Disney+ has acquired the worldwide distribution rights for Howard, which played at some film festivals last year but doesn’t seem to have ever gotten a proper release beyond that. Don Hahn views this documentary as something of a follow-up to his 2009 documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, which charted the rise of W Disney Animation into its golden age in the late ’80s and ’90s. Howard will tell the story of the whip sharp mind behind the songs of Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and musicals like Little Shop of Horrors. Howard Ashman tragically died at age 40 due to complications from AIDS. The film will stream exclusively on Disney+ in 2020.
On a more upbeat note, though, did you know that Jerry Orbach, the guy who played Jennifer Grey’s dad in Dirty Dancing and who appeared in 250+ episodes of Law & Order, was the voice of Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast? Because this is somehow the first I’m hearing about this, and my mind is kind of blown over here.
Meanwhile, David Gelb, the guy who directed Jiro Dreams of Sushi and created the Netflix series Chef’s Table, is heading back into the world of food once again to direct a Wolfgang Puck documentary called Wolfgang. The doc is described as “an intimate portrait of the life and work of the original ‘celebrity chef,’ Wolfgang Puck.” There’s no word yet about when this project will hit the new streaming service, but this is the first new work from Gelb since his 2015 documentary A Faster Horse, which was about the Ford Mustang. Trivia: Gelb also directed the 2015 horror movie The Lazarus Effect, which had a terrific cast and…not much else. But assuming he puts the same amount of care and style into this new movie as his previous food docs, this one should be another treat for audiences.
When I asked Béla Tarr if he ever suspected that his seven-hour “Sátántangó” would resonate 25 years after it first screened at the 1994 Berlinale, the semi-retired Hungarian filmmaker hunched forward in his chair and responded with the raspy, “who gives a fuck?” grumble of a barfly at last call: “I'm not prophetic,” he grinned, revealing a well-punctuated set of teeth. “I was just an ugly, poor filmmaker. I still am. I don't have power. I don't have anything — just a fucking camera.”
When it comes to auteurs who look as if they could be characters in their own movies, the 64-year-old Tarr has to be near the top of the list, somewhere between Wes Anderson and Clint Eastwood. I met him on a brittle February afternoon, when he sagged through the lobby doors of Berlin's Savoy hotel in a thick winter coat and a sour cloud of cigarette smoke. The stringy gray ponytail that slipped under the back of his hat was the same color as the stubble on his chin and the light in his eyes; Tarr didn't seem pale so much as monochrome, as if he'd traveled back to the German capital via one of the signature black-and-white tracking shots that galvanized his reputation as a slow cinema godhead.
A quarter of a century had passed since Tarr unveiled “Sátántangó,” and now he returned to the same theater to premiere Arbelos Films' 4K restoration of a seismic masterwork that would encapsulate the auteur's apocalyptic vision. Adapted from the László Krasznahorkai novel of the same name, and maintaining the book's dance-inspired chronology, “Sátántangó” tells a Möbius strip-like story about the collapse of a farming collective in post-communist Hungary, news of which inspires a mystical charismatic vulture of a man named Irimiás — played by composer Mihály Vig — to “return from the dead” and prey on the desolation he finds among the desperate and easily manipulated townsfolk. Things end as they began: In darkness and ruin and the sight of cows being coerced towards their own slaughter.
Much has changed for Tarr, his people, and the world at large over the last 25 years: He quit making features after 2011's “The Turin Horse,” Hungary joined the European Union, and the planet rushed headlong into the information age. On the other hand, to watch the pristine new print of “Sátántangó” is to recognize that much has also stayed the same or slumped backwards: Tarr is still railing against the cynicism he sees on all sides, Hungary has repeatedly embraced an authoritarian Prime Minister who the filmmaker refers to as “the shame of our country,” and even the most democratic bastions of Western civilization have been reintroduced to the pitfalls of populism. When history repeats itself, clarity can be easily mistaken for clairvoyance.
“I wasn't trying to see the future,” Tarr said, pounding the table between every breath. “I was just watching my life and showing the world from my point of view. Of course, you can see a lot of shit permanently; you can see humiliation at all times; you can always see a bit of this destruction. All the people can be so stupid, choosing this kind of populist shit. They are destroying themselves and the world — they do not think about their grandchildren. They do not think about anything other than how they can survive this shit. And it's very, very sad. But that sadness provokes. It pushes you to do something.”
