Category: Documentary

When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors (US 2009)

The Doors (from left): Jim Morrison, Robbie Krieger, Ray Manzarek and John Densmore

This documentary about the American rock band The Doors is streaming on MUBI as part of a selection of music dramas and documentaries. It only occurred to me later that it’s 50 years since Jim Morrison died. I find it quite difficult to gather my thoughts about the film and to write about it coherently. I enjoyed watching it but I was surprised to find many leading critics were down on the film at the time.

Watching the film for the first time now, when there have been so many TV documentaries on almost every major rock act of the 1960s/70s, several successful cinema documentaries such as the Asif Kapadia film about Amy Whitehouse plus many blockbuster biopics, prompts me to reflect on audience expectations. All films about popular musicians are likely to appeal differently to fans and to general audiences and this film is no exception. For the record, I heard plenty of The Doors music across the time of their brief career, but I never bought the singles or albums and I didn’t see them live. I wasn’t a fan as such and I read less about them than compared to many of my favourite acts. I avoided the Oliver Stone biopic but I remember TV material on the band, possibly from the 1968 Granada TV documentary. Perhaps this slight distance from the band meant that I didn’t find this film to be a hackneyed re-telling of the same old story.

Jim Morrison in a still from HWY

It does appear that the writer-director Tom DiCillo was aiming at a more general audience. DiCillo was then a director in American Independent cinema, probably best known for Living in Oblivion (US 1995). He wrote a voice-over commentary for his carefully edited amalgam of archive clips of The Doors and crucially did not include any memories/witness statements/long interviews. This disappointed some fan critics but I found it refreshing. Originally DiCillo read the commentary himself, but after a poor response at an early festival screening, he replaced the commentary with a new reading by Johnny Depp. The USP of the 2009 film was the inclusion of many extracts from two films made by the cinematographer Paul Ferrera, a close collaborator with Jim Morrison. HWY: An American Pastoral (1969) is a 50 minute drama co-written by Morrison who also stars as a young man in the desert. Feast of Friends (1969) is a 50 minute documentary offering a sense of The Doors at work, on the road and at play during 1968. This second film was an ‘official’ Doors documentary which was cancelled at the time (when Morrison was arrested for ‘obscene behaviour on stage’) but was eventually restored and released on DVD in 2014.

I was initially confused by this footage, especially from HWY. I hadn’t read the blurb beforehand and I wondered if this was an actor impersonating Morrison. I also wondered how DiCillo found so much material from the recording studio and backstage at concerts. He certainly managed to work with his team of editors to meld this ‘new’ footage with other archive news footage and stills to produce a coherent whole – with Depp’s V.O. bridging the edits. The commentary has been criticised for not offering enough analysis and insight but I think it is well pitched for a general audience who should learn something. I certainly did. The problem is that, partly because of the HWY clips, Morrison comes to dominate more of the film narrative and therefore it is difficult to go much beyond the story about Morrison which has been told many times before.

Robbie Krieger and Ray Manzarek from the studio footage

What I learned was that Morrison and Ray Manzarek, who was the keyboards player and really the leader of the band, had been together on a film course at UCLA (where they met Ferrera). I also got a much clearer picture of Manzarek and the other two Doors’ members, guitarist Robbie Krieger and drummer John Densmore. The musical backgrounds of the trio helped me to understand more about how the distinctive Doors’ sound came about. It struck me that the combination of blues, jazz and Krieger’s unique guitar-playing with its Spanish guitar feel is representative of that third blend of American rock music (i.e. jazz-blues), as potent but not as well known (to me) as the blends involving country music or soul music. I wanted more of this but it wasn’t to be. Nevertheless, if you don’t know the music or the band that well the film does introduce the strange combination of the Manzarek-led music and Morrison’s doom-laden and gothic-sounding voice and lyrics. One other revelation for me was that Morrison’s father was an admiral in charge of naval forces in the Vietnam War. There is a thesis somewhere about rock music and military families. Morrison was estranged from his family in 1968.

Unfortunately the ‘Official Trailer’ for this film on YouTube is in the wrong aspect ratio so I’ve chosen a fan video which uses some of the material from HWY to give you an idea of how that looks:

¡Viva! 27 #5: Billy (Spain 2020)

