Tag Archives: documentaries

The Black Godfather

Clarence Avant: he’s the brilliant mind, the visionary who brought people together in exactly the right way for decades. Never famous himself, he knew everyone. Everyone everyone. And was respected by everyone. He was the rainmaker, as they say, in TV, music, movies, business, and politics. He was a mentor to nearly anyone who’s anyone – particularly in the black community. So how is it I don’t even know his name?

Avant is the kind of man who understands that his power lies behind the scenes, but believe me, he is not without recognition. He doesn’t just have a finger in all the pies, he’s baking and selling all the pies. But he’s so humble he can’t even bear to acknowledge the nickname that grateful thousands have bestowed upon him: The Godfather. He’s so humble he never even went looking for half the jobs he ended up with, it’s just that those around him couldn’t help but be impressed by his talent and were smart enough to move Clarence where he could do the most good. Because at his core, he’s a good and decent man. Imagine having all those connections, all that respect and power and influence, and it never going to your head. Well THAT’s what makes Clarence Clarence.

Quincy Jones describes their relationship as “love at first sight” and my favourite thing about this documentary is that rather than just talking-head interviews, these two greats are in a room together, Avant hanging his head as Jones confesses their youthful indulgences. It’s glorious insight. Interviews with his family go similarly, swimmingly. It’s wonderfully intimate, engaging, and fun to watch.

He may have often been the only black man in the room, but he always belonged. And this was at the height of Jim Crow bullshit. And he puts his client, Jim Brown, in one of the first interracial love scenes (with Raquel Welch in 100 Rifles, 1969). He didn’t march in the streets but he lifted up his people.

The documentary consults many stars: Cicely Tyson, Hank Aaron, Bill Withers, Bill Clinton, David Geffen, Snoop Dogg, Lalo Schifrin, Jim Brown, Jamie Foxx, Barack Obama – but to hear them tell it, they may be the stars, but Clarence Avant is their sun.


Chasing Happiness

I missed the Jonas Brothers Happening. I mean, I wasn’t exactly living under a rock, but I was disconnected from pop music. I was going through a rough divorce from a partner whose mental health was on the rocks. I was rebuilding my life from scratch, working hard to finance my fresh start. I was exhausted and exhilarated and my playlist was full of power anthems, a kick-ass score for my happy new life. I remember being in a movie theatre and the trivia before the movie had me guessing between a Jonas and a Bieber, and I was clueless. Although I knew of them, I hadn’t knowingly consumed either – though I knew I’d likely heard their songs in malls or cabs if not clubs – and couldn’t name a song, or a brother. And then just as I was sticking my head up above the sand, the brothers were no more. Well, bands dissolve more readily than blood, but Jonas Brothers was over, and soon enough each Jonas was hitting the radio individually, which made it marginally easier to keep track of them.

Chasing Happiness is streaming now on Amazon Prime; it’s about Jonas Brothers reforming as a band now that they’re adults. A lot of shit went down, which they are surprisingly candid about. I’m obviously not a fan, but their transparency and realness are readily apparent and it’s hard not to get sucked into their particular brand of rags to riches.

They were close growing up, and they were competitive too. Like any brothers anywhere. Or indeed sisters. My sisters and I get super competitive if we’re playing a board game or competing for Mom’s attention, but I guess we’re not talented enough to have Jonas-level game. We’re not even good at the same things. But those brothers are disgustingly talented; any one of them can sing 9 out of 10 top 40 artists right off the billboard any day of the week. And they’re for real: they play real instruments, they write their own songs. Even as kids they were writing their own songs. Fifteen year olds are pretty shitty song writers, but they were so earnest and industrious it’s hard not to admire them anyway.

Few people have experienced such meteoric fame, let alone so quickly, and at such a young age. It’s three literal dreams come true, but enormous pressure too. Their father was a pastor, and he lost his job when his sons chose rock and roll (trying hard not to snigger when I write that), and the family home too. So now these teenage boys are the bread winners for their family. Meanwhile the machine just keeps getting bigger and bigger until it feels unmanageable.

Anyway, even having no idea who these guys really are, I still really enjoy sitting in on their family therapy sessions. Their Christianity and sexuality were on constant display despite them being minors. The media scrutiny sometimes made them into a joke, and their seminal years were tainted sometimes by fear and paranoia. There are cracks in Jonas Brothers, and one of the brothers plugs the crack with a stick of dynamite and lights it up.

Kaboom. Other bands can implode and go their own ways. But these boys are actual family. It’s sad and fascinating and honest. Man. I felt their pain. There’s resentment and betrayal and heartbreak there. Still is. It’s intense. But I really admire their willingness to lay themselves bare. I’m fairly confident that no one reading this has walked in shoes like theirs. But anyone with siblings will relate to this. We’ve all felt that knife. I’ve felt that knife. And anyone whose life changed after kids will relate to this. Anyone who’s grown apart from a best friend will relate to this. Maybe just anyone with a pulse will relate to this. I’ve gone and surprised myself by giving a damn about the Jonas Bros. I think I’m actually recommending this guys. Colour me surprised.

