Amazing Grace, Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists, Decade of Fire, DOC NYC, documentaries, film festivals, Jay Myself, movies, New York City, See Know Evil, The Show's the Thing: The Legendary Promoters of Rock, To Kid or Not to Kid
November 16, 2018
by Carla Hay
The ninth annual DOC NYC—which took place in New York City from November 8 to November 15, 2018—has continued its status as an outstanding international festival for documentary visual media. Almost all of the DOC NYC screenings and other events took place at the SVA Theatre, IFC Center and Cinépolis Chelsea. DOC NYC also has panel discussions about filmmaking, offering a wealth of opportunities to share knowledge, discover new talent and network with professionals.
DOC NYC 2018 also had competitions, with all voted for by juries, except for the Audience Award. The winners were:
Viewfinders Competition (for films with a distinct directorial vision): “A Little Wisdom,” director Yuqi Kang’s look at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery.
Metropolis Competition (for films with New York City stories): “Barbara Rubin & the Exploding NY Underground,” director Chuck Smith’s profile of filmmaker Barbara Rudin, who helped influence the careers of Andy Warhol and Lou Reed.
Shorts Competition: “In the Absence,” director Seung-Jun Yi’s examination of at the Sewol Ferry Disaster in South Korea. Special mentions when to the short documentaries “Obon ( directed by Andre Hoermann and Anna Samo) and “King of the Night,” directed by Molly Brass and Stephen Tyler.
Audience Award: “Out of Omaha,” director Clay Tweel’s profile of identical twin African American brothers who want to escape their lives of poverty and crime in Omaha. (Eligible films were in the Viewfinders and Metropolis competitions.)
DOC NYC PRO Pitch Perfect Award: “Civil War (or, Who Do We Think We Are),” director Rachel Boynton’s examination of how American remember the Civil War.
IF/Then Shorts Northeast American Pitch Award: “Mizuko (Water Child),” directed by Kira Dane and Katelyn Rebelo
The 2018 DOC NYC Visionaries Tribute (which has non-competitive categories), an invitation-only event presented on November 8, honored Orlando Bagwell and Wim Wenders, each with the Lifetime Achievement Award; “Free Solo” co-directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin with the Robert and Anne Drew Award for Documentary Excellence; and Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program director Tabitha Jackson with the Leading Light Award.
There were about 300 feature films and short films at the festival, in addition to the panels, so it’s impossible for one person to experience everything during the festival. But here is a recap of the world premieres that I saw at DOC NYC 2018:
DOC NYC 2018 WORLD PREMIERE FEATURE FILMS
Directed by Sydney Pollack
This long-lost Aretha Franklin documentary was a surprise addition to DOC NYC, which announced the movie’s world premiere at the festival just one week before its debut on November 12, 2018. In January 1972, Franklin recorded her best-selling gospel album “Amazing Grace” over two days at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. “The documentary film Amazing Grace” chronicles the recording of the album. Due to legal reasons, including Franklin’s objections to the movie being made public, the release of the “Amazing Grace” documentary was delayed for decades. After Franklin’s passing in August 2018, and with her family’s approval, this movie is finally getting released, thanks largely to the efforts of producer Alan Elliott.
Aretha Franklin is undoubtedly the star of the show, but her brother/musical director Rev. Cecil Franklin, who had a more extroverted personality, could have easily upstaged her in the movie during certain scenes when he makes introductions and tells jokes during the show. But once Aretha sings, the power of her talent takes over, and it hits home how much a void can never be filled now that she has passed away. The movie also features glimpses of Aretha’s father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, as well as Rolling Stones members Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, who were in the audience.
It’s hard to see why this emotionally resonant movie, whose highlights include performances of “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” and “Mary Don’t You Weep,” was kept from the public for all these years. There were reportedly audio problems that have apparently been fixed in this final cut. There are also many not-very-flattering closeups of Aretha, Cecil and other people literally sweating in the church, so certain people who objected to the release might have been self-conscious about how they looked. It’s unknown what the temperature in the church was like at the time of filming, but it’s obvious that all the sweating came from the sheer energy and passion that came from this show. And given that this movie was filmed in 1972, the low-tech appearance of everything is to be expected; it just adds to the “raw and real” ambience of the film. It’s in stark contrast to today’s slick music documentaries where artists are rarely shown sweating up a storm for their art. “Amazing Grace” will have a limited release in U.S. theaters on December 7, 2018, before getting a wider release sometime in 2019.