Billy is an unusual short (71 minutes) documentary feature, first screened at the Seville European Film Festival in 2020 and scheduled to be released in Spain in September 2021. It is another of the UK premières that have been offered by HOME at this year’s ¡Viva!. The film opens with a sequence that appears to come from a European Western (actually El hombre que mató a Billy el Niño, Spain-Italy 1967). A young blonde cowboy on horseback is being chased across across a dry scrub landscape into a small town by a group of ‘Federales’. A voiceover tells us that this isn’t a Western, although there are guns, chases and sheriffs and good guys and bad guys – but it’s too early to reveal them. All this while a woman dashes out of an adobe house to bring in her child in an almost direct hommage to the opening of Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars. The voiceover tells us that in fact this is a film about events only a relatively short time ago in a location that is also not too distant. This is immediately followed by a montage of talking heads all giving descriptions of ‘Billy the Kid’. A close-up of a pistol being fired at the camera turns into an animated credit sequence, also re-calling Leone, announcing ‘Billy’. This is certainly an arresting opening and soon the voiceover returns to tell us that Antonio González Pacheco, a police inspector in the Social Political Brigade of the Francoist regime in Spain during the late 1960s, died without having been tried for his crimes of torture and murder despite the demands of his victims and their families. The coronavirus delayed the post-production of the film and it also took Pacheco and one of the witnesses to his crimes. When shooting began Pacheco was alive, now he is dead but the need to expose his crimes remains.

One of the witnesses, Josefa was a member of the Revolutionary Antifascist Patriotic Front (FRAP). Hers is one of the most moving witness accounts. Many of the witnesses were photographed in locations like this, recalling the rooms used for interrogations.

As the witnesses began to identify themselves as members of various anti-fascist political parties that they joined as university students and young activists, I remembered the Spanish political thriller that featured in ¡Viva! 23, Seven Days in January (7 dias de enero, Spain-France 1979) that offered a compelling fictionalised account of the police and fascist ‘guerrilla  action’ against communist lawyers and activists which threatened to derail the transition towards democracy in Spain following Franco’s death in 1975. What I certainly wasn’t aware of was the extent to which young anti-fascists were active in Madrid during 1968 when student protest spread from Paris, Berlin, London, California and Mexico across the world. It seems to me now that those Spanish students faced a much more serious threat to their very survival, certainly compared to most student revolutionaries in the UK (though not those overseas students being tracked in the UK by intelligence services). Here in Billy we meet several of those Spanish student activists and other young activists, now in their late 60s or early 70s but with vivid memories of the late 1960s. As one of them puts it:

You could see how the police acted, how they tortured, how they repressed, how they shot for real – they didn’t shoot rubber bullets.

The witnesses constitute a diverse group of men and women who belonged to a variety of communist and anti-fascist political parties which didn’t necessarily agree on tactics. Some were determined to rely on words and the democratic process, others believed in direct action, including armed struggle. Writer-director Max Lemcke and his crew have access to a diverse range of material, including footage of demonstrations and street battles, newsreels and personal archives. Much of it is accessible for any audience but some probably means much more to Spanish audiences. A witness reminds us that it was difficult to find ‘important books’, to hear songs (such as the Victor Jara one used here) and watch movies in this period.

University students vote to end the Franco-imposed Student Union in the late 1960s

But who was ‘Billy’ and how did he acquire the name? Antonio González Pacheco arrived at university in Madrid in 1968 and in 1969 became a Junior Inspector in the ‘Social Investigation Brigade’. He quickly became a leading player in the ‘Dirty War’ waged by the police and fascist gangs against any left organisations. I think the term ‘Dirty War’ is used to deliberately link to the similar activities in Argentina, Chile, Brazil and other Latin American countries. The ‘Transition’ to democracy was was slow and although democratic elections produced a conservative government it did not have a majority. There was a major issue about the refusal to legitimise the Spanish Communist Party and a concerted effort by the new government to declare various Amnesties and not to investigate the activities of Francoist crimes against the people at that point. These are some of the issues discussed in Billy. Some historians mark the end of Transition with the failed coup d’état of 1981 and the election of the majority government of the PSOE or Spanish Socialist Party (a centrist party by the standards of most of the witnesses in Billy). The crucial point is that the torture and murder of leftist political activists as practised by Pacheco/’Billy the Kid’ did not stop in 1975 but continued into the 1980s.

One of the intertitles acting as chapter headings – “Billy’s here!”

‘Billy’ is portrayed in Seven Days in January and we get to see clips from that film and to hear the witness statement of the actor who played him. He got his name because he was a show-off who liked to parade his weapon and he was something of a dandy. Different witnesses explain how the torture terror worked and how the murders happened. The vivid descriptions are shocking and so is the observation that the fascists in the police force, just as the fascists in the élite, made the transition to democracy without being investigated or imprisoned and keeping their positions in many cases. The 1970s also saw an ‘International’ organisation of fascist police groups with meetings arranged with similar groups in Italy and West Germany.

Footage from newsreels and archive footage show police action against street protests.

