Review: ‘La Guerra Civil,’ starring Julio César Chávez and Oscar De La Hoya

January 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Julio César Chávez and Oscar De La Hoya in “La Guerra Civil” (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

“La Guerra Civil”

Directed by Eva Longoria Bastón

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in primarily in the United States and Mexico, the documentary film “La Guerra Civil” features a predominantly Latino group of people (with some white people) discussing the rivalry and careers of world champion boxers Julio César Chávez and Oscar De La Hoya.

Culture Clash:  Chávez and De La Hoya, who faced off in two championship matches in 1996 and 1998, represented two aspects of Mexican-rooted culture (native Mexicans for Chávez, Mexican Americans for De La Hoya), which affected the type of fan support and images that each boxer had.

Culture Audience: “La Guerra Civil” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in movies about boxing and how ethnicity plays a role in athletes’ identities and public perceptions.

Oscar De La Hoya in “La Guerra Civil” (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

“La Guerra Civil” goes beyond the usual clichés of boxing documentaries, by taking a candid look at how Julio César Chávez’s Mexican identity and Oscar De La Hoya’s Mexican American identity shaped their championship careers. It’s a traditionally made documentary that doesn’t really break any new ground in cinematic techniques, but the content of the story is meaningful because it shines a light on how ethnicity and nationality have a massive effect on how people feel about a public figure. The movie also vividly describes the conflicts (both internal and external) that can arise when someone identifies as a member of two different countries. Chávez and De La Hoya both participated in “La Guerra Civil,” which had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

“La Guerra Civil” (which means “The Civil War” in Spanish) is the feature-film directorial debut of Eva Longoria Bastón, a Mexican American who is an ideal person to tell this story because she’s lived many of the experiences described in the documentary. There is an authenticity to how this story is told that cannot be replicated by a documentary director who can’t relate to the main subjects of the film. “La Guerra Civil” is not told in complete chronological order, but the engaging editing makes the storytelling easy to follow.

Longoria Bastón conducted the main interviews (she can sometimes be heard off-camera asking follow-up questions), and she made the wise decision not to overstuff the movie with too many talking heads. Because much of the archival footage consists of boxing matches that were already televised, there aren’t many surprises in what’s shown in the documentary, except for some childhood photos or videos of Chávez and De La Hoya. The real value in “La Guerra Civil” is how these two former champs open up about how their past rivalry was bigger than a boxing title: It was a reflection of how people of Latino (especially Mexican) heritage felt about themselves.

“La Guerra Civil” dutifully covers a lot of biography basics that fans of Chávez and De La Hoya might already know but people unfamiliar with boxing might not know. Born in 1962, Chávez grew up very poor in his hometown of Ciudad Obregón, Sonora, Mexico. He had four brothers and five sisters; their father was a railroad worker.

In the documentary, Chávez reveals boxing wasn’t even his favorite sport as a child. He says that at the time, “I liked to play soccer, baseball and volleyball. I liked everything except boxing, because I had two brothers who started boxing before me. ” He adds, “I never thought I’d become a world champion.”

Chávez remembers one of his motivations to start boxing was after he got beaten up by a girl when he was an adolescent. At 16 years old, Chávez eventually got interested in boxing as a way to make money for the family, but he initially had to keep his training a secret from his mother, who disapproved of another one of her sons getting into boxing.

Chávez’s mother, whom he describes as kind and nurturing, eventually approved of his boxing activities when she and the rest of the family saw how talented he was and how his boxing earnings could benefit the family. He relocated from Culiacán to Tijuana to train as a professional boxer. (Hall of Fame boxing trainer Ignacio Beristán gives some background on how Tijuana is an important training ground for Mexican boxers.) Chávez’s “rags to riches” story made him a boxing hero to many, especially those coming from disenfranchised and underprivileged backgrounds.

By contrast, De La Hoya came from a family of boxers (his father, grandfather and brother), and he was pushed into boxing from an early age by his father. “I was forced into it,” De La Hoya says in the documentary. De La Hoya began competing in amateur boxing matches when he was 6 years old. This self-described “scrawny kid” would often bring down opponents who were a lot more muscular and more experienced than he was.

Born in Los Angeles in 1973, De La Hoya is the son of Mexican immigrants, whom De La Hoya says made their household more of a Mexican household than an American household. But because he was a first-generation American, De La Hoya was able to experience and represent both Mexican and American cultures, including being fluent in Spanish and English. Although Chávez and De La Hoya both say that they grew up in rough neighborhoods, De La Hoya’s East Los Angeles neighborhood was decidedly more middle-class than Chávez’s destitute La Redonda neighborhood in Culiacán.

De La Hoya says his first memory of boxing was the boxing fights that would take place for fun in the garage of his uncle. When De La Hoya was about 5 years old, he was ordered to fight one of his older cousins. De La Hoya vividly recalls the fear and humiliation he felt when he lost the fight and how it motivated him to beat the cousin in a rematch.

Golden Boy Promotions president Eric Gómez, who’s been a friend of De La Hoya’s since their childhood, remembers that De La Hoya’s childhood revolved around boxing: “He [could] play for a little while, but when his dad would come out of work, it was time for [Oscar] to go to the gym.” Sports journalist Ron Borges compares De La Hoya to Tiger Woods, in how both athletes had hard-driving fathers who gave them no choice but to train in their respective sports at an age when most children are in kindergarten. “Little Oscar was a business commodity for his father,” Borges comments.

De La Hoya describes these early experiences in terms of how they influenced his career and how he approached boxing. He says that his boxing career was often about him feeling underestimated and wanting to prove his skeptics wrong. Although De La Hoya reached the heights of professional boxing, he makes it clear that it was with constant criticism from many people who thought that he “wasn’t Mexican enough.”

His good looks and the media’s “The Golden Boy” nickname of De La Hoya also made him the target of ridicule by people who thought he was too handsome and too Hollywood to be taken seriously. It’s mentioned several times in “La Guerra Civil” that at public appearances, De La Hoya would get just as many cheers and he would get boos from audiences.

Several of the people interviewed in the documentary discuss at length why Chávez got such unwavering public adoration in Mexican communities, while reactions to De La Hoya were decidedly more mixed. Boxing commentator Eduardo Lamazón says, “Chávez was a man of the people, of the slums. He was raised like many Mexicans, eating the same food as they did, listening to the same music. And he boxed like a Mexican too.” Boxing journalist Jose Luis Camarillo adds, “Chávez was a god. He was the star of the show.”

Sports reporter Claudio Trejos describes a common perception: “For the die-hard boxing fan, Oscar’s just a pretty boy from East Los Angeles. He’s not a real Mexican.” It’s also mentioned in the documentary that people would often call De La Hoya a “pocho,” which is a derogatory term for a person of Mexican heritage who is deliberately ignorant of Mexican culture and doesn’t know how to speak Spanish. It’s a word that bilingual De La Hoya was unfairly applied to him because he says he was raised in Mexican culture and can fluently speak Spanish and English.

On the plus side for De La Hoya was his crossover appeal, which was skillfully marketed by people such as boxing promoter Bob Arum, who helped get De La Hoya many lucrative endorsement deals. By contrast, Chávez fluency in English remained very limited. In the documentary, sports agent Leigh Stenberg says about De La Hoya: “He radiated charisma. He had a killer smile. If you had to create a marketable boxer, you couldn’t go wrong with starting with Oscar De La Hoya.”

Sports journalist Dan Rafael comments, Chávez made himself a legend … He was the star of stars until Oscar De La Hoya came along.” Gómez comments on when the real backlash started against De La Hoya: “It wasn’t until the [1996] Chávez that people started questioning, that people started saying, ‘He’s [De La Hoya] is not a real Mexican.”

“La Guerra Civil” talks about the rise and fall of these two boxing champs, with a lot of emphasis on the rise. The expected highlights of their careers are shown in clips of thrilling boxing matches, as well as large, adoring crowds who gathered to see them at other public appearances. There’s enough discussion of boxing techniques to please boxing fans but not too much of an overload that would alienate people who aren’t boxing enthusiasts.

De La Hoya talks a lot about his commitment to rigorous training, which served him well when he went up against his hero Chávez for the first time, in 1996 for the World Boxing Council’s light welterweight championship. It was billed as the Ultimate Flory fight. In the lead-up this famous boxing match, Chávez and De La Hoya (and their respective entourages) did a U.S. press tour. While De La Hoya was keeping a tight schedule of an athlete in intense training, Chávez was spending his free time doing a lot of partying.

Borges, who covered the press tour, remembers the contrasting lifestyles of Chávez and De La Hoya on this tour: “He [De La Hoya] was working out every day. Chávez was, I assure you, not working out during this trip. He was out [partying], but he was not working out.”

De La Hoya shares his perspective of his and Chávez’s very different approaches to preparing for this big fight: “He’s not taking me serious. But guess what? I’m going to take you serious.” Chávez essentially admits that all of this was true.

When Chávez and De La Hoya had their rematch in 1998, De La Hoya said he didn’t slack off on his intense training. De La Hoya convinced legendary boxing Jesús Rivero (who’s interviewed in the documentary) to come out of retirement to help with De La Hoya’s training. De La Hoya describes Rivero as “a man of few words” and “grumpy” but “by fair the best trainer I ever had.”

Based on how De La Hoya and Chávez discuss how fame affected them, Chávez might have been more beloved overall by people of Mexican heritage, but Chávez had more self-esteem problems in coping with his success. Chávez says that although he got everything he ever dreamed of in his career and he was surrounded by people who adored him, at the height of his fame, “I felt very alone.”

Feeling lonely and empty inside is why Chávez says he turned to cocaine for comfort. He mentions that the first time tried cocaine was after winning a light welterweight title fight against Héctor “Macho” Camacho in 1992. “And that was my ruin,” Chávez says of cocaine. “I took refuge in drugs and alcohol.”

Chávez is open about his addictions to drugs and alcohol, but De La Hoya doesn’t discuss in the documentary that he also had addictions to drugs and alcohol. De La Hoya’s personal demons and rehab stints are briefly mentioned by someone else toward the end of the documentary, almost as if it’s an afterthought. You get the feeling that De La Hoya wanted this topic to be off-limits in order for him to participate in the movie.

The documentary also leaves out any talk about other aspects of Chávez’s and De La Hoya’s personal lives. For example, their marriages and children are not discussed. The movie makes passing references to De La Hoya being a sex-symbol boxer to many women when he was in his prime, but he doesn’t go into details about how he handled all that amorous attention.

Even though De La Hoya doesn’t talk about his addictions in this documentary, he does show a vulnerable side when remembering about his late mother Cecilia and his complicated relationship with her. Oscar De La Hoya’s brother Joel De La Hoya Jr. describes their mother Cecilia as Oscar’s biggest fan. Oscar says, “My mother went through a lot of emotional abuse,” but “she beat the hell out of us … My aggression, my pain, my anger—that comes from her.”

Oscar also shares his heartbreak of his mother dying of breast cancer in 1990, just three weeks after he won the gold medal at the Goodwill Games. “It was the biggest blow I ever felt in my life,” he says of his mother’s death. Oscar says he became so depressed that he was going to quit boxing, but he changed his mind, largely because he had promised his mother that he’d win a gold medal in boxing at the 1992 Olympics. And he did. When De La Hoya famously waved the flags for Mexico and the U.S. after his Olympics victory, this symbolic act of identifying with both nations cemented his dual heritage in many people’s minds.

The 1996 boxing match between Chávez and Oscar De La Hoya marked the first time that a Mexican and a Mexican American would be battling each other in this type of high-profile boxing championship. Critical sports scholar Rudy Mondragón explains why this particular match had such cultural resonance, particularly with people of Mexican heritage: “Boxing is a sport that’s never been shy to utilize race and ethnicity to create a theatrical spectacle … It was like the world was telling us: ‘There’s one way to be Mexican: Oscar’s way or Julio’s way.”

In the documentary, actor/comedian George Lopez and actor/TV host Mario Lopez, who are both Mexican American and not related to each other, share their thoughts on the Chávez/De La Hoya rivalry. Mario Lopez says he’s been a die-hard fan of Chávez since childhood, while George Lopez seems to be more sympathetic to De La Hoya. George Lopez and Mario Lopez are the only two people interviewed in “La Guerra Civil” who aren’t in the boxing/sports industry, but their “fan perspective” still seems very privileged since they’re both celebrities.

Some people might find “La Guerra Civil” lacking in some areas. For example, Trejos is the only woman who’s interviewed. This token female perspective is very noticeable, especially since the documentary mentions several times that women were a large percentage of Oscar De La Hoya’s fan base.

The movie also leaves out the perspectives of any professional boxers who had high-profile matches against Oscar De La Hoya or Chávez. Commentaries from “non-celebrity” boxing fans are only in very brief clips from archival news footage, not in new interviews conducted for the documentary. The only family member of Chávez who’s interviewed is his brother Rodolfo, who makes a brief appearance in the movie.

Although “La Guerra Civil” has an insular selection of people who are interviewed, what they have to say adds up to a worthwhile story about how people’s varying definitions of Mexican heritage manifested in the rivalry between Chávez and De La Hoya. “La Guerra Civil” isn’t a completely comprehensive documentary, but it does show that people from a similar culture can find common ground among their differences. And that’s why the movie is more than a boxing documentary. It’s also a thoughtful commentary about what we can learn from accepting other people’s identities without diminishing our own.

Review: ‘The Princess’ (2022), starring Diana, Princess of Wales

January 22, 2022

by Carla Hay

Diana, Princess of Wales in “The Princess” (Photo by Kent Gavin/HBO)

“The Princess” (2022)

Directed by Ed Perkins

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1981 to 1997, the documentary “The Princess” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few black people and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and royalty discussing the life of Diana, the Princess of Wales, who died in a car accident in 1997, at the age of 36.

Culture Clash: Diana was plagued by a troubled marriage to Prince Charles; issues with depression and bulimia; and ongoing battles with the media over her privacy.

Culture Audience: “The Princess” will appeal primarily to people who can’t get enough of watching Princess Diana documentaries, but this all-archival documentary reveals nothing new and has nothing interesting to say.

In the never-ending cottage industry of Princess Diana biographies and Princess Diana exploitation, the sloppily made documentary “The Princess” is completely unnecessary and leaves out a lot of information. The Wikipedia page for Princess Diana has more information than this cynical cash grab of a movie. The ending of “The Princess” is extremely off-putting by concluding abruptly with an image of Diana’s burial casket being driven off during the funeral. The movie irresponsibly doesn’t even mention that in Princess Diana’s fatal car accident, the driver of the car was drunk.

Directed by Ed Perkins, “The Princess” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. The documentary consists entirely of archival footage from 1981 to 1997—the years that the woman born as Diana Spencer lived in the public eye. Most of the footage is from British television. There is absolutely nothing new in this documentary that hasn’t already been seen elsewhere, except for some random home videos of people reacting to Diana’s untimely death. (She died in Paris on August 31, 1997.)

Watching this movie is exactly like watching a video version of a Wikipedia page, but less so because the movie gives no information about the investigation into Diana’s death. The filmmakers also seem to have an agenda by leaving out the drunk-driver information and instead showing repetitive footage of people blaming the paparazzi for Diana’s death. The documentary ignores the reality that the investigation into the car accident, the news coverage about it and the facts uncovered were extremely important to Diana’s tragic story.

“The Princess” is just a chronological telling of basic facts of her life that people already know, with some tabloid headlines thrown in the mix. People already know about the courtship and doomed marriage of Princess Diana and Prince Charles. (The former spouses separated in 1992, and officially divorced in 1996.) People already know about the conflicts in the British Royal Family. People already know about the tabloid scandals, Diana’s charity work, and how much she adored her sons William and Harry.

There are amateur YouTube videos about Princess Diana that are more interesting than this lazy documentary. The film has voiceover soundbites, but the people talking in these voiceovers are never identified, and neither are the media sources for these soundbites, or the year that these comments were made. The only people who might think “The Princess” is interesting are people who don’t know much about Princess Diana, or obsessive fans who can’t get enough of anything to do with her, no matter tacky it is.

HBO will premiere “The Princess” on a date to be announced.

