Review: ‘The Boss Baby: Family Business,’ starring the voices of Alec Baldwin, James Marsden, Jeff Goldblum, Amy Sedaris, Ariana Greenblatt, Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow

July 1, 2021

by Carla Hay

Tina Templeton (voiced by Amy Sedaris), The Boss Baby/Ted Templeton (voiced by Alec Baldwin) and young Tim Templeton (voiced  by James Marsden) in “The Boss Baby: Family Business” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“The Boss Baby: Family Business”

Directed by Tom McGrath 

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the animated film “The Boss Baby: Family Business” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A laid-back man and his workaholic brother are physically transformed back to being children, and they team up with one of the brother’s two daughters to thwart an inventor’s plot to make parents into mind-controlled zombies and to have super-smart babies take over the world.

Culture Audience: “The Boss Baby: Family Business” will appeal primarily to “Boss Baby” fans and people who don’t mind watching a mediocre and overly busy animated family film.

The Boss Baby/Ted Templeton (voiced by Alec Baldwin) and Dr. Erwin Armstrong (voiced by Jeff Goldblum) in “The Boss Baby: Family Business” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“The Boss Baby: Family Business” is the equivalent of people promising to tell a good story, but they end up wasting your time with a lot of hyper rambling. This overly cluttered animated movie buries any attempt at clear and concise storytelling. It’s a sequel that tries to have multiple storylines going at the same time and does none of those storylines very well. And it’s also does a terrible job at world building and explaining what happened in the first “Boss Baby” movie, in order for viewers to fully understand “The Bossy Baby: Family Business.”

“The Boss Baby: Family Business” is the sequel to 2017’s Oscar-nominated “The Boss Baby,” which were both directed by Tom McGrath and written by Michael McCullers. “The Boss Baby” (based on Marla Frazee’s 2010 book of the same name) was about sibling rivalry between two brothers: 7-year-old Timothy “Tim” Templeton (voiced by Miles Bakshi) and infant Theodore “Ted” Templeton (voiced by Alec Baldwin), who had the voice and intelligence of an ambitious business-minded adult because Ted came from a place called BabyCorp that manufactures adults in baby bodies. Ted behaves like a corporate executive, so he’s the Boss Baby in the movie’s title, but Tim is the only other person in the family who knows that Ted has this unusually mature mind.

Without rehashing the plot of “Boss Baby” too much, it’s enough to say that things worked out where Ted ended up having a “normal” childhood with Tim. “The Boss Baby” ends about 30 years later, with Tim now a married father. His 7-year-old daughter Tabitha has concerns over her baby sister Tina, who is revealed to be a Boss Baby too. In order to best understand “The Boss Baby: Family Business,” it’s necessary to know what happened in “The Boss Baby.”

And because it’s the type of sequel where much of the comedy depends on people seeing the previous movie, it can be even more confusing than it needs to be to newcomers to “The Boss Baby” series. “The Boss Baby: Family Business,” which picks up right where “The Boss Baby” ended, rushes through an explanation of what happened in “The Boss Baby.” Unfortunately, “The Boss Baby: Family Business,” has three different storylines, which make the plot a convoluted mess.

In the first storyline, Tim (voiced by James Marsden) and Ted (voiced by Baldwin), who are now adults, still have a sibling rivalry with each other. Ted is a hedge fund CEO who is a bachelor with no children. Tim is a stay-at-home father to daughters Tabitha (voiced by Ariana Greenblatt) and Tina (voiced by Amy Sedaris), and he knows that Tina is a Boss Baby, just like her Uncle Ted was. Tim’s wife Carol (voiced by Eva Longoria) is the family’s breadwinner (she works in a high-powered corporate job), while Tim is feeling a little down on himself because Tabitha seems to admire and respect Ted more than she admires and respects Tim.

And so, the second storyline is how Tim can find a way to have the type of close father-daughter relationship that he wants for himself and Tabitha. As an example of how emotionally distant Tabitha has become from Tim. Tabitha refuses to hug Tim, because she says she’s gotten too old for father-daughter hugs. She wants to shake Tim’s hand instead.

The third storyline is about how Tim, Ted and Tina try to stop a devious plot to make adults mind-controlled zombies and to have Boss Babies take over the world. Tim, Ted and Tina visit BabyCorp and find out that it has a Crisis Center that monitors threats to babies around the world. Dr. Erwin Armstrong (voiced by Jeff Goldblum), founder of a learning institution called Acorn Center, has the goal to make babies the ultimate learning machines, and he thinks parents are a threat to these plans.

Acorn Center has been opening up several locations. Dr. Armstrong personally teaches at the main Acorn Center location, where Tim’s older daughter Tabitha has been going to school. Tim immediately figures out that Dr. Armstrong’s Acorn Center is why Tabitha has been acting so emotionally distant from him: She’s being programmed to become one of these super-intelligent people who will take over the world. Part of that programming includes brainwashing to believe that parents are a threat to a child’s independence.

At the same time, BabyCorp has a baby formula that can turn an adult back into a baby. Tim and Ted take this age-reversing formula. The movie has a nonsensical sequence of Tom and Ted being transformed back into being children. (Miles Bakshi does some voice work as the young Tim.) This sequence ends with Ted being turned into a baby, but Tim’s reverse ageing turns him back into a 7-year-old, not a baby. The movie gives no explanation for this discrepancy, which is one of many examples of what’s wrong with the movie’s substandard screenplay.

Tim now looks like his 7-year-old self, so he and baby Ted go undercover in the Acorn Center where Tabitha is a student. This is the type of sloppily written movie where Ted and Tim just walk into the school, with no explanation for how they were able to quickly enroll in the school. And Tim’s “disguise” is just a pair of glasses and an alias: Marcos Lightspeed. Ted and Tim explain their absence to their family by saying that they are going on a business trip together.

Later, Tim tries to disguise himself more with tattoos and a wardrobe that tries to make him look like he’s “tough.” He’s treated like an outsider by most of the students, except for Tabitha, who befriends Tim. For this part of the plot to be believable, you’d have to believe that Tabitha doesn’t know what her father looked like when he was her age, because she doesn’t even comment on the resemblance. In other words, Tabitha might be “book smart” (she gets the highest grades in her class), but she doesn’t seem to have much common sense.

