In her second introduction of the Brazilian Weekender at HOME, Stephanie Dennison told us that music documentaries have been very popular in Brazil for the last few years and that Yorimatã was both critically and commercially successful in cinemas in 2015. She suggested that this was both surprising and encouraging since many audiences didn’t know about the two main subjects of the film – women who challenged conventional music industry ideas in the 1970s. This was my third documentary of the week and my second music documentary. Yorimatã has some things in common with Bayou Maharajah, but also several differences.
I don’t think I’ve seen a music documentary before in which all of the performers were unknown to me (apart from Gilberto Gil who makes a brief appearance). Coupled with my limited knowledge of Brazilian music styles this meant I found it a little difficult to discern the chronology of events. (The narrative is non-linear.) Other than that, however, I was captivated by the music and personalities of the two women who appear to have used just their first names – Luhli and Lucina – throughout their long careers. Here is the official trailer for Yorimatã which explains the title and introduces the story and the music. (The official website in Portuguese has some other interesting material, including the images used here.)
Luhli (sometimes Luli) and Lucina both began performing and recording in the 1960s as solo artists and with other performers. They got together in the early 1970s, forming a musical partnership that was exciting for them and for audiences and which lasted more than twenty years. They decided to become ‘independents’ and move away from the global music labels such as Philips and Polygram and took themselves off to live in the country – following, but in their own way, the similar trends in Europe and North America. The ‘music majors’ have always been global but, unlike Hollywood, they tend to put more effort into developing local ‘artists and repertoire’. They do so in conventional ways so Luhli and Lucina were seen as ‘radicals’. The living arrangements they made were also radical and ‘anti-conservative’ as they set up a family unit with photographer Luiz Fernando Borges da Fonseca. This three-way relationship was captured by Luiz and his archive of footage formed the basis for director Rafael Saar’s documentary (Saar is something of a specialist in music films). These archive clips are mixed with interviews, footage of the two women today, including recent performances with other musicians and archive clips of their earlier performances together.
The 1970s performances and the home movie footage of life in their rural retreat provide perhaps the most appealing sequences – enhanced by the grainy and colour-degraded qualities of the blown-up images. I was trying to think of what the British or American equivalents might be but I realised that the social and political differences between Brazil and the ‘North’ would have been an important factor. These images from Brazil seem at the same time more ‘homely’ and frankly more fun than 1970s hippy communes as depicted in Anglo-American music culture – but also more of a challenge to society since Brazil was under an authoritarian military dictatorship which arrested and exiled some musicians whose politics were deemed unacceptable.
In musical terms, however, it’s interesting that Luhli and Lucina made familiar moves towards musical forms that were more ‘roots’ orientated and sometimes more ‘spiritual’. But they also went through a phase of electrifying their music and becoming more rock-orientated. At this point I thought about Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention and wondered how things might have been different if Sandy had had a close female collaborator and soulmate. The music of Luhli and Lucina remained in a Brazilian context and for musicologists there are references to samba and the ways in which African music and other foreign forms have been developed in a Brazilian context. The most surprising aspect of the women’s performances (apart from the appearance of the 10-string Brazilian guitar – viola caipira?) is their use of African drums (see the trailer above). We see them working to make these drums and the film begins and ends with a drumming performance.
I’m not sure if this film will get distribution outside Brazil (it did appear at Toronto) but I do hope somebody tries to make it happen. The sounds and images have stayed with me and audiences should get a lot from it. Some will enjoy the women’s strength and challenge to the social order. Others will enjoy the music. Everybody will get something from it. I’m very pleased to have had the opportunity to see it.
This film in HOME’s Brazilian Weekender turned out to be a documentary about what Stephanie Dennison in her Introduction referred to as a ‘small subject’. Professor Dennison leads on Brazilian film at the University of Leeds and the Weekender is a joint Leeds/Manchester University initiative with HOME’s festivals team. She suggested to us that often the Brazilian films that are seen abroad are about ‘big’ subjects or they are ‘exotic’ and strange/wonderful. She went on to suggest that with the swing to the right in Brazil what she thought was interesting about this film (apart from the technical skill on display) was its concern with public education – something that was an important part of the Workers’ Party agenda. Certainly the last two Brazilian films I’ve seen were Second Mother (Brazil 2015) and The Violin Teacher (Brazil 2015), both concerned with issues related to education.