Directed by Jonathan Alter, John Block and Steve McCarthy
In this excellent profile of New York journalists Jimmy Breslin (Daily News) and Pete Hamill (New York Post, Daily News), the gregarious and blunt Breslin is the clear standout, compared to the more low-key and sophisticated Hamill. Even though Breslin and Hamill have some important things in common (they’re both Irish-American, born and raised in New York City, unapologetic liberals and authors of several books), the contrast between the two journalists is even more apparent: Breslin (who died in 2017 at the age of 88) was more a “man of the people,” while Hamill preferred to hobnob with celebrities and elite members of society. For example, Hamill dated Shirley MacLaine and Jackie Kennedy Onassis. The main thing that Breslin and Hamill have in common is their commitment to bringing a human side to reporting the news without losing their journalistic integrity and individual voices as writers. Breslin and Hamill were interviewed for this film, as well as their family members, colleagues, fans and critics.
The documentary does not shy away from examining Breslin’s and Hamill’s flaws and career lows, but Breslin has the more interesting story, and he is the more famous of the two. Growing up in a broken home with an emotionally distant mother, Breslin turned to journalism to channel his passion for telling stories. His oversized personality also came with an oversized ego that led to controversies (such accusations of being racist against an Asian female colleague or how he used his notorious Son of Sam correspondence to further his career), but like a lot of complicated people, Breslin also had a generous side to him. He usually championed the underdog, even when it led to ridicule or risking his personal safety.
The movie reminds people that Breslin was one of the few public figures in New York City who called for an “innocent until proven guilty” due process for the Central Park Five (five black and Latino teenagers accused of raping a white woman in Central Park in 1989), at a time when the majority of the public had already decided that the accused were guilty before the case ever went to trial. It turns out that Breslin was right: The five defendants did not commit the crime. DNA evidence and a confession from the real rapist exonerated the Central Park Five in 2012, but only after they spent several years in prison. Breslin was also unafraid of being in the minority with his criticism of subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz, who was glorified by many people for shooting four unarmed black teenagers with an unlicensed gun in 1984. The teenagers said they were panhandling, while Goetz said that he shot them because they tried to rob him.
Hamill, who grew up in a relatively stable middle-class home, had experience as a columnist and as editor-in-chief at New York City’s biggest tabloid newspapers: the New York Post and the Daily News. His managerial positions might explain why he was more cautious than Breslin when it came to hot-button topics. Even though Hamill was less likely than Breslin to personally stick his neck out for controversial social issues, the movie portrays Hamill as a lot less egotistical than Breslin, and such a beloved boss that most of the New York Post’s editorial employees famously walked out when Hamill was fired by a new owner in 1993. Hamill was eventually re-hired at the New York Post, but he later returned to the Daily News, where he would have on-again, off-again employment for several years. Now in his 80s, Hamill still writes books and contributes to publications such as the New York Times. Several of the talking heads interviewed for the documentary lament that Breslin and Hamill represent a bygone era of journalism when newspapers, not the Internet, was the main way that people read the news. HBO will premiere “Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists” on January 28, 2019.
Directed by Vivian Vazquez and Gretchen Hildebrand
This film shows how New York City’s Bronx borough was able to rebuild after devastating fires in the 1970s displaced thousands of residents, who were mostly black and Latino. “Decade of Fire” co-director Vivian Vazquez, who was raised in the Bronx in the 1970s, narrates the movie, and discovers through investigative research that many of the fires were caused by years of neglect in updating building wiring and, more nefariously, the alleged result of arson by greedy landlords who wanted to profit from insurance payouts. The movie alleges that local residents desperate for cash were often secretly paid by landlords to set fire to the landlords’ buildings, and these crimes were rarely reported.