Tarr looked into the abyss until his gaze calcified into a hard stare and perhaps the most nihilistic film of the 21st century, and then — having achieved a feeling of perfect clarity — he stepped back into the shadows. “Film by film, I invented by my cinematic language,” he said. “This language is my language. It came from me. I cannot repeat it. I cannot use it for other shit.” It was the same logic he's espoused since first announcing that “The Turin Horse” would be his last feature. Judging by the current state of things, however, it may seem like Tarr did not do enough.
And yet, in a perverse way, the recursive arc of recent history only underscores the full power of his allegorical films: “Sátántangó” has always been synonymous with the time required to watch Tarr's work, but seeing this movie anew reveals the time required to see it clearly. A complete and devastating story is told over the course of “Sátántangó,” but seven hours and 12 minutes was never going to be long enough to capture a power cycle that turns an entire people against themselves.
Twenty-five years, on the other hand, might be sufficient for someone to recognize the full scope of Tarr's magnum opus, and to look at the moral inertia it's dancing with from a different perspective. Tarr's cinematic language is best expressed through the weight of time, a burden that can be felt in both individual shots as well as the films that comprise them — in the way those films condense that language into a contained snow globe of hard sorrow, and the way the years then shake their stories full of new life. The longer that time continues to cocoon “Sátántangó” on both sides, the more it will transform before our eyes.
This is by design. “Since 'The Almanac of Fall,' my goal has always been to make timeless stuff,” Tarr said, referencing the bleak 1985 thriller in which he first mumbled through the basic sounds of his self-invented tongue. “That's why you do not see any cars in my movies, or if you do see a car it has a kind of eternal form.”
In lieu of an origin story, Tarr set the table for an anecdote about the trip that broadened his horizons and granted him the permission he needed to pursue a harsh cinema of seemingly uneventful long-takes. “Most films just tell the story,” he said, “action, fact, action, fact, I don't fucking know what. For me, this is poisoning the cinema because the art form is pictures written in time.” He coughed hard between breaths, as if expel that sickness. “It's not only a question of length,” he said, “it's a question of heaviness. It's a question of can you shake the people or not?”
So far as Tarr is concerned, Marvel movies aren't the problem as much as they are the clearest symptom of a broader disease that has spread between genres. “Most shit today... they aren't films, they're just comics,” he said. “It's just blub-blub-blub, a bubble of a sentence and then we go to the next section.” Forget about Netflix: “I'm just deeply sorry for somebody who is watching movies on this shit because they miss everything.”
Our problem, Tarr argued, is that most cinema leaves us stuck on the surface. “People just tell a fucking story and we believe that something is happening with us,” he said. “But nothing is happening with us. We are not really part of the story. We are just doing our time, and nobody gives a shit about what time is doing to us. It's a huge mistake. I just did it a different way.”
Happy that filmmakers like Tsai Ming-liang and Lav Diaz have run similar marathons with the slow cinema torch, Tarr waves away the suggestion that it took bravery and conviction to pull off “Sátántangó” — to spend years trying to secure funding for a seven-hour dirge that was only ever going to screen at festivals and specialty theaters. “Film is a language, and there are languages within that language,” he said. “This is my language. How can I communicate with you without it?”
Tarr never intended for “Sátántangó” to shadow his entire career “I was a relatively young person, I did not understand”, but he insisted that making this bleak epic was more enjoyable than it looks. “It was really, really big fun,” he said, without a trace of sarcasm. “We were in the countryside, far from everything, and it was good. It was two years. … Really odd things happened. But we created a kind of family and enjoyed it very much.”
Tarr wouldn't say if “Sátántangó” was his personal favorite “I'm like a fucker who has nine kids — all of them are different”, but he insisted “Sátántangó” played the same to him now as it did 25 years ago. He still remembers every shot by heart. He can even tell you exactly when a fly buzzed onto the camera lens during a long-take that he decided to leave in the final cut. Still, for all of the personal memories and cinematic details that have always made it impossible for Tarr to extricate “Sátántangó” from the time it was made, he's never had any interest in anchoring this story to the particulars of the political decay that had inspired it.
