There’s an ongoing debate on how transgender people should be treated in situations where people are segregated by gender. Sports will continue to be one of the hot-button areas where transgender people are fighting for their rights. Unlike using a public restroom, categorizing a person’s gender in sports can affect their future, especially when money is involved (and it usually is). “Changing the Game” is a documentary that explores these issues, as the movie follows three American teenage transgender athletes who are navigating their way through a system where they are often mistreated and misunderstood.
At the time this documentary was filmed, all three of the athletes were in high school. Mack Beggs, who gets the most screen time, is a transgender male wrestler in Texas who’s forced to compete against girls. Beggs, who has been a state champion, also stars in the short film “Mack Wrestles,” which is making the rounds at film festivals, including Tribeca. Sarah Huckman is a transgender female Nordic skier in New Hampshire. Sarah (who is Asian) is adopted, and her parents, Jen and Tom Huckman, are completely supportive of her. Andraya Yearwood is an African American transgender female track runner in Connecticut, one of the states that allows public schools to categorize students according to whatever gender the student identifies as. Laws vary from state to state in this issue.
Mack’s situation is complicated because he is taking male hormones yet competing against girls. The documentary includes commentary from parents who think Mack has an unfair advantage against the girls he competes against. Mack essentially agrees, because he wants to compete against other males. Meanwhile, Mack’s coach doesn’t seem to care about Mack’s gender, as long as he’s winning. The coach says, “I would never turn my back on an athlete,” but all the controversy over Mack makes you wonder if the coach would stand by Mack so strongly if Mack was losing most of his matches.
Mack is living with his grandparents Nancy and Roy, who have adopted him. His grandmother says, “I’m a hardcore Republican, but I don’t have a problem stepping on any toes for transgender kids.” Mack has a girlfriend who’s also very supportive of him, but he admits that he has bouts of depression and a past suicide attempt by taking sleeping pills. The documentary mentions that 40 percent of transgender athletes attempt suicide. Mack is also under a lot of pressure because he needs an athletic scholarship to get into the college of his choice, but he knows that the odds are stacked against him because he’s a transgender athlete.
Meanwhile, the documentary shows how Sarah has become a political activist for transgender athletes. Her advocacy had an effect on the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association’s policies for transgender students, according to Guy Donnelly, principal of Kingswood Regional High School, where Sarah was a student. Advocates for transgender athletes believe that transgender people should be accepted as transgender in all aspects of their lives—in other words, sports should not be an exception.
For track runner Andraya, the biggest supporter in her family is her single mother, Ngozi Nnaji, who says she’s so protective of her daughter that she almost feels like a bodyguard. Of all three trans athletes profiled in the movie, Andraya endures the most heckling from angry parents at the games. The documentary mentions a sobering statistic that African American transgender female students are five times more likely to be murdered than their peers.
Mack gets quite a bit of heckling too. He mentions that most of the verbal abuse and bullying he gets are from adults, not from other kids. It’s taken a toll on his mental health, and his girlfriend says that Mack has had a couple of emotional breakdowns, but he doesn’t like to talk about how much pressure he’s under. Mack says, “My relationship with testosterone is complicated. I wish I didn’t have to inject it.”
The most common argument that people have against trans athletes is that trans athletes have an “unfair advantage.” This argument seems to be used the most when parents think someone with a masculine physique is competing against females. When prize money and scholarships are at stake, it’s no wonder that the conflicts over this issue can get heated. Sarah admits that she often holds herself back in competitions and deliberately does not perform at her best because she doesn’t want to be a target for this type of “unfair advantage” accusation.
Andraya says she wouldn’t be on her track team if she didn’t have the support from the other people on the team. She gets some more encouragement when another African American transgender female named Terry Miller joins the team. In one of the movie’s most touching moments, Terry says that she was inspired to join the team because of Andraya. They naturally become very close friends.
Still, they have to endure angry outbursts from parents who don’t want them on the team, even if Andraya and Terry can help the team win in group competitions. During a track meet, a furious mother tells the camera that athletes like Andraya and Terry don’t have to deal with menstruation, so they have an unfair advantage. The menstruation argument is actually an insult to all females, because it wrongly assumes that females who are menstruating are physically less capable of winning an athletic competition against females who aren’t menstruating.
“Changing the Game” is a straightforward documentary that doesn’t use gimmicks or fancy camera techniques. The film is unapologetically rooting for these transgender athletes, but the filmmakers could have done a little bit more well-rounded reporting by interviewing more people involved in the schools’ athletic systems, such as more coaches, referees, recruiters and leaders of athletic departments.
Another area where the movie definitely need improving was in expanding its reporting on what is being done on both sides to address the legal issues in the key states where transgender laws are the most hotly debated. Showing Sarah Huckman’s activism in New Hampshire (a liberal state) doesn’t seem like enough to cover the lawmaking issues that should be addressed in this documentary. In addition, although high school athletes are the focus of this film, most of these athletes have plans to continue in the sport after high school, and they will probably be facing the same issues in college or wherever they plan to continue participating in the sport. Only Mack’s post-high-school plans were given enough screen time in this film.
Despite some of these flaws in the documentary, “Changing the Game” does a good job of humanizing an issue that many people want to dismiss as not relevant to their lives. The rights that transgender people are fighting for are civil rights that speak to us as human beings and how we treat each other. The rights aren’t asking for special treatment but to be treated with the same respect, dignity and legal access that cisgender people get for gender identity.
The documentary “Wig” is a joyous and sassy love letter to Wigstock (the annual drag festival in New York City) and New York City’s drag culture. The movie comes 24 years after the 1995 documentary “Wigstock: The Movie,” which chronicled the 1994 Wigstock event. Unlike “Wigstock: The Movie,” which was essentially a concert film, “Wig” takes a deeper dive into the history of Wigstock and its underrated impact on pop culture.
Wigstock was launched in 1984 by Lady Bunny, and its first incarnation ran until 2001. The festival was revived in 2018 by Lady Bunny and Neil Patrick Harris. (Harris and his husband, David Burtka, are two of the producers of “Wig,” which had its world premiere as part of the Tribeca Film Festival’s inaugural Tribeca Celebrates Pride, an entire day of LGBTQ-themed programming. Lady Bunny performed after the film’s premiere.)
A lot has changed since Wigstock went on hiatus in 2001. RuPaul, who was one of Wigstock’s original stars, has become an entertainment mogul, as the host/showrunner of the Emmy-winning drag contest “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and the founder of RuPaul’s DragCon event, which currently has annual editions in Los Angeles and New York City. The rise of RuPaul and drag culture is a direct result of LGBTQ culture overall becoming much more visible in the 21st century, with more LGBTQ characters and reality stars on screen; the launch of LGBTQ TV networks, such as Logo and Here!; and more LGBTQ celebrities living their lives openly. That visibility and growing public support for LGBTQ rights also had an impact on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to make marriage equality legal for same-sex couples. In its own unique way, Wigstock has been part of this movement.
It’s important to bring up this historical context because “Wig” would have been a very different movie if it had been made in the 1990s. “Wig” director Chris Moukarbel (who directed Lady Gaga’s 2017 Netflix documentary “Gaga: Five Foot Two”) skillfully rises to the challenge of presenting the history of Wigstock in a cohesive, entertaining style that a wide variety of people can relate to and enjoy.
“Wig” includes some prophetic archival footage from the early 1990s showing RuPaul having a backstage conversation with British filmmaker Fenton Bailey, who asks RuPaul if drag queens will be popular in America. Fast forward decades later, and Bailey’s World of Wonder production company (which he co-founded in 1991 with fellow filmmaker Randy Barbato) is producing the “Drag Race” franchise, drag queen Big Freedia’s self-titled reality series and numerous other film, TV and digital projects.