I found the testimonies riveting, although the plethora of different political parties and revolutionary groups was a little confusing. The documentary is not publicly-funded or made by a media corporation. It was completely crowd-funded and all the contributors are listed in the long credits. It can therefore be a partial account (Francoists were invited but declined to be interviewed), though some of the witnesses have different views about direct action. The filmmakers have, however, decided that too many talking heads in long sequences would make the film unwatchable for any but the most diehard supporters. They have therefore used the Billy the Kid film as well as a Lucky Luke animated version of the Billy the Kid story and even an old black and white TV advert for Nesquik similar to the ‘Milky Bar Kid’ UK ad from 1961. The witnesses describe Billy in different ways – as a clown, as someone almost ‘deified’, as a sinister man, loathed and feared etc. The name stuck from his earliest university appearances but not everyone thought it was a good idea to repeat the nickname. I see the problem for a filmmaker wanting different material but I think there is probably too much of the feature film material shown – which does suggest Billy as the ‘hero’.

Fifty years is a long time to wait for witnesses to be heard. I’m glad I was able to see this film which has a repeat showing at HOME, Manchester on Saturday 21st August at 12.45. As fascism begins to rise again across the globe it’s important to introduce younger audience to this history and these victims of torture.

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band (Canada 2019)

Japanese film poster

Rock music documentaries must be one of the most narrativised forms of documentary, featuring familiar genre elements such as the early lives of key figures, the founding moments of a career, live concert footage, witness testimonies and so on. Their appeal is primarily to fans of the artists concerned who are looking for both the familiar, the lure of nostalgia, and surprises, a filling of gaps in the history. For the general audience there is perhaps not so much difference between the ‘bio-doc’ and the fictionalised biopic. We might want to share the elation of success, to pass judgement on the excess of lifestyles and respond to the despair of decline or the triumph of survival beyond the short lifespan of most rock groups. The more outrageous the characters, the more the story is going to appeal to that wider audience. But, of course, the music has to be good too.

A Woodstock period photo. The Band appear as 19th century men. From left: Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson

What should we make then of this conventional rock documentary about The Band and its central creative force? Once Were Brothers opened the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and toured other festivals before the pandemic curtailed cinema releases beyond Canada and the US, the Netherlands and New Zealand. It made nearly $500,000 worldwide at the box office. In the UK, the film has been broadcast on BBC4 and is currently available on iPlayer. There is also a rather expensive DVD. When the Guardian ran an interview with Robbie Robertson in October 2019 it generated comments from fans commenting on a film many hadn’t yet seen. If you aren’t a fan you need to be aware that the story of The Band covers not much more than the 15 years between 1961 and 1976. The five band members were all very talented musicians and performers but Robertson stood out as the lead writer and the most organised (and least distracted). The result was that after the band’s final concert, the ‘Last Waltz’ filmed by Martin Scorsese in 1976 and released as a triple LP and a cinema film in 1978, Robertson retained rights to most of the songs written over the years of the band’s concerts and recordings. Robertson did indeed write the songs but all the members contributed to the arrangements and especially over the first two albums produced in the collective workshop atmosphere of the pink house in Woodstock. Three of the five members are now dead and Garth Hudson is a recluse. The ‘J’accuse‘ came from Levon Helm who in his memoir pointed the finger at Robertson. This documentary by the young Canadian documentarist Daniel Roher is based largely on Robertson’s 2016 memoir (Testimony: A Memoir) and he is the narrator of the film.

Robbie Robertson narrates the story

If you aren’t a fan, what can you expect from the film? The first section deals with Robertson’s childhood and his very early entry into the music business at barely 16 when he joined the Hawks, the backing band for the American rockabilly performer Ronnie Hawkins. This meant meeting an equally young Levon Helm, the drummer with the Hawks. But Robertson had to travel down to Arkansas from Toronto. This must have been a real challenge for a teenager with a Mohawk family on his mother’s side and a surprise on his father’s side (it was a surprise for Robertson when he found out and I didn’t know about it, despite having read a fair amount about the Band). Helm was three years older but since Hawkins also worked Canada, he would find himself travelling North. By 1961 the other members of the Hawks had all been replaced by young Canadians, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson. Manuel was 18 when he joined the Hawks. Danko was still 17. He came from Ukranian farming stock. Hudson was an ‘old man’ at 24 but he brought classical and jazz experience into the group. This quintet then spent four years playing in clubs and smaller venues from Arkansas through the North East US and into Ontario. Nothing of this appears in the film unfortunately, we have to rely on short statements from band members, some recorded many years ago. The band wasn’t famous but they were honing their skills and broadening their knowledge of American-Canadian music styles. By 1965 they had parted with Ronnie Hawkins and toured as Levon and the Hawks (because Helm had seniority in the band) and were about to be ‘discovered’ by Bob Dylan.

Robertson and Dylan on stage together (in 1974 on the Before the Flood tour?)