Gentrification and government restructuring of voting districts along racial lines are also offered as explanations for the fires, which the film concludes were mostly set to purposely displace ethnic minorities to move out of certain areas of the Bronx. Even with these disturbing allegations, the movie also offers inspirational hope by showing how displaced residents took it upon themselves to rebuild their neighborhoods without waiting for the government or landlords to assist them. Residents with little or no construction experience had a “do-it-yourself” approach to learn how to rebuild and take more control of their neighborhood buildings, which led to a significant decrease in the destructive fires. However, the movie ends on a cautionary note and serves as a warning that what happened in the Bronx in the 1970s could happen to other similar at-risk communities.
Directed by Stephen Wilkes
This inside look at photographer Jay Maisel’s move from his 72-room New York City studio building could have been subtitled “Confessions of an Artistic Hoarder.” It’s clear within the first 15 minutes of the film that Maisel has a hard time letting go of all the stuff he’s collected and kept over the years, much of which would have little value at a garage sale or a flea market, such as unfinished knick knacks, old magazines and tons of unused art material that has collected dust. As the saying goes, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Maisel had to sell the building, where he lived and worked since 1966, because he could no longer afford the real-estate taxes and other expenses of owning the property. It was one of the largest private real-estate deals in the city’s history.
The documentary shows the massive undertaking of packing up Maisel’s haphazardly stored possessions in order to move them to a smaller place. With help from his wife and daughter, who tactfully try to convince Maisel to get rid of things that are truly garbage, he alternates between reliving happy memories of being in the building; commenting on and showing his art; and stubbornly refusing to throw away items that he realistically no longer needs and have no value. Not all of his possessions are of the “pack rat” variety, but he’s accumulated enough that it’s sadly obvious that he might not have had to sell the building if he had cleared out the junk years ago and rented out all the usable space to help pay the bills. The movie does not mention if Maisel ever received this kind of financial advice, but even if he did, Maisel seems like the type to ignore the advice.
“Jay Myself” director Stephen Wilkes, who is also the documentary’s narrator, admits from the beginning of the film that he considers Maisel to be a friend and mentor. Perhaps that close friendship is why the movie doesn’t explore the deep psychological issues that led to Maisel’s hoarding. A more objective director would have confronted those issues instead of ignoring them like the proverbial elephant in the room.
Directed by Ruth Leitman
Lady Parts Justice League, a New York City-based activist group founded by “The Daily Show” co-creator Lizz Winstead, fights for reproductive rights and other women’s issues by mixing politics and comedy. In response to the Donald Trump administration’s efforts to place more restrictions on Planned Parenthood and other places that provide legal abortions, members of Lady Parts Justice League went on its first “Vagical Mystery Tour” across the U.S. in 2017, to do live stand-up comedy, raise money, and give support to pro-choice clinics, particularly in states where reproductive rights are at the most risk. The tour is the focus of most of this 13-episode documentary series, which is seeking a media outlet to air it. DOC NYC had the world premiere of the series’ first and third episodes.
Equally entertaining and alarming, the show hits all the right notes when it comes to delivering its message and educating people on current abortion issues, but the show’s episodes that were screened at the festival present a fairly limited view of pro-lifers as angry people (mostly men) spewing hateful chants and harassing people outside clinics. The best parts of the show are when the LPJL members are at the clinics where they can give their support, such as helping escort patients in and out of the clinics, providing meals to the staff, or working on landscaping that will improve the clinics’ safety. People who are pro-choice will have their beliefs confirmed by watching this series, while pro-lifers will just have certain stereotypes reinforced that pro-choicers are left-wing feminists. Since only two episodes were screened at DOC NYC, it’s unknown if the series will delve deeper into the reality that there is diversity on both sides of the issue.
What’s admirable about the series, based on the two episodes that screened at the festival, is that it doesn’t ignore the fact that the women’s movement has problems and tensions, such as how women of color in the movement can experience racism from white people who consider themselves to be liberals. Series executive producer Winstead does a good job of addressing this issue head-on during a group meeting that is shown in the series, and it seems as if she genuinely makes the women of color on her team feel valued and included. And the show isn’t afraid to expose that the LPJL doesn’t always have its act together, such as in one hilarious scene when the group members on tour find out that the Airbnb place they rented is a dumpy disappointment, and they have to scramble to find another place to stay.
