The music/culture documentary is a cornerstone of the form; these three films fall firmly into that tradition and its formulas, but are worth checking out nonetheless.
Devil’s Pie – D’Angelo
D’Angelo’s 2015 Second Coming Tour was a big, scary deal – because, after making two of the best R&B records of the 1990s, he had all but disappeared for a decade and a half, save for the occasional report of substance abuse or near-death experience. Director Carine Bijlsma’s camera sits in on rehearsals, talks out his fears, and is right there next to him as he stalls and panics in the wings, capturing the intimate, private moments as they happen, and seeking out explanations from those who know him best. “What feeds your soul, after you leave it all out there on the stage?” he asks, and it’s a question he’s spent a lifetime trying to answer. Devil’s Pie joins him on that journey, and even comes to some tentative conclusions.
Director Roger Ross Williams (Life, Animated) covers quite a lot of ground in this look at the past, present, and future of the legendary Harlem cultural space, and he sometimes has trouble finding the through-line that connects it all. But viewed as an act of oral history – capturing the legends and folklore of that venerable venue, and supplementing them with incredible archival footage – it’s invaluable, a celebration of African-American culture, history, and perseverance.
Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation
Director Barack Goodman (Oklahoma City) is very good at telling history that’s more than just history, and his latest documentary – just in time for the event’s 50th anniversary – is a look back at the 1969 Woodstock Art & Music Festival. But it’s not just about the fest. He takes the time to fully set the scene: the music, the politics, the drugs, and most of all, the anti-establishment air that fueled that seminal event. “We were looking for answers,” an attendee explains. “We were looking for people who felt the same way that we did.” And at its best, Woodstock gets at how that idea of community manifested itself for those three days. Goodman doesn’t quite stick the landing – he pastes together some platitudes and then it’s over – but the interviews are enlightening, the archival footage is marvelous, and the music, of course, is priceless.
(Brin De Folie)
When you get down to it, the problem with this story of desperate characters in a run-down motel is that co-writer/director Sonejuhi Sinha can’t decide if she’s making a serious social melodrama or an exploitation movie, so she seems to say fuggit and throws in generous doses of both. It frankly works best as the latter (aside from the hilariously gratuitous JV Wild Things three-way sex scene), as motel maids Geetanjali Thapa and Olivia DeJonge decide that they’re going to steal their way out of their unfortunate station. Their performances are the real virtue here; razor-sharp, unpredictable, and nuanced, they work even when the movie around them doesn’t.
MOVIE NERDS UNITE!
Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound
“We talk a lot about the look of the film,” David Lynch explains. “We don’t talk a lot about the sound of the film.” Midge Costin’s documentary spends ninety-plus minutes doing just that, from the early days of sync sound to the art of effects and mixing, and if you’re the kind of movie nerd whose heart is set a-flutter by the mention of Walter Murch, this is the movie for you. It’s full of great stories about favorites and classics (Star Wars, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Jurassic Park, The Matrix, etc.), but ultimately, what’s most striking is the larger sense of history – how tightly the story of sound design’s evolution is intertwined with the story of Hollywood itself.
(Tribeca Film Festival)
PHYSICAL MEDIA FOREVER!
Circus of Books
“You don’t talk about the family business in the family,” we’re told early in this first-person documentary from director Rachel Mason, a sentiment that sounds like something out of The Godfather. But the Mason family business was fairly scandalous: beginning in 1982, Karen and Barry Mason owned and operated a West Hollywood bookstore specializing in gay hardcore porn, and later became distributors of said materials themselves. But it wasn’t just any gay porn-favoring bookstore; it became a cultural center for the gay community in the area, and by telling her parents’ story, Mason also crafts a snapshot of a scene, and its eventual deterioration. Funny and poignant, it’s a personal and heartfelt movie that manages to avoid excessive navel-gazing.
Viewing this film and Circus of Books on the same day was just one of those moments of festival serendipity, where you end up accidentally seeing two films, in close proximity, that dip into the same well of themes – this time, the closing of a cherished retail business, and how its disappearance is about more than just the shift away from physical media. Other Music was a haven for East Village music lovers, open from 1995 to 2016, a place of discovery, discussion, and affection. Puloma Basuand Rob Hatch-Miller’s documentary beautifully captures the specificity of record store culture (there are scenes that play like a non-fiction High Fidelity) – but also to the way that obsession and fandom feed off each other, and create these communities around all sorts of media. Other Music moves fast and has fun, sharing some great stories and great music, and makes you mad all over again that the damn place is gone.