Tabitha brings “Marcos” home for dinner to meet her family, which includes Tim’s parents Ted Templeton Sr. (voiced by Jimmy Kimmel) and Janice Templeton (voiced by Lisa Kudrow). Ted Sr. and Janice notice how much “Marcos” looks and sounds like Tim when he was that age. However, they brush it off as a coincidence because Marcos wears glasses. It’s very much like how people in “Superman” don’t figure out Clark Kent is really Superman just because Clark wears glasses and isn’t in a superhero suit.

Except for Dr. Armstrong (a stereotypical “crazy inventor” villain), the movie’s supporting characters are given next to nothing to do but just take up space. An Acorn Center student named Nathan (voiced by Raphael Alejandro) is the obligatory school bully whose character, just like all the other students, is ultimately just there for show, with very little impact on the overall story. A student who’s given the name Creepy Girl (voiced by Molly K. Gray), who looks like a reject from a Tim Burton animated film, pops up here and there at random moments to act weird around Tim and Ted.

The rest of “The Boss Baby: Family Business” just further tangles these three messy storylines with a lot of filler. It all leads up to a pivotal Acorn Center talent pageant that’s supposed to coincide with what Dr. Armstrong calls B-Day, the revolution that he wants to start where Boss Babies will take over the world, and there are no more children’s rules and no parents in charge. At a couple of points in the movie, it turns into a sappy musical, with Tabitha breaking out into song. The movie’s animation is not outstanding and certainly won’t be nominated for any major awards.

The voice cast members do a perfectly adequate job in their roles. However, Longoria’s Carol, who could have been an interesting character, is the most sidelined role in the family. She’s doesn’t do much and has forgettable lines of dialogue. The wacky toy wizard Wizzie (voiced by James McGrath) brings very few laughs. And the conversations throughout the movie are littered with clichés. At one point in the film, workaholic Ted Jr. says of his seemingly successful life: “It’s lonely at the top.”

“The Boss Baby: Family Business” might be enjoyable for people who just want to watch an animated film as a distraction and don’t care if there’s anything memorable about the movie. But whatever sarcastic wit that Boss Babies are supposed to have in this world is largely missing in “The Boss Baby: Family Business.” It’s a movie that tries too hard to be so many things at once that it ends up being nothing special at all.

DreamWorks Animation will release “Boss Baby: Family Business” in U.S. cinemas and on Peacock on July 2, 2021.

Review: ‘Chick Fight,’ starring Malin Akerman, Bella Thorne and Alec Baldwin

December 9, 2020

by Carla Hay

Bella Thorne and Malin Akerman in “Chick Fight” (Photo courtesy of Quiver Distribution)

“Chick Fight”

Directed by Paul Leyden

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the comedy film “Chick Fight” has a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman who’s going through a financial crisis reluctantly gets involved in an underground all-female fight club.

Culture Audience: “Chick Fight” will appeal primarily to people who like dumb, crude and predictable movies.

Malin Akerman, Kevin Connolly and Dulcé Sloan in “Chick Fight” (Photo courtesy of Quiver Distribution)

When a movie has a title like “Chick Fight,” you know going in that it’s already got some level of stupidity. Even with expectations lowered, “Chick Fight” still manages to be a time waster by being relentlessly vulgar in its pathetic attempts at comedy and completely unimaginative in its weak attempts at serious drama. It’s very possible for entertainment to have foul-mouthed comedy that actually works well if there’s some insight or wit to the comedy. That doesn’t apply to “Chick Fight,” which is just a tacky, dull mess.

Directed by Paul Leyden, “Chick Fight” has an entire plot built around a warped idea that women who beat each other up for fun are doing something admirable and that this type of demented bullying is supposed to be therapeutic for them. It’s all just an excuse to show women getting bloodied and injured while trying to pretend that this type of violence is not misogynistic at all. After all, the filmmakers seem to be saying, if men can have underground fight clubs, why can’t women?

The problem is that a movie like “Chick Fight” (written by Joseph Downey) still perpetuates unrealistic, sexist stereotypes that portray women who fight as not to be taken as seriously as male fighters. Movies about men who have underground fights usually depict the realistic, long-term physical and psychological harm that these fights can bring. In a moronic movie like “Chick Fight,” viewers are supposed to believe that these female fighters can just wipe off their bloodstains, put on their makeup, and go about their regular lives when the vicious fight is over. And that phoniness is not just insulting to the female characters but also to the viewers’ intelligence.

For example, the movie has a ridiculous plot development where the main character Anna Wyncomb (played by Malin Akerman, who is one of the producers of “Chick Fight”) is completely shocked to find out that her late mother Mary (played by Julie Michaels in flashback scenes) started an underground female-only fight club. Mary was one of the club’s top fighters for many years, starting from when Anna was a teenager. (Anna is now supposed to be in her late 30s or early 40s.)

And yet, Mary was able to kept this secret from Anna the entire time that Mary was alive. When this story begins, Mary has been dead for nine months and Anna found out this secret only after Mary dies. Viewers are supposed to believe that Anna, who was very close to her mother, never saw any of her mother’s fight injuries during all of those years that her mother was involved in the fight club.

Even in the flashback scenes, Mary looks too pristine to be a “legendary” underground fighter, who realistically would be more bashed-up and bruised than Mary is. It’s an example of how the filmmakers still don’t want to depict women as capable of getting as down and dirty as men when it comes to these fights. The lack of realism when it comes to physical injuries is one of the biggest of many big problems in “Chick Fight.”

“Chick Fight” takes place in an unnamed city that’s supposed to look like somewhere in a U.S. state with a lot of palm trees, but the movie was actually filmed in Puerto Rico. At the beginning of “Chick Fight,” Anna’s life has been going on a downward spiral. Anna owns a coffee shop that’s failing financially. She’s so heavily in debt that one day, she wakes up to find that her Prius is being repossessed.