“Politics makes everything too simple and primitive for me,” he said. “Social instability is a constant in my films — all the time of course I am talking about poor people, miserable people, people who never had a chance. Always that has been equal in my work. But everywhere is the same.” He cited the soul-crushing finale of “The Turin Horse,” in which the lead characters flee over a hill to escape their desolation, only to return across the same ridge after presumably spotting familiar horrors on the other side.
Tarr himself has yet to suffer such a fate. While he will never unretire from feature filmmaking, recent years have seen him dabble in museum shows, including a visual hymn to Vienna's homeless population, and an Amsterdam installation that complemented his oeuvre with one final scene expressing his rage about Europe's ongoing migrant crisis. But even that piece, which may never be formally or legally screened anywhere else, only ventured so close to the ephemeral: “By the end, that exhibition could have touched on political issues like border fences and all the horrible shit that Hungary has done to refugees, but I had to ignore it because...” He trailed off.
Tarr doesn't aspire to affect change so much as provide viewers with a more lucid perspective on their place in the world. He wanted wanted to make films that would feel timely all over again in 25 years; films that institutions would feel compelled to restore because they seemed perennially relevant for one grim reason or another; films in which people could always find some dark reflection of their own particular despair. Even now — maybe especially now — he still trusts in people to look.
“Listen, when I said 'poor ugly filmmaker,' it's because I don't have power,” he said. “As a filmmaker, you have to believe in the people — in their power — because if you do not believe in the people then why do you make film... for what? If you don't have hope, you do not do a fucking movie. You don't do a movie for the money, because the money just comes and goes. It's not about the money. It's because you are such a big fucking maniac who believes in people; who believes that people will watch and people will be touched. It's because you still believe that people are good, sometimes they just do stupid things. They will pay the price for that by the end, but they do not see it now. So what can filmmakers do?”
Then he answered his own question: “This is our job.” And while Tarr might be retired, revisiting “Sátántangó” makes it clear that his movies will continue that work for a long time to come.
The 4K restoration of “Sátántangó” opens at Film at Lincoln Center on October 18. A nationwide rollout will follow.
Serving on the competition jury at the Pingyao International Film Festival has opened the veteran filmmaker’s eyes to exciting trends in contemporary Chinese cinema.
When the work of Guan Hu emerged on the international festival circuit in the early 1990s, the Chinese film industry was, much like the director, still finding its feet.
"We were making more than 100 films, but hardly any of them every made it into cinemas," says the 51-year-old filmmaker. "I didn't really know if anyone would see anything I made."
Things have moved fast. China now boasts the second-largest theatrical film market in the world, with an output stretching into the many hundreds of titles per year.
Across the same time Guan's career has crossed almost every genre imaginable. As a leading member of China's “Sixth Generation” of directors, Guan delivered festival favorites like his breakthrough, The Cow 2009, a weirdly wonderful rumination on life — and allegiances — during wartime. Later, he would try his hand — to acclaim and box office success — at action The Chef, The Actor, the Scoundrel, 2013 and gritty drama Mr Six, 2015, as well as helming several popular TV series.
This past week, the now-veteran filmmaker has been casting his gaze across the latest work from China's new generation of directors in his role as a jury member for the third Pingyao International Film Festival's Roberto Rossellini Awards. He says the subject matter he's witnessing — as much as the raw talent on display — reflects how far the Chinese industry has come over a remarkably short period of time.
But some things are taking longer to evolve, as evidenced, by the fact that Guan's $80 million WWII epic The Eight Hundred was pulled from its opening slot at the Shanghai International Film Festival this past June. Expected to be one of China's biggest releases of the summer, the abruptly censored film has yet to hit cinemas. Such are the vagaries of an industry closely watched and regulated by an increasingly repressive government. Both the Pingyao festival and Guan's team insisted that no questions be asked about The Eight Hundred, stating only that it "will soon launch."
On every other matter, Guan is open to the point of being effusive as he sits down on the sidelines of the PYIFF to dig into his own past and the future of Chinese cinema. And, just in case anyone had forgotten we're at an art house festival, the director arrives dressed entirely in black, from t-shirt to Prada sneakers.
First up let's talk about your role here on the jury at Pingyao. What experience have you brought to town?