Dylan asked the Hawks to back him on tours during 1965-1966. In that transition period Dylan was playing an acoustic set and then an electric set and the Hawks played the second half of the shows. They had never played to large audiences and they were taken aback by the booing from traditional folk fans but for next three years they would become famous because of their link to Dylan. This could have become a burden for the Hawks and it’s interesting that Dylan doesn’t contribute a great deal in the film, despite the hours of recording and touring he managed with the Hawks and then The Band. The Band eventually re-united with Dylan in Woodstock where they bought a house in which they converted the basement to a ‘writer’s recording studio’. This is perhaps the heart of the film where the magic was born and which produced ‘The Basement Tapes’ (bootlegged before later official releases starting in 1975) under Dylan’s name and the first two albums by the newly named ‘The Band’, ‘Music From the Big Pink’ and the self-titled ‘The Band’. I think I enjoyed this part the most because of the photographs taken over a couple of years. Director Roher uses a technique in which he cuts rapidly between the beautiful B+W photos so that it is almost like watching an animator’s flick-book. As Robertson explains, this was the first time the five men had time together to relax and play new and old material. Here was the ‘arranging’ and the real discovery of a new form of music which combined blues and soul, country, R&B and more. Roher offers us confirmation of the standing of The Band within the fraternity of musicians. Bruce Springsteen argues that the quintet included three great lead vocalists in Manuel, Helm and Danko. Eric Clapton claims that he travelled to Woodstock hoping he could join the group and a brief clip of the great Taj Mahal sees him suggesting that if any North American band could be compared to the Beatles it would be The Band. Certainly that long history of touring or residency that both groups experienced followed by time to write, arrange and record without pressure was similar. (And can somebody produce a documentary about Taj Mahal please?) The other witnesses who appear in the film include Albert Grossman, manager of both Dylan and The Band, John Simon, The Band’s record producer and David Geffen who would later lure Robbie Robertson out to Malibu. Ronnie Hawkins still going strong provides some of the liveliest commentary and George Harrison in a more subdued testimony, gives weight to The Band’s place in any rock canon.

Levon Helm was the lead vocalist on many of the songs

The tragedy in The Band’s story was unfortunately already beginning to unfold during their time in Woodstock. Robertson had married Dominique Bourgeois, a Montrealer he met in Paris, and started a family. He was writing all the time and was more grounded and more ‘professional’ in thinking about the future and his career in music. Some of the others were drinking too much and getting stoned too often. The alcohol was dangerous and there are footages of the car crashes that threatened the group’s future. Dominique, with whom Robertson would have three children, gives an honest appraisal of what happened in Woodstock and echoes other witnesses in arguing that these five men loved each other as brothers but were affected by the drink and drugs. Later she divorced Robertson and became a counsellor specialising in addiction therapies. Fan-critics see this part of the film as allowing Robertson and his ‘supporters’ to construct a narrative that in a sense absolves him of the charges made by Levon Helm later. The narrative moves swiftly through the triumph of the first two albums and then charts the beginning of the decline when Richard Manuel was taken ill on tour. The film ends with The Last Waltz and, significantly, Levon Helm’s lead vocal on ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’. The last section is perhaps the most controversial part of the film because Robbie Robertson completes the narration which for some fans seems like an attempt to exonerate himself from the charges against him.

Albert Grossman with Dylan

The film is visually very strong, Roher melds the photographs, archive footage and talking heads very well. He emphasises the range of still images by presenting original slides in their card frames or highlighting images on a contact sheet. Most of the excellent photos are by Elliot Landy who was presumably hired by the group to document the recording process in Woodstock. Roher similarly ‘marks’ some of the home movie footage. I’m not sure what this signifies beyond the ‘authenticity’ of the footage. The Last Waltz film was directed by Martin Scorsese and he acts as executive producer on Roher’s film and makes his witness statement contribution. Ron Howard and Brian Grazer are also executive producers.

The film ends with The Last Waltz and Robertson claiming that although he was the one who decided to stop touring, mainly because of Richard Manuel’s health, all the members expected that after 1976 they would get back together. In reality Robertson started a new career creating music scores for Scorsese. Helm appeared in several films including Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) and The Right Stuff (1983) and each of the five produced solo recordings. The quartet without Robertson played live together and in various combinations. ‘Once Were Brothers’ is a recent song by Robertson which makes an appearance in the final section.

An image stressing the the versatility of the players in The Band. Levon Helm the drummer also played mandolin while Richard Manuel, the piano player, could switch to drums and Garth Hudson could play sax and accordion as well as his beloved organ.

