Whitney: Can I Be Me (2017)

Whitney Can I Be Me

She died from a broken heart.  Nick Broomfield’s signature appearances in his documentary films are the stuff of comedy – headphones half off, boom in hand, chasing his subjects and trying to weasel information from them so that you wind up feeling sorry for all of them, even the serial killers. That doesn’t happen here, more’s the pity. This archive documentary about Whitney Houston co-directed with Rudi Dolezal is of a different variety, but continuing in the vein of Kurt and Courtney, another devastating portrait of a heinous showbiz marriage and possible murder [allegedly].  This was constrained by the inevitable limits on music usage and archives. Houston was from the hood but the daughter of gospel singer (Cissy) and businessman (John) who would become her eventual managers. Her brothers supplied her with drugs from a very young age (pre-teen) and she stole her mother’s moves and the career her mother felt should have been hers. Early footage shows her singing in her mom’s church aged 12. By the time she was 19 she was found by music supremo Clive Davis and taken on by Arista and appearing on TV: she looks so innocent but she was far from it. She sold an incredible number of records – records that were never too black, because if they were, they were redone. When she appears at the 1989 Soul Train Awards it’s a watershed moment – a cataclysmic devastation in her life because she was booed for being too white and she met Bobby Brown. She’d had a woman in her life since they met back in East Orange, Robyn Crawford, and it was known they were in a relationship. Crawford travelled with her as her personal assistant (I met someone who was PA on one of her music videos and he claimed he had to literally pull Houston off Crawford in her trailer to get her to set.) The newspapers were sniffing around. Houston was into hard drugs, Brown was into liquor. When they got together, they both got into – both, with the tragic outcome that forms the undertow to this sordid story. Interviews with backing singers, band members and a former security director make it clear (eventually) that Brown gave her street cred, she gave him … money and opportunity. He dragged her down to his level, as one quip has it. He preyed on her insecurities and lack of self-esteem (she wore wigs and weaves because her hair wouldn’t grow) and was sleeping with every woman he could. She struggled with wanting to make music that was more authentically black in a business that was trying to do crossover. These interviews are by far the film’s most satisfying sequences. After The Bodyguard came out she could no longer shop at the mall:  she was a superstar and people just stared at her all the time. By the time she made Waiting to Exhale she OD’d. Crawford was stuck between the co-dependent couple and a daughter entered the picture. Remarks are made about the awful family and the pressures of paying a huge entourage – she herself is interviewed in various stages of her career (and addiction) and comments about always having to be the ballerina on the stage. Her musical director (and drummer) talks about watching her every night, seeing her back expand as she would reach those incredible notes and likening her to a boxer. By 1999, when Whitney did her final tour, Crawford was apparently forced out because the difficulties between her and Brown had become overwhelming. It is the second tentpole disaster in this narrative. Whitney then became more drug-dependent. It’s a pity that Broomfield wasn’t (presumbly for legal reasons) able to step into some of these interviews more. An interview with Burt Bacharach (who worked with her cousin Dionne Warwick) makes it clear why she was somewhat notoriously thrown off a proposed live TV broadcast – missing cues, singing the wrong songs…  When she did a Michael Jackson tribute she was horrifically emaciated. Brown’s sister was (if you believe anything in those National Enquirer stories of yore…) fully participatory in those drug binges – principally crack cocaine – but she just talks about how fun it was living with Whitney and Bobby and there’s bizarre home movie footage of them re-enacting Ike and Tina Turner in a take on What’s Love Got to Do With It. It is known but not said directly that their small daughter witnessed them and then became a junkie herself. They were living in Atlanta, well away from Cissy, whose pernicious shadow hangs over this film.  Houston’s father sued her for $100 million when he was 81 and dying and Whitney was on the TV interview circuit trying to (literally) cover her tracks. An interview by Oprah Winfrey with Cissy Houston upon the publication of her memoir makes it clear that her daughter’s drug addiction was one issue (she saw her ‘really high’ back in the late 80s) but her Lesbianism (or bisexuality) was a bridge too far:  another commentator generalises and says female homosexuality is absolutely not discussed in the black community. And yet another says, If Robyn had been accepted, everything would have been different. This begins and ends with Whitney Houston’s awful death on the eve of the Grammys right before Clive Davis’ annual party, in February 2012. This is a sad, shocking, disturbing and sometimes nuanced piece of work but never surprising.  The 1999 tour footage is overused by dint of necessity. The interviews with the couple together, invariably monopolised by Brown, are blood curdling. But in a sense we’ve seen it all before, particularly with Amy. It conforms to a terrible pattern of makeover, overwork and addiction that characterises the careers of great performers whose narrow worlds are run by money-grubbing charlatans and hangers-on and leeches. The film is called Can I Be Me because that was Whitney Houston’s favourite of her songs and what she always wanted to be and nobody would allow it. A modern tragedy.

