David Byrne’s American Utopia
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Star: David Byrne
Director: Spike Lee
Streaming on HBO. Reviewed at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival
Is there any music video that screams “1980s” more loudly than Talking Heads’ primal “Once in a Lifetime?” There’s bespectacled, bow-tied frontman David Byrne, circa 1980, a cross between Clark Kent and Pee Wee Herman, stiffly spazzing to the song’s complex rhythms, singing of America’s macabre pursuit of material comforts, making a hatchet of his left hand while whacking away at his right forearm wailing, “This is not my beautiful house!”
Forty years later, here is Byrne again, standing on the stage of Broadway’s Hudson Theatre, his eyes still piercing but a tad more haunted; not quite as willowy but, despite approaching 70, still remarkably bendy.
And he’s still singing about what’s important to us — while reminding us what should be important — performing nonstop with a troupe of 11 singer/dancer/musicians with enough energy to power all those garish electrical advertisements that line New York’s Great White Way, just outside the theater’s doors.
Talking Heads broke up about 30 years ago, and Byrne went on to remain an influential singer/songwriter. His most recent album, American Utopia, became the basis of this 2019 stage show, which also incorporated several classic songs from his Talking Heads days. Filmmaker Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing) was so blown away by the show’s minimalist staging, elaborate choreography, and driving rhythms, he approached Byrne about bringing it to the screen — not as a straight-on filmed stage show but as an extended music video that commented on the music even while documenting it.
The result is a film with so many layers of brilliance — musical, dramatic, and cinematic — that it’s difficult, in a delightful way, to focus on any one element at any one time.
Barefoot and exhaustingly intense, Byrne is a force of nature, his face set like flint on exploring the secret corners of the human psyche. For “Here,” the opening song, he literally holds a plastic model brain in his hand, singing about its unfathomable intricacies (“Here is a region,” he sings, “that is seldom used.”)
The live audience (filmed, of course, before COVID-19 emptied New York’s theaters) is predictably ecstatic, but this filmed version creates an uncanny sense of intimacy, despite the public venue. Lee, who’s dabbled in music documentaries before, has created one of the most immersive concert films since — well, since Jonathan Demme captured the ethereal essence of Talking Heads in 1984’s Stop Making Sense. At times Lee pushes disturbingly close to Byrne’s evocative face; at others he pulls back to encompass the large cast dancing, marching, writhing, playing instruments and, most powerfully, standing absolutely still. He even lifts his camera to the theater’s fly space, focusing down on the performers like a latter-day Busby Berkeley.
Most powerfully, filmmaker Lee takes essential moments to break through the walls of the Hudson Theatre to the troubled world outside. Although American Utopia was filmed in late 2019, Lee cuts away from Byrne’s urgent performance of the protest song “Hell You Talmbout” to confront us with the ghosts of 2020: photos of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.
At those moments, the title of American Utopia seems distressingly ironic. But happily, Byrne insists, all is not lost. There is still uplifting music. There are still those synapses of compassion that fire through our brains. And there is still that spark of hope that we can, despite ourselves, make a better world.
Same as it ever was.
Featured image: David Byrne’s American Utopia (Courtesy of TIFF)
Herb Alpert Is…
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 1 hour 53 minutes
Stars: Herb Alpert, Sting, Billy Bob Thornton, Lani Hall, Quincy Jones, Burt Bacharach, Sergio Mendez
Director: John Scheinfeld
In Theaters and on Video On Demand
It’s always a good feeling when a movie offers reassurance that you are, despite your darkest suspicions, absolutely normal. That’s how I felt while watching the new documentary about Herb Alpert, the now-84-year-old trumpeter who revolutionized popular music in the 1960s with his Tijuana Brass.
The affirming moment comes about a half-hour into the film, at the point where Alpert releases his 1965 record Whipped Cream and Other Delights, the album that featured on its cover model Dolores Erickson wearing nothing but a mound of whipped cream. She was, as they say, quite something.
“I was obsessed with that woman,” says Police frontman Sting, who was an adolescent at the time.
“I actually had guilt,” confesses Billy Bob Thornton. “I would sneak into my mom’s room and look at the cover of that album when she was in the kitchen.”
And no, it does nothing to dim my fevered recollections of that time when, in the film, Alpert reveals that the model was covered not with dessert topping, but shaving cream.
