David Cassidy: The Last Session (2018)

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I like to think I control a lot of my destiny. So what really happened to teen idol and TV star David Cassidy? Why did he die of kidney failure at the age of 67 following a public admission of dementia? His Partridge Family co-star Danny Bonaduce asks, How did dementia cause organ failure?  This is a distressing fly-on-the-wall documentary about what transpired to be the icon’s last weeks when he invited a documentary crew to film him recording an EP of songs his father taught him. He is in pain, ill, hoarse, suffering from sporadic short-term memory loss and in need of assistance walking.  There are audio inserts of a previously unheard interview from 1976 when Cassidy discusses his ambivalence towards his unprecedented celebrity which took a nosedive when the teen idol years ended. He stopped performing his massive sellout concerts around the world when fans were injured and one died. He struggled to be taken seriously as a musician and songwriter thereafter and a Rolling Stone cover story (The Naked Lunchbox) with explicit photographs backfired spectacularly. The woman journalist who wrote it makes evident her total contempt for Cassidy. He couldn’t get into NYC’s Hippopotamus nightclub one night, the following night he played a sold out Madison Square Garden. But he wasn’t cool! The editor of Tiger Beat explains how the magazine created the feverish culture of stardom for a generation and how manufactured the entire era was. The owner, Chuck Lawford, sensed the potential of a teen idol era and its financial possibilities. The stars had no say in the publicity machine manufactured in their image. Cassidy made the cover of every issue. Friend Alice Cooper is an especially sympathetic interviewee. It’s clear that Cassidy’s  relationship with his father, the actor and singer and consummate showman, Jack, was a rivalry – unintended on the son’s part. The session is dominated by his attempt to sing Wish You Were Here – the theme song of the first Broadway production he saw his father perform: David was just three and half years old and it made him want to emulate Cassidy. His father was on the road so much that David didn’t know for a decade that his parents were divorced and Jack had married Shirley Jones, who had three sons by him. Dad, I miss you, he weeps when the song is played back and his own voice is failing. In 1970 when David was starting out as an actor and a Broadway show he was in shut down, he travelled to Los Angeles and auditioned for The Partridge Family – where he was immediately cast and Shirley Jones would play his mother. The Freudian resonances are astonishing. His father wound up interviewing the heartthrob on Merv Griffin and his resentment of his son was clear. David’s musical and singing talents were only revealed to the TV show’s producers when a lip-syncing session stopped and Cassidy took up a guitar and played like Hendrix. He could play and sing and they didn’t need session players to substitute for him. The path to recording was set. His singles and the Partridge Family records were smash hits. Kim Carnes recalls opening for him on his first tour:  He walks out and it’s thunderous at that point. He was selling out football stadiums. Tens of thousands of girls were in hysterics. As Cassidy listens back to his father’s recording of the song that haunts him, he throws his head back and marvels at his father’s talent:  someone tries to persuade him that his own stardom could never have happened without musicianship but he’s scarcely impressed by his own success. Danny Bonaduce talks of David’s beauty, his haircut, the pookah shell necklace, the kindness – he reached out to Bonaduce and got him to clean up his act but he wasn’t taking care of himself. Jack Cassidy died aged 49 in 1976, burning to death in his apartment from a lit cigarette. He had been a heavy drinker, with his son stating he had once seen him knock back 15 Scotch and sodas. Late in the film, David admits that he is not suffering from dementia at all but the effects of long-term alcoholism. His friend Sam Hyman talks of how Cassidy always sought his father’s approval and it dominated his life, even at the height of his career. What his father understood – and his son apparently did not – was that fame would end. He, however, had never reached his son’s stratospheric levels of celebrity – as Bonaduce reminds us, David Cassidy’s fanclub at its height was bigger than Elvis’ and the Beatles’ combined. The Rolling Stones did five nights at Wembley;  he did six. Still, he was not respected. Cassidy had a kind of fame that was utterly different to anyone else’s – plus, he was a very young guy on his own. He didn’t know about the mechanics of the media powerhouses that had made him. What isn’t discussed is how much money the producers of The Partridge Family made from marketing his image on everything you can imagine and how very little he earned from being the most exploited man on the planet. He became ill during the production of this record and was taken to hospital. The film concludes after his death when the musicians gather again to record the harmony over his vocals:  the EP was released earlier this year. Candid, heartbreaking and honest, this is a haunting piece of work with some extraordinary video footage of concerts and behind the scenes that feels immediate, like it’s happening right now. What a tragic beauty he was.  Made by Left/Right Productions. He was America’s sweetheart for quite a long time there

David Cassidy Rolling Stone Naked Lunchbox cover

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What is Cinema? (2013)

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If you get into that world it can be like a dream. Amid thrilling montages of films past and present, drama and documentary, art house and blockbuster, the titular question is addressed and regularly answered:  archive interviews and contemporary pieces to camera with auteurs are interspersed with ideas about audiences and materiality, while intertitles are dotted with aphorisms and quotes from directors and, appropriately, theorist André Bazin, whose collections of essays give rise to the name. There are clips of everything from Zorns Lemma to Vertigo, Ritual in Transfigured Time to Lord of the Rings, The Cremaster Cycle to The Long Goodbye. Choreographer and feminist filmmaker Yvonne Rainer describes butting my head against the wall, against familiar patterns and says of exhibiting her work, I go to some of my screenings and the reason to stay is to see when people will leave.  Critic and director Jack Waters talks about cinema’s functions in relation to passivity and control, everything the camera records being documentation. Robert Altman insists nobody should be able to articulate precisely what his films are about; while Akira Kurosawa declares, A truly good movie is interesting and easy to understand. David Lynch. Alfred Hitchcock. Chantal Akerman. Costa-Gavras.  Ken Jacobs. Michael Moore. Jonas Mekas. Bill Viola. Robert Bresson. They are all here, and more besides.  A wonderful, compelling documentary that takes in the totality of the filmic medium from the actualités of the nineteenth century to the vines of today. Written and directed by Chuck Workman.