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Sunday, December 4, 2022

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: The local Latino theatrical legend behind 'La...

Screen Grabs: The local Latino theatrical legend behind ‘La Bamba’ returns

Plus: Two docs reckon with the Afghanistan withdrawal, YACHT makes AI music, and a history of NYC's recent indie scene

Luis Valdez was already Northern California theater royalty as co-founder of El Teatro Campesino (originally part of the United Farm Workers’ cultural outreach arm), not to mention creator of the dynamic semi-musical Zoot Suit (filmed in 1981) when he entered the Hollywood mainstream with 1987’s La Bamba. Like Zoot, it was a dramatization of a Cali true story: The brief life of original Latino rock ’n’ roll star Ritchie Valens, who rocketed to fame while still a high school student, only to die in the same Feb. 2, 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, and others on tour together. He was still just 17. This “day the music died” was later memorialized in Don McLean’s “American Pie.”

Introducing Lou Diamond Philips as Valens (whose real name was Valenzuela), with another star-making performance by Esai Morales as his “bad boy” half brother, La Bamba was a much bigger, more conventional film project than Zoot Suit, which had been nearly a photographed stage play. Still, it managed to be a very personal project, as well as a then-still-rare major surfacing of Latino culture in mainstream culture. Members of Valdez’s (and Valens’ surviving) family were involved; Los Lobos played on the soundtrack (and in a bar scene), with fellow ’80s musicians Marshall Crenshaw and the Stray Cats’ Brian Selzer also appearing.

While ’50s nostalgia had peaked a decade earlier (with Happy Days, Grease, and the more mildly successful Buddy Holly Story), La Bamba was nevertheless a significant commercial hit. Its stars didn’t quite get the subsequent breaks they deserved, however—after gaining nominal Brat Pack status in the Young Guns movies, Phillips had to duplicate Yul Brynner’s triumph on Broadway in The King and I to get some appreciation as a grownup performer—and Valdez himself didn’t follow it up in any predictable way. Indeed, the closest thing to a narrative feature that he directed afterward was a tongue-in-cheek 1994 update of The Cisco Kid with Jimmy Smits for television.

Why? Maybe the adherence to generic biopic cliches that makes the lively, enjoyable but superficial La Bamba feel cut from the same broad cloth as several later films (RayBohemian Rhapsody, the spoof Walk Hard, et al.) represented creative compromises he didn’t necessarily want to make again. Who knows? Well, you might, if you attend the Roxie’s 35th anniversary screening this Wed/16, with Valdez and author Luis I. Reyes appearing. They’ll have a Q&A after the film, which will be preceded by a book-signing reception for Reyes’ recently published Viva Hollywood: The Legacy of Latin and Hispanic Artists in American Film. For more info on the event, go here.

Music is also the focus in two new documentaries playing this week. Meet Me In the Bathroom, based on Lizzy Goodman’s book of the same title, is about the NYC rock explosion of two decades ago that briefly seemed the biggest thing of its kind there since CBGB’s heyday. At the end of the last millennium many young wannabes “felt like all that wild weird eclecticness had drained out of the city,” as one of The Moldy Peaches puts it here. But the desire was there, and housing in Brooklyn was cheap… for the moment.

Thus somehow The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs happened, attracting a lot of notice, and “Suddenly there were bands everywhere in New York,” according to Interpol’s Paul Banks. Soon numbering among them were TV on the Radio, The Rapture, Death From Above, LCD Sound System, Liars, and more, though Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern’s film gives some considerably more attention than others.

It also periodically exudes that attitude common to nonfiction movies about NYC, in its assumption that whatever happens there is the very center of the known universe… when in reality this scene was just another fruitful time/place among many in the ongoing history of indie rock. It’s not the most meaningful context in which to dwell on the impact of 9/11, either. Nor are the eventual tales of discord created by internal infighting, too much media exposure, drugs, et al. very interesting or distinctive. (Though I’d forgotten that senior celebrity hedonists Ryan Adams and Courtney Love were blamed for corrupting some of these puppies, who thought they wanted fame then found it disillusioning like everyone before them.)

Still, I like at least some of these bands, from a little to a lot, and Bathroom is an entertaining scrapbook of the prolonged moment when they all seemed to constitute one “scene,” as disparate as they were/are. It plays the Roxie (more info here) this Tue/15-Wed/16, and the Balboa (more info here) Fri/18-Sun/20.

Also showing at the Roxie, just this Thu/17, is Riel Roch-Decter and Sebastian Pardo’s The Computer Accent. It chronicles the efforts by YACHT—an arty dance-pop act led by Jona Bechtolt and Claire L. Evans that’s also been around in various forms for about two decades—to make a album in “collaboration” with Artificial Intelligence. The result, 2019’s Chain Tripping, was nominated for a Grammy. So you can take or leave my sense that YACHT is basically a newish iteration of those early 1980s New Wave bands in which undergraduate, performance-art archness was more important than any particular musical ability or ideas.