The music was pretty good, too. I would defy anyone, no matter their age or musical inclinations, to sit through Herb Alpert Is… and resist tapping their toes, humming along, or even rising to their feet for a dance or two. “The Lonely Bull,” “Tijuana Taxi,” “Taste of Honey,” “This Guy’s in Love With You,” along with dozens more Alpert instant standards, jockey for position in a soundtrack that is so infectious at times you wish everyone would stop talking (even when the talking heads include the likes of Quincy Jones, Burt Bacharach, Sergio Mendez, Quest Love, and Bill Moyers).
Still, in the hands of director John Scheinfeld (The Happy Days of Gary Marshall, Who is Harry Nilsson?) the story of Herb Alpert is a lot more than a snappy greatest hits collection; it’s a deep dive into the agonies and ecstasies that drive profoundly creative people like Alpert — a guy who not only recorded some of the 20th century’s most memorable music, but also made his mark in the fields of painting and sculpture.
Narrating his own story, Alpert is an affable, if somewhat selective guide. For reasons known only to him, he glosses over the early days of Tijuana Brass, essentially ignoring the rather remarkable fact that the first TJB records consisted primarily of Alpert alone, recording in his garage, relentlessly overdubbing his own trumpet solos to create the illusion of a full band. Only when audiences began demanding live performances did he hire a team of crack studio musicians to play with him.
Besides his music wizardry, Alpert also possessed a keen nose for talent, and along with his partner Jerry Moss (the “M” in their label, A&M Records) he released albums by a Who’s Who of ’70s and ’80s legends including Carole King, The Carpenters, Peter Frampton, Janet Jackson and Chuck Mangione. Many of A&M’s titles still reside on the list of best-selling albums of all time.
Still, Alpert insists, there was a dark side to his fairy tale.
“I’m famous, I’m rich,” he recalls thinking at the height of his fame. “But I’m miserable.”
Admittedly, it’s hard to really feel bad for a guy whose chief problem is he’s too successful. Still, a gallery of archive footage does seem to reveal a man who pastes on his dimpled smile while cranking it up onstage, but whose demeanor crashes the moment the curtain closes.
He ultimately found happiness sharing his success — with his clearly adoring wife, singer Lani Hall, and a growing circle of charitable groups. Aside from the soundtrack you never want to stop, Herb Alpert Is… becomes most satisfying in its coda, exploring the musician’s latter-day obsession with promoting arts in America’s schools. Reading in a newspaper that Harlem’s storied School of the Arts was going under due to a lack of funding, he rode to the rescue with a half-million-dollar grant — just one installment in the more than $150 million he’s donated to non-profits over the years.
Here the camera follows Alpert through the halls of the Harlem campus, stopping in classrooms to hear students feel their way through compositions classical, jazz, and pop.
To these kids, he’s a nice old man who has taken an interest in their aspirations. To the rest of us, Herb Alpert emerges as a reminder of our youthful passions — and our responsibility to help today’s kids realize theirs.
You can do that, Herb Alpert Is… says — even if you haven’t sold 72 million records.
Featured image: Still from the documentary Herb Alpert Is…(Abramorama)
Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Director: Mary Wharton
Stars: Jimmy Carter, Garth Brooks, Jimmy Buffett, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Larry Gatlin
In theaters and virtual theater video on demand
Bill Clinton may have been the first U.S. President born after World War II, but as this tuneful, nostalgic documentary reminds us, it was Jimmy Carter who first harnessed the energy of rock and roll to catapult himself to the highest office in the land.
James Earl Carter, born in 1924, went to war to the music of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey — but he was a Georgia boy whose childhood soundtrack was dominated by the gospel tunes he sang in church and the barn dance music that crackled through the air from the Grand Ole Opry.
By the time he ran for President in 1976, Carter’s musical tastes had already morphed into a love of country-tinged rock and roll, and he brought that sensibility to his campaign.
In fact, if not for his rockabilly roots, the film suggests that Carter might not have become president at all. Director Mary Wharton — a long-time producer/director for PBS’s American Masters series — explores how, in the early days of his campaign, the candidate would come up with desperately needed cash simply by calling on the likes of The Marshall Tucker Band or the Allman Brothers to drop what they were doing to mount a fundraising concert.
“We’d have a concert on Saturday,” a former campaign worker recalls, “and use that money to buy advertising on Wednesday.”
As Carter himself tells Wharton, “It was the Allman Brothers who put me in the White House.”
The film makes clear that Carter was no simple opportunist; his love of music infused every aspect of his life, from the spiritual to the political. Bob Dylan marvels that on their first meeting in the White House, Carter recited many of the songwriter’s lyrics, weaving them into a personal and religious testimony.
“I realized my songs had reached into the establishment world,” Dylan tells the camera. “It made me a little uneasy.”