A glaring void in the episodes that were screened is the scarcity of pro-choice men who seem to be allies to the Lady Parts Justice League cause. Most of the pro-choice men who are seen interacting with LPJL members are male clinic workers who aren’t part of the tour. It’s hard to tell from just two episodes how much effort LPJL made to include men in their day-to-day tour activities and who their male pro-choice allies are back in their home base.
And aside from Winstead mentioning that she had a legal abortion as a teenager (an abortion she says she doesn’t regret), there’s hardly any revelation of the Lady Parts Justice League members’ personal lives and what motivated them to sacrifice a great deal of their time to LPJL. A lot of people are pro-choice, but there’s more to the story if people want to spend time away from family and friends to visit pro-choice clinics around the U.S. and raise money for these clinics and other pro-choice causes. There’s no doubt that the LPJL members are passionate about their beliefs, but hopefully the series will show a more well-rounded view of their personalities instead of condensing them to wise-cracking or preachy soundbites.
Although Winstead’s history with “The Daily Show” might suggest that “Lady Parts Justice in the New World Order” could end up on Comedy Central, this show is better served to be on a TV network or streaming service where there aren’t restrictions on the show’s adult language. Whatever an individual’s beliefs are about abortion, “Lady Parts Justice in the New World Order” has a thought-provoking viewpoint that needs to be heard in a conversation that shouldn’t be sugarcoated or silenced.
Directed by Charles Curran
Whenever there is an authorized documentary about someone who has died young after abusing drugs, the documentary often falls into the trap of glorifying the deceased as a lovable rebel instead of truly examining what led to the tragic circumstances around the untimely death. It’s an easy trap to fall into because the people closest to the deceased have to be interviewed for the documentary, but out of guilt and/or grief, they often don’t want to talk about the ugly realities of how drug addiction destroyed their loved one. This biography of New York City-based fashion photographer/artist Davide Sorrenti, a heroin addict who died of a kidney ailment in 1997 at the age of 20, often falls into that trap, but it does an excellent job of showing his free-spirited, charismatic personality and his meteoric rise in the 1990s due to popularizing the “heroin chic” trend. His edgy work appeared in magazines such as Interview and Ray Gun, and he took some of his most famous photos of model Jamie King, then known as James King, who was his heroin-addict girlfriend at the time. King (who cleaned up her life years ago after going to rehab) and model-turned-actress Milla Jovovich are two of several people interviewed who share fond memories of him in this documentary.
The most inspiring and best part of the film is how it shows that Davide did not wallow in self-pity over his thalassemia (also known as Cooley’s anemia), which required him to have frequent blood transfusions. Many of Davide’s close friends didn’t even know at first that he had the disease because he acted as if he was perfectly healthy. Doctors had once predicted that Davide wouldn’t live to become an adult, so that undoubtedly motivated his zest for life but also probably led to much of his reckless behavior. It makes it all the more tragic that he succumbed to the drug-addict lifestyle that contributed to his death.
The movie’s biggest flaw is that it tends to downplay how much nepotism was the main reason for why Davide was given so many career-boosting opportunities at such a young age. Davide came from a family of successful Italian-born photographers who were all interviewed in the film: older brother Mario, who was Davide’s unofficial mentor; older sister Vanina, who became a photographer after Davide’s death; and mother Francesca, who raised the kids as a divorcée, and worked her way up to the success that eventually benefited her children.
Before Davide began emulating Mario’s career path, he belonged to See Know Evil, an artistic group of young, male mischief makers (some of whom are interviewed in the film), who openly admit that their main activities were making graffiti, committing petty crimes and doing drugs. It’s the kind of teen rebellion that many young people experience, but the documentary fails to acknowledge how Davide’s race, class and family connections played a huge role in why he didn’t end up in the prison system when other young people who’ve done the same misdeeds aren’t as lucky. Davide was a product of the type of privilege that can glamorize drug addiction and “thug life,” as portrayed by young, pretty people who are mostly white and are from comfortably middle-class or upper-class backgrounds. Coming from that privilege, along with a fashion-insider family, is why the fashion industry easily embraced and celebrated Davide during the height of the 1990s “grunge” era, as a reaction against the over-the-top glitz of the 1980s.
