be their final public live performance as The Beatles.

For those who have seen the 1970 documentary LET IT BE, you are aware of the discord amongst the band members during the sessions, but Peter Jackson’s project shows us there was much more to the story: pressure, expectations, creative forces, doubt, friendship, young men changing, and plenty of laughter and joking. And cigarettes. An incredible number of cigarettes. Keep in mind that even though they were the biggest band in the world, these lads from Liverpool still only ranged in age from the youngest, George at 25, to the oldest, John at 28.

One thing we notice is that there was a very small group involved with the daily activities. Outside of the band members, the faces we see most are Music Producer George Martin, the band’s long-time assistant Mal Evans, and renowned Sound Engineer Glyn Johns. It’s not really discussed here, but despite all the work we see Mr. Johns perform over the 22 days, it was Phil Spector who ended up with the production credit on the album. The director of the LET IT BE documentary, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, is seen quite a bit in the first two episodes, although he’s not as funny as he seems to think he is. Film Producer Denis O’Dell initially sets the band up at Twickenham Film Studios, which he rented as the location for his upcoming zany comedy THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN starting Peter Sellers and, yes, Ringo Starr. It’s this movie that has the Beatles on such a tight schedule, and it’s at Twickenham where Peter Jackson’s film kicks off.

PART 1 (2 hours, 34 minutes) provides a quick history of the band, dating back to 1956 when John Lennon and Paul McCartney formed The Quarrymen and invited George Harrison to join as a guitarist. There is a clip of the band performing at The Cavern, and a note on how Brian Epstein became the band’s manager. It was 1963 when George Martin began producing the band and that’s they year they hit #1 in Britain, kicking off Beatlemania. The following year took them to the United States for the appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, and it was 1966 when the band faced the backlash over John’s comment about “being more popular than Jesus.” That was also the year when the band decided against future tours, choosing instead to focus on studio work and albums. 1968 brought the death of Brian Epstein at age 32, and the infamous trip to India, where they spent time with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. So here they are in January 1969, with the goal of writing, rehearsing, and recording 14 songs, and then performing live over about a three week period.

Director Jackson uses the 22 days as a framing structure, going day-by-day to track the progress. Day 1 is kind of a feeling-out day as the band checks out the studio. Day 2 finds Paul in business mode, as the other band members poke fun at the Fan Club publication. Day 3 delivers the familiar setting of George being “annoyed” by Paul, but it’s Day 4 where “Get Back” is born, “Across the Universe” is introduced, and a terrific then-and-now montage of “Rock and Roll Music”. Day 5 gives us “I Me Mine”, as the band discusses ideas for the live show, and we learn code names for Ringo (Russian) and George (France). Day 6 finds Linda Eastman (not yet married to Paul) snapping photos in the studio while the band works on “The Long and Winding Road”, and “Let it Be.”. Day 7 is critical, as we get more “Get Back”, numerous mentions of Eric Clapton, and George leaving the band with “See ya’ in the clubs.” This is when we are subjected to our first Yoko Ono banshee screams. She has been attached to John’s hip for most every minute.

This first episode provides us our first look as the band works out songs on the fly. Ringo keeps amazing rhythm, while remaining mostly quiet. George’s insecurity and annoyance with his role (and Paul’s bossing) is beyond obvious (resulting in his leaving), and the band’s uncertainty about the best direction for the live performance is a bit unsettling. Despite all of that, it’s truly fascinating and humbling to watch and listen as they create the rough early versions of songs that we now know so well.

PART 2 (2 hours, 12 minutes) is probably my favorite episode of the three. For Day 8, with George having quit the band, Ringo is the first to show up as flowers are delivered for George from the Hare Krishnas. We eavesdrop as Paul (with Linda in tow) analyze the John and Yoko relationship, and we are privy to a secret conversation between John and Paul regarding George and the band. The rest of the day is spent rehearsing 3 songs, including Paul and John brainstorming fine-tuning “Get Back” lyrics. Day 9 has Peter Sellers stopping by – and likely wondering what the heck kind of mess he’s wandered into. This is Paul’s day to be irritated and stating they can’t go on like this. Day 10 reports on the band’s meeting at George’s house, which results in his return to the band and a shift from Twickenham studios to the Apple Studios on Savile Row, This throws a delay into things, and makes Day 11 a lost day.