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OJ: Made in America (2016)

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The white Bronco live TV chase on LA’s freeway. The wall-to-wall coverage of the trial. Mark Fuhrman. The glove. Poor Dennis Fung! I watched it all. Who didn’t?! Golly, when The People Vs OJ Simpson:  An American Crime Story was broadcast last year I thought I’d never make it through and yet it was a stunningly told tale which gripped me the same way the sorry saga itself did more than twenty years ago. So it was with a heavy heart I approached this (admittedly Oscar-winning) seven and a half hour long trawl through exactly the same territory again, with added archive. Half the time I was disappointed not to see Cuba Gooding Jr, John Travolta (wasn’t he great?!) and Connie Britton showing up – so much of this tale of celebrity is now confused in my bear-like brain. And it starts with what appears to be an excuse for bad behaviour by a lot of people – the sudden migration of blacks into Los Angeles, a 600% increase in their numbers which drove the LAPD crazy and some of them became violent. The riots in the 60s. The ethnic issues not just between black and white but black and Asian. Into this maelstrom of social division arrives the college football player from San Francisco whom everyone loves – an amazing running back who became a key figure in the advertising trade and whose race mattered to nobody:  he looked incredible and parlayed his fame into TV commentating and acting (I first heard of him when I saw Capricorn One). Talking heads who were part of the OJ story relate their own roles – friends from his days in USC, policemen who arrested him, footage of Daryl Gates, the friend accompanying him to visit his gay drag queen dad who would die of AIDS,  the meeting with Nicole Brown, a beautiful blonde 18 year old waitress at The Daisy whom OJ immediately said he would marry:  except he was already married to a black woman who had had his children. And he – or someone – ended up severing her head from her body outside her house where an unfortunate waiter was returning her mother’s spectacles. As one sad friend says, their relationship was a reversal of slavery – he owned her. And her family, who she said would side with him if she left because he was funding their lifestyles through his generosity – her father had a Hertz dealership and her sisters similarly benefited. The regular reports of domestic violence and the photographs of her injuries then remind us of what this is really about. The friend of many years who abandons him during the crisis after OJ says he got his finger injury three different ways. How OJ became a crucible for the issues of race, celebrity, sport, policing, justice, the law and violence is told in a grindingly tough and inexorable fashion which turns out to have a sorry logic and inevitability. As for the procession  of police cars that accompanied him on his supposed suicide mission:  “If OJ had been black that shit wouldn’t have happened,” grins a transsexual helicopter cameraman who followed it all from on high:  “OJ transcended race to celebrity.” And we duly see other heli-footage of a black man being beaten after a car chase. While all this was going on the police who were at his home watched in astonishment as his family ate from a sandwich buffet as though nothing odd were afoot. And when a policeman brought OJ in cuffs in a car through the crowds screaming Free OJ, the Xanaxed one said to him, “What are all these niggers doing in Brentwood?” The bizarre nature of the entire story seems encapsulated when Lyle Menendez walks past, imprisoned in the same correctional facility. The lining up of the downtown jury who were black and hated Marcia Clark and white people. The behaviour of Johnnie Cochran who made it a black-white thang not a double homicide charge in the wake of Rodney King and the ensuing riots, and the result, the gobsmacking shock and the resonance that lasts until today. This is a tough watch and it is worth it in the end but it’s a sad indictment amidst a litany of purported sociological causes and indicative of all those claims now finally being understood that the races simply cannot live together – read Robert Putnam’s long-suppressed report (by the Democrats) about race in the US or David Goodhart on the failure to redistribute wealth fairly in multi-racial societies. This is a very awkward film with several conflicts at its centre. At the end of the day a woman was murdered and her wealthy, famous sports star husband was not convicted of the crime. Terrible, compelling and all too unfortunately true. A film by Ezra Edelman.