I’ve written much more than I expected I would. I am a fan of The Band and I have music from across their whole history including a couple of the solo albums. I’ve been playing a lot of it since I watched the film. They were for me the best band. I don’t want to take sides and I admire Robertson for the long career he has had in music but I want to know more, especially about Manuel, Danko and Hudson. I treasure my tracks by Levon Helm and my memories of some of his film roles. I thought I knew something about the history of The Band. I know quite a lot more now. It’s well worth watching this film. The only real downer is that apart from Dominique there are no other women who feature prominently in the film.

Dont Look Back (US 1967)

Bob Dylan travelling on British Rail when you could smoke in a closed compartment.

Dont Look Back was broadcast on BBC4 as part of a programming segment celebrating Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday. I watched it again after many years and remembered some scenes very clearly but was surprised by others. Very much a film ‘of the moment’, it documents aspects of Bob Dylan’s tour of England in late April – early May 1965 which comprised eight concerts in large venues in seven English cities. Surprisingly perhaps, it didn’t reach Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

The film is a form of documentary, though not a ‘music concert documentary’ as such. More of the time is spent backstage, in hotel rooms or on the road. There is music, but often only snatches of songs on stage. The ‘best’ song performance may well be a version of ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ sung by Dylan in a hotel room. There is also a prelude featuring the famous early ‘music video’ with Dylan presenting the scrawled lyrics of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ on flash cards. This song shot into the UK singles charts during the tour.

Dylan has a more formal interview with a Jamaican journalist working for BBC World Service’s African division.

Film scholars have categorised the film as an example of ‘Direct Cinema’, the documentary form that emerged in the late 1950s/early 1960s in Canada and the US, seeking to present an observational documentary with as little artifice as possible. Ironically, although it was one of the first such ‘backstage’ music docs, Dont Look Back‘s cinema release was delayed until 1967 in the US (distributors didn’t believe it would attract an audience) and it did not reach the UK until 1970 when the BBFC for some reason gave it an ‘X’ certificate. This meant that the film’s topicality was lost and in 1970 it was in competition with Gimme Shelter, the Rolling Stones documentary by the Maysles Brothers, also like D. A. Pennebaker, the director of Dont Look Back, seen as Direct Cinema pioneers. Nevertheless the large Dylan fanbase and its desire for archival footage of Dylan has meant that Dont Look Back has been well supported over the last fifty years. (It appears that the original title didn’t have the apostrophe in ‘Don’t’.)

‘Direct Cinema’ appeared at roughly the same time as cinéma vérité in France. Both were made possible by developments in film technologies, especially the lightweight 16mm cameras which could be handheld, faster film stock and synchronous sound recording via a linked audio recorder. French pioneer Jean Rouch went out on the streets of Paris for his film Chronique d’un été in 1961 with the sociologist Edgar Morin. North American filmmakers such Robert Drew and his associates and documentary filmmakers at the National Film Board of Canada had already started using the new technologies for a range of documentaries. Drew made the biggest impact with Primary in 1960, following John F. Kennedy on his early Democratic primary campaign in Wisconsin. This was made for TV in the US but seen on film in festivals around the world. Many people use the terms ‘direct cinema’ and ciné vérité interchangeably. One difference is that Rouch as a filmmaker had a direct dialogue with the people he filmed, interacting with them on screen. Direct Cinema projects were strictly observational.

Marianne Faithfull in the corner of the room as Joan Baez sings and Bob Dylan writes.

The great strength of Direct Cinema is the chance to document interactions between their subjects and the various people they meet in their jobs. The filmmaker can to some extent prepare for these. For instance, at the beginning of the film Dylan meets reporters at Heathrow airport and the ensuing dialogue between rather po-faced reporters and a waspish Dylan could be predicted, whereas later scenes of young girls outside the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool seem spontaneous. I think, watching the film now, the main pleasure for me is in the way it documents aspects of British culture which are precisely about 1965. The one failing on this score is that perhaps to preserve the ‘no artifice’ rule, there are no inter-titles explaining where we are (which is usually pretty obvious) and, more importantly, who is shown on screen. Dylan is accompanied throughout by his manager Albert Grossman and fellow American folk-singer Bob Neuwirth (there primarily for ‘moral support’ I guess). For the first few days Joan Baez is present. It was the end period of their relationship and although we hear her singing in the hotel rooms, she doesn’t sing with Dylan on stage. At other points in the film there are glimpses of Marianne Faithful and John Mayall among the many musicians and performers hanging round the hotel rooms.

