Review: ‘Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,’ starring Anthony Bourdain

July 16, 2021

by Carla Hay

Anthony Bourdain in “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” (Photo courtesy of CNN/Focus Features)

“Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain”

Directed by Morgan Neville

Culture Representation: Taking place in various places around the world, the biographical documentary “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” features a predominantly white group of people (with some Asians) discussing the life and career of celebrated food expert/TV host/writer Anthony Bourdain, an American of French-Jewish heritage who lived on America’s East Coast for his entire life.

Culture Clash: Bourdain, who committed suicide in 2018 at the age of 61, struggled with many personal demons in his life, including being a recovering alcoholic/drug addict and his battles with depression.

Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of Anthony Bourdain fans, “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in stories about famous world travelers and stories about celebrities who struggle with mental health issues.

Anthony Bourdain in “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” (Photo courtesy of CNN/Focus Features)

What does it take for someone to be truly happy? The answer depends on the individual person. Not everyone can find true happiness, even when people have all the outward appearances of success. Award-winning TV host/food expert/writer Anthony Bourdain had fame, fortune, physical health and many people in his personal life who loved him. But in private, he struggled with finding long-term true happiness and inner peace within himself, according to the people who knew him best.

It’s one of the main takeaways of the riveting and emotionally poignant documentary “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” which focuses on how Bourdain dealt with becoming a celebrity in his middle age. Even with all of his achievements, admiration from fans around the world, and having a great support system of loved ones, Bourdain found that all of it wasn’t enough to make him truly happy and content. All the people interviewed for this movie are either Bourdain’s family members, close friends or work colleagues, who all call him Tony.

Directed by Oscar-winning documentarian Morgan Neville, “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” is respectful but does not sugarcoat the emotional damage left behind by Bourdain’s suicide by hanging. At the age of 61, a little more than two weeks before his 62nd birthday, Bourdain killed himself on June 8, 2018, in his hotel room in Kaysersberg-Vignoble, France. Several people in the documentary share their thoughts on what they think went wrong.

But make no mistake: “Roadrunner” is mostly a celebration of Bourdain’s life, which was unpredictable, wild and filled with extreme ups and downs. The documentary (which includes a lot previously unreleased archival footage) isn’t fully biographical, because there’s not much discussion of Bourdain’s youth. Bourdain was born in New York City, on June 25, 1956, to French American father Pierre Bourdain and Jewish mother Gladys Bourdain. Anthony and his younger brother Chris Bourdain (who’s interviewed in the documentary) went to school in New Jersey. By all accounts, they had a happy childhood and loving parents.

Chris remembers, “We didn’t do a lot of traveling when we were kids because my parents were not rich.” According to Chris, the Bourdain family visited France a few times in his and Anthony’s childhood, because their father had relatives there. It was in France that Anthony first began to appreciate the art of making cuisine. Chris also says that he and Anthony were big fans of Belgian cartoonist Hergé’s “Tin Tin” graphic novels, about a globetrotting young journalist named Tin Tin who solved mysteries.

It’s also mentioned in the documentary that Anthony had a fascination since childhood with novels and movies about adventures and risky experiences in foreign countries. Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella “Heart of Darkness” and director Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War film “Apocalypse Now” were particularly impactful on Anthony. The influence of these “danger in the jungle” stories can be seen in a lot of episodes of Anthony’s TV shows.

After high school, Anthony attended Vassar College for two years before dropping out to pursue a career as a chef. He paid his dues working as a cook in Massachusetts restaurants. Known for his acerbic wit and rebellious streak, Anthony also developed an addiction to drugs (especially cocaine and heroin), which he publicly revealed years ago when his 2000 memoir “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” was published. In several interviews in his life, Anthony said that he quit hard drugs in 1988, without ever going to rehab.

The Bourdain biography in the “Roadrunner” documentary really begins in the early 2000s, when Anthony found fame in his 40s as the best-selling author of “Kitchen Confidential.” The book detailed a lot of “dirty laundry” about what goes on behind the scenes at top restaurants, as well as Anthony’s own personal misdeeds. At the time that “Kitchen Confidential” was published, Anthony was the executive chef at Brassierie Les Halles, a French eatery in New York City’s Manhattan borough. (The restaurant went out of business in 2017.)

The “Roadrunner” documentary includes an interview with former Brassierie Les Halles owner Philippe LaJaunie, who says about the “Kitchen Confidential” book: “I didn’t know it was being written. I didn’t know it was being published.” LaJaunie also comments on what Anthony was like when he was a Brassierie Les Halles employee: “He was always behind on the rent … and living paycheck to paycheck. So, when there was this opportunity [to become rich and famous], he was ready.”

Anthony eventually quit the restaurant business to become a full-time TV host/world traveler. And just like how quickly he became a book author, Anthony didn’t spend years pursuing TV fame, because other people approached him first with this opportunity, shortly after the best-selling success of “Kitchen Confidential.” It’s mentioned in the documentary that although Bourdain was a celebrity chef, he didn’t like to cook at home until he became a father and reveled in doing stereotypical “dad” things, such as cooking for backyard barbecues.

During the rise of the #MeToo movement, Anthony expressed remorse over being a part of a restaurant culture that enabled abuse. “Kitchen Confidential” was the inspiration for the short-lived 2005 “Kitchen Confidential” comedy series, which starred Bradley Cooper and was televised in the U.S. on Fox. The “Roadrunner” documentary has a very brief clip of from this failed sitcom.

According to several people interviewed in the documentary, although Anthony had a public persona of being brash and outspoken, he was actually a very shy and romantic person in private. He also never felt completely comfortable with his celebrity status, since he didn’t plan to become a world-famous writer and TV personality. In fact, getting his first book published was an opportunity that came to him very easily because his writer friend Joel Rose happened to be married to someone who worked for Bloomsbury Publishing, which ended up publishing “Kitchen Confidential.”

As Rose tells it in the documentary, the idea for Anthony to write a book came to Rose when he showed one of Anthony’s storytelling emails to his wife Karen Rinaldi. In the “Roadrunner” documentary, Rinaldi remembers her reaction to that email: “I read it, and I was like, ‘That is fucking awesome!’ I’m going to make him an offer he basically can’t fucking refuse!” And just like that, Anthony got a book deal, without ever experiencing years of rejections from book publishers, which is what most first-time book authors experience.

One of the things that’s very noticeable about the people interviewed in “Roadrunner” is that almost all of them were in Anthony’s life for decades, which is a testament to their mutual loyalty. Throughout the documentary, an interesting editing technique is used for these longtime friends and colleagues, by showing archival footage of the interviewee (going as far back as the late 1990s or 2000s) and then fading to new interview footage that the person did for the documentary.

“Kitchen Confidential” made Anthony famous, but becoming a TV host of an international food show made him a bona fide rock star of the culinary world. He hosted several TV shows in his career, beginning with “A Cook’s Tour,” which was on the Food Network from 2002 to 2003. That was followed by two series on the Travel Channel: “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” (from 2005 to 2012) and “The Layover” (from 2011 to 2013). His last TV series was CNN’s “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” which was on the air from 2013 to 2018.

Zero Point Zero production company co-founders/spouses Lydia Tenaglia and Chris Collins, who were Anthony’s creative partners for his entire TV career, talk about coming up with the idea for Anthony to star in his own TV show. Anthony, Tenaglia and Collins traveled to several countries for six weeks, beginning in December 2000, to film test footage for a possible TV pilot episode. The “Roadrunner” documentary includes some that footage.

At this point in his life, Anthony was far from being a world traveler. He had only been outside the U.S. a handful of times. As Collins describes this six-week journey: “Lydia and I had just gotten married. And then we had Tony, a guy who we barely knew. It was like three idiots trying to figure each other out.”

Tenaglia says that even though Anthony had no experience hosting a TV show at the time, he was up for the challenge. Traveling to various countries over a six-week period tapped into his adventurous side. Tenaglia remembers, “I think he was excited to go on this journey to see if reality matched the imagination.”

However, things didn’t go smoothly. It might surprise some people to know that Anthony’s gift for gab didn’t come easily to him on camera during the filming of that test footage. Collins explains, “Tony was naturally a very shy human being. And to get him to make contact or interact [with strangers] wasn’t his natural state.”

The first country they went to was Japan. Tenaglia says that Japan has a formality to its culture that made it difficult for Anthony to relax when interacting with people on camera. Tenaglia and Collins remember thinking that Anthony was so quiet and reserved in the Japan footage that they began to wonder if it was a huge mistake to think he would make a great TV host.

But when they arrived in the less-formal Vietnam, Anthony began to loosen up on camera and found his groove, according to Collins and Tenaglia. Anthony’s fascination with “Apocalypse Now” certainly helped. His TV shows were not about presenting food in a slick and shiny TV studio. He liked to get down and dirty with the locals.

In terms of food TV hosts, he was groundbreaking. His mass appeal had a lot to do with the fact that he wasn’t a food snob: He was equally comfortable at small, greasy eateries as he was at the most lavish and highest-rated restaurants. He was very open about his love for cheap fast food as well as exotic and gourmet cuisine. He was endlessly curious in talking to local people about their customs and cultures. His conversations and commentaries were often more interesting than the food that was on the show.

And he was fearless in eating almost anything. One of the more notorious things that Anthony ate on camera was a cobra heart that was still beating. The documentary includes that footage, as well as some footage of Anthony and other people killing animals to eat. This is not news to anyone who’s familiar with his TV shows. However, vegans, vegetarians and other people who don’t like to see animals killed for food might want to avoid this documentary or cover their eyes during these scenes in the movie.

Celebrity chef David Chang, who was one of Anthony’s closest friends, says in the documentary that he was fascinated by Anthony’s far-reaching fame. Chang states that no matter where they went in public, there was a “non-stop barrage” of attention on Anthony, from people who treated Anthony like a star. Chang remembers asking Anthony how he handled this lack of privacy with such composure. Chang says that Anthony’s response was: “Being nice to someone and being gracious to them, if that’s my job, it certainly beats being a middling line cook at a struggling restaurant.”

This “man of the people” image didn’t necessarily make him the most easygoing and most pleasant co-worker behind the scenes. Although former co-workers praise him in the documentary for being generous, witty and loyal, they also say that he could be rude, stubborn and egotistical. There’s archival footage of Tenaglia on the six-week “test footage” trip where she privately calls Anthony a “pain in the ass” over his “lack of communication.”

He demanded excellence from himself and from people around him because he hated mediocrity. As his longtime agent Kim Witherspoon says, “I don’t think Tony was afraid of failure. And that was hardwired [in his personality].” He took risks in his career, but he was never the type of celebrity who precisely plotted to have worldwide fame. People in the documentary say that his attitude toward taking new opportunities was, “Why not? If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out.”

In the “Roadrunner” documentary, celebrity chef/restaurateur Eric Ripert fondly remembers the first time he met Anthony, who was a great admirer of Ripert even before meeting him. Instead of it being a private meeting, Ripert says with a laugh, “He showed up with a TV crew.” Ripert says of Anthony’s on-screen persona: “The challenge was to be real and at the same time be the host of a TV show.”

Tragically, Ripert was the one who found Anthony’s dead body in the hotel room. In the documentary, Ripert says he won’t publicly talk about that day or his thoughts on the suicide. And it’s very understandable that he won’t. People have different ways of trying to heal from that kind of trauma. In the documentary, Ripert talks about the good times that he had with his longtime pal. There’s some endearing footage of them together that’s in the movie.

Other friends who are interviewed in the documentary include musician Josh Homme (of Queens of the Stone Age fame), artist Dave Choe, musician Alison Mosshart, artist John Lurie and Big Gay Ice Cream co-founder Doug Quint. Anthony’s former TV colleagues who share their thoughts include producer Helen Cho, cinematographer Todd Liebler and directors Tom Vitale, Mo Fallon and Michael Steed. Vitale hints at all the hell-raising that went on behind the scenes when he comments, “What made it into the show was—as far as I was concerned—the least-interesting parts of the trip.”

Anyone who’s seen Anthony’s TV shows already knows that traveling to all these different countries to eat the local cuisine did not exist in a glamorous bubble for him. He was deeply affected by tragedies going on in many of these countries. When the TV crew was in Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake, they saw how a simple act of giving the starving locals some leftover food from the TV shoot turned into a feeding frenzy with some people pushing each other out of the way to get in line for the food. The documentary includes footage from that incident.

The documentary also includes footage from 2006 of Anthony and several of the crew members having the surreal experience of lounging out by a hotel pool in Beirut as war aircraft swarmed in the sky. Everyone was temporarily stuck in the hotel because it was too dangerous to leave at the time. In the footage, Anthony quips, “Basically, we got caught in a war.” Liebler adds, “We were spending all our time at the pool, watching helicopters come in and out. It was just a waiting game for us.”

In the documentary, Collins says that Anthony (who was an executive producer of his TV shows) was vehemently against doing an “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” episode of their experiences in Beirut, out of respect for the people whose lives were destroyed by the war violence happening while the TV crew was there. However, as Collins says, “The network felt differently,” and the episode was televised. Anthony had clout as an executive producer, but his clout on his TV show only went so far, since the TV network owned the show.

As for Anthony’s personal life, he was married twice. His marriage to first wife Nancy Putkoski (his high school sweetheart) lasted from 1985 to 2005 and ended in divorce. He was married to second wife Ottavia Busia-Bourdain (a mixed-martial artist) in 2007, and they separated in 2016. Anthony and Ottavia’s daughter Ariane was born in 2007.

Putkoski is not interviewed in the documentary, but she’s briefly shown in some of the archival footage. Anthony’s brother Chris comments on why the marriage fell apart: “Nancy had no interest in fame or being tied to fame, but it was a new birth for Tony. It was like he died and was reborn.”

The documentary includes personal footage of Anthony at a strip club somewhere in Asia. The footage was filmed during his divorce from Putkoski. He looks at the camera and sarcastically quips in true Anthony Bourdain style: “Nancy, I hope your divorce lawyer is paying attention to any of this footage.”

Busia-Bourdain (an Italian native who met Anthony because she used to work for his close friend Ripert) is interviewed in the documentary. She describes their early courtship as a “friends with benefits” situation that eventually turned into love. “We were the perfect match for the occasional rendezvous. I was expecting this bad boy, a little bit arrogant. Nowhere was I expecting endearing.” After getting involved with Busa-Bourdain, Anthony became a martial arts enthusiast and went through extensive training.

Several people (including Anthony in archival footage) say that for years he did not want to have children because he didn’t think he would be a good father. But when Ariane was born, it changed him and his life for the better. Busia-Bourdain comments about Anthony becoming a father later in his life: “Any doubts I had kind of dissipated when I realized how happy and excited he was that he was going to become a father.”

There are several clips of home video footage of Anthony with Ariane over the years. (His close friend Ripert calls him a very attentive father.) There’s also a more recent clip of Ariane spending time with her mother after his death. The camera is at a certain angle so that her face is not on camera, out of respect for her privacy. Not surprisingly, Ariane is not interviewed for this documentary.

Friends of Anthony say that becoming a father gave him a sense of “normalcy” that he craved and needed to have a balance for his celebrity jetset lifestyle. Homme says that he and Anthony talked a lot of about what it was like to be fathers who had to frequently be away from home because of their work. Homme gets a little emotionally choked up when he remembers that he and Anthony made plans to take a father-daughter trip together someday when their daughters got older.

In the documentary, no one really talks about why Anthony’s second marriage failed. However, people have plenty to say about Anthony falling madly in love with Italian actress/filmmaker Asia Argento, who was his lover for the last year of his life. She and Anthony met in 2017, when he filmed an episode of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” in Rome, and they got together not long after meeting.

Argento is not interviewed in the documentary, but there’s a general sense from what people say about the relationship that it was passionate in ways that were good and bad. The highs were really high and the lows were really low. Mosshart says she knew early on in Anthony’s relationship with Argento that the relationship was “going to end very, very badly.”

Just like Anthony became obsessed with martial arts because of his second wife, he became obsessed with being an ally in the #MeToo movement because of Argento’s involvement as a #MeToo activist. Argento is one of numerous women who have publicly accused disgraced entertainment mogul (and convicted rapist) Harvey Weinstein of rape and other forms of sexual assault. She says the first time that Weinstein raped her was in 1997. There’s archival footage of her in the documentary speaking out against Weinstein, and also privately telling Anthony that she has a hard time being a happy person.

Busia-Bourdain and other people in the documentary say that Anthony getting involved in #MeToo activism was a big change for him, because he previously avoided being publicly outspoken over social justice issues. He abruptly cut off people in his life whom he thought were guilty of sexual misconduct in the past. He gave interviews and posted messages on social media to express his outrage over #MeToo injustices.

Argento had considerable influence over other aspects of his life. She began directing episodes of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.” And that didn’t sit too well with several of Anthony’s longtime colleagues. Many of them stop short of saying that Argento was a destructive force in Anthony’s life, but the implication is there, judging by the way that they talk about her.

Zach Zamboni, a cinematographer for “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” from 2013 to 2017, experienced some of the fallout. Anthony reportedly fired Zamboni because Zamboni disagreed with Argento over aspects of the show. (Zamboni is not interviewed in the documentary.) Former “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” producer Cho says in the documentary that when Zamboni got fired, that’s when she knew that anyone in Anthony’s longtime loyal inner circle could be abruptly cut off in a callous way that she’d never seen before with Anthony.

Cho doesn’t even try to hide her disgust about Argento when she describes how she thinks Argento had a negative influence on the show and on Anthony’s life. Cho says that Argento’s overly stagy directing style was the polar opposite of the documentary directing style Anthony wanted for his shows. Instead of letting filmed conversations flow naturally, which was the way that it had always been done, Argento’s direction changed the show so that when people were talking to Anthony on camera, they would be told to do multiple takes of dialogue, as if they were actors following a script. The documentary includes outtake footage from the show as an example.

After Anthony got involved with Argento, many people in his inner circle became alarmed at how he drastically changed. According to his artist friend Lurie, Anthony began to become agoraphobic and more paranoid about his celebrity status. Quint offers this insight: “People think he had the greatest job in the world, but it was one there was no way to ever escape from. You couldn’t ever really go home for a day and not be Anthony Bourdain [the celebrity].”

Collins says that in the last year of Anthony’s life, Anthony wanted to do something he never had wanted to do before: quit TV entirely. Collins states that when Anthony told him he wanted to quit TV so that he could move to Italy and be with Argento, he gave his friend unwavering support to do what he needed to do to be happy. But in the end, Anthony changed his mind and didn’t go through with this idea to quit TV and move to Italy.