Jonathan Demme 02/22/44-04/26/17

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Multi-talented director Jonathan Demme has died. He got his start with Roger Corman and debuted with a biker movie and naturally graduated to women in prison flicks before entering mainstream Hollywood and making his name with some fine films starring terrific women like Goldie Hawn and Melanie Griffith.  His first critically acclaimed movie was however the wonderful Bo Goldman screenplay Melvin and Howard, one of the best of the Seventies with an unforgettable performance by Jason Robards as Howard Hughes and beautifully shot by longtime collaborator Tak Fujimoto. He made some wonderful documentaries particularly the landmark music film Stop Making Sense with Talking Heads:  who can forget David Byrne on stage in that enormously boxy suit? But his name will be forever associated with a shocking adaptation that is one of that tiny number of films to win the Big 5 at the Academy Awards – The Silence of the Lambs won for Actor, Actress, Picture, Adapted Screenplay and Director. He may have made some missteps and unnecessary remakes but humour, humanity and compassion shone from his work. Demme will be missed.

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (2011)

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Highly entertaining documentary about the exploitation/trash maestro who had ambitions way beyond his pay grade.  We hear from a variety of his alumni and the man himself, his brother Gene (another producer), his wife (and fellow producer) Julie and former assistant Frances Doel, among many others, about how the engineer who got screwed over money on the movie The Gunfighter decided to put on a show himself and debuted with The Monster From the Ocean Floor. By the time he made The Wild Angels he was directing his 100th movie which is stunning. He meant the world to Jack Nicholson who made his debut with The Cry Baby Killer – and then didn’t work again for a year! Nicholson describes Corman as his ‘lifeblood’ and bursts into tears. Corman kept him in work and gave him writing and acting jobs for a decade before he made his breakthrough with Easy Rider – which wouldn’t have happened without The Trip, which Nicholson wrote and it starred Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper: AIP wouldn’t make Easy Rider with Hopper and it went on to make history – as well as pots of money (as it were…) There are great clips of all the era’s material but the best storytelling comes from William Shatner recalling the personal jeopardy the Cormans experienced during the making of The Intruder, that fierce discourse on integration. The seventies stuff –  crazy funny movies like Hollywood Boulevard and Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is interspersed with really good interviews with Allan Arkush and Joe Dante and we learn about Corman’s own personal viewing tastes, choosing to distribute great films by European auteurs through his own company. The big studios took his formula and made multi-million dollar versions of Fifties exploitation content that made his name so he moved more fully into straight to video. There is no mention of the studio he set up in Ireland in the Nineties – presumably on grounds of taste.  Nor of his big studio movie from 1993, Frankenstein Unbound, his last directorial outing. Personally I’d like to have seen Monte Hellman speak about their collaborations but instead we get Paul WS Anderson and Eli Roth. That’s showbiz! Directed by Alex Stapleton.

 

High-Rise (2016)