Review: ‘Fire of Love’ (2022), starring Katia Krafft and Maurice Krafft

January 21, 2022

by Carla Hay

Maurice Krafft and Katia Krafft in “Fire of Love” (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

“Fire of Love” (2022)

Directed by Sara Dosa

Some language in French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the world, the documentary film “Fire of Love” features an all-white group of people discussing the lives and work of French spouses Katia Krafft and Maurice Krafft, who were pioneering volcanologists in the 1970s and 1980s.

Culture Clash: Katia and Maurice Krafft (who died together in 1991) were so obsessed with volcanoes, including going to as many active volcano sites as possible, these two scientists were often described as “weirdos” by their peers and critics.

Culture Audience: “Fire of Love” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in movies about volcanoes and the fine line between passion and obsession.

Katia Krafft in “Fire of Love” (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

The visually stunning but occasionally dull “Fire of Love” is best enjoyed by people who are inclined to like nature documentaries. This story about volcanologist spouses Katia Krafft and Maurice Krafft often takes a back seat to the volcano footage. Directed by Sara Dosa and narrated by Miranda July, “Fire of Love” has enough striking visuals that deserve to be seen in a movie theater, but the rest of the movie comes across as a National Geographic TV special. The movie’s constant voiceover narration might annoy some viewers who prefer a “show, don’t tell” approach to filmmaking. “Fire of Love” has its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

It might be easier to understand why there’s voiceover narration in every scene if you know that this documentary has a lot of footage that originally had no sound, according to what Dosa says in the “Fire of Love” production notes. All of the footage in the movie is archival. Most of it consists of 16mm camera footage and photo stills of the Krafft couple’s trips to active volcanoes around the world. Katia and Maurice shot a lot of the footage themselves, while other footage was helmed by colleagues and friends, such as photographer Henry Glicken. A lot of footage also came from publicly accessible archives. The documentary also includes some clips of TV interviews that the couple did over the years, as well as snippets of comments they made in audio form.

July’s narration is perfectly fine, in terms of her tone of voice, for a nature documentary. It’s just that the way that the narration was written tends to have some over-explaining, like a professor’s lecture, when just showing what’s taking place would suffice. The documentary was written by Dosa, “Fire of Love” producer Shane Boris and editors Erin Casper and Jocelyn Chaput. Fortunately, the musical score by Nicolas Godin balances out the very talkative narration with some deeply moving interludes that give viewers the feeling of being transported to the volcanoes that are on screen.

Katia and Maurice Krafft, who were both natives of France, died during a volcanic eruption on Mount Unzen in Japan, on June 3, 1991. Katia was 49, and Maurice was 45. In the “Fire of Love” production notes, Dosa says that one of the documentary’s scientific consultants was volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, who co-directed Werner Herzog’s 2016 Netflix volcano documentary “Into the Inferno,” which also featured archival footage of Katia and Maurice.

Dosa explains in the “Fire of Love” production notes that she chose to make “Fire of Love” as an all-archival documentary instead of conducting new interviews, in order to immerse viewers in the places and times that the footage was filmed. Dosa comments, “We also wanted to maintain the present tense as much as we could. If we had people commenting on the past, it wouldn’t flow as well.”

Dosa also says in the “Fire of Love” production notes that she was influenced by the French New Wave style of filmmaking in making this documentary, which she compares to a “collage.” The movie is told in chronological order, beginning with a brief summary of how Katia and Maurice met in 1966 (there are at least three different stories of this first meeting), how they bonded over their mutual passion for volcanoes, and how they fell in love. The couple eventually got married in 1970.

Early on in their relationship, Katia and Maurice decided not to have children because the couple’s lives revolved around their all-consuming work. It’s also why Maurice and Katia abandoned their brief stint as anti-war activists, which was a lifestyle that they gave up in pursuit of being volcanologists. Although they did a lot of their volcano work by themselves, they eventually invited some friends and colleagues along to help on their excursions.

Katia was a geochemist who preferred to document their work with still photography. Maurice was a geologist who preferred to document their work as movies. How obsessed were they with volcanoes? Maurice is heard saying in a voiceover: “If I could eat the rocks, I’d stay on the volcanoes and never come down.” Katie says in a TV interview clip: “Once you see an eruption, you can’t live without it.” Even if some critics ridiculed Maurice and Katia for being too unorthodox and acting too much like daredevils in their work, Maurice and Katia were comfortable with their own eccentricities and actually enjoyed their “oddball” reputation.

The Kraffts started out as obscure volcano explorers and scientists, but they became famous for taking risks and bringing back footage of active volcanoes that no one else had at the time. Before drones existed, Katia and Maurice often literally had to stand at the end of volcanoes to get the images that they wanted. Because of the intense and potentially fatal heat involved in their work, they often wore astronaut-like suits (many which they designed themselves) to protect themselves. They worked in all manners of extreme weather conditions.

However, that didn’t mean their work was free from physical injuries and problems. During a 1968 trip to Iceland, the documentary says that the couple’s car broke down 27 times. In addition, there’s footage of Maurice accidentally scalding one of his legs in a volcano pit. The documentary also includes footage of Katia and Maurice in Zaire in 1973 and 1977; Indonesia in 1979; Washington state (for the Mount St. Helens eruption) in 1980; Colombia (for the Nevado del Ruiz eruption) in 1985; and their fateful trip to Japan in 1991.

In addition to the danger, there’s some whimsy and quirkiness in the footage. There’s a scene that shows Maurice and Katia literally dancing together on the edge of a volcano precipice as fiery ash blows through the air. Another scene shows the couple and some friends throwing cowboy hats in the air and act as if they’re in a volcanologist version of a Western movie. There’s footage of Maurice handling molten lava (with gloves on, of course) and plays with it like a child would play with putty. In another scene, Maurice fries eggs in a frying pan using nothing but the hot volcano rocks for heat. He deadpans in his opinion of how the eggs taste: “It’s not great.”

The documentary mentions that Katia and Maurice had journals documenting much of their work and inner thoughts. However, it seems like “Fire of Love” could’ve used more of these personal commentaries in Katia’s and Maurice’s own words. There are only a few instances where journal entries are read. Instead, what viewers will get is July’s narration of the filmmakers’ often-flowery descriptions of the couple and what Katia and Maurice did during their volcano excursions.

For example, the opening scene of the film shows Katia and Maurice driving together in a Toyota Jeep up an icy and snow incline. The Jeep gets stuck in the snow, and there’s some difficulty in getting in moving again. The voiceover narration than says, “In a cold world, although watches start to freeze, the sun came and went between blizzards and gusts that erased all bearings. In this world lived a fire. And in this fire, two lovers found a home.”

The fiery lava in the documentary is color-enhanced in the way that Maurice and Katia intended, according to what Dosa says in the “Fire of Love” production notes. Volcano fire is often brought up in the documentary as a symbol of the couple’s passion for volcanoes and love for each other. “What is it that makes the earth’s heart beat?” July asks in the narration while images of gushing lava fill the screen. “Blood flow.”

Instead of showing Maurice’s and Katia’s personalities, viewers get these descriptions from the narration: “Katia is a like a bird. Maurice is an elephant seal. Katia is drawn to details … Maurice [is drawn to] the singular and grandiose.” Katia was more of author and archivist than Maurice, while Maurice was more of a filmmaker and scientific lecturer than Katia.

To its credit, the movie doesn’t get bogged down in too much technical science, since this movie was intended for people who might have very little interest in science. Katia famously said, “Volcano classifications should be banned,” in a TV interview clip shown in the documentary. However, documentary explains volcanoes in the simple and basic level, by describing two types of volcanoes. Red volcanoes, which erupt when plates pull apart, are basaltic and known for spouting lava that can be up to 1,200 degrees Celsius or 2,192 degrees Fahrenheit. Grey volcanoes, which erupt when plates collide, can go off like nuclear ash bombs and are deadlier than red volcanoes.

After watching this documentary, some viewers might still have a lot of questions about Katia and Maurice. How did their relationship evolve over time? What were their biggest goals and regrets? What did they like to talk about besides volcanoes and work? There are some interesting nuggets of information, such as they both knew that they would probably die together, but none of this information is surprising.

If you’re looking for any sexy romance in a documentary called “Fire of Love,” you’re not going to find it in this documentary. The biggest takeaway from the documentary is that Katia and Maurice Krafft’s greatest love was for volcanoes, so the volcanoes are the real stars of the movie. If you know that information before seeing “Fire of Love,” you’ll have a better chance of enjoying the movie for its majestic depiction of Earth, rather expecting a deep-dive examination of a volcanologist couple’s marriage.

UPDATE: National Geographic Documentary Films will release “Fire of Love” in select U.S. cinemas on a date to be announced. Disney+ will premiere “Fire of Love” on a date to be announced.

Review: ‘American Gadfly,’ starring Henry Williams, David Oks, Elijah Emery and Mike Gravel

January 15, 2022

by Carla Hay

David Oks, Mike Gravel and Henry Williams in “American Gadfly” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“American Gadfly”

Directed by Skye Wallin 

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York state, California, Detroit, Iowa, and Miami in 2019 and 2020, the documentary “American Gadfly” features a mostly white group of people (with some Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy and who were connected in some way to Mike Gravel’s U.S. presidential campaign.

Culture Clash: Gravel, who was a progressive Democrat, made the unconventional decision to have teenagers run his presidential campaign.

Culture Audience: “American Gadfly” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching documentaries about “progressive liberals” pretending to be “anti-establishment,” but these “anti-establishment progressive liberals” engage in very establishment and elitist practices to promote themselves.

Henry Magowan, David Oks, Henry Williams and Elijah Emery in “American Gadfly” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

There’s a memorable line in The Who’s classic 1971 hit song “Won’t Get Fooled Again” that says, “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.” That’s the feeling you get from watching the self-congratulatory political documentary “American Gadfly,” when it comes to so-called progressive liberal Democrats acting a lot like the conservative Republicans they claim to be against.

It’s a very gimmicky, one-sided documentary about smug, teenage left-wing Democrats who came up with the idea to steer the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign of Mike Gravel, a self-described progressive liberal Democrat who was a U.S. Senator from Alaska from 1969 to 1981. They admit up front that their main goal wasn’t for Gravel to win the election but just to get Gravel in the Democratic Party primary debates.

If you know who made it onto the debate stages during that election race, then you already know if Gravel’s campaign failed in this goal. Gravel dropped out of the race in 2019, the year that the majority of this documentary was filmed. The movie’s end-credit scenes shows footage from 2020, when former members of the campaign team did video chats with Gravel during the COVID-19 pandemic quarantine.

Most of the teenagers who were running Gravel’s campaign were 17 to 19 years old at the time this documentary was filmed. Gravel gave the teens complete control over his social media accounts, where they posted everything under his name but using their own words. (The documentary shows plenty of these tweets and some Twitter reactions to these tweets.)

The teens whom Gravel put in charge of his campaign preach progressive politics but then don’t include any females, black people and Latinos in their campaign leadership. The teens give sanctimonious rants about Donald Trump’s rude campaigning, yet the teens do their own smear campaigns and vulgar insults against opponents too. The hypocrisy is disgusting.

“American Gadfly” (directed by Skye Wallin) is also a “bait and switch” documentary. The film tries to make it look like Gravel is the documentary’s main attraction, but Gravel actually doesn’t get as much screen time as he should, even though it’s his political campaign. Gravel is shown having only a few meetings with these teenagers whom he put in charge of the campaign. He treats them like students who were assigned a pet political project.

Gravel is edited in the movie as someone who occasionally checks in to voice his opinion. If you believe what’s in “American Gadfly,” he was a supporting player, not a leader, in his own political campaign, and the teenagers were really running the show. Gravel is never seen making personal appearances to the general public on the campaign trail.

Gravel doesn’t even make frequent video messages where he speaks directly to his supporters. Instead, his teenage campaign team concocts memes and amateurish promo videos about Gravel that they spread on the Internet. And then they complain that mainstream media won’t take the campaign seriously.

Gravel’s main claim to fame is being the first U.S. politician to put the Pentagon Papers on public record, when he read them out loud during his Subcommittee on Public Buildings and Grounds in 1971. He ran for U.S. president in 2008, and he made it to the primary presidential debates, but he ultimately dropped out of the race. Barack Obama got the Democratic Party nomination and won the election. Gravel was a Libertarian from 2008 to 2010, before going back to being a Democrat in 2010. Gravel died of multiple myeloma in 2021, at the age of 91.

It’s obvious from the beginning of this documentary that the teenagers were using Gravel as a “guinea pig” to get some experience working on a presidential campaign to further their own political ambitions. They knew that their ages and school commitments would be a big reason why they wouldn’t be accepted as campaign workers for a candidate who had a real shot of getting the Democratic Party nomination, so they chose a long-shot candidate instead.

The three guys who take most of the credit for convincing Gravel to run for U.S. president in 2019 are Henry Williams, David Oks and Elijah Emery, who all come from upstate New York. Williams is the biggest talker in the group and the one who apparently wrote most of the angry insults directed at Gravel’s opponents. Most of the Gravel campaigners’ vitriol was not aimed at Republicans but at Democrats whom they call “establishment Democrats,” such as Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Pete Buttigieg.

Oks is a self-described political nerd who’s the chief strategist of the Gravel campaign team. Emery is the most even-tempered and logical of the three, but Oks and Williams say behind Emery’s back (but in on-camera interviews) that Emery is too “idealistic” for the fiery brand of politics that Oks and Williams want to shove in people’s faces. Because Emery was in high school during the campaign, he wasn’t able to travel as much as Williams and Oks.

Three other members of the campaign team are featured in the documentary, but they don’t get as much screen time as Williams, Oks and Emery. Henry Magowan is the group’s treasurer. (The documentary never details now Gravel’s campaign money was spent.) Alex Chang is in charge of digital strategy. Jonathan Suhr is director of design. Chang and Suhr are both Asian and the only people of color chosen for this campaign leadership.

The decisions on who would lead everything in the campaign is basically a teenage version of an “old boys’ club.” Throughout the documentary, these so-called teenage progressive liberals from Generation Z proudly claim that their generation is going to shake things up and change politics by making everything more diverse and inclusive. And yet, they have absolutely no self-awareness of how bad they look in representing true progressive causes, by reverting to the same elitist “old boys’ club” mentality that they claim they want to change.

Needless to say, only males are invited to the Gravel campaign meetings where Gravel discusses his proposed policies and agendas for America. The Gravel campaign platform included Medicare for all; universal health care; paid family leave for all; eliminating the electoral college by having popular votes decide elections; legalizing marijuana in all U.S. states; decriminalizing prostitution; and making it a law to have equal pay for equal work. The documentary never shows or tells Gravel’s plan for how the U.S. government would pay for all these sweeping reforms.

The teen campaigners spend a lot of time bragging about how many “likes” and “retweets” they get on Twitter, and how many people they can reach on social media. And so, there is absolutely no excuse for this campaign team to have no females (who are 51% of the population in the U.S. and in the world) in any campaign leadership roles. And they can’t use the excuse that they couldn’t find any qualified females because these teens admit that they themselves are unqualified and inexperienced in this type of political campaign. If you want to know what male privilege and male entitlement look like, look no further than the Mike Gravel campaign team in “American Gadfly.”

You can’t expect to have credibility in policy issues about diverse representation when you can’t lead by example. Imagine being represented by a “progressive” politician who doesn’t seem to care that only males are leaders on his campaign team and that the gender representing the majority of the nation’s population is nowhere to be found in the campaign leadership. It’s beyond appalling.

Gravel obviously didn’t care enough about this blatant gender imbalance because he says in the documentary that his biggest complaint about how the teens were running the campaign was how they used the “f” curse word in their social media postings. Likewise, the “American Gadfly” filmmakers also didn’t notice or didn’t care to question why only males were the leaders of this campaign team. If this obvious sexism was addressed at any point by anyone in the documentary, it never made it into the movie. The people who are most likely to turn a blind eye to this hypocrisy are people who live in this type of hypocritical bubble.