Shortly before he committed suicide, the celebrity gossip media published photos of Argento on an obvious romantic date with another man. Vitale said he saw firsthand how distraught Anthony was over these “affair” photos, because Anthony expressed anger that Argento couldn’t be more discreet. The documentary doesn’t mention that after Anthony died, Argento gave interviews saying that she and Anthony had mutually agreed to have an open/non-monagamous relationship. No one in the documentary blames Argento for Anthony’s death, but it’s clear that many people close to him did not think that Argento’s relationship with him was healthy.

However, several people in the documentary make it clear that Anthony had personal demons long before he met Argento. He would frequently talk in a joking manner about having thoughts of physically hurting himself and other people. (And he says that in one of the documentary’s archival clips.) And, by his own admission, he had an addictive personality that caused him to get obsessive over things that he thought would bring him some kind of happiness.

“Roadrunner” actually begins with archival footage of Anthony talking about death. It’s very much like addressing the elephant in the room right away, since most people watching this documentary already know how he died. He says in a voiceover: “It’s considered useful, enlightening and therapeutic to think about death for a few minutes a day.”

And then, he’s shown talking to longtime friend Ripert and saying, “What actually happens to my remains is of zero interest to me. I don’t want anyone seeing my body. I don’t want a [funeral] party … unless it can provide entertainment value in a perversive, subversive way. If you can throw me into a wood chipper and spray me into Harrods in the middle of rush hour, that would be epic. I wouldn’t mind being remembered in that way.”

As much as Anthony would joke about his own death, the documentary makes a point of showing that for all of the therapy or caring support from loved ones that he had, he felt that he couldn’t or wouldn’t talk to anyone about his suicidal thoughts on the day that he took his life. The documentary mentions that he was in professional therapy toward the end of his life, but he wasn’t entirely comfortable with therapy. It’s not too surprising, considering that he said he kicked his addictions to cocaine and heroin without going to rehab.

The documentary also lays bare the emotional trauma experienced by the people left behind. Several of the interviewees (including Busia-Bourdain, Chang, Choe and Witherspoon) break down and cry on camera when they talk about Anthony, All the stages of grief except denial are seen in this film.

Chang cries when he describes one of his most painful memories of being Anthony’s friend: “He said I would never be a good dad. That really hurt.” Mosshart comments on the suicide: “I don’t think he was cruel, but there’s a cruelty to that.” Others express guilt over not seeing any signs of suicidal distress or wishing they could’ve done more to help Anthony.

Some of the people say that the suicide affected them in ways that they didn’t expect. LaJaunie was one of the people who was in Vietnam during Anthony’s six-week journey in the early 2000s to test his TV hosting skills. LaJaunie was in Vietnam when he heard the news about the suicide, and he decided to permanently live in Vietnam on that day.

Homme said after the suicide, he didn’t work for two years. Choe didn’t cut his hair for two years after hearing about the suicide. Choe finally shaved off some of his hair on camera for the documentary, almost as if talking about his dear, departed friend was therapeutic and helped him feel comfortable to get his hair cut.

It’s evident that “Roadrunner” director Neville has compassion for the loved ones who were left behind. The documentary might also help people understand that suicides often have no logical explanation. There were no drugs or alcohol in Anthony’s system at the time of his death. And even though he was someone who wrote about his feelings for a living, he didn’t leave a suicide note.

Some of the people close to him say in the documentary that there were no big warning signs that he would do something as extreme as killing himself. Any plans that he might have had to commit suicide were kept well-hidden by Anthony. Toward the end of the documentary, there’s some haunting footage of Anthony filming something for “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” where he’s surrounded by people, but the sad expression on his face as he stares at the camera shows that he looks like one of the loneliest people in the world. It’s a somber reminder that people who look like they “have it all” can sometimes feel empty inside and mistakenly think that their lives aren’t worth living.

Focus Features released “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” in U.S. cinemas on July 16, 2021.

Review: ‘Kid Candidate,’ starring Hayden Pedigo

July 14, 2021

by Carla Hay

L’Hanna Pedigo and Hayden Pedigo in “Kid Candidate” (Photo courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky)

“Kid Candidate”

Directed by Jasmine Stodel

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Kid Candidate” features a predominantly white group of people (with some black people) discussing the 2019 political campaign of Hayden Pedigo, who campaigned to become a city council member in Amarillo, Texas.

Culture Clash: Many people doubted the legitimacy of Pedigo’s campaign because he was 24 at the time, he had no political experience, and he made the unusual decision not to accept campaign donations.

Culture Audience: “Kid Candidate” will appeal mostly to people are interested in documentaries about local Texas politics and young people who run for political office.

Hayden Pedigo in “Kid Candidate” (Photo courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky)

The documentary “Kid Candidate” takes a fascinating look at how a musician in his mid-20s launched an unorthodox political campaign to become a city council member in Amarillo, Texas. What started as a joke turned into an experience that changed people’s lives. Directed by Jasmine Stodel, “Kid Candidate” is a lot like the independent rock musician Hayden Pedigo, who decided to become an unlikely political candidate: The movie is lean, scrappy and kind of messy with neurotic quirks. But there’s no doubt that its heart is in the right place, which makes this documentary inspiring to watch without it being overly sappy.

At 68 minutes long, “Kid Candidate” is a fairly brisk chronicle of Pedigo’s journey into Amarillo politics. What would cause someone with previously no interest in politics to launch this long-shot campaign? A longtime Amarillo resident, Pedigo had a strict upbringing by his parents, whom he describes in the documentary as people who used to have wild lifestyles but at some point decided to turn their lives in the opposite direction and became religious Christian conservatives.

Pedigo and his sister were homeschooled for their entire education. In the documentary, he talks about how music was his salvation and emotional comfort when he was growing up in a very repressive household. Pedigo’s biological family members are not in the documentary, because he was estranged from them at the time. He says that these family members (especially his parents) were embarrassed by his political campaign.

However, Hayden’s supportive wife L’Hanna Pedigo is in the documentary. She says that Hayden has had lifelong insecurities and a deep fear of failure because his parents were overly critical of him. From an early age, Hayden had a rebellious streak. He says that his father described him as a caged wild animal when Hayden was growing up. L’Hanna observes that when Hayden’s family disapproved of him running for political office, it motivated Hayden even more to continue the campaign, which she says was almost like a “fuck you” to his family.

Hayden gets emotional when he remembers a criticism that his father had for him that Hayden admits still hurts Hayden to this day: When Hayden was a child, his father would call Hayden an “unplugged alarm clock”—even when plugged in, it keeps blinking and information could not be retained because it’s not programmed correctly. It’s basically an insulting way of telling someone, “You’re not very smart” or “There’s something mentally wrong with you.”

In the documentary, Hayden admits that his political campaign started off as kind of a lark. He and his best friend Alex Fairbanks (who’s interviewed in the documentary) would make goofy short films inspired by eccentric director Harmony Korine’s 1997 avant-garde film “Gummo.” Hayden would portray a fictional Amarillo city council member as a recurring character and do spoofs of what city council members might do when they walk around the city.

A few of these videos would go viral on social media, including one that landed on the front page of Reddit. People began to wonder, “What if Hayden really did run for a seat on the Amarillo city council?” Fairbanks, who was one of those people, remembers saying to Hayden, “I was like, ‘Dude, maybe you should go for city council. People are really liking this. You could probably follow through and win.'”

The idea stuck, and in 2019, Hayden declared his candidacy when he was 24 years old. (He turned 25 during the making of this movie.) The documentary includes footage of him officially registering as a candidate for Amarillo’s city council. At the time that Hayden declared his candidacy, Amarillo (the largest city in the Texas Panhandle) had a population of a little more than 269,000 people, according to the Texas State Department of Social and Health Services.

Hayden explains the fundamental reasons why he wanted to run for political office in Amarillo: “I felt there was a lack of representation, especially amongst my age group … Even if I don’t get elected, I want this to at least inspire somebody—just to get them to vote would be a major step.”

L’Hanna, whose job in the documentary is described as a “theatrical scene and lighting designer,” says that Hayden definitely had doubts about whether or not he should go through with the campaign: “He asked, ‘Would I look stupid doing it?’ … To me, that’s the only qualification—that you’re genuine and that you care about the city and that you care about the people.”

“Kid Candidate” shows that Hayden learns, sometimes the hard way, that it takes more than enthusiasm and lofty ideals to connect with voters. He gets help from civil rights/criminal defense attorney Jeff Blackburn, a grizzled and sometimes gruff political expert who becomes Hayden’s friend, mentor and sometimes biggest critic during the campaign. Blackburn, who is a founder of the Innocence Project of Texas, is an outspoken liberal in a city that is mostly politically conservative.

At times, Blackburn expresses frustration at Hayden’s naiveté in running a political campaign. Among his criticisms of Hayden is that Hayden is willfully ignorant about certain issues that Hayden would need to be knowledgeable about if he were on the city council. Blackburn also admonishes Hayden for getting too caught up in thinking that social media “likes” and anonymous people giving praise in a comments section will translate into votes and other real support.

Hayden finds out this harsh reality in a somewhat embarrassing way, when he announces that he’s having a rally that he’s sure will be well-attended, based on all the positive responses that he got on social media. But in the end, less than 30 people showed up. Hayden also seems awkward when greeting people at his own rally. Like a parent reminding a child to be polite, Blackburn literally has to tell Hayden to say hello to individual people at the rally and thank them for attending.

However, Hayden’s strengths as a candidate are his compassion and his ability to clearly articulate his ideas (as generic as they might be) when he seems to have memorized what he is going to say. His biggest weakness as an aspiring politician is that he seems more comfortable addressing a crowd than having one-on-one interactions with strangers. While doing door-to-door campaigning, Hayden openly admits that he hates this type of campaign work. Blackburn bluntly asks why Hayden he’s running for an elected office, if he doesn’t want to talk to potential voters face-to-face at their homes.

Even though Hayden sometimes disagrees with Blackburn and often doesn’t take his mentor’s advice, they have genuine respect for each other. It’s not mentioned if Hayden belongs to any political party, but the ideas that he put forth during the campaign are for a moderate-to-liberal political agenda. He’s especially concerned about the economic disparities between the northern part of Amarillo (a low-income area populated mostly by people of color) and the southern part of Amarillo, where the city’s wealthiest (mostly white) residents live.

And speaking of the wealthiest Amarillo residents, the documentary frequently mentions Amarillo Matters, a politically conservative and highly influential coalition that donates campaign funds and endorses candidates that it wants to have in power in Amarillo. Claudia Stravato, a civil rights activist and political science instructor, describes Amarillo Matters this way: “The elites formed an organization, pooled their money, and made sure that their elitist friends got elected.”

The documentary mentions that Amarillo Matters declined to have any of its members or representatives interviewed for this movie. However, “Kid Candidate” does a good job of including a diverse group of people to get their perspectives on Hayden’s campaign and Amarillo’s ongoing issues. This variety of viewpoints and opinions make this a fairly well-rounded documentary.

But one of the documentary’s flaws is that it offers no explanation for why none of Hayden’s political opponents is shown in the film, except for brief footage of them in a “town hall” type of panel discussion. Four people, including Hayden, were running for Seat 1 of Amarillo’s city council in 2019. Hayden’s three other opponents were Elaine Hays (the incumbent candidate), Jay Kirkman III and Rich Herman. Even if none of these other candidates wanted to be interviewed for the documentary, the filmmakers should have included information on each of these rival candidates. It would give viewers a better sense of what these candidates were like and what type of campaigns that Hayden would be up against in this election.

One way that Hayden distinguished himself from his competitors and from most politicians in general is that he refused to accept campaign donations. Any campaign videos that he made had no budget or very low budgets. He had no staffers and no promotional merchandise for his very unusual campaign. As he says in the documentary: “I don’t need the money, I don’t need the [campaign] signs, I don’t need the T-shirts.”

Hayden’s main ways of promoting his campaign were by doing media interviews, speaking to groups of voters, and going on social media. He shows a sarcastic sense of humor when he privately mocks other candidates’ campaign wording. He’s also able to laugh at himself when he reacts to Amarillo Matters’ unflattering description of him in an Amarillo Matters statement where he was listed as a “not recommended” candidate. He considers this snub by Amarillo Matters to be a badge of honor.

Even though he got a lot of criticism for having no political experience, it’s very apparent that Hayden didn’t have a specific platform of policies for his campaign. He was running a campaign on general ideas of wanting to implement change, such as increasing diversity in the city’s government and giving better access to resources to Amarillo’s underprivileged residents. Because of his youth, inexperience and his refusal to take money for his campaign, Hayden was also running a campaign where he promoted himself as an “outsider” candidate who could think “outside the box,” shake things up in a positive way, and not be easily corrupted.

During his campaign, Hayden did some traveling outside of Amarillo. He went to Los Angeles to be interviewed on Tim Heidecker’s Talkhouse podcast. Hayden also went to the SXSW Festival in Austin, to perform as a musician. His SXSW rehearsals are briefly shown in the documentary, whose soundtrack has several original songs written and performed by Hayden. Like most unknown musicians, Hayden has a day job—he was a supervisor at Santa Fe Credit Union at the time this documentary was filmed—but that part of his life is not in the movie.

Some of the other people interviewed in the documentary include Amarillo mayor Ginger Nelson, a lawyer/artist who gets tearful when she talks about she says is the unfair and inaccurate criticism that she’s gotten as mayor. Nelson says that one of the misconceptions about her is that she’s a rich elitist who doesn’t care about the people of Amarillo. Nelson, who is endorsed by Amarillo Matters, says that it’s untrue that she comes from “old money” and that she actually came from a middle-class background.

Nelson says she decided to run for mayor of Amarillo because “I felt that God was asking me to step into an arena of influence to love people.” Nelson mentions God multiple times when she talks about how it relates to her political career, and how she will always take the high road when it comes to her critics and opponents. Meanwhile, her husband Kevin Nelson says in the documentary that anyone who goes into politics has to be prepared for others being ready to tear them down.

Hayden is shown meeting with various groups of people to get their support for his campaign. These groups include ultra-conservative Tea Party supporters (Hayden experiences some hostility at this Tea Party meeting when he says he has “progressive” plans for Amarillo); members of a South Sudanese church; and the local chapter of the League of Women Voters. But the one campaign event that he says was the most meaningful to him was when he was invited to an all-night cultural celebration held by people in Amarillo’s South Sudanese community.

The event, which looks like it was held at a public community center, is not a large celebration (only 10 to 20 people seem to be in attendance at any given time), but Hayden says it was the first group of people he met with during his campaign that didn’t laugh at him. Hayden and L’Hanna, who are the only white people at this event, are shown mingling with the sparse crowd and dancing past midnight, when Hayden gave a brief speech of gratitude to the approximately six people who were left in the room.

After the event, L’Hanna talks about how getting to know people in the South Sudanese community was eye-opening for her and Hayden. She begins to cry when she talks about how she found out that even though life in Amarillo might be difficult for the South Sudanese refugees, many of them told her that they were grateful to live in a place where they could sleep at night without fear of being killed by marauding military soldiers.

Hayden was invited to this event by a mass communications student/South Sudanese refugee named Agol Aloak, who became an ardent supporter of Hayden because he wasn’t a typical politician. Aloak says she has this opinion of most politicians: “You don’t know my struggles. You don’t want to help me … I really want change.” She also describes how many people in Amarillo’s South Sudanese community work for corporate meat company Tyson Foods in dead-end factory jobs with unsafe and grueling conditions. She describes it as slightly better than “slave labor.”

Other people interviewed in the documentary are residents of Amarillo’s economically troubled north side, such as Tremaine Brown, owner of Shi Lee’s BBQ and Soul Food Cafe; Bol Ngor, chairman of Amarillo’s South Sudanese community and assistant supervisor at Tyson Foods; David Lovejoy, KGNC radio program director and first vice-president of the Amarillo chapter of the NAACP; and “self-employed” hip-hop artist Randolph Sims, also known as Koola. They all talk about the discrepancies in how the Amarillo city council treats their part of the city, compared to the wealthier southern part of the city.

The documentary interviewees also include dentist/Amarillo city council member Eddie Sauer; The 806 Coffee + Lounge owner Courtney Brown; Six Car Pub and Brewery owner Colin Cummings; local businessman Craig Gualtree; Hayden’s friend Grayson Carter; Texas Monthly senior editor Randy Barkett; HITTS magazine president Karen Glauber; and Hayden’s friend/street artist Malcolm Byers, who paints an impressive street wall mural of Hayden, just days before the election.

“Kid Candidate” doesn’t sugarcoat that this campaign at times took a heavy emotional toll on Hayden, who seems to have bouts of anxiety and depression. In one scene in the movie, a conversation of text messages between Hayden and “Kid Candidate” documentary director Stodel is shown, where Hayden sounds like he’s in such an emotionally dark place that he doesn’t want to even be seen on camera. Later that night, Hayden ends up going to the South Sudanese cultural event, which he says lifted his spirits considerably.

Hayden is certainly not the first person in the world to run for political office before the age of 30 or with no experience in politics. However, his unique journey as a political candidate can be used as a memorable example of someone who decided to not just talk about change but tried to make change happen—even if it meant stepping outside of personal comfort zones and risking a lot of humiliation and rejection. Regardless of how people might feel about politics, anyone watching “Kid Candidate” will appreciate that having the right to express opinions and other personal freedoms shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Gunpowder & Sky released “Kid Candidate” on digital and VOD on July 2, 2021.

Review: ‘Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),’ starring Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Sly and the Family Stone, Jesse Jackson, the Fifth Dimension, Mahalia Jackson and Nina Simone

July 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

Sly Stone of Sly and the Family Stone in “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

“Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”

Directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” features a predominantly African American group of people (with some Latinos and white people) discussing the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which took place over six non-consecutive days in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood and was attended by an estimated 300,000 people.

Culture Clash: Even though the Harlem Cultural Festival had superstar music artists and was filmed (some people called it Black Woodstock), TV networks and movie distributors at the time refused to be associated with the event, which celebrated ethnic pride for black people and Latino people.

Culture Audience: “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” will appeal primarily to people interested in music and culture from the late 1960s, particularly as related to civil rights and ethnic heritage for people of color in the United States.