In “Wig,” many of the drag queens comment on the mainstreaming of drag culture, compared to the early years of Wigstock. Although many of the queens appreciate that drag culture has become more accepted and has become a more viable way to make a living, some of the queens express some wistful nostalgia for the days when the community was much smaller and more tight-knit.
Drag queen Linda Simpson says that “’Drag Race’ was groundbreaking, but the flip side” is that drag culture was “more fun” when it was less mainstream. Simpson adds, “Now, drag is all about de-mystifying drag. It takes away from the insider-y feel that we had before.”
Flotilla DeBarge comments, “There are too many people right now who want to be drag queens, but they don’t know what it’s about,” adding that doing drag should be about passion, not money. “Anybody can do drag, but what kind of drag queen do you want to be?” As drag queen Naomi Smalls puts it: “RuPaul paved the way for me, but who the fuck paved the way for Ru? I love that drag is being normalized.”
For many drag queens, validation outside the drag community is the ultimate sign of success. William Belli, also known as drag queen William (a former “Drag Race” contestant who landed a cameo in the 2018 remake of “A Star Is Born”), hilariously tells a story about surprising a male intruder who had broken into William’s home, and the intruder backed away and called her “ma’am.” William laughs when remembering how the intruder acknowledged her as a woman: “I passed!”
Some of the Wigstock devotees also talk about their early influences. Charlene Incarnate says that most of her gay role models were closeted dads in her church. Harris said that drag culture appeal to him as a magician. As drag queen Tabboo! says in the film, “Wigstock was revolutionary because it kickstarted the ‘Come out, come out, wherever you are.’”
Lady Bunny adds, “We were putting something special out there in New York because this was the time of AIDS.” The AIDS crisis and its impact on the LGBTQ community is given a respectful amount of acknowledgement in “Wig,” which includes some heartbreaking testimonials of people who have lost friends and loved ones to the deadly disease.
Hate crimes against drag queens and others in the LGBTQ community are also mentioned in “Wig.” Jeremy Extravagance talks about his longtime friendship with singer/drag queen Kevin Aviance, who was the survivor of a vicious beating in 2006, outside of a gay bar in Manhattan. Aviance, who is interviewed and has some of the movie’s best scenes, describes his attack as, “I never felt so much hate in my life from someone I never met.” He says of being a hate-crime survivor: “Drag is my silver lining.”
As one commentator puts it: “Drag is hyper-femininity in response to aggressive masculinity.” If that’s the case, then Wigstock is the ultimate on-stage clapback. The heart of the movie is still about the thrill and the spectacle of performing at Wigstock, with Lady Bunny as the event’s founding mother. Blondie lead singer Debbie Harry, a previous Wigstock performer, says cheekily of Lady Bunny: “The thing that annoys me about Bunny is that she flirts like crazy…and nothing happened [between us].”
If there’s any one person who’s portrayed as a chief villain in “Wig,” it’s Rudy Giuliani, who was mayor of New York City from 1993 to 2001. (He is not interviewed in the movie.) Giuliani’s crackdown of the city’s nightclubs resulted in numerous closures that directly affected gay nightlife and drag culture. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Wigstock went out of business when Giuliani was in office.
The movie culminates with a dazzling array of footage from Wigstock’s spectacular comeback in 2018, including appearances from Lady Bunny, Bianca Del Rio, Aviance, Ladies of Lips, Amanda Lepore and Harris in full costume from his Tony-winning “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” drag role. If people still don’t understand what drag culture is about, one “Wig” commentator says it best in the movie: “Drag is about putting on the outside what you feel on the inside.”
Retail stores that sell music—just like video stores and places to develop film—are a dying breed that the Internet and other digital technology have been killing off since the mid-2000s. From 1995 to 2016, Other Music was an independent music store located in New York City’s East Village. The store had a reputation for being a place that championed obscure and non-mainstream music, but Other Music also carried releases from popular artists, with an emphasis on releases that might not be that easy to find. The documentary “Other Music” is a respectful, nostalgic history of the store, including a behind-the-scenes look at the final days before Other Music closed for good on June 25, 2016.
Other Music’s financial woes weren’t just caused by the Internet. Like many other independent retailers in high-priced urban cities, Other Music also couldn’t keep up with the rising rents in the area. But the store’s history is truly a reflection of what was going on in the music business at the time. Other Music was co-founded by Chris Vanderloo, Josh Madell and Jeff Gibson, at a time (the mid-‘90s) when alternative/indie rock was at the height of its commercial appeal. Vanderloo and Madell were former employees of Kim’s Underground Video, an independently run video store in New York City. Other Music kept its same location throughout its 21-year run.
In the documentary, Vanderloo is described as the most customer-oriented; he was Other Music owner who was the most likely to be mingling with store customers. Madell was the managerial taskmaster, who was the most involved in employee hiring and training, as well as community outreach and setting up in-store performances. Gibson was the one who was the most enthusiastic about discovering new music—the more obscure, the better. In 2001, Gibson left Other Music and moved to Belgium, where his wife is from, and he declined to participate in the documentary.
The documentary mentions that, at first, many people thought it was crazy for Other Music to open directly across the street from the East Village location of Tower Records, the music-store behemoth that was considered one of the most powerful music retailers in the U.S. for decades. But it turns out that both stores had overlapping customers, and Tower Records’ foot traffic helped Other Music, which was a place to find releases that Tower Records might not have. Ironically, Other Music would outlast Tower Records (which closed all its U.S. operations in 2006), as well as other corporate music retailers that shut down in the U.S., such as Virgin Megastore and HMV. TransWorld-owned music retailers Musicland, Sam Goody, The Wherehouse and Camelot Music also went out of business years before Other Music did.
Other Music was the kind of store that strived to keep its anti-corporate image intact. The store’s labels and signs were hand-written. Most of the inventory was from independent record companies. The store prided itself on having employees who were extremely knowledgeable about non-mainstream music and weren’t shy about making recommendations to customers. But all of that led to Other Music having a “hipster snob” reputation that was a turnoff and intimidated some people, which the documentary rightfully acknowledges. A few of the employees interviewed also admit that they would be impatient and give attitude to customers if they thought the customers didn’t know much about music.
The film predictably includes a number of celebrities who mostly praise Other Music. Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore opens the movie with this glowing statement about Other Music: “Per square meter, it probably had more interest value than any other shop I’d ever been in, in the world.” Oscar-winning actor Benicio del Toro says that shopping at Other Music was “almost like a religious experience.” Vampire Weekend lead singer Ezra Koenig, former Le Tigre member JD Sampson, and Animal Collective singer Avey Tare are among the other artists who share fond memories of Other Music.
A few celebrities, such as Jason Schwartzman and Regina Spektor, admit that although they were fans of Other Music, they often felt like their musical tastes were being judged by the staff. Spektor explains that she always had a feeling of “first-day-of-school nervousness” when she shopped at Other Music, because she didn’t want to feel embarrassed. The National lead singer Matt Berninger said that if people felt uncomfortable shopping at Other Music because of the “snob” factor, it was because Other Music “set the bar high” when it came to musical taste. “They should celebrate stuff that’s better-than-average.”
One of the best things about the Other Music documentary is that is gives a spotlight to some of the store’s unsung heroes. Even though Other Music carried a wide variety of music, it still had an image of being dominated by indie rock. It might come as a surprise to many people who see this film that Other Music’s staff was a lot more diverse than the stereotypical white male music nerd, even though the store’s owners/bosses fit that stereotype. There were plenty of female staffers there too (although they don’t get as much screen time in the movie as the male staffers) and some people of color (usually male) who worked at Other Music. Most of the employees describes themselves as music fanatics and misfits who wouldn’t do well if they had to work at a regular 9-to-5 office job. It’s mentioned in the documentary that it was hard to get a job at Other Music because the standards for music knowledge were high and the employee turnover was relatively low. Co-owner Madell said that if employees got fired, it was often because of chronic tardiness.