At one point in the movie, Williams travels to California to meet Gravel in person for the first time. Oks can’t attend, but in his place, he sends a campaign worker named Benjamin Church, who is accompanied by someone named Rosaline Qi, who’s introduced as Church’s girlfriend. Over a meal at a restaurant, another young Asian woman is also seated at the table in this meeting with Gravel, but the documentary doesn’t explain who she is and what she’s doing there, as if the filmmakers think these young women don’t really matter at all.

How do we know that the filmmakers don’t care about these young women? Except for Qi saying hello to Gravel, these young women are not shown speaking at all during this conversation. In fact, women of color are nowhere to be found as important workers who were chosen for this campaign. This gross lack of diversity is like something out you’d see in a campaign for a politician with a racist and sexist agenda.

Williams even has the tone-deaf arrogance to preach in the documentary about those who are oppressed: “It’s going to be poor people. It’s going to be minorities and immigrants—the same people who will always suffer if Trump is re-elected.” Meanwhile, the documentary shows these egotistical teens doing absolutely no personal outreach at all to the “oppressed” communities they claim to want to represent in the campaign. The teenagers seem to care most about hobnobbing with political insiders when they get invited to political events, or hanging out in restaurants with other privileged young “progressives.”

It’s not nitpicking to bring up these issues, because progressive liberals are the ones who complain the most and the loudest about the lack of diversity in American political leadership. Progressive liberals are the ones who push the hardest for laws against discrimination on the basis of gender, race, nationality, sexuality, disability, etc. But sometimes, there are people involved in politics who claim to be progressive liberals but who do not practice what they preach. The people they choose to put on their teams are not diverse at all.

A lot of “American Gadfly” is about Gravel’s all-male teenage campaign leaders approaching political campaigning as if insulting other candidates on social media (especially Twitter) is the most effective way to campaign. It’s the same political strategy that Trump used in his presidential campaigns, but these teens have such a “holier than thou” attitude, they can’t even see how much they sink to the same crude levels of the politicians they think are beneath them. These teens claim to be doing things better than politicians who are “old” and “elitist” when they’re using the exact same tactics as “old” and “elitist” politicians.

And these teen campaigners essentially boast about all the online bullying and childish name-calling that they dump on politicians whom they dislike. John Delaney is a particular target of their wrath because he was the Democratic candidate in the presidential campaign who had the closest (very low) polling numbers to Gravel. Delaney was therefore Gravel’s biggest obstacle to getting a place in a primary debate, which was limited to the top 20 candidates in Democratic National Committee-approved polls. The teen campaigners proudly take credit for getting “DropOutDelaney” to briefly trend on Twitter, but in the end, this fleeting Twitter meme didn’t help Gravel’s campaign.

However, there’s still some delusional egotism among these teen campaigners, because Suhr says in a campaign meeting: “What I’m hearing is that we’re an influencer’s influencer.” If you know how Gravel’s campaign turned out, then you’d be rolling your eyes at that statement. Influencing what? How to look like hypocritical left-wingers who act like petulant, “old boy network” conservatives?

Ironically, for a campaign team that did not include any females in leadership roles, the only Gravel political competitors who showed Gravel’s campaign any real support were two females: Democractic presidential candidates Tulsi Gabbard and Marianne Williamson. Much of the documentary is about the Gravel campaign team’s race against time to get 65,000 individual donors to the campaign, which is one of the Democratic National Committee’s requirements to be eligible for a presidential primary debate. Gabbard and Williamson (and some of their campaign staffers) also take the time to personally interact with Oks and Williams on the campaign trail.

Oks and Williams end up begging Gabbard and Williamson to help by asking Gabbard and Williamson to enlist their supporters to donate to Gravel’s campaign. Gabbard and Williamson graciously accommodate the Gravel campaign’s requests. Andrew Yang, another Democratic presidential candidate, shows some curiosity and interest in Gravel’s teen campaigners (who gush over him like fanboys), but ultimately Yang chooses not to give the Gravel campaign any real support.

Gravel actually told the teens to not associate the Gravel campaign with Yang, because Gravel says in a conference call that Yang’s proposed idea for the U.S. government to give $1,000 to everyone in the U.S. is “just crazy.” However, the teens are so dazzled by Yang, they ignore Gravel’s order to keep their distance from the Yang campaign. They try to ingratiate themselves with Yang, with the hope that Yang would lend his support to Gravel’s campaign. This effort backfired, and it’s an example of how Gravel’s teen campaigners didn’t respect Gravel’s authority and wanted unchecked power in this campaign.

“American Gadfly” is a perfect example of why so many people don’t respect certain “progressive liberals” who pompously lecture how they think they know what’s best for the United States and the world but don’t apply what they preach in their own lives. Some of these “progressive liberals” have a severe lack of racial diversity in whom they choose to have as friends, or whom they choose to hire if they’re in a position to hire people. This hypocrisy doesn’t apply to all progressive liberals, but it certainly applies to the “stars” of “American Gadfly.”

These teenagers rant against Donald Trump and conservative Republican politics. And yet, the documentary shows Williams, Oks, Emery and Magowan giddily asking conservative Republican politician (and former U.S. presidential candidate) Rick Santorum to pose for a photo with them, when they randomly see Santorum on the street and approach him almost like star-struck fans. It’s a moment where these young campaigners show that they care more about being close to establishment power than staying true to so-called “anti-establishment” progressive beliefs.

Gravel has such little interest in making personal appearances in front of his supporters, when Gabbard invites him to go to Miami to be in the audience of one of the presidential debates for the Democratic candidates, he gives his two tickets to Williams and Oks instead. It isn’t until after Gravel drops out of the race that he’s seen at any political event in this presidential race, when he goes to San Jose, California, to attend a rally for fellow progressive Bernie Sanders. Gravel ended up endorsing Sanders in this presidential race.

One of the many flaws of “American Gadfly” is how it doesn’t acknowledge this basic fact of politics: Social media cannot completely replace in-person campaigning. That’s why it looks so superficial and silly that these teenagers think it’s a big deal that comedian Sarah Silverman retweeted a comment that was made on Gravel’s Twitter account, when the campaign comments on that account were not written by Gravel in the first place. Twitter followers don’t mean much to a politician running for an elected office if most of those “followers” can’t or won’t vote for the politician.

The documentary shows major red flags that these teen campaigners are out of their league and completely inept when it comes to political campaign strategy that doesn’t involve the Internet. While some members of the team go to Iowa to do some “campaigning” (without Gravel, of course), Williams says: “I don’t know what shaking hands with brewsters in Iowa actually means, or if it corresponds to any serious political movement.”

Oks tries to cut the trip short and says, “If we were running a real campaign, I guess we’d be going around [meeting people in] Iowa. I wouldn’t really enjoy it.” Emery seems to understand that a politician who won’t campaign in person won’t be taken seriously and won’t go far in the race, so he comments to Oks: “What if people just enjoy talking to people they represent?”

Oks responds sarcastically, “What if people just enjoy hammering things into their legs?” Emery replies to Oks’ idiotic comment by saying, “Those are two different things.” They end up cutting the trip short out of frustration over lack of public interest in Gravel’s campaign. Once they get out of the bubble of the Internet, they have trouble handling the reality that campaigning in person is lot more work than they’re prepared to do.

It should be noted that Oks and Emery had this conversation while waiting at a politically liberal bookstore to give a talk about the campaign, but this speaking engagement is never shown in the movie. If they did go through with this speaking appearance, then the turnout was probably very low. Otherwise, it would’ve been in the documentary. So much for “widespread support” from social media followers.

In fact, there is absolutely no evidence in this documentary that Gravel would’ve been able to attract an impressive crowd in this campaign if he campaigned in person. That’s why the social media angle for this documentary is completely overrated. On the campaign trail, a few random strangers congratulate Gravel’s teen campaigners when these strangers find out who they are, but that’s about as much public recognition that they get from people in real life (not social media) who are not campaign workers.

Even how these teens approached Gravel to run for president shows they’re from a generation that can’t fully understand what it was like to communicate before the Internet existed. Williams says that they had to look up how to write a memo to get Gravel’s attention because they didn’t know what a memo was. It’s mentioned in the documentary that Oks was accepted to Oxford University, while Emery was accepted into Cornell University. It makes you wonder how what kind of high school education they had for them to be so ignorant about what a memo is or what a memo looks like.

“American Gadfly” is so insistent and narrow-minded in its agenda to make these teenagers look like cutting-edge political strategists (they’re not), the filmmakers only interviewed people who sing the praises of this amateur “old boys” political clique. Other people interviewed in the documentary include Whitney Gravel, Mike Gravel’s wife, who says she initially didn’t want Mike to run for U.S. president again because she was concerned that he was too old, but she changed her mind because of the enthusiasm of the teen campaigners. Also interviewed are Dave Weigel of The Washington Post; Jamie Keiles of The New York Times; Bernie Sanders senior staffer Keane Bhatt; and a student classmate named Miranda Luiz.

And where are the parents of these teenagers? Only two of them are interviewed in the documentary, and they both give brief comments. Anne Williams, Henry’s mother, is fully supportive of what he’s doing. Bettina Weil, Oks’ mother, has some reservations when she says of the Gravel campaign team: “They were amazing with social media, etc. Criticizing politicians—I was not happy about that.”

In the documentary, Henry Williams says his father expressed concern that all the hateful comments that Henry has written about fellow Democrats could backfire in the future if Henry wants to pursue a political career. Henry says, “I told him, ‘If I can’t speak truth to power, or if I’m too afraid to, to protect my future or my career, then am I worth anything at all?'” It’s too bad that Henry Williams and the rest of the campaign leaders on the team aren’t shown actually doing any work in communities that need help, because their idea of activism is promoting themselves by using a privileged politician’s name on social media.

“American Gadfly” is a misguided documentary that lets its “stars” off the hook too easily when it comes to many problematic issues. For a better look at how Gen Z progressive liberals from America are speaking truth to power and engaging in the political process to make real changes—instead of perpetuating old systems in a self-promoting way—watch any of these documentaries on Gen Z activists who are part of truly inclusive and diverse teams: “Us Kids,” “We Are the Radical Monarchs” or “The Day I Had to Grow Up.”

Gravitas Ventures released “American Gadfly” on digital and VOD on January 4, 2022.

Review: ‘Gap Year’ (2020), starring Darius Bazley

January 10, 2022

by Carla Hay

Darius Bazley in “Gap Year” (Photo courtesy of 1091 Pictures)

“Gap Year” (2020)

Directed by Josh Kahn and T.J. Regan

Culture Representation: Taking place in Boston, Los Angeles, Memphis, Charlotte and Cincinnati from June 2018 to June 2019, the documentary “Gap Year” features a group of African Americans and white people representing the middle-class and wealthy in this chronicle of basketball player Darius Bazley’s year after he graduated from high school and before he found out if he would be drafted into the National Basketball League (NBA).

Culture Clash: Bazley gets praise and skepticism for his decision to accept a $1 million internship from New Balance during this “gap year.”

Culture Audience: “Gap Year” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in stories about how basketball players prepare for the NBA.

Darius Bazley in “Gap Year” (Photo courtesy of 1091 Pictures)

The documentary “Gap Year” sometimes comes across as a gimmicky marketing ploy for New Balance, but it’s still an enjoyable watch because of basketball player Darius Bazley, the movie’s engaging star. The documentary chronicles what happened in the year after Bazley graduated from high school and did a marketing internship with Boston-based sports footwear/apparel company New Balance while he trained for the NBA. This wasn’t just any internship: New Balance paid Bazley a $1 million salary for this internship, with the idea that it was a starter salary for Bazley to be a New Balance spokesperson if he ended up becoming a star in the NBA.

Directed by Josh Kahn and T.J. Regan, “Gap Year” has a breezy 75-minute total run time. It’s just about the right amount of time to tell this story, which ends in with Bazley finding out in June 2019 if he got drafted into the NBA or not. “Gap Year” begins in June 2018, when Bazley (a native of Cincinnati) has graduated from high school and is considered a hot prospect for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the traditional stepping stone to get into the NBA.

However, Bazley doesn’t want to go to college. He wants to be drafted into the NBA within two years after graduating from high school. It’s a bold and risky move that has paid off for only a small percentage of NBA players—most notably, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett.

As NBA analyst Jay Williams (a former Naismith College Player of the Year) comments on the NCAA to NBA rule: “We live in a society where everybody abides by the rules. And we don’t even know what the rule is or where it came from. They just abide by it.” Williams adds that Bazley’s decision to take a year off from the NBA G League to train while doing the New Balance internship was “the most fascinating and disruptive thing I’ve ever seen in basketball.”

ESPN college basketball/NBA draft analyst Jay Bilas says, “When [Kevin] Garnett and Kobe [Bryant] came out, I think people were still having a hard time—myself included—wrapping their head around the idea of a high school kid going into the NBA.” David Stern, who was the NBA’s commissioner from 1984 to 2014, comments: “I think at the time, my own view was that we didn’t want out scouts in high school gymnasiums.” Michele Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association union, offers a different point of view on the NBA recruiting players right out of high school: “Frankly, I don’t see the difference between that and seeing them in a college gym.”

Rich Paul, CEO of Klutch Sports Group, which represented Bazley during this post-high-school transition, has this to say about Bazley bypassing college to get to the NBA: “I believe college is necessary for most kids. It was truly about trying what’s best for Darius.” The movie shows some footage of Bazley in gyms with basketball trainer Mike Mills in Memphis and basketball trainer Pierre Sully and physical trainer Bryan Doo in Boston. However, the majority of the documentary footage is showing Bazley’s internship at New Balance headquarters in Boston.

In January 2019, Bazley temporarily moved to Boston, where he was given corporate housing at an apartment bulding, with all expenses paid for by New Balance. His internship was only for a three-month period, but he was expected to learn a lot of the ins and outs of marketing for New Balance, particularly in the launch of new products. Not only was it Bazley’s first time living away from home but it was also his first office job.

As expected, Bazley experienced some culture shock. On his first day on he job, Bazley had to call his manager because Bazley didn’t know how to fill out a tax form. And being a tall, African American teenager, he stood out in an office environment consisting of mostly white people who are older than he is. A few of the white female employees seem intimidated by Bazley at first when they interact with him, possibly because of his race but also possibly because he’s so tall.

Still, Bazley seems to sense that he won’t adjust easily to this office environment because although people are friendly to him, they don’t seem interested in becoming his “work friend.” He’s also visibly uncomfortable using computers when he first arrives on the job, which makes you wonder what kind of education he got in high school to not be familiar with using computers as a high school graduate. Bazley is willing to learn what he’s taught on the job, which is a good sign that he’ll have the right attitude in the real world of professional careers.

Later in the documentary, Bazley settles into a work routine that he admits is lonely: He comments that after work, he spends time in his apartment alone, and it’s not unusual for his dinner to consist of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. Klutch Sports CEO Paul says in an on-camera interview that he purposely left Bazley alone during this internship because he didn’t want to coddle Bazley. “One of the things I want is for him to align himself with his good habits,” Paul comments.

Being a restless teenager, Bazley does gripe a little about the monotony of an office job. The documentary show a few things that break up his routine. In February 2019, Bazley went to Charlotte for the NBA All-Star Weekend, which was a great motivation for his NBA dreams. It’s easy to see that because of the business knowledge he gained in the internship, Bazley is now equipped to making better-informed decisions about endorsement deals than if he didn’t have that behind-the-scenes internship experience.

In another scene, entertainer Jaden Smith visits New Balance headquarters for a meeting about a collaboration. Bazley gets to hang out a little bit with Smith during this meeting and says he’s impressed with Smith’s maturity. Bazley also seems to enjoy himself at a New Balance focus group at a high school in Lawrence, Massachusetts. It’s at this focus group (when he’s around people in his age group) that Bazley seems to enjoy his internship the most, because he can see how the focus group has a direct impact on marketing decisions.

After his internship ended, another big day for Bazley was in May 2019 at Klutch Pro Day in Los Angeles, where he sees firsthand how deals are made for pro athletes to get endorsement deals. It’s an eye-opening experience that gives him a sneak preview of what types of opportunities can come his way if he makes it into the NBA. Although this type of dealmaking might be nothing new to viewers who know the business of sports, what “Gap Year” does very well is convey Bazley’s perspective of someone who’s new to it all.