Anna desperately pleads with the middle-aged tow-truck operator (played by Norman Grant) not to take her car. “I can show you my boobs,” she tells him. He replies, “Yes, you could, but unless you’ve got $1,000 attached to each nipple, I’ve still got to take the car.” That’s what’s supposed to pass as comedy in this movie.

The crass and unfunny jokes about female body parts continue throughout the film. And the filmmakers have Anna’s best friend Charleen (played by Dulcé Sloan), who happens to be a cop and a lesbian, as one of the worst offenders of objectifying women, by portraying Charleen as a borderline sexual predator. Charleen is also the epitome of the formulaic stereotype of a large-sized African American woman being a loudmouth sidekick.

In one of the movie’s early scenes, Anna and Charleen (who are both single with no kids) are hanging out at Anna’s coffee shop and talking about their love lives. Anna says that she’s going through a “self-imposed abstinence,” while Charleen is scolding Anna for being celibate. Charleen ogles a pretty and innocent-looking barista at the coffee shop, who’s about 10 to 15 years younger than Charleen.

Charleen tells Anna: “I’m going to have her. I don’t even know if she’s straight or not, but I’m going to make that girl yell so loud, that only dogs are going to be able to hear her.” Charleen then sticks out her tongue, lecherously flicks it back and forth, and says to Anna: “See how fast I am with my tongue. I’m going to set her pubes on fire!” Anna doesn’t seem at all concerned that her best friend wants to sexually harass one of Anna’s employees.

That evening, Anna spends time with her widower father Ed (played by Kevin Nash) at his home. They’re seated in the backyard and talk a little bit about how much they miss Mary. Suddenly, Anna hears what sounds like someone in the house, even though Ed lives alone. She quickly figures out from Ed’s reaction that he’s got a new lover who’s in the house.

Ed admits it, but says that he’s not ready to introduce this person to Anna yet. However, Anna is too curious not to find out who it is. She walks quickly in the house, with a nervous Ed following her. And that’s when Anna meets her father’s new lover: a sassy man named Chuck (played by Alex Mapa), who looks young enough to be around Anna’s age. In addition to their age difference, Ed and Chuck have a height difference, since Ed is about eight inches taller than Chuck.

After Ed awkwardly introduces Chuck and Anna to each other, Ed tells Anna that although he loved his late wife Mary, he is pansexual and was in the closet about it during the marriage. With Mary’s passing, Ed says he can now feel free to express his true sexual identity. Anna is shocked, but she immediately accepts the situation and tells Ed and Chuck, “That’s great. I’m happy for you.”

Anna decides to make a hasty exit. But before she goes, she asks Ed and Chuck about their big height difference when it come to sex: “How does this even work?” Chuck replies, “Oh honey, it’s like a Great Dane trying to mount a Chihuahua.”

Although Anna has reacted with a friendly and very tolerant demeanor to what she’s discovered about her father, deep down she’s shaken to the core. She calls up Charleen and tells her to meet her at the coffee shop because she wants to tell Charleen some bombshell information and she needs someone to vent to about it.

Anna and Charleen meet up at the coffee shop, which is closed for the night, and Anna tells Charleen about her father’s confession that he’s pansexual. Charleen’s reaction is to laugh and say that Ed can now openly be part of the LGBTQ community. Anna and Charleen also discuss Anna’s messy life while sharing a marijuana joint. Charleen says she got the marijuana by stealing it from police evidence. Anna jokes that Charleen is the “worst cop ever.”

But what do you know, in a dumb movie like this, before Anna and Charleen leave the coffee shop, they just carelessly toss away the joint, which is still lighted, on the floor of the coffee shop. And the lit joint falls right into a puddle that happens to be an unidentified flammable liquid, thereby causing a fire that burns down the entire coffee shop. Predictably, Anna doesn’t have fire insurance.

Needless to say, Anna’s life goes from bad to worse. With her coffee shop gone, she struggles to find other work. Charleen tries to cheer up Anna one night by taking her to the female-only underground fight club, which is in a seedy area of the city in a dirty, warehouse-styled building. Anna later finds out that her mother Mary was the person who started this fight club.

The fighters do not use boxing gloves or wear mouth guards, although they can cover their hands with cloth or other fabric. The rules are that they can do anything during the fight, except for hair pulling, biting and eye gouging. Everything else is fair game. Every time someone wins a match, a dollar bill gets put up on the wall.

Charleen introduces Anna to a burly and tough woman named Bear (played Fortune Feimster), who manages the fight club with Charleen. Bear says she got her unusual name as a child because she was born with a lot of body hair. Later in the story, Anna finds out that Bear considered Anna’s mother Mary to be Bear’s mentor and biggest inspiration—so much so, that Bear keeps a poster and lots of mementos of Mary in Bear’s one-room apartment, which is in the same building and right next to the room with the boxing ring.

After a horrified Anna witnesses a brutal and bloody fight in the ring, Bear tells Anna that it’s a tradition for anyone visiting the fight club for the first time to fight someone in the club during that first visit. Bear also tells Anna that she has a choice to fight either Bear (who looks like she could do serious damage) or a terrified-looking woman with a slight physique who’s sitting in a corner by herself. Bear says that the other woman’s name is Carol (played by Marissa Labog), who’s a schoolteacher.

Anna predictably chooses Carol, who looks like she’ll be a much easier opponent than Bear. But (surprise, surprise) Carol turns out to be a tough fighter, who pummels Anna in the ring while using her legs to put Anna in a headlock. Anna is humiliated but also relieved because she thinks she doesn’t have to go through that experience again. But there would be no “Chick Fight” movie if she walked away that easily.

The fight club has a doctor named Roy Park (played by Kevin Connolly), who happens to be Bear’s brother. (Cue the joke about Bear’s full name being Bear Park.) Roy and Bear being siblings sort of explains why he’s the only man allowed in the room during the fights and why he would be willing to do medical exams for this illegal fight club as a favor to his sister. Roy examines Anna after the fight and determines that she’ll be okay.