I've done a few similar roles but only at very small international festivals. I also am part of the annual assessment done by the Chinese directors association for our annual awards. It is a role that can bring a lot of pressure.
So why did you sign on?
I feel there is a unique atmosphere here in Pingyao because there are so many young filmmakers here. The foundersare my close friends also, so I want to help them. I also have self-interest as a motivation as I believe here I will get to watch the work from a lot of young filmmakers, get to know them and maybe one day work with them. In recent years, I have been helping young filmmakers and in this way I hope I can make use of the energy I have for filmmaking for more than just my own work.
Anything you call tell us about the work you have been producing with young filmmakers?
Nothing has been released, and these directors are not known. One film is a crime thriller and we have just finished post-production. The other we are about to start is a look at the life of elderly citizens. I don't want to say much more at this stage, but what excites me is that these young filmmakers are really expanding the ideas of Chinese cinema. They have no fear.
Between that work and what you have seen so far in Pingyao, are you seeing any trends emerge among the new generation of Chinese filmmakers?
There's no denying that young filmmakers like to start with either genre films, like crime films, or with stories that are very personal, like stories about children coming of age, or about small towns. I think this is pretty normal everywhere. But this year there is one film we have seen that won't win an award, and it is not really refined but it is very truthful. It's called Summer is the Coldest Season from director Zhou Sun and it is very true to her heart. In terms of skill or technique, it is very young — but it is so true to her heart. We are seeing more of that from this new generation.
What sort of role is Pingyao playing in terms of providing a platform for this talent?
At this stage of their career they need confidence, and a festival like this gives new filmmakers that. It can drive you on to further your career, once you see your film play at a festival and be watched film lovers and other filmmakers.
In what way is the filmmaking landscape in China different today compared to when you started out in the 1990s?
The change has been so big. I wasn't exactly unlucky back then but there was no established market in China, so not many people saw my films. There were no other filmmakers to help us, really, and no festivals. The survival rate among young filmmakers was very low. You felt like you were fighting alone. These days, us older filmmakers try to help young filmmakers, having experienced that. We don't want them to switch to other jobs. So more and more are now sticking to it.
How important was it that your early films travelled to international festivals?
It was more than important, it was vital. It was all we had. Small films wouldn't make it to our cinemas and if they did no one saw them. So festivals gave us an audience and the sole channel through which we could become known and hopefully keep making films in the future. I remember when my first film played at a festival in Vienna and I was there and the audience all applauded, for three or four minutes. I think they were just being nice to me, but it meant everything to my young mind. There were better filmmakers around than me, but this gave me confidence that I was getting somewhere in life. I was filled with pride and it powered me to overcome all the difficulties.
What are you witnessing in China in terms of how streaming platforms and the likes of mobile content are remaking the landscape all over again?
It's been explosive, as has the whole film market. But we are having problems with quality. At the moment, we are questioning whether we really need such a big volume of production every year. There are not enough quality films and productions, and until there are, China will not be a real powerhouse. It's a double-edged sword. My production company has explored TV series, mobile content and short-form video that is more suited to these platforms — and it's quite profitable. These have increased the interest of young filmmakers, too. But at the same time, it has brought quality down, and it has also affected how people view directors. Directing is no longer seen as a remarkable job — when it really is. It is very tough. So the challenge is to keep standards high, keep the quality high and keep people professional.
Is there anything you'd like to share about where you see your own career headed?
I'm exploring internet dramas. These have a long and profitable future in China. Filmmaking is quite volatile, but if you succeed with an internet drama you can have some security. I want to look at helping some young filmmakers who are unlike me — those with different styles to me, even more feminine ones. I want to show people an alternative side to myself. I would simply like to surprise people.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences certainly isn't short on documentarians. Atop its existing 400 or so documentary branch members, the Academy in July invited almost 100 additional doc-makers to join. Despite some internal concern that a few invitees might need help with the dues, now $450 a year, it seems safe to assume that branch membership is up about 20 percent from 2018.
And there are plenty of documentary features in the current Oscar mix. As of September, the Academy had posted 92 of them to its members-only streaming site, with the promise of another batch soon.
But missing, so far, are the sort of highly visible, popular documentaries that had made a considerable splash in theaters by this time last year.