Many people in the documentary mention Duane Harriott (a black man) as Other Music’s best employee. Harriott, who worked at Other Music from 1997 to 2008, is interviewed in the film, and he says of Other Music: “It wasn’t just a record store. It was a community center.” He also says he was largely responsible for building Other Music’s hip-hop inventory “from scratch.” Harriott is praised by many people in the documentary for his encyclopedic music knowledge and his sales skills—he had a gift of gab with customers, and he loved to tell trivia factoids and stories about artists, which often translated into people buying music that they originally didn’t intend to buy.
Many of the employees of Other Music were also musicians, and they were encouraged to promote their own music in the store. One former employee, identified in the movie only as Beans, was notorious for relentlessly suggesting that customers buy his music. Beans, who’s interviewed in the movie, freely admits that he was one of those Other Music employees who would get impatient and give attitude to customers if he thought they seemed clueless. Even though he admits this flaw, he’s also clearly one of Other Music’s most loyal employees: He’s seen in the documentary being one of the last employees to stay behind to help clear out the store after it closed for good.
The documentary also interviews Vanderloo’s wife Lydia and Madell’s wife Dawn, who are perhaps the biggest unsung heroes of Other Music. The wives reveal that because they had more stable incomes than their husbands, the wives kept the business afloat for years when Other Music was losing money. In other words, if Vanderloo and Madell hadn’t been married to people who could give them money to keep the business going, the store would have closed years before 2016. The wives say that they and their husbands kept the business going because they felt obligated to Other Music’s customers and employees. But when they were losing so much money that the business no longer became sustainable, it was time to shut down for good.
From the beginning, Other Music had issues with being cash-strapped. As Josh Madell says in documentary, the store didn’t pay most of its employees in its early years (the staff knowingly signed up as volunteers), and not even Lydia and Dawn were exempt from working for free. The wives talk about how their pre-marriage dates with their future husbands involved meeting at the store and being unpaid employees. A “dinner date” would be often be ordering pizza while they worked for free at the store.
The documentary also mentions how Other Music was affected by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which caused most businesses located in downtown Manhattan to be temporarily closed and severely limited in the weeks and sometimes months after the tragedy. William Basinski’s “DLP1.1” composition (one of his “disintegration loop” instrumental recordings) became Other Music’s unofficial anthem in dealing with aftermath of 9/11, according to the documentary. Other Music co-owner Madell says that the store had its biggest sales in the year 2000, and things never really recovered after 2001.
When Napster and other controversial file-sharing services began to eat away at the music industry’s profits, Other Music responded by launching its own digital music store without digital-rights management, but that wasn’t until 2007, when music retail was already in a major downward spiral, and iTunes was already dominating the online music market. Things also got worse for Other Music when corporate stores such as Best Buy had lower prices for CDs than what Other Music’s wholesalers/distributors would charge. Other Music had its own e-newsletter, and when that also shut down, the owners heard that Lou Reed was despondent over it. Other Music also launched its own record label in 2012.
Financial woes aside, Other Music’s biggest legacy is that it was a home for independent artists, many of whom weren’t mainstream enough for commercial radio or corporate chain stores. The documentary includes footage of in-store performances of artists such as Ghost, St. Vincent and Conor Oberst. Former employee Harriott says his most memorable Other Music performance was the mysterious and elusive singer/songwriter Gary Wilson, who arrived at the store with a blanket over his face. Before his performance, Wilson poured talcum powder over himself and then performed wearing 3-D glasses.
The documentary also notes that in the aftermath of 9/11, the music community in New York City became more vibrant. It was during this period of time that the New York City music scene had LCD Soundsystem, The Strokes, Interpol, The National, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Other Music helped all of these acts before they broke through to larger audiences.
Although a few people (including Josh Madell) had tears in their eyes and understandably got emotional in the final days and hours before Other Music’s last day in business, the general feeling was one of positivity over all the great experiences they had because of Other Music. There’s plenty of nostalgia and wistfulness, because the closing of Other Music represents a bygone era when most people got their music by physically going to a store and combing through racks of vinyl records, cassettes or CDs. Many of the customers interviewed in the documentary talk about how they prefer the tangible feeling of holding albums in their hands, so that they can better appreciate the artwork or lyrics that came with the packaging.
Anyone who’s spent countless hours of their lives at a music store knows that it’s become an increasingly rare experience to physically be at a store devoted to music where you can find those hidden gems or sought-out items to add to a collection. Unfortunately, the story of Other Music—and many other small, independent businesses—not being able to survive online competitors, technology’s effects or rising rent is becoming an increasingly common story.
The documentary ends with the “Other Music Forever” farewell concert that took place at the Bowery Ballroom on June 28, 2016. The event, hosted by Janeane Garofalo, included performances by Yoko Ono, Sharon Van Etten, Bill Callahan, Yo La Tengo, OM, Julianna Barwick and Frankie Cosmos. People who didn’t attend the concert can see a few snippets in the movie, as well as how Other Music co-owner Madell had to practically beg a modest Vanderloo to come up on stage.
“Other Music” co-directors Puloma Basu and Rob Hatch-Miller do a fine job of telling Other Music’s story in a cohesive and entirely conventional manner. There’s some use of animation, which can be hit-or-miss in a documentary, but it works well-enough in this movie because the animation is used sparingly. And although there are some celebrities and other world travelers who no doubt got to experience Other Music firsthand, the movie might not be compelling enough to watch for the average person who never heard of Other Music or has never even been to New York City.
And here’s why the documentary might have a challenge in finding an audience larger than those who care about a music store in New York City: Unfortunately, there are any number of beloved, independently owned music stores around the world that have closed over the years. Each store had its own unique impact on its community. Other Music just happened to be in America’s largest-populated city, so it had a bigger profile than most indie record stores. The people who have the most emotional attachment to Other Music are those who had a great experience there and/or those whose careers were affected by Other Music—and that’s a very niche audience indeed.
That’s not to say that the “Other Music” documentary isn’t worth watching, and you don’t have to be a former customer or employee to enjoy the movie. But people who never went to Other Music might have a harder time relating to and engaging in the documentary’s sentimental nostalgia over the store. The “Other Music” documentary would make a great double feature with “All Things Must Pass,” director Colin Hanks’ excellent 2015 documentary about the rise and fall of Tower Records, because, at the very least, the “Other Music” documentary shows how a scrappy underdog outlasted a corporate giant.
German filmmaker Werner Herzog has directed an eclectic array of documentaries, which feature his deliberate and thoughtful style of narration and on-camera interview techniques. “Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin” is probably one of Herzog’s most personal documentaries of his career because British writer/adventurer Bruce Chatwin, who died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 48, was one of Herzog’s good friends.
Before Chatwin died, he gave Herzog a rucksack that Chatwin had carried in his travels around the world. In the documentary, Herzog brings the rucksack and retraces a lot of Chatwin’s journeys to pay tribute to and get a better understanding of his late friend. The documentary includes voiceovers from Herzog and old recordings of Chatwin. Unlike most movies, which are divided into three acts, “Nomad” has eight chapters, all of which are titled in the film.
“Chapter One: The Skin of the Brontosaurus” has Herzog going to Patagonia, Chile, which was the subject of Chatwin’s 1977 travel book “In Patagonia.” He interviews Karin Eberhard, the great-granddaughter of 19th-century explorer Hermann Eberhard, who is credited with discovering the remains of a giant sloth. In this chapter of the documentary, Herzog goes to the Patagonia city of Punta Arenas, where he visits the Lord Lonsdale Shipwreck, as well as the grave for Charles Milward, the British consul who was a cousin of Chatwin’s grandmother Isobel. Milward reportedly gave a piece of giant sloth fur (which was sometimes mistaken for brontosaurus hide) to Isobel as a wedding gift. It was Chatwin’s dream to get a piece of a brontosaurus. In this chapter, Herzog also interviews Chatwin biographer Nicholas Shakespeare.
