Category: American Independents

Bayou Maharajah (US 2013)

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Music documentaries appear in UK cinemas fairly regularly. Tonight I could choose between two and ironically the director of the one I didn’t choose was thanked in the credits of the one I did. However, I later discovered that Bayou Maharajah was actually on the festival circuit in 2013 and has had to wait three years for a release in the UK. It was worth the wait and it will play at various venues across the UK in the next month. See dates and venues on the Music Film Network website.

James Carroll Booker (1939-1983) was a New Orleans piano player who was considered a genius by the major musicians of the New Orleans scene – the ones featured in the film include Dr John, Irma Thomas, Neville Neville and the late Allen Toussaint. If you own any records produced in New Orleans between the early 1960s and the late 1970s, you will be able to hear James Booker backing the star name. Like many geniuses before him – and sadly many in the future perhaps – James Booker’s talent was difficult to corral and confine in a recording studio. His difficult early life left him with a propensity to develop a drug and alcohol addiction. He also had poor mental health, at some point lost an eye (various stories are recounted as to how this might have happened) and he was openly gay in the New Orleans bar scene of the period. But he could play piano (and alto and tenor sax) like an angel.

Bayou Maharajah is a conventional documentary by an inexperienced filmmaker. Lily Keber was working in a bar in New Orleans in 2006 when she first heard James Booker tracks on the jukebox and drinkers talking about Booker’s exploits. By 2010 she had raised $10, 000 on Kickstarter and started to collect material. Her documentary succeeds because, apart from having the enormous talent of James Booker at its core, the film does simple things very well. Keber has found Booker’s friends, admirers and colleagues and gathered interesting anecdotes. The talking heads are presented without gimmicks and the bulk of them are very engaging. Keber has also found archive recordings of Booker’s playing, sometimes on very degraded video material – and she hasn’t messed with the aspect ratios, hoorah! She’s also found high quality stills and she presents a mini master-class by Harry Connick Jr. (who became Booker’s eager pupil aged 12). Connick demonstrates the incredible keyboard techniques that underpinned Booker’s playing. As a non-pianist, I was very impressed. I suspect piano players will be suitably wowed.

It’s important in films like these to present at least one or two complete performances. That’s certainly the case here. Like too many other African-Americans of his generation, James Booker had to leave North America to find appreciative bookers and audiences in Europe. It’s interesting to see him appearing as a solo act in France and Germany. He appreciated the respect he was given in Europe but it didn’t encourage record companies in the US and he suffered badly from very low earnings for his session work on various recordings. Part of the problem was that Booker didn’t have a manager – no-one could manage him says one interviewee.

There is one almost avant-garde use of what I took to be ‘found footage’. A black and white film of one night at a New Orleans bar is speeded up to last only a few minutes as almost subliminal figures suddenly flash on screen. At the time I think I puzzled over what to make of this but on reflection it seems like an effective means of representing James Booker’s life in New Orleans. He was only properly appreciated by a few but his talent was such that his presence remains embedded in New Orleans music culture.

I never did find out why the film has the title ‘Bayou Maharajah’ but it fits somehow. James Booker could play everything from Chopin to jazz. Most of all though for me he captured that essential New Orleans sound and now I want someone to make a film explaining why New Orleans piano-playing is so distinctive – in both cultural and musical terms.

Here is the trailer plus a clip showing one of the archive performances. I hope these will convince you to look up this film:

Café Society (US 2016)

Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) and Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg)

Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) and Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg)

Woody Allen is still making movies at nearly 80. Is that a good thing? Some directors make important films in their last decades. Ken Loach (the same age as Woody) has just won the Palme d’Or for an angry cry out against austerity and neo-liberalism, but Woody seems to just keep going without any real purpose except to just keep going. I’m making this judgement based on reviews I’ve read since I’d only seen one of his films, Vicky Cristina Barcelona in 2009, in the last twenty years before I caught his new film as a holiday treat. Despite a strong cast I thought that Vicky Cristina Barcelona was deeply flawed. Café Society has a similarly strong cast, but it is at least an enjoyable entertainment.

Opening Cannes this year, Café Society went straight into a French release. It offers us Jesse Eisenberg in a familiar role not dissimilar to the twin roles he played in The Double by Richard Ayoade. His character Bobby Hoffman begins as a shy, socially inept young man from the Bronx thrown into Hollywood society in the late 1930s and working for his uncle (Steve Carell) an important agent/wheeler-dealer. Bobby meets Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) his uncle’s secretary, falling in love and unwittingly creating a family problem as well as learning a whole range of new skills. Transformed by his Hollywood experience Bobby returns to New York and becomes a successful house manager at the night club owned by his gangster brother. Having been forced to leave Vonnie in Hollywood, the plot sets up the possibility of a later meeting in New York. But now Bobby is also able to woo other women in New York.

Allen riffs on two distinct genres that he has ‘played’ before. A musical analogy is not inappropriate since the setting is the period of Woody Allen’s early childhood and he fills the soundtrack with sublime music (matching the equally sublime cinematography of Vittorio Storaro) mainly performed by Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks. A New York Jewish family comedy-drama is melded with a romantic drama. Bobby also has an older sister married to a socialist ‘intellectual’. His mother is the driving force in the family with Ken Stott a surprising but pretty effective father in the background. The setting also brings to mind Some Like it Hot – and perhaps the Viennese comedies that Wilder himself was riffing on. Because of the gangster angle we get some very dark comedy moments but mostly Allen seems to be reworking material he’s done before. My interest in the film was mainly the chance to see the further development of Kristen Stewart as a compelling performer. I thought she was the standout in a very good cast. She manages to make believable a character who wears an alice band, white socks and short 1930s dresses but who is also clearly bright (a literature Masters) and more than capable of negotiating the twists and turns of Hollywood insider life. I suspect that in choosing a Barbara Stanwyck clip to set up Vonnie as a ‘player’, Woody Allen was going with Stewart’s own preference.