Every drug addict has low points of doing shameful things that are difficult to talk about but could serve as a cautionary tale to help others, so it’s not too surprising that this authorized documentary doesn’t mention anything that would tarnish anyone’s reputation. Davide’s former girlfriend King and a few other people make vague references to a drug den type of atmosphere where Davide was living during the last year of his life, but the film has no detailed personal account from any of his loved ones about how bad things got for him when he was in the depths of his addiction or if anyone made any serious attempts to get him into rehab. The aftermath of Davide’s death is rushed through with video soundbites from Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and President Bill Clinton scolding the fashion industry for the “heroin chic” trend, effectively shaming the fad into extinction. There is also a brief mention of the efforts of Davide’s mother Francesca to honor his memory by being an activist in preventing drug addiction. Just like the photographs that Davide took, “See Know Evil” is a snapshot of the “grunge” era in fashion, but the movie is ultimately what the people who were in that culture wanted you to see, and the viewers know there’s more to the story that is not told.
Directed by Molly Bernstein and Philip Dolin
Long before Live Nation existed, the live concert business in the U.S. was run by a mafia-styled fiefdom that had local concert promoters dominating their own territories. “The Show’s the Thing” is a superb lesson in music history that tells how Premier Talent founder Frank Barsalona and other concert promoters impacted the careers of rock stars in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, when several local promoters, not one big company such as Live Nation, handled a national tour. Although the movie gives credit to New York-based Barsalona (who died in 2012 at the age of 74) as being one of the chief architects and pioneers of the live concert industry as we know it today, there are plenty of other major concert promoters who are also given the spotlight. They include Ron Delsener (New York), Bill Graham (San Francisco), Larry Magid (Philadelphia), Arny Granat (Chicago), Don Law (Boston), Jules and Mike Belkin (Cleveland) and United Kingdom-based Harvey Goldsmith, who was influential in brokering deals for many British artists’ major U.S. tours.
Most of the promoters who are still alive were interviewed for this film, but don’t expect a lot of diversity when it comes to the documentary’s interviews. Rock music, now as it was then, is primarily the domain of white men. The only person of color interviewed in the film is Carlos Santana, and the few women who are interviewed tend to be the promoters’ family members who were also usually their co-workers. Taken in the context that this documentary is about what the music industry was like before the Internet and other technology made people more socially aware, it’s not a surprise that this movie isn’t too concerned with being politically correct about diversity.
The documentary has a great selection of archival footage, with significant mentions of Led Zeppelin, the Who, the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie and the Rolling Stones. It’s clear that the filmmakers are true music fans, based on the excellent use of songs and how they’re edited in the film. One of the most fascinating parts of the documentary is the behind-the-scenes drama of Live Aid, when a feud between Goldsmith and Graham nearly threatened to derail the historic 1985 concert. Jon Bon Jovi, one of the rock stars interviewed in the film, tells a few memorable stories from an artist’s perspective about his early days as a struggling musician and how concert promoters helped him and his band.
But the best stories come from the promoters themselves, some of whom have no shortage of ego in describing their importance in shaping the concert industry. Even when they talk about the bitter rivalries that inevitably happened, it’s with a huge dose of fond nostalgia and wistfulness. Most of the promoters ended up selling their businesses to larger companies, which led to the rise of Live Nation. The promoters’ recollections naturally have a grandiose tone of “we were so great in the good old days,” and there’s plenty of bragging about the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll lifestyle that many of them enjoyed. At times, the film comes across as a little too reverential to these promoters, since there’s no real counterpoint of people talking about the very dark side of these promoters’ music-industry heyday, when powerful men got away with things that would be much harder to conceal in this era of social media. But in general, “The Show’s the Thing” is a fantastic documentary that’s worth seeing for anyone who appreciates rock history and for those who want to discover how some of the people who work behind the scenes can be just as interesting as the celebrities.
