Review: ‘Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music,’ starring Taylor Mac

June 25, 2023

by Carla Hay

Taylor Mac in “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music”

Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in 2016 in New York City, the documentary film “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” features a predominantly white group of people (with some African Americans) who are connected in some way to drag performer Taylor Mac and his one-time-only, 24-hour performance of pop hits.

Culture Clash: During his performance, Mac discusses some of the racism and homophobia behind some of history’s most popular songs.

Culture Audience: “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” will appeal primarily to viewers who are fans of drag performers and music documentaries that focus on unconventional artists and unusual performances.

Taylor Mac in “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

Vivacious and engaging, this concert documentary starring drag performer Taylor Mac offers a bittersweet presentation of iconic pop songs, without glossing over some of these songs’ problematic histories. It’s an extremely unique 24-hour performance. The 2016 show took place as a one-time-only event, at St. Ann’s Warehouse in New York City’s Brooklyn borough. During this 24-hour continuous performance, Mac performed popular songs from 24 decades (each decade got its own hour), from 1776 to 2016. Attendees had the option to sleep at the venue in a separate room.

Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival. The majority of the documentary’s footage is of highlights from this epic concert. The rest of the documentary consists of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with principal members of the events team.

Mac explains in the beginning of the film that he conceived this event as a tribute to those who lost their lives in the AIDS crisis. The show starts with 24 musicians on stage, but after each hour, one less musician goes on stage, until the last hour, when Mac is be the sole performer on stage. The decreasing numbers of band musicians on stage are supposed to be symbolic of how communities and families lost people to the AIDS crisis.

Mac also says in the documentary, “The show is about our history of Americans. That history is in our souls.” He also says that “a queer body can become a metaphor for America.” He later adds, “I learned my politics from radical lesbians.”

Mac gives a brief personal background about himself, by saying that he grew up in Stockton, California, which he describes as a very homophobic city that’s overrun with a lot of “ugly tract houses.” After he graduated from acting school, Mac says that he had difficulty getting auditions. However, he found work at New York City drag nightclubs. And the rest is history.

Some of the key people on the event team also give their perspectives of the show. Niegel Smith, the show’s co-director, calls it a “radical realness ritual” that “asks us to move closer to our queerness.” During one of the audience interaction parts of the show, Mac tells audience members to slow dance with people who are of the same gender. The song selection for this same-sex slow dance is “Snakeskin Cowboys,” a song made famous by Ted Nugent, who is a political conservative. It’s obviously Mac’s way of reclaiming the song and putting it in a progressive queer context.

Matt Ray, the show’s musical director, comes from a jazz background. He says the biggest problem in America is “lack of community.” This 24-hour performance, says Ray, is Mac’s way of trying to bring back community to live events. Machine Dazzle, the show’s costume designer, is seen in costume fittings with Mac, who says that he gave no creative restrictions on how Dazzle could make the costumes. Also seen in the documentary is makeup artist Anastasia Durasova.

It’s no coincidence that the performance starts with the year 1776, since it’s the year of the Declaration of Independence of the United States. Freedom, liberation and fighting against oppression are constant themes throughout the show. During his performances of popular songs from each decade, Mac gives historical context of what was going on in the United States at the time when the song was popular and why some of the songs have a much more disturbing meaning than they seem to have.

“Yankee Doodle Dandy,” performed in the hour covering the years 1776 to 1786, sounds like an upbeat and patriotic song. But Mac also reminds people that during this time, the United States was also built on the enslavement of black people and the destruction of Native Americans. The 1820s song “”Coal Black Rose” has racist origins, since it was originally performed by white people wearing blackface makeup, and the song’s lyrics are about raping an enslaved black woman. For the 1830s song “Rove Riley Rove,” Mac says he’s performing the song to evoke a mother or nanny during the Trail of Tears era, when the Native Americans were forced to go on dangerous and deadly routes when they were forced off their ancestral lands.

Not all of the songs performed have depressing and bigoted histories. When Mac gets to the 1970s decades, he performs songs such as Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and David Bowie’s “Heroes.” For “Heroes,” which is performed in the context of the Cold War between Russia and the United States, two giant inflatable penises—one with a U.S. flag decoration, one with a Russian flag decoration—float around on stage. Mac straddles at least one of these inflatable sex organs.

Other songs performed in the show include Laura Branigan’s 1982 hit “Gloria” (which Mac interprets in the performance as a sexual liberation song); the Rolling Stones’ 1969 classic “Gimme Shelter”; and “Soliloquy” from the 1945 musical “Carousel,” which Mac was his father’s favorite song. Mac also says that his father died when Mac was 4 years old.

Audience members are encouraged to sing along and participate. And sometimes, Mac invites audiences members on stage during the performance, such as when he selects the oldest person in the room (a man in his 80s) and youngest person in the room (a 20-year-old woman) to dance on stage together. In another part of the show, audience members throw ping pong balls at each other.

Mac doesn’t do all of the lead vocals during the show. There are also guest singers, including Heather Christian, Steffanie Christian, Thornetta Davis, and Anaïs Mitchell. However, there’s no doubt that Mac is the star. He has a charismatic command of the stage, even though he’s not a great singer. He has a wry sense of comedy and keeps the energy level fairly high, even though performing this 24-hour show would be exhausting by any standard.

“Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” has a simple concept with an extravagant and very flamboyant presentation. If drag performances and some bawdiness meant for adults have no appeal to you, then watching this documentary might be overwhelming or a little hard to take. The performance in “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” will never be duplicated by Mac, but this memorable documentary is the next best thing to being there.

HBO and Max will premiere “Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music” on June 27, 2023.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice’

April 27, 2019

by Carla Hay

Linda Ronstadt: Sound of My Voice
Linda Ronstadt in 1968. The singer’s life story is told in “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” (Photo by Henry Diltz)

“Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice”

Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 26, 2019.

Back in the days when VH1 embraced nostalgia and classic rock artists, the documentary series “Behind the Music”—which focused on a different artist per episode—became one of the network’s flagship shows. Grammy-winning singer Linda Ronstadt never did a “Behind the Music” episode, but the documentary film “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” looks like it could’ve been part of that series.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because the early years of “Behind the Music” had had some fascinating and thoroughly researched episodes before the series became a watered-down publicity showcase. “Behind the Music” required the participation of the artist (or artist’s estate if the artist was deceased) and the use of the artist’s music. The artist’s story was told in chronological order, and followed a familiar formula of describing the artist’s rise to fame, having successful hits, struggling with various personal issues while at the top of their game, and (depending on the artist) either overcoming those issues, succumbing to personal demons, or trying to stage a comeback. The story is told through new interviews with the artist and people close to the artist, as well as archival footage, music videos and personal behind-the-scenes footage.

“Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” is a very traditional documentary in that sense, except that for most of the movie, her new interviews are in voiceover. Ronstadt, who retired from performing in 2009, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2012, and she rarely does interviews these days. The other people who have new interviews for this movie include Jackson Browne; J.D. Souther (who dated Ronstadt in the 1970s); Don Henley (who was her drummer before co-founding the Eagles); Ry Cooder; music-journalist-turned-filmmaker Cameron Crowe; John Boylan (Ronstadt’s longtime producer); Peter Asher (Ronstadt’s former manager); David Geffen (whose Asylum Records released Ronstadt’s earliest solo albums); former Warner Bros. Records chief Joe Smith (who worked with Ronstadt at the height of her fame); Kevin Kline (her “Pirates of Penzance” leading man on Broadway); and Ronstadt’s Trio band mates Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton.

All of them appear on camera, and speak highly of Ronstadt. There are vivid descriptions of Ronstadt being a supportive friend and collaborator, with a tendency to be a perfectionist when it came to her music. Several of interviewees mention that she was plagued with a life-long insecurity about her voice “not being good enough,” and she had anxiety over doing live performances. The movie also has a good archival selection of Ronstadt performing. Some of her biggest hits featured in the documentary include “When Will I Be Loved,” “You’re No Good” and “Blue Bayou.”

“Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” chronicles her entire life story, from her childhood in Arizona to her early singing career as the lead singer of the California folk-rock trio the Stone Poneys (whose biggest hit song was “Different Drum”) to her solo career where she became the best-selling female rock star of the 1970s to her later years where she branched out into other forms of music. One of the documentary’s best achievements is reminding people of Ronstadt’s extraordinary musical versatility, as she proved to be talented in big band music (the “What’s New” album with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra), Broadway music (she received a Tony nomination for “The Pirates of Penzance”), Latin music (her “Canciones de Mi Padre” album, which was a nod to her Mexican roots), country music (her work with Trio) and adult-contemporary pop, including the smash hit “Don’t Know Much,” her ballad duet with Aaron Neville.

As for her personal struggles—besides having self-confidence issues about her talent—at the height of her fame, “Linda’s thing was diet pills,” according to Geffen, who says she took diet pills and speed to keep her weight down and to have enough energy for her grueling schedule. In retrospect, Ronstadt says that her drug use at the time caused paranoia that affected her personal relationships and her ability to communicate well.

Ronstadt also talks openly in new interviews and in archival footage about the sexism she and other female rock artists experienced in the male-dominated music business. Her romance with politician Jerry Brown is also mentioned—she says their breakup was mainly caused by their busy schedules keeping them apart—but as her former boyfriend Souther puts it, “Neither one of us is built for marriage or long-term relationships.” (Ronstadt, who has never married, has an adopted son and daughter, who are now adults. Her children are not mentioned in the movie.)

In the documentary, Ronstadt is calmly accepting about having Parkinson’s disease, which she says has given her a new perspective about not focusing on death but how she’s going to live before she dies. In the movie, her Trio band mate Harris begins to cry when she says that although Ronstadt doesn’t miss doing concerts, “I think she misses singing with her friends.”

Just when you think that you’re not going to see the present-day Ronstadt on camera and are never going to hear her sing again, in true “Behind the Music” fashion, she appears on camera during the last 15 minutes of the film, where she’s shown singing in Spanish with her nephew Peter Ronstadt accompanying her on guitar. The footage was filmed in 2019, according to a caption shown in the movie. Ronstadt says because she’s singing in harmony, and not singing lead vocals, she doesn’t consider it “real singing.” Still, the movie has what might be one of the last publicly released performances of Ronstadt singing after she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

In February 2019, Ronstadt’s “Live in Hollywood” album (a recording of a concert she did in 1980) became her first live album ever to be officially released. “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” is essential viewing for any of her fans, and it’s worth seeing for anyone who appreciates knowing more about a very talented and unique singer.

 UPDATE: Greenwich Entertainment will release “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” on September 2, 2019.

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