The ‘striking technical skill’ here belongs to first-time documentary feature filmmaker Paula Gomes. She crafts an 83 minute film that takes its simple premise and presents it as accessibly as possible while maintaining a reasonable observational distance from its subject – though this is breached three times, but each time in an interesting and revealing way. The ‘Jonas’ of the title is a 13 year-old boy in the North-Eastern region of Bahia. He lives with his mother and grandmother, both of whom have had experience in the circus. If we are told about a father figure, I missed it in the subtitles. However, we do learn that Jonas has an uncle who is still operating a circus in the region.
The ‘plot’ of the documentary sees Jonas using a holiday period to devise a circus performance with his friends in his mother’s backyard. His mother tolerates this (and his grandma encourages it) but the mother’s concern is to see Jonas succeed at school. Jonas has the skills and the commitment to ‘make a go’ of the circus but his friends in the neighbourhood don’t share his need to be a performer and although they ‘muck in’ and enjoy themselves, they gradually drift away. Meanwhile, Jonas is only a peripheral figure at school – knuckling down only when the camera is on him. The filmmaker appears briefly in one scene reflected in the mirror in Jonas’ bedroom when his mother tries to wake him to send him to school. More importantly perhaps the director is addressed in one scene by the headteacher who tells her that her film is a bad idea since it gets in the way of Jonas and his schoolwork. This seems a little unfair, but it’s good to see some concern over the boy’s education. The closing credits include another line of dialogue directed to the filmmaker but I won’t spoil what is a pretty good joke.
For me, the technical and artistic success of the film is based on an ‘intimate’ camera style which brings us into the world of Jonas and his friends and family without ever being ‘exploitative’. There are many close-ups, mainly of faces. It is indeed an impressive first feature. Jonas is an engaging young man and his mother and grandmother are equally interesting characters. The classroom scenes suggest that working class education in Brazil is a real issue and I’m reminded that one of the great education thinkers was Paulo Friere who came from Recife in the neighbouring region of Pernambuco. The turn to the right in Brazilian politics is bad news for the working class.
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:
For over 25 years since the release of Hidden Agenda (1990), Ken Loach has been the most consistently successful British filmmaker – not in gross box office, but simply in terms of producing films regularly and putting working-class characters (English, Irish, Scottish, Spanish, Latin-American) on screen in ways that do them justice. Before that he had a prolific career in UK TV drama and film and a great success in cinemas with Kes (1969) before he was sidelined in the Thatcher 80s when ‘greed was good’ and the working-class were hammered before being marginalised. Ken will be 80 in a few days and this new documentary was released midway between his birthday and the award of a second Palme d’Or at Cannes to his company Sixteen Films for I, Daniel Blake. Ken Loach certainly deserves a cinema documentary made about him. Unfortunately there are some problems with this one.
Director Louise Osmond is a celebrated documentarist whose last film Dark Horse (2015) won prizes at Sundance and at the British Independent Film Awards and she had full access to Loach’s preparations for shooting I, Daniel Blake, as well as to Ken and his collaborators. I’m puzzled by the lack of real analysis of the work and by the poor technical qualities of her film. To be fair, Ken Loach has had an eventful life so far and his films and television material represent a formidable body of work. To do justice to the man and his work would need a documentary series rather than a single 93 minute film. I’ve seen all Ken’s feature films (apart from the new one) and most of the important TV work. It isn’t surprising then that I enjoyed being reminded of the work and that I was grateful for the archive material insights into his early life alongside the contributions of his family. The film also includes useful contributions from Tony Garnett and Gabriel Byrne (who give the best insights into Loach as a committed director) and a host of other talking heads with stories and observations. Osmond’s strategy is to use the making of I, Daniel Blake as a running example of Loach at work. She then breaks into this ‘making of’ narrative to visits distinct periods in Loach’s life and career, not necessarily in chronological order.