John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky

John Lennon died before I was born, but that hardly means he’s failed to have an impact on my life. He casts such a long cultural shadow, his musical catalogue has such depth, and his ideas and philosophies linger still, in even the simplest line drawing of his face.

John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky focuses on the 1971 recording of his album, Imagine, at Tittenhurst park, where he and his family had retreated from his swollen, frantic lifestyle as the world’s most recognizable pop star. Imagine stands apart from the work he did with The Beatles, and is in fact very much a collaboration with his wife, Yoko, and the ideas she tested out in her written work – especially 1964’s Grapefruit.

MV5BMzM1OTRhNzctOTRkNC00YjU4LTg1ZTYtOGVhMzZiMDA3Yzk2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDYxOTY1Njg@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,827,1000_AL_The documentary is replete with never before seen footage and home video. It shows John and Yoko in repose, at play, at work, the midst of inspiration. Lots of session musicians and music journalists are interviewed – director Michael Epstein has literally sought out every and any person who was in or around the Tittenhurst recording studio at that time, including Yoko Ono herself, and son Julian.

Imagine surpasses musical status and has become a cultural touchstone. John & Yoko brings the album back to earth, back to its humble beginnings as bits and pieces inside John’s head. We see the songs mature from ideas to sometimes orchestral pieces, the musicians alive with an excited motivation they’ve probably never reproduced. Still, my favourite moments of this documentary are the domestic ones. It’s thinking about little Julian, who gets to crawl around a legendary recording studio but is bored out of his gourd listening to the same song over and over again. To him it’s just dad’s work. I also really loved watching John record a dis track against Paul – with George! Of course we didn’t know to call them dis tracks yet in 1971, but that’s exactly what it was, and it’s a delicious part of history, and John himself addresses the tension between himself and fellow Beatle Paul McCartney. They were brothers to the end, I think, often fighting because they were simply too close.

This documentary has lots of juicy little moments, literally something for every fan. But it’s also a tribute not just to John and Yoko’s love story, but to their partnership, their meeting of the minds. Because it’s clear that John is not just infatuated – he admires and respects her. She clearly influences his thinking, solidifies his philosophies. They’re changing each other at a cellular level and you can almost see it happening. John & Yoko is definitely worth a watch as it breathes new life into an album that’s hard to picture the world without.

Knock Down The House

In 2018, there was a big grassroots push to get some fresh blood into the U.S. Congress, where old, rich, white men have ruled things for far too long. That’s not a partisan problem, that’s across the board.

Knock Down The House is about the non-career-politicans who were brave enough to go MV5BZmY4NTdmZGEtYjkwNC00MTkwLTliNDQtNzBhZTJmZTg2Y2E3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyOTU5NTk5Mzc@._V1_up against the old guard – women, and people of colour. These are working class people, daughters of coal miners, waitresses, descendants of immigrants and slaves. True Americans who want to see true change. And perhaps most importantly, they are not taking money from lobby groups. They are ordinary people who want to represent ordinary people. But without funds, or name recognition, that’s not just an uphill battle, that’s practically an Everest-sized challenge.

What’s easy to admire about this documentary is that it challenges not a particular party, but the status quo. It confronts voter apathy and cynicism and is a literal breath of fresh air.

In the¬† spotlight: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Paula Jean Swearengin, Amy Vilela. Not everyone can win, but the truth is, we all win just because they tried. Because hundreds will have to try for a couple to get through. Because even if it doesn’t topple over the kingpins, it makes them scared, and just a little more accountable.

What this documentary is: is inspiring.

Perfect Bid: The Contestant Who Knew Too Much

Oh man, being sick was great when I was a kid. So great. You got to spend the day at Nanny’s house. Nanny had rich people’s margarine, which tasted 60% like butter and only 40% like chemicals. She was generous with it, which made her baloney sandwiches taste extra good. Of course, the thick-cut baloney didn’t hurt either. Heaven! You mostly got to lounge on the couch, being served, and watching TV. Nanny was devoted to her “stories” (her special nickname for soap operas) but before they started, there was The Price Is Right.

Perfect Bid is about a man who was not content to simply enjoy a game show from his grandmother’s couch on the occasional sick day. Ted watches A LOT. And he starts to MV5BYWUwYzdlOTQtY2YxNS00MWI1LTg5ZTgtN2YyMzNmYmFhZDA2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDM1MjU4MA@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,666,1000_AL_notice patterns. So he makes elaborate spreadsheets, enumerating prizes, and prices. And now there’s only one thing left to do: obsessively attend tapings until he gets picked. Ted is NOT local, so he spends years taking trips down to L.A. and by the end, people won’t even come with him anymore. It takes 24 shows before he finally gets picked, and up he goes to make his bids, and if memory serves, he’ll get them right. Down to the last dollar. But even the best memory can’t account for the component of the show that’s just plain luck, so Teddy boy doesn’t make it up to the Showcase Showdown. And wouldn’t you know it: The Price Is Right has a pesky rule that says once you’ve been chosen once, you don’t get chosen again.