YE OLDE NEW YORK
Martha: A Picture Story
Tribeca has always been a great festival for indulging in your Gritty NYC Nostalgia™ – so much so that this year they launched “This Used to Be New York,” a sidebar dedicated to documentaries about the good ol’ days. Anchoring it is this wonderful portrait of Martha Cooper, herself a key figure in documenting that period; her photographs of graffiti writers, breakdancers, and everyday residents stand today as vibrant, insightful portraits of a complicated time and place. Selina Miles’ approach to her subject is affectionate, and the filmmaking is high energy – in its best moments, it has an energy and enthusiasm that recalls Cooper’s work. And that’s high praise indeed.
The opening titles brand this documentary as “An Abel Ferrara Movie,” which seems appropriate – it’s a bit of a home movie, a shot-on-video account of Abel hanging out with one of his pals and hashing out the good ol’ days. The pal in question is Nick Nicolaou, a Cypress-born movie lover who came to New York as a child (it’s an immigrant story, really), and rode the train over to the city to work in its movie theaters during the last great heyday of the old-time movie palaces and grindhouses. And he’s a good tour guide; he worked everywhere, as an usher, janitor, manager, owner, and, yes, projectionist, so there are good stories and clips a-plenty. It is not to put it politely, one of Ferrara’s more disciplined pictures. But this affable, shaggy affair is full of gold for aficionados of exploitation movies and the old, dirty Gotham.
Frédéric Tcheng’s documentary portrait of the fashion icon wasn’t part of the sidebar, but maybe it should’ve been; it certainly evokes the feeling of whirling around in the tornado of the coked-up, Studio 54-dwelling, go-go ‘70s, and watching it all fall apart in the hands of a bunch of Wall Street jagoffs in the decade that followed. If (like me) you know the name but not his story, there’s much to learn here, about the rise of an enigma, his prickliness and perfectionism, the specific appeal of his clothes, and how the shifting tides of the business ate him alive. Crisply paced and well assembled, and full of rich little detours and mysteries, this one is both semi-tragic and a lot of fun.
(Tribeca Film Festival)
Grandma Wong lives her life exactly the way she likes it, a deadpan badass who moves through Chinatown with a perpetual scowl on her face and a cigarette dangling from her lips. She’s a delicious comic creation, and a clever character to hand a bag of stolen mob money; the story may be an old saw, but Grandma Wong (and Tsai Chin, who plays her) gives it a frisky new energy. Director Sasie Sealy has a cock-eyed, slightly absurd way of the seeing the world, and her and Angela Cheng’s script is clever as hell, while turning serious (or even scary) in a snap.
Changing the Game
Michael Barnett’s documentary is, first and foremost, a profile of three trans teens athletes, and the troubles they face: harassment, divergent participatory policies, depression, suicidal thoughts, gender dysphoria. But in its own quiet way, it’s a striking snapshot of a changing America, and the generation gap central to that change; it’s hard not to notice that the parents, sports commentators, and political pundits battling them are predominately bitter boomers, while most of their classmates accept and understand them. (These people will not STFU about “individual liberty,” but this is apparently where they draw the line?) None of this is simple or easy, of course, and Barnett’s film is valuable for its insistence on busting stereotypes, making sure these are all small-town stories, and giving time to the (often conservative) parents and caretakers, and the journeys they take. This is a disproportionately divisive issue, yet in those moments, Changing the Game seems, of all things, hopeful.
“The ocean’s always trying to kill you,” Tracy Edwards explains. “It doesn’t take a break.” She should know; in 1989, she led the first all-female crew to attempt to sail the 27,000 around-the-world sail of the Whitbread Challenge. You can imagine how the story was framed at the time, and Alex Holmes’s documentary is loaded with questionable cartoons and coverage, and chuckling male journalist sheepishly owning up to their “edge.” But Maiden cogently covers their triumph over adversity, while conveying the tension and excitement on the water as well; by the time it arrived at its moving conclusion, there wasn’t a dry eye in our house. I’d imagine you’ll have a similar experience.