The two performers who are picked out in the film are Alan Price and Donovan. Price had just left the Animals and had not yet formed the Alan Price Set. He seems a little manic at times and his references will have baffled American audiences. He mimes and sings in the style of Dave Berry whose cover version of ‘Little Things’ was a UK hit in April 1965. Berry appeared on TV always hiding behind a prop or obscuring his face with his hands or with his jacket collar. Price also runs through a George Formby song. Formby was the biggest UK film star and music act (with his ukulele and comic songs) during the 1930s and 1940s. Donovan is featured rather differently. At this point he was a month away from his 19th birthday and had released just one hit single ‘Catch the Wind’. His first album would be released in the next few weeks. In a hotel room he sings for Dylan and the others gathered around. Dylan seems impressed and plays It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ in response. In the next scene there is a discussion about how Donovan’s tour (with the same promoter as Dylan’s) is going (not well). The UK press was trying to create a narrative around Donovan’s ‘challenge’ to Dylan.

Donovan behind Dylan

In fact, the UK press was very interested in the Dylan tour. 1965 was a key moment in the development of pop/rock culture and its place in the public imagination. Dylan was briefly a ‘pop star’ and his responses to interviewers’ questions were more intelligent than most of his peers. This was also a period when ‘youth culture’ became more important. All of the performers discussed here – Dylan, Joan Baez, Alan Price, Donovan etc. were under 25 whereas most of the reporters for both the national and regional press were much older. Pennebaker’s film, whether by accident or design, picks out elements of the new music culture. It includes a sequence in which the UK promoter Tito Burns, a major player as a manager and impresario since the 1950s, discusses with Albert Grossman how to increase appearance fees for Dylan. They phone the BBC and Granada trying to drive the fees up. In another scene Pennebaker captures the chaos at Newcastle City Hall when Dylan’s mike cuts out – the problem was discussed at length in the local paper. It’s noticeable that at this point, the major venues like the civic halls were still not properly equipped for rock ‘n roll. In 1965 Dylan was on the cusp of ‘going electric’ and the tour played the Free Trade Hall in Manchester where a year later Dylan would be met with cries of ‘Judas!’ when he introduced the Hawks as his backing band.

I’m sure there is a lot to say about Dylan’s state of mind during this tour and I leave that to the Dylanologists to sort out. Simply as a direct cinema documentary, Dont Look Back is a gem, capturing a moment in UK youth culture.

Piero Vivarelli, Life as a B Movie (Italy 2019)

Italian popular cinema in the 1960s and 1970s is a thing of wonder and I certainly haven’t seen enough of it. MUBI are currently offering a short season of recent Italian films which are mostly not the kind of Italian films that currently achieve international distribution. I’ve moaned on this blog frequently about Italian films I’ve seen in festivals that should be seen in the UK but they never seem to get here. Life as a B Movie is very welcome as an online offering because it tells a story about a singular figure in Italian media and does so with numerous clips from the films which benefited from his involvement.

Vivarelli appearing as the saxophonist in Urlatori alla sbarra (Howlers of the Dock, 1960)

The subject of this documentary biopic is Piero Vivarelli (1927-2010) who was perhaps most importantly a writer but also a music promoter and director of a broad range of ‘B’ pictures. His first interest appears to have been music (pop and jazz) and his obsession appears to have been variations of the ‘youth picture’ or as he was more prone to express it, the battle between the young generation and their parents’ generation. We get to see clips from several pop music influenced youth pix, one of which, Howlers of the Dock (1960) has a squadron of Vespa riding youths well before Quadrophenia. Vivarelli co-wrote with many people and seemed to have a real knack of finding talented people to work with including Lucio Fulci who would later become a well-known genre film director. With Fulci and others Vivarelli wrote the song ’24 Mila Baci’ or ‘24,000 Kisses’ which became a No 1 hit in Italy and Spain. This was a period in which Italian pop music became popular across Europe and was even covered in the UK and the US. I was amazed to realise that ’24 Mila Baci’ features on the soundtrack of Pawel Pawlikowski’s film Ida (Poland 2013), set in 1962. We also see an interview with the Serbian director Emir Kusturica who used a performance of the song in an early film.

Franco Nero as Django

Vivarelli’s own films include an intriguing youth romance set in Berlin at the time of the building of the Berlin Wall in 1962, known as East Zone, West Zone in English and starring Helmut Griem who became an international film star in the 1970s. Perhaps his most prominent role for international audiences was as one (arguably the most significant) of the writers of Django (Italy-Spain 1966) the Western with a host of later ‘sequels’. The documentary includes interviews with Franco Nero, the central character and explores the role of Vivarelli alongside director Sergio Corbuci and co-writer Franco Rossetti, who like Vivarelli came from Siena.

The documentary’s directors offer this statement:

To depict this offbeat, complex, unsung Italian pop culture personality we chose a non-linear narrative style with several intersecting thematic story lines weaved into an only partly chronological tapestry. The key to our narrative is the deep interconnection that we came across between his life and his movies. The title is not a gimmick.