Nina Simone in “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

In the summer of 1969, there was a free music festival that took place in New York state, was attended by hundreds of thousands of people, and featured performances by several hitmaking artists. There was no outbreak of violence, no unsafe overcrowding, and no one died during the event. There wasn’t a food shortage, there were no weather problems, and there was no difficulty getting to the concert site. In other words, this event wasn’t Woodstock. It was the Harlem Cultural Festival, an event that was filmed but largely ignored for decades by mainstream media because it was a festival that had mostly African Americans performing at and attending the event.

The excellent documentary “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” shines a well-deserved spotlight on this important part of American cultural and music history. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (who’s best known as a DJ, the drummer for the Roots, and as the band leader for NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”) makes his feature-film directorial debut with “Summer of Soul,” which has a plethora of previously unreleased Harlem Cultural Festival footage and insightful commentary from a variety of people. “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award in the U.S. Documentary Competition.

The Harlem Cultural Festival took place at Mount Morris Park (now known as Marcus Garvey Park) in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, over six days: June 29, July 13, July 20, July 27, August 17 and August 24, 1969. The event featured a “who’s who” of mostly African American artists, including Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Fifth Dimension, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, the Staples Singers, Professor Herman Stevens & the Voices of Faith, Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, the Chambers Brothers, former Temptations singer David Ruffin and the Edwin Hawkins Singers featuring Dorothy Morrison.

Other celebrities who performed at the event included interracial funk band Sly and the Family Stone, South African singer Hugh Maskela, Puerto Rican band leader Ray Barretto, Jewish jazz musician Herbie Mann, Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaría and Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji. Non-musical celebrities who appeared on stage included civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, comedian Moms Mabley and ventriloquist act Willie Tyler and Lester. “Summer of Soul” has electrifying performance footage of all of the above artists and celebrities. And there’s not a bad performance in the bunch.

The Harlem Cultural Festival was such a big deal that an estimated 300,000 people attended over the six days. And after the Woodstock Music Festival (attended by an estimated 400,000 people) happened from August 15 to August 18, 1969, on a farm in upstate Bethel, New York, some people gave the Harlem Cultural Festival the nickname Black Woodstock. (This documentary was originally titled “Black Woodstock.”) Both festivals had superstar acts on the bill, but Woodstock got most of the media attention and praise for being a groundbreaking festival in 1969.

The Woodstock Music Festival, which had a lineup of predominantly white hitmaking artists, went on to be celebrated as a major event for the “counterculture/hippie generation” of the 1960s. Woodstock got massive media coverage, including the Oscar-winning “Woodstock” documentary. The Woodstock Music Festival has also been hailed as the most influential music festival of all time, despite the event’s many problems, such as lack of food, shelter, medical facilities, sanitation and other safety issues. Woodstock was originally a paid ticketed event but quickly became free after too many people showed up. The overcrowding caused big problems with safety and traffic jams, to the point where the governor of New York state was monitoring the festival and was ready to call in the National Guard military force if the situation got really out of control.

Meanwhile, the Harlem Cultural Festival, which had no major safety problems, was filmed for a potential documentary, but the event was mostly ignored by national and international media. Most of the media coverage was limited to local news outlets in New York City. Movie companies and national TV networks turned down pitches for years to have a documentary on the Harlem Cultural Festival. And so, according to a prologue in “Summer of Soul,” the Harlem Cultural Festival footage just “sat in a basement for 50 years.”

“Summer of Soul” doesn’t waste a lot of time complaining about the obvious reason why the media and entertainment industries treated the Woodstock Music Festival differently from the Harlem Cultural Festival. It isn’t until toward end of “Summer of Soul” that it’s mentioned how a proposed documentary on the Harlem Cultural Festival was rejected for years by all companies that were pitched on this documentary. “Summer of Soul” shows why the Harlem Cultural Festival was so important by being the documentary this event deserves.

Longtime TV director/producer Hal Tulchin directed the footage that was filmed of the Harlem Cultural Festival. Before he died in 2017, at the age of 90, Tulchin signed over the rights to the footage to “Summer of Soul” producers Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein. “Summer of Soul” director Thompson was Fyvolent and Dinerstein’s first choice to direct the film because of his “encyclopedic knowledge of film” and because he’s someone “who understood music and its history,” according to what Fyvolent and Dinerstein say in the “Summer of Soul” production notes.

The people interviewed in the film—many who attended the Harlem Cultural Festival and some who did not—all have something substantial to say about the cultural context in which the festival took place, as well as the lasting impact on those who understand the importance of this event. This isn’t a documentary with a constant stream of talking heads over-glamorizing what the festival was, because the movie addresses the realities of civil unrest, poverty and other social issues going on for people of color in America at that time. It was a different kind of “peace and love” at this festival, which had the tone of ethnic pride and cautious optimism for the future.

“Summer of Soul” begins and ends with testimonial from Musa Jackson, a longtime Harlem resident who attended the Harlem Cultural Festival when he was 4 years old. Jackson, who has worked as a fashion model and a filmmaker, is now considered an unofficial ambassador of Harlem. He says what impacted him the most about the Harlem Cultural Festival—aside from his admitted big crush on Fifth Dimension singer Marilyn McCoo—was that he had never seen so many black people in one place at the same time and having fun. Musa Jackson remembers, “This was the first time I saw so many of us … It was like seeing royalty.” It was quite a different image from what was constantly shown in the media that black people only gathered in large numbers to protest racism.

Contrary to racist beliefs that large numbers of black people gathered in one place automatically means crime and violence, the Harlem Cultural Festival was a peaceful event where people had a good time. The festival had the support of then-New York City mayor John Lindsay, who attended and was introduced on stage to cheers from the audience. Civil rights activist Al Sharpton, who’s interviewed in the documentary, describes Lindsay as a “liberal Republican” who felt comfortable being around black people and who supported the civil rights movement.

Not all of New York’s public servants were supportive of the Harlem Cultural Festival though. Most of the New York City Police Department refused to work at the event, so the Black Panthers provided security for the festival. In the end, there was no violence and no one died because they were there. The same can’t be said of the Woodstock Music Festival.

Also in contrast to Woodstock, at the Harlem Cultural Festival, people weren’t stranded with a lack of food or lack of sanitation on the premises. It was so easy to enter and leave the festival site, that many of the Harlem Cultural Festival attendees could walk or take the subway there in just 30 minutes or less from their nearby neighborhoods. And although the attendees had to deal with sweltering summer heat, there were luckily no rain storms that caused dangerous lightning, wind gusts or widespread mud.

In 1969, the civil rights movement was hurting over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. the previous year. Protests over racial injustice and the Vietnam War led to violence in many cities. Sharpton says of the political and social climate in 1969: “People were afraid of the anger and rage spilling over.” Harlem Cultural Festival attendee Darryl Lewis comments: “So, the goal of the festival may very well have been to keep black folks from burning up the city in ’69.”

The Harlem Cultural Festival was the brainchild of promoter Tony Lawrence, who was also a nightclub singer. Through sheer persistence and showbiz hustling, he was able to get a lineup that was one of the best to showcase contemporary R&B music and other music with roots in black or Latino culture. The festival was funded by sponsors, most notably Maxwell House Coffee. Lawrence was the festival’s charismatic (and often flamboyantly dressed) host who introduced people on stage.

Allen Zerkin (a former assistant to Lawrence) and Margot Edman (a festival production assistant) are interviewed in the documentary. Edman describes Lawrence as an “ebullient guy,” “always on the move” and “very positive.” Lawrence wasn’t the type to lose his temper easily, but he had the gift of persuasive sales skills. Zerkin says, “Tony talked a big game, and he delivered.”

In an archival interview, Tulchin remembers the challenges he had to direct film footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival: “There was no budget, no money, no lights. So, the stage had to face west because I had to use the sun.”

Because the performances took place before nightfall, the artists on stage could have a better view of the audience. Mavis Staples of the Staples Singers says in an audio interview for the documentary: “I saw so many black people, and they were having a good time. And I started celebrating with them.”

While the Woodstock Music Festival had a very male-dominated lineup of artists, female artists had much more of a presence at the Harlem Cultural Festival. Because gospel music was a big part of the festival, many of the acts on stage were a solid mixture of men and women. Charylane Hunter-Gault, formerly of The New York Times, comments on the importance of gospel to African American culture: “Gospel is part of our DNA. It’s deep in the recesses of my consciousness.”

And anyone who sees “Summer of Soul” will probably say that the women lead singers are many of the performance highlights. Among the most noteworthy are Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson (especially her duet with Mavis Staples on “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”) and Gladys Knight of Gladys Knight and the Pips, who are shown performing the group’s 1967 hit “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Simone performs “Backlash Blues,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and “Are You Ready?” like an iconic artist in full command of the stage and her craft. Sharpton comments on Simone’s performance: “You can hear in her voice our pain and our defiance.”

After Mahalia Jackson performs “Lord, Search My Heart,” Jesse Jackson goes on stage to give a poignant speech about the last time he saw his civil rights mentor King. “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” was one of King’s favorite songs. Staples says of performing this gospel classic with Mahalia Jackson: “That is still my biggest honor: to sing on the same microphone as Sister Mahalia Jackson.”

Sly and the Family Stone performed at the Harlem Cultural Festival and at the Woodstock Music Festival—and they were standouts at both events. In “Summer of Soul,” Sly and the Family Stone are seen performing their hits “Sing a Simple Song,” “Everyday People” and “I Want to Take You Higher.” At the time, they were considered a highly unusual band because the musicians consisted of black men, black women and white men. Sly and the Family Stone also defied musical genres by blending R&B, rock, pop and some jazz, thereby helping pioneer a hybrid musical genre called funk.

With today’s successful bands, not much has changed in terms of how bands are still mostly segregated by race and/or gender. Looking at today’s current hitmakers, it’s still very rare to see a chart-topping band with the type of racial and gender diversity that Sly and the Family Stone had. The exceptions might be vocal groups, but not a full-fledged band that plays instruments.

Greg Errico, former drummer of Sly and the Family Stone, comments in the documentary: “Sly [Stone] wanted to address everybody and everything. Music was the common denominator. Everybody wanted to do their own thing. And we did.” Writer/journalist Greg Tate observes: “Sly and the Family Stone was a game changer on so many levels.”

Breaking down racial stereotyping was one of the reasons why it was important for the Fifth Dimension to perform at the Harlem Cultural Festival, say former Fifth Dimension singers McCoo and her husband Billy Davis Jr. in the documentary. At the time, many people thought that because the Fifth Dimension performed pop music, the group was “too white” for black audiences and “too black” for white audiences. “Back then, music was segregated,” says Davis. “We were caught in the middle.” The documentary includes the Fifth Dimension performing “Don’t Cha Hear Me Callin’ to Ya” and “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” the group’s biggest hit.

McCoo and Davis are shown reacting with joy and nostalgia when they watch the long-lost footage of the Fifth Dimension performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival. McCoo gets teary-eyed and emotional when she says, “How do you color a sound? That was one of the reasons why performing in Harlem was so important to us, because we wanted our people to know what we were about, and we were hoping they would receive us. We were so happy to be there.”

Knight, who is also interviewed in the documentary, also remembers the feeling she had being at this very unique event: “When I stepped on stage, I was totally taken aback because I didn’t expect a crowd like that.” As writer/journalist Tate says in the documentary: “At the Harlem Cultural Festival, you got an audience that was radicalized.”

The documentary includes news footage of the civil rights protests that were affecting life for people of color in the United States. “Summer of Soul” also doesn’t gloss over the problems facing disenfranchised people of color, besides racial injustice. Drug addiction (especially addiction to heroin) was an epidemic in Harlem. Harlem Cultural Festival attendee Roger Parris, who describes heroin as a “plague on the black community,” says in the documentary that he was a heroin addict for 16 years who lost everything—including his home, his marriage and his family—because of his drug addiction.

Poverty was also very much on people’s minds. There’s some news footage from 1969 showing black people in Harlem being asked what they think about NASA’s historic Apollo 11 voyage that had the first man to walk on the moon. The interviewees say that Apollo 11 didn’t matter much to them because they think the government should have used the money to help poor people instead. It’s a very different perspective than the usual praise of NASA and Apollo 11 that gets shown in documentaries about 1969.

“Summer of Soul” even discusses the changing fashion for African Americans in 1969, when the Black Power movement was starting to gain momentum. Jim McFarland, a former tailor at Orlies Custom Tailoring, comments on how more black people started to wear Afros and dashikis at that time. Hiphuggers were popular. And it was also in style for men to wear vests without shirts.

Wearing dashikis and Afros were part of a larger cultural movement of African Americans expressing pride in their African roots. Hugh Maskela’s son Selema “Sal” Masekela comments, “My father realized that there was this real hunger for black Americans to feel and see and taste what it would be like to be African.” It was around this time in the late 1960s when people began to re-examine what was being taught in American history classes and how the contributions of people of color were being wrongfully erased. There was a movement for school classrooms, the media and the government to give more recognition to African and African American culture and historical contributions made by people of African/African American heritage.

African Americans were the majority of artists and attendees at the Harlem Cultural Festival, but the event was also embraced by people in the Latino community. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wasn’t even born when the festival happened, nevertheless weighs in with this comment in the documentary: “The power of music is to tell our own stories. We had a mirror to ourselves. We write the music that comes from inside us. And then other people say, ‘That’s me too!'” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s father Luis Miranda adds: “The festival is a political statement to black and brown communities.”

Grammy-winning legend Wonder (whose performances of “It’s Your Thing” and “Shoo-Bee-Doo-Bee-Doo-Da-Day” are in the documentary) remembers what it was like to be alive in 1969: “I had a feeling that the world was wanting a change.” Wonder was a prominent figure in the civil rights movement. Actor/comedian Chris Rock, who grew up in New York City and was 4 years old in 1969, says in the documentary that it would have been easy for Wonder to rest on his laurels and just be a pop star, but Wonder took the riskier path of speaking out and doing something about social issues.

Other people interviewed in “Summer of Soul” include music executive Alan Leeds, musician Sheila E., Black Panther Party member Chris “Bullwhip” Innis Jr., former Edwins Hawkins Singers member Adrienne Kryor, Young Lords co-founder Denise Oliver-Velez, Max Roach’s son Raoul Roach, Operation Breadbasket Orchestra band leader Ben Branch and Harlem Cultural Festival attendees Dorinda Drake, Ethel Beatty-Barnes and Barbara Bland-Acosta.

“Summer of Soul” is an apt title because its a very soul-stirring film. Rather than just show the concert footage and sticking to talking about the music, the documentary does an exemplary job of putting everything in a cultural context that can be taken to heart by people of any generation. The film editing sometimes veers a little off track when people who weren’t at the festival talk about their lives, but it’s not so off-topic that it becomes an annoying distraction.

The sound mixing for the concert footage is done so well, it feels like you’re almost transported back to the festival. The documentary feels more inclusive and relatable to more people by adding in the perspectives of people who weren’t at the festival but who understand its relevance to social issues. On another level, “Summer of Soul” is also a time capsule of a bygone era when it was more possible for a relatively unknown, independent promoter to create this type of all-star festival.

And the filmmakers cared about details, such as putting the artists’ names and song titles on screen during each performance. Many concert documentaries don’t list song titles until the end credits. Anyone who watches “Summer of Soul” should experience it on the biggest screen possible. It’s the type of documentary that will inspire meaningful discussions and repeat viewings.

Searchlight Pictures released “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised”) in select U.S. cinemas on June 25, 2021. The movie expanded to more U.S. cinemas and premiered on Hulu on July 2, 2021.

Review: ‘The Sparks Brothers,’ starring Ron Mael and Russell Mael

July 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

Russell Mael and Ron Mael in “The Sparks Brothers” (Photo by Anna Webber / Focus Features)

“The Sparks Brothers”

Directed by Edgar Wright

Culture Representation: The documentary film “The Sparks Brothers” features a nearly all-white group of people (and one African American) discussing the career and influence of the American experimental rock/pop duo Sparks, including Sparks members Russell Mael and Ron Mael.

Culture Clash: The highs and lows of Sparks’ career included the Mael brothers’ sibling rivalry; relocating to England during a pivotal time in the duo’s career; parting ways with filmmaker Tim Burton on a movie musical that was supposed to be a big comeback for Sparks; and dealing with the fickle nature of the music business.

Culture Audience: Aside from die-hard fans of Sparks, “The Sparks Brothers” will appeal mostly to people who are nostalgic or curious about influential pop/rock musicians who never became superstars.

Russell Mael and Ron Mael in “The Sparks Brothers” (Photo by Jake Polonsky/Focus Features)

“The Sparks Brothers” documentary director Edgar Wright makes it abundantly clear that he’s a massive fan of the pop/rock duo Sparks, so this film is more of a tribute than a well-rounded biography. At 140 minutes long, “The Sparks Brothers” can be an endurance test for people who aren’t die-hard Sparks enthusiasts. And since the documentary only interviews people who are either fans of Sparks or have worked with Sparks, the non-stop praise for Sparks can be a bit repetitive. However, the documentary is a fascinating look at the longevity of Sparks and the brotherly dynamics of Sparks members Ron and Russell Mael.

“The Sparks Brothers,” whose exclusive interview footage was filmed in black and white, is a documentary that makes some attempt to not completely follow the typical film biography format of mixing archival footage with new footage that was filmed exclusively for the documentary. Sparks is known as an experimental and offbeat act that never hit superstar mainstream status. And so, there are moments in the film that are nods to the quirky image of Sparks.

For example, director Wright can sometimes be heard talking to the Mael brothers off-camera in a cheeky manner to make a joke or set up a sight gag. When he asks the Ron and Russell why they decided to do an authorized documentary at this time in their lives, older brother Ron says, “We didn’t want to do a standard documentary full of talking heads.” Russell adds, “It would become too dry.” And then two buckets of water are thrown on the brothers.

It’s a facetious moment, because this documentary is actually full of talking heads—so much so that numerous people’s comments about Sparks take up at least 40% of the movie. Some of the best moments of the documentary, which tells the Sparks story in chronological order, is near the beginning, when it reveals photos and details about the early years of Ron and Russell being musicians.

Ron (who was born in 1945 in Santa Monica, California) and Russell Mael (who was born in 1948 in Culver City, California) are the only children of Meyer and Miriam Mael. Meyer was a commercial painter, graphic designer and caricaturist, who tragically died when Ron was 11 and Russell was 8. Miriam was a librarian. Ron and Russell were raised primarily in Pacific Palisades (an affluent suburb of Los Angeles), and the brothers performed in talent shows when they were school children.