Day 12 has the four band members back recording, despite technological challenges and a scathing article on the band in local publications. It’s this day when we hear an amazing version of “I Dig a Pony”, followed by “I’ve Got a Feeling”, “Don’t Let Me Down”, and “She came in through the Bathroom Window” (which would end up on Abbey Road). On Day 13, John recalls the Martin Luther King Jr speech, and the band gets a jolt of energy from keyboardist Billy Preston. Watching them perform “I’ve Got a Feeling” is pure musical joy. Day 14 stars strangely with more Yoko banshee screams, and Maxwell’s anvil is in the middle of the room, while the band solidifies the “Get Back” single. Day 15 offers discussions of Billy Preston as the 5th Beatle, while we get a Pattie Harrison sighting, and performances of “Two of Us” and “Polythene Pam.” Day 16 includes flashbacks to the trip to India, George working on “For You Blue”, the band’s first look at the rooftop, and early work on “Let it Be”. Once again, watching the creativity in action is simply mesmerizing.

PART 3 (2 hours, 19 minutes) begins on Day 17, which is only 3 days until the rooftop performance. George is assisting Ringo with writing “Octopus’s Garden”, which will end up on the Abbey Road album. Linda’s young daughter Heather bounces around the studio, and we can all relate to her cringing at Yoko’s latest banshee scream. We see John go hard on “Dig it”, while the band spends a great deal of time jamming to their favorite classics. These are musicians collaborating on the music they love – and enjoying every bit. Day 18 has George running through “Old Brown Shoe”, and John and Yoko celebrate her divorce being final. With Alan Parsons in the booth, the band goes through many takes of “Get Back”. On Day 19, George begins early work on “Something”, which would be featured on the Abbey Road album, and they wrap up the “Don’t Let Me Down” recording. With the live performance scheduled for tomorrow, Paul and John have a serious discussion about the payoff for all of this work. Is an album and one live show enough, if there is no TV special? As Paul’s brother Michael watches, we can’t help but think Paul was really hoping for another tour – one that would never happen.

Day 21, January 30, is when the rooftop performance actually happens. There are 10 cameras in place, 5 of which are on the roof with the band. Most of us have seen these performances, but director Jackson includes some of the ‘second takes’. The band opens with two takes of “Get Back”, followed by “Don’t Let Me Down”, “I’ve Got a Feeling”, “One After 909”, “Dig a Pony”, and second takes of “I’ve Got a Feeling” and “Don’t Let Me Down”. Included here are some of the interviews from folks on the street, and we see the cops who are unsure how to handle the noise complaints. What’s obvious and thrilling is that John’s and Paul’s voices are in prime form, and the band is truly enjoying doing what they do better than any other band … despite the cold London weather. You can sense their pride as they head to the booth for the playback. Day 22 is the Final Day, and the band finishes the mostly acoustic recordings for the album.

Over the three episodes, we hear bits and pieces of more than 100 songs, and we witness the collaboration and tribulations of a band that reached heights of popularity previously unimaginable (remember Elvis never performed in the UK). It’s quite a privilege to witness artists at work during the creative process. Tension and disagreements are to be expected, and yes, they did occur. Perhaps those tensions drove the individuals to be even more creative and better at their craft. Regardless of your thoughts on this, one thing is certain … The Beatles “passed the audition”.

Now streaming on Disney+

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KURT VONNEGUT: UNSTUCK IN TIME (2021, doc)

November 19, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes the work really does speak for itself. Co-director and long-time Vonnegut friend Robert B Weide even admits the renowned author told him, “anything that is any good of mine is on a printed page”. The strange thing here is that by the time it’s over, we aren’t sure if we’ve watched a documentary on the life of Kurt Vonnegut or one about Weide’s friendship with and respect of the man.

Vonnegut, of course, is one of the great American writers of the 20th Century. Born and raised in Indianapolis, he wrote novels, short stories, and plays, and his work was noted for his clever humor and detail. His big breakthrough came in 1969 when “Slaughterhouse Five” became a best-seller, and his other works include “Cat’s Cradle” (1963) and “Breakfast of Champions” (1973). As we see during the film, his live talks became ‘must-attend’ events due to his brilliance and ability to speak directly (and with caustic wit) about a world that he didn’t always maintain the greatest hope for.