Writer/director Semi Chellas offers up an intriguing, sideways take on a well-known story, revisiting the radicalization of Patty Hearst through the eyes of Wendy Yoshimura, a Berkley radical who helped Hearst and two other SLA members during their time in hiding after the raid of the group’s L.A. hideout. The names are changed (Wendy is now Jenny, and Patty is Pauline) but the general idea comes across. The pace is a little punchy, but the tension is real and the performers are aces – particularly Hong Chau as Jenny, always the smartest person in the room, and always letting you see exactly how quickly she’s thinking.
The best true crime documentaries are those that tell a strange, juicy story that we somehow haven’t heard, and wrap us up in the thickening of their plots. Such is the case with Joel Van Herder’s story of the 2014 theft of a Stradivarius violin, valued at $6 million, and the strange, riveting pursuit that followed. And it’s a stickier story than it first seems, wrapped up in issues of identity, incarceration, and racial politics. It feels one scene too short, failing to fully reckon with the more invigorating themes, but that that nitpick aside, this is an engrossing and stylish work.
As Charles Manson, Matt Smith is about as convincing this year as he was as Robert Mapplethorpe last year (which is to say, not very). And the structure of Guinevere Turner’s script, which uses the prison days of the three key “Manson girls” as the framework for a flashback story, is clumsily executed. But there’s still much to recommend in Mary Harron’s story of how Manson hook these women and convinced them to kill for him; you get a sense of their relationships, the twisted camaraderie and curdled idealism, and the racism and sexism just under the surface. And Hannah Murray is fabulous as Leslie Van Houten, dramatizing the full circle of their horrifying journey.
THINK YOU’VE GOT IT TOUGH?
Things feel pretty grim here in the old U.S. of A these days, but the two documentaries about life in China are a poignant reminder that misery is a worldwide phenomenon.
The old story, which we’ve all heard in one form or another, is that Chinese women were so valued for their petiteness that they would bind their feet. “But I have big feet,” explains one of the subjects of Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam’s documentary, “and I like to run around.” And yet, like the other women profiled here, she’s subjected to nonstop pressure to marry, from society at large, from friends, and especially from family members, who can turn good-natured ribbing into genuine anger and pressing of guilt. The intimacy of these interactions is a little startling – we’re watching these women bring up treatment that’s caused years of stress and torment – and by its conclusion, Leftover Women has deftly captured the despair of feeling (knowing, really) that your culture only values you as a baby-making machine.
One Child Nation
China’s One-Child Policy, a 35-year decree that families were only allowed a single offspring, was pushed by amusing propaganda and reiterated in terrifying, threatening banners. But it wasn’t a simple family planning issue, as this eye-opening first person documentary from directors Nanfu Wang (Hooligan Sparow) and Zhang Lynn. It left a legacy of abduction, human trafficking, forced sterilization and abortion, and on and on; the horror stories and images they capture are hard to hear. But they’re vital and necessary; this is an upsetting film, but a must-see.
(Noah M. Rosenthal)
Standing Up, Falling Down
Ben Schwartz stars as a struggling stand-up comic who fails in L.A. and heads back to Long Island, and when he gets on stage, you can see why; this is another of those stand-up movies where neither the good nor bad material is funny. The dramatic scenes, meanwhile, are mostly rewrites of similar scenes in other movies. It’s a shame, because the pieces are there for a fine little indie drama; they just never quite snap into place. But it’s worth at least a mild recommendation on one count: Billy Crystal co-stars as our protagonist’s broken but charming new friend, and he’s wonderful, laid-back and great, playing the pathos without pandering. If nothing else, maybe his stellar work here will get him a similarly juicy role in a movie that’s worth the trouble.