Ron says that these talent shows were the first experiences that he and Russell had in getting a taste of the “addicting” thrill of affecting an audience. People unfamiliar with the Mael brothers’ teen years might be surprised to find out from this documentary that Russell (who’s known for his thin physique) was the quarterback of his high school football team. Russell says that he got the same adrenaline rush from playing in football games that he later got when he performed on stage as an entertainer. The Mael brothers say that the 1955 dramatic film “Blackboard Jungle” was a huge influence on them as children.

Ron and Russell attended the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where they started to play in rock bands that never really went anywhere beyond the local music scene. Two of those bands were Moonbaker Abbey and the Urban Renewal Projects. The Mael brothers say they first started getting serious about music when they began working with Earle Mankey, a founding member of Halfnelson, the band whose name was later changed to Sparks. Sparks’ 1971 eponymous debut album was originally titled “Halfnelson.” Mankey is one of the people interviewed in the documentary.

At UCLA, Ron and Russell both studied film, which would influence the types of music videos that they made and their tendency to sometimes reinvent themselves with various images and costumes. But throughout their career, one image of the band remained true and constant: Russell as the extroverted lead singer (who was also a heartthrob in Sparks’ heyday) and Ron as the introverted keyboardist/songwriter/producer.

It’s repeated several times in the documentary that Ron had private struggles with being overshadowed by Russell, even though Ron was the one creating the band’s songs. It’s a common situation with musical duos and groups, because the lead singer is usually the one who gets most of the attention. But adding in sibling rivalry makes it a more emotionally complicated issue. Someone can stop working with a sibling, but that sibling will still be a family member.

Russell describes the early years of developing his stage persona as trying to emulate Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger and The Who lead singer Roger Daltrey. “I was off by a few thousand miles,” he quips. The Mael brothers say other musical influences on Sparks were French New Wave bands. Given the brothers’ background in studying film, it’s not surprising that French New Wave in music and film had an effect on them, because there’s a very European style to the Mael brothers’ art.

Becoming a superstar act was never Sparks’ goal, but this documentary makes it clear that Ron and Russell Mael have wanted enough commercial success to be famous and to be wealthy enough to able to self-fund their projects in case no companies or investors were interested. There’s no question that Sparks has a very devoted fan base, but this documentary wants to bestow “legendary” status on Sparks. It’s a description that gives the movie a very fan-worship tone that exaggerates how far Sparks’ influence really went, compared to other non-mainstream arists who influenced a wider variety of people.

“The Sparks Brothers” documentary gives a comprehensive overview of the Sparks album discography, up until 2020, when the movie was completed. There’s a mention at the end of the film about the 2021 movie musical “Annette” (directed by Leos Carax), which features original music by Sparks, as well as the Mael brothers in supporting roles as actors. “Annette” (which stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard) is set for release by Amazon Studios in August 2021, thereby making it the second movie of 2021 (after “The Sparks Brothers”) to feature Ron and Russell Mael. “The Sparks Brothers” world premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, and the world premiere of “Annette” is at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival,

“Annette” is the culmination of years of the Mael brothers’ dream to do a movie musical. “The Sparks Brothers” documentary includes their version of what happened when they parted ways with director Tim Burton on a movie musical called “Mai, the Psychic Girl,” based on the 1985-1986 manga series written by Kazuya Kudō and illustrated by Ryoichi Ikegami. The Mael brothers worked on the movie during a time (the late 1980s to early 1990s) when the duo’s career was in a slump, and they say they needed a hit project to keep them financially afloat.

Although the Mael brothers don’t give too many details on what led to Burton’s departure from the project, they make it clear that Burton was the one who walked away, and the Mael brothers were heartbroken over it. (According to numerous reports, Burton chose to instead work with Disney for 1993’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and 1994’s “Ed Wood.”) The Mael brothers invested several years and most of their personal fortune into the “Mai, the Psychic Girl” movie. And once Burton was no longer involved in making the movie, all the other investors backed out. The rights to make the movie eventually went to other people, but so far, attempts to make “Mai, the Psychic Girl” into a movie have not come to fruition.

Another crossroad in Sparks’ career that’s discussed in the documentary is when the Mael brothers decided to relocate to England in 1973, after growing frustrated by their lack of commercial success in the United States. They fired their American band mates to start over in a completely new country. It was in England that Sparks began to blossom artistically and found a bigger fan base than ever before. Sparks’ popularity eventually spread all over Europe (mainly in western Europe), where Sparks had their biggest hits. The Mael Brothers moved back to the Los Angeles area in 1976.

Although Sparks has plenty of fans in other continents, Europe is where Sparks has been glorified the most. Sparks became so associated with England in the 1970s, that many fans who discovered them back then incorrectly assumed that the Mael brothers were natives of England. Sparks’ biggest string of hit songs were in the 1980s, including 1983’s “Cool Places,” from the album “In Outer Space”; 1986’s “Music You Can Dance To,” the title track of Sparks’ 1985 album; and 1989’s “Just Got Back From Heaven,” from the 1988 album “Interior Design.”

“The Sparks Brothers” documentary has plenty to say about the Mael brothers’ music, but very little to say about their personal lives, except for Russell mentioning that he was quite a playboy when he was young. The Go-Go’s co-founder/rhythm guitarist Jane Wiedlin, who’s interviewed in the documentary, says she dated Russell in the early 1980s, but their brief romance was more one-sided on her part. And in the early 1970s, Russell used to date a well-known groupie named Miss Christine, who was part of a short-lived all-female singing group called the GTO’s, whose first and only album was produced by Frank Zappa. Pamela Des Barres, a member of the GTO’s, is interviewed in “The Sparks Brothers” documentary.

There’s no mention if Ron or Russell ever married or if they have children—something they’ve refused to publicly talk about for years. However, it’s clear that even through their ups and downs, the brothers have remained close. The documentary shows that Ron and Russell have a routine of going to their favorite cafe in the Los Angeles area before going back to their home studio to work.

There’s some footage of the brothers creating music in their home studio. The documentary needed more of that type of behind-the-scenes footage and less talking heads giving Sparks testimonials. It’s fair to say that this documentary is overstuffed with people talking about Sparks and doesn’t show enough current footage of what the lives of the Mael brothers are like. The archival footage is good enough, but avid Sparks fans have probably seen a lot of it already.

A constant theme in “The Sparks Brothers” documentary is that Sparks has been very underrated in how much Sparks has influenced musicians in pop and rock music. What the movie ignores—although it’s pretty obvious when you see who’s interviewed in the documentary—is that when fans and other admirers talk about Sparks’ influence, they’re really talking about influence on mainly white people. Pop music nowadays is a lot more diverse than it was in the 20th century, so if Sparks really had as wide of an influence range as this movie claims, then there would be more diversity in the people being interviewed, not just in terms of race but also nationality and age.

With the exception of Icelandic singer Björk (who is not interviewed on camera), the people interviewed in the documentary are British and American people who were born before 1985. They include musicians such as Beck; Duran Duran co-founders John Taylor and Nick Rhodes; Franz Ferdinand lead singer Alex Kapranos; Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea; Todd Rundgren; Faith No More keyboardist Roddy Bottum; Jack Antonoff; Bernard Butler; Erasure members Vince Clarke and Andy Bell; “Weird Al” Yankovic; former Visage drummer Rusty Egan; Electric Prunes singer James Lowe; former Haircut 100 singer Nick Heyward; Martyn Ware, co-founder of pop groups Human League and Heaven 17; DJ Lance Rock; New Order members Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert; and former Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones.

Past and present Sparks associates interviewed include former Sparks drummer Tammy Glover; former Halfnelson tour manager/photographer Larry Dupont, former Halfnelson manager Mike Berns; former Halfnelson/Sparks drummer Harley Feinstein; former Sparks drummer Hilly Michaels; former Sparks manager John Hewlett; former Sparks road Richard Coble; former Sparks drummer Christi Haydon; former Sparks bassist Ian Hampton; former Sparks drummer David Kendrick; former Sparks guitarist Dean Menta; Sparks manager Sue Harris; and Sparks drummer Stevie Nistor.

And several people known for their work in movies, television or stand-up comedy weigh in with their thoughts. They include “The Sparks Brothers” director Wright; actor Mike Myers; actor Jason Schwartzman; actor/comedian Patton Oswalt; TV producers/writers/spouses Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino; actor/comedian Jake Fogelnest; actor/screenwriter Mark Gatiss; comedian April Richardson; actor/comedian Scott Aukerman; and comedian/TV host Jonathan Ross, who jokes that Ron and Russell Mael “don’t really look like a band. They look [institutionalized] people who’ve been let out for a day.”

Media people interviewed include broadcaster/columnist Katie Puck; journalist David Weigel; radio host Michael Silverblatt; and poet Josh Berman. Other admirers who have soundbites in the film are Sparks superfans Madeline Bocchiaro (president of the Sparks Fan Club), Julia Marcus, Vera Hegarty and Ben House. And behind-the-scenes music industry people interviewed include producer Tony Visconti and former Island Records A&R executive Muff Winwood.

If you’re exhausted or annoyed just by reading this list of names people interviewed for this documentary, that’s kind of like how it feels to watch this too-large number of people chiming in with their soundbites about Sparks and sometimes interrupting the flow of the movie. “The Sparks Brothers” director Wright clearly wanted to show as many people as possible who profess their adoration of Sparks, but the “less is more” approach would’ve served this movie better. And it certainly would’ve lessened the movie’s overly long run time.

“The Sparks Brothers” also has a bit of a pretentious tone in how it tries to make it look like people who aren’t fans of Sparks must have something wrong with them. Quite frankly, as talented as Ron and Russell Mael are, their music will never be a lot of people’s cup of tea. In fact, what this movie could’ve used is at least some perspective from people who are music experts but aren’t worshipful fans of Sparks and were never on the Sparks payroll. It would go a long way to explain why Sparks never caught on with a massive, worldwide audience.

Despite the overabundance of fawning over Sparks in this documentary, anyone who appreciates unique artists in music can find something to like about “The Sparks Brothers.” The movie also succeeds in presenting Ron and Russell Mael in their most candid on-camera interview spotlight. And the joy that Sparks has brought to so many people is obvious, so it’s a delight to watch in this movie.

Focus Features released “The Sparks Brothers” in select U.S. cinemas on June 18, 2021.

Review: ‘Ascension’ (2021), a cinéma vérité documentary of the different layers of consumerism in China

June 24, 2021

by Carla Hay

A livestreamer for Yiwu Siwen Shoe Company in “Ascension” (Photo by Jessica Kingdon)

“Ascension” (2021)

Directed by Jessica Kingdon

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place various parts of China, the cinéma vérité-styled documentary film “Ascension” features an all-Asian group of people at work and at leisure in this examination of how capitalistic consumerism works in Communist China.

Culture Clash: In a culture where the government enforces Communism/socialism and consumers embrace capitalism, the Chinese Dream is presented as an aspirational lifestyle of attaining wealth through hard work, but the dream remains out of reach for most people and is accessible to a small, elite percentage of the population.

Culture Audience: “Ascension” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in minimalist, “slice of life” documentaries about contemporary China, with no interviews, narration and analysis.

A worker at a WM Doll factory in Zhongshan, China, in “Ascension” (Photo by Jessica Kingdon)

How does a system of capitalistic consumerism work in China, a country controlled by a Communist government? The cinéma vérité-styled “Ascension” shows different layers of this system and lets viewers make up their own minds about it. It’s a documentary that’s more than just a compilation of “slice of life” footage, because the movie is presented as a mosaic of a culture.

People in the movie are rarely identified by name and absolutely no one interviewed for the film. Therefore, don’t expect any deep analysis or commentary about what’s in the movie. However, just like a mosaic, it’s up to viewers to look at all the different segments that are presented and see what the big picture is.

“Ascension” had its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. It won the Tribeca Film Festival jury prizes for Best Documentary Feature, while “Ascension” director Jessica Kingdon received the festival’s 2021 Albert Maysles Award for Best New Documentary Director. It’s a documentary whose storytelling style is not going to be everyone’s liking, especially for people who prefer documentaries to tell as much as show. showing. “Ascension” take a more subtle “show” approach and doesn’t try to make anyone a star of the movie with manipulative editing.

In order to fully appreciate “Ascension” (directed by Jessica Kingdon), it helps to have this synopsis from the movie’s production notes: “‘Ascension’ is an impressionistic portrait of China’s industrial supply chain that reveals the country’s growing class divide through staggering observations of labor, consumerism and wealth. The documentary portrays capitalism in China across the levels of its operation, from the crudest mine to the most rarefied forms of leisure.

“Accordingly, the film is structured in three parts, ascending through the levels of the capitalist structure: workers running factory production, the middle class training for and selling to aspirational consumers, and the elites reveling in a new level of hedonistic enjoyment. In traveling up the rungs of China’s social ladder, we see how each level supports and makes possible the next while recognizing the contemporary Chinese Dream remains an elusive fantasy for most.”

Once viewers know that “Ascension” has a specific structure, it gives a better context to watching the documentary. Otherwise, for people not really paying attention, the movie might just come across as a bunch of random footage of contemporary life in China. The movie filmed in 51 locations across China, according to the “Ascension” production notes.

Kingdon and Nathan Truesdell provided the movie’s often-stunning cinematography. (The visually majestic outdoor scenes are the documentary’s cinematography highlights.) And the music by Dan Deacon is very atmospheric—sometimes dreamlike, sometimes jarring, sometimes haunting.

“Ascension” begins with a prologue quote from a poem titled “Ascension,” written in 1912 by Kingdon’s great-grandfather Zheng Ze: “I ascend and look far into my heart, only to find everywhere already razed.” It’s perhaps the only clue in the movie about what Kingdon feels is being presented in this documentary’s view of contemporary China: The constant hope of the Chinese Dream (the aspiration to reach the heights of luxury through hard work) is often crushed under the weight of dead-end jobs.

The “factory worker” level of “Ascension” begins with a montage of company recruiters trying to entice people on commercial streets to work at low-paying factory jobs. They use microphones so that their voices can be heard above the noises of the crowds. The places looking for employees can be anything from well-known corporate companies to small businesses.

In this documentary, a phone manufacturing company and a pen factory were among those with recruiters on the streets. A big selling point used by many recruiters is telling potential employees that people can sit while doing the job, since many other blue-collar jobs involve standing for long hours. The salaries mentioned are, on average, 16 yuan (or about $2) per hour.

Also on these streets are large electronic signs with a variety of slogans that read, “Sense of Worth,” “Chinese Dream” and Work Hard. And All Wishes Come True.” But do these wishes really come true? It depends on what those wishes are and who has those wishes.

“Ascension” then gives viewers glimpse in to the types of factory jobs that are the backbone of China’s economy. It’s why so many people around the world have at least one item with the label “Made in China.” The factory locations filmed in this segment of the documentary include a garment factory in Shenzhen; WM Doll (a sex doll company) in Zhongshan; a factory that processes cooked chicken; and a factory that makes pill bottles.

At the WM Doll factory, two female workers focus on how to repair the shoulder of a mannequin. At the garment factory, workers make pants and go through a quality assessment process. Workers at another factory are seen having a cafeteria-styled lunch.

The “middle-class” level of the documentary is the one where people have the liveliest personalities. Rather than having jobs where they’re expected to be “worker bees” and “drones,” there’s a lot more emphasis on being successful entrepreneurs. It’s at this level that the Chinese Dream seems more attainable, and that optimistic hope is more evident in the workforce.

One of the more memorable highlights of this middle-class segment is footage from Star Boss Entrepreneurial Camp, a two-day workshop where the motto is “Monetize Your Personal Brand.” The female leader of the workshop is energetic and enthusiastic in her pep talks and advice on personal sales: “Buying is a choice, one we don’t have to make,” she says. “Why should people buy from you? Because you’re a brand.”

She further notes that people will buy from those whom they like and trust. “We’re in a fan economy era. If you have a large fan base, you have everything.” At the conclusion of Star Boss Entrepreneurial Camp, participants have a “graduation” ceremony, where they get framed completion certificates, go in front of the room, and say their company name and profit goals. The goals are predictably high, with people saying that they want to make millions within the next five years.

“Ascension” also shows how China is part of the boom of entrepreneurs who want to get rich through social media. Just as it is in Western countries, “influencer culture” is huge in China. A woman is shown livestreaming a product demonstration for Yiwu Siwen Shoe Company, so that she can sell athletic shoes. Another woman, who’s a beauty influencer, takes selfies and does a makeup tutorial.

At a flight attendant training program (where all of the participants are women, except for one man), the emphasis is on etiquette and physical attractiveness. Someone who’s not shown on camera says in a micophone to the class: “There’s a saying that every Chinese woman is a pretty Chinese business card. So every Chinese woman, let’s present the prettiest image of China!” When the class completes the training, the graduates pose for a group photo.

The documentary also shows training sessions for jobs that usually attract men. There’s footage of International Butler Academy in Chengdu, where potential butlers are shown how to do proper housekeeping duties, such as bedsheet preparation. Waiters are also shown training at Windows of the World, an upscale restaruant in Shenzhen.

At Genghis Security Academy in Bejing, training looks very similar to a police academy, since the trainees are armed with guns. In a military-styled line of standing trainees, one man makes a mistake, and the instructor shouts at him and kicks him. As further punishment, this trainee is ordered to do push-ups in front of the other trainees.

A documentary about consumerism wouldn’t be complete without footage of people spending money. “Ascension” includes scenes from New South China Mall in Dongguan and New Century Global Center in Chengdu. People are shown gathered at a water park in New Century Global Center. There’s also footage of a computer video game arcade, populated almost entirely by males in their teens and 20s.

The “elite” segment toward the end of the documentary is also the shortest segment. There’s footage of a dinner at Windows of the World, with three men and two women, who are in the late 20s or early 30s. They are all presumably wealthy. One of the women says, “I like the U.S. … because of the freedom.” One of the men says in response, “Personally speaking, I’m a patriot [of China] … China is a global player now.”

This confidence in China’s economy is also expressed at JALA’s annual conference in 2020. (JALA Group is a leading cosmetics enterprise in China.) “Ascension’s” footage of this conference includes a speaker who tells the large audience of hundreds who are gathered for the speech: “Chinese brands must win!”