Weide and co-director Don Argott address Vonnegut’s shortcomings as a family man, by allowing his daughters to tell Daddy stories in their own words. What’s clear is that Vonnegut being captured by Germans during WWII at the Battle of the Bulge, and subsequently held at Dresden was a driving force not just in his writing, but in his approach to life. He survived the Allied bombing by taking cover in … you guessed it … a freezer in a slaughterhouse.

Archival footage of Vonnegut and interviews with his daughters and biographers, give us a pretty complete looks at his life. Oddly, it’s Mr. Weide who seems to spend as much time on camera as anyone, leading us to wonder about his focus in what he terms a ’40 year’ project. Possibly the most interesting segment involves the various drafts of Vonnegut’s most popular work (“Slaughterhouse Five” was his 6th novel), and the specific comparisons of the author to lead character Billy Pilgrim. Vonnegut passed away in 2007, and we have little doubt his response to that would be … “So it goes.”

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BRIAN WILSON: LONG PROMISED ROAD (2021, doc)

November 18, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Renowned music producer Don Was sits at a sound board and methodically begins to deconstruct the gorgeous song, “God Only Knows”. As the instruments fade, and he shuffles the isolated vocals, Was shakes his head in amazement all these years later. The man behind the song, Brian Wilson (founder of The Beach Boys), was and remains a musical genius, and in his case, one need not be concerned about applying that overused label.

If director Brent Wilson’s film has a structure, it comes in the form of multiple car rides and diner lunches featuring Brian and his friend, “Rolling Stone” editor Jason Fine. Due to Brian’s anxiety during sit-down interviews, car rides and chats with his friend provide more comfort and free him up to reminisce and discuss his life and music. On the drives, Brian chooses the songs he wants Jason to play, depending on the mood and the topic of conversation.

Mental Health is now treated much differently than in years past. At age 21, Brian suffered from ‘auditory hallucinations’ – he was hearing voices in his head. Over the course of 6 decades, he has attempted to deal with the voices in various ways: food, drugs, alcohol, therapy, etc. But his only real escape has been through music. Even today, Brian never really looks at ease unless he’s performing his songs. He rides along offering commentary as his friend Jason tenderly guides him through the past, including stops at his childhood home in Hawthorne, Paradise Cove where an album cover was shot, his home on Laurel Way that featured his piano in a sandbox, and the Bellagio Road mansion in Beverly Hills. Brian is not one to dwell on the past, but he has tremendous recall for different phases of life.

As you might expect, many musicians are eager to discuss how Brian’s music with The Beach Boys influenced their own songwriting. Included here are Jakob Dylan (The Wallflowers and son of Bob), Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Taylor Hawkins, Linda Perry, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, and even Nick Jonas. We presume the latter was included to represent the younger generation’s appreciation of music past. Elton may offer the most profound comment when he states Brian deserves accolades for his music AND his life. Each phase of Brian’s life is touched on, though we never dive too deeply. His demanding father (Murray Wilson) is heard through audio recordings, and the infamous “Landy years” where Dr. Eugene Landy literally controlled Brian’s life (right down to a sad story of spaghetti) are briefly dealt with, allowing us some insight into Brian’s many challenges over the years – including the death of two brothers, (and Beach Boys) Carl and Dennis.

But it’s the music that means the most to Brian and to us. We get some clips of live performances from the early days of The Beach Boys to the more recent live performances of Brian on stage. There is a terrific montage blending Carl’s and Brian’s separate singing “God Only Knows”, and Brian disclosing that “Good Vibrations” was recorded in pieces at 4 different studios to capture the sound he wanted. He also admits to being inspired by The Beatles and wanting to eclipse their work – which led to his writing the masterpiece Pet Sounds album, in turn inspiring The Beatles to write Sgt Pepper. There is a brief clip of Brian’s cousin, and fellow Beach Boy, Al Jardine commenting on Brian’s immense talent, but as expected, there is nothing from Mike Love; although Brian graciously proclaims Mike Love was “a great singer”.