By mid-October of 2018, theater-goers had already conferred hit status—as documentaries go—on Won't You Be My Neighbor?, RBG, Three Identical Strangers, and Free Solo the eventual Oscar winner.
This year, however, the best-performing theatrical documentary to date has been Apollo 11. Released by Neon in March, it has had about $9 million in ticket sales–25 percent lower than the take for Three Identical Strangers, which in turn was outperformed by the other three films mentioned above. In terms of ticket sales, 2019 contenders, like Pavarotti and Biggest Little Farm, aren't even close.
This doesn't mean the year is a bust for documentaries, even as the documentary branch finally overcomes its step-child status. Documentary features weren’t established as a separate Oscar category until 1943; for years, there were only two or three nominees, if any, and the branch, then with a single governor, was only created in 2001.
A quick glance at that members-only streaming roster already shows something for almost everyone. For the environmentally conscious, there's Sea Of Shadows, about whale extinction. Trump-haters can revel in Where's My Roy Cohn?. Music-lovers have Linda Ronstadt: The Sound Of My Voice and the aforementioned Pavarotti, among others. Journalism junkies have Mike Wallace Is Here. Political paranoiacs won't miss The Great Hack.
But the battle among those films and others is occurring more or less out of sight. Streaming services like Netflix are stingy with numbers, so the public and even filmmakers often don't know whether their prize contenders are reaching the millions. At the same time, the Academy's move toward an internal streaming mechanism—which eases delivery of films to its large and growing membership—tends to muffle the buzz that once attended seasonal screenings, or even the delivery of boxed screeners.
“Of course, we encourage members to see as many documentaries as possible in theaters, at screenings or at film festivals,” the Academy cautioned with its first posting of 23 documentary features in June.
But it doesn’t seem to be working out that way. The audience—and members—appear to be watching at home, or at work, or while walking down the street, on ever-smaller screens, and probably within ever-tighter interest groups.
That doesn't get people talking about the movies. And it certainly doesn't sell tickets.
As much as music is about the songs, it's also about narrative, and the people who make it. An album is only as good as how badly people want to listen to it, and it takes interesting stories to create that connection with an audience. Since the origins of modern music, there has been a myriad of interesting plots and subplots about heroes, villains, underappreciated visionaries, signature events, and other elements that have come together to make the music industry the exciting and ever-moving beast it is today. As this has been happening, filmmakers have been documenting it, so below, check out some of the best music documentaries that, if you haven't seen, you should watch, and if you have seen them, dust them off and give them another look.
Amy Winehouse was both a triumphant and tragic figure: Even though she only had two albums to her name, Winehouse's career yielded international hits like “Rehab” and established her as one of the most engaging singers on the planet. Despite her success, she was also a vessel of potential, having passed away at just 27 after years of dealing with substance abuse. Amy, the definitive documentary about her life and journey, gets are more than that, though: It paints a comprehensive and compelling portrait of an artist who was as full of life as she was of struggle.
Anvil! The Story Of Anvil 2009
Toronto metal band Anvil is probably a group you haven't heard of, unless you're familiar with this documentary about them. It might seem to be a Spinal Tap-like mockumentary — after playing a show to an embarrassingly small crowd, the band's Robb Reiner looks to the camera and says, “I can sum it up for you in three words: We have shit management” — but it's all real. The group had fleeting success in the '80s, even managing to influence and/or perform with the likes of Megadeth, Metallica, Bon Jovi, and others, but it didn't last. Despite the huge drought the band fell into during the '90s, they refused to stop, so while there are plenty of comedic moments, it's also at times heartwarming to see how determined this group of struggling musicians is.
A Band Called Death 2013
The punk spirit is defined by its rebellion against the established and expected, so what's more punk than being the first punk band, subverting the norm in a way that hadn't even been established yet? '70s Detroit group Death was believed to be one of the first groups in the genre, which meant they were underappreciated in their time but revered after it, as visionaries often are. A Band Called Death effective paints a portrait of this band of black brothers, going against the prevalent Motown grain of the time and place they were in in order to forge their own path, one that didn't yet exist. Now that's punk.
Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest 2011
Around the time this documentary came out, A Tribe Called Quest was actually disputing with director Michael Rappaport, with Q-Tip going as far as to tweet that he was “not in support” of the movie. That could mean either the film wasn't done all that well, or it was a warts-and-all production that wasn't meant solely to honor the subject, but to paint as accurate and complete a portrait of them as possible. A Tribe Called Quest was and remains important and successful, but they didn't always get along with each other and had their struggles, and it's this absolute vision of the group that Rappaport faithfully portrays as he goes with them on their 2008 reunion tour.
Beware Of Mr. Baker 2012
You should never meet your idols, they say, and it seems that's never been truer than in the case of Ginger Baker, because he's a bad dude: Even in just the Beware Of Mr. Baker trailer, you see him attacking director Jay Bulger with a cane and cutting the bridge of his nose. As a drummer and co-founder of Cream, Baker became known as one of the world's best and a real innovator, and part of his enduring legacy is his hostile and often combative personality. It doesn't seem like Baker is somebody who would participate in a documentary about himself — as the aforementioned confrontation suggests — but he did, which results in a gripping film about one of the most talented and aggressive figures in rock history.
The Black Godfather 2019
The Black Godfather presents the life and work of Clarence Avant, a music impresario who played every role from band manager to record label executive to behind-the-scenes fixer. Avant mentored music industry executives, produced special events for politicians, and has been one of the most towering, yet unheralded figures in the music business for decades. The Black Godfather aims to give him his much-deserved roses.
The Devil And Daniel Johnston 2005
Part of what makes music interesting — aside from the songwriting, the instrumental proficiency, and everything else that you actually hear when a song is playing — is the people. Daniel Johnston, who is considered by many to be an “outsider” musician, is one of the most interesting figures in recorded history, even if his music can be hard to stomach for many... or because of that fact. Contending with schizophrenia and manic depression, Johnston managed to earn a cult following for himself in Austin, Texas with his lo-fi, childlike tapes and concerts, although he didn't thrive as well in the context of a record label. Johnston is a character that screenwriters wish they could concoct, which makes an exploration into the man's inner psyche a compelling affair.
Gimme Shelter 1970
The Rolling Stones' 1969 US tour was short, featuring just 24 shows between November 7 and December 6, but it's often regarded as a historically significant extravaganza. That said, it ended on one of the worst possible notes: Altamont Free Concert. The film chronicles this brief window of time, which was as fascinating as it was tragic: The concert featured Santana; The Flying Burrito Brothers; Jefferson Airplane; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; and the Rolling Stones, as well as the Hell's Angels working security, four deaths, and extensive property damage.
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco 2002
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot stands as one of Wilco's most adventurous albums, and yet, it was perhaps the one they had the hardest time releasing. Their label, Reprise Records, refused to put it out, so Wilco bought the album's rights, left the label, and uploaded the album online and released it themselves, later releasing it on Nonesuch Records. Even for non-music fans, it's a fascinating story with a lot of moving parts that contribute to the larger narrative: Record label drama, Jeff Tweedy's increasingly severe migraines, and the departure of then-Wilco member Jay Bennett due to creative differences.
It Might Get Loud 2008
There are plenty of documentaries and other resources out there that have talked about guitar gods and how to play the instrument well, but It Might Get Loud really gets at how the guitar's diversity makes it special. It does this by highlighting the methods and styles of U2's The Edge, Jack White, and Jimmy Page, three men who have used the instrument in very different ways. Despite their varying backgrounds and ideologies about the six-string, or perhaps because of it, it's enlightening to hear these three greats talk about the different elements of their craft, making this film one of the most effective love letters to the most important instrument of the past hundred years.
Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck 2015
Cobain's story is perhaps the most famously tragic in music of the '90s: Nirvana became more monumentally successful than Cobain could handle, which was just one of many struggles that the generational talent faced. He also dealt with chronic health problems, heroin addiction, and depression, all of which were presumably contributing factors to his suicide. Cobain was as troubled as he was fascinating, and this documentary, which chronicles his 27 years on earth, is as engaging and entertaining a look at Cobain has ever been compiled. The film itself is special, but the documentary is even sweeter due to the soundtrack, which features previously unreleased Cobain recordings.