When it comes to his basketball skills, Bazley is confident but not arrogant. His personality is a little bit on the quiet side, but he has a lot of positive energy that makes him very easy to like. His family is briefly shown in the documentary, but the documentary very much keeps the focus on the “coming of age” journey for Bazley, who goes through the adult rite of passage of living away from parents for the first time. Other people interviewed in “Gap Year” include New Balance global marketing director Patrick Cassidy; Klutch Sports employee Brandon Cavanaugh; rapper Dave East, who’s labeled in the documentary as a “former Amateur Athletic Union standout”; New Balance global marketing manager Sean Sweeney; and former Bleacher Report editor-in-chief Ben Osborne.

People who are expecting “Gap Year” to be mostly about basketball training sessions might be disappointed. And the movie doesn’t do anything very spectacular when it comes to cinematography or editing. However, “Gap Year” is a very interesting chronicle of one teenager’s journey to be a nonconformist when it comes to pursuing his NBA goals. The documentary is best appreciated as a story where professional basketball is a catalyst but not the main reason why a child becomes an adult.

1091 Pictures released “Gap Year” on digital and VOD on December 1, 2020.

Review: ‘Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time,’ starring Kurt Vonnegut

January 8, 2022

by Carla Hay

Kurt Vonnegut in “Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time” (Photo courtesy of C. Minnick and B Plus Productions/IFC Films)

“Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time”

Directed by Robert B. Weide and Don Argott 

Culture Representation: The documentary “Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time” features an all-white group of people (scholars, book publishers, family members and fans) discussing the life and career of celebrated American writer Kurt Vonnegut.

Culture Clash: Vonnegut had high points and low points in his life, including getting criticism about his relevancy, his artistic merit and choices he made in his personal life.

Culture Audience: Besides obviously appealing to Vonnegut fans, “Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries about writers who made their biggest impact on pop culture in the 1960s and 1970s.

Robert Weide and Kurt Vonnegut in “Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time” (Photo courtesy of C. Minnick and B Plus Productions/IFC Films)

“Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time” is a documentary that’s a hybrid of a Kurt Vonnegut biography and co-director Robert B. Weide’s personal narrative of his longtime friendship with Vonnegut. Weide could have inserted himself a little less in this movie, but it’s still a fascinating portrait of this influential author. Weide co-directed “Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time” with experienced documentarian Don Argott, but the movie very much has the tone that it’s Weide’s singular vision that brought this movie to fruition. If you didn’t notice the film credits to see that there are two directors of this documentary, it would be easy to assume that only Weide directed it, since he doesn’t really acknowledge his co-director in any part of his narration on screen or in voiceover.

One of the main reasons to see “Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time” is the treasure trove of previously unreleased footage that Weide was able to get when he interviewed Vonnegut off and on over the years. Vonnegut died in 2007, at the age 84, from brain injuries that he sustained during a fall. Weide (who frequently appears in the documentary footage) says on camera that he was 23 years old (circa 1982) when he first approached Vonnegut to do a documentary about Vonnegut, who would have been 59 or 60 years old at the time.

Some of this footage includes an informal 1988 interview that Vonnegut did on a train to Buffalo, New York. However, it wasn’t until 2014 that Weide says he began to seriously move forward in completing the documentary. In the documentary, Weide also shares several personal letters and voice mail messages that he got from Vonnegut over the years. The documentary remained an unfinished project for Weide that he would come back to off and on, but he had a difficult time completing the film. In the meantime, Weide went on to other projects in film and television, as a screenwriter, producer, director and editor.

Weide received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature for 1998’s “Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth,” which also won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Non-Fiction Programming – Picture Editing. Weide has won two other Primetime Emmy Awards: Outstanding Informational Special (for being a producer of 1986’s “W.C. Fields: Straight Up”) and Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series (for “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), a prize he received in 2003. Weide was also the screenwriter and a producer for the 1996 feature-film adaptation of Vonnegut’s 1961 novel “Mother Night.”

Weide comments on this long journey to finish this Vonnegut documentary: “This was going to be a conventional documentary … I don’t even like documentaries where the filmmaker has to put himself in the film. Who cares? But when you take almost 40 years to make a film, you owe some kind of explanation.”

The documentary then goes into how Weide became a Vonnegut fan in the first place: He first discovered Vonnegut when Weide was a 16-year-old student at Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton, California. He had a teacher named Valerie Stevenson, who assigned her class to read Vonnegut’s 1973 best-selling novel “Breakfast of Champions.”

“Breakfast of Champions” is a story about of the meeting of two very different men—science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout and rich businessman Dwayne Hoover—and how this meeting results in a series of twists and turns. “Breakfast of Champions” touched on themes of class differences, mental illness and pre-determined destiny versus free will. It was a combination of science fiction and satire that was highly influential at the time.

Weide’s former teacher Stevenson comments in the documentary about making “Breakfast of Champions” required reading for her students: “Looking back now, as an educator of many years, I’m just horrified that I did it. It’s a pretty edgy book and kind of iconoclastic.” Weide, however, says that he’s glad he discovered Vonnegut in this way: “He was the guy who made me think, ‘He thinks what I think about the world.'”

Weide’s fascination with Vonnegut led to Weide teaching an informal class about Vonnegut while Weide was in his last year of high school. Weide says about this class: “It was like a very cool Vonnegut reading club.” Weide puts a lot of emphasis that a part of him still feels like that star-struck teenager who discovered Vonnegut for the first time. More than once, Weide’s narration says some variation of, “If someone had told the 16-year-old me that I would be hanging out with Kurt Vonnegut and doing a documentary about him, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

The parts of the documentary that are essentially Vonnegut’s biography do a fairly good job of describing his life and career, even though there isn’t anything that die-hard Vonnegut fans don’t already know. The documentary includes interviews with Vonnegut biographers (such as Jerome Klinkowitz, Gregory Sumner, Ginger Strand and Rodney Allen) to describe various points of Vonnegut’s life.

Born in Indianapolis on November 11, 1922, Vonnegut was proud of his Midwestern roots, even though he spent most of his literary career living in the Northeast. Klinkowitz says of Vonnegut’s parents Kurt Vonnegut Sr. and Edith Vonnegut: “Kurt’s mother was [emotionally] distant and really had her own mental problems. His father was not the warmest, fuzziest father in the world. He was a good father and a serious architect.”

Of all the people in the family, Kurt Jr. was closest to his older sister Alice, nicknamed Allie, who was five years his senior. Kurt Jr. also had an older brother named Bernard, nicknamed Bernie, who was eight years older than Kurt.

Klinkowitz says of Allie: “She substituted for Kurt’s mother. I think that [Allie] gave him the nurturing and the love he was not given.” The documentary has some brief, exclusive footage of Bernie, who died in 1997. Weide mentions that he became close to Bernie while making the film.

The Great Depression was financially devastating to Kurt and his family. Their father had problems finding work, and they had to downsize from a middle-class house to a cramped apartment. Kurt came from a family of architectures (he claims one of his ancestors invited the panic door bar), so his career in creative writing was considered somewhat of a radical departure.

In a documentary interview, Kurt says of his childhood: “I wish my parents were happier than they were. I think it was largely my mother’s unhappiness that made the Depression harder on all of us.”

Kurt’s writing skills were honed at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis, where he was co-editor of the school’s newspaper. In a documentary interview, Kurt describes Shortridge as “an extraordinary high school” that was “better than any university” he attended. That’s a huge compliment, considering that he attended Cornell University, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and the University of Chicago.

Before he a received dual bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago, he enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II. Kurt had the harrowing experience of being a prisoner of war in Germany. Kurt survived the 1945 bombings in Dresden by hiding in a slaughterhouse. His war traumas later became the basis for his breakthrough sixth novel, “Slaughterhouse-Five,” which was first published in 1969. The subtitle of this documentary comes from this “Slaughterhouse-Five” line: “Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.”

Vonnegut’s biggest champion, long before he became a famous writer, was his first wife, Jane Marie Cox Vonnegut, whom he married in 1945. Kurt and Jane were high-school sweethearts who both attended the University of Chicago. Jane was the one who pitched Kurt to magazines and became his unofficial agent in the early years of his career.

Kurt and Jane had three kids together: Edie, Nanny and Mark. All of the children are interviewed in the documentary. They describe their father as highly creative but not very affectionate and often impatient with them. Mark says of his father: “His attempts to work at regular jobs did not go well.”

During the early years when Kurt couldn’t get work as a writer, the documentary doesn’t adequately explain how the family was surviving when Kurt was frequently unemployed. It’s not really mentioned if Jane worked outside of the home to contribute to the household income. For a while, Kurt worked at General Electric, but he quit to become a full-time writer. Kurt and his family then moved from Schenectady, New York, to Barnstable, Massachusetts.

Kurt wasn’t an overnight sensation by any means: His earliest years as a writer were steeped in rejections and poverty-level incomes. He got his start in professional fiction writing by doing short stories for magazines. He became a novelist when magazines began to decrease publishing of short stories, as TV became more popular.

Tragedy struck in 1958, when Kurt’s beloved sister Allie died of cancer just two days after her husband, James Carmalt Adams, died in a train accident. The couple’s orphaned sons—Peter, James, Kurt (nicknamed Tiger) and Steven—were adopted by Kurt and Jane Vonnegut. The four brothers, who are interviewed in the documentary, admit that they were quite the handful because they were troublemaking hellraisers in their youth.

Nanny comments on how Allie’s death affected Kurt: “I think Allie’s death was the biggest loss in his life.” Nanny and Edie also say that their father never talked about his prisoner-of-war experiences and tended to downplay how any of this trauma affected him. His daughters say that they had to find out about everything by reading “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

Edie and Nanny share vivid memories of their father chainsmoking, playing Muzak and hunched over his typewriter in his home office. He was often so focused on his work, he would get upset and yell at the kids if he thought they were being so loud that it would distract him from his work. They say his angry outbursts weren’t really abusive, but they could be frightening.

His nephew/adopted son Kurt “Tiger” Adams remembers: “He was moody. You had to be on guard, so as not to get his wrath.” Nanny says that her father was not “cuddly” with his own children, but he was cuddly with the family dog. And things were so financially tough for Kurt in those early years, Mark says that when he was 12, his father asked to borrow $100 from Mark that Mark had saved from his part-time job a newspaper delivery boy.

In public and in his work, Kurt had the persona of a witty, politically liberal raconteur with a sarcastic and sharply observant sense of humor about the best and worst of society. When his career as an author began to wane in the 1980s and beyond, he became in demand for public speaking appearances. The documentary includes archival clips of Kurt giving commencement speeches at university graduation ceremonies.

“Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time” has such a laudatory tone that the movie doesn’t really press Kurt on the issue of Kurt doing what many married men do when they become rich and famous: They divorce their wife (usually the spouse who was with him before he became rich and famous) for a younger woman to have more of a celebrity lifestyle. This type of divorce is often a sign of a mid-life crisis.

Several people in the documentary say that’s what happened when Kurt began an extramarital affair with photographer Jill Krementz, whom he eventually married in 1979. Kurt and Jill lived in New York City until his death. Kurt’s adult children say that when he divorced their mother Jane, it was devastating to the family, but that Jane (who eventually remarried, to author Adam Yarmolinsky) refused to be bitter about the divorce, and remained friendly with Kurt until her death in 1986.

Kurt’s widow was not interviewed for this documentary. However, his son Mark has this to say about the affect that Kurt’s celebrity status might have had on decisions that Kurt made: “I think fame is a horrible, destructive thing to do to people.” Some people in the documentary also hint that Kurt’s second marriage was very unhappy in the final years of his life, but this documentary’s filmmakers chose not to go into further details.

Instead, Weide talks about his own marriage to his wife, actress Linda Bates, whom he met in 1994. Weide says that Kurt was always interested in what was going on in Weide’s love life, and he encouraged Weide to propose to Linda when Weide was hesitant on if he should take the relationship to the marriage level. In the documentary, Weide also shows the wedding gift he got from Kurt: two Victorian candlesticks that are replicas of the same candlesticks that Kurt gave as wedding gifts to his own children. And there’s a segment toward the end of the documentary about Linda’s battle with progressive supranuclear palsy.

Some viewers might be turned off by so much of Weide’s personal life being put in a documentary about Kurt Vonnegut. However, it serves as an example of how difficult it can be for documentarians to remain objective when they become close friends with a person who’s the focus of their documentary. Their lives become intertwined with the documentary subject’s, and it’s hard to separate the two. At least Weide admits this bias up front.

One of the best scenes in the documentary is when Kurt (who graduated from high school in 1940) goes to his 60th class reunion in 2000. He talks about World War II to a man who was a former classmate and who lost one of his eyes in combat during the war. In true Kurt Vonnegut fashion, he asks the man: “Have you considered suing the government?” The man says no.

Because the documentary has a lot of previously released footage that was filmed decades ago, some of it looks very dated, including most of the interview footage with Kurt’s children. One of the Vonnegut admirers who’s interviewed is TV news journalist Morley Safer, who died in 2016. And the types of people who are interviewed aren’t very diverse. Even though the documentary mentions that Kurt got backlash, starting in the late 1970s, for having declining creativity in his later works, the documentary doesn’t interview anyone with these criticisms.

Aside from family members and biographers, most of the people interviewed in the documentary are his friends from the publishing world, such as book publisher Dan Simon; writer Sidney Offit; In These Times magazine editor Joe Bleifuss; author Dan Wakefield; and author John Irving, who was one of Kurt’s students when Kurt was a writing professor at the University of Iowa. Other people interviewed are self-professed Vonnegut fans, such as actor Sam Waterston and book critic Dave Ulin.

Several of Kurt’s novels were made into movies, but they don’t get nearly as much screen time in the documentary as “Mother Night,” the ill-fated flop that Weide was involved in making. It’s an example of how Weide inserts himself a little too much in “Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time.” There’s some footage of Kurt on the “Mother Night” film set, but it would’ve been better to get Kurt’s candid thoughts on his more high-profile novels that were made into movies.

Fortunately, Kurt Vonnegut had such a larger-than-life personality, it overshadows any ego-driven decisions made by the documentary’s director. Even if people watching this documentary never read any Kurt Vonnegut books, they will get a very good sense of who he was as a person. It’s by no means a whitewash of his life, but you get the feeling that some aspects of his life got the “glossed-over” treatment in this movie.

In his speeches and interviews, Kurt Vonnegut often talked about how the world is full of lonely people. He would quip: “My advice: Find an extended family.” Through Weide’s very personal lens, this documentary gives viewers an idea of what it was like to be part of Vonnegut’s extended family.

IFC Films released “Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital adn VOD on November 19, 2021.

Review: ‘The Sound of Identity,’ starring Lucia Lucas

December 29, 2021

by Carla Hay

Hidenouri Inoue and Lucia Lucas in “The Sound of Identity” (Photo courtesy of Shout! Studios)

“The Sound of Identity” 

Directed by James Kicklighter

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the documentary “The Sound of Identity” features a nearly all-white group of people (with one Asian person) discussing the life and career of Lucia Lucas, the first female baritone to perform a principal role on an American operatic stage.

Culture Clash: Lucas, who is a transgender woman, encounters obstacles and prejudice because of her transgender identity.

Culture Audience: “The Sound of Identity” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in stories of transgender people succeeding in traditionally conservative and elitist environments.

Lucia Lucas and Tobias Picker in “The Sound of Identity” (Photo courtesy of Shout! Studios)

You can count on one hand the number of female baritones who have been a principal cast member of a major operatic production. The revealing documentary “The Sound of Identity” tells the fascinating story of opera singer Lucia Lucas, the first female baritone to star in an American-produced opera. The fact that Lucas is a transgender woman makes her story even more unique and compelling.

Directed by James Kicklighter, “The Sound of Identity” follows a conventional format of interviews, archival footage and scenes that are exclusive to the documentary. Although Lucas talks about the part of her life before she began openly living as a transgender woman, the movie doesn’t dwell too much on her past. The focus on the movie is primarily on Lucas’ career as an opera singer.