Brian’s Beach Boys music has brought so much joy to listeners and fans over the years, and it’s truly fascinating to see how he has battled through a life filled with sadness and obstacles. Watching him listen to brother Dennis’s solo album, learning how he re-worked his unfinished Smile album to finally release it in 2004, or seeing clips of his live Pet Sounds performance at The Hollywood Bowl helps us understand the healing power of music. Brian has been compared to Mozart, and his fellow musicians discuss how his genius and vision shines through in song structure and texture. Brian Wilson stands as proof that for a true artist, pain and beauty are often linked and dependent on each other. The film’s closing credits feature footage of Brian and Jim James recording a new song, “Right Where I Belong”, showing that the music (and the man) is still a force.

In theaters and On Demand beginning November 19, 2021

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OBJECTS (2021, doc)

November 17, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Do you collect stuff?  Does your stuff have meaning to you? Are you obsessed about saving your stuff? Documentarian Vincent Liota looks at the psychological aspects of how we treasure our treasures. In the montage opening, President Jimmy Carter and the Pope tell us not to put value on material items, while others tell us our saved objects represent memories that take us to our happy place. Liota even includes the “Rosebud” clip from CITIZEN KANE.

Over the course of an hour, our attention is mostly on three individuals: NPR personality Robert Krulwich, designer Rick Rawlins, and author Heidi Julavits. They each have items to which they are emotionally attached. Robert is holding on to some decades old dried grass, Rick has a ‘sugar egg’ from a childhood birthday party, and Heidi has a sweater once owned by the late French actress Isabella Corey. Three very different people latching on to items with very little (or zero) intrinsic value, yet generating an emotional response that is clearly very real to them.

The film touches on those who stand opposed – those who save no objects simply out of emotional attachment. Included is a brief sequence featuring “Tidy Up with Kon Mari” for those whose lives get crowded or overrun by stuff. But those folks aren’t the focus here. Mr. Liota’s project could easily slide into the syllabus for a university level psychology class. It is personality types that we are studying. Why do rational, intelligent people find meaning and memories in what could/should be throwaway items? In fact, these objects seem to grow in importance over the years, with each having their own personal story associated.

There is an odd 3D Printer experiment included that doesn’t seem to work as a test on whether a replica worthless object can replace an actual worthless object, and still maintain the emotional appeal. In addition to Kane’s ‘Rosebud’, the floating bag from AMERICAN BEAUTY has its moment here, seemingly symbolizing the connection between an item and an emotion or memory. We are left with the impression that regardless of where we might fall on the “objects” scale, no effort should be expended in judging others. A pleasant memory might be just what someone needs at any moment. Who could possibly object to that object?

Premiering at DOC NYC 2021

*Couldn’t find a trailer


BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN & THE E STREET BAND: THE LEGENDARY 1979 NO NUKES CONCERTS (2021, doc)

November 8, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness (on the edge of town). The old adage goes, “Music soothes the savage beast”. But what if it’s the savage beast playing the music? Let’s go back more than 40 years to 1979. In March, the Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident occurred, sending shockwaves through the U.S. An activist group of musicians led by Jackson Browne, Graham Nash, Bonnie Raitt and others founded MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy) and scheduled concerts for awareness. The concerts were better known as “No Nukes”, and were followed up by a best-selling album and videos. Performing at two of the Madison Square Garden concerts in September were Bruce Springsteen and E Street Band. All these years later, Springsteen has re-mastered the original footage and packaged it as a remarkable and breathtaking 90 minute concert film that is a must-see for any Bruce fans of yesterday or today.

Lest you think I am an objective reviewer on this one, you should know that I caught Bruce and the E Street Band on December 7, 1978, near the end of their last tour prior to the No Nukes shows. That night in Austin remains the closest I’ve ever come to a religious experience – musically speaking. Those special memories came flooding back as I watched this 90 minute film. The raw power, sheer energy, and pure joy emanating from the stage is truly something to behold … oh, and the music was incredible.

This is much less a documentary than a concert film, but it’s certainly a different level than what we typically see in a concert film. The cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, had already won two Oscars for WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966) and BOUND FOR GLORY (1976) and had been nominated for ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975). I counted six cameras, but it’s possible fewer cameras were used and instead moved around between the two nights of shows that are blended here.

Keep in mind this was filmed two years before MTV was founded, so even his biggest fans hadn’t seen much film or video of Springsteen to this point. His reputation was built on legendary live performances, and his two most recent albums “Born To Run” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town”. This was also pre-Patty Scialfa and pre-Nils Lofgren. The music is straight-ahead, driving rock ‘n roll – five years before Bruce lapsed into “Dancing in the Dark” and became a global superstar, rather than a cult phenomenon. To this point, he had not been viewed as an activist, so his participation in the No Nukes concerts was a jackpot for the organizers, but also a turning point for Springsteen as a spokesperson on social issues (and politics).