As much as “Ascension” shows about the Chinese economy and workforce, the documentary can get viewers to think about what’s missing from the movie that would be in a documentary about the American economy and work force. An American documentary would have complaints of employee burnout or exploitation; the minimum wage as it relates to being a “living wage”; employee contracts; taxes and tarriffs; labor laws, etc. The point is that the American Dream and the Chinese Dream might have many things in common, but the freedom to speak out against flaws in the system is another story.

Review: ‘All Light, Everywhere,’ starring Steve Tuttle, Ross McNutt, Robert Corso and Archie Williams

June 13, 2021

by Carla Hay

Visual effects of a focus group participant in New York City in “All Light, Everywhere” (Photo by Corey Hughes/Super LTD)

“All Light, Everywhere”

Directed by Theo Anthony

Culture Representation: The documentary “All Light, Everywhere” features a group of predominantly white people (with some African Americans), talking about policing through video surveillance, facial recognition and other forms of visual identification.

Culture Clash: Opinions vary on how increased video surveillance and use of facial recognition technology can affect privacy and social justice issues.

Culture Audience: “All Light, Everywhere” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in how video surveillance technology is used in modern policing, with perspectives heavily slanted toward those who are in law enforcement or those who profit from this technology.

A 2017 solar eclipse watcher in Charleston, South Carolina, in “All Light, Everywhere” (Photo courtesy of Super LTD)

“All Light, Everywhere” gives a broad—but not essential—overview of the intersections between video surveillance technology and law enforcement. The documentary can be informative, but it sometimes loses focus and overlooks some major issues. The movie confirms what’s obvious to most people who are aware of social injustice: There’s a huge racial disparity between those who are controlling and profiting from video surveillance used by law enforcement and those who are usually the targets of surveillance profiling.

Directed by Theo Anthony, “All Light, Everywhere” attempts to do something a little different from what most documentaries would do when covering this hot-button topic: Instead of having the typical blend of archival footage, documentary interviews and on-location footage, “All Light, Everywhere” tries to look artsy by including information and footage that has to do with the biology of eyesight. Throughout the documentary, there are several close-ups of people’s eyes. The documentary has voiceover narration by Keaver Brenai that’s almost robotic, to make “All Light, Everywhere” sound almost like a scientific documentary. It isn’t.

“All Light, Everywhere” opens with striking visuals, by having close-ups of the insides of eyes, as the narrator explains that the optic nerve is a blind spot. In this documentary that gives a lot of screen time to discussing and showing body cam technology and aerial surveillance, there are repeated mentions that no matter how advanced this technology might get, there will always be blind spots. The point is made several times that who is controlling and editing the surveillance footage can be one big blind spot too.

The documentary doesn’t come right out and say the words “white male privilege,” but it’s very obvious when looking at who’s been put in charge of this technology and who gets the biggest leadership roles in deciding when and where this technology will be placed. In fact, the people who get the most screen time to talk in this documentary are three white men who represent the three factions that are the most involved in how video surveillance is used when policing communities:

The Corporate Manufacturer: Steve Tuttle is Axon International’s principal of TASER CEW sales and the company’s former vice president of strategic communications, the title that he had when he gave this documentary film crew a tour of Axon headquarters in Scottsdale, Arizona. Tuttle’s guided tour of Axon (which includes several product demonstrations) takes up about 20 minutes of this 109-minute movie. Axon is best known for being the market leader in making Taser guns, but the company also manufactures and sells body cams used by law enforcement.

The Law Enforcement Officer: Sergeant Robert Corso of the Baltimore Police Department is shown leading a training session for Baltimore PD officers on the use of body cams. Just like the Axon company tour, this training session is another big part of this documentary that looks very much like it would be right at home in an electronic press kit. (There’s a fairly even mix of white cops and non-white cops in this training session.) The documentary crew wasn’t allowed to film the room’s video screen when Corso played footage of a real-life cop/civilian confrontation caught on body cam. However, the cops’ reactions to this body cam footage are worth seeing, because these reactions are the most spontaneous part of this training session that’s in the documentary.

The Entrepreneur: Ross McNutt, CEO/founder of Persistent Surveillance Systems, can probably be considered the most divisive person in the documentary. From May to August 2016, his private company (headquartered in Dayton, Ohio) secretly flew a surveillance plane in Baltimore to record video footage of street protests against the police’s 2015 shooting death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who was African American. According to “All Light, Everywhere,” not even the mayor of Baltimore knew about this secret surveillance. When the surveillance was made public, it caused a firestorm of controversy that continues today over how much control private companies or governments should have when conducting this type of surveillance and how they use data. Persistent Surveillance Systems has software called EyeView, which McNutt describes as being like a live version of Google Earth.

The most impactful part of “All Light, Everywhere” is not in the canned and rehearsed talk given in company guided tours or in police training sessions. It’s in the raw dialogue that’s shown during an informal community meeting that McNutt asked for, in an attempt to get back in the good graces of Baltimore’s African Americans, who felt that his company’s secret surveillance plane (which has since been grounded) targeted them over any other racial group. In the documentary, McNutt openly says that he wants enough community support so that he can get permission to start up the plane surveillance again.

The meeting isn’t very large (less than 20 people seemed to be in attendance), but everyone in the meeting except for McNutt is black or African American, and there’s only one woman in the room. The documentary notes that McNutt hired an African American man named Archie Williams, who lives in Baltimore, to be a “community liaison” for McNutt to persuade Baltimore’s African American community that his company’s surveillance will be good for the community. McNutt’s main argument to get people on his side is that the surveillance will help deter crime. McNutt lets Williams do most of the talking/sales pitch on behalf of Persistent Surveillance Systems, but Williams and McNutt get an expected amount of skepticism and opposition.

The discussion quickly turns heated, as one man (whose face is blurred out in the documentary, but he identifies himself as a Haitian immigrant) voices the most distrust of what McNutt wants to do. This concerned citizen says that he has serious reservations about how the surveillace footage is going to be used without people’s permission. He also vigorously opposes a private company being in charge of this type of surveillance, compared to a government-run agency that is more likely to be accountable to the public.

The debate devolves into a loud argument, while McNutt can be seen either smirking, looking like a deer caught in the headlights, or slightly stammering as he tries to explain his point of view. The only woman in the meeting seems to be in favor of what McNutt wants to do because she thinks the extra surveillance will be effective in preventing crime. Some of the men also seem to support what McNutt says his intentions are. But quite a few of the men are opposed. One of the objectors mentions that in this era where there are cameras in so many public places, all that video surveillance still doesn’t deter criminals in high-crime areas.

And then there’s the issue of race in the U.S. criminal justice system, because people of color who commit crimes get disproportionately harsher punishments than white people who commit the same crimes. The documentary points out that because aerial surveillance works best in areas that aren’t hidden by trees, the surveillance is less likely to record criminal activity in many tree-heavy areas. These tree-heavy areas are usually in predominantly white, suburban neighborhoods. Financially disadvantaged people and people of color in big cities tend to live in urban areas that are less-populated by trees, compared to the suburbs. Therefore, it’s easy to conclude which types of neighborhoods that aerial surveillance will most likely be used for policing.

What this documentary should have had is insightful analysis of how people are profiting from selling surveillance data to law enforcement and other entities. That information is a lot more revealing than showing demos of body cams. (The 2020 documentary “Coded Bias” has an excellent documentary investigation of how surveillance and facial recognition technology are used and abused in racial profiling. )

It can certainly be appreciated that “All Light, Everywhere” director Anthony made an attempt for this documentary to not follow a predictable format. For example, the movie intersperses the contemporary footage with various segments about the history of public surveillance in the pre-digital age and how that surveillance was used by law enforcement and during wartime. Drones are basically doing an improved, easier-to-control version of what carrier pigeons used to do in the pre-technology era.

The documentary also mentions 19th century pioneers Alphonse Bertillon, a French police officer who introduced the concept of mug shot measurements; Dr. Julius Neubronner, a German who’s credited with the idea of putting cameras on pigeons; and Francis Galton, a British photographer whose system of pictorial statistics was an early form of picture composites. “All Light, Everywhere” points out that picture composites can be very problematic in identifying people, because there’s a high risk of mistaken identity from using composites, which aren’t considered court-admissible evidence in law enforcement.

Although many parts of “All Light, Everywhere” are interesting, the movie sometimes veers off-topic and tries to be artsy for artsiness sake when that screen time could’ve been better used to stick to the topic. For example, there didn’t need to be several cutaway shots of people gathered outdoors in Charleston, South Carolina, to look at the 2017 solar eclipse. There are only so many times that viewers of this documentary need to see this type of B-roll footage before it gets tiresome and it looks unnecessary.

Also irrelevant to the documentary is its footage of people in New York City who are participating in a focus group where they have to wear electrode-monitoring headsets. The documentary never explains what this focus group is looking at and evaulating. And that’s a big omission for a documentary about how the public might be affected by video surveillance technology that’s used by law enforcement. Better editing was seriously needed for this documentary. .

“All Light, Everywhere” also ends on a completely off-topic note by mentioning that the filmmakers had footage of students at Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore who were given an assignment to write, film and edit their own TV pilot episode. An epilogue statement says that the filmmakers originally intended “one of the main threads” in the documentary to be this student experience of making a TV episode for an imaginary show, but it didn’t make the final cut. Instead, a few minutes of the footage play over the documentary’s end credits.

Viewers will be wondering why anyone thought it was a good idea to have this off-topic student footage in the movie at all. It’s another example of how this documentary would have been improved with better editing. “All Light, Everywhere” is only Anthony’s second feature-length documentary. It’s easy to speculate that a more experienced documentary director would have made better editing choices. Despite the documentary’s flaws, there’s enough compelling footage for people interested in the subject matter of law enforcement’s use of video surveillance. However, most of the technology in the movie will look very outdated in about five years.

Super LTD released “All Light, Everywhere” in select U.S. cinemas on June 4, 2021.

Review: ‘Under the Volcano’ (2021), starring The Police, Mark Knopfler, Jimmy Buffett, Nick Rhodes, Verdine White, Chris Kimsey and Giles Martin

May 31, 2021

by Carla Hay

George Martin at AIR Studios Montserrat in “Under the Volcano” (Photo by Martyn Goddard/Universal Pictures Content Group)

“Under the Volcano” (2021)

Directed by Gracie Otto

Culture Representation: In the documentary “Under the Volcano,” a predominantly white group of people (with some black people), who are connected in some way to the now-shuttered AIR Studios Montserrat, discuss this famous recording studio that operated in Montserrat from 1979 to 1989.

Culture Clash: People who recorded albums at AIR Studios Montserrat had various reactions to the laid-back, “isolated from the modern world” atmosphere of Montserrat.

Culture Audience: “Under the Volcano” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in hearing behind-the-scenes stories about the making of some the 1980s’ biggest pop albums at this very unique recording studio.

The Police recording their 1981 “Ghost in the Machine” album at AIR Studios Montserrat in “Under the Volcano.” Pictured from left to right: Stewart Copeland, Sting and Andy Summers. (Photo courtesy of A&M Records/Universal Music Group)

The nostalgic music documentary “Under the Volcano” takes viewers back to a bygone era of recording studios. It’s a comprehensive history of AIR Studios Montserrat, which operated from 1979 to 1989. The recording studio, which was in an isolated part of the Caribbean island Montserrat, hosted some of the biggest names in rock and pop music.

And the documentary is a wistful rememberance of how AIR Studios Montserrat started as a dream music nirvana for celebrated producer George Martin, who founded the studio that was tragically destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Martin died in 2016, at the age of 90, but his widow Jane Martin and their son Giles Martin are interviewed in “Under the Volcano.” The movie had its world premiere at the 2021 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.

Directed in a traditional and engaging manner by Gracie Otto, “Under the Volcano” uses the expected format of mixing archival footage with new interviews conducted for the documentary. The documentary has a lot more photographs than video footage showing what it was like to be at AIR Studios Montserrat. And that’s probably because before digital cameras existed, it was a lot more costly for artists to film behind-the-scenes footage. And it was a lot less common than it is now for artists to film themselves at work in the recording studio.

“Under the Volcano” has a very good representation of many of the famous artists who recorded albums at AIR Studios Montserrat. (AIR is an acronym for Associated Independent Recording.) Some of interviewees include all three former members of The Police; former Dire Straits members Mark Knopfler and Guy Fletcher; Jimmy Buffett; Duran Duran keyboardist Nick Rhodes; former Ultravox frontman Midge Ure; Deep Purple members Tony Iommi and Roger Glover; Earth Wind & Fire bassist Verdine White; musician Ray Cooper; and America singer Gerry Buckley.

However, some of the biggest AIR Studios Montserrat alumni and their perspectives are noticeably absent from the movie—chiefly, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Elton John and the Rolling Stones. Viewers of “Under the Volcano” will have to settle for people talking about these superstars in the documentary, instead of hearing these legendary artists’ first-hand accounts of their experiences at AIR Studios Montserrat. For example, stories about John’s recording sessions at the studio are primarily told by two musicians from his band: drummer Nigel Olsson and guitarist Davey Johnstone.

Not having these superstar artists in the documentary doesn’t lower the overall quality of the movie, but there are times when the documentary feels a little incomplete without these points of view. The “Under the Volcano” filmmakers undoubtedly made their best efforts to includes these artists in the documentary. But, for whatever reasons, these legends weren’t available to be interviewed.

Fortunately, “Under the Volcano” included other important perspectives besides those of the recording artists. Several people who worked behind the scenes with the artists at AIR Studio Montserrat are also interviewed. They include music producers Chris Kimsey, Chris Thomas, Neil Dorfsman and Ian Little, as well as sound balance engineer Michael Paul Stavrou.

Some of the former longtime AIR Studios Montserrat employees are also interviewed, such as chief technical engineer/general manager Malcolm Atkin; managing director Yve Robinson; managing director Dave Harries; chef George “Tappy” Morgan; housekeeper Minetta Allen Francis; and studio managers Steve Jackson, Lloyd Oliver and Desmond Riley. And for the perspectives of people in the local Montserrat music industry, the documentary includes commentary from the late musician Justin “Hero” Cassell (who died in 2010) and radio DJ Rose Willock.

George Martin (who is best known for being the producer of the Beatles) came up with the idea to have a recording studio in a remote island location after he fell in love with Montserrat and wanted to do something radically different with his career. By 1979, he had been closely associated with famous London recording studios Abbey Road Studios (formerly known as EMI Recording Studios) and AIR Studios London, a recording facility that George Martin founded in 1965. And he wanted a change of scenery that was more laid-back than what professional musicians were used to experiencing at big-city recording studios.

According to George’s son Giles Martin, “I think my father was tired of the confines of a very rigid company structure … And he wanted a place that was more artist-friendly. Abbey Road obviously created great music, but the fridge was locked at night. They [people working late at night at Abbey Road] had to break in to get milk for their cups of tea. Even the loo [Britlish slang for toilet] roll had [the name] Abbey Road on it, so you wouldn’t steal it. It was like a very proper English factory.”

It’s mentioned in the documentary that George Martin originally thought his dream recording studio in the Caribbean would be on a large boat. But he quickly scrapped that idea when he found out how noisy the boat engines would be and would thereby ruin the any audio recordings. He decided on a remote location in Montserrat that had an element of danger to it because the recording studo was situated right in the shadow of a volcano.

The idea was that the recording studio would also have its own living quarters—like a recording studio resort—so the people working on the albums didn’t have far to go to eat, sleep and party. Furthermore, Jane Martin says, “George was looking for something that wasn’t in the middle of London … And his plan was that there would be a lack of hangers-on. It would just be [the artists] and their families.”

Giles Martin says of his father George: “He was a mad visionary, in a lot of ways. I think he liked the idea of pushing boundaries. So, if you think about what he did with the Beatles in the ’60s, he pushed the boundaries in the recording studio.”

Here’s how some of the musicians who recorded at AIR Studios Montserrat describe the atmosphere:

Dire Straits leader Knopfler says, “Going to Montserrat was like going into a dream. It’s always different. Reality is always different from what you think it would be … It didn’t have the sophistication that you’d feel straight away if you went to Antigua … It was far more innocent, far more quiet.”

The Police frontman Sting comments, “I love the idea of wilderness on the edge of civilization. I think the volcano itself is a presiding spirit over the island. It definitely gives you the sense that you’re living on the edge of something seismic … There’s definitely a mystique about the island. “Ultravox founder Ure says, “You felt as though you were in a time warp. This little island had a heart that you could feel.”

Air Studios Montserrat’s former managing director Robinson says of Montserrat: “They used to call it the hidden gem of the Caribbean and the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean. Montserrat was colonized by the Irish. And that’s why the island was so different, because it’s really a friendly place. It’s got a magic about it.”

Four years after AIR Studios Montserrat opened in 1979, Montserrat experienced another musical claim to fame when local musician Arrow had an international hit with the 1983 soca song “Hot Hot Hot,” which was later covered by several artists (including Buster Poindexter’s 1987 version) and has since become a staple song at wedding receptions and other parties. Although the most famous artists who recorded at AIR Studios Montserrat performed pop and rock music, many of the arists were influenced by soca and the laid-back atmosphere of the culture in Montserrat.

The Police recorded their 1981 album “Ghost in the Machine” and their 1983 best-selling blockbuster “Synchronicity” at AIR Studios Montserrat. “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” the biggest hit single from “Ghost in the Machine,” has a Caribbean rhythm, and the song became the first Top 5 hit single in the U.S. for the Police. The music video for “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” was filmed entirely in Montserrat, including footage of the band in the AIR recording studio.

Dire Straits’ Knopfler says that the band’s biggest hit album, 1985’s “Brothers in Arms,” has two songs in particular that were directly influenced by the Montserrat vibe: “So Far Away” and “Walk of Life.” John Silcott, a local Montserrat technician who worked at AIR Studios Montserrat at the time, says he’s the Johnny who’s namechecked in “Walk of Life.” (Stay until the end credits of “Under the Volcano” for a cute moment of Silcott dancing to “Walk of Life.”) It’s also mentioned that “Brothers in Arms” (which includes Dire Straits’ biggest hit single “Money for Nothing”) was one of the first albums digitally recorded in its entirety, specifically for the CD format, which was new at the time.

“Under the Volcano” is geared for an audience that’s not too concerned about hearing a lot of technical recording studio jargon. Therefore, the documentary doesn’t have much talk about the studio equipment used at AIR Studios Montserrat. However, producer Neil Dorfsman comments, “Part of AIR’s fame was these three incredible-sounding Neve consoles—and they had one at AIR Montserrat.” According to a 2019 Globe and Mail article, this Neve console still works.