“Chapter Two: Landscapes of the Soul” has Herzog traveling to Avebury, Wiltshire, in England, where there is a stone many people believe has mythical force and powers. Silbury Hill was Chatwin’s “pivot, his mythical place of origin,” according to Herzog, who includes footage of tourists wearing masks over their eyes for protection from these mysterious forces. There’s also footage of how the magnetic forces work with metal prongs. Herzog also travels to Llanthony Priory in Wales, the location of where Bruce courted his wife Elizabeth, who is interviewed in this chapter.
“Bruce Chatwin was searching for strangeness,” Herzog comments in the film. He also notes that Chatwin liked Herzog’s 1969 “Signs of Life” movie with the windmills scene that Chatwin called “dangerous landscape,” according to Herzog. The filmmaker also travels to Coober Pedy, Australia, where Chatwin and Herzog first met. “We were both fascinated by Aboriginal mythology,” Herzog remembers.
“Chapter Three: Songs and Songlines” explores indigenous sounds in Australia, particularly at the Strehlow Research Centre. People interviewed in this chapter include musician Glenn Morrison and Alyawerre experts Michael Liddle Pula, Marcus Wheeler and Shawn Angeles Penange. “Our songlines are our way of contributing to the health of this planet,” says one of the Alyawerre commentators.
“Chapter Four: The Nomadic Alternative” is named for an unpublished Chatwin manuscript. Herzog travels to Tierra del Feugo in Argentina, where photos of nomads fascinated Chatwin. There’s some great footage of hand imprints on overhanging rocks that were left more than 10,000 years ago, as well as some photos of nomads, such as those showing nomads with painted bodies and a naked man lying down.
“Chapter Five: Journey to the End of the World” finds Herzog in the remote La Isla Navariono in Chile.
“Chapter Six: Chatwin’s Rucksack” has Herzog back in Patagonia, where he carries the cherished rucksack and says that in his 1991 movie “Scream of Stone,” there’s a scene with someone with a rucksack, and that scene was a tribute to Chatwin.
“Chapter Seven: Cobra Verde” is a brief behind-the-scenes commentary on Herzog’s 1987 film “Cobra Verde,” which was based on “Bruce Chatwin’s 1980 novel “The Viceroy of Ouidah.”
“Chapter Eight: The Chapter Is Closed” circles back to Chatwin’s widow Elizabeth, who candidly talks about their open marriage. She says that she didn’t care that her husband Bruce was bisexual, and that he often invited his lovers into their home. Herzog also reads from the notebook containing the last line that Chatwin ever wrote.
“Nomad” is certainly going to appeal to fans of Herzog and Chatwin, as well as people who have a general interest in world travels. This is a quintessential arthouse film, so anyone who isn’t inclined to watch an artsy documentary will find a lot of this movie too slow-moving and dull for their tastes. The cinematography (by Louis Caulfield and Mike Paterson) has many stunning moments, which is to be expected in a Herzog film.
Herzog’s dry wit is present in the movie, but the wistfulness and sadness that he feels over his dear friend’s death can also be felt in the documentary. Above all, Herzog pays respectful tribute to Chatwin in “Nomad,” and offers unique glimpses into Chatwin’s personality and intellectual curiosity in this celebration of Chatwin’s adventurous and full life.
In the documentary “What Will Become of Us,” Frank Lowy, the billionaire founder of the Westfield corporation of shopping malls, has a dilemma: Should he sell his beloved business and go into retirement, or should he keep his business, which he plans to leave to his three sons? At first glance, this might seem like a movie about “rich people’s problems.” However, Lowy (who was born in 1930) has a much more emotionally riveting and fascinating story to tell in this film, which clocks in at a brisk 75 minutes.
Lowy, who was born in the country then known as Czechoslovakia, is not a spoiled heir who was handed his wealth by a privileged parent. He literally has a “rags to riches” story as a Jewish refugee of the Nazis who invaded his country and tore his family apart. In “What Will Become of Us,” Lowy, accompanied by his biographer David Kushner, goes back to many of the sites from his childhood that still haunt him.
Growing up, Lowy was bullied and beaten up for being Jewish. His childhood experiences are still painful for him to remember, because he calls the country of his birth “a horrible place” with “sad memories.” From 1943 to 1945, Lowy and his family (his parents, his sister and his brother) lived in Budapest, Hungary. Lowy had a very close relationship with his father, who disappeared when Lowy was 14, during the Nazi occupation of Hungary. Lowy says he still grieves for his father, and he is at his most tearful in the documentary when talks about his father. Later on in the movie, Lowy finds out what finally happened to his long-lost father.
After fleeing Nazi-occupied Hungary, Lowy and his family went their separate ways. He lived in Palestine and Israel from 1946 to 1952. His sister married a lawyer in Australia, where his mother and brother eventually moved. Lowy later joined them in Australia in 1952, when he began his life as a business mogul in Sydney.
Lowy had humble beginnings in Australia, where he started off as a delivery boy. He saved up enough money to eventually buy a deli and a coffee shop, which he sold and used the money to buy real estate. His real-estate dealings evolved into the shopping-mall business that he is known for today. (In 1960, Lowy co-founded Westfield with John Saunders, who sold his interest in the company to Lowy years later.)
“What Will Become of Us” also delves into Lowy’s personal life. Married to his wife Shirley since 1964, Lowy describes their relationship as “love at first sight” for him when he met her at a Hanukkah party. He was 31, and she was 19 when they met, and they married 18 months later. It sounds like an ideal love story, but Shirley now has Alzheimer’s disease. As Frank describes it, “Physically, she’s there, but mentally she’s not.” She is interviewed in the movie, which shows some instances of her memory loss.
Frank also says that he’s been a hardcore workaholic for decades, so that might be why the documentary doesn’t really give much information about the relationships that he’s had with his three sons: Peter and Steven (the co-CEOs of Westfield) and David, a principal of the Lowy Family Group. All three sons are interviewed in the movie, but they don’t reveal anything about the family dynamics in running the business or how they deal with each other on a personal level. Although Frank is shown being a devoted husband tending to Shirley, one has to wonder how small of a fraction of time that is for him, compared to all the time he admits to spending on his business.
At the beginning of the movie, Frank says it’s “painful” for him to open up negotiations to sell Westfield. If you follow corporate business news, then you know what his decision was on whether or not to sell the company. “What Will Become of Us” isn’t really a window into how Westfield is run, but it’s a fairly effective attempt to make billionaire Frank Lowy look more human and emotionally vulnerable than the ruthless image that corporate moguls like him tend to have.
Wynn Handman might not be a household name, but as an acting teacher and as a co-founder/artistic director of the American Place Theatre in New York City, he’s had an enormous influence on numerous actors who are world-famous and/or highly respected. This talky documentary takes an in-depth, sometimes overly fawning look at Handman’s accomplishments. Even though there’s an impressive array of famous actors who share the experiences they’ve had with Handman, be prepared to sit through a documentary where there’s plenty of interviews and archival photos but unfortunately not enough archival film footage to make it a more vibrant film.
Handman, who was born in 1922, is also interviewed in “It Takes a Lunatic.” He describes his childhood growing up in Manhattan’s Inwood neighborhood as happy. He wanted to be in the Navy, but enrolled in the Coast Guard instead. As a mentor/leader in the profession of acting, Handman is described as both “rough and tumble” and “intellectual” by past colleagues. The movie describes Handman has having two lives and two legacies: first as an acting teacher and later as artistic director of the off-Broadway American Palace Theatre.