Below is the 13 song playlist, and since this is a blend of the two nights, the easiest way to spot the difference is by Clarence’s outfit: one night he’s wearing a red suit, and the other night he’s wearing a white one. What you also notice is the athleticism and stamina of Bruce and Clarence as they bound around the stage – including the back amps to occasionally play for those seated behind the stage.

  1. Prove it All Night – (hard rock opener, setting the tone)
  2. Badlands – breakneck tempo (dedication to No Nukes volunteers)
  3. Promised Land – the third straight song from “Darkness”
  4. The River – (Bruce’s sister in the audience, written for her)
  5. Sherry Darling – (second song from “The River”, released a year later)
  6. Thunder Road – (this kicks off a string of fan favorites)
  7. Jungleland – (Roy, Steve, Clarence shine)
  8. Rosalita – (Bruce introduces the band)
  9. Born to Run – (the anthem)
  10. Stay – (Jackson Brown, Tom Petty, Rosemary Butler on stage)
  11. Detroit Medley – Devil with a Blue Dress, Good Golly Miss Molly, CC Rider, Jenny Jenny
  12. Quarter to 3 – (the Gary US Bonds hit)
  13. Rave On – the Buddy Holly cover plays over the credits

It was May of 1974 when music critic Jon Landau wrote, “I saw Rock and Roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen”. Landau’s words proved prophetic (and he went on to become Bruce’s longtime manager). Very few performers have ever connected to a live audience the way Springsteen did in those days. Sure, there’s some comedic shtick on stage: “That’s all I can stand …”, before he screams, “I’m just a prisoner … of Rock n Roll”. The fact is, many of us were prisoners of Bruce Springsteen and E Street Band, and this film is the best opportunity for others to understand.  

AVAILABLE FOR DIGITAL PURCHASE ON NOVEMBER 16 AND DIGITAL RENTAL ON NOVEMBER 23


BENEDICT ARNOLD: HERO BETRAYED (2021, doc)

November 8, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. His name has been derogatory punchline for as long as any of us can remember. Labeling someone ‘a Benedict Arnold’ meant they had been disloyal to their team, club, organization, or group of friends. But those of us who are not Revolutionary War historians actually know very little of his story – in fact, few know anything beyond his being a recognized traitor to the United States. Director Chris Stearns, using historian James Kirby Martin’s 1997 book, “Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered”, offers us a deeper and more comprehensive look at a man who was more complex than the epithet he was branded with.

When a film’s opening sequence is from the year 1780, you know that rather than being a traditional documentary, it’s also a blend of docudrama reenactments. And that’s exactly what this, while also working in a number of insightful interviews with historians and writers. Martin Sheen adds gravitas as the narrator who walks us through Arnold’s life. We go back to a childhood that featured a drunken father, whose destruction of the family’s good name prevented a recovery in social standing, despite Arnold’s tremendous success in business and trading.

There is little doubt that this well-researched information on Benedict Arnold will surprise those who watch. For three years, he fought the war with distinguished bravery and skilled leadership. Arnold even self-funded and led militia to fight Britain. He was an accomplished Naval officer and was a hero to the country for those early war years. So what changed him? That’s the part of the story that holds modern day relevance.

Arnold became ever more frustrated. He was not only physically injured while fighting for his country, but he became disenfranchised by endless power plays, political maneuverings, and cronyism of those above him. Lacking the political savvy necessary to self-promote, Arnold became the victim of self-serving officials looking to take credit for his work. As a Patriot, this was unbearable and led to his change in allegiance.

Director Stearns is thorough in his approach, knowing full well the skeptical eye with which most will watch the film. In just over 2 hours, he makes a strong case for the actions of a man who has been vilified for more than 200 years, and concludes that Benedict Arnold has been an American war hero until systemic corruption convinced him the country would be better off under British rule. Benedict Arnold betrayed America, but it seems clear from the facts that America also betrayed Benedict Arnold.

Benedict Arnold: Hero Betrayed will premiere on TVOD/EST including iTunes and Amazon on November 9. 2021.

WATCH THE TRAILER