Born in 1980, Lucas doesn’t talk too much about her childhood, except to say she still has emotional scars from her parents’ divorce. She half-jokingly says that one good thing that came out of her parents’ divorce was that her father gave her a Nintendo video game system because he felt bad about the divorce. Nintendo sparked an interest in playing video games that Lucas still has today.

Lucas, who is an only child from her parents’ broken marriage, says she still feels emotionally hurt by that her father, had a hard time accepting that she is transgender. Lucas is close to her mother, whom she describes as completely accepting of Lucas’ transgender identity. She and her mother speak frequently by phone, as shown in the documentary.

Lucas’ father, Jack Harbour, got remarried and gained a new family (including a stepson and stepdaughter) after the divorce. Lucas expresses some resentment that her father was more attentive to his younger children than he was to her. As soon as Lucas talks about her “daddy issues,” you just know there’s going to be a scene in the documentary where her father is going to see one of her performances. That scene happens toward the end of the film.

Lucas comments, “The worst time, absolutely, in my life was in junior high, because I felt like my body was betraying my mind.” The movie could have had more insight into how Lucas discovered her passion for opera and how she developed her craft when she was younger. And there isn’t much discussion about any particular performers had an influence on Lucas.

Despite some painful childhood memories, Lucas seems to be in a good place in her life. She’s happily married to her wife, Ariana Lucas, a former professional singer who stood by Lucas during her transgender transition. (Ariana is interviewed in the documentary.) The biggest challenge in the couple’s relationship is all the time that Lucia has to spend traveling because of her job. As Lucia says in the documentary: “Performing is not the job. The job is traveling all over the place and not getting sick.”

The portrait that emerges of Lucia is of someone is focused and determined to be the best opera singer that she can be. Her current performing home base is in Oklahoma, at the Tulsa Opera at the Tulsa Center for Performing Arts. The documentary chronicles Lucia’s journey as the star of the Tulsa Opera’s 2018 production of “Don Giovanni,” as a rare female singer to perform the opera’s title role.

Lucia says of the Tulsa Center for the Performing Arts: “This theater is sacred in a way.” She also comments on performing live: “There’s no substitute for it. [Performing virtually] is not going to make up for that energy when you are in person.” Lucia is also a Method actor, immersing herself into the role she has at the time, even when she’s not on stage.

But one of the challenges for this “Don Giovanni” production is selling tickets. As Tulsa Opera development associate Susan Stiff says in the documentary, the audience for opera is shrinking. The movie shows that Lucia is not a diva who thinks it’s beneath her to do grunt work tasks to sell tickets. In the documentary, she’s a tireless promoter: She doesn’t hesitate to handout promotional flyers for “Don Giovanni” and paying for the flyers herself. “I’ve been told it’s not my job to sell tickets,” Lucia says.

In her interactions with the public to convince random people to buy tickets to “Don Giovanni,” Lucia shows a natural curiosity and a flair for making an impression when she asks people what they think of a transgender woman starring in the show. She doesn’t convince everyone to buy tickets, but she seems to have opened up people’s minds a little bit to the idea that it’s not far-fetched for a well-known opera to gender swap in the character in the title role.

As for the idea of having a transgender woman in the role of Don Giovanni, Tulsa Opera general director/CEO Ken McConnell comments: “We’re not trying to make a political statement. We’re not trying to offend people.” Tulsa Opera artistic director/composer Tobias Picker adds: “It’s an added benefit that she’s trans. No trans singer has performed ‘Don Giovanni’ in the world.”

“Don Giovanni” director Denni Sayers comments, “It just shows that we’re not doing anything traditional here.” Later in the documentary, Sayers notes of having a transgender woman in the role of Don Giovanni: “We’re not saying that Don Giovanni is a transgender person. We’re saying that Don Giovanni is a master of disguise.”

As for how the public reacted to this unusual casting, “Don Giovanni” conductor Andres Cladera observes that the audience members seem to enjoy the singing, but they often have a hard time looking at Lucia. It’s no doubt because it’s difficult for some people to reconcile such a deep singing voice coming out of the mouth of a woman. Overall, the reaction to this version of “Don Giovanni” is very positive.

The documentary shows how Lucia and Picker have a close friendship not just because of their passion for opera but also because Picker is an openly gay man who is a tireless LGBTQ activist, just like Lucia is. Picker shares some of his personal story when he says that growing up gay and having Tourette Syndrome, “I felt like a freak.” Picker adds, “I am interested in helping people who are oppressed.”

The group of people interviewed for the documentary consists mostly of people directly involved in the “Don Giovanni” production. They include actor Hidenouri Inoue, who had the role of the Commendatore; actor Michael St. Peter, who had the role of Don Ottavio; actor Anthony Clark Evans, who had the role of Leporello; and Tulsa Opera vice chair Ronnie Jobe. Also interviewed are Lucia’s half-sister Kaitlin Schaars and Michael Cooper, who was theater editor for The New York Times at the time.

The documentary acknowledges that opera is not a genre of music that’s been embraced by popular culture. In North America and Europe, opera attracts people who are mostly affluent, mostly white and mostly over the age of 40. It’s briefly mentioned that the Tulsa Opera board of directors has struggled with its lack of racial diversity.

The board also has issues with attracting young people to become loyal opera audience members, because younger generations are needed to economically sustain the business over time when older people eventually pass away. It’s not said outright, but Lucia’s groundbreaking role in opera is a sign that opera institutions (at least in Tulsa and some other places) are open to progressive and open-minded casting decisions. It’s not just for idealistic reasons, but there are financial reasons too: Lucia’s starring role in “Don Giovanni” got a lot of publicity that helped sell tickets.

“The Sound of Identity” is a fairly straightforward and briskly paced film that doesn’t try to be anything that it’s not. It presents Lucia mostly as a performer but doesn’t dig too deep into her entire personal history. It’s not a comprehensive biography, which might disappoint some viewers.

Instead, “The Sound of Identity” is more of a capably made snapshot of what she was like while preparing for and performing a pivotal opera in her career. The performance scenes are expected highlights of the documentary. And thankfully, the filmmakers didn’t overstuff the movie with too many talking heads.

If there’s any big takeaway from the movie it’s that true happiness starts with being true to yourself. “I make art for me,” Lucia says of her philosophy on being an artist. “Your art has to be for you. You can’t make other people like you. You can’t live your life for other people. I tried that. It didn’t work.”

Shout! Studios released “The Sound of Identity” on digital and VOD on June 1, 2021. Starz premiered the movie on June 21, 2021.

Review: ‘Flee,’ starring Amin Nawabi

December 13, 2021

by Carla Hay

Amin Nawabi in “Flee” (Image courtesy of Neon)

“Flee”

Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen

In Danish, Dari and Russian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Afghanistan, Denmark, Russia, Estonia and Sweden, the animated documentary “Flee” features a group of Middle Eastern people and white European people (in animated form) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A real-life Afghan man, who happens to be gay and living in Denmark, tells the harrowing story of what he and his family have experienced as refugees. 

Culture Audience: “Flee” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in unconventional and emotionally impactful movies about the Afghan refugee crisis.

Jonas Poher Rasmussen and Amin Nawabi in “Flee” (Image courtesy of Neon)

There have been many documentaries and news reports about the devastating traumas experienced by Afghan refugees and other people affected by war and political unrest in Afghanistan. But “Flee” is perhaps one of the most unforgettable and emotionally moving accounts that someone can see in a movie. At first glance, it might seem that telling this story in the format of an animated movie might lessen the impact, but it does not. In many ways, it increases the impact because animation can do things that actors and real-life locations cannot do in a recreation. Animation can add visuals to enhance the tone and meaning of the storytelling.

“Flee” (directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen) uses a real-life audio interview of a Syrian refugee named Amin Nawabi (which is an alias) telling his life story, and the movie recreates what he says through animation. Based on what he says in the interview, Nawabi was born in the early 1980s. He did not want to appear on camera for the documentary, and he did not want to use his real name, out of lingering fear that he and his family members would be targeted for persecution. And so, Rasmussen suggested that the story be told through animation.

“Flee” had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize. The movie also made the rounds at several other international film festivals, including the Toronto International Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and DOC NYC. “Flee” has gotten overwhelmingly positive responses at every film festival where it has been. It’s the type of movie that audiences will most likely discover through recommendations, rather than through a flashy marketing campaign.

At the time of the documentary interviews for “Flee,” Nawabi (who is openly gay) was living in Demark’s capital city of Copenhagen and was engaged to marry his Danish boyfriend Kasper, who is occasionally heard in parts of the movie. Nawabi and Kasper were also looking for a new place to live in Copenhagen. The movie includes Nawabi’s account of his “coming out” journey as a gay man in environments where homophobia is rampant and often sanctioned by the government.

Rasmussen has known Nawabi since they were teenagers who went to the same high school. They met when Rasmussen was 15, and Nawabi was living in a foster home in “my sleepy Danish hometown,” according the Rasmussen’s director’s statement in the production notes for “Flee.” Rasmussen can be heard asking some questions in “Flee” during the interview process.

The rest of the voices in the movie are actors portraying the people who are talked about in Nawabi’s narration. Other names have been changed to protect people’s privacy and identities. All of this is explained in the beginning of the movie, so that audiences know that although the names have been changed, and actors are providing most of the voices, it’s a true story based on a real person’s narrative account.

“Flee” begins with Rasmussen asking Nawabi: “What does ‘home’ mean to you?” Nawabi answers, “Home? It’s someplace safe. Somewhere you know you can stay, and you don’t have to move on. It’s not someplace temporary.” It’s that feeling of permanent safety that Nawabi says he has been seeking for most of his life so far.

Nawabi begins by talking about his earliest childhood memories when he was living in Kabul, Afghanistan. He describes being the youngest child in his family and being raised by a loving and attentive mother. His older siblings are brothers Saif and Abbas and sisters Fahima and Sabia. Amin remembers that, as early as 3 or 4 years old, he would wear his sisters’ nightgowns in public. “I think I always had a tendency to be a little bit different,” Amin says.

In “Flee,” the voice actors that portray the family members are Daniel Karimyar (the voice of Amin, ages 9 to 11); Fardin Mijdzadeh (the voice of Amin, ages 15 to 18); Milad Eskandari (the voice of Saif, at age 8); Elaha Faiz (the voice of Fahima, ages 13 to 18); Zahra Mehrwaz (the voice of Fahima, at age 28); and Sadia Faiz (the voice of Sabia, ages 16 to 26). Many of the voice actors in the cast are listed as “Anonymous” in the end credits. It’s probably an indication that they also fear retribution for being involved in telling this story.

Amin’s father Akhtar Nawabi was a pilot, but he died tragically. He was killed because he was considered to be a threat to the Communist government, according to Amin. He also says that his mother told him that Ahktar was one of 3,000 people who were rounded up in a day raid and imprisoned. Most of the people didn’t make it out alive from their imprisonment.

According to what Amin’s mother told him, Akhtar was expecting this raid. Akhtar’s family was able to visit him in jail. But then, three months later, he disappeared and was never seen alive again. The family’s life was never the same. And things continued to get worse for them.

“Flee” intersperses the animation with occasional real-life archival footage of news events going on during the times that are described by Amin in his story, which is told in chronological order. There’s disturbing footage of the Taliban invading villages in Afghanistan. There’s also footage of then-Afghanistan president Mohamad Najibullah saying that Afghanistan could be the U.S.’s next Vietnam if the U.S. chooses to interfere in the conflict. (Najibullah was assassinated in 1996.)

Under all of this chaos and strife, Amin and his mother were forced to separate from the rest of the family, and they both fled to Moscow together in the early 1990s. The rest of Amin’s story is a painful and horrifying account of long family separations; living in poverty; and being detained, shunned or incarcerated for being refugees. Amin also details Abbas’ struggles to earn enough money to pay for human traffickers to smuggle family members over certain borders, with the hope of having everyone reunited. Fahima and Sabia experienced nightmarish abuse from evil and corrupt human traffickers.

The Nawabi family’s journey separates them and takes them down different paths in various countries, such as Russia, Estonia, Sweden and Denmark. There’s a part of the story where Amin confesses that in order to get through certain national borders, he had to lie and say that all of his immediate family members are dead. He fears that this lie will come back to haunt him and might affect his current immigration status.

Although this story is told primarily in an animation format, there’s no mistaking the real rollercoaster of emotions that can be heard in Amin’s voice when he tells the story. The wonderfully expressive animation also conveys the emotions of the characters. The voice actors also do an admirable job in their roles.

At times, the interview setting is recreated, as Amin is shown being so overwhelmed when telling his story, he has to lie down on a carpet at some point, just like a therapy patient lying down on a couch during a therapy session. Because make no mistake: The interview does start to be like a therapy session, with a lot of raw emotions and excruciating memories.

Although there’s so much sadness in Amin’s personal story, there is also some joy. His experiences with coming out as gay weren’t easy, but he describes finding acceptance about his sexuality in some unexpected places. Amin says he knew he was gay since he was about 5 or 6 years old. One of his earliest celebrity crushes was actor Jean-Claude Van Damme.

One of the funniest parts of the movie is how Amin describes his family’s surprising reaction when he told them that he’s gay. He also talks about what it was like to live in a country for the first time where he didn’t have to worry about being arrested for being gay. And, of course, Amin finding true love with Kasper is an indication that this documentary is not completely depressing.

Like all relationships, there are some challenges in Amin and Kasper’s romance. During the making of this documentary, Amin (who is highly educated) was invited by a Princeton University professor to complete Amin’s post-doctoral studies at Princeton. Therefore, Amin and Kasper had to have a long-distance relationship for a while. It took a toll on their romance, and it tested the strength of their commitment to each other.

“Flee” is not the most technically dazzling animated movie you’ll ever see. The movie is not a fun-filled adventure, like most animated films are. However, “Flee” is one of the best animated films you’ll ever see, because the true story behind it is so powerfully moving, it will have an impact on you that you will never forget.

Neon released “Flee” in select U.S. cinemas on December 3, 2021.

Review: ‘Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America,’ starring Jeffrey Robinson

November 28, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jeffrey Robinson, Hank Sanders and Faya Ora Rose Touré in “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” (Photo by Jesse Wakeman/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America”

Directed by Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler 

Culture Representation: The documentary “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” features a predominantly African American group (with a few white people) of civil rights activists, entrepreneurs, historians and authors discussing the racial prejudices and challenges experienced by people of color, particularly African American men, in the United States.

Culture Clash: The documentary, led by civil rights activist/attorney Jeffrey Robinson, has the premise that people cannot truly be honest about racism in America without acknowledging that America was built on white supremacy that oppresses non-white people in entrenched systems that still exist today.

Culture Audience: “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” will appeal primarily to people interested in historical accounts of racial bigotry in America that have a personal touch (due to Robinson’s on-camera narration and interviewing), but don’t expect there to be much discussion about racism against people who aren’t African American men.

Jeffrey Robinson in “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” (Photo by Jesse Wakeman/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” is partly a filmed lecture by scholar Jeffrey Robinson, partly a historical account and partly a personal journey taken by Robinson to retrace past experiences with racism and race relations. The movie features compelling interviews and information but puts an overwhelming emphasis on bigotry inflicted on black men. The documentary should have been more inclusive of other people of color who experience racism too.

For example, the documentary has almost no acknowledgement of the genocide of Native Americans that allowed white Europeans to take over the land that is now known as the United States of America. You can’t have a truly comprehensive discussion about racism in America without including the brutally honest but necessary history explaining how white people became the dominant race in a part of North America where Native Americans were the dominant race for centuries. The documentary also does not cover the well-documented and shameful examples of U.S. government-sanctioned racism and other forms of bigotry experienced by Latinos and Asians in America.

“Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” (directed by sisters Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler) is nevertheless a well-intentioned film and addresses many important topics about racial discrimination. The title is just a little misleading though. A more accurate title would be “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism Against Black Men in America.” That’s because almost all of the examples of racist hate crimes that are examined in this documentary are crimes in America against black men. This documentary packs in a considerable amount of information in its 118-minute running time, but the vast scope of what this documentary intended would have been better-suited as a docuseries instead of a feature-length film.