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How do you adapt and replicate JG Ballard’s dyspeptic dystopian worldview when it’s so site- and time-specific? Screenwriter Amy Jump took his 1975 novel, a cautionary tale of the collective unconscious in a tower block for posh people, and left it there – in 1975, when the shock of the future was immanent.  Sick building syndrome wasn’t a thing then but anyone who’s ever lived in an apartment knows how much further consensus must reach in order not to descend quickly into chaos with fellow inhabitants – overflowing dustbins, thin walls, the smell of cooking, that neighbour who conducts noisy sex sesssions on their balcony, the drug dealer who calls the wrong door number at six in the morning with the come-down heroin for speeders. Yes, we’ve all sadly been there. Here the sickness is apparently part of the deep-seated anti-social need for anarchy rooted in the perfect design of the building itself, whose architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) lives on the top floor, apparently dictating things not so benignly, his wife riding around on a horse like a latterday Marie Antoinette. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is the physiologist (specialty:  peeling faces from skulls) who moves in and his neighbour documentary maker Wilder (Luke Evans) unravels and seems to contaminate everyone else. Laing has guilt about his treatment of a colleague (he jumps off the building, no diving board required) and the non-stop erotic parties turn into something mad and dark and murderous.  The descent into atavism is slick and fast and people are screwing each other, torturing rivals and giving into all sorts of debased derangement. There are so many cars in the huge carpark nobody can find their own. The trash isn’t collected. The electricity’s off. There are bodies in the swimming pool. We go back to where we entered this horror story,  eating a dog on the balcony. The names have a lot of meaning – Laing clearly harkens to that scourge of psychiatric voodoo RD Laing, Wilder says it all (this is a battle between id and superego) and Royal is the out of touch monarch whose plans for society are rampantly expunged as people become convinced that the higher the floor the happier they’ll be.  The plebs are closing in. A design for life. Capitalism rocks! Un film de Ben Wheatley.

The First Film (2015)

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David Wilkinson’s film probes the idea that the first film was made by Frenchman Louis Le Prince in Leeds – before Edison or the Lumiere brothers,  in 1888. The first half of the film looks at the evidence, the technology and the patent issues (Le Prince’s cameras were recognised in the US and the UK on the same day – probably coincidentally). A wide-ranging set of guests (including a rather baffled Joe Eszterhas) talk to Wilkinson, whose hipster enthusiasm guides us through his decades-long search for the truth and we are taught a great deal about the machinery, the pictorial aspects and the artistic scene in Leeds, tracing Le Prince’s origins back to Metz and Dijon. The second half of the film is about his mysterious death before the planned trip to the US where his film was due to be shown in a salon in NYC. He had returned to France to meet with his architect brother over a disputed inheritance from their mother and was allegedly last seen by same boarding a train 16 September 1890. He was never seen again. This mystery adds piquancy to a fascinating tale which lacks a certain dynamism but is more than a footnote in film history, with a pleasing conclusion using one of Le Prince’s own designs to reproduce the short film in question. A passion project.

The First Monday in May (2016)

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Andrew Rossi’s documentary about the Met Gala launch of curator Andrew Bolton’s 2015 China:  Through the Looking Glass exhibition is surprisingly engaging. Tracing the connections between fashion and art, East and West, in sometimes discursive, occasionally politically confrontational situations, the strands that come together at the eleventh hour make for fascinating viewing: the influences include pre-1949 China (Bolton’s idea for a Mao hall is politely put down), Anna May Wong, traditional chinoiserie and the Dragon Lady trope that was used in Hollywood cinema as a version of the femme fatale. Cliches for the eventually dazzling display abound before being thrown out and reconfigured by Wong Kar-Wai, whose In the Mood for Love is a key concept in its foregrounding of the cheongsam, and Baz Luhrmann, who urges a rethink of the dragon heads at the entry to the building in an amusing encounter. The two-year project is painstakingly put together and two weeks before it’s due to open it’s eight days behind and the day before they’re still struggling to get the lights working. Andre Leon Talley describes the Gala as the Superbowl of social fashion and greets Rihanna as queen of the night in her astonishing gown. Sadly for the bemused crowd the Barbadian harpie then performs some dreadful rap dirge, an appalling post-prandial conclusion to what looked like a great melding of different cultural worlds and one that exposes Anna ‘Nuclear’ Wintour as less dragon lady than lollipop lady, practically sniggering with gratitude about her caricature in The Devil Wears Prada which of course made her a household name and not just in those that take Vogue every month. The expo proved hugely successful and it’s interesting to see the array of insightful interviewees includes a chastened John Galliano in a documentary that is highly sensitive about the fate of gifted designers and their patrons, starting with a description of the importance of the late great Alexander McQueen and TV coverage of his sad death. A fine, respectful piece of work.

