Archive for the ‘Documentary’ Category

Man on Wire

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008


What a spellbinding movie this is! A documentary that is richer in plot, character and thrills than many fiction films. It works as both a testament to the triumph of the human spirit, and as a tribute to one of America’s great, long gone landmarks. The true story of French acrobat Phillipe Petit’s struggles to walk a tightrope between the two towers of the World Trade Center could have made a fine, maybe even terrific, Hollywood big-buget, but director James Marsh wisely told the best way to tell this story was as a documentary.

Like another terrific documentary, Grizzly Man, Man on Wire centers on a man consumed by his obsession, although it worked out better for Petit than it did for Timothy Treadwell. One of the key elements that makes the film work is the interviews with Petit himself. Phillipe Petit is a highly animated, cheerful, curious fellow and his energy and good humor seem to be contagious. He was able to convince an extended group of friends and associates to join him in his dangerous, illegal quest to tightrope walk between the towers.

Petit and Co. devised a plan to break in to the towers, and in fact, this film plays a bit like a heist film in that regard. A group of motivated individuals, each with a unique skill, using false identities and forged documents, break into a seemingly impenetrable building. Only here the eventual goal is nothing harmful or dastardly, rather a man expressing himself through his chosen form of expression.

I found Man on Wire to be a though-provoking and compelling documentary feature. It’s thrilling in a way very few movies now days seem to be.

Before the Music Dies

Thursday, August 7th, 2008




    If you feel that the mainstream music scene is becoming blander and more and more homogeneous, and that good, unique music is getting harder to find, then perhaps you’ll dig Andrew Shapter and Joel Rasmussen’s documentary Before the Music Dies, which is about this very dilemma. Shapter, Rasmussen and their crew traveled around America, interviewing critics, scholars, historians, fans but mostly musicians, to find out what exactly the current state of music is, and how did this come about?

Forrest Whitaker narrates, and his serious, ominous voice tells us how music is the backbone of America’s culture, it unites us and helps us through our lives, and now, more than ever, it’s in danger of slipping away. The film goes into great detail about several elements of the contemporary music scene that’s helping destroy good music, most notably conglomerates like Clear Channel radio, who bought out radio stations, decide the play lists (playing the same three or four songs over and over) and turn the stations into commercial stations interrupted occasionally by music. The filmmakers were even able to interview a few (former) employees of Clear Channel, and their testimonials are pretty telling of the company’s lack of interest in music.

An especially interesting section of the film gives us an example of how a current pop singing sensation is “created.” A 45 year old male songwriter (who co-wrote a few Jewel songs) is asked by the filmmakers to write a love song, to be sang by a young female pop star. The filmmakers then hire an attractive, young model to sing the song, which she does, and of course it isn’t very good. Her voice is then “fixed” to sound acceptable, and the song is then given a music video, more focused on the fake singer’s body than on the music. And thus a star is born.

Many musicians, such as Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Dave Matthews, ?uestlove, Elvis Costello and, probably most memorably, Erykah Badu, are interviewed, and their comments cast the current music scene in a fairly realistic and pessimistic light. It is mentioned more than once that in the current musical climate, such visionary musicians as James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Bruce Springsteen wouldn’t have lasted a day.

The filmmakers believe, however, that good, even great, music is still out there, but you just have to know where to look. The Internet, of course, is a key place, with many great websites dedicated simply to finding good music. A key character in the film is Doyle Bramhall II, a gifted blues/rock and roll singer and guitarist who is, as we discover, the real deal. Bramhall discusses candidly about his frustration with the music business, and his own trials and tribulations trying to find success in the business. Eric Clapton refers to Bramhall as a genius, and there’s even some great footage of them performing together.

Before the Music Dies is a compelling and well made documentary, and if you have even a casual interest in music, you should check it out.