Other notable albums recorded partially or entirely at AIR Studios Montserrat include Elton John’s “Jump Up!” (1982); “Too Low for Zero” (1983) and “Breaking Hearts” (1984); Earth Wind & Fire’s “Faces” (1980); Duran Duran’s “Seven and the Ragged Tiger” (1983); and the Rolling Stones’ “Steel Wheels” (1989). Not surprisingly, many of the hit songs from some these albums are featured in “Under the Volcano,” such as John’s “I’m Still Standing” from “Two Low for Zero” and “Sad Songs Say So Much” from “Breaking Hearts,” as well as The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” from the “Synchronicity” album, the biggest hit song and album recorded at AIR Studios Montserrat.

The Police drummer Stewart Copeland and guitarist Andy Summers remember that the recording of “Ghost in the Machine” and “Synchronicity” was at times uncomfortable because Copeland and lead singer Sting famously had personality clashes with each other. Copeland says that he had to record his drum parts for “Ghost in the Machine” in a separate room that was not close to the main recording studio, so that isolation felt strange to him and he never got used to it.

McCartney sought refuge at AIR Studios Montserrat a few weeks after the December 1980 murder of former Beatles member John Lennon. A grieving McCartney ended up recording parts of his 1982 album “Tug of War” album there, as well as parts of his 1983 album “Pipes of Peace.” McCartney and Wonder’s chart-topping 1982 duet “Ebony and Ivory” (which was on the “Tug of War” album) was also recorded at AIR Studios Montserrat.

The documentary includes a story of a raucously fun, impromptu jam session that Wonder played for some very lucky people at a local pub. Some audio of that performance is included in the documentary. The sound quality isn’t the greatest, but it’s easy to hear how electrifiying and special that atmosphere must have been.

It’s also mentioned that many other musicians (such as McCartney, Dire Straits and Buffett, to name a few) often did private jam sessions at Montserrat, where local people would sometimes be invited. As a longtime radio DJ in the Montserrat, Willock says that these famous musicians felt like they could let loose in this relatively remote area, because the locals weren’t as star-struck by famous musicians as much as the locals were star-struck by famous athletes.

Flamboyant piano man John is fondly remembered in the documentary as one of the most beloved artists at AIR Studios Montserrat because he treated the staff so well and liked to cheer people up. Former studio employee Riley calls John “very generous,” and says that it wasn’t unusual for John to pay for an “open bar for everyone.” Riley adds, “When guys are down, he brings them up.”

Of course, being a rock star in the 1980s was synonymous with heavy partying. The documentary doesn’t reveal any stories that are scandalous or salacious, although it’s hinted that the recording studio’s staff had to be accommodating to whatever party whims their studio’s clients wanted. And because this is a laudatory documentary about the recording studio, there are no #MeToo or gender discrimination stories about this very male-dominated environment.

Sure, the filmmakers could have asked the people who were interviewed for tabloid-like stories, but it’s highly unlikely that the people who were at the recording studio back then would do an on-camera “tell all” for a documentary. It’s something that people would more likely talk about for a book or feature article. Instead, the documentary has people raving about things like the delicious meals prepared for them by AIR recording studio chef Morgan, who says, “That was the best job I ever had in my entire life.”

The closest thing to an epic partying story that’s told in “Under the Volcano” is that John’s song “I’m Still Standing” was inspired by him being surrounded by other people in the recording studio who had passed out from too much partying. John looked around, laughed, and said the immortal words, “Well, I’m still standing.” His lyricist songwriting partner Bernie Taupin decided to use that line as a jump-off point to finish the song’s lyrics.

Earth, Wind & Fire’s White remembers how welcoming the local people were in Montserrat. He says that women dropped their fruit-cutting machetes and applauded when the band’s instrument cases showed up at the airport. “We hadn’t even gotten there yet! And it was beautiful.” He adds, “For us, the biggest thing was just the whole experience of going there.”

And speaking of weapons with blades being thrown, producer Kimsey laughs when he tells a story of how Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards didn’t take too kindly to music manager Peter Mensch (who was a consultant on the Rolling Stones’ “Steel Wheels” tour) suggesting how the band should do a musical arrangement of the song “Mixed Emotions.” In reaction to Mensch’s suggestion, Richards threw a knife at Mensch. Needless to say, the Rolling Stones didn’t take Mensch’s advice on how to write and record the song.

Buffett, who has made a career out of the “tropical party” lifestyle, remembers what it was like to for him and his fellow American band members to experience some culture shock at the pubs in Montserrat when they first started getting to know the area. “There was a bit of a colonial aspect of things that did not fare well with the American band,” Buffett comments.

Buffett says that one of the things that irritated him and his band was the Montserrat pub custom of ordering drinks, one at a time, by writing down an order on a paper. After being told by AIR Studios Montserrat manager Denny Bridges that it was just the way things were done, Buffett remembers saying in response, “Well, why don’t I just buy the whole fucking bar?”

Despite these inconveniences, Buffett says he has overall good memories of spending time in Montserrat, where he states, “I lived on my boat, off and on there, for 20 years.” Buffett recorded his 1979 album “Volcano” at AIR Studios Montserrat. The album’s title was inspired by the volcano located near the studio.

Buffett comments on recording in Montserrat: “It was a lovely working environment because you didn’t leave, I would say, the reign of creativity. You were constantly involved in the creation of the community, as opposed to being in Nashville. To me, there are two ways to go into the studio: You can go and look for perfection, or you can capture the magic.”

Because tranquil Montserrat was not a big tourist attraction, visiting musicians often had to adjust to living without some of their usual creature comforts. Some musicians used it as an opportunity to spend more time outdoors for athletic activities. Sting has happy memories about being taught windsurfing by a local named Danny Sweeney, whom Sting calls “a very brilliant man … The people who taught me things are my heroes.”

Not all of the musicians were comfortable being in Montserrat for a long period of time. Duran Duran’s Rhodes admits he got bored with being on the island, in contrast to Duran Duran lead singer Simon LeBon, who loved spending time swimming and sailing in the ocean. Rhodes comments that after a while, he was ready to leave Montserrat when Duran Duran was recording part of the band’s album “Seven and the Ragged Tiger.”

The album’s first two singles (“Union of the Snake” and “New Moon on Monday”) were recorded at AIR Studios Montserrat. Rhodes believes that the band made the right decision to continue recording the album elsewhere that was better suited for the dance-oriented pop/rock music that Duran Duran was making at the time. “I’m not sure we were in the right head space to make the kind of record that might have been a little more chilled,” says Rhodes of recording in Montserrat. “We wanted to make something full of energy.”

Rhodes also says that Montserrat wasn’t ideal for anyone who missed the hustle and bustle of a big city. There were also safety issues of having a recording studio in a relatively isolated area. Rhodes comments, “It was really brave of them [to build the studio there], because if something went really wrong, the closest port of call was Miami.”

And there was always the possible threat of a volcano eruption, which did indeed happen in 1995, causing massive destruction to Montserrat, six years after AIR Studios closed down on the island because of Hurricane Hugo. Elton John drummer Olsson comments on his AIR Studios Montserrat experiences, “I remember thinking a few times: ‘What if the volcano goes off?'” Earth, Wind & Fire’s White quips: “I’m from Chicago. We don’t do volcanos.”

Today, AIR Studios Montserrat is a broken-down shell of its former self, and it’s off-limits to the public. The documentary includes footage of what the former recording studio looks like now: a series of run-down and empty rooms, with some parts of the building reduced to rubble. The damage caused by Hurricane Hugo and the volcano eruption were enough to make the location of AIR Studios Montserrat completely inhabitable, even if the structure was rebuilt.

Cooper says, “When the volcano went off, that was a pinnacle point of change—a point when nothing was ever going to be quite the same again in the way that we recorded, in the way, in the way that music was dealt with— those magical moments were going to be no longer.”

However, the music, memories and legacy of AIR Studios Montserrat live on in many ways. “Under the Volcano” is a solid tribute to this influential hub of creativity. And the movie will bring a lot of joy to anyone who’s a fan of rock and pop music from the 1980s.

UPDATE: Universal Pictures Content Group will release “Under the Volcano” on digital and VOD on August 17, 2021.

Review: ‘Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,’ starring Sonia Monzano, Whoopi Goldberg, Angelina Jolie, Rosie Perez, Steve Youngwood, Kay Wilson Stallings and Sherrie Westin

May 20, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ryan Dillon (Elmo puppeteer), Bradley Freeman Jr. (Wes Walker puppeteer) and Chris Thomas Hayes (Elijah Walker puppeteer) in “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” (Photo courtesy of ABC)

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days”

Directed by Rebecca Gitlitz

Culture Representation: The documentary “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” features a racially diverse group of people (African American, white, Latino and Asian) discussing their connection to the groundbreaking children’s TV series “Sesame Street.”

Culture Clash: “Sesame Street,” which launched in 1969 on PBS, was the first nationally televised children’s program in the U.S. to be racially integrated, and “Sesame Street” has endured controversy over racial diversity, AIDS and representation of the LGBTQ community.

Culture Audience: “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a comprehensive overview of “Sesame Street,” with an emphasis on how “Sesame Street” is responding to current global issues.

Stacey Gordon (Julia puppeteer) in “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” (Photo courtesy of ABC)

ABC’s documentary “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” offers some nostalgia for “Sesame Street” fans, but the movie is more concered about how this groundbreaking children’s culture has made an impact around the world and with contemporary social issues. Directed by Rebecca Gitlitz, it’s an occasionally repetitive film that admirably embraces diversity in a variety of viewpoints. The major downside to the film is that it won’t be considered a timeless “Sesame Street” documentary, because the movie very much looks like it was made in 2020/2021. Therefore, huge parts of the movie will look outdated in a few years.

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” premiered on ABC just three days after director Marilyn Agrelo’s documentary “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” was released in select U.S. cinemas. “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,” which focused mainly on “Sesame Street’s” history from 1969 to the early 1990s, interviewed people who were “Sesame Street” employees from this time period, as well as some of the family members of principal “Sesame Street” employees who are now deceased. “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” takes a broader approach and includes the perspectives of not just past and present employees of “Sesame Street” but also several “Sesame Street” fans who are famous and not famous.

In addition, “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” (which was produced by Time Studios) makes a noteworthy effort to convey the global impact of “Sesame Street,” by including footage and interviews with people involved with the adapted versions of “Sesame Street” in the Middle East and in South Africa. “Sesame Street,” which is filmed in New York City, launched in 1969 on PBS. In the U.S., first-run episodes of “Sesame Street” began airing on HBO in 2016, and then on HBO Max in 2020. “Sesame Street” is now available in more than 150 countries.

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” quickly breezes through how “Sesame Street” was conceived and launched. There are brief mentions of “Sesame Street” co-creators Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, but this documentary does not interview them. “Street Gang” has interviews with Ganz Cooney and Morrisett, who go into details about how they were inspired to create “Sesame Street” to reach pre-school kids, particularly African American children in urban cities, who had television as an electronic babysitter.

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,” just like “Street Gang” did, discusses that the concept behind “Sesame Street” was to have a children’s TV show with a racially integrated cast and puppets, which were called muppets. A lot of research went into creating the show before it was even launched. The intent of “Sesame Street” was for the show to be educational and entertaining.

But the creators also wanted “Sesame Street” to include real-life topics that weren’t normally discussed on children’s television at the time. For example, when actor Will Lee, who played “Sesame Street” character Mr. Hooper, died in 1982, “Sesame Street” had an episode that discussed Mr. Hooper dying. “Sesame Street” did not lie to the audience by making up a story that Mr. Hooper had moved away or was still alive somewhere.

Time For Kids editorial director Andrea Delbanco says, “Many people avoid the topics that they know are going to be lightning rods. ‘Sesame Street’ goes straight for it. And they handle each and every one of them with the amount of thoughtfulness and research and care that they require.”

David Kamp, author of “Sunny Days: The Children’s Television Revolution That Changed America,” mentions that one of the reasons for the longevity of “Sesame Street” is the show’s ability to adapt to changing times: “They’ll pivot. They’ll adjust. They’ll say, ‘We got it wrong. Now, we’re going to get it right.’ That’s one of [the show’s] great virtues.”

One of the noticeable differences seen in comparing these two “Sesame Street” documentaries is how racial diversity has improved for “Sesame Street” behind the scenes. “Street Gang,” which focused on the first few decades of “Sesame Street” shows that although the on-camera cast was racially diverse, behind the scenes it was another story: Only white people were the leaders and decision makers for “Sesame Street” in the show’s early years. Several current “Sesame Street” decision makers are interviewed in “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,” and it’s definitely a more racially diverse group of people, compared to who was running the show in the first two decades of “Sesame Street.”

Sonia Monzano, an original “Sesame Street” cast member (her character is Maria), says that although the show has always had a racially diverse cast, the muppets are the “Sesame Street” characters that people remember the most. “I remember my first scene with [muppet character] Grover,” Monzano comments with a chuckle. “It took me a while to be comfortable, not try to upstage them. And that’s the same with kids. You give them the platform. Get out of their way.”

As memorable as the “Sesame Street” muppets are, the human characters on the show had a particular impact on children, who saw “Sesame Street” people who reminded them of their family members or neighbors. Several celebrities who are interviewed in the documentary grew up watching “Sesame Street”—including Lucy Liu, Rosie Perez, Olivia Munn and Questlove—and they talk about the importance of seeing their lives and experiences represented on the show.

Perez comments on the show’s racial diversity: “We needed to see that, because when you’re a little girl in Brooklyn watching ‘Sesame Street,’ it’s nice to know that when you opened your door and walked down your stoop, you had the same type of people on your television.” Perez says about “Sesame Street’s” Maria character: “She was my Mary Tyler Moore,” and that until Maria came along, “Desi Arnaz Jr. was our only [Hispanic TV] role model for years.”

Racism, social justice and AIDS are some of the topics that “Sesame Street” has openly discussed over the years, sometimes to considerable controversy. But one topic was apparently too much to handle in “Sesame Street’s” first year: divorce. In “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,” it’s mentioned that the original pilot episode of “Sesame Street” had a segment about muppet character Mr. Snuffleupagus dealing with his parents’ divorce. The “Sesame Street” executives did a test screening of this episode with children.

“The kids freaked out” because the idea of divorce was too upsetting for them, says Time Staff writer Cady Lang. And the episode was “tossed out.” The documentary has some of this unaired Mr. Snuffleupagus “divorce” footage. In the documentary, Martin P. Robinson, the puppeteer and original voice for Mr. Snuffleupagus, expresses disappointment that this decision was made to eliminate talk of divorce on the first “Sesame Street” episode, because he says it was a missed opportunity for “Sesame Street” to start off with an episode that would have been very cutting-edge at the time.

However, there would be plenty of other episodes that would rile up some people. It’s not mentioned in the “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” documentary, but it’s mentioned in the “Street Gang” documentary that TV stations in Mississippi briefly wouldn’t televise “Sesame Street” in 1970, because they said people in their communities thought the show’s content was inappropriate. They denied it had to do with the show having a racially integrated cast. But considering that Mississippi was one of the last U.S. states to keep laws enforcing racial segregation, it would be naïve to think that racism wasn’t behind the “Sesame Street” ban.

The topics of racism and race relations take up a lot of screen time in this “Sesame Street” documentary, but mostly as pertaining to a contemporary audience, not the “Sesame Street” audience of past decades. Black Lives Matter protests and the racist murders of George Floyd and other African Americans have been discussed on “Sesame Street.” And there has been a concerted effort to have all races represented on “Sesame Street,” for the human cast members as well as the muppets.

Roosevelt Franklin (the first African American muppet on “Sesame Street”) was on “Sesame Street” from 1970 to 1975, and was voiced and created by Matt Robinson. The “Sesame Street” documentary briefly mentions Roosevelt Franklin, but doesn’t go into the details that “Street Gang” did over why the character was removed from the show: A lot of African American parents and educators complained that Roosevelt Franklin played too much into negative “ghetto” stereotypes. In the “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” documentary, musician Questlove and TV host W. Kamau Bell mention that they have fond memories of watching Roosevelt Franklin on “Sesame Street” when they were kids.

Although most muppets aren’t really any race, some of have been created to be of a specific race or ethnicity. Some muppets look like humans, while others look like animals. For the human-looking muppets, there have been Asian, Hispanic and Native American muppets in addition to the muppets that are presented as white or black people. And the documentary also gives significant screen time to Mexican muppet Rosita, a character introduced in 1991, which is considered a role model to many, particularly to Spanish-speaking people. Carmen Osbahr, the puppeteer and voice of Rosita, is interviewed in the documentary.

The documentary features a Mexican immigrant family called the Garcias, including interviews with mother Claudia and her autistic daughter Makayla, who are the only U.S. citizens of the family members who live in the United States. The Garcias say they love watching “Sesame Street” for Rosita, because she represents so many American residents who are bilingual in Spanish and English. Claudia Garcia, who moved from Mexico to the United States when she was 12, comments in the documentary: “When I was 12, it was not cool to speak Spanish. Now, it [the ability to speak Spanish] is a super-cool thing that you have.”

Four other diverse muppet characters are the Walker Family, an African American clan that is intended to be a major presence in contemporary “Sesame Street” episodes. Elijah Walker (a meteorologist) and his underage son Wesley, also known as Wes, have already been introduced. The characters of Elijah’s wife Naomi (a social worker originally from the Caribbean) and Elijah’s mother Savannah were being developed at the time this documentary was filmed. The documentary includes concept art for Naomi and Savannah.

According to Social Impact U.S. vice president Rocío García, “The Walker Family is a new family we’re creating for the racial justice initiative [Coming Together].” Wes and Elijah are characters that are supposed to contradict the media’s constant, negative narrative that black males are problematic. “Sesame Street” producer Ashmou Young describes the Wes Walker character as “a happy, energetic, innocent child who loves reading and architecture.” Elijah is a positive, intelligent role model. And no, he does not have an arrest record.

Bradley Freeman Jr., the puppeteer for Wes Walker, says in the documentary how proud he is to be part of this character, which he knows can be a role model for all children. “I was bullied at school for being black. That’s something that can hurt you, and you don’t know how to talk about it.” In “Sesame Street,” Elijah and Wes candidly discuss race issues and what it means to be an African American.