But since Roy is the only man who’s allowed into the fight club room on a regular basis, you know what that means in a catfight movie like this: He’s going to be the center of a love triangle between two of the female fighters. And sure enough, after Anna gets the deluded idea that she’s going to honor her mother by becoming an underground fighter, Anna ends up taking on the fight club’s toughest competitor: Olivia (played by Bella Thorne), who’s about 15 to 20 years younger than Anna and who is also attracted to Roy.

This insipid movie puts up a fake front of being a feminist empowerment film, so it’s no surprise that “Chick Fight” reduces the story to the old cliché of two women fighting over a man. Olivia is supposed to be a tough-talking badass, but she’s actually a one-dimensional “mean girl.” Olivia has two sidekicks: Noel (played by Vitoria Setta) and Veronica (played by Ekaterina Baker), whose only purpose in the movie is to make Olivia look like she’s got some kind of posse. Anna is supposed to be “empowered” by taking on the challenge of fighting Olivia, but it’s actually quite pathetic that a supposedly mature woman who should know better is catfighting with someone who looks like she’s barely out of high school.

And really, the underlying motive for Anna and Olivia’s rivalry is that they both want to prove who’s more sexually attractive to Roy. However, Roy’s personality is extremely bland and he’s not very well-suited for either Anna or Olivia. And so, viewers can only conclude that Roy’s doctor salary has a lot to do with the attraction that Anna and Olivia (two very different women) have to Roy. And once again, it plays into outdated gender stereotypes that women need to find a man who makes more money than they do in order to have a happy love life.

At any rate, Anna needs a trainer. And fast. You’d think that with this female fight club existing for so many years, there would be some talented female alumni who still live in the area who could possibly mentor or train Anna.

But no. The filmmakers refuse to consider that qualified women could ever train other female fighters, because they make Anna go into training with a drunken and boorish has-been named Murphy (played by Alec Baldwin), whose main claim to fame is that he used to be the trainer of “Sugar Ray,” according to Charleen and Bear. Viewers are supposed to assume that “Sugar Ray” means Sugar Ray Leonard, but we can also assume that, for legal reasons, the filmmakers couldn’t use his full name, in order not to have Sugar Ray Leonard’s name associated with this crappy movie.

There’s also a not-very-funny subplot of Charleen being threatened by a female fighter named Betty (played by Nicole Paone), whose teenage son (played by Brian Dean Rittenhouse) was recently busted by Charleen for drug dealing to students. (The drug bust is shown in the beginning of the film.) Betty wants revenge on Charleen by challenging her to a fight. It should be noted that Paone, Akerman and Feimster also worked together in the 2020 comedy film “Friendsgiving,” another stinker of a movie with self-centered, obnoxious characters.

Sometimes, a bad movie is a little more tolerable if at least one of the main characters is appealing or if the acting is better than the material. But there’s almost nothing to like about this annoying group of characters in “Chick Fight,” and the acting is mediocre at best. The fight scenes are very unrealistic, because it’s easy to spot the difference between the stunt double and the actor. “Chick Fight” is so idiotic and unpleasant to watch that viewers will feel like it’s an assault on their time, patience and common sense.

Quiver Distribution released “Chick Fight” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on November 13, 2020.

Review: ‘Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind,’ starring Gordon Lightfoot

July 30, 2020

by Carla Hay

Gordon Lightfoot in the 1970s in “Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could read My Mind” (Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment)

“Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind” 

Directed by Joan Tosoni and Martha Kehoe

Culture Representation: The documentary “Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind” features an all-white group of people discussing the life and career of Canadian folk-pop singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, including Lightfoot, other entertainers and some people who work behind the scenes in the music business.

Culture Clash:  Lightfoot admits that he had a lot of problems with alcohol and women during his up-and-down career.

Culture Audience: “Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind” will primarily appeal to people who like documentaries about singer/songwriters or folk-pop music from the 1970s, since that is the decade where Lightfoot had his biggest hits.

Gordon Lightfoot in “Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could read My Mind” (Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment)

The documentary “Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind” takes a candid yet conventional look at the Canadian folk-pop singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, who presents himself as nostalgic about his accomplishments and remorseful of past mistakes, particularly in his mistreatment of women. Directed by Joan Tosoni and Martha Kehoe, the movie isn’t particularly groundbreaking, but it should please Lightfoot’s die-hard fans and give insight to him as an artist to people who are less familiar with his music.

The movie starts out on a humbling note, as Lightfoot is seen in his living room, uncomfortably listening to “(That’s What You Get) For Loving Me,” one of his early hits from 1965 that he originally recorded, but the song was made famous with cover versions by several other singers, including Waylon Jennings, Peter, Paul & Mary; Johnny Cash; and Elvis Presley. The lyrics of the songs are told from the point of view of an unapologetic philanderer who brags about having many sexual conquests.

Lightfoot comments with a grimace: “I’ll never write another song like that as long as I live. That song was really offensive to write for a guy who was married with a couple of kids … I didn’t know what chauvinism was.” He then adds, “There’s a great deal of regret there. I guess I don’t like who I am.”

His wife Kim Lightfoot, who is seated near him, protests: “We do, though. You were just a little boy from Orillia [in Ontario, Canada]. These people sang your songs.” However, Lightfoot eventually can’t take listening to the tune anymore and he says, “Okay, I hate this fucking song, so let’s move on.”

Born in 1938, Lightfoot was a self-taught musician as a child and knew from an early age that he wanted to be a singer/songwriter. He studied music at Westlake College in California before returning to Toronto at the age of 20. Lightfoot was working in a bank when he quit to become join a square-dancing group, which set him on a path to a career in showbiz.

Lightfoot then made his mark in the Toronto music scene in the early 1960s. He joined the music group the Singin’ Swingin’ Eight, recorded some music as a solo artist, and later teamed up with singer Terry Whelan in a duo called the Two-Tones.

However, Lightfoot says that he decided once and for all that he would be a solo artist when he walked away from Whelan’s demands to have a 50/50 partnership, even though Lightfoot was writing the duo’s songs. In the documentary, Lightfoot said it took him about a year to recover from the Two-Tones breakup and get his music career back on track: “It damn near killed me,” he says of the bitter split.