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan 2005
Even at 77 years old today, Bob Dylan continues to be a monumental figure that fans of all ages are fascinated by, because his music was both so groundbreaking and so timeless. Perhaps his most enrapturing era, though, was the early 1960s, at the start of his career and also the “end,” when Dylan announced his retirement following a motorcycle accident. No Direction Home draws from hours of interviews with Dylan himself and people close to him, all of which are edited into an expansive three-and-a-half-hour movie directed by Martin Scorsese about one of pop culture's most engaging creatives.
Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World 2017
Native Americans don't seem to be mentioned often when it comes to figures who were historically significant in the advancement of rock music, but they've contributed more than most realize. Link Wray, whose “Rumble” the film's namesake song has influenced guitarists for generations, is a Shawnee Native American. Jimi Hendrix, whose merits don't need explaining, has Native American ancestry as well. The film highlights these and other important people to show that Native Americans have impacted modern North American music in a surprisingly broad and profound way. They've long been overlooked, but Rumble does its part to make sure they get their due.
More than many other genres, hip-hop has been defined by the technology that was available at the time, and at its dawning, turntables were en vogue. That's part of the focus of Scratch, the esteemed 2001 documentary that looks at hip-hop DJs, the mechanics of their craft, and what it all means. Turntablism and traditional hip-hop culture are part of a world that might not be familiar to contemporary hip-hop fans, but where the film excels is in making these nuanced ideas feel accessible and alluring. It all comes from the mouths of experts as well: Afrika Bambaataa, Grand Master Flash, Madlib, Cut Chemist, DJ Shadow, and other luminaries were interviewed for the documentary.
Searching For Sugar Man 2012
Sixto Rodriguez, better known mononymously by his last name, is an American musician from Detroit, who ultimately proved to have a short, non-noteworthy career in the '70s. That's only what you might think if you live outside of South Africa, though, because there, he was humongous. While his South African fans presumed he was dead, Rodriguez lived an ordinary life as a factory worker until a pair of fans attempted to find him. That journey is the subject of this documentary that's as much about a missing icon as it is about fandom, and it makes for a fascinating film that proves some truths, even those that seem unknowable, are just waiting to be found.
Something From Nothing 2012
There are many different approaches to rap, whether you're talking about vocal styles, subject matter, or instrumental choices, all of this going to show that rap is truly an art. That's something that Ice-T wanted to capture in his 2012 documentary Something From Nothing, and while he would certainly be enough of an authority to at least give a lecture on the form, just hearing from him would likely result in a non-definitive look at the genre. That's why the film features interviews with multiple rappers talking about how they approach their craft, from people like Kanye West, Afrika Bambaataa, Snoop Dogg, Q-Tip, Dr. Dre, Eminem, and other icons who have left their mark in their own ways. While getting a complete picture of what a genre is about with one documentary is virtually impossible, Something From Nothing is one of the most successful attempts yet.
Some Kind Of Monster 2004
Metallica has been kicking ass for nearly 40 years now, and while even remaining a band for that long is a feat, that doesn't mean it was smooth sailing. Some Kind Of Monster covers the band during the St. Anger era, a time of much turmoil for the group: Bassist Jason Newsted left the group in 2001, James Hetfield went to rehab for his alcohol abuse, and the band sought out group therapy to deal with interpersonal issues. The movie is a fascinating look at one of the most successful and longest-running metal groups ever, and what it takes to achieve that status and remain standing well after most bands would have folded.
Sound City 2013
Dave Grohl can pretty much do no wrong, as he shows in this film, his directorial debut. Nirvana recorded their album Nevermind at Sound City Studios in Los Angeles, and the place apparently stuck with him enough to compel the rock star to craft this tribute to the place. The movie details the history of the studio and brings together famous musicians who recorded there while it was active, between 1969 and 2011. The film also resulted in a soundtrack featuring songs recorded by the musicians in the movie, resulting in collaborations involving the likes of Grohl, Paul McCartney, Trent Reznor, Josh Homme, Stevie Nicks, and others.
20 Feet From Stardom 2013
At most shows, there are a lot of people on stage, not all of whom are part of the main act. Among those are background singers, and when Morgan Neville and Gil Friesen wanted to learn more about these figures, 20 Feet From Stardom was born. The movie is a fascinating exploration into the lives of people we see so often and think so little about, whose contributions to music are as anonymous as they are essential. It's a music story, but it's also one about race, bias in the music industry, and about under-appreciated art. Being a background vocalist is a struggle between just being involved and wanting to be a name, and it's this journey and other nuances that the film captures so well.