Our intention was to bring to fore the pioneer aspects of the pioneer/provocateur Piero Vivarelli in Italian music and movies, trying to place him not just locally, but within the broader context of the post-war global pop culture explosion. At the same time we tried to provide a sense of a very particular typically Italian post-war vitality that he encapsulates. It’s the particular energy that prompted Tarantino’s passion for the Italian B-movie genre. Last but not least, we tried to recount his extraordinary erotic sensuality, the driving force for everything Piero did.

Fabrizio Laurenti, Niccolò Vivarelli

Niccolò Vivarelli is (according to Cineuropa) Piero Vivarelli’s grandson. This doesn’t mean that the documentary shies away from Vivarelli’s less savoury qualities. He was a determined womaniser and not averse to cheating on wives and lovers with the singers and actresses he met. He was not a good father and he lost a son to drugs, but the many interviewees, including those who might be expected to be hurt, seem prepared to praise him. He was attracted to women of colour and married the Jamaican actor Beryl Cunningham who was a leading player in Il dio serpente (1970). This film was made in Columbia and developed Vivarelli’s interest in erotic movies. It was followed by The Black Decameron (1972), again with Cunningham, but this time made in Senegal. I was amazed to discover that Vivarelli knew Djibril Diop Mambety, who has a role in the film.This seems so unlikely and I can’t find any supporting evidence in, for instance, IMDb but it seems a confident claim. Claims are also made that during the shoot in Senegal, (which had support from President Senghor), Vivarelli was able to meet rebels from Guinea-Bissau, led by Luís Cabral, who were fighting for independence from Portuguese colonialism and we see photographic evidence. Vivarelli does seem to have been an extraordinary man and the documentary’s title seems apt. His life defied any neat description or classification.

Late in his life, Vivarelli (right) with Fidel Castro

Throughout the film the two directors mix and interweave the stories of Vivarelli’s films, his numerous relationships and his political life. As a teenager he had joined a notorious fascist commando troop (a combination of parachutists and navy seals), partly because of his father’s death as an Italian soldier killed by partisans. Soon after the end of the war he switched to join the Italian Communist Party. He seems to have been radical/leftist from then on. His increasing interest in erotic movies meant further films focusing on women of colour with Codice d’amore orientale (1974) an ‘erotic documentary’ filmed in Thailand and involvement as a writer on Joe D’Amato’s Emanuelle in Bangkok (1976) and Emanuelle in America (1977), both with Laura Gemser. Despite the reputations of these films, interviewees assert that Vivarelli was not a colonialist. His final film was La rumbera (Italy 1998) which presented the Cuban revolution via the story of a dancer. The film was made in Cuba and Vivarelli met Castro as seen in the photo above. Im intrigued as to what Fidel is thinking when he looks at Vivarelli.

I’m sure I haven’t done justice to this remarkable film, but it’s on MUBI until April 29 I think. Do check it out if you have a subscription. One last thought. The films Vivarelli and his collaborators made are very difficult to see now, but as one of the interviewees suggests, during the 1960s and 1970s at the height of Italian film production, many of these films sold well in Italy and overseas and they helped pave the way for the more celebrated Italian art films to gain international distribution. Vivarelli was in many ways an innovator. This trailer gives a good sense of the delirium of the documentary.

Adolescentes (France 2019)

Anaïs in front, Emma behind

Adolescentes represented a real challenge for this reviewer. It’s twenty-five years since I last had any real contact with teenagers on a one to one basis. Could I cope with over two hours of exploring the lives of two girls growing up in Central France from the ages of 13 to 18, especially when I have managed to avoid most of the ‘reality TV’ type programming which this threatened to resemble? Well, I did survive the experience and I hope I can give a critically distanced appraisal of the film which I enjoyed very much in parts even if some aspects seemed questionable.

The film is described as a ‘documentary’ and in the sense that it records moments in the lives of the two selected teenagers it is certainly a documentary record. On the other hand, a link to the Griersonian definition of ‘a creative treatment of actuality’ seems a little more doubtful. The reality TV mode is usually developed towards an entertainment function in which we are asked to become involved in narratives about winners and losers. That isn’t the case here even if the film is inevitably ‘narrativised’ by the selection of ‘moments’ when judgements are made. Director Sébastien Lifshitz made some interesting decisions such as opting for a CinemaScope ratio and commissioning music from Claire Denis collaborators Tindersticks which help the film to feel more like a fiction feature. The overall format is not original and is perhaps best known via the television films of the Up‘ series in which cameras have revisited a group of characters every seven years since 1963. However, that series is much more obviously a long term project in which the subjects speak to camera  and respond to questions. Lifshitz simply ‘observed’ his two participants during short periods of two or three days selected to cover the main aspects of their lives over five years.

Brive has cold winters . . .