So what now?

Oh you know I love me some documentaries about life’s weirdos. And the world is so full of weirdos they’re literally falling off. Ted is kind of a weirdo. And the director, C.J. Wallis, plays that to the max, practically casting him as some sort of not-so-evil mastermind.

Meanwhile, there’s a secondary kind of wonderfulness woven through the documentary like a ribbon, and his name is Bob Barker. It some ways, Perfect Bid is a tribute to Barker’s 35 year history with the show, always a perfect gentleman and a flawless host. There may be such a thing as a too-perfect contestant, but as a host, Bob’s perfection knew no bounds.


Killing Patient Zero

Patient Zero: the man who brought AIDS to North America, sparking the gay plague epidemic, killing several hundred thousand gay men. His name was Gaetan Dugas – a French Canadian flight attendant for Air Canada. His name was published, his lifestyle vilified, his family shamed.

Except it turns out Patient Zero didn’t really exist, and even if he did, he wasn’t Gaetan Dugas.

When the CDC was frantically trying to crack this strange and terrifying disease, they interviewed a bright young flight attendant who was quite forthcoming. They greedily drank up every piece of information he offered. Ultimately, Gaetan’s extensive recollections helped them piece together a cluster chart that helped them identify the sexually transmitted nature of the disease. He was labelled patient O – O as in Out of California (which is where the first 56 men they interviewed had lived; Gaetan was the 57th, and he did not). But that O would later be mistaken for a 0 and that erroneous 0 would be interpreted as meaning the beginning, the originator, the first case of AIDS in North America. Obviously that was 100% factually incorrect, but a reporter who seethed at the government’s lack of response decided to galvanize the world with a book. In it, he constructed the Patient Zero narrative, which guaranteed that the book would be published, read, talked about, regardless of whether it was completely or even remotely true.

Killing Patient Zero is about correcting this notion and rescuing Gaetan’s name, a man who history has wrongfully accused. Director Laurie Lynd interviews many: friends and coworkers, leaders at the forefront of gay civil rights and AIDS advocacy, doctors and researchers and sociologists. Together they weave a portrait of a man joyfully enjoying his life. One man among many who are enjoying newfound freedoms, exploring possibilities, exploiting opportunities, embracing life. AIDS happened just as the world was opening up to gay men. Some called it the ultimate punishment for a sinful life. Gay men lived in terror, but terror of the unknown, because AIDS proved elusive, hard to define, impossible to treat, easy to contract, but by what means? No one could say.

Gaetan too would have lived with that fear. And when the telltale purple splotched appeared, he knew he would soon die. Still, he took the time to talk to the authorities and tell them what he knew. He did more than most.

Killing Patient Zero is as enlightening as it is profound. It’s an important historical record, one that honours not just Gaetan’s memory, but all of those who witnessed a vital community’s near-extinction and did something about it.

Homecoming: A Film By Beyonce

Another sleepless night, Sean snoring beside me. Suddenly, around 5:30am, all the usual racing thoughts preventing sleep start to congeal into just the once: today is Beyonce day.

Beyonce has been Queen for a long damn time. She’s more Queen than the Queen of England, because that lady is a figure head and Beyonce is for real. Beyonce is not just a pop star, she is a cultural icon, more than her voice, more than her marriage, more than MV5BNWYwMTExOTAtNjVmYi00MWVjLTgzZWUtZTI0OTE3YTgwMjM3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjg2NjQwMDQ@._V1_her style and her fame and her talent. She was a successful, powerful black woman, her success and power being so seemingly limitless that they transcended gender and race. And at the height of that power, Beyonce claimed both her blackness and her womanhood in a way that was political, artistic, and impossible to ignore. Now we need a word that is somehow more than Queen, and maybe the only name worthy is Beyonce itself.

Homecoming is a documentary detailing Beyonce’s brilliant performance at last year’s (2018) Coachella. But just as that show was more than a concert, the documentary ends up being much more than a recording. It’s a testament. This is Beyonce clearly comfortable in her strength, and the evidence is written in her lyrics, in her stage presence, and all over the damn screen. We witness¬†Beyonce the businesswoman, Beyonce the workhorse, Beyonce the mother and wife, the artist and creator.

After a 22 year career, Beyonce has a whole lotta laurels upon which to rest her world-famous booty. Her name alone is enough to have Coachella gagging. Which is to say: she does not have to work this hard. She’s working like she’s NOT the most famous woman in the world. But Beyonce wasn’t going to just bring her music to the festival – she brought her culture, and she gave it to the people. She worked for 8 months to deliver a powerhouse 2 hour performance.

Fan or not, it’s completely impossibly to tear your eyes away from this woman so fully owning her power. A woman who – dare I say it? – is feeling herself, and not apologizing for it. Not one bit.