It’s not hard to pin down the influences that fuel Takashi Doscher’s post-dystopian story of a society crumbling due to a mysterious virus that’s killing women (and only women) – off the top of my head, I spotted shades of Children of Men, Contagion, and 12 Monkeys. But Only adopts a more intimate approach, focusing on a couple who manage to evade death for more than a year thanks to their careful quarantining in their apartment, which understandably puts some strain on the relationship. The structure is a problem; Doscher begins 400 days in, when Eva (Freida Pinto) finally catches it, and runs in parallel timelines past that point and up to it. This initially creates some effective juxtapositions, but ultimately puts the viewer too far ahead of one half of the movie; we’re just waiting around for things that we are now are coming eventually. That said, Pinto and co-star Leslie Odom Jr. create a credible couple dynamic, and there are enough shock moments to keep the viewer’s interest.
THE MAGAZINE ARTICLE TEST
I’m not sure which of my critical colleagues first put forward the idea of asking, about a documentary film, if it accomplished anything that couldn’t have been done by a well-written magazine article. But it’s a useful test, and one that these films don’t quite pass.
One must be careful, when writing about documentaries, to review the movie and not the subject matter. That’s particularly tricky when the subject is as fraught as After Parkland’s, which concerns the survivors-turned-activists of the 2017 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting; these are important people, and the footage is often powerful, and the access is enviable. But the filmmaking is just plain dodgy, often sloppily shot and shoddily edited, with a hoary, faux-inspirational score ladled over the top. And one must also beware of criticizing the movie you wish they’d made rather than the one they did, but you’d never know from After Parkland that these kids were smeared, mercilessly and for months, by conservative media. Parkland and its aftermath is a vital story. Hopefully it will one day be told more skillfully than this.
For They Know Not What They Do
The collision between LGBTQ rights and evangelical religion has grown especially ugly in the past few years, so this attempt at documentary bridge building from director Daniel G. Karslake is, sadly, probably necessary. And it’s a very earnest piece of work, interviewing a serious of honest, God-fearing parents about coming to terms with their faith (and its limitations) upon the outings of their gay and trans children. But the filmmaking is frustratingly pedestrian, and the stories they choose to tell have an unfortunate emphasis on tragedy – it’s almost like early gay narrative cinema – and a tendency to string the audience along, a bit too much, about those tragedies’ outcomes. It’s a valuable documentary, to be sure. But there’s not much to it, particularly for those already on its side (which, let’s be honest, will be most of its audience).
BEST OF FEST (DOCUMENTARY) – RUNNER UP
Some of the best documentaries of this year’s festival shared a common theme: of people who started documenting what they saw around them, and did not stop. As we progress deeper into this era of non-stop shooting and recording, I’d imagine we’ll see more works like these – and based on this trio, that’s good new indeed.
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project
She hit record during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, we’re told, and for the next 30 years, she didn’t stop. During that time, Marion Stokes – a rich, eccentric, private, and paranoid Philadelphia woman – recorded multiple channels, without interruption, for 24 hours a day, accumulating 70,000 Betamax and VHS tapes of television broadcasts, mostly news. It wasn’t just compulsion or hoarding (though she was certainly capable of both; she felt there was something to be learned from how our stories are told, how frameworks are carefully established and strictly adhered to. “Those in power are able to write their own history, from their own bias,” she once said, and Matt Wolf’s riveting documentary is an exploration of both her life and her library, detailing how she became the kind of person who would do this – and what, exactly, she captured on those tapes.
Not every difficult documentary needs a trigger warning, but let’s be clear: this is a tough, tough sit. Director Sasha Joseph Neulinger grew up in a big, seemingly close-knit family, its everyday activities and frequent gatherings captured on VHS tapes that he now sees as the key to understanding his trauma of the time; they capture a blissful surface, but he can’t stop looking at their subtext (and ur-text). More than that I won’t reveal; suffice it to say that, like At the Heart of Gold (below), Rewind is a wrenching, often horrifying snapshot of everyday evil, a study of unimaginable abuse – and awe-inspiring survival.
This story of trouble and tragedy focuses on the Sanford family, who were given a video camera in 1999 and spent the next twenty years recording their lives – which sometimes dodge expectation, and often do not. Director Davy Rothbart and editor Jennifer Tiexiera perceptively arrange the footage not as a dirge but as a story of coming to terms with one’s past and its repercussions on the future; it painstakingly details how this family fell into a cycle of heartbreak, abuse, and desperation, and yet somehow finds, at its conclusion, a sliver of hope. “I’m tired of living this way,” a key participant says at the end, and by that point in this deeply moving film, you know exactly what he means.