Lightfoot’s talent eventually got him noticed by Albert Grossman, who was Bob Dylan’s manager at the time, who signed Lightfoot in 1965. By then, the Beatles and Bob Dylan had taken the world by storm. Although Lightfoot wasn’t on that level of success, he saw these artists as his competition.

He admits that at the time, he was very envious of the amount of records that the Beatles were selling, which motivated him to be a better songwriter. It’s an envy that Lightfoot says is common for a lot of artists, but they don’t want to publicly admit it: “You just sit down and write another album. You just try to do better.” In the documentary, Lightfoot comments that the Beatles’ 1966 “Revolver” album made him appreciate the band for the first time as true artists.

Lightfoot’s peak of commercial success didn’t happen until the 1970s, when he had hits such as “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Sundown,” “Carefree Highway” and his six-minute epic “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” inspired by the tragic sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald that killed 29 people in 1975.

Along the way, Lightfoot became an alcoholic (he claims to be clean and sober now, but the documentary shows that he’s still a heavy smoker); fathered six children with four different women (two of the women were his ex-wives, and the other two he never married); and at the 1996 Juno Awards, he got inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame by Dylan, his hero and friendly rival.

One of the best parts of the documentary is the vivid descriptions of Lightfoot in his early years in the folk scene of Toronto’s Yorkville district, where he developed a fan following by performing at places like the Riverboat Coffee House. In the documentary, Lightfoot goes back his former stomping grounds in Yorkville to reminisce about his humble beginnings in the mid-1960s Toronto music scene, which included Joni Mitchell and Neil Young.

Lightfoot says that “Early Morning Rain” was “one of my important tunes” that he wrote during this period. Sylvia Tyson of the folk duo Sylvia and Ian adds, “One of the things that was so special about folk music was that it was so accessible … Those songs said something and had a point of view … that were missing in pop music at that time.”

“The vibe was the best,” remembers True North Records founder Bernie Finkelstein. “Toronto loved him, kind of like the way Toronto loves Drake right now.” Speaking of Toronto-born rapper Drake, while Lightfoot is shown driving his car through Toronto, he sees a giant billboard of Drake, and says he’s a fan because Drake’s music is “well-orchestrated” and “professional.”

The documentary is also chock-full of great archival footage and photos. One of the more interesting things in the film is an audio recording of Lightfoot as a choir boy, when he did his first public performance as a solo singer at St. Paul’s United Church. Even with his pre-pubescent voice, it’s obvious that he had a great sense of melody and pitch.

Lightfoot says in the beginning of the documentary that he doesn’t like himself, but the movie has plenty of people who express their admiration of Lightfoot. They include entertainers such as Sarah McLachlan; Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson of Rush; Anne Murray; Ian Tyson of the duo Sylvia and Ian; Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings (of the bands Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive); Ronnie Hawkins; Steve Earle; Greg Gaffin of Bad Religion; the Good Brothers; Alec Baldwin; Murray McLauchlan; and Tom Cochrane.

Also interviewed are former Riverboat Coffee House owner Bernie Fiedler; former Warner Bros Records executive Lenny Waronker; and “Lightfoot” author Nicholas Jennings. And weighing in with their comments are Lightfoot band members Rick Haynes (bass), Barry Keane (drums) and Carter Lancaster (guitarist), who describe Lightfoot as brilliant perfectionist, but you wouldn’t want to get on his bad side, especially in the days when he was a heavy drinker.

McLauchlan describes Lightfoot as “meticulous” with his songwriting. “He’s one of the few people I know who writes his lead sheets. He’s a craftsman.” Grammy-winning songstress McLachlan says that Lightfoot’s “Song for a Winter’s Night” is a tune that “conjures up images of the quintessential Canadian winter,” even though Lightfoot says in the documentary that the song was actually written in a hotel room in Cleveland. Murray says it’s her favorite Lightfoot song.

Other fellow Canadians gush about him. Bachman comments, “He did ballads like nobody else did them.” Cummings remembers the first time that he saw Lightfoot perform: “He changed our lives forever. We came away that night immediately wanting to be songwriters.”

Cochrane has perhaps the most over-the-top comment about Lightfoot: “He defined who we were as Canadians. It wasn’t just about pop music. It was deeper than that. If there was a Mount Rushmore in Canada, he would be on it.”

Fans of Lightfoot love his songs for their storytelling qualities. And although some of his songs are about specific things or people, he has this to say about his overall songwriting: “Almost everything I’ve done is a figment of my imagination. You just have to make sure it rhymes.”

One thing that wasn’t fictional is Lightfoot’s reputation for being a ladies’ man in his younger years. Hawkins says with a laugh about his memories of Lightfoot in the Toronto folk scene: “I had all the girls until he got big. Then he got them all.”

Lightfoot’s most notorious love affair was with backup singer Cathy Smith in the early 1970s. He left his first wife, Brita, to live with Smith for about three years, but it was a volatile relationship. Lightfoot revealed in interviews years ago that Smith was the inspiration for his 1974 hit “Sundown,” a song about suspicion of infidelity from the perspective of someone in a romance with a seductive woman. His 1970 hit single “If You Could Read My Mind” was about his deteriorating marriage to Brita.

Years later after Lightfoot and Smith’s relationship ended, Smith became infamous as the drug dealer who injected the dose of heroin and cocaine that killed comedian/actor John Belushi in Los Angeles in 1982. In 1986, after giving up her fight to be extradited from Canada, Smith turned herself in to authorities and spent 15 months in a California prison for manslaughter.

In the documentary, Lightfoot says about Smith: “I really loved her,” but he also says that he didn’t want to marry her. “It was one of those relationships where you get a feeling of danger,” he comments.

Lightfoot and a few other people in the documentary mention his days of heavy partying. And although Lightfoot hints that he indulged in taking plenty of drugs, he only specifically mentions alcohol as his main vice. Lightfoot also acknowledges that his alcoholism ruined many of his relationships, and he gives a lot of credit to his sister for helping him get sober in 1982. His passion for canoeing became part of his sobriety therapy, he says.

And in the documentary, Lightfoot makes a heartfelt public apology to anyone he’s hurt, especially the women who were damaged by the “emotional trauma” he says that he caused. He’s been married to his current and third wife Kim since 2014. And she’s shown in the documentary as his constant and loving companion.

“Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind” gets the job done well in telling Lightfoot’s story while putting into context how he was one of the pioneering Canadian solo artists who was able to make it big as a pop star in the United States. Lightfoot comes across as someone who survived a lot of ups and downs, and he evolved into trying to be a better person. He is keenly aware that his legacy as a human being is more important than what people will remember of his career.

Greenwich Entertainment released “Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind” in digital and VOD on July 29, 2020. The movie was released in Canada in 2019.

Review: ‘The Story of Soaps,’ starring Susan Lucci, Bryan Cranston, Carol Burnett, Genie Francis, Maurice Benard and Diedre Hall

May 20, 2020

by Carla Hay

“Dallas” star Larry Hagman in “The Story of Soaps” (Photo courtesy of ABC)

“The Story of Soaps”

Directed by Robin Pelleck and Rebecca Gitlitz

Culture Representation: The documentary “The Story of Soaps” takes a historical look at American TV soap operas and their impact on pop culture, by interviewing a racially diverse (white, African American and Latino) group of actors, screenwriters, TV producers and other people connected to the business of soap operas.

Culture Clash: Many of the people say in the documentary that soap operas are often misunderstood or underrated and that reality TV shows have brought on the decline of soap operas with professional actors.

Culture Audience: “The Story of Soaps” will appeal primarily to people who want to learn more about this type of this “guilty pleasure” TV genre and also take a breezy nostalgia trip for American soap operas’ most notable moments.

The stars of “Generations” in “The Story of Soaps” (Photo courtesy of ABC)

The comprehensive and thoroughly entertaining “The Story of Soaps” skillfully manages to make this documentary go beyond the expected compilation of TV clips and commentaries from talking heads about the history of American TV soap operas. The documentary also puts all of this sudsy entertainment into a cultural context that shows how soap operas have had much more influence than they’re typically given credit for when it comes to our entertainment choices and how we see the world.

Directed by Robin Pelleck and Rebecca Gitlitz (who are also executive producers of the documentary), “The Story of Soaps” packs in interviews with numerous people (mostly actors, screenwriters and producers) who are connected to the world of TV soap operas in some way. The long list of actors includes Kristian Alfonso, John Aniston, Alec Baldwin, Maurice Benard, Carol Burnett, Bryan Cranston, Mary Crosby, Eileen Davidson, Vivica A. Fox, Genie Francis, Diedre Hall, Jon Hamm, Drake Hogestyn, Finola Hughes, Susan Lucci, John McCook, Eddie Mills, Denise Richards, Marc Samuel, Melody Thomas Scott, Erika Slezak, John Stamos, Susan Sullivan, Greg Vaughan, Chandra Wilson and Laura Wright.

Screenwriters and producers interviewed in “The Story of Soaps” include Shelly Altman (“General Hospital,” “The Young and the Restless”); Brad Bell (“Husbands”); Lorraine Broderick (“All My Children,” “Days of Our Lives”); James H. Brown (“All My Children,” “The Young and the Restless”); Andy Cohen (“The Real Housewives” franchise); Marc Cherry (“Desperate Housewives”); David Jacobs (“Dallas,” “Knots Landing”); Agnes Nixon (the “All My Children” creator who passed away in 2016); Jonathan Murray (“The Real World”); Ken Olin (“This Is Us”); Jill Farren Phelps (“General Hospital”); Angela Shapiro-Mathes (“All My Children: Daytime’s Greatest Weddings”); Yhane Smith (“Harlem Queen”) and Chris Van Etten (“General Hospital”).

Other people interviewed are People magazine editorial director of entertainment Kate Coyne, “The Survival of Soap Opera” co-author Abigail De Kosnik, “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” co-star Erika Jayne, Netflix consultant Krista Smith, casting director Mark Teschner and Soap Opera Festivals Inc. co-founders Joyce Becker and Allan Sugarman.

Brad Pitt, Julianne Moore, Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones are named in the documentary as some of the Oscar-winning actors whose early careers on screen included roles in soap operas. Leonardo DiCaprio, Melissa Leo, Marisa Tomei and Kathy Bates are other Oscar-winning actors who were in soap operas before they became famous. Other alumni of daytime soap operas include William H. Macy, Demi Moore and Meg Ryan.

The documentary begins with testimonials from several actors who were in soap operas in the early years of careers, such as Cranston (“Loving”), Baldwin (“The Doctors,” “Knots Landing”), Stamos (“General Hospital”) and Fox (“Days of Our Lives”). Cranston’s first TV job was a guest role in “One Life to Live” in 1968. And when he was in his 20s, he landed a recurring role as Douglas Donavan in “Loving” in 1983.

Cranston says, “I think there are these derisive comments made about soap operas and it’s not fair and it’s not accurate. You’re there to learn. You’re there to bring as much honesty and reality as you can to the moment—and it’s difficult.”

“This genre [soap operas], this job invited me in and put me to work like nobody’s business,” Cranston continues. “It made me feel accomplished, like I broke through a barrier.” Cranston went on to become an Emmy-winning actor several years later, for his role as methamphetamine manufacturer/dealer Walter White in “Breaking Bad,” which he says was a show that was really a soap opera.

Baldwin also says that working in soap operas was extremely valuable to him. He describes “Knots Landing” (where he played the role of Joshua Rush from 1983 to 1985) this way: “It was probably one of the five most important times of my life. They had a very good cast. They had a very talented cast. And that changes everything when you go to work. You don’t care if it’s a soap if you’re working with somebody who’s great. I loved it.”

The grueling hours of working on a soap opera, especially a daytime soap opera that airs five times a week, results in a “sink or swim” atmosphere for a lot of actors who are new to the business. Stamos, who’s best known for starring in the long-running sitcom “Full House,” comments on his 1982-1984 stint as Blackie Parrish in “General Hospital,” which made him a star: “It was great training.”

Fox (who co-starred with Will Smith in the 1996 film “Independence Day”) says of her time on “The Young and the Restless,” where she played the character of Stephanie Simmons from 1994 to 1995: “I learned so much. I learned to hit my cue, how to memorize, how to cry, how to flip my hair.”

