Zelig (1983)


All the themes of our culture were there. In this fictional documentary set during the 1920s and 1930s a non-descript American called Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen) achieves notoriety for his ability to look, act and sound like anyone he meets. He ingratiates himself with everyone from the lower echelons of society to F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Pope becoming famous as The Changing Man. Even Hollywood comes calling and makes a film about him. His chameleon-like skill catches the eye of Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow), a psychiatrist who thinks Zelig is in need of serious cognitive analysis as someone who goes to extremes to make himself fit into society. Their relationship moves in a direction that’s not often covered in medical textbooks as she hypnotises him I’m certain it’s something he picked up from eating Mexican food. A formally and technically brilliant and absolutely hilarious spoof documentary that integrates real and manipulated newsreel footage with faked home movies, a film within a film, period photographs of the leads and interviews with contemporary personalities, real and imagined, from Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow to ‘Eudora Fletcher’ (Ellen Garrison) in the present day. Even Bruno Bettelheim shows up to declare the subject the ultimate conformist. The sequence on the anti-semitism Zelig experiences as a child (his parents sided with the anti-semites, narrator Patrick Horgan informs us mournfully) is laugh out loud funny. Of course it has a payoff – in Nazi Germany. The editing alone is breathtaking, there is not a false moment and the music is superlative, forming a backdrop and a commentary as well as instilling in the audience a realistic feel for the time in which this is set. There are moments where you will not believe your eyes as Allen transforms into everyone he meets – regardless of race, shape or colour. An original and funny mockumentary that’s actually about the world we live in, an extreme response to childhood bullying and what we do to make ourselves fit in and where that could lead. You just told the truth and it sold papers – it never happened before!


This is Spinal Tap (1984)

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The original semi-improvised spoof rock documentary made by some hellishly talented people including Rob Reiner playing a version of Martin Scorsese on the trail of a metal/prog band who sing songs not awfully unlike … a lot of bad 70s bands (but not The Band). There are some funny things here and it’s a movie I recall with fondness … but it’s never as good as you hope and most of the jokes are verbal (including the running gag about the terrible deaths of their drummers:  do you remember all of  them?!) although the best are situational. So many rockers related to this it was more on the money than most would care to admit. Aerosmith had just brought out an album with Stonehenge on the cover! The trouble is, it’s so realistic because most bands really are that thick. Aren’t they? They say:  it’s a fine line between stupid and clever. We say: not so much… The true story of Anvil is actually tragicomic by comparison while the sight of James Hetfield on a bear hunt in the Metallica film Some Kind of Monster is tragic, full stop.