There are arguably four sections to the film to add to the ‘making of’ doc. We get archive photos and memories to learn about both Loach the boy from Nuneaton and Loach the paterfamilias in later life. Tony Garnett takes us through the early work at the BBC and explains that Ken was not really ‘politicised’ until he met the writer Jim Allen in the late 1960s. Garnett’s analysis ends with Kes in 1969. The third section deals with the frustrations of the 1970s and 1980s and in particular on the cancellations of TV commissions and the last minute cancellation of Jim Allen’s Royal Court play Perdition in 1987 – a furore over the exposure of Zionism during the Second World War in Hungary that seems very contemporary today. Loach was reduced to making commercials to avoid financial disaster – something which still makes him feel ashamed. The fourth section plots the ‘renewal’ following a Cannes prize for Hidden Agenda. Throughout the film Ken responds carefully, guardedly perhaps with lots of self-deprecation, but also occasionally with the steely determination mentioned by both Garnett and Byrne.
The narrative structure is intended to serve the film’s title – to present the Ken Loach who is loved (by the left) and loathed (by the right). But this is very simplistic and demeaning. Loach is also treated with condescension by many of the so-called ‘liberal élite’ in the UK. His films are seen by this group to be all the same, without any real analysis. There is an indication of this in Liz Forgan’s explanation of why Channel 4 refused to broadcast Ken’s 1980s series on Questions of Leadership on the grounds that they all argued that trade union leaders had betrayed their members. I think it is a weakness of the documentary to not explore Ken’s politics and the different politics of his films across the years. My own question to Ken would be why he has always set his films in one of London, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Strathclyde or Ireland. Why not the Midlands? Why not Nuneaton or Oxford which he would know from his own experience (since this is part of why he casts actors and recruits writers)? I’d also ask why there are relatively few non-white characters in most of the films and only one film (Ae Fond Kiss) specifically about a migrant family? (I’m not arguing that he should make a film about any particular set of characters – only that it is an interesting question to ask.)
The technical problem with the film is now a common-place – and already identified as a problem with Loach’s own Spirit of ’45. All of Loach’s early TV work was shot 4:3 on video or 1.37:1 on 16mm film. Even a feature like Kes was shot for 1.66:1 projection. Yet in Versus all this early material is either cropped or squeezed to fit a 1.85:1 ratio (in fact it might even be 2.35:1 Not only this but the archive footage seems to have come from someone’s old VHS collection and it looks dreadful. Even the extracts from some of the later films look like poor copies. I’m worried that younger audiences will look at these downgraded images and fail to appreciate not just Ken’s direction but the great cinematography of collaborators like Chris Menges and Barry Ackroyd. Menges is interviewed in the film but not Ackroyd – who helped establish the Loach style of social realism in the 1990s (as against the more naturalistic style of Menges’ work on Kes). The film does attempt to explore Loach’s work with actors and it does mention the Czech New Wave (to underpin Menges’ comments) but there is much more to the development of Loach’s approach than that one film movement. Some explanation of neo-realism and possibly some discussion of Robbie Ryan’s current work for Loach would help to dispel the view that Ken’s importance in British Cinema is just down to the subject matter of his films. There is a brief discussion of ‘Ken at Cannes’, but it would have been good to hear from some of his many European supporters why they are so passionate in support of his films.
My other moan is about what is becoming a modern documentary convention for ‘bio-docs’ – the shot of a location for no real reason except to break up the talking heads. Here we get shots of Blackpool Central Promenade because the Loach family went there for their annual one week holiday when Loach was a child – and because Thatcher made speeches there at the Tory Conference. Similarly we get aerial shots of Oxford, again from not very good footage.
Versus seems to me to be a rushed project made on a low budget that struggles to do full justice to its subject. I realise that documentarists have to select carefully and they can’t include everything, but in this film the choices could be better. I assume that they were made because of constraints. I do applaud the ‘pay what you can’ screenings that helped launch the film in cinemas and it’s true that the technical limitations of the image might be less visible on smaller screens, so I hope it does find some new audiences for Ken Loach’s work who will want to explore the films in more detail.
Here’s a clip from the film – one of the best parts in which Tony Garnett recalls first meeting Ken (note the cropped footage at the end):