“Who Are Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” made the rounds at several film festivals, including the SXSW Film Festival, Hot Docs, AFI Fest and DOC NYC. It’s the type of movie that is supposed to make people uncomfortable because it covers uncomfortable truths that many people want to deny or forget. The documentary sounds an alarm that there’s still a lot of work to be done in healing from and preventing the damage of racism that is still pervasive today.

If it seems like “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” has a well-articulated and methodical tone of attorneys presenting a case, that’s because several attorneys or people with legal backgrounds were involved in the making of this film. Jeffrey Robinson, the movie’s on-screen narrator and interviewer, is an attorney who founded the Who We Are Project non-profit group to combat racism. Proceeds from this documentary will go to Who We Are Project. He has a background working as a deputy legal director and the director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Trone Center for Justice and Equality, as well as a public defender and an attorney in private practice.

Robinson, Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler are among the producers of “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America.” Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler (who co-founded the social-justice film production company Off Center Media) are two of the daughters famed civil rights attorney William Kunstler. Sarah is a practicing attorney. Emily’s mother is attorney Margaret Ratner Kunstler.

When white directors make a documentary or any project about white supremacist racism, some people will automatically question the validity or authenticity of the project. Emily Kunstler responded to this skepticism by making this statement in the “Who We Are” documentary’s production notes: “Throughout the making of this film, one of the questions we often get is why are two white women making this film? Our answer is that the history of slavery in the United States is not Black history, it is American history; a history of white supremacy and white complicity as well as a history of Black oppression and resistance. Growing up, Sarah and I were taught that it was our moral responsibility to stand up against racism and fight for justice. This responsibility includes learning and sharing our country’s painful history.”

“Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” has three distinctive types of footage that are all interwoven seamlessly throughout the film:

  • (1) A filmed speaking appearance about American racism that Robinson did in June 2018 at New York City’s Town Hall. This footage was directed by Gbenga Akinnagbe, who is one of the producers of this documentary
  • (2) Archival footage of many of the people, places and events discussed in the documentary.
  • (3) Interviews about racism in America that Robinson conducted in various U.S. cities.

Robinson has an engaging style of public speaking that is partly like a scholarly history teacher, partly like an intellectual sociologist and partly like an impassioned civil rights activist. He infuses his recitation of alarming statistics and data about racism with his own personal anecdotes, in order to make the information more relatable. He sometimes cracks sarcastic jokes to lighten the mood. Other times, his facial expressions show the emotional pain of remembering being the target of racism and feeling empathy to others who’ve also experienced this type of hatred and discrimination.

In the documentary’s opening scene, Robinson is seen on stage at the Town Hall appearance addressing a common argument that some people have when trying to minimize the damage caused by slavery in America. Robinson says that these deniers often say, “‘Slavery is not our responsibility.’ But it’s our shared history. And when we try to turn it into something that it’s not, when we try to make more light of what it was, then we are denying who we really are and are impeding our ability to move forward as a community and as a nation.”

As an example of how divisive people’s opinions are about how slavery in America should be remembered, the documentary mentions the ongoing debates of whether or not certain slave owners in American history should be celebrated. Controversies over which public statues should be removed or which architectural structures should be renamed indicate that this is a hot-button topic that won’t be going away anytime soon. Oftentimes, when people talk about not removing these statues or other tributes, they say it’s about “being patriotic.” But does “being patriotic” mean embracing historical racists as heroes?

In the documentary, Robinson shares his opinion on where people should draw the line: If a historical figure (especially a slave owner) is best known for doing things that advocated for keeping slavery and/or racial segregation legal, then those historical figures should not be celebrated with public statues, structures or any government-funded institutions named after them. If a historical figure’s accomplishments consist mainly of progress for the United States that’s greater than the fact that the historical figured owned slaves when it was legal in the United States, then it’s best to not remove the statue or tribute. Robinson cites former U.S. presidents who were slave owners (George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, to name a few) as examples of historical figures who shouldn’t be “erased” or “cancelled,” because their legacies for what they did in U.S. history far outweigh the fact that they owned slaves.

Several of the flashpoint events in civil rights history are mentioned during Robinson’s Town Hall speaking appearance, which includes a Power Point-type visual presentation on stage. These tragedies include the 1921 massacre and burning of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma; the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmitt Till, who was brutally slaughtered by two white men in Money, Mississippi, after Till was wrongfully accused of whistling at a white woman; and the 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. For many of these tragic events, Robinson goes to the scene and/or interviews people who were associated in some way to the victims of these hate crimes.

In Tulsa, Robinson interviews Lessie Benningfield Randle, one of the last known survivors of the Tulsa massacre. Even though she was a little girl when the massacre happened, she still has horrific memories of this tragedy. She witnessed people being shot and bodies piled up on the street. “I never want to see anything like that again,” she says with a haunted look in her eyes.

Also in Tulsa, Robinson visits Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, the twin sister of Terence Crutcher, an unarmed college student who was killed in 2016 by a white police officer named Betty Jo Shelpy, who claimed self-defense. Dr. Cruther says that her brother was not identified as a suspect when Shelpy arrived on the scene and that the media “dehumanized” him as a criminal when in facts he was not a criminal. “He laid on the street like an animal,” she says bitterly about how her brother’s dead body was unattended to for hours.

While in Memphis (Robinson’s childhood hometown), Robinson visits the Lorraine Motel, the site of King’s assassination. Robinson describes his own father as someone who was involved in the civil rights movement, and he has vivid memories of being taken to protest marches as a child. Also in Memphis, Robinson has an emotional reunion with Robert “Opie” Orians, a former classmate and friend of Robinson’s when they both attended St. Louis Catholic School and were on the school’s basketball team. Jeffrey Robinson and his older brother Herbert Robinson (who appears briefly in another part of the documentary) were the first black students at the school.

Opie’s father Richard Orians is also part of the reunion with Opie and Jeffrey. Richard, who used to coach the school’s basketball team, talks about an incident when the St. Louis team was barred from entry for a game at a rival school because a black student (Jeffrey) was on the St. Louis team. All three men get emotional, with eyes tearing up and voices cracking, when Richard says that, out of principle, he removed the team from the premises because he didn’t want to the team to be associated with a school that would make this racist decision. At the time, Richard says that he protected the team by not telling them the real reason why they were withdrawing from the game.

Jeffrey also remembers another racist incident he experienced as a child during a basketball game, when someone on the other team called him the “n” word. Jeffrey’s father was watching the game nearby, so Jeffrey went to his father to complain about the racist insult. Jeffrey remembers his father’s empathetic but stern response: “What do you want to do about it?”

His father asked Jeffrey if he would rather quit the game and let the racist feel superior, or stay in the game to prove to the racist that a racist slur wasn’t going to stop Jeffrey from playing the game. Jeffrey decided to stay in the game. He said it was an early lesson in not letting racists get what they want when they using racist insults and other forms of racism to make the targets of their hate feel inferior or defeated.

Jeffrey shares another personal story when he meets up with Kathie Fox, whose mother-in-law Mildred was the realtor of the Robinson family. The family—Jeffrey’s parents Herbert Sr. and Lameris; older brother Herbert Jr.; and younger brother Larry (who appears briefly in this documentary)—couldn’t move into a mostly white neighborhood until Mildred enlisted her married friends Lib and Pat Smith to buy a house in the neighborhood and then transfer the deed to Herbert Sr. and Lameris. Jeffrey remembers the look of shock on some neighbors’ faces when his family moved into the neighborhood. It was not uncommon for African American families to have to ask white allies to be their proxies to buy a house in a white neighborhood, because racist realtors would not sell houses to black people.

Also in Memphis, Jeffrey meets up with Tami Sawyer, a Shelby County commissioner of District 7, who led the charge to take down a statue in Memphis of Nathan Bedford, a Confederate Army general and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Sawyer says there’s no legitimate excuse for any past or present member of the KKK to be honored with a publicly funded statue that makes that person look like a hero. Still, the people who successfully lobbied to have the statue removed got a lot of resistance from those who say statues like that represent “Southern pride.” To other people, these types of statues are symbols of racist white supremacy.

While visiting Clayborn Temple in Memphis, Jeffrey interviews Carolyn Payne, whose unarmed brother Larry Payne was shot to death by a cop when Larry was 18 years old. Larry was unfortunately in the wrong place at the wrong time, since there was no evidence that he did anything wrong. Nothing ever happened to the cop who killed Larry. Carolyn says that she and her family will probably never know what really happened because she thinks there was a racist cover-up by the police who were involved. Sadly, there are too many other incidents like this to put into just one documentary.

In Alabama, Jeffrey visits author Josephine Bolling McCall, whose father Elmore Bolling was murdered in 1967, for being “too successful to be a Negro,” according to a newspaper report that she reads out loud and which is shown in the documentary. She describes how her family found her father shot to death in a ditch. “It’s ingrained in my memory,” she says with heartbreak. No one was indicted for this crime.

While in Selma, Alabama, Jeffrey speaks with retired Alabama senator Hank Sanders and activist Faya Ora Rose Touré, who are part of a group of citizens who want the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma to be renamed the Freedom Bridge. Edmund Pettus was a Grand Dragon in the KKK. Considering the historical significance of Selma in the civil rights movement, many people think it’s an insult that there’s a bridge in Selma (or anywhere, for that matter) named after someone who was proud to be a racist.

In Charleston, South Carolina, Jeffrey visits the Old Slave Mart Museum, where operations manager Ista Clarke gives a harrowing, detailed description of what it was like for slaves to be bought and sold there. Also in Charleston, Jeffrey accompanies Sights and Insights Tours owner Al Miller on a trip to the Ashley Avenue Oak Tree, which was the site of numerous lynchings, mainly of African American men. It’s mentioned that in almost all of these lynching cases, the victims were lynched not for doing anything wrong but for not being white.

African Americans are the vast majority of people who are interviewed in this documentary, but one white person is interviewed who represents people who think that the Confederate flag is not a symbol of racist hate. In Charleston, Jeffrey talks to one of three white men standing outside on the street while holding the Confederate flag. The three men are from a pro-Confederate flag group called Flags Across the South. It should be noted that although these men claim to be proud to stand up for their cause, they’re all wearing hats and sunglasses, as if they don’t want their faces to be fully exposed.

Jeffrey talks to Flags Across the South chairman Braxton Spivey on the street. And what Spivey has to say can only be described as being making excuses for slavery. Spivey comments, “Slavery had nothing to do with the [Civil] War. It was about money.” Spivey adds, “Slaves were treated like family,” and he believes that slaves “chose to stay” in captivity.

Jeffrey looks visibly disgusted at Spivey’s historically inaccurate rhetoric and blatant racism. When Spivey is asked if he would ever want to be owned as a slave, he admits he would not. But the subtext of what Spivey believes is that he thinks that white people shouldn’t be the slaves in society. Jeffrey shakes his head as he walks away and comments on Spivey: “Facts are not important to that gentleman.”

In New York City, Jeffrey talks to law student Darren Martin, who had the cops called on him when he was moving into his apartment. Apparently, an unidentified neighbor assumed that because Martin is African American, his moving activities were thieving activities. Martin says that six police officers responded to the complaint as if he were a criminal, even though he showed proof that he was new resident of the building and he was moving in. Like many people who experience this type of racism, Martin took out his phone and video recorded the incident. His video went viral and made the news.

Also in New York City, Jeffrey interviewed Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, an unarmed African American man who died in 2013 after a police officer put Garner in a chokehold and Garner repeatedly yelled, “I can’t breathe!” The cop acted with this type of force in response to seeing Garner illegally selling loose cigarettes. That incident was captured on video, made international news, and became a touchstone tragedy that fueled the Black Lives Matter movement.

Carr describes her slain son: “He was a gentle giant.” She also says that she went into a deep depression after his death but then had a spiritual awakening: “The Holy Spirit spoke to me one evening” and asked if she was going be dead like her son, or if she was “going to get up, lift up his name, and let people know exactly who he was, and not let the media demonize him. Even though it’s too late for my son, we have to save other lives.”

While in New York City, Jeffrey interviews Inside Out Tours managing director Stacey Toussaint, who talks about how slave labor was the backbone of New York City, which was a financial hub for insurance and financing of the slave trade. Toussaint says that she wants more people to understand that even though Southern states are often singled out as the worst states in America for racism, the reality is that racism can be anywhere.

Other people interviewed in the documentary are Chief Egunwale F. Amusan, president of the African Ancestral Society in Tulsa; Reverend Dr. Robert Turner, pastor of Historic Vernon Chapel A.M.E. Church in Tulsa; Kristi Williams, a Historic Greenwood/Black Wall Street historian; and Jeffrey’s nephew Matthew Liam Brooks, whom Jeffrey raised as a son after Brooks’ mother died.

During his Town Hall speaking appearance, Jeffrey says that dealing with racism means dealing with the ugly fact that many people are too heavily invested in keeping white supremacist racism in the economy and other systems that affect people lives. And when it comes to stopping racism, he makes this pointed observation: “A lot of people say they want change. They just don’t want the change to cost them anything or require them to change anything about the way they are living.”

One of the best ways to sum up the point of this documentary is from something that Jeffrey says in his Town Hall speaking engagement: “America has demonstrated its greatness time and time and time again, and America is one of the most racist countries on the face of the earth. Those two things are not mutually exclusive. It is not an either/or. And the reason I’m asking us to think about this is that literally, the future is at stake.”

Sony Pictures Classics will release “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” in select U.S. cinemas on January 14, 2022.

Review: ‘The Beatles: Get Back,’ starring Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr

November 25, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison in “The Beatles: Get Back” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

“The Beatles: Get Back”

Directed by Peter Jackson

Culture Representation: Taking place in London in January 1969, the three-part documentary series “The Beatles: Get Back” features a predominantly white and mostly British group of people (with one Japanese person and one African American person) representing the middle-class and wealthy in this chronicle of the beginning of the Beatles’ last recording sessions, as well as the Beatles’ last live public performance.

Culture Clash: Before the band broke up in 1970, the Beatles had internal struggles and disagreements over who would lead the band and how each member’s talent and contributions were valued within the group.

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of Beatles fans, “The Beatles: Get Back” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of 1960s rock music who want detailed observations of what music studio sessions looked like at the time.

Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and John Lennon in “The Beatles: Get Back” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

The three-episode official Beatles docuseries “The Beatles: Get Back” gives Beatles fans more than enough of what they might be looking for in this intimate chronicle of the band’s recording sessions and rehearsals in London in January 1969. “The Beatles: Get Back” (directed by Peter Jackson) expands on the footage that was in director Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970 Beatles documentary “Let It Be,” which is no longer officially distributed but has been widely bootlegged. “The Beatles: Get Back” is the docuseries for you, if you’re the type of music fan who relishes seeing several different rehearsal snippets of the same Beatles songs that mostly ended up on the band’s 1969 “Abbey Road” album and 1970 “Let It Be” album. If you have absolutely no interest in watching the Beatles in a recording/rehearsal studio, then you might be bored and might not be able to finish watching this documentary.

That’s because most of the footage in this 468-minute docuseries (that’s 7.8 hours) takes place at recording/rehearsal studios: Twickenham and Apple Corps, to be exact. (Apple Corps is the London-based entertainment company founded by the Beatles in 1967, and is not to be confused with the California-based computer technology company Apple Inc. that was co-founded by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in 1976.) The docuseries culminates with the Beatles performing a brief surprise concert on the rooftop of Apple Corps headquarters, which would end up being the band’s last live public performance. A great deal of the docuseries shows the repetitive nature of doing takes and re-takes of songs in the studio. In that regard, “The Beatles: Let It Be” could have used tighter editing to keep the interest of people with short attention spans.

The vast majority of the docuseries footage is within the confines of a studio. But what happens in that studio is pure magic for people who want to see how the Beatles crafted many of their songs from this period of time. There’s plenty of footage of the band’s personal interactions, but it’s only in the context of this work environment.