But Accent is less about the end product than their process. Which you will find interesting most likely to the degree that you are interested in pondering the eternal questions of art vs. technology, and whether AI can truly be “creative,” or even just facilitate creativity. The band says all their records were built around “a kind of restraint,” in terms of some high-concept guideline, so Chain Tripping was just another such experiment. But it was also a return of sorts, after a layoff generated by the cringe-inducing reaction to a prior stunt (involving a fake sex tape) that even some of their diehard fans found in poor taste. The directors will be present at the Roxie event (more info here) for a post-screening Q&A.

Another two new documentaries occupy an entirely different realm: Afghanistan, namely, and the recent fiasco of the US withdrawal after two decades (there’s that timespan again) of “the endless war.” The one that was even longer than Vietnam, as ill-advisedly entered into, and proved just as much a failure at its messy close. A bungled ending for which the Biden administration—which certainly could have handled it better—got a lot of flack, particularly from conservatives who magically forgot that the faulty terms and timeline of withdrawal had been set on Trump’s watch.

These two follow hot on the heels of HBO’s recent Escape From Kabul. That was entirely about the airport chaos in August of last year, when thousands pleaded for evacuating US forces to take them along—a scene all too reminiscent of the Fall of Saigon nearly a half-century earlier. The new films both necessarily incorporate footage from that same grim chapter, but have a wider scope, dealing with individual personalities of importance in an Afghanistan trying to embrace democratic rather than religious rule. These documentaries chart what happens when the tide inexorably turns in the opposite direction.

Executive produced by Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, In Her Hands is about Zarifa Ghafari, who while still in her mid-20s became the nation’s youngest-ever mayor. As appointed thus in the Wardak Province capital of Maidan Shahr, she was also a rare female office-holder, something regarded with considerable skepticism in a patriarchal society—and unlikely to occur again for the time being, with the Taliban’s takeover setting women’s rights way, way back. She travels to DC, ignores death threats, and attends meeting after meeting where she’s the sole woman, hoping to maintain some progress as hopes drain away. Eventually she must flee, like others who face almost certain execution in a new era of “pure Sharia law” and payback to perceived agents of western corruption.

Tamana Ayazi and Marcel Mettsiefen’s documentary sees her trying to stay on course while increasingly swimming upstream, exhorting citizens to fight as “brothers and sisters” in rebuilding their nation for the nth time—though it’s obvious sisters’ input will soon be zilch. It’s an engrossing portrait, as far as it goes. But we only seem to see Ghafari in crisis, something that compels interest but feels more dramatic than balanced. As mayor from 2017, what was she able to accomplish before it all began to fall apart? We have no idea. Nor can we quite suss why the filmmakers give nearly equal focus to her driver-bodyguard, a handsome fellow who eventually is no longer in her employ… yet bafflingly still keeps eating up screentime, to no discernible point. In Her Hands is on Netflix as of Wed/16.

Ghafari is the daughter of a high-ranking Afghan Army officer, and General Sami Sadat, the subject of Matthew Heineman’s Retrograde, similarly inherited a family mantle of powerfully placed resistance to Taliban (and Soviet-occupation) forces. But in this National Geographic-produced documentary, he too is seeing everything he’s fought for slip away with the looming departure of US allies. At the start, eight months prior to the Kabul airport fracas, he can’t really believe any such thing will happen, admitting only “It’s a strange and confusing time now,” and insisting “I don’t think for a second our government will fall.” But when the Green Berets who’ve been preparing his own troops are ordered to leave, both he and they feel the horror of forced abandonment preceding complete disaster.

Eventually Sadat must try to orchestrate exit strategies for those like himself who collaborated with “the enemy,” and will surely face execution if they stay. I won’t play spoiler and tell you what happens to Sadat. But it is rather stupefying that the film notes (sans further explanation) he is denied assistance in relocating himself by the US, despite an actual death sentence.

It’s just one more chapter in the seemingly endless book of betrayals, coups, and calamities Afghanistan has endured, usually at the mercy of conflicting foreign interests. This man, his soldiers, and the Americans they spent years working with have been serving a cause they believed in, but which now gets chucked as another grand mistake.

Did it have to end this way, with a Taliban Minister of Vice & Virtue (really) announcing that “Those elements trained by the Jews should not be forgiven,” people like Sadat and Ghafari—the lucky ones, relatively speaking, as they can leave—chased out of their own country? There is no simple right or wrong among the principle figures here…but there is an almost unbearably sad sense that somehow, “the greatest nation in the world” should have done better by them. Retrograde opens Wed/16 at the Metreon and at San Rafael’s Century Northgate.

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