Omar Norman and Alisa Norman, an African American married couple, are in the documentary with their two daughters and discuss how the Walker Family on “Sesame Street” means a lot to them. Elder daughter Macayla says it’s impactful when Elijah talks to Wes about racism and how being a black male means being more at risk of experiencing police brutality. Omar gets emotional and tries not to cry when he thinks about how it’s sadly necessary for these topics to be discussed on a children’s show.

All the muppet characters were designed to not only teach kids (and adults) about life but also show what the world is all about and how to cope with problems in a positive way. Chris Jackson (who’s known for his role in the original Broadway production of “Hamilton”) talks about writing the song “I Love My Hair,” which debuted on “Sesame Street” in 2010. The song was written for any girl muppet to sing, but it has special significance to black girls because of how black females are judged the harshest by what their hair looks like. Jackson says that after he wrote the song, he thought, “I think I just wrote a black girl’s superhero anthem,” which he knows means a lot to his daughter.

And if some people have a problem with “Sesame Street” supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, well, no one is forcing them to watch the show. Kay Wilson Stallings, executive vice president of creative and production for Sesame Workshop, comments: “Following the murder of George Floyd, the company decided to make it a company-wide goal of addressing racial injustice [on ‘Sesame Street’].” U.S. first lady Dr. Jill Biden adds, “‘Sesame Street’ is rising up to he movement and addressing what’s going on and what kids are seeing and feeling around them.”

Wilson Stallings says, “We showed diversity, we showed inclusion, we modeled it through our characters. But you can’t just show characters of different ethnicities and races getting along. That was fine before. Now what we need to do is be bold and explicit.”

Sesame Workshop CEO Steve Youngwood comments on increasing “Sesame Street’s” socially conscious content: “We realized that nothing was hitting the moment the way it needed to be. And we pivoted to address it. The curriculum we developed is going to be groundbreaking, moving forward.”

LGBTQ representation on “Sesame Street” is still a touchy subject for people who have different opinions on what’s the appropriate age for kids to have discussions about various sexual identities. In 2018, former “Sesame Street” writer Mark Saltzman, who is openly gay, gave an interview saying that he always wrote muppet characters Ernie and Bert (bickering best friends who live together) as a gay couple. The revelation got mixed reactions. Frank Oz—the creator, original voice and puppeteer for Bert—made a statement on Twitter that Ernie and Bert were never gay.

Sesame Workshop responded with a statement that read: “As we have always said, Bert and Ernie are best friends. They were created to teach pre-schoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves. Even though they are identifiable as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most ‘Sesame Street’ muppets do), they remain puppets, and have no sexual orientation.”

In retrospect, Sesame Workshop president Sherrie Westin says: “That denial, if you will, I think was a mistake.” She also adds that people can think of Ernie and Bert having whatever sexuality (or no sexuality) that they think Ernie and Bert have. As for LGBTQ representation on “Sesame Street,” Jelani Memory (author of “A Kid’s Book About Racism”) is blunt when he says: “It’s not enough.”

And it’s not just social issues that are addressed on “Sesame Street.” The show has also discussed health issues, such as the AIDS crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. Although “Sesame Street” got pushback from some politically conservative people for talking about AIDS on the show, this criticism didn’t deter “Sesame Street,” which was supported by the majority of its audience for this decision. Dr. Anthony Fauci is in the documentary praising “Sesame Street” for helping educate people on health crises.

The documentary includes a segment on the first HIV-positive muppet Kami, a character in “Takalani Sesame,” the South African version of “Sesame Street.” Kami, who is supposed to be a 5-year-old girl, was created in 2002, in reaction to the AIDS epidemic in South Africa. Her positive outlook on life and how she is accepted by her peers can be viewed as having an impact on people that’s hard to measure.

Marie-Louise Samuels, former director early childhood development at South Africa’s Department of Basic Education, has this to say about Kami: “It wasn’t about her getting some sympathy. It was really about how productive she is in society with the virus.” Even though Kami was well-received in South Africa, “the U.S. was not as receptive,” says Louis Henry Mitchell, creative director of character design at Sesame Workshop.

Also included is a segment on Julia, the first autistic muppet on “Sesame Street.” It’s a character that is near and dear to the heart of Julia puppeteer Stacey Gordon, who tears up and gets emotional when she describes her own real-life experiences as the mother of an autistic child. Julia is one of several muppet characters that represent people with special needs. As an autistic child of a Mexican immigrant family, Makayla Garcia says in her interview that Rosita and Julia are her favorite muppets because they represent who she is.

The documentary shows how “Sesame Street” is in Arabic culture with the TV series “Ahlan Simsim,” which translates to “Welcome Sesame” in English. The Rajubs, a real-life Syrian refugee family of eight living in Jordan, are featured in the documentary as examples of a family who find comfort in “Ahlan Simsim” even though they’re experiencing the turmoil of being refugees. David Milliband, CEO of International Rescue Committee, talks about how “Sesame Street” being a consistent presence in children’s lives can help them through the trauma.

Other people interviewed in the documentary include Shari Rosenfeld, senior VP of international at Social Impact; Elijah Walker puppeteer Chris Thomas Hayes; Dr. Rosemarie Truglio, senior vice president of education and research at Sesame Workshop; Dr. Sanjay Gupta; Peter Linz, voice of muppet character Elmo; “Sesame Street” actor Alan Muraoka; Nyanga Tshabalala, puppeteer for the mupppet character Zikwe on “Takalani Sesame”; and former “Ahlan Simsim” head writer Zaid Baqueen. Celebrity fans of “Sesame Street” who comment in the documentary include Usher, Gloria Estefan, John Legend, Chrissy Teigen and John Oliver, who says about the show: “It was my first introduction to comedy, because it was so relentlessly funny.”

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCR) special envoy Angelina Jolie comments that The Count (the muppet vampire who teaches counting skills) is her favorite “Sesame Street” character: “He had a wonderfully bold personality: The friendly vampire helping you learn how to count. It worked for me.” Whoopi Goldberg adds, “All the things that ‘Twilight’ did for vampires, The Count did more. [The Count] made vampires cool because they could count.”

Jolie also comments on “Sesame Street’s” social awareness: “What they’re bringing is more relevant to today than ever.” The documentary includes 2021 footage of “Sesame Street” executives cheering when finding out that Sesame Workshop and International Rescue Committee won the MacArthur Foundation’s inaugural 100 and Change Award, a grant that gives the recipients $100 million over a maximum of six years.

There’s also a notable segment on the music of “Sesame Street.” Stevie Wonder (who has performed “123 Sesame Street” and “Superstition” on “Sesame Street”) performs in the documentary with a new version of the “Sesame Street” classic theme “Sunny Days.” The documentary has the expected montage of many of the celebrity guests who’ve been on “Sesame Street” too.

“United Shades of America” host Bell says that being asked to be on “Sesame Street” is a “rite of passage” for “famous people at a certain point. Got to get that ‘Sesame Street’ gig! That’s when you know you really made it: When ‘Sesame Street’ calls you.”

Although there’s a lot of talk about certain “Sesame Street” muppets, the documentary doesn’t give enough recognition to the early “Sesame Street” muppet pioneers who created iconic characters. The documentary briefly mentions Jim Henson (the creator and original voice of Kermit the Frog and Ernie), but Frank Oz (the creator and original voice of Grover, Cookie Monster and Bert) isn’t even mentioned at all.

Big Bird is seen but not much is said about Caroll Spinney, who was the man in the Big Bird costume from 1969 to 2018, and who was the creator and original voice of the Cookie Monster muppet. Spinney died in 2019, at the age of 85. Henson died in 1990, at age 53. Oz did not participate in the documentary.

The movie doesn’t mention the 2012 scandal of Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash resigning from “Sesame Street” after three men accused him of sexually abusing them when the men were underage teenagers. The three lawsuits against Clash with these accusations were dismissed in 2014. Clash had been the puppeteer and voice of Elmo since 1984.

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” tries to bite off a little more than it should chew when it starts veering into discussions about United Nations initiatives and how they relate to “Sesame Street.” There’s no denying the global impact of “Sesame Street,” but “Sesame Street” is a children’s show, not a political science show about international relations. And some viewers might be turned off by all the talk about social justice content on “Sesame Street.”

The documentary could have used more insight into the actual process of creating these memorable muppets. Except for some brief footage in a puppet-creating workspace, that artistic aspect of “Sesame Street” is left out of the documentary. Despite some flaws and omissions, the documentary is worth watching for people who want a snapshot of what’s important to “Sesame Street” in the early 2020s. Whereas “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is very much about the show’s past, “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” tries to give viewers a glimpse into the show’s future.

ABC premiered “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” on April 26, 2021. Hulu premiered the documentary on April 27, 2021.

Review: ‘Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,’ starring Joan Ganz Cooney, Sonia Manzano, Caroll Spinney, Emilio Delgado, Bob McGrath, Roscoe Orman and Lloyd Morrisett

May 19, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Jon Stone in “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” (Photo by Robert Fuhring/Screen Media Films)

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street”

Directed by Marilyn Agrelo

Culture Representation: The documentary “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” features a predominantly white group of people (with some African American and Latinos) discussing their connection to the groundbreaking children’s TV series “Sesame Street.

Culture Clash: “Sesame Street,” which launched in 1969 on PBS, was the first nationally televised children’s program in the U.S. to be racially integrated, and some TV stations initially refused to carry the show because of this racial diversity.

Culture Audience: “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in the history of “Sesame Street” from 1969 to the early 1990s.

Caroll Spinney in “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” (Photo by Luke Geissbühler/Screen Media Films)

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street”(directed by Marilyn Agrelo) is a documentary that is very much an “origin story” of “Sesame Street,” because it focuses so much on what the show was like in the 20th century. The movie gives a very good and comprehensive overview of the behind-the-scenes work and conflicts that went into making this groundbreaking children’s show, which has been televised in the U.S. on PBS since 1969. (“Sesame Street,” which is filmed in New York City, began airing first-run episodes on HBO in 2016, and then on HBO Max in 2020.) What’s missing from the documentary is more current information about “Sesame Street,” including muppet characters that were introduced in the 21st century, and a contemporary context of why the show is still impactful today.

The ABC documentary “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” takes a more modern look at the “Sesame Street” phenomenon and how the show has adapted to a global audience and a more diverse culture. “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is pure nostalgia for a bygone era when the Internet didn’t exist, and kids’ on-screen entertainment options at home were mainly to be found on television, until computers and video games became household items in the 1980s. “Street Gang” (which was produced in association with HBO Documentary Films) is inspired by Michael Davis’ 2008 non-fiction book “Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street.”

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is so rooted in the past that it’s impossible not to notice a huge racial disparity between who appeared on camera for “Sesame Street” and who was running the show behind the scenes. In “Street Gang,” several of the original “Sesame Street” staffers say that the show was conceived to have a target audience of “inner city” African American children, with cast members who were African American, white and Hispanic. Later, a few Asian cast members were added.

But for the longest time, the only people making decisions about the show were white. The head writers and executive producers were white, almost all the puppeteers were white, and even the crew (camera operators, editors, etc.) were all white. It’s all there to see in the archival footage.

And it’s a sign of the times. When “Sesame Street” was launched in 1969, it was only five years after the Civil Right Acts went into law, and much of the United States was still unofficially racially segegrated. Therefore, the racially integrated cast for “Sesame Street” was very groundbreaking for a children’s show at the time.

The show’s setting also broke traditions in children’s television: It took place in an imaginary urban location called Sesame Street, where humans and a variety of puppets (also known as muppets) co-existed and learned from each other. Almost everyone agrees that the muppets were the real stars of the show.

“Sesame Street” puppeteers/writers Jim Henson and Frank Oz, who both created and voiced several muppet characters (including best friends Ernie and Bert), get a lot of praise in the documentary for being the show’s driving creative force. Joan Ganz Cooney and Children’s Television Workshop co-founder Lloyd Morrisett are credited with coming up with the “Sesame Street” concept, with Ganz Cooney being largely responsible for putting together the show’s original team. And longtime “Sesame Street” director/writer Jon Stone (who died in 1997, at age 64) is singled out as having the most to do with keeping the show’s proverbial engine running for decades. Henson died in 1990, at age 53. Oz did not participate in the “Street Gang” documentary.

Ganz Cooney explains in “Street Gang” why it was so important to her for “Sesame Street” to be racially integrated, at least on screen. She says that she was “heavily involved in the civil rights movement. I was not focused on children though.” That changed when Morrisett attended a dinner party hosted by Ganz Cooney in the late 1960s.

Morrisett remembers, “I was a psychologist at the Carnegie Foundation, and we were heavily influenced by the national dialogue in the [racial and economic] gap that was being created in schools. I wondered if there was a possibility for television to help children with school, but television was not very popular with the Carnegie staff. Academics weren’t interested in television.'”

At this fateful dinner party, Morrisett asked Ganz Gooney if television could be used as a way to educate children. The Carnegie Foundation then hired Ganz Cooney to do a feasibility study, where the bulk of the study’s original $8 million budget came from the U.S. federal government’s Office of Education. The study revealed that because children were spending more time watching TV than children did in the 1950s, and because more children than ever before had mothers working outside the home, television had become an electronic babysitter for a lot of kids.

And so, the idea of “Sesame Street” was born to be a show that would both entertain and educate pre-school-age children, in a racially integrated setting that had puppets with distinctive personalities. And, for the first time in American TV history, television writers and children’s educators would collaborate on episodes. At first, the idea was to have the humans in episode segments that were separate from the muppets. But test screenings shown to kids found that the kids responded best to the show when the humans interacted with the muppets.

Ganz Cooney says in “Street Gang” that even though she came up with the concept of “Sesame Street,” she experienced sexism from certain people who didn’t think a woman should oversee the show. However, Ganz Cooney says that because the entire show “was all in my head,” TV executives needed her to bring her vision to reality. They had no choice but to give her the top leadership role for “Sesame Street.”

One of the first people she recruited was Sharon Lerner, who had a master’s degree in education from Columbia University. Lerner was hired to be a research and curriculum coordinator for “Sesame Street.” Lerner says it was “unprecedented” to see educators and TV writers teaming up to help create a TV show for children. Other staffers from the early years of “Sesame Street” who are interviewed in the documentary include camera operator Frank Biondo and composer/lyricist/writer Christopher Cerf.

Based on the research studies, economically disadvantaged non-white children in urban areas, especially African American children, were getting inferior educations in public schools, compared to their white counterparts. And so, the idea was to target these “inner city” kids with a TV show that could help bridge the gap in their education. In an archival TV interview, Stone describes why an urban street was chosen as the “Sesame Street” setting: “To the 3-year-old cooped up in the room upstairs, the action is on the street.”

Ganz Cooney admits that at first she wasn’t convinced that the show should take place on an urban street because “I didn’t know how it would play to suburban parents.” Translation: “I didn’t know if it would alienate white people who live in very white neighborhoods.” Jon Stone is given credit for the urban street idea, which turned out to be the right concept, because “Sesame Street” soon developed a reputation for not shying away from real-life topics that are often tough to discuss with kids, such as death, bullying and loneliness.

In “Street Gang,” Ganz Cooney says she enlisted the help of an African American consultant named Evelyn Davis to do outreach work in African American communities before “Sesame Street” was launched. Although having this inclusivity was certainly necessary and thoughtful, it’s clear that in those early “Sesame Street” years, the decision makers at “Sesame Street” didn’t want African American input to include hiring any African Americans in leadership positions for the show.

The closest that “Sesame Street” had to an African American creative executive in the show’s early years was Matt Robinson, who was the first actor to portray the character of Gordon, and he was a writer on the show. Robinson (who died in 2002, at the age of 65) came from a TV background of hosting, writing and producing. Before joining “Sesame Street,” he was the host of the Philadelphia talk shows “Opportunity in Philadelphia” and “Blackbook.” In addition to portraying Gordon on “Sesame Street,” he created and voiced the show’s first African American muppet character: Roosevelt Franklin, which was on “Sesame Street” from 1970 to 1975.

Dolores Robinson, Matt Robinson’s widow, remembers her late husband’s contributions to “Sesame Street” as being part of the era when the Black Power movement was blossoming. “These were revolutionary times,” she says. Matt and Delores’ children Holly Robinson Peete and Matt Robinson Jr. have different perspectives, since they were in “Sesame Street’s” target age group when their father was on the show.

Robinson Peete says, “Back then, if your dad was Gordon on ‘Sesame Street,’ that was a big deal.” Matt Robinson Jr. adds, “We looked at the TV, and it still wasn’t registering, like, how did he get in the [TV] box?” Dolores Robinson says of the Roosevelt Franklin character, “For Matt, Roosevelt Franklin represented truth.”

The documentary mentions that the Roosevelt Franklin character wasn’t well-received by many African American parents and educators, who felt that Roosevelt Franklin represented too much of the negative “ghetto” stereotype used by racist people who think black people are inferior. “Sesame Street” got enough complaints about Roosevelt Franklin that the character was removed from the show in 1975, without any explanation to the audience. Matt Robinson stopped doing the Gordon character in 1972, but had stayed on with the show behind the scenes as a writer and to voice the Roosevelt Franklin character. The removal of the Roosevelt Franklin character was apparently one of the last straws for Matt Robinson, and he exited “Sesame Street” in 1975.

After Matt Robinson stopped portraying the character of Gordon, Hal Miller stepped into the role from 1972 to 1974. Miller was replaced by Roscoe Orman in 1974, who has been doing the role of Gordon ever since. Orman says of “Sesame Street” writer/director Jon Stone’s contributions to the show: “Jon was the guy who really created the reality of it—the style, the vision of the show.”

Sonia Manzano, who portrayed the role of Maria on “Sesame Street,” comments on Stone: There were a lot of shows that really talked down to kids. And he didn’t really want that. Jon Stone thought that you could have a kids’ show where adults wouldn’t run for the door as soon as it’s on.” Manzano also recalls that Stone didn’t want her to wear too much makeup on the show, because he wanted Maria to look like a real person, “raw and unpolished.”

Manzano and Emilio Delgado (who portrayed Maria’s boyfriend-tuned-husband Luis) talk about the importance of Hispanic representation on “Sesame Street.” Delgado says that as an actor, “Sesame Street” was the first show in a long time where he wasn’t cast as a criminal or a menial servant, and he was grateful for doing a character that wasn’t about those stereotypes. He says of the Luis character: “He was a regular person! He was part of the neighborhood and he had a business.”

