Live music venues were one of the earliest COVID casualties, with no quick bounce-back as yet in sight—not to mention the fact that even pre-epidemic, they were already becoming an endangered species in a Bay Area that’s grown too expensive for too long to still be considered very “arts-friendly.” There’s been limited compensatory comfort for those who really miss live concerts (or dance clubs), but as it happens, this week brings a small glut of new home-viewing movie releases focusing on individual artists or music-centric milieux.
Several of these arrivals fall in the realm of documentary career overviews. Few are more creatively adept at that sort of thing than Julien Temple, who started out chronicling the Sex Pistols, became a leading music-video director, has a wobbly track record with narrative features (his best-known remain two ’80s flops turned cult faves, Absolute Beginners and Earth Girls Are Easy), but has stealthily emerged in recent years as the king of rock docs.
Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan is typical of the way he detours from straight hagiography—using everything from animation to cheesy old exploitation-flick footage—to have fun with a subject while respecting it nonetheless. In this case, that subject is the erstwhile singer-songwriter for The Pogues, who’d be a walking “mad drunk Irishman” stereotype if, in fact, he were still walking. (Instead, the shambling 63-year-old wreck is in such poor health, he’s more or less confined to a wheelchair.)
The Pogues represented the pissed-off (and simply pissed) pride of the Irish “diaspora,” being formed from emigres in London, mixing punk energy, trad folk elements, poetical lyrics and an aggrieved sense of history. MacGowan is a frequently uncooperative interviewee whose every mumbled word needs to be subtitled; he’s endlessly self-aggrandizing and obviously self-destructive, when not busy slagging everyone from W.B. Yeats to Elvis Costello. He’d be insufferable in a less cheekily fond tribute—but Crock of Gold knows exactly how to appreciate him as an artist while arching an eye at the spectacle he’s spent a lifetime making of himself. It’s currently playing the Roxie and Rafael’s virtual cinemas.
A more straightforward cinematic stock-taking of a singular career is Bill & Ted actor turned director Alex Winter’s Zappa, which is playing just about every local virtual cinema program (BAMPFA, Alamo Drafthouse, Rafael, Roxie). Early on we see the man himself touring his large personal vault of archived audiovisual materials, and this film (like 2016’s Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words, with which it has some inevitable overlaps) draws on that store to provide glimpses both familiar and rare of an admitted workaholic’s vast output.
We get everything from teenaged Frank’s 1956 mock-horror home movies to collaborations with everyone from John & Yoko to Kronos Quartet. In addition to his rock career and film projects (200 Motels, Baby Snakes), there is appreciation of his activism, which stretched from having an interracial band at age 16 to famously opposing Tipper Gore’s censorious PMRC in the mid-80s. For all his onstage and on-record goofiness, he’s remembered as a perfectionist taskmaster whose complex compositions demanded exhaustive rehearsal.
For someone who seldom really liked his gimmicky “rock” music, Zappa reinforces that the subject’s greatest talent may well have laid in 20th-century avant-gardism inspired by Edgar Varese and other challenging composers. He wrote symphonic pieces from an early age, and as he grew ill from prostate cancer (which would claim his life in 1993 at age 52), had the satisfaction of seeing some actually performed by orchestras—even if he sometimes had to pay them for the privilege. Over two hours long,Zappa suggests even to the wary not-quite-fan that there’s available material enough to fascinate in a film two or three times that length.
Another late lamented talent is given the archival treatment in Billie. James Erskine’s documentary celebrates Lady Day’s hugely influential success as a jazz and blues singer despite the limitations of her sharply segregated societal era. She’s appreciated by figures like Mingus, Count Basie and Tony Bennett who outlived her own short (just 44 years) lifespan.
But the film (which is currently playing Rafael@Home) also takes a deep, somewhat true-crime-ish dive into her turbulent times offstage, leaning heavily on a cache of over 200 audiotape hours recorded by a would-be biographer whose own mysterious demise suggests she dug up more dirt than others were comfortable with. That encompasses not just Billie Holiday’s well-known drug and alcohol issues, but the institutionalized racism she faced professionally and as an incessant target for police harassment.