Directed by Maxine Trump
British-born, New York City-based documentary filmmaker Maxine Trump (no relation to Donald Trump) turns the spotlight on herself and other women who haven chosen not to have children, including a woman in her 20s who wants to be sterilized and author Marcia Drut-Davis, who caused controversy in 1974 by going on “60 Minutes” with her then-husband to declare that she didn’t want to have children. “To Kid or Not to Kid” is a solid and watchable effort, told with Trump’s first-person narration, but the film could have benefited from having a wider scope of people interviewed and more introspection from the director/narrator. Trump, who is in her 40s and married, naturally interviews people in her family, such as her husband, her widowed mother and her sister who is a divorced mom. She visits the NotMom convention, an annual gathering of women who do not have kids because of choice or circumstance. Trump also interviews women who chose to have children; some say they regret the decision, while others say they’re happy with their choice to become mothers. The fathers of these children are not interviewed, most likely because Trump wanted this film to have a primarily female perspective. But there isn’t much diversity either with the women who are interviewed, since almost all are white and middle-class.
While making the documentary, Trump openly admits to sometimes being conflicted about deciding not to become a mother. It’s fairly obvious she is using the movie to reassure herself that she made the right decision to not have children. And that’s okay, but she left a lot of people out of what could have been a more well-rounded documentary about how family planning and reproductive issues can affect people. For example, the film doesn’t have interviews with anyone who is openly infertile, or people whose relationships are affected because one partner wants to have kids and the other one doesn’t. Adoption is also pretty much ignored in this film, since the focus is primarily on whether or not to have biological children. This documentary’s total running time is fairly short (about 75 minutes), but it could have been longer to explore these different perspectives.
Trump repeatedly mentions statistics and her concerns about the world being overpopulated as the main reasons why she doesn’t want to have kids. Although many people think being child-free by choice is a selfish decision, Trump firmly believes that it’s more selfish for people to have large families when the world’s resources are being depleted. It’s a viewpoint that led to her being estranged from a longtime female friend who doesn’t agree with that opinion. Trump tries to reconnect with the friend in this documentary. During the course of the film, Trump shows some self-awareness in understanding that it doesn’t benefit anyone to be negatively judgmental about choices to become a parent or how many children is appropriate for a family who can afford it.
But more self-awareness from Trump was needed for this film. Although Trump mentions in the beginning of the documentary that she had an operation when she was younger that would have made pregnancy difficult for her (and she shows the physical scars on camera to prove it), she doesn’t give any psychological introspection on the obvious emotional scars that the operation left. Trump and her husband come across as likable, intelligent, responsible adults, but sometimes handle the issue of having kids in a way that’s more like how immature young people would handle it. For example, Trump (who says she got married later in life) reveals that before she and her husband got married, they never talked to each other about whether or not they wanted to have kids. In the film, she doesn’t address why they avoided talking about such an important issue before making the commitment of marriage. A documentary filmmaker is supposed to be curious, and a more insightful director would have answered the question of why this couple didn’t bother to discuss the parenting issue before getting married.
And in one scene that could be interpreted as somewhat staged to create drama for the film, Trump announces that after she and her husband have had sex, they’re in a mild panic because they’re not sure if the morning-after pill is available over the counter. The movie then shows Trump and her husband going on the Internet and trying to find out how to get the pill without a prescription. It’s an “Oh my God, we might have gotten pregnant, now what do we do” scene that looks disingenuous, because Trump is close to menopausal age and has had an operation that would make it difficult for her to be pregnant, and surely it’s not the first time that these middle-aged, married people have thought about their birth-control options. They aren’t naive teenagers, after all. And without giving away any spoilers, someone in their marriage eventually gets a different operation (which is documented in the film) that essentially ends their need for birth control anyway.
Another issue some people might have with the film is that Trump’s marriage is not exactly “child-free.” Trump mentions that after she and her husband got married, they found out that he has underage twin daughters from another relationship. The children, who are not shown on camera, do not live with Trump and her husband, but Trump wonders how being a stepmother will affect her marriage, as her husband adjusts to being included in his daughters’ lives. A question that Trump never asks her husband on camera is how her decision to not have children would have affected their marriage if it meant that he would possibly never become a father. It’s a difficult question that not too many people would be brave enough to ask or answer honestly on camera. Overall, “To Kid or Not to Kid” is a well-intentioned, but somewhat narrow-viewed, effort to explore the issue of choosing to become a parent or not. It’s a complex issue that affects a diverse array of people, and would be better-suited for a docuseries instead of a movie.