The celebrities who give testimonials about Handman as an acting coach or American Place Theatre artistic director include Richard Gere, Alec Baldwin, Susan Lucci, Michael Douglas, James Caan, Chris Cooper, Marianne Leone Cooper, Andre Bishop, Connie Britton, Lauren Graham, John Leguizamo and Aasif Mandiv. Lucci says that as an acting coach, Handman was “so encouraging, never destructive.” Baldwin adds that Handman “never gave someone a critique they couldn’t handle.”
After years as a successful acting teacher, Handman took a big career risk by co-founding the American Place Theatre in 1963, with Sidney Lanier and Michael Tolan, at the location that formerly housed St. Clement’s Church in midtown Manhattan. Handman was told that “it would take a lunatic” to operate this unusual theater, because it was a non-profit company, and its business model was to make money from customer subscriptions, not from individual ticket sales. This uncommon approach to operating a theater allowed Handman and the other theater decision makers to take more artistic risks in the theater’s productions, since the sales were already pre-paid through subscriptions.
The American Place’s first full production in 1964 was “The Old Glory,” a trilogy of one-acts by poet Robert Lowell and starring Frank Langella. “The Old Glory” ended up winning five Obie Awards, including Best American Play and Best Actor for Langella. Another notable production in the American Place’s early years was 1967’s “La Turista,” a two-act play by Sam Shepard and starring Sam Waterston and Joyce Aaron. (The documentary includes an interview with Shepard, who died in 2017.)
But the American Place was also known for controversy. Ronald Ribman’s 1965 play “Harry, Noon and Night,” starring Dustin Hoffman as a transvestite Nazi, was also controversial, mostly because the play had a live decapitation of a chicken. After those live beheadings sparked a lot of public outrage, the play switched to using fake chickens. “The Cannibals,” George Tabori’s 1974 play about the Holocaust, was one of the American Place’s most divisive productions. The documentary points out that the play was more controversial in the United States than it was in Germany. In the documentary, Handman remembers getting a lot of hate mail every time the American Place was embroiled in controversy.
The words “true,” “truth” and “truthful” are used a lot in the documentary to describe Handman and the people he inspired. Eric Bogosian, whose third one-man play “Drinking in America” was produced by the American Place, says of Handman: “He’s not a lunatic. He’s a true believer.”
Even with interviews and testimonials that talk about all the brilliant work that Handman can take a lot of credit for influencing, there simply isn’t enough filmed footage of a lot of these stage productions. Plays, rehearsals and acting classes in Handman’s heyday were usually not filmed for posterity, so it’s not director Billy Lyons’ fault that still photos are the main visuals he has to work with to show what people are discussing in the documentary. (And thankfully, Lyons chose not to film re-enactments for “It Take a Lunatic,” which is his first feature film.) Perhaps “It Take a Lunatic” would have been better-suited as a podcast instead of a movie.
The lack of archival film footage isn’t the documentary’s shortcoming. By putting Handman on such a high pedestal, the documentary feels like it was made by a star-struck fan instead of a more objective filmmaker. For example, the controversy that Handman created with some of American Place’s productions is acknowledged in the film, but the movie doesn’t interview any of Handman’s critics, rivals or people he inevitably alienated in his career. The constant praise of Handman is repetitive and the movie’s slow pace make the documentary duller than it needs to be.
“It Takes a Lunatic” should be commended for gathering so many well-respected actors to share their admiration of Handman, but the documentary probably won’t be very appealling to people who have no interest in acting or theater productions.
Netflix will premiere “It Takes a Lunatic” on a date to be announced.
The documentary “Seahorse,” which is about a pregnant transgender man, gets its name because male (not female) seahorses are the ones who carry and give birth to seahorse babies. The pregnant transgender man in “Seahorse” is Alfred “Freddy” McConnell, a 30-year-old office worker from England, who decides to become a parent and decides that getting pregnant is faster than going through the adoption process. Freddy (who identifies as a gay transgender man) has a live-in transgender boyfriend named CJ Bruce, who plans to help Freddy raise the child. With a ticking biological clock, Freddy goes through the process of in vitro fertilization, even though he dreads taking the female hormones that will help him get pregnant.
Freddy, who lived between the cities of London and Deal, says that he always wanted to be a parent, and he came out as transgender when he was in college. Raised primarily by a single mother, he describes her as “a massive extrovert with a family of introverts.” Freddy’s mother, Esme Chilton, is supportive of him being transgender. However, Freddy’s estranged father (who split from Freddy’s mother when Freddy was about 8 years old) is having a difficult time accepting that he has a transgender son, and Freddy is afraid to tell his father that he’s pregnant. Childhood photos of Freddy show him to be a tomboyish child. At an early age, Freddy said that he didn’t like to wear dresses and felt that he was trapped in the wrong gender.
Because Freddy is introverted and because his closest family member is supportive of him, “Seahorse” is a quiet movie that doesn’t have a lot of drama and conflict. His IVF treatments don’t work right away, so he doesn’t get pregnant until halfway through the movie. Waiting this long in the movie to show Freddy finally becoming pregnant is a curious choice that director Jeanie Finlay made—and it has mixed results. On the one hand, it’s a realistic portrayal of how IVF treatments are rarely effective the first time they are taken. But on the other hand, this is a documentary about a pregnant man, so it drags down the pace of the film to wait until the halfway mark of the movie to show his pregnancy. The process of choosing a sperm donor and the disappointment of failed IVF treatments should have absolutely been included in the film, but better editing would have put all of that in the first third of the movie, not let it go on and on for half of the film.
Freddy goes through a lot of personal angst due to the pregnancy’s effects on his hormones—but, for the most part, he’s not ostracized in his community (because he keeps his pregnancy such a secret) and there are no scenes of him getting strange stares from people. That’s because Freddy goes to great lengths to hide his pregnancy to the outside world. He still dresses as a man, but he wears baggier clothes so that it doesn’t look like he’s pregnant. At one point in the movie, he confesses that he hasn’t told his co-workers and male friends about his pregnancy, and he has taken a leave of absence from his job. In the later stages of the pregnancy, Freddy and his mother relocate to a fairly remote area in Spain, after she spontaneously buys a home there. It’s a convenient move, since Freddy doesn’t have to face any nosy neighbors he might have had in England.
Because Freddy feels like a man, he’s also dealing with the psychological issues of going to back to the feminine physical characteristics that he wanted to get away from as a transgender man. His hips have become rounder, and his breasts are starting to become bigger. As his body goes through these changes, Freddy says, “My appetite has plummeted, my libido has plummeted. I feel softer inside, and I want to talk about my feelings more.”
As Freddy says later in the movie, “If all men got pregnant, pregnancy would be taken more seriously.” Still, because he doesn’t want to have the female biological characteristics that come with pregnancy, he says, “I feel like a fucking alien.” Over a dinner gathering with his mother and some of her friends, the conversation gets a little uncomfortable when one of his mother’s female friends admits that she thinks transgender issues are confusing.
The biggest problem with “Seahorse” is that because the movie takes place in the context of a pregnant man who largely wants to keep his pregnancy a secret, there’s no bigger “real world” insight into what really happens when a transgender man gets pregnant and isn’t afraid to let everyone in his life know about it. Although it’s a much more difficult path to be completely open about this type of pregnancy rather than to keep it a secret, it would also be helpful for people to see a transgender man publicly take those brave steps during the pregnancy in order to lessen the stigma over this type of pregnancy.