After his arrival in the White House, Carter filled those historic halls with music of all sorts: giants of classical, rock, gospel, and jazz all took their turns on the stage. One of the film’s most disarming passages involves trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie coaxing the prez, who famously got his start as a peanut farmer, into sort-of singing an awkward rendition of “Hot Peanuts.” Carter hosted the likes of Herbie Hancock, Diana Ross, Dolly Parton, Cher (who drank from her finger bowl) and Willie Nelson (who came to D.C. straight from incarceration after a drug bust in Jamaica).
If music enlivened Carter’s White House years, it also saw him through his darkest hours as president: At the height of the Iran hostage crisis he closed himself into his office and listened to Willie Nelson sing gospel songs.
In the end, the Carter/music connection was not enough to save his presidency. Still, there’s the sense here that it is music that continues to feed his soul — and has helped him become our greatest ex-president.
“I think music is the best proof,” Carter concludes, “that people have (at least) one thing in common, no matter where they live, no matter what language they speak.”
Featured image: Jimmy Carter with Willie Nelson, 1980 (Credit: Courtesy The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library)
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
Director: Ron Howard
In Theaters July 31, Streaming Soon
An explosion of horrific immediacy launches Ron Howard’s documentary about the aftermath of the 2018 Camp Fire, a wildfire that consumed the town of Paradise, California. Making ingenious use of terrifying phone video footage and anguished audio recordings, Howard recreates the chaotic hours when some 24,000 residents went from dropping their kids at school and getting ready for work to racing for their lives through the very gates of a fiery, smoke-choked hell.
“Are we going to die?” a motorist asks a cop who has just informed her all routes of escape are engulfed. “My house is burning,” a patrolling cop reports as dash-cam footage reveals a ball of fire erupting under a cloud of smoke. “Please, God, help us! The windows are melting!” an unseen driver screams as she rolls uncertainly by the shells of burned-out cars.
And finally, after what seems like an eternity, an escaping family’s camera catches a glimpse of blue sky beyond the cloud of smoke.
“We’re going to make it!” the dad yells triumphantly. From the back seat comes the sound of a little boy crying hysterically.
It’s as powerful a 15 minutes as you’ll ever see open a film; Howard’s domestic answer to Steven Spielberg’s D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan — only in this case the cinematographers are ordinary people who had the presence of mind to record for posterity what could have been their final minutes.
Howard’s actual camera crew doesn’t arrive in Paradise until a week or so after the flames have burned themselves out, while the town’s displaced residents are still finding places to stay — sitting shell-shocked on cots in a gymnasium, settling in the basements of distant relatives, camping in tent cities on football fields. Their eyes are empty, their mouths slightly agape in did-this-really-happen disbelief.
But the director isn’t interested in telling a story of hopeless tragedy. With a faith in human resilience that has marked his films from A Beautiful Mind to Apollo 13, Howard seems assured of Paradise’s resurrection even before its resident are. Focusing on a handful of indelible characters, he chronicles their slow realization that even after everything changes, life goes on.
One of them is Steve “Woody” Culleton, himself a story in resurrection, the self-described “former town drunk” who dried out, turned his life around and eventually became mayor. Beloved by his fellow Paradisians, he’s among the first to declare he’ll never leave the town, and even before the ashes have cooled has already drawn up plans to rebuild his home.
We patrol the streets of Paradise — indeed, to a large degree only the streets remain — with local cop Matt Gates, an incredibly cool guy who should be played in the narrative version of this film by Deadpool’s Ryan Reynolds. It is he who witnessed his home collapse in flames while on patrol, but he wonders aloud, “I don’t know if it’s worse to have lost your house or be one of the few whose homes came through it.” In one of the film’s few lighter moments, he gestures to an empty lot he’s passing. “It’s cliché, I know,” he says. “But that used to be the donut shop.”
Another is Superintendent of Schools Michelle John, who despite the fact that some of the town’s school buildings are now smoking rubble, determines Paradise will retain its educational identity, setting up makeshift classrooms in houses, barns, and shopping malls. We meet her devoted husband Phil, who surrenders hereto the endless hours of duty while gently reminding her to eat and sleep. “You’re no good to anyone if you’re sick,” he cautions her as they sit in the living room of a distant cousin who has taken them in. As if to prove to the scorched landscape that Paradise will not be bowed, John vows to hold the high school graduation on the football field — intact after the fire but surrounded by towering dead trees that first need to be brought down (and which FEMA, helpful but a tangle of red tape, resists accomplishing on time).