Crash and Burn (2016)

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Irishman Tommy Byrne is a legend in the motor racing world – the extravagantly talented driver who screwed around, screwed up and threw it all away, is how the story goes. He raced in F3, pissed off a lot of people like Van Diemen teammate Ayrton Senna, himself the subject of an even more ultimately tragic film, and aroused the ire of rivals like Keke Rosberg who used to hit him on the head in passing and whom Byrne openly calls ‘a dick.’ He got to drive for F1’s McLaren team at a time when they had the best car going but his attitude annoyed Ron Dennis. His lifestyle had a major question mark over it, with no money to pay his way into the sport, he took forms of sponsorship which led to his socialising in extremely dodgy company. His car was switched and he lost his drive, in every sense of the term. Instead of hanging around in Europe as Eddie Jordan suggests he should have done, he decamped to the US where he was top driver in his class and seconds away from seizing the 1989 triple crown and getting a free ride into IndyCars, another driver crashed into him and his dream was over: he lost the $80,000 winnings and his marriage hit the skids. He went to Mexico where he consorted with more gangsters, did drugs and whores and messed up all over as he drove his career into the ground. His sponsor was found dead in a swimming pool. Byrne spent a long time drinking, smoking weed and collecting ferns for a living while living in a trailer. It took years for him to get back in the driving world where he works training young up and coming champions. He could have been a contender. He should have been winning in F1. But he’s alive to tell the tale.  His current wife says she believes the sadness is still with him. Produced by David Burke and directed by Sean O’Cualain, this is just an amazing story, compellingly told, with a cast of interviewees known to every petrolhead and there’s the charismatic Byrne himself in the middle of the action, supplying VHS archives of the glory days.

Notes on Blindness (2016)

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Hemingway wrote that people go bankrupt gradually then suddenly. Turns out people go blind the same way. I know a few blind people and they are distinguished by their stentorian, commanding, aggressive voices and compulsive need to dominate a conversation and be the centre of attention. Perhaps they are trained to this level of domination in the only way possible for them. The voice of former Birmingham University religion professor John Hull is different – quiet, considered, soft. Australian.  For it is his recorded diaries that form the voiceover narration and re-enacted conversations here, in the bodies but not the voices (they are lipsyncing) of actors  Dan Renton Skinner and Simone Kirby. Hull lost his sight in 1983 just before his son was born. His illness was progressive and there are very unpleasant close ups of bloody eyeballs and some quite surreal patterns of blood to illustrate the effects on him psychologically as the visuals attempt to provide a correlative to his dimmed experiences, including losing the gallery of images of his family. He never regained a visual memory of Marilyn, his wife. His acceptance of his fate and his wife’s incredibly pragmatic approach to the situation are laid bare by descriptions of the lack of facilities for the visually impaired – to his astonishment, the only audiobooks available at that time were romance and detective fiction. He assembled an army of people to record serious books in order for him to carry out his work. His project was to keep working as an academic despite the dying of the light. The sad irony of the subject’s final question – not why he had been given this gift, rather what he should do with it – is compounded by the filmmakers’ (James Spinney and Peter Middleton) odd decision to add some written information in dark grey on a white background so tiny as to render it unreadable. Now I sort of know how Hull felt. He died in 2015. They also serve who only stand and tape.

Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (2016)

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This documentary by Fisher Stevens and Alexis Bloom only gained further poignancy with the literally unbelievable deaths of the film’s beloved mother-daughter movie star protagonists within 24 hours of each other in December. A combination of interviews, filmed sequences of their everyday interactions with each other and family and friends, public appearances, awards ceremonies, archive inserts and movie excerpts illustrates a fragile period in Reynolds’ life and Fisher’s own attempts to deal with it as her next-door neighbour and devoted daughter. Fisher’s searing and humorous honesty about mental issues that first surfaced when she was 13 and were probably grossly exacerbated by drug use still has the power to disturb. Funny, sad, vastly entertaining, this has nonetheless a chalky undertaste of past dysfunction, marital abuse and a blackly comic worldview. That’s showbiz! Fantastic.