Freddy is very isolated from people during his pregnancy; except for CJ, he’s rarely seen with people his own age in this documentary. Even though it’s great that Freddy’s mother thinks he’s “brave,” and she is “in awe of him” for being in this unusual situation, it would have been better to see the reactions of people in Freddy’s world outside his very small inner circle. It’s understandable that Freddy would be afraid to tell people about his pregnancy—and he certainly would have gotten some backlash and criticism from bigots—but his fear could have robbed him of finding out who are the truly compassionate people in his life. The people who accept him as a transgender man are also likely to accept him as a parent. Freddy gives birth at the end of the movie, but “Seahorse” feels almost like a “to be continued” film, because it remains to be seen how Freddy handles the challenges of raising his child, knowing that his unusual pregnancy has been documented for the world to see.
Tragically, there have been several mass shootings in the U.S. before and after the shooting massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on February 14, 2018. But the Parkland shootings (which killed 17 people) will be remembered as the flashpoint for an unprecedented movement of young people against gun violence. The documentary “After Parkland” shows how some of the more well-known Parkland survivors coped with the tragedy in the months after the shooting, and how they channeled their grief into passionate activism.
The documentary features some of the former Parkland students who have been at the forefront of this activism. They include survivors David Hogg, Victoria Gonzalez, Sam Zeiff and Dillon McCooty. Also included are parents Manuel Oliver (whose son Joaquin was murdered in the shooting) and Andrew Pollack (whose daughter Meadow was also a Parkland murder victim).
Zeiff, who turned 18 the day after the massacre, says in the documentary that his boss told him after the tragedy, “You don’t look like a kid anymore.” Gonzalez, who was Joaquin Oliver’s girlfriend, turns to Joaquin’s best friend McCooty for support, and vice versa. Gonzalez and McCooty end up going to their prom together, as a tribute to Joaquin. She wore a flower crown with flowers from the first bouquet that Joaquin gave her.
The grief, anger and resilience over the shootings are felt throughout the entire documentary. One of the most emotionally powerful moments in the film is when Manuel Oliver, who is an artist, did an art installation that showed Joaquin in a graduation cap and gown carrying a certificate of death instead of a diploma, with a red stain of spray paint, signifying blood from a gunshot wound. Manuel Oliver and his wife, Patricia, have started an anti-gun-violence, non-profit organization called Change the Ref, in memory of their slain son Joaquin.
The documentary also takes a behind-the-scenes look at the March for Our Lives event on March 24, 2018. The event, which was organized largely by Parkland survivors, had its flagship rally in Washington, D.C., but there were hundreds of other March for Our Lives rallies around the world that were part of the event.
“After Parkland” also gives an up-close look at how some of the high-profile and outspoken student survivors have been handling their sudden thrust into the media spotlight—and the criticism they have been getting from some people who say that these survivors have become activists for fame and money. Hogg in particular has become a media darling, as well as a target for extreme right-wing groups that have called shooting survivors and their parents “bad actors.”
We see in the documentary why Hogg has been all over the media: He has a hard time saying “no” to interviews when he’s surrounded by reporters, and his protective mother often has to step in and put a limit on the media interviews that he does. His passion and his eloquent speaking skills make it clear why he’s one of the unofficial leaders of this Parkland movement, and what he’s fighting for isn’t just a “phase” or a “fad” for him and other Parkland survivor activists.
“After Parkland” co-directors Emily Taguchi and Jake Lefferman are directors/producers of ABC’s “Nightline,” so the documentary (which is backed by ABC News) looks more like a TV production than something that was made for movie theaters. And if you’re a news junkie who’s followed what the Parkland survivors and their family and allies have been doing since the shooting, then you probably won’t find out anything new by watching this documentary. But no matter how people feel about gun laws, “After Parkland” is a rallying cry for those who want to do something about preventing more of these tragedies from happening, instead of just hoping that the problem will just go away.
“Circus of Books” is a truly unique documentary that tells the behind-the-scenes story of Circus of Books, the Los Angeles-based company that got most of its profits through gay male pornography and operated multiple stores and a production company. Circus of Books—which had the same owners from 1982 and until the business closed in February 2019—was literally a “mom and pop” operation, since the business was owned by married couple Karen and Barry Mason, who are the parents of three children. Their middle child, Rachel, directed this film to chronicle the history of Circus of Books and the last days before the business shut down.
Rachel takes the Werner Herzog/Michael Moore documentarian approach of being the narrator, on-camera interviewer and one of the stars of the movie. The documentary begins by showing the history of the bookstore before the Masons owned it. The LGBTQ activist Black Cat demonstration in 1967 in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood preceded the Stonewall demonstrations in New York City by two years, but both were important events in gay civil rights that had similarities, because both were sparked by LGBTQ people fighting back against police harassment and raids of gay nightclubs.
The Black Cat nightclub and the New Faces nightclub were part of the Los Angeles gay nightlife scene in the 1960s. New Faces would eventually become the gay bookstore Book Circus. When Book Circus went out of business, the Masons took it over and renamed the space Circus of Books, which carried a wide array of family-friendly inventory, but it was outsold by what was in the adult section of the store. So how did this straight Jewish couple end up in the gay porn business?
Karen, whom many people in the documentary describe as bossy and domineering, started off as a criminal-justice journalist, who worked for publications for the Wall Street Journal (in the Chicago bureau) and the Cincinnati Enquirer. Barry, who’s described as gentle and laid-back, used to work at the University of California at Los Angeles’ film department in the mid-1960s, when the Doors members Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek were briefly students there, before the Doors became a world-famous rock band. Barry worked in special effects and had credits that included the original “Star Trek” series.
Barry applied his skills in special effects to invent dialysis equipment in the early years of his marriage to Karen. The couple then went into the business together to sell the equipment and were doing well financially. But then they made the mistake of selling the rights to the equipment, and they began to have financial hardships. It was during this challenging time in their marriage that Karen saw an ad seeking distributors for porn magazines. She answered the ad, thinking that it was a temporary way to make money until they could become more financially stable.
When the owner of the West Hollywood store Book Circus was facing eviction because he wasn’t paying his rent, Barry jumped at the chance to take over the business, and he and Karen changed the name of the store to Circus of Books. The business became so successful that they opened a second location in the Silver Lake neighborhood in 1985. (The Silver Lake location closed in 2016.) A third Circus of Books location opened in Sherman Oaks in the late 1980s, but lasted for only two years; it was shut down because of too many neighborhood complaints about the store’s adult content and the clientele it attracted. The Masons further expanded the business by starting a gay porn film production company. Porn star Jeff Stryker, porn director Matt Sterling and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt are among the Masons’ former colleagues who are interviewed in the movie.
Karen describes herself as religious, while Barry says that he’s not. (Because of their differing views on religion, she calls their relationship a “mixed marriage.”) Even though she and Barry made their living from hardcore porn, Karen says she never really liked to see any of the porn that they sold. She also didn’t want to hear details about the cruising and sexual activities that were going on at Circus of Books. (In 1989, the city of West Hollywood ordered that the store shut down between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., in response to complaints about hustlers at Circus of Books.) Karen’s ability to separate her religious beliefs from her business activities is demonstrated in a scene where she goes to a convention for sex toys and looks over products in a sales-minded, detached manner. It’s almost like she’s the owner of a hardware store who’s shopping for tools and pondering the sales value of what she might buy.
Past and present store employees say that even though Karen never really watched the porn that she sold, what she did watch closely was the financial accounting for the business, and she was a strict “taskmaster” boss, while Barry was more likely to give their employees some slack if they made a mistake. In the years before the Internet changed the porn industry, business was booming for Circus of Books.
Things also began to change for Circus of Books in 1993, when the Masons were busted for transporting obscene material across state lines, due to the mail-order part of their business. The FBI got involved, but the parents kept their legal problems hidden from their three kids. Even though Bill Clinton’s election as U.S. president meant that new prosecutors were appointed to the Masons’ case, the case wasn’t dismissed until 1995. The legal turmoil that the Masons went through had repercussions on the business for many years to come.