A very different but equally disturbing excavation is The Changin’ Times of Ike White, a documentary about an obscure figure of ’70s music that’s joined CinemaSF’s virtual cinema after making a local debut at the Another Hole in the Head festival last year. A multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter, White was considered by some a major funk-soul talent ripe for discovery—the only problem being, he was serving a life sentence for murder. Somehow permission was gained for him to record a 1974 album (with full cadre of visiting session players, engineers, etc.) while in prison, and with the help of celebrity supporter Stevie Wonder, he got paroled in 1978.
Yet soon after, he disappeared. A less upbeat parallel to Searching for Sugar Man, Dan Veron’s film is a bit of cinematic sleuthing that eventually unearths the man himself—as well as a fiendishly complicated trail of discarded women, children, identities and lies that the charismatic, sociopathic White left behind him. It’s a fascinating portrait, albeit one that gets darker and darker.
By contrast, there’s no dirt-digging whatsoever in A Dog Called Money, which CinemaSF begins streaming this Friday, months after an original release date was nixed by COVID. It’s a first feature by Seamus Murphy, a photojournalist whom English musician PJ Harvey accompanied on trips to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington D.C. between 2011 and 2014. Her impressions led to a shared book, an album (The Hope Six Demolition Project) and now this film, which also utilizes footage from her recording sessions (in a London studio specially constructed as a public installation) and his other journeys to Syria, Macedonia, and elsewhere.
While we get to see her at work, Harvey is notoriously private, so there’s little in the way of interviews here, and no attempt to surmount her barriers to personal inquiry. Dog is sort of a globe-trotting collage, part musical performance, part outside-looking-in measure of war and injustice taking its toll around the world. The relationship it draws between inspiration and art is sometimes vague, and not all that illuminating; the documentary will probably work best for those who are already fans of the artist. But PJ Harvey is unquestionably one of the few great, sustained rock talents of the last three decades, so any peek at her process is welcome.
Also arriving about 30 years ago was Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning, which memorably chronicled the NYC voguing and ballroom scene at the height of the AIDS crisis. While aspects of that culture embedded itself in popular consciousness for the long haul, it still comes as something of a surprise that it survives in a form as well-preserved as that depicted in Dennis Keighron-Foster and Amy Watson’s Deep in Vogue. This relatively short (just over an hour) UK documentary profiles Northern Vogue, the busy and popular forum for self-expression active in cities like Liverpool, for whose participants it’s an acknowledgement and continuation of gay history they’re mostly too young to have been a part of.
Central as dance music has always been to the form, there’s not much discussion of music here—beyond one DJ noting how difficult it is to work these events. Instead, Deep is mostly about artistic aims (some voguing “houses” take themselves very seriously as professional dance companies), and community. The latter may not be exactly what you expect: While Paris is Burning showed how vogue rose largely as a safe-haven reaction by Black and Latino gays to their exclusion from white drag balls, here participants run a gamut that even includes some straight white women. Though that’s brought accusations of cultural appropriation, the scene’s champions say it’s about “bringing together people who are marginalized in their everyday life,” regardless of ethnic, gender or sexual identity.
Making largely the same statement in a different way is The Prom, which is currently playing available theaters and launches on Netflix this Friday. Ryan Murphy’s translation of the semi-successful 2018 Broadway musical is both a spoof and love letter to musical theater, as two titanically self-absorbed stage stars (Meryl Streep, James Corden) who’ve just had a huge flop (“Eleanor!: The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical”) head to small-town Indiana with two veteran wanna-bes (Nicole Kidman, Andrew Rannells) to rebrand themselves as “celebrity activists.” The “cause” they’ve glommed onto is a high school girl (Jo Ellen Pellman) who’s been excluded from her own prom for wanting to bring a same-sex date.
Barging into an already-awkward standoff between the open-minded principal (Keegan-Michael Key) and intolerant PTA chair (Kerry Washington), these Broadway babies exist in even more of a sociopolitical bubble than the conservative “hicks” they’ve descended upon. But needless to say, it’s all gonna work out fine in laughter-and-tears fashion, with no lack of Big Numbers en route.
The Prom is a full-blown musical, with clever lyrics if generic tunes (though that may be the satirical point), and no lack of unironic bombast and schmaltz. Deep in Vogue has better dancing than the High School Musical-style acrobatics here; while some of these actors may sing better than you knew, the vocals also often sound a wee bit processed at times. As a big ol’ bag o’ glitter, soft-boiled diva camp and stock acceptance messaging, this isn’t exactly my thing. But it’s certainly good enough that those more inclined (including fans of Murphy’s breakthrough series Glee) will loooooove it.