And that’s why the docuseries will appeal most to die-hard Beatles fans, who aren’t going to mind that this documentary’s cameras didn’t follow Beatles members Paul McCartney (bass guitar), John Lennon (rhythm guitar), George Harrison (lead guitar) and Ringo Starr (drums) outside of the studio to show what they were like outside of work. People who want to see more controversy in this documentary will be disappointed. However, the filmmakers made the decision not take the tabloid route, so that the documentary would remain focused mainly on the Beatles’ music.

“The Beatles: Get Back” is an insightful look at the band dynamics that foreshadowed why the Beatles broke up in 1970, but the documentary also shows the special chemistry and camaraderie that the Beatles had together. People who know Beatles history are the ones who will have the most appreciation of this deep-dive look into these recording/rehearsal sessions. After all, how many times does someone need to see the different ways that Beatles songs such as “Get Back,” “The Long and Winding Road” or “Don’t Let Me Down” were recorded or rehearsed? Die-hard fans will tolerate this type of repetition the most. The documentary also shows that the Beatles spent a lot of time in the studio performing cover songs for fun.

At the time this documentary footage was filmed, the idea was to record the next Beatles album live in the studio and make a documentary about it. (“Abbey Road” was actually recorded after the “Let It Be” album, but “Abbey Road” was released first.) The band also planned to do a live concert as a TV special. Lindsay-Hogg was the director hired for the documentary and the TV special, with the entire project tentatively called “Get Back,” named after one of the hit songs that would be on the “Let It Be” album. A big problem was that with less than three weeks before the concert was to take place, the band still couldn’t agree/decide on where the concert should be.

In the docuseries, band members have disagreements with each other, but no one has screaming arguments or destroys instruments in anger. Yoko Ono (an avant-garde artist who was Lennon’s girlfriend at the time and became his wife in March 1969) is not seen pitting Lennon and McCartney against each other, and she doesn’t try to tell the band what to do. In other words, this not the Beatles version of the 1984 rock mockumentary “This Is Spinal Tap.” That might come as a surprise to people who have come to expect drama akin to a soap opera in behind-the-scenes music documentaries about rock bands on the verge of splitting up.

And so, people looking for that type of turmoil won’t find it in “The Beatles: Get Back,” whose producers include McCartney, Ono (Lennon’s widow), Olivia Harrison (George Harrison’s widow), Starr and Jackson. The documentary does show how George Harrison briefly quit the Beatles, but his departure is not the disaster it could have been. That’s mainly because the other band members carry on with their work, as if they know deep down that Harrison will change his mind and come back less than a week later. (And that’s exactly what happened.)

Harrison’s temporary split from the Beatles was not made public at the time. This abrupt departure of someone from the most famous band in the world would be harder to keep a secret in today’s celebrity news environment, where this type of news would spread quickly on the Internet. It’s a testament to how the Beatles employees and associates who knew about Harrison quitting back then were discreet enough to not leak this information.

There’s so much to delve into “The Beatles: Get Back” because each episode of the series is longer than the average episode of a docuseries. Episode One is 157 minutes. Episode Two is 173 minutes. Episode Three is 138 minutes. “The Beatles: Get Back” director Jackson (who is a Beatles superfan) and his team lovingly restored the footage that was originally directed by Lindsay-Hogg.

Over the 21 days that Lindsay-Hogg and his team documented the Beatles in January 1969, there were about 60 hours of filmed footage and about 120 hours of audio recordings that ended up being edited for “The Beatles: Get Back” docuseries. The results are footage and audio that look and sound clear and crisp. The songs performed in the studio sessions have quick-cut editing in the docuseries. It’s as if the filmmakers don’t want the entire performance of each song to be seen, in anticipation of the Beatles’ rooftop concert. On-screen captions indicate which takes of these songs ended up on a Beatles album.

It’s explained in the beginning of the series that the Beatles had the daunting task of writing and rehearsing 14 new songs within a two-week period, in order for them to make the deadline for the TV concert. The Beatles didn’t agree on everything, but they all agreed that if this concert was going to happen, it wouldn’t be to play their old hits. They wanted it to be a showcase for their new songs. For recordings and rehearsals, they started off at Twickenham Studios for the first eight days, and then spent the remaining 13 days at Apple Studios.

Here’s a summary of the highlights from each episode:

Episode One

(Days 1 to 7)

John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr in “The Beatles: Get Back” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

The episode begins with a brief chronological history of the Beatles, leading up to January 1969. At this point in the Beatles’ career, the band members were managing themselves, ever since Beatles manager Brian Epstein died of a sedative overdose in 1967, at the age of 32. McCartney is clearly the band member in charge, but disagreements over who should be the band’s next official manager were among the big reasons why the band broke up. Beatles fans will notice in this docuseries that these tensions were brewing and an indication of trouble to come. More on that later.

Even though Epstein wasn’t much older than the Beatles, certain band members still refer to him as “Mr. Epstein” and describe him as a father figure who was the one who kept them disciplined and taught them a certain work ethic as a band. With Epstein gone, McCartney has tried to step into the role of a leader who expects everyone to be their best and show up on time. But it’s how McCartney handles that leadership role that causes friction with other members of the group, especially Harrison and Lennon.

Lennon and McCartney co-wrote most of the songs that ended up on Beatles albums. If McCartney wrote most of a Lennon/McCartney song, McCartney was the one who sang lead vocals. If Lennon wrote most of a Lennon/McCartney song, Lennon was the one who sang lead vocals. Harrison would write Beatles songs on his own and sing lead vocals on them, but his songs were very much in the minority on Beatles albums. On rare occasions, Starr (whose real name is Richard Starkey) got a songwriting credit and lead vocals on a Beatles song.

This is the type of Beatles history that is not explained in the docuseries. However, people who are unfamiliar with the Beatles can discern these group dynamics when watching this docuseries, because every time a song is performed, the song’s title and the last name(s) of the songwriter(s) are listed on the screen. Even people with scarce knowledge of the Beatles have some idea that the Lennon/McCartney songwriting duo was the dominant songwriting partnership in the Beatles.

Although early in the Beatles’ career, Harrison was nicknamed in the media as “The Quiet Beatle,” Starr was actually the quietest member of the Beatles at this point in 1969. He’s often seen silently observing (and sometimes napping) while the other members of the band hash out some of their differences. He’s also the most easygoing member of the Beatles and the one most likely to want to keep the peace. It’s probably why the Beatles chose Starr’s home as the place for the Beatles to meet with Harrison after he abruptly quit the group.

McCartney is either motivational or bossy, depending on your perspective. He’s the one most likely to have big ambitions for the Beatles. He repeats throughout the documentary that he doesn’t just want to do albums. He wants the Beatles’ music to serve a bigger purpose and have more visual documentation of their art, such as filming the recording of the album.

Lennon is the sarcastic joker of the group. After recently getting involved in an intense love affair with Ono, he is shown as becoming less interested in arriving on time for band meetings and studio sessions. Lennon and Harrison are the Beatles members who are most likely to be tardy in these studio sessions.

Ono is never far from Lennon during most of these sessions, where she often sits next to him as if she’s also a member of the band. She doesn’t talk much, but her influence over Lennon is obvious, since she’s the only woman who’s allowed to join in and contribute vocals with the Beatles when they’re writing and recording. She doesn’t sing. The sound that comes out of her mouth is more like screeching or caterwauling.

During the first days of these sessions, Harrison seems motivated and greets people warmly. Harrison and Starr say “Happy New Year” to each other the first time that the band meets for these sessions. In another scene, Harrison compliments McCartney by saying of McCartney’s newly grown facial hair: “I think the beard suits you, man.” But as time goes on, Harrison looks both emotionally alienated and exasperated. And it’s not just because McCartney is telling Harrison how he wants Harrison’s guitar playing to sound.

It’s also because Harrison can see that, once again, most of his song ideas are being ignored. At this point in Harrison’s life, he was deep into Hare Krishna spirituality. It shows in the documentary, because a few of Harrison’s Hare Krishna friends/hangers-on, including two named Shyamsunder Das and Mukanda Goswami, are seen occasionally sitting cross-legged in the background, looking zoned-out or meditative.

For the concert TV special, McCartney was keen for the Beatles to perform a live concert again for the first time in three years (the Beatles quit touring in 1966), but he doesn’t want the band to perform in a typical and predictable setting. It’s here that McCartney tries to assert his leadership because he comes up with the idea that the Beatles should do a surprise concert at a place where they could get arrested. He half-jokingly suggests that the Beatles perform at the House of Parliament, where the band would undoubtedly be ejected. “You have to take a bit of violence,” McCartney says of his idea to do a guerilla-styled concert.

Lindsay-Hogg hates the idea. “I think it’s too dangerous. You could go back to Manila,” he says. It’s a reference to the Beatles’ harrowing 1966 experience of facing a group of angry citizens who aggressively manhandled the Beatles for skipping a meeting with Imelda Marcos, the wife of then-Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos. Lindsay-Hogg is fixated on an idea to have the Beatles perform at an open-air amphitheatre in the desert of Subrata, Libya. (It’s a terrible idea because of the difficult logistics involved. The ancient amphitheatre was not built for a 1969 rock concert that would require a lot of electrical wiring.)

Lindsay-Hogg also suggests that maybe the Beatles could perform at orphanages. He appeals to Harrison’s charitable side by trying to get him to agree to a charity concert. “They say charity begins at home,” Harrison quips. McCartney responds by joking that they should have the concert at Harrison’s house.

Film producer Denis O’Dell pushes for the Beatles to do the concert on some type of ship or boat. However, practical-minded Harrison says that this idea is “insane,” because the acoustics would be substandard and the production costs would be too high. Harrison mentions the Beatles’ widely panned 1967 TV special “Magical Mystery Tour” as an example of an expensive mistake. Lennon doesn’t seem to care where the Beatles play, while Starr says almost nothing at all when it comes to ideas or suggestions.

It’s in this docuseries’ first episode that viewers are also introduced to many of the key crew members who were part of the Beatles’ inner circle for this documentary. There’s Lindsay-Hogg, an American-Irish hotshot director who talks in an upper-crust accent and is often seen puffing on a cigar. He likes to remind people that he’s a huge Beatles fan, not just a hired gun. Far from being a “yes man,” Lindsay-Hogg is very opinionated and isn’t afraid to disagree with some of the Beatles’ ideas.

Beatles music producer George Martin conducts himself with the air of a calm and dignified businessman, but he is surprisingly not in this documentary as much as people might think he would be. Instead, engineer Glyn Johns (who is most definitely not a businessman type) has the most screen time as the one who takes charge of the technical side of the recording sessions. Other staffers and associates who are seen in the documentary, beginning with this episode, include Apple president Neil Aspinall, music publisher Dick James, roadie/personal assistant Mal Evans, roadie Kevin Harrington, cinematographer Tony Richmond, camera operator Les Parrott, song recordist Peter Sutton and electronic engineer Alexis “Magic Alex” Mardas.

Harrison is the first one the documentary to mention that the Beatles should break up. “Maybe we should have a divorce,” Harrison tells the other Beatles. Lennon quips, “Who would have the children?” McCartney jokes, “Dick James.” McCartney’s comment refers to how, at the time, James (through his Northern Songs Ltd. publishing company) owned the copyrights to Beatles songs written by Lennon and McCartney. Later in 1969, James sold Northern Songs to Associated Television (ATV) without telling Lennon and McCartney in advance. The battle to own the Beatles’ song publishing could be its own documentary.

Starr’s wife Maureen Starkey makes a brief appearance. Just like the other women in this documentary, she doesn’t say much. The episode ends with Harrison getting up and announcing he’s leaving the band. Lennon says that if Harrison doesn’t come back in a few days, the Beatles should get Eric Clapton as a replacement. (Clapton was Harrison’s best friend at the time.) An episode epilogue caption says that the attempted reconciliation with Harrison at Starr’s house did not go very well.

What the documentary doesn’t mention is that Starr’s wife Maureen Starkey and Harrison were having an affair at the time, according to several books about the Beatles. Meanwhile, Clapton was in love with Harrison’s wife Pattie (Clapton wrote the 1971 song “Layla” about her), and she would eventually leave Harrison in 1977 for Clapton, who became her second husband two years later. If this is the type of love triangle drama that people wanted to see in this documentary, you’re not going to find it.

Episode Two

(Days 8 to 16)

Paul McCartney, George Harrison and John Lennon in “The Beatles: Get Back” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

As we all know, Harrison eventually did come back to the Beatles, as seen in this episode. During his absence, the other band members have a bittersweet laugh when a bouquet of flowers arrives for Harrison at the studio. Starr opens the greeting card and sees that the flowers are from a Hare Krishna group that obviously doesn’t know that Harrison had recently quit the band.

But the most intriguing part of the episode is that McCartney starts to get real about the band’s problems. The documentary mentions that a hidden microphone was placed in a flower pot to capture a conversation between Lennon and McCartney over Harrison’s unhappiness in the Beatles. This secret recording was clearly the filmmakers’ attempt to find out McCartney’s true feelings, since he was the band member who tended to be the most image-conscious and careful about what he said on camera.

In this undercover conversation, Lennon says of Harrison’s discontent: “It’s a festering wound that we’ve allowed … and we didn’t give him any bandages. We have egos.” McCartney says of Harrison’s concerns: “I do think he’s right.” McCartney also tries to appeal to Lennon’s ego by saying that the Beatles will always be Lennon’s band.

Through his actions and words in this documentary, McCartney seems to want to give the impression that he’s stepping up in a leadership role because no one else in the Beatles wants to do it. The problem, which has also been documented in several books about the Beatles, is that the other members of the group get frustrated when McCartney acts like his ideas are usually the best ideas. Harrison isn’t the only one who’s starting to drift away and feel alienated.

In another part of the episode, when McCartney knows that he’s being filmed, he says to a group of people (including Eastman and Starr) that Lennon is losing interest in the Beatles. If Lennon had to choose between the Beatles or Ono, McCartney predicts: “Obviously, if it came to a push between Yoko and the Beatles, it’s Yoko.” McCartney also says that he and Lennon are spending less time writing songs together because their lifestyles have changed. He mentions that because the Beatles weren’t touring, he and Lennon weren’t spending time together in hotel rooms, where Lennon and McCartney would get a lot of songwriting done.

New romances were affecting the Lennon/McCartney friendship. Linda Eastman, a photographer from New York, had recently begun dating McCartney and would become his wife in March 1969. Eastman is in the documentary as a laid-back presence, who occasionally takes photos and snuggles with McCartney. During a band meeting where they discuss Harrison quitting the group, Eastman pipes up that she noticed that at the reconciliation attempt at Starr’s house, Ono seemed to be talking for Lennon instead of Lennon talking for himself.

The documentary doesn’t give a lot of evidence to support a lingering perception among some Beatles fans that Ono is mainly to blame for breaking up the Beatles. She doesn’t talk much when she’s with the Beatles in these studio sessions. On the rare occasions that she smiles, it’s when she gazes lovingly at Lennon or shows other public displays of affection with him. She’s shown as not being particularly close to anyone in the Beatles’ inner circle except for Lennon. McCartney says prophetically, “It’s going to be such an incredible, comical thing, like in 50 years’ time [people will say], ‘They broke up because Yoko sat on an amp.'”

Still, there’s no denying that there’s unspoken tension between McCartney and Ono. During a group discussion, McCartney talks about how he still wants the Beatles to be on the top of their game in the documentary. “We want to show the world what we have,” McCartney says. Ono chimes in, “Or what we haven’t.”

The reality seems to be sinking in with McCartney that he and his longtime pal Lennon are going in different directions with their lives. McCartney seems to want to hold on to an idea that the Beatles can continue, but only if they agree with his wish that they don’t do anything in a boring and predictable way. Meanwhile, a frustrated Harrison seems like he wants to be a solo artist, whether the other band members approve or not. As for Starr, he just seems to want to know if he has a job and where to show up. When McCartney half-jokingly suggests that the Beatles should announce their breakup at the end of their upcoming concert, Starr reacts with a mortified look on his face that’s priceless.

In between all of this interpersonal drama, the Beatles are still capable of working together in a respectful and cohesive manner as musicians in a studio. Harrison starts to become more jovial, while Lennon cracks jokes to lighten the mood. After Harrison comes back to the band, McCartney seems more mindful of how he gives suggestions to Harrison, in order to avoid looking like an overly critical taskmaster.

McCartney also mentions to his bandmates that he has personal film footage of the time that the Beatles spent at a 1967 retreat with the spiritual guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who was exposed years later as a con artist. McCartney vividly describes scenes from this footage, some of which are shown in the documentary. Lennon and McCartney have a laugh when McCartney comments on the retreat, “You can see from the film that it’s very much like school.”

Harrison’s wife Pattie appears very briefly in this episode when she visits the studio. Out of all of the Beatles’ significant others at the time, she’s the one who is seen the least in the documentary. Pattie was busy with her modeling career at the time, but she and other people have since revealed that her marriage to Harrison was in deep trouble in 1969, because of the love triangle with Clapton.

A great scene in this episode is when comedian/actor Peter Sellers (who was Starr’s co-star in the 1969 movie “The Magic Christian”) stops by for a visit. It’s the first time that Sellers has met the members of the band, other than Starr. Sellers is quiet and bashful. Some viewers might speculate that he seems a little star-struck by the Beatles. He also seems a little bored, because he doesn’t stay for long. Maybe he thought being in a recording studio with the Beatles would be one big party.

In this encounter with Sellers, Lennon proves to be a lot funnier than world-famous comedian Sellers. As Sellers says a “nice to meet you” goodbye to the group, Lennon makes a drug joke when he says to Sellers: “Just don’t leave the needles lying around.” Everyone in the room laughs, except for Sellers, who seems a little taken aback by this joke and that someone can get bigger laughs than he usually does.

Speaking of drug references, there are some noticeable ones in this episode. Lennon shows up late at the studio one day, and he says it’s because he stayed up all night while he was on drugs. “I was stoned and high and watching films,” Lennon confesses. McCartney, ever aware of the Beatles’ image, looks slightly alarmed, knowing that Lennon was caught on camera with this comment. McCartney responds, “Is there a need to do this in public, Mr. Lennon?”

Earlier in the episode, Starr is seen on camera asking personal assistant Evans, “Do you have any pep pills?” And the band’s goofiest antics and loopiest comments in this episode and the other episodes in the docuseries could be interpreted as actions of people under the influence of unnamed substances. At any rate, no one actually says out loud which illegal drugs might have been consumed. The Beatles are seen smoking a lot of cigarettes and drinking alcohol (usually wine or beer) during these sessions. Even if illegal drug taking had been caught on camera, it wouldn’t have made the final cut in a Disney+ documentary.

This episode shows how image-conscious the Beatles were, since there are multiple scenes of them reading articles about themselves in newspapers and magazines and making comments about what they see in this media coverage. Harrison is irked by a Daily Mail article written by Michael Housegro, in which Housegro claims that Lennon and Harrison got into a fist fight and that the Beatles are on the verge of breaking up.

Housegro was wrong about the fist fight, and Harrison asks someone in the room if the Beatles can sue over the article. The answer is no. Harrison and Lennon have a bit of a laugh over it though, and pretend to get in a fist fight when the article is read out loud. Later, McCartney reads the article out loud in a very sing-song, sarcastic manner while plugged into a microphone and pretending that article’s words are lyrics to a song.

The Beatles move their recording/rehearsal sessions to Apple when their scheduled time at Twickenham comes to an end. When they begin working at Apple, it’s the first time that the documentary shows life outside the studio bubble. The members of the band show up in separate cars and walk inside without any bodyguards or entourages. If there were any paparazzi photographers lurking about, they’re not shown in this documentary.

It’s in this episode that Apple Scruffs (the nickname for the female fans who would wait outside Apple headquarters to get a glimpse of the Beatles) are first seen. Two Apple Scruffs named Eileen Kensles and Sue Ahearne are interviewed. They both say that what they want most for the Beatles to do next is to perform a live concert.

At Apple headquarters, Magic Alex had constructed a custom-built studio for the Beatles. However, the band discovers that ths custom studio equipment has too much distortion. Beatles producer Martin comes to the rescue by letting the Beatles use some equipment that he had, thereby diverting a major setback.

Things get livelier when keyboardist Billy Preston joins the sessions. His enthusiasm and talent seem to lift the Beatles’ spirits. McCartney briefly considers eventually making Preston a permanent member of the Beatles, but McCartney ends up nixing the idea. “It’s bad enough with four [members of the band],” McCartney comments.

And if you didn’t already know that “Get Back” was originally going to be a protest song against white nationalism, anti-immigrant racism and xenophobia, then you’ll find out what were some of the lyrics that McCartney originally wanted for the song. “Get Back” eventually evolved into a non-political song, but it’s interesting to see the thought process that went into the crafting of this song. At this point in his career, McCartney avoided making overt political statements in his songs, so his original intention for “Get Back” would have been a major departure for him.

Another song that went through a metamorphosis was Lennon’s “The Road to Marrakesh.” Never heard of it? That’s because the docuseries shows in this episode that “The Road to Marrakesh” was an early version of “Jealous Guy,” a song that would end up on Lennon’s 1971 solo album “Imagine.” The song’s melodies essentially remained the same, but the lyrics became very different when the song morphed into “Jealous Guy.”

Making brief appearances in this episode are photographer Ethan Russell (the cover of the “Let It Be” album features his photos), Apple executive Peter Brown and art dealer Robert Fraser. Brown and author Steven Gaines would later write the unauthorized Beatles tell-all book “The Love You Make: An Insider Story of the Beatles,” which was published in 1983. It’s considered one of the first exposés of the Beatles in-fighting that went on behind the scenes.

Lindsay-Hogg was also the director of the concert TV special “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus,” which featured Lennon and Ono among the guest performers. Lindsay-Hogg is seen asking Lennon if he wants to be a guest on this TV special, and Lennon readily agrees. It’s because of “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus” that Lennon came into contact with Allen Klein, who was the Rolling Stones’ manager at the time.

Klein was a controversial figure in the histories of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. By all accounts, he desperately wanted to manage the Beatles. Klein does not make an appearance in “The Beatles: Get Back” docuseries, but it clearly shows through Lennon’s descriptions of Klein how Klein began to woo and charm his way into the Beatles’ lives.

In this episode, the idea to have a live TV concert is scrapped. And it comes as no surprise, because the band was never ready to do a live TV show with just two weeks of preparation. However, McCartney still wants the Beatles to perform their new songs live somewhere and having it filmed. Lindsay-Hogg and Johns suggest doing a surprise show without a permit on the rooftop of Apple Corps, thereby making McCartney’s idea to have a guerilla-styled Beatles concert become a reality.

Episode Three

(Days 17 to 21)

Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and John Lennon in “The Beatles: Get Back” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

Considering the internal problems that the Beatles were experiencing at the time, you would think that this strife would get worse as this docuseries goes on. In fact, this last episode is the most light-hearted of the three. One of the main reasons why it has so many laugh-out-loud moments is because of how it shows people’s various reactions to the Beatles’ surprise rooftop concert. The Beatles also seem more relaxed with each other, compared to previous days of the sessions.

During the rooftop concert, people are interviewed on the street by members of the film crew. Reactions are mostly positive. One middle-aged man says of the free concert: “It’s nice to have something for free in this country at the moment.”

Meanwhile, the complainers look like out-of-touch grouches in retrospect. One young man snarls angrily that the roof is “a bloody stupid place to have a concert.” An elderly woman is infuriated when she comments on the Beatles doing a free show on a rooftop: “I don’t see how it makes sense! It woke me up from my sleep, and I don’t like it!”

There’s also a very Keystone Kops moment when two young police officers are the first cops to respond to the noise complaints caused by the concert. One of the cops wants to take charge, but it’s obvious that he’s reluctant to arrest anyone in the Beatles. He does a lot of huffing and puffing and says this empty threat: “We’ve got 30 complaints within minutes … Turn it [the volume] down, or I’m going to have to start arresting people!” Meanwhile, the agitated cop’s partner barely says a word. You can tell that these reactions were not scripted, which makes everything even more hilarious.

Earlier in this episode, Eastman’s then-6-year-old daughter Heather (from Eastman’s first marriage) is shown being an adorable and happy kid in the studio. She brings a lot of joy to the people around her. McCartney treats her like a doting father (he bounces her up in the air and hugs her a lot), while the other Beatles (especially Lennon and Starr) are friendly and attentive to Heather. She’s talkative, curious, and is allowed to run around and play in the studio. When Heather sees Ono shrieking in a microphone, Heather starts to do that too. Lennon reponds to Heather’s vocal imitations by saying jokingly: “Yoko!”

Heather isn’t the only one acting goofy in the studio. A scene in this episode shows Starr, McCartney, Martin and Lindsay-Hogg appearing to have a serious conversation. Suddenly, Starr blurts out: “I’ve farted. I thought I’d let you know.”

Some Beatles associates featured in this episode include tape operator (and future artist/producer) Alan Parsons, sound engineer Keith Slaughter, Apple press officer Sally Burgess, producer/engineer Chris Thomas, Paul McCartney’s younger brother Mike McCartney, Apple office doorman Jimmy Clark and Apple office receptionist Debbie Wellum. When the cops show up during the Beatles’ rooftop concert, Wellum does a brilliant job of acting ignorant in stalling the cops as long as possible from going up to the roof.

But problems in the Beatles remain. While planning the rooftop concert, Paul McCartney is enthusiastic about it, while Harrison says irritably: “I don’t want to go on the roof.” Starr and Lennon chime in and both say consecutively: “I would like to go on the roof.” And with those statements, Harrison is outnumbered, and he seems to stop complaining about having to do this rooftop concert. However, Harrison still voices his dislike of the idea that the Beatles should continue to do films. It’s the opposite of how McCartney feels.

At this point in the Beatles’ history, Harrison is openly discussing taking his rejected Beatles songs and making a solo album out of it. He talks about it with Lennon and Ono, who tells Harrison that she thinks the solo album is a good idea. Meanwhile, Harrison is seen helping Starr come up with some ideas to finish Starr’s song “Octopus’s Garden,” which ended up on the “Abbey Road” album. It’s an example of how underrated Harrison was as a songwriter for the Beatles, because Starr (under his real name, Richard Starkey) is the only credited songwriter for “Octopus’s Garden.” This documentary clearly shows that Harrison co-wrote the song.

In this episode, Harrison talks about trying to finish a song that would become one of his most beloved ballads: “Something,” an “Abbey Road” hit single that was inspired by his then-wife Pattie. The first line of the song ended up being: “Something in the way she moves attracts me like no other lover.” But the documentary shows that Harrison had difficulty coming up with that first line.

Harrison considered using the phrase “attracts me like a Cadillac” or “attracts me like a pomegranate.” Lennon advises Harrison to just write what naturally comes to mind. “The Beatles: Get Back” is superb when it has this type of camaradie moment that shows a glimpse into how a classic Beatles song was written.

Lennon is in mostly a good mood during these final days of filming the documentary. He announces jubilantly that Ono’s divorce from her second husband Anthony “Tony” Cox has become final. (Lennon had already offically divorced his first wife Cynthia in November 1968.) Lennon is also seen praising Klein.

“I think he’s fantastic!” Lennon gushes to Harrison about Klein. “He knows everything about everything! He knows what we’re like. He knows me as well as you do!” The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were both signed to EMI Records at the time. Lennon also says he’s impressed that Klein was able to get an EMI royalty rate for the Rolling Stones that’s higher than the Beatles’ royalty rate, so Lennon wants Klein to do the same for the Beatles.

The Beatles have ther first meeting with Klein in this episode, but the meeting was not filmed for the documentary. In a voiceover, Johns is heard expressing cautious skepticism about Klein: “He’s a strange man, but very, very clever.” Johns also describes Klein’s habit of abruptly changing the subject in a conversation if someone says something that Klein doesn’t want to hear. “That bugs me a bit, actually,” adds Johns of Klein’s rudeness.

Harrison and Starr seem noncommittal about Klein at this point. However, people who watch this documentary should observe the expression on McCartney’s face when Klein’s name is mentioned by Lennon. Beatles fans now know that McCartney had already been planning to have Linda Eastman’s attorney father Lee Eastman take over management duties for the Beatles. McCartney is clearly concerned (and probably annoyed) that Lennon could persuade the other members of the band to want to hire Klein as the manager of the Beatles.

It’s a red flag of the management disagreements that would end up being a huge part of the Beatles’ breakup. But the docuseries ends in the best possible way, by showing the rooftop concert that would be the last time that the Beatles would ever perform together in public. (All of the Beatles’ wives/girlfriends are there except for Harrison’s.)

For the rooftop concert, the documentary shows the band performing “Get Back” (twice, but not consecutively), “Don’t Let Me Down” (twice, but not consecutively), “One After 909,” “Dig a Pony” and “I’ve Got a Feeling.” All these years later, the Beatles are still considered by many people to be the greatest rock band of all time. “The Beatles: Get Back” is a densely layered exploration into their artistic side, but it admirably never loses sight of the Beatles’ human side.

Here are the songs that are featured in “The Beatles Get Back” docuseries:

Beatles-Written Songs (for the Beatles or for Solo Material) Performed as Excerpts

In alphabetical order:

  • “Across the Universe”
  • “All Things Must Pass”
  • “Another Day”
  • “The Back Seat of My Car”
  • “Because I Know You Love Me So”
  • “Bonding”
  • “Carry That Weight”
  • “Castle of the King of the Birds”
  • “Commonwealth”
  • “Dehra Dun”
  • “Dig a Pony”
  • “Dig It”
  • “Don’t Let Me Down”
  • “Every Little Thing”
  • “Fancy My Chances With You”
  • “For You Blue”
  • “Get Back”
  • “Gimme Some Truth”
  • “Golden Slumbers”
  • “Half a Pound of Greasepaint”
  • “Help”
  • “Her Majesty”
  • “I Bought a Piano the Other Day”
  • “I Lost My Little Girl”
  • “I Me Mine”
  • “I’m So Tired”
  • “Isn’t It a Pity”
  • “I Told You Before”
  • “I’ve Got a Feeling”
  • “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”
  • “Just Fun”
  • “Let It Be”
  • “The Long and Winding Road”
  • “Love Me Do”
  • “Madmen”
  • “Martha My Dear”
  • “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”
  • “Mean Mr. Mustard”
  • “My Imagination”
  • “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”
  • “Octopus’s Garden”
  • “Oh! Darling”
  • “Old Brown Shoe”
  • “One After 909”
  • “On the Road to Marrakesh” (which later became “Jealous Guy”)
  • “Please Please Me”
  • “Polythene Pam”
  • “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”
  • “Song of Love”
  • “Strawberry Fields Forever”
  • “Suzy Parker”
  • “Teddy Boy”
  • “Too Bad About Sorrow”
  • “Two of Us”
  • “What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For?”
  • “Within You, Without You”
  • “You Wear Your Women Out”

Cover Songs Performed as Excerpts

In alphabetical order:

  • “Act Naturally”
  • “Blue Suede Shoes”
  • “Bye Bye Love”
  • “Gilly Gilly Ossenfeffer”
  • “Going Up the Country”
  • “Hallelujah I Love Her So”
  • “Hi-Heel Sneakers”
  • “Honey Hush”
  • “House of the Rising Sun”
  • “Johnny B. Goode”
  • “Kansas City”
  • “The Midnight Special”
  • “The Mighty Quinn”
  • “Miss Ann”
  • “New Orleans”
  • “Queen of the Hop”
  • “Rock and Roll Music”
  • “Save the Last Dance for Me”
  • “School Days”
  • “Shake, Rattle and Roll”
  • “Stand By Me”
  • “Take These Chains From My Heart”
  • “Twenty Flight Rock”

Disney+ premieres each of the three episodes of “The Beatles: Get Back” on November 25, November 26 and November 27, 2021.

UPDATE: Walt Disney Pictures will release the 60-minute feature film “The Beatles: Get Back–The Rooftop Concert” as an exclusive IMAX event screening with a pre-recorded filmmaker Q&A on January 30, 2022. “The Beatles: Get Back–The Rooftop Concert” will then have a global theatrical engagement from February 11 to February 13, 2022. The complete docuseries “The Beatles: Get Back” will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on February 8, 2022.