“General Hospital” casting director Teschner comments: “There was this stigma to daytime [soap operas] and people misperceiving the acting style as being over-the-top and ‘soapy.’ But I always say that if you can do daytime, you can do any time.” Teschner also mentions that it’s not unusual for a daytime soap opera to film up to 120 pages of dialogue a day, which is the amount of pages that’s typical for a feature-length movie.

“General Hospital” star Francis, who’s been playing Laura on the show since 1977, says in the documentary about her dedication to staying on a soap opera: “Why do I do it? Why do I put myself through this? Because I love to tell stories.”

“General Hospital” co-star Wright, who’s played the role of Carly on the show since 2005, offers a more business-minded perspective to what actors bring to the escapism appeal of soap operas: “It’s our job to sell it to you.” Many of the actors in “The Story of Soaps,” including Melody Thomas Scott (who’s played the character of Nikki on “The Young and the Restless” since 1979), say that because TV brings repeated familiarity in people’s homes, many soap opera fans confuse the actors with the characters that they play on TV.

“The Story of Soaps” has various themed segments which give excellent analysis and commentary on important aspects of soap-opera history. The segment titled “By Women, For Women” details how daytime soap operas have provided many of the best opportunities for women working in television behind the scenes. While male executives dominated prime-time programming, female executives were allowed to shine in daytime television, since the early years of television.

Irna Phillips, who’s often referred to as the “Queen of the Soaps,” could be considered the godmother of daytime TV soap operas, which took the concept of radio soap operas and transferred them to a visual medium. Phillips created the TV soaps “Guiding Light,” “As the World Turns” and “Another World.” She also mentored “All My Children” creator Nixon (who also created “One Life to Live” and “Loving”) and William J. Bell, who created “Another World” (with Phillips), “The Young and the Restless” and “The Bold and the Beautiful.”

In the 1950s, when it was more common for the majority of women to be homemakers, daytime soap operas provided an ideal captive audience for advertisers. The term “soap opera” comes from the fact that during the radio era (before television was invented), soap companies would be frequent advertisers on these drama series.

“The Survival of Soap Opera” co-author De Kosnik notes that when soap operas began on TV, they pioneered the lingering close-ups of actors’ faces to show their emotions, thus adding to the melodramatic appeal. She also mentions that loyalty to certain soap operas would be handed down from generation to generation of women, much like loyalty to certain sports teams would be a generational tradition for men. Although soap operas tend to have a female-majority audience, there’s been a steady increase of male fans of soap operas over the years, especially for primetime soaps.

The documentary’s “Fan-Addicts” segment examines the culture of soap opera fans. Benard (who’s played Sonny Corinthos on “General Hospital” since 1993) calls soap-opera enthusiasts: “The most loyal fans in the world.” The documentary includes a lot of archival footage of fans giving adulation to some of the most famous soap stars over the years, including Stamos and Lucci.

Lucci says of her iconic Erica Kane character, which she played during the entire run of “All My Children” from 1970 to 2011: “I loved playing her. There was such range with her. She was a capable of doing and saying just about anything. And the audience saw humanity in her stories.” And yes, the documentary includes footage of Lucci finally winning her first Daytime Emmy in 1999, after she had a long losing streak of being nominated 18 times and never winning before.

Soap Opera Festivals Inc. co-founder Becker reminisces about the company’s first fan event in 1977, which she says drew “hundreds of thousands of people”—a crowd turnout that probably wouldn’t be possible today, considering how much the popularity of daytime TV soap operas has declined. Becker also describes why soap opera fans are devoted to soap opera cast members: “It’s almost like your own family.”

Legendary comedian Burnett is famously an “All My Children” superfan—so much so that she had a guest-starring role on the show as Verla Grubbs in 1983, 1995, 2005 and 2011. In “The Story of Soaps,” she repeats a story she told in her memoir: When she and her husband spent a month-long vacation in Europe many years ago (before VCRs and the Internet), Burnett asked a friend of hers to send a telegram every Friday with a summary of everything that happened on “All My Children” that week.

One time in the early-morning hours, Burnett was awakened by a hotel employee who was trembling with the telegram, because the visibly shaken employee thought that all the tragic bad news in the telegram was real. Burnett said she started laughing so hard that she began to cry, and the hotel employee thought that she was crying hysterical tears of sorrow, until she explained that what was in the telegram was really an “All My Children” plot summary. Burnett says later in the documentary about “All My Children” being cancelled in 2011: “I’m still angry that they took it off the air.”

A documentary segment called “Love, Lust, Luke & Laura” explores how TV soaps often pushed the boundaries of raunchiness with sex scenes and outrageous love stories, beginning in the 1970s and ramping up even more in the 1980s. Stories about infidelities are very common in soap operas, but the sexual revolution also opened up wilder storylines on soap operas, such as falling in love with a space alien, taboo stepsibling romances and as much nudity as possible.

“General Hospital” characters Luke Spencer (played by Anthony Geary) and Laura were undoubtedly the most famous couple on daytime TV soap operas. Luke and Laura’s 1981 wedding on the show was a major media event, and it remains the highest-rated daytime TV soap opera event, with an estimated 30 million U.S. viewers. However, their relationship was controversial because Luke raped Laura when they first began dating.

De Kosnik says that the 1979 rape storyline was concocted by “General Hospital’s” then-executive producer Gloria Monty (who died in 2006), in a desperate ploy to boost the show’s ratings, because “General Hospital” was on the verge of being cancelled at the time. The show’s producers explained that the rape was “rape seduction” and justified it by saying that Luke really loved Laura. However, that kind of storyline would not have gotten such an easy pass if it had been suggested in later decades.

In “The Story of Soaps,” Francis says about that controversial rape storyline: “I had to justify it for so many years. And I have to say that it feels good to sit here and say it’s awful. They shouldn’t have done it.” In 1998, “General Hospital” made an attempt to remedy this wrong by having Laura angrily confront Luke (they were still married at this point) about the rape.

