Humoresque (1946)

All year, I’ve been working my way through my 4-disc DVD set of Joan Crawford classics, packaged for department store sale by TCM about a decade ago . . . It’s generally been a personal goal to clear my pile of unwatched physical media from my shelf during the pandemic, and with the more daunting sets like this (as opposed to standalone horror schlock with no air of sophistication or prestige) I genuinely have no idea how long I’ve allowed it to collect dust on its still in-tact shrink wrap.  Three movies into the Joan Crawford set, I thought I had a grasp on the types of movies TCM was attempting to highlight with the collection: stylish noirs with a touch of romantic melodrama.  Then, I got to the final film of the set, a full-on melodrama with no interest in crime genre tropes and barely any interest in Joan herself.  I think I have a much better understanding of the inanely titled TCM Greatest Classic Legends Film Collection DVD set now; it’s just four movies Warner Bros would license to TCM for cheap that happened to share one of the studio’s biggest stars.  Basically, it’s the Old Hollywood equivalent of those Drive-In Classic 50 Movie Pack DVDs you’ll find haunting the bottom of every Wal-Mart bargain bin in the country.  The fact that all four of the Joan Crawford discs were stacked on top of each other in a single slot in the case should have tipped me off that this wasn’t a lovingly curated set with a clear, explicit theme.

Maybe going into Humoresque with expectations of seeing another stellar Joan Crawford Noir killed any chance I had of enjoying it for what it is.  Humoresque is a sweeping melodrama about a virtuoso violinist whose promising career is derailed by his obsession with a wealthy drunk socialite played by Crawford (and by his own runaway hubris).  While all the other films included in the TCM set have been stylish noirs with Crawford at the center, the much less charismatic John Garfield is the star of this picture as the troubled, romantically obsessed violinist.  Crawford still plays a kind of sultry femme fatale, but she’s more of a supporting character than the center of attention.  It’s at least a half-hour before she even appears onscreen.  There are also no crime thriller tropes to speak of despite Crawford’s framing as the femme fatale.  The movie is intensely fixated on the world of chamber music both as an industry and as an artistry.  We follow the violinist through a prolonged rags-to-riches uphill battle where he defiantly proves himself as the greatest living artist in his field, locking the rest of the world away as he hones his craft to an unmatched extreme . . . until Crawford derails his attentions.  As a result, the musical performances often overpower the film’s function as an actors’ showcase, with great attention paid to making it look as if Garfield were actually playing the violin (with a technique similar to how Sesame Street makes it look as if Weimaraners were actually eating spaghetti off a twirled fork).  And because of the context I encountered the film within, I couldn’t help but spend those scenes asking “Where’s Joan?” instead of simply enjoying the show.

Of course, Crawford does make great use of the diminished screen time she’s allowed here.  Her role as an adulterous socialite who wears old-lady glasses and downs way too much top-shelf liquor is a fun turn for the powerhouse actress, even if it’s one she could play in her sleep.  Her alcoholism affords her some moments of violent, wildly passionate outbursts and her exorbitant wealth affords her opportunities to model gowns by Adrian – which look gorgeous on her, as always.  She gets to be the life of the party, holding court over her socialite minions who bray at ever tossed-off quip she amuses herself with, like when she calls the violinist “a rare animal, a New Yorker from New York.”  She’s also painfully aware of the fact that this is not her story, that she’s only lurking at the periphery.  In the emotional climax of the film, she shouts in her young lover’s face that she’s “tired of playing second fiddle” to his art, and I totally got it.  I was tired of watching it too.  It’s in those drunken outbursts where the movie finally comes alive for me, especially once she punctuates her wildly jealous complaints by smashing her cocktail glasses in a fit.  No one can hurl a drink at the wall in anger like our gal Joan, and here she earns bonus points by throwing a second one through a closed window.  None of the film’s orchestral spectacle could match the pure ferocity of that drunken anger, and the movie could’ve used a lot more of it, centering her as the protagonist.

The good news is that there is a movie in this same TCM set where Joan Crawford is unhealthily obsessed with an (amateur) musician, and the story centers her story instead of the over-confident beau’s: 1947’s Possessed.  At this point, it’s near impossible for me to watch any of these films without comparing it to the other inclusions in the DVD set.  That’s especially true of Humoresque because it is such an outlier, both for falling entirely outside the confines of noir and for not featuring Crawford as its lead.  In that spirit, here’s a picture of what the TCM Greatest Classic Legends Film Collection looks like and a best-to-worst ranking of how much I enjoyed each title.

1. Mildred Pierce (1945)
2. The Damned Don’t Cry (1950)
3. Possessed (1947)
4. Humoresque (1946)

Watch this one last, if you bother to watch it at all.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Home of the Brave (1986)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Boomer, Britnee, and Hanna watch Home of the Brave (1986).

Brandon: One of the more frequently repeated clichés in the weeks following the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was “This is not who we are.” Political pundits & sentimental patriots were quick to distance their own guarded mental image of Who We Are As Americans from the racist, conspiracy-addled maniacs who attempted to thwart the democratic process that day. That’s easier said than done. America is a vast assortment of all kinds of disparate peoples & ideologies, and this recent election cycle has only highlighted what an alarming percentage of the U.S. citizenry are fascism-friendly white supremacists. A distorted, revisionist version of this country’s history and shared principles has been so rigorously hammered into our brains without reckoning with the uglier truths at its core that we genuinely have no idea Who We Are. Our national identity is mostly built on an often-repeated lie, so we have a lot of self-examination left to do if we can ever claim “This is not who we are” the next time far-Right extremists commit an act of domestic terror in an effort to disenfranchise Black voters.

This national self-examination does not have to be an entirely pessimistic or self-flagellating effort, though. One of the more glaring recent examples of popular art grappling with this topic was last year’s David Byrne concert film American Utopia, the kind of political self-reckoning you can dance to. In the film, Byrne’s parade of solo & Talking Heads hits are bookended by short lectures that examine the function & the soul of American culture from an abstracted outsider perspective – a kind of spiritual sequel to his small-town America portrait True Stories. American Utopia is an honest but optimistic temperature check of where America is today, both acknowledging the horrors of racially-motivated police brutality that have long been a stain on this country’s honor and pointing to our current moment of change as a possibly transformative turning point towards a better future. Meanwhile, everything onstage is rigidly uniformed & regimented like a dystopian sci-fi film, with the traditional rock performers