The story of Paradise’s rebuilding is not a litany of improbable success stories. Many people leave town forever, unable to face the memories of that awful morning. At the moment of her greatest triumph — the football field graduation she dreamed of — John is struck with unspeakable personal tragedy. And even good-natured Officer Gates discovers the personal price a community-wide calamity can inflict when you’re not looking.
But this is a Ron Howard film, and in Paradise he has found the real-life crystallization of what he has proclaimed throughout a life on film: In the end, the human spirit will always rise, quite literally, from the ashes.
Featured image: A home burns as the Camp Fire rages through Paradise, CA on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018 (Photo by Noah Berger) (provided by Bill Newcott)
A Most Beautiful Thing
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
Director: Mary Mazzio
Now streaming on XFinity VOD; on Peacock September 1; on Amazon Prime October 14.
The best documentaries lull you into thinking they’re taking you for a nice float on a lazy stream — then abruptly suck you into a chasm of Class 5 rapids that have you holding on for dear life.
That’s the kind of ride we get in director Mary Mazzio’s new film, which starts out as the inspiring tale of America’s first all-African-American public high school rowing team — but has much more on its mind than warm feelies.
It’s the 1990s on the West Side of Chicago, where gang violence is tearing apart the student body of Manley High School. Enter a white Chicago businessman named Ken Alpart, who naively convinces administrators that what the school really needs is a rowing team. He puts a sleek crew shell on display in the cafeteria, offers free pizza to anyone who signs up — and waits to see who comes through the door.
What he gets is a random collection of rival gang members, kids barely holding onto their lives, much less their grades. We meet them in the present day: Grown men, now nearly 40, scarred by their harrowing youths. Foremost among them is Arshay Cooper, who recalls for us his daily adventure walking five blocks to school — and having to wear his baseball cap a different way each block, so as not to get jumped by the local street gang.
The guys laugh as they recall their first time sitting in the low, easily-tipped boat — terrified they might end up in the water.
Some were ready to quit before they got started until, as Cooper recalls, he asked them, “How can you deal with gunshots all day long in your neighborhood and you’re scared to sit in a boat?”
From here the narrative seems to be going just as we’ve hoped: On the water, the guys find a peace they’ve never known before. The former sworn enemies become a team. They enter their first competition, fail miserably, but learn from their mistakes. Finally, at the biggest race of the year, they not only earn the respect of other rowers, but they are celebrated by the entire city of Chicago.
It’s an engaging, feel-good story that seems tailor made for a Hollywood remake — you could probably do the casting yourself.
But something seems a little off here: We’re barely halfway through the film’s run time, and the kids are already graduating from high school. They say farewell to their rowing adventure. Everyone goes their separate ways.
It is now 2018, and the old teammates have just learned that an assistant coach from their high school days has suddenly died. They gather for the funeral, and Cooper hatches an audacious plan: Why not have a reunion row? It doesn’t take long for everyone to get on board with the idea.
It’s a decision that makes the second half of A Most Beautiful Thing even more inspiring than the first. For one thing, virtually none of the guys is anywhere near rowing shape. For another, it goes without saying none of the kids went on to Ivy League rowing glory; they returned to the ’hood where the familiar litany of misfortune awaited many of them: drugs, crime, poverty, and imprisonment. Skillfully and respectfully, Mazzio unfolds each man’s history, exploring the inner city dynamics that stacked the deck against them from the start (she cites a study that reports children from neighborhoods like these suffer higher rates of PTSD than combat soldiers).
Still, after a rocky start, the old teammates rediscover their rhythm. Cooper — who wrote the book on which this film is based, is a sought-after motivational speaker and has become something of a legend in the rowing community — even enlists Olympic rowing coach Mike Teti to whip them into shape.
But Cooper has more than a rowing reunion in mind. Recalling how the sport brought gang rivals together, he hatches an outrageous notion: Why not invite four members of the Chicago Police Department to row with them?
Now, Mazzio has just spent the last hour or so illustrating the tortured relationship between the cops and the ’hood. At this very moment, one of the guys is wearing an ankle bracelet after a run-in with the law. But they trust Cooper and reluctantly agree, leading to some of the most remarkable scenes of awkwardly effective bridge building you’ll ever see.
Finally, the team decides to enter one last official race, returning to the waters where they found high school glory. By now we’re beyond worrying about whether they’ll win or lose. We’re all friends here.
It’s hard to imagine a more stormy sea than the one this country is navigating right now, but the inspiring men from Manley High School have a couple of lessons for us all: First, don’t assume that everyone who’s not on your side is your enemy. And second, it’s possible to find common cause with just about anyone, even if you have to keep them at oar’s length.
Featured image: Richard Schultz/50 Eggs Films