The documentary segment “It’s a Revolution” is one of the best that demonstrates how soap operas are both a reflection of and influence on culture. Just as soap operas were often the first TV series to have groundbreaking stories about sex, soaps were also among the first scripted TV drama series to address serious social issues. The Vietnam War controversy, abortion, interracial romances, gay teens, transgender relationships, AIDS, mental illness and eating disorders were among the many topics that were considered too taboo for scripted TV series until they were presented on TV soap operas.

“Days of Our Lives” star Diedre Hall, who has played Marlena Evans on the show since 1976, says: “The most compelling thing about daytime drama is that we follow the pulse of what’s goin on.” “General Hospital” writer Van Etten says that he used to be a “deeply closeted” gay man, but he was influenced to come to terms with his own sexuality after seeing Ryan Phillippe portray gay teen Billy Douglas in a 1992 “One Life to Live” storyline.

Emmy-winning “General Hospital” star Benard’s Sonny character is bipolar, and so is Benard in real life. Benard says of the “General Hospital” executives’ decision to make Sonny a biploar character: “I can’t thank them enough.” He says that authentic representation matters in destigmatizing mental illness.

The soap opera “Generations” also led the way in representation for African Americans, since it was one of the first scripted TV dramas to feature a white family and an African American family as equal stars of the show. Although the show didn’t last long (it was on the air from 1989 to 1991), “Generations” co-star Fox comments that the show “changed perceptions” of black people on soap operas, since the black characters on “Generations” weren’t just playing servants, sidekicks or other supporting characters.

But daytime soap operas began to have more competition in popularity with the resurgence of primetime soap operas. The documentary mentions two major social changes that began in the late 1970s and affected the rise of American primetime soaps, such as “Dallas,” “Dynasty,” “Knots Landing” and “Falcon Crest.” First, more women began working outside the home and didn’t have time to watch TV during the day, but they wanted to get their soap-opera fix at night. Second, the VCR became available as a home product, thereby revolutionizing the way people watched TV, by giving people the freedom to record and watch programs whenever they wanted.

“The Story of Soaps” also points out that the most popular primetime soaps in the 1980s were about rich families because it was a reflection of the decade’s fascination with excess and wealth. Former “Dallas” writer Jacob says it all came down to this concept: “People like to see people that rich [can be] that miserable.” And, of course, the documentary includes a look at the “Who Shot J.R.?” cliffhanger phenomenon of “Dallas” in 1980, when lead character/villain J.R. Ewing got shot in the show’s third-season finale in March of that year, leaving viewers to wonder (until it was revealed in November 1980) who shot him and whether or not he was going to live. An estimated 83 million U.S. viewers watched the fourth-season premiere “Dallas” episode that solved the mystery.

And each popular TV soap opera of a decade is a reflection of what was going on society at the time. “Beverly Hills 90210” and “Melrose Place” were about people from Generation X establishing their identities and careers in the beginning of the Internet age. “Desperate Housewives” was a commentary on middle-aged, middle-class women in the suburbs during the end of the George W. Bush era and the beginning of the Barack Obama era. And awareness in the mid-to-late 2010s of more inclusivity on TV has been reflected in primetime soaps such as “Empire” (a show about an African American family dynasty) and “This Is Us,” which centers on an interracial family with diversity in body sizes.

The documentary’s “Stranger Than Fiction” segment takes an unflinching look at how reality TV has eroded the popularity of traditional soap operas. Reality TV programs have proliferated and thrived because they’re almost always cheaper to produce than scripted shows with professional actors. Several people interviewed say that the O.J. Simpson trial of 1995 was a TV game changer, since live coverage of the trial pre-empted many daytime soap operas, and many TV networks saw that the trial coverage got higher ratings than the soaps. The trial is often called “a real-life soap opera.”

“The Real World” executive producer Murray (who credits the show’s late co-creator Mary-Ellis Bunim for being a TV pioneer for TV soaps) says that they pitched MTV on the concept of “The Real World” as being a “docu-soap.” The late Pedro Zamora, who was on “The Real World: San Francisco” in 1994, is credited with helping bring more awareness to TV viewers about AIDS, since he was the first openly HIV-positive person to be on a reality TV series.

And most reality shows about people’s lives are basically just soap operas with people who usually aren’t professional actors. “The Real Housewives” franchise (which was inspired by “Desperate Housewives”) and the Kardashian/Jenner family are predictably mentioned. Many former reality TV stars have admitted (but not in this documentary) that much of what’s on these reality TV shows is already pre-planned by the show’s producers. Curiously, this documentary didn’t include any footage from “The Bachelor” franchise, which has been described as being among the most “soap opera-ish” reality shows of all time.

The documentary’s “Death of Daytime” segment gives an overview of the cancellations of numerous daytime TV soap operas in the 2000s and 2010s. “Guiding Light,” “As the World Turns,” “Passions,” “All My Children,” “One Life to Live” and “Port Charles” were the long-running American soap operas that were cancelled in these decades. “All My Children” was the cancellation that caused the most viewer outrage, according the documentary. The rise of social media, streaming services, interactive websites, apps and podcasts have further fragmented audiences, who now have millions of more options than the days when there were only a handful of national TV networks in the United States.

Although soap operas seem to be a dying genre, several people interviewed in the documentary point out that many Emmy-winning prestigious shows of the 2000s and 2010s were really soap operas, including “Game of Thrones,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Sopranos” and “Orange Is the New Black.” On the other end of the spectrum, trashy talk shows hosted by the likes of Jerry Springer, Maury Povich, Morton Downey Jr., Sally Jessy Raphael and Jenny Jones also took their cues from soap operas, since these shows thrived on creating nasty fights with guests while the cameras were rolling.

TV news has also absorbed the influence soap operas, as many news programs (especially on cable TV) have taken big stories and presented them as soap operas, with TV hosts and commentators being sort of like a Greek chorus weighing in with their opinions. The overall message of “The Story of Soaps” seems to be that if people have a snobbish attitude toward soap operas, then they should take a look at their favorite entertainment and media and see how much soap operas have had an influence. They might be surprised to see how much soap operas have impacted our culture.

ABC premiered “The Story of Soaps” on May 19, 2020.