This was a pleasant way to pass 96 minutes. The story was interesting enough to engage us, the performances were all good and the technical credits were excellent. Woody Allen himself did the voiceover narration – which I know many people don’t like, but it worked perfectly for me. It was worthwhile Woody. As long as actors (young and old) want to work with you, there is still a market for films like this.

Here’s the French VOSF trailer:

Chronic (Mexico-France 2015)

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I saw the film last Saturday at the Hyde Park Picture House and, disappointingly, I was one of only twelve in the audience. I think the film has suffered as its release comes at the fag end of the BAFTA/Oscar season. And its marketing by Curzon Film World has been low key. Moreover the film has not been assisted by critics. The Sight & Sound review was generally positive but included the odd comment:

“but if he [the director Michael Franco] wanted his films to be viewed by the general public, would he not invest his distressing themes with humour, . . .” [Why the ‘general public’?].

Michael Franco’s previous film After Lucia (Después de Lucía, Mexico-France 2012) won Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival. Even so it failed to get a UK release, though it was screened at the Leeds and London International Film Festivals. Chronic won the Best Screenplay at last year’s Cannes Festival. It also contains a superb performance by Tim Roth, with greater depth and complexity than that which won Leonardo DiCaprio awards at the BAFTAs and from the Hollywood Academy.

Roth plays David, a care worker. It is important to note that he works in the US medical industry. In the course of the film we see David caring for three patients, one suffering from AIDS, one who has suffered a stroke and one who has cancer. David is meticulous, involved with his patients but also seems somewhat obsessive. It is his character rather than the situation of the patients that is the film’s focus. There are however explicit scenes of the sort of situations such sufferers face. So the film is occasionally ‘distressing’ but not grim and it has a real sense of humanity.

The film is fairly opaque, so whilst the original ‘chronic’ refers to time the periodity of this film is unclear. Likewise the place or places are not detailed. The S&S review has more detail on character and plot, but I suspect this is from the Press Pack rather than the film. The editing is elliptical, so we move from scene to scene, and later on one patient succeeds another, but how long this all takes is ambiguous, as is the motivation of David himself.

The film is dominated by the mid-height mid-shot, mostly in long takes: variants on the plan Américain. Long shots often include framing to achieve a parallel effect. And the central focus is David or David and a patient. Other scenes and the settings seem mainly about character. There are occasional tracking shots, including the long reverse track that ends the film. At this point Franco, who also scripted the film, includes a change of emphasis that parallels his earlier film.

I found this a rewarding viewing. And the quality of the production means that it is worth going to the cinema rather than settling for an inferior video version. The Hyde Park has it on Wednesday but the audience will include parents and young children. Picturehouse at the National Media Museum now have it programmed for April 19th. It may already have been and gone at the Curzon venues in Richmond or Ripon.

GFF16 #3: Miss Sharon Jones (US 2015)

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This joyous documentary deserves a wide audience who will lap it up. I was going to categorise it as a music documentary but it has two other important elements. It is also about one woman’s fight against cancer – a difficult subject for documentary – and about her personal biography (which introduces themes about identity, racism and the music business).

I’d heard about Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings but never registered their music or knew much about them. It was wonderful to hear the music. I didn’t know the songs but the sound was so familiar – the mainly southern soul of the 1960s and 1970s with allusions to Stax, Atlantic, Chess, FAME etc. Although Jones is based in New York her family is still in Georgia and the North-South (and West) axis of the band led by Gabriel Roth, AKA Bosco Mann, harks back to the time of the link-up between Stax and Atlantic. Roth and Jones met up musically in the mid-1990s and ‘Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings’ was born soon afterwards. Miss Jones became a star later in life than most artists and she enjoyed a decade or more of success with live shows and records under the band’s own label, Dap Tone. Then in 2014 she started treatment for pancreatic cancer and the band’s future seemed uncertain. Somehow the band’s new recording was completed and a tour was organised even as Sharon recovered. It’s this period through 2014 and into the early part of 2015 which provides the drama in a documentary by two-time Oscar-winning documentarist Barbara Kopple (honoured for Harlan County, USA in 1976 and American Dream in 1991).

Kopple’s approach is to stick fairly close to Sharon Jones during her recovery from treatment when she convalesces with a friend, visits her family and finally gets back into recording and onto the road for live shows. During this time the singer talks about her life and the attitudes she met in the music business when she was told she was “too black, too short and not pretty enough”. You have to feel that this is the modern culture of Black Music in the US – it was once a question of whether you could sing and if you had ‘soul’ – Ms Jones clearly has both attributes. Kopple weaves her footage together effortlessly and intersperses it with band interviews and live performances. The screening was in the Centre for Contemporary Arts a couple of blocks down from the Glasgow Film Theatre, in the ‘Theatre’ space which had a big screen and good sound so these performances worked very well. (But I learned to accept an extra cushion for my next screening in this venue!)

Miss Sharon Jones! played at Toronto in September 2015 and the New York City Doc Festival a month or two later. A US release is expected in 2016 but as yet the film doesn’t have a distributor and Barbara Kopple’s Cabin Creek Films doesn’t seem totally geared up just yet. There is a Facebook page for the film and you can check out Cabin Creek Films and the band’s own website. I do hope that the film gets a cinema release in the UK. It’s a great story and although it would still work on TV, I think the live performances are best on a big screen with an audience.