As the director of the documentary, Rachel is shown on camera interviewing people—including Circus of Books employees; her parents; and her older and younger brother. Viewers get to see some of their family dynamics, as Rachel (who describes herself as an artistic free spirit) tries to figure out how her parents’ unusual line of work might have affected their family. Rachel doesn’t really interrogate as much as have conversations with the people involved in the business.
On the one hand, the family is disappointed that they have to close Circus of Books—the rise of Internet porn and gay dating apps such as Grindr essentially made Circus of Books an obsolete business. On the other hand, the business was losing so much money in its last few years (plus, Karen and Barry Mason were getting ready to retire anyway) that shuttering the business is almost a relief for the family.
What viewers won’t be seeing in this documentary are explicit scenes of gay porn, nor will they see undercover video of people cruising at Circus of Books, although there are some people interviewed in the film who talk about their cruising experiences. What’s more surprising (and revealing) is how someone as conservative and religious as Karen lasted as long as she did in the gay porn business. It’s clear from watching the film that she saw the business only as a means to make money to provide a comfortable life for her family. She didn’t see the customers as “family,” only as part of the business.
That emotional detachment explains why Karen had a difficult time coming to terms with her homophobia when her youngest child, Josh (Rachel’s younger brother) came out as gay when he was in college. (By contrast, Barry was more accepting of Josh’s sexual orientation.) In the documentary, Josh talks about the anguish of keeping his sexuality a secret. And in case anyone is ignorant enough to think his parents’ line of work made him gay, Josh reiterates that he would be gay regardless of what his parents did for a living. According to the documentary, Karen and Barry apparently went to great lengths not to expose their children to the gay porn they sold when the children were growing up, and they kept the type of business they did a secret for many years from their children and people in their straight community. In the years before the Internet existed, it was easier to keep this type of secret.
Growing up, Josh was considered the “perfect” child who excelled in school, but he was afraid to come out as gay because he knew it would upset his mother. The irony is not lost on Rachel, who confronts her mother about the hypocrisy of making a living from gay customers and yet not be willing to accept that one of her children is part of the gay community too. The documentary points out that it took years for Karen to be at the place where she is now: a proud member of PFLAG, the organization for parents, families and friends of lesbians and gays.
“Circus of Books” is a low-budget film that keeps the production values very basic in telling the story. There’s no fancy editing or arty cinematography. The movie also strikes the right balance between showing touches humor but not at the expense of addressing serious topics, such as the effect that the AIDS crisis had on numerous Circus of Books customers and employees. On the surface, the movie is about a gay porn business and how it affected the gay social scene in Los Angeles. But underneath the surface, this documentary is really about how this “mom and pop” business affected the family who owned it.
Netflix will premiere “Circus of Books” on a date to be announced.
The documentary film “I Want My MTV” should come with a warning that the movie is primarily the story of MTV’s first decade in the 1980s. Even with that narrow view, the film misses the mark in many areas. The documentary relies too heavily on the words of the self-congratulatory executives who founded MTV, instead of taking a more responsible, investigative approach and seeking out a more diverse array of perspectives of people who are also part of MTV’s history. The film delivers if you want a predictable and superficial ride down memory lane—commentary on artists and old music videos are expected—but this documentary glosses over and ignores a lot of MTV’s real history.
The story of MTV (Music Television) has been already told in several books, news reports and articles. The network had humble beginnings, because it had a tiny start-up budget, and many people (including a few of its early executives) thought MTV was a bad idea that would fail. MTV’s early network-identification promo video that had NASA footage of the 1969 moon landing was prompted out of necessity because the footage was in the public domain (in other words, free), and MTV couldn’t really afford a fancy ad campaign at the time. Launched on August 1, 1981, MTV started out as a 24-hour music network that initially wasn’t even available in a lot of big cities, such as New York, where MTV is headquartered.
MTV’s lack of availability on many cable systems was the impetus for the famous “I Want My MTV” ad campaign where major artists (such as Mick Jagger, Billy Idol, Cyndi Lauper, Boy George, The Police, David Bowie and The Who’s Pete Townshend) said the “I Want My MTV” slogan on camera, and urged people to call their local cable companies to add MTV to their channel lineups. Les Garland, who used to be a programming executive at MTV, takes credit for getting Jagger to do an “I Want My MTV” spot, by essentially convincing the money-minded Jagger that he would be filming a promotional video, not an ad. As a joke, Garland said he paid Jagger just $1 after the spot was filmed.
MTV’s music library also started off very small, as most of the initial videos available were from British artists (who were used to making music videos for shows like “Top of the Pops”) or American artists whose music videos usually consisted of cheaply filmed live performances with the studio recordings dubbed in post-production. The first two videos played on MTV exemplified these types of clips: the futuristic “Video Killed the Radio Star” from The Buggles (a British New Wave band) and the simple performance clip “You Better Run” from Pat Benatar, who was America’s top female rock star at the time.
Several artists who became popular on MTV in the early ‘80s are interviewed in the documentary, such as Benatar and her guitarist/husband Neil Geraldo; Idol; Sting (co-founder of The Police); Eurythmics members Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart; REO Speedwagon lead singer Kevin Cronin; and Devo lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh. Also interviewed are two of MTV’s original VJs: Mark Goodman (a radio vet who describes his MTV audition process as “a little creepy” because it was in a hotel room, not a TV studio) and Alan Hunter, a self-described failed actor who got the job, despite having a “terrible” audition and no experience in broadcasting or the music industry. (MTV’s other original VJs—Nina Blackwood and Martha Quinn—are not interviewed, although there is archival footage of all the original VJs in the documentary. J.J. Jackson, another original MTV VJ, died of heart attack in 2004, at the age of 62.)
To its credit, the documentary does not shy away from the controversy over MTV’s programming decisions. In its first two years, the network was frequently accused of racism for not playing enough black artists. MTV’s all-white first executive team—which included John Lack, Bob Pittman, Gail Sparrow, Fred Seibert, Tom Freston, Judy McGrath, John Sykes and Andrew Setos (Garland joined MTV later, after he had a long stint in radio)—are all interviewed in this documentary. Various excuses are given for excluding top-selling black artists from MTV’s playlists in the network’s early years.
One frequently given excuse is that the original concept of MTV was that it was supposed to be a rock’n’roll music channel. However, it’s a weak excuse because among the few black artists played on MTV in its early years were non-rock acts such as Musical Youth, Eddy Grant and Herbie Hancock. Meanwhile, bigger artists such as Michael Jackson, Prince, Rick James and Earth, Wind & Fire were being ignored by MTV.
The documentary includes a clip from the notorious 1983 MTV interview that Bowie did with Goodman, where Bowie asks Goodman why so few black artists are played on MTV. Goodman uncomfortably explains that too many black artists on MTV might scare the audience, especially those in “middle America.” It’s an incredibly racist belief, not to mention a condescending insult that wrongfully stereotypes people in the Midwest as automatically more racist than people who live on the East Coast and West Coast. Bowie’s withering stare and curt response in the interview speak volumes of his disgust. In the documentary, a present-day Goodman admits to being embarrassed about the interview all these years later, and he offers a sheepish apology for it.
The Bowie/Goodman interview exposed the mentality of MTV executives at the time, but the former MTV executives interviewed for this documentary who were in charge of making those decisions are still indignant and in denial over their racism. It’s not too surprising, because people who want to be thought of as “liberal” and “open-minded” don’t want to admit on camera that they’ve been racist. The former MTV executives are quick to pat themselves on the back in this documentary (Sparrow calls herself and the other executives “trend-setters, risk-takers and rebels”), but they don’t properly acknowledge their old-fashioned bigoted beliefs that prevented a lot of people of color from being part of MTV in its early years.
One example of this hypocrisy is when Sparrow, with hatred still etched on her face, talks about how Rick James’ “Super Freak” video was unacceptable to MTV at the time because James reminded her of a pimp and she didn’t like the way women were portrayed in the video. Yet, she doesn’t mention that MTV was willing to play videos from numerous (white) heavy-metal bands that often showed women in much more degrading scenarios, such as barely clothed or locked up in cages. Maybe MTV executives like Sparrow just didn’t like to see a music video of a black man being a sex symbol with women of different races. James was an outspoken critic of MTV at the time for not playing enough black artists, so it’s likely that MTV also had an unofficial ban on James, out of spite.
One of the most irresponsible parts of the “I Want My MTV” documentary is how it fails to give the full story of how Michael Jackson broke the racial barrier at MTV. Pittman tries to rewrite MTV history in this documentary by saying about the racism accusations: “Michael Jackson single-handedly pulled us out of that controversy,” and that it was MTV’s idea to “start courting Michael Jackson.” He also makes it sound like MTV had the vision to play Jackson’s videos right when his “Thriller” album was hitting big. What Pittman and the documentary did not talk about was the well-documented fact that CBS/Epic Records (namely, record-label chief Walter Yetnikoff) demanded that MTV play Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video or else the record company would boycott MTV. When MTV caved in, and saw that Jackson became the network’s most-requested artist, that opened the doors for more black artists to be played on MTV.
Yetnikoff, who was not interviewed for this documentary, told more details about this controversy in his 2001 memoir, “Howling at the Moon,” as well as in several media interviews. His credible account of MTV playing Michael Jackson only after MTV was threatened with a boycott has also been verified by numerous non-MTV people in the music industry who were involved at the time, none of whom are interviewed in this documentary.
The movie mentions that as MTV’s popularity grew in the 1980s, tensions grew between MTV and record companies because the record companies eventually wanted MTV to pay licensing fees for the videos. However, this documentary did not interview anyone who worked at record companies at the time to give their perspective. Video-promotion executives, who were on the front lines of music-industry relations with MTV, are shamefully left out of this documentary. Unlike some big-name artists, these past and present record-company executives are not that hard to get for interviews, so not including them in this film just shows that these documentary filmmakers were too lazy to get this valuable insight or they just didn’t care.
And even though “I Want My MTV” addresses the issue of MTV excluding many top-selling black artists in the network’s early years, ironically, the documentary does some noticeable racial excluding of its own, since no women of color are interviewed in the documentary at all. The movie focuses primarily on MTV in the ‘80s, so it’s mind-boggling that black female artists who had an impact on MTV in the ‘80s—such as Tina Turner, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston and Salt-N-Pepa—are erased from this documentary’s long list of artists who get some kind of spotlight in the movie.
No disrespect to Tegan and Sara (who were never really big artists on MTV but are interviewed in this documentary anyway), but there are plenty of women of color who were more influential in MTV’s history who could have been interviewed for this documentary but weren’t. The few people of color in this film who are interviewed are black men who talk about hip-hop or “Yo! MTV Raps”: Fab 5 Freddy, Ed Lover and Run-DMC’s Darryl McDaniel, who says that Run-DMC was probably the first popular MTV rap act because Run-DMC incorporated a lot of rock music in its songs.
MTV’s influence in hard rock/heavy-metal’s popularity in the mid-to-late 1980s—as well as many of the genre’s sexist videos that got heavy airtime on MTV—are also addressed in the documentary. On the one hand, former MTV executive McGrath says that all that sexist content was “demoralizing.” On the other hand, she and other executives were responsible for choosing to give it so much airtime on MTV. Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” video (which shows model Bobbie Brown being blasted with a fire hose by members of the band wearing firefighter hats) is mentioned in the documentary as an example of the types of MTV-approved rock videos where women were frequently treated as nothing more than playthings and props. Poison lead singer Bret Michaels, who’s interviewed in the documentary, says the popular MTV videos that Poison made were all in good fun.
Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson offers a different perspective of how the testosterone-fueled, often-sexist hard rock videos that MTV favored had an effect on her own career. She and her lead-singer sister Ann Wilson (who co-founded the rock band Heart) became successful with Heart in the mid-‘70s, when they didn’t have to wear revealing clothing to sell records. But by the mid-‘80s, Heart’s record company was pressuring them to make sexpot videos with cleavage-baring outfits that the Wilson sisters say they now regret doing. Nancy Wilson says that a lot of that pressure was because of MTV’s preference of showing rock videos with scantily clad women.
Music-video directors are given minimal scrutiny in the documentary. Mark Pellington, an early MTV hire, is interviewed, and says he was hired even though he had no experience at the time. A few music-video directors who went on to become major film directors are barely mentioned in the documentary, such as David Fincher and Michael Bay. However, the film does talk about how Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video (directed by John Landis) was a game-changer that impacted how videos were made, as budgets became larger and concepts became more elaborate.
In addition to “Thriller,” other music videos that are mentioned as the most-influential of the 1980s include a-ha’s “Take on Me,” Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” and Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.” And although there are numerous artists whose careers were boosted because their videos got played on MTV, the documentary mentions that a few artists had their careers damaged by this exposure. Billy Squier is singled out in particular, for his 1984 “Rock Me Tonite” video (in which he awkwardly dances and slithers around in a “Flashdance”-styled ripped tank top), which ruined his rock credibility, and his career was never the same.
The documentary shows that the end of MTV’s ’80s golden era was around 1987, when some of the original team of network executives and VJs began to leave. It was also around this time that MTV began introducing more non-music programs, such as the game show “Remote Control,” which had a then-unknown Adam Sandler as a cast member.
As former MTV executive Freston says in the documentary, reality TV was “a blessing and a curse” for MTV. Grammy-winning musician Jack Antonoff adds that he (just like many other people who grew up with MTV) became frustrated with the decrease in music content on MTV over the years. The documentary also interviews OK Go, Good Charlotte twins Benji and Joel Madden and indie rock twins Tegan and Sara to offer their perspectives of musicians who were toddlers or weren’t even born when MTV was launched. (By 2010, MTV removed the words “music television” from its logo.)
One of the biggest flaws in the documentary is how it barely mentions the impact of the annual MTV Video Music Awards, which launched in 1984. Many of MTV’s biggest pop-culture moments came from the MTV VMAs. Perhaps the filmmakers couldn’t get the rights to a lot of VMA footage, but that shouldn’t have prevented the documentary from giving more time to discuss the VMAs, other than a passing mention.
Because the focus of “I Want My MTV” is so heavily concentrated on 1980s-era MTV, the documentary breezes through mentions of MTV’s post-1980s programming, such as “The Real World,” “Singled Out” and “Jersey Shore.” Artists who became popular on MTV after the ‘80s are barely acknowledged, so don’t expect to see anything significant about Eminem, Nirvana, the Spice Girls, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Sean Combs, Jennifer Lopez, Kanye West, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears or any boy bands. Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell and Tori Amos are among the few ’90s-era artists who are interviewed in the documentary. It’s briefly mentioned at the end of the film that YouTube (which launched in 2005) has significantly decreased MTV’s influence, and YouTube is now the main outlet where people see music videos.
“I Want My MTV” could have been a better documentary if directors Tyler Measom and Patrick Waldrop didn’t let the film be dominated by executives who haven’t worked at MTV in years, and if the filmmakers included a wider variety of people whose careers were also significantly impacted by MTV. In order to do a truly comprehensive history of MTV, the documentary probably should have been an episodic series instead of a feature-length film. “I Want My MTV” also comes at a time when a lot of people don’t want MTV, because the network just isn’t that relevant to pop culture as it was in the 1980s and 1990s. But for people nostalgic about MTV’s glory days and looking for a thorough examination of MTV’s history, this documentary is ultimately an incomplete disappointment with a lot of valuable perspectives shut out of the film.
A&E will premiere “I Want My MTV” on a date to be announced.