What Happened, Miss Simone? 2015
Nina Simone was one of the most popular and inspirational figures of the 1960s, so much so that her popularity easily transcends the decade. At the same time, she was complicated, known as much for her outbursts she once fired a gun at a record company executive as she was for her activism Simone was a strong voice during the civil rights movement. What Happened, Miss Simone? has no interest in presenting a blemish-free version of the artist: She was happy and sad and angry and nuanced, and all of that is part of what makes her so compelling a documentary subject and person.
If there is a definitive music movie, this is it, right? It captures, of course, the Woodstock Music & Art Fair as it's formally known of 1969, one of the most iconic musical events of all time. It features artists like Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin... basically all the defining acts of the era. The film itself is basically as important as the event it chronicles: The movie is one of few to have been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. It's a time capsule of an era that was actually made during the time period it represents, giving it another layer of authenticity and transformative properties, which is part of the reason why it has aged so well and remains an important work.
Inspiration, creation, sharing. As the late Agnès Varda put it herself, these are the three key tenets of her filmmaking process. Varda’s final film, an encapsulation of her decades-spanning career through the lens of her masterclass seminars, brilliantly distills her ethos into a documentary. Despite being made with clear knowledge of her own mortality, Varda by Agnès never feels like a somber mausoleum for her talents. It’s a living, breathing document that keeps her spirit and creativity accessible as well as present.
In her final years, Varda never rested on her laurels as a pioneering filmmaker in the French New Wave. She kept up an impressive schedule of appearances touring the world to give talks about her craft and career at film festivals, even as her eyesight faded and her health declined. Varda by Agnès wisely uses these lectures as a narrative backbone for the documentary, providing a nice anchor from which Varda can explore fanciful tangents or discursive asides. The film serves as a wonderful democratization of the masterclasses, making their wisdom and insight available for those who were unable to attend in person.
The film, too, functions as an extension of Varda’s generosity of spirit well beyond her life itself. She pulls back the curtain on a number of her iconic films like Cléo from 5 to 7, Le Bonheur and Vagabond in a way that can appeal to seasoned cinephiles and neophyte viewers alike. Varda’s masterclasses highlight the connection between film theory and practice in thrilling ways. It is one thing to have someone tell you about the difference between objective and subjective time – and another thing entirely to have a master filmmaker illustrate how she combined them in her most widely renowned work.
Varda by Agnès acts as more than just an intro level film seminar, and it’s certainly more exciting than a career retrospective documentary that might make a handsome supplemental feature on a Criterion Collection disc. And given that Janus Films, a close corporate ally of the Collection, will distribute the film stateside, it’s tempting to consider it as little more than a cherry on top of her formidable oeuvre. But Varda’s final feature, like the director herself, never stopped pushing herself nor settled for the ordinary. She refuses to settle into a familiar pattern of clips, voiceover and masterclass footage to discuss her past films. Varda found creative ways to keep them feeling fresh, such as returning to filming locations from her film Vagabond to re-interview star Sandrine Bonnaire about the film’s legacy.
The documentary is not a memorialization of Varda’s “cinecriture,” or “cine-writing” style. The film is itself the act it depicts. Even through Varda by Agnès, Varda continues to probe the boundaries of her aesthetic. It’s the ultimate testament to her curiosity, both about the form of cinema and the people she used it to document, that she still managed to find new applications for her technique even when putting it under a microscope. The film is just as much a restless, vibrant and inventive multimedia collage as her other documentary works.
“Others interest me more,” Varda tells the audience at one point, “I prefer filming them.” Especially in the back half of the film, she shows us the camera to expand horizons beyond the frame, not merely to navel-gaze. While this portion of Varda by Agnès meanders a bit more, it’s particularly instructive as to how one can live guided both by a long, accomplished career and an awareness of how fleeting our time on this earth is. She reached people beyond the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd, exposing the power of the image to children, rural denizens and various people tangentially affected by her work. How fortunate we are that Varda’s humanistic spirit motivated her into this gesture of compassionate cinema – and how compelled those of us who love cinema should feel to follow in her humanistic example.