The two subjects of the documentary are Anaïs and Emma, best friends attending the same middle school in the small city of Brive in South Central France, with Limoges as the nearest major centre. Lifshitz wanted to find a community outside Paris and he suggests that Brive was interesting partly because of its distinct seasons – hot summers and cold winters. Originally he had thought of following a boy but soon became convinced that a girl would be more interesting because, as many teachers and others told him, girls in France have changed much more in the last fifteen years. He actually found two girls in the same school. He did worry that it might not be appropriate for a man to follow the lives of teenage girls so closely but they and, surprisingly perhaps, their parents seemed happy to participate – more on this later. The film covers the years 2013 to 2018 and includes some reactions to the major events in France during the period (including the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan and the election of President Macron). The girls were born in 2000 so they represent the new generation of the 21st century.

Shifitz is concerned to ‘show and not tell’, so for those of us outside France, aspects of the French education system do need a little explanation. As far as I can work out, Anaïs and Emma attend the same middle school but then make different choices at 15 which mean they attend different high schools and will make different decisions again after taking the baccalauréat at 18. Anaïs is from a working-class family. She has a difficult family life because her mother is hospitalised a couple of times and she has two brothers, one of whom needs care. She has some issues with her weight but she’s an attractive and sociable young woman who works hard when she wants to and does well in her vocational bac (known as a CAP or Certificat d’aptitude professionnelle). Emma is more conventionally attractive and comes from a wealthier, professional family. Her mother is a tax inspector and her father is a sales executive who seems to travel a great deal. Emma has a difficult relationship with her mother and that may be one reason she lacks self-confidence. She opts for a ‘professional bac‘, hoping for a place in a film school – previously she thought about becoming a singer. Don’t leap to any conclusions about the choices the girls make. As a teacher of vocational education I was pleased by the decision Anaïs made and how she handled herself in high school. I don’t think my outline sketch ‘spoils’ the documentary narrative. There are many other incidents and narrative subtexts in the film and I certainly found it an engaging watch.

There are more close-ups in the second half of the film. In the summer by the pool . . .

The questions that arise are, not surprisingly, about some of the more intimate situations into which the camera intrudes. There are two specific questions. The first is about the conversations between the two girls and with their peers (the other girls). They talk about how they are approaching losing their virginity and, since they spend summers by the pool in their bikinis they talk about their bodies. In the Press Notes Sébastien Lifshitz says that at first he covered the girls’ interactions mainly in long shots but later he felt that he could use a long lens to get much closer to his subjects – with their permission. This means that as well as close-ups of their heads and shoulders we also have close-up images of thighs when the girls discuss their ‘stretch marks’ from their rapid growth as teenagers. It did make me wonder how the girls would respond when they saw these shots on a cinema screen. Lifshitz does tell us that they first giggled at seeing themselves but then he said:

I believe that the film was for them a cold revealing mirror which made them realise things about themselves. But the most important thing for me was that they recognised themselves in it. Adolescence is a continent both dark and sunny. (My approximate translation of the original French.)

He also reveals that Emma spoke about seeing herself arguing with her mother and wondered if she (Emma) was really like that. This leads me to my second question which is really at the root of my objection to much of the ‘reality TV’ type of narrative. I feel uncomfortable commenting on how the parents behave in this film and I do wonder how Lifshitz made decisions about what to include. I also wonder how the parents themselves came to agree to allow his camera in to the arguments they had with their children. We all tend to regret the way we behave in arguments sometimes but we don’t then get to see ourselves arguing on a cinema screen. Lifshitz states elsewhere in the Press Notes that of course he is aware of the camera becoming an instrument that mediates behaviour but then says that the girls in particular seemed to forget about it completely. As a spectator it did seem to me that scenes flowed so naturally that it was easy to feel that I was watching a fiction performed by non-professionals who had been well briefed. The teachers in the classrooms are not named so I do feel able to say that for all its good qualities, I do feel that the school scenes demonstrate the conservative/traditional pedagogy I’ve seen in other French films set in schools. It’s all ‘talk and chalk’ with students in rows of desks and teachers standing at the front. Do they ever try group work or a more democratic open discussion arena? Mind you we may have lost all those progressive ideas in English education after Michael Gove and his vandals’ attacks on the methods I and my colleagues used to use.

I’m certainly glad I watched Adolescentes. I’m still not sure about the ethics of the film but these seemed like two sensible young women and I hope they have succeeded in their further studies even in the face of the current pandemic. The narrative ends in Autumn 2018. The film is technically very good with camerawork by Paul Guilhaume and Antoine Parouty and editing by Tina Baz providing exactly what is needed by Sébastien Lifshitz. I didn’t really notice the music but in this context I think that means it worked in harmony with the other elements. Adolescentes is still streaming as part of My French Film Festival. Here is the trailer (no subtitles) from Unifrance.