During the first season of “Sesame Street,” the cast members did a 1969 U.S. tour with the muppets and life-sized characters from the show. It was a big success. Bob McGrath, who portrayed the character of Bob on the show, remembers the tour this way: “It was a madhouse.” He gushes about his “Sesame Street” experience: “It was a dream come true to fall into this job.” Ganz Cooney comments on “Sesame Street’s” instant popularity: “I was stunned by the overwhelming support for what we were doing. It was if the world had been waiting for us.”

Well, not everyone was so welcoming. The documentary mentions that certain TV network executives in Mississippi were so outraged about “Sesame Street” having a racially integrated cast that these executives refused to televise the show on their local PBS affiliates for a brief period in 1970. In archival news footage, one of these TV executives (who is unidentified in the footage) denied that the decision was racist and blamed it on community standards. Apparently, these “community standards” were offended by a children’s show with people of different races getting along with each other.

Bob McRaney, the general manager of the NBC affiliate WJDX-WLBT in Jackson, Mississippi, broke away from this racist mindset and decided to televise “Sesame Street” anyway. “Sesame Street” got such great ratings for WJDX-WLBT that eventually all the racist TV executives who thought their communities would be ruined if they saw “Sesame Street” suddenly changed their minds and wanted “Sesame Street” on their TV stations. Sometimes greed trumps racism.

Behind the scenes of “Sesame Street,” things weren’t as harmonious as they were presented on screen. Ganz Cooney says that she and Stone clashed with each other. In the documentary, she implies that he might have been envious that she got most of the attention for “Sesame Street’s” success. Ganz Cooney describes Stone as “a very sensitive, difficult man.”

Stone’s daughter Kate Stone Lucas says that her father “battled depression all of his life … ‘Sesame Street’ was the love of his life.” Stone Lucas and her sister Polly Stone say that their father, whom they describe as a civil rights activist, initially wasn’t sold on the idea of doing a children’s TV show because he had become disillusioned with television at that point in his career. Stone Lucas says what convinced him to be involved in “Sesame Street” was Ganz Cooney’s “political vision” to improve the quality of children’s TV, especially for inner city kids whose parents were working while the kids were at home.

Stone Lucas says her father’s personality was that he “saw the world in black and white … You were either a good guy or a bad guy.” He was an iconoclast at heart who resisted being too corporate. One of the anecdotes mentioned in the documentary is that there was an office “push pin” bulletin board that had the words “Children’s Television Workshop,” and Jon Stone would rearrange the letters so that they would spell “Children’s Porkshow.”

The documentary doesn’t have much screen time that gives insight into the creation of the most iconic muppets, such as Kermit the Frog (originally voiced by Henson), Grover (originally voiced by Oz), Cookie Monster (originally voiced by Oz), Ernie (originally voiced by Henson), Bert (originally voiced by Oz), Oscar The Grouch (originally voiced by Caroll Spinney) and The Count (originally voiced by “Sesame Street” head writer Norman Stiles, who is one of the people interviewed in “Street Gang”). “Sesame Street” puppeteer Fran Brill says of Henson and Oz: “Jim and Frank were a comedy team … The dynamic between these two guys was magic.”

Off screen, Henson and Oz were described as opposites who weren’t really friends, but they worked well enough together that they had a special chemistry that translated well on screen. Ironically, Henson’s workaholic ways in children’s entertainment (he was also a key creator of “The Muppet Show”) meant that he didn’t spend as much time with his kids as other fathers did. Jim Henson’s children Lisa Henson and Brian Henson are interviewed in “Street Gang.”

Brian Henson says that it was normal for him as a child to not see his father for three or four days in a row because his father was so busy working. He also says, “My father was a pretty quiet, shy person, but he wanted to be hip. He wanted to be cool. And he wanted his company Muppets Inc. to have a very cool reputation. Children’s entertainment wasn’t what he had in mind.”

Ganz Cooney remembers the first time she saw Henson in a staff meeting, she thought he looked like a hippie and she wasn’t sure how he would fit in with the more conservative-looking employees. But she says that Henson became one of her favorite “Sesame Street” people. “He was terrific,” she says adoringly. The documentary has some archival clips of Henson and Oz, separately and together, behind the scenes and doing interviews.

Spinney (who died in 2019, at age 85) was famously the man inside the Big Bird costume, and he was interviewed for this documentary, which has footage of him with his Oscar the Grouch puppet during the interview. Big Bird was originally conceived as a klutzy character with the intelligence of a teenager or young adult. But it wasn’t long before the character of Big Bird was changed to have the innocence of a child in “Sesame Street’s” target age group of 3 to 5 years old.

In 1982, the real-life death of actor Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper on “Sesame Street,” was written into the show as Mr. Hooper dying off-camera. Big Bird’s denial about the death was one of the more memorable aspects of this tearjerking episode. In the documentary, “Sesame Street” people who were involved in this episode say that they wanted to keep the show honest by not lying to the audience about why Mr. Hooper wasn’t coming back to “Sesame Street.”

Music has always been a big part of “Sesame Street,” which features the human characters and muppets performing original songs and cover tunes. Joe Raposo, who composed the “Sesame Street” theme song and many other tunes for the show, is fondly remembered as a larger-than-life character. His son Nick Raposo says that his father didn’t want to talk down to children in his songs.

Kermit the Frog’s melancholy “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green” is mentioned as a song that could be interpreted as a metaphor about racism. The documentary also includes clips from several music stars who made guest appearances on “Sesame Street,” including Stevie Wonder, Johnny Cash, Paul Simon and Odetta Holmes. There’s also footage of Jesse Jackson’s well-known “Sesame Street” appearance where he leads a group of kids in a pep talk chant that starts off with repeating “I am somebody!”

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” certainly has plenty of heartwarming moments. The movie also has many good anecdotes and archival footage. But the documentary is very American-centric because it doesn’t really acknowledge the impact that “Sesame Street” has had worldwide. If you believed everything that’s presented this documentary, Americans are the only people worth interviewing about a global show such as “Sesame Street.” (“Sesame Street” is currently available in about 150 countries.)

And the “Street Gang” filmmakers didn’t seem to bother asking Ganz Cooney or any of the other white people from the original “Sesame Street” executive team why a show that they wanted to be aimed at urban African American kids had no African Americans making major decisions about the show in its early years. The documentary doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge that the groundbreaking racial integration on “Sesame Street” was just in front of the camera only. Behind the camera, it seems that the hiring practices for the “Sesame Street” original production team weren’t reflective of progessive civil rights after all, even though these are the same people who claim to be passionate about civil rights and racial equality.

“Sesame Street” has a long history, and this documentary’s real focus is what “Sesame Street” did up until the 1990s, when Jim Henson and Jon Stone died. Therefore, the “Street Gang” movie will probably be best enjoyed by people who are old enough to remember “Sesame Street” before the 1990s. It’s a meaningful nostalgia trip for “Sesame Street” fans, but not a completely thorough one for people who want more of “Sesame Street’s” history after the 1990s.

Screen Media Films released “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” in select U.S. cinemas on April 23, 2021, and on digital and VOD on May 7, 2021. The movie’s release date on Blu-ray and DVD is July 6, 2021. HBO and HBO Max will premiere the movie on a date in 2021 to be announced.

Review: ‘8 Billion Angels,’ starring Jason Hall-Spencer, Vimlendu Jha, Travis Rieder, Stuart Pimm, Shashi Tharoor, Saroj Pachauri and Bill Ryerson

May 8, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jason Hall-Spencer and Silvain Agostini in “8 Billion Angels” (Photo courtesy of 8 Billion Angels Productions/Abramorama)

“8 Billion Angels”

Directed by Victor Velle

Some language in Japanese and French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the United States, India and Japan, the documentary “8 Billion Angels” features a predominantly white and predominantly male group of people (with some Asians) discussing how the world’s population is having an impact on the Earth’s environment.

Culture Clash: The environmentalists interviewed in the documentary believe that human over-population and harmful uses of resources are the leading causes of environmental problems.

Culture Audience: “8 Billion Angels” will appeal primarily to people who want limited perspectives on global environmental issues.

Brownie Wilson and Bill Mai in “8 Billion Angels” (Photo courtesy of 8 Billion Angels Productions/Abramorama)

If you believed everything that’s presented in “8 Billion Angels,” the horrendously biased and poorly researched documentary about how the world’s population affects environmental problems, the filmmakers make it look like the perspectives of black and Hispanic people don’t matter. There are no black or Hispanic people interviewed in the documentary. Sloppily directed by Victor Velle, “8 Billion Angels” (whose title refers to the approximately 8 billion people living on Earth at the time this documentary was released) only seems to care about what’s going on in North America, Europe and Asia when it comes to discussing the world’s environmental issues. The documentary is filled with people spouting statistics that are unverified and unsourced.

Females are about half of the world’s population (according to Our World in Data) and the gender that can get pregnant and give birth—in other words, female biological functions directly impact the world’s population. But you’d never know it, based on how females are severely underrepresented in “8 Billion Angels,” which only interviewed two women out of the 18 people interviewed in the documentary. For people who don’t want to do the math, only 11% of the people interviewed in this bigoted documentary are women. Most of the interviewees are white men.

What makes this documentary so hypocritical and offensive is that it puts on false airs of being “progressive” and presenting a “global view” of environmental issues. But there’s barely any real world diversity in the people who are interviewed about how the world’s human population is affecting the world’s environment. During the last 20 minutes of this 76-minute documentary, it goes from talking about environmental issues to pushing a political agenda where some of the interviewees advocate for governments stepping in to regulate population control in various ways.

During this preaching about how governments should get involved in people’s family planning, some interviewees in the documentary talk about how patriarchal societies are detrimental because of how they oppress women. The consensus from the interviewees is that the more educated women can be in a society, the more likely women will have more say in their own family planning, and the less likely that the society will experience problems with poverty and overpopulation. And yet, for all this preaching against patriarchy, “8 Billion Angels” couldn’t be bothered to interview more than two women in the entire movie. The hypocrisy is disgusting.

And “8 Billion Angels” is filled with outright racist editing. Every time people in the documentary mention overpopulation problems and poverty, only people who aren’t white (usually Asians and occasionally Latinos) are shown in the footage spliced in as visual examples of overpopulation problems and poverty. It’s as if the filmmakers don’t want to acknowledge that a lot of white people can and do live in poverty and have overpopulation problems in certain areas of the world too. This type of racist filmmaking is wrong and absolutely vile.

Here are the people who were interviewed in the documentary, in alphabetical order:

  • Silvain Augostini, professor at University of Tsukuba in Japan
  • Lon Frahm, owner of Frahm Farmland Inc., a now-shuttered business that was based in Kansas
  • Jason Hall-Spencer, professor of marine biology at University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom.
  • Ben Harvey, Ph.D., marine biologist at Shimoda Marine Research Center in Japan
  • Kazuo Inaba, professor at University of Tsukuba; director of Shimoda Marine Research Center in Japan
  • Vimlendo Jha, environmental activist and founder of Swecha, an environmental group in India
  • Bill Mai, a farmer in Kansas
  • Richard McDonald, naturalist and field biologist at Natural History Center, which gives nature tours in Maine
  • David Montgomery, professor/author “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations”
  • Bill Mook, CEO of Mook Sea Farm in Maine
  • Saroj Pachauri, M.D., public health physician in India
  • Stuart Pimm, professor of conservation ecology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina
  • Travis Rieder, Ph.D., bioethicist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore
  • Bill Ryerson, founder and president of Population Media Center, a non-profit group in Vermont
  • Bill Stowe, CEO of Des Moines Waterworks
  • Shashi Tharoor, author and a member of India’s Parliament
  • Zoe Weil, co-founder of Institute for Humane Education, a non-profit group based in Maine
  • Brownie Wilson, manager of Kansas Geological Survey

Even without all the racist and sexist choices that the filmmakers made for this documentary, “8 Billion Angels” presents no new and interesting information that other environmental documentaries haven’t already presented. “8 Billion Angels” is divided into themed chapters, but not all of the chapters stick to their respective themes.

The first chapter, titled “Oceans,” discusses how the world’s oceans (which are the foundation of the world’s ecosystems) have drastically changed in recent decades. Inaba, Harvey, Hall-Spencer and Agostini are interviewed in Japan and talk about how carbon dioxide emissions from larger human populations around the world have resulted in climate change and ocean life disappearing. Hall-Spencer comments: “The waters are getting warmer and more corrosive. Acidification and warming are just two parts of the problem of an increasing human population.”

Mook shows how he raises oysters at his family-owned sea farm and gets emotionally choked up when talking about the environmental fears that he has for his grandson and other people in younger generations. Mook says, “One of the things that’s happening as our populations have increased is that we’re putting more and more excess nitrogen into our coastal waters. Oysters are a good way to combat that.” Environmental problems in the ocean were already covered in a much better way in the far superior 2017 Netflix documentary “Chasing Coral.”

In the chapter titled “Land,” Mai and Wilson are shown testing water levels at a well on Mai’s farm. Mai admits he hasn’t used the well in years. In other words, this testing of the well was staged just for the documentary.

Frahm’s comments are reduced to trite soundbites that reveal nothing new. For example, Frahm says, “Farming has gone from private to corporate. Farming has gone from local to regional to national to worldwide.” He also mentions that his family-owned business has had debt problems, which might be why Frahm Farmland was out of business by the time this documentary was released.

Des Moines Waterworks CEO Stowe says that the concept of U.S. famers “feeding the world” is “disingenous at best.” He also comments: “In central Iowa, water quantity is of very little concern to us. Water quality is a huge concern. It’s driven by land use upstream” and “the effects of livestock raising.”

Stowe adds, “The largest concern for us are nutrients, like nitrogen, are more difficult to remove than either the suspended solids or soils or bacteria.” But the documentary never bothers to ask what exactly is being done about these problems. And the Oscar-winning 2006 environmental documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” already sounded the alarm on how farm practices (especially in the U.S.) can have a domino effect on the world’s environment.

Another bias that “8 Billion Angels” shows is how the farmers who are interviewed (and who all happen to be white men) are allowed to talk about their childhoods and how they decided to go into their line of work. They are the only people interviewed in this documentary who get to expound on their lives in a biographical way, which is somewhat off-topic in this documentary about the world’s environmental problems. The editing in this movie is absolutely atrocious.

The chapter titled “Air and Rivers” spends the entire time talking about India’s environmental problems, as if India is the only country in the world that needed to be singled out for having pollution in air and rivers. Pachauri (one of the two women interviewed in the documentary), Jha and Tharoor express a series of complaints about these problems and discuss at length about how crowded and overpopulated India is. Tharoor says about the pollution in India: “We are in the process of killing ourselves. The great sacred river of the Ganges is a sewer now.”

And the movie even has Jahr going to the Yamuna River in Delhi to make this comment about the river: “It stinks so much. It’s completely black.” And to conjure up more false images that the only poor people in the world are not white, the movie has an extended segment showing poverty-stricken Indian people hanging out on the Yamuna River’s banks (which look like a giant trash dump) and bathing in the toxic water. It’s the type of footage that won’t be boosting India’s tourism economy anytime soon.

The second-to-last chapter in the documentary is titled “Population,” and it’s filled with hypocrisy and contradictions. Rieder (who is American) says, “Overpopulation is a problem of the numbers of people consuming at a certain rate. My child has a very large carbon footprint. If she’s an average American, then she’ll use 16 to 20 metric tons [of carbon dioxide] a year. People in the poorest part of the world emit 0.1 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year.”

Weil comments, “I become concerned when we talk about population growth happening elsewhere in Africa or South Asia, when we [American] consumers have a much, much bigger impact.” Pimm says, “And so, the problem with human numbers can’t simply be a matter of pointing to sub-Saharan Africa and saying, ‘Look, control your families.'”

Rieder adds, “Those of us who are living, for instance, in the U.S. in the 21st century, are pushing forward a process that is an existential threat for the people who are the poorest and the worst off, in the very near future. So, massive injustice is a big worry.”

And yet, even with these experts saying in the documentary that the U.S. has left a large and damaging carbon footprint in the world’s environmental problems, the filmmakers of “8 Billion Angels” completely shut out any investigations into the companies that are the biggest culprits. There’s no mention of corporate responsibilities to the environment and not even any footage of wealthy people on private jets as part of the carbon footprint problem—even though the environmental experts say that the people who can afford to be excessive consumers are the ones who are doing the most environmental damage in the world.

Instead, the documentary makes it look like the poverty-stricken people of the world are the biggest burden on the environment and repeatedly shows non-white people as the only financially poor people in the world. The documentary constantly pushes images of people from countries where the majority of the population isn’t white as the main images of those in the world who are most responsible for environmental damage. It’s such heinous, irresponsible and racist filmmaking.

The last chapter in “8 Billion Angels” is titled “Solutions,” and it’s really just some of the interviewees (such as Rieder, MacDonald and Ryerson) promoting their aforementioned political agendas to endorse ways that governments can convince people to have smaller families. Ryerson claims that his Population Media Center was able to reduce Ethiopia’s fertility rate “by a full child” per family, by distributing in Ethiopia a radio drama series that had a female character who practiced family planning. He never says the name of the radio drama.

Of course, viewers will never really know how true Ryerson’s grandiose claims are about how his company’s radio show supposedly helped lower fertility rates in Ethiopia, since there’s no fact-checking or citing of independent sources in this badly made documentary. And not to mention that it’s incredibly condescending for a media company that’s run by white Americans to think they can manipulate an entire African country’s fertility numbers with a radio drama. There’s more than a whiff of prejudice and patriarchal colonialism when people (who are usually men) single out other countries that need “fixing” with population control.

There’s a doomsday and Big Brother tone to their population control ideas, which promote the fear that the world is going to be a disaster if the human population continues to grow, and the government needs to step in and control human population growth. It’s a contradiction from what Rieder says in another part of the documentary that environmental issues aren’t so much about the number of people on the planet but how people use resources on the planet.

For example, 5 billion people on Earth could conceivably do more environmental damage than 8 billion people on Earth, if the 5 billion people act less responsibly to the environment than the 8 billion people. It’s about quality, not quantity. And in that regard, anyone who cares about watching a scientifically responsible environmental documentary should avoid the low-quality, problematic and terribly biased “8 Billion Angels” at all costs.

Abramorama released “8 Billion Angels” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on April 23, 2021.