(Tribeca Film Festival)
BEST OF FEST (DOCUMENTARY)
“Scheme is like, a non-snobby place to stay,” Gemma explains. “If you stay here, you either get locked up or knocked up.” She’s the focal point of this intimate documentary from directors Ellen Fiske and Ellinor Hallin; she makes that claim early in the film, and she does not turn out to be wrong. But if these are average and even predictable lives, they make for an extraordinary film, beautiful and sad and funny, even when enveloped in doomed inevitability. It’s not unlike Minding the Gap – a deceptively offhand portrait of troubled kids deciding (or not deciding) to grow up. And like that film, it’s overwhelming.
At first glance, the Fuyao glass company’s investment in a closed GM plant in Dayton, Ohio seemed like a win-win: here was a well-funded Chinese manufacturer, bringing jobs back to a decimated community. But these were non-union jobs at a much lower wage, with the company bringing in its own supervisors, many of its own workers, and its own way of doing things; tensions were probably inevitable. Those tensions, and their often-grim results, are masterfully captured by documentarians Steven Bognarand Julia Reichert; they craft a portrait that’s compelling, complicated, and often (paradoxically enough) very, very funny.
At the Heart of Gold
When the story of how Larry Nassar, the doctor for USA Gymnastics, sexually abused hundreds of young gymnasts for more than 20 years, the scope and depravity of his crimes were almost too great to believe – and yet, as director Erin Lee Carr cleanly lays out in this documentary investigation, it took that many women to get anyone to believe a single one of them. Carr explores the methodology of such a predator; he was everybody’s buddy, a nice guy and volunteer and family friend and Sunday School teacher, and he took advantage of the intimacy of those relationships. But more importantly, she meticulously lays out the ways that those around him made him possible – all the missed opportunities for prevention and prosecution. It’s a stunning, upsetting, heartbreaking movie, and confirms (after Thought Crimes and Mommy Dead and Dearest) that Carr is a razor-sharp nonfiction filmmaker.
BEST OF FEST (NARRATIVE) – RUNNER UP
When people talk about writer/director Peter Strickland’s work, it’s usually a game of spot-the-influence – and it’s true, it’s not hard to pinpoint the fingerprints left on films like The Duke of Burgundy or Berberian Sound Studio. But he’s still a unique, singular artist, because it’s never just about quotation; his films move to a sprung rhythm that’s all their own, and revel in their own weirdness with an enthusiasm that would elude more timid filmmakers. This may be his wildest effort, the story of an evil dress (per its catalog page, its color is “artery red”) that brings death and destruction to all who dare wear it. The set pieces are wildly funny or unapologetically dirty (sometimes both), and yet for all the jokiness of the premise, he creates real tension; you find yourself waiting, uneasily, for accidents to happen. And that takes real skill.
BEST OF FEST (NARRATIVE)
Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is the very picture of a model, modern teen, and is treated as such by his adopted parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) and the faculty of the high school where he’s about to graduate with honors. But these relationships are all delicate, held together with Scotch tape and good intentions, and at the slightest provocation, wounds can open wide. Luce is about smart people who keep trying to outthink and outguess each other, and it’s a movie where little is as it seems – not in a gimmicky, thriller way, but because people are complex, and can be more than one thing at a time, so director Julius Onah and his co-writer J.C. Lee keep repositioning and reorienting themselves, as the stakes and possibilities change. It’s a tough, complicated, and ultimately astonishing piece of work.
Writer/director Phillip Youmans took the festival’s Best Narrative Feature and Best Cinematography prizes (and deserves them) for this haunting, disturbing, and unforgettable story of lives in disarray in the contemporary South. He tells a trio of stories simultaneously, their connections seeming tenuous, but pulls the threads together in the closing passages with unexpected force. Until then, he fills his film with evocative landscapes and vernacular speech, and scene of quiet intensity and oh-no anticipation. As the country preacher at the film’s shaky moral center, Wendell Pierce (who won the fest’s Best Actor prize) is soulful and sweaty and absolutely believable; I feel like he’s been in that church for decades. But the whole movie is like that – entrenched in its specific time and place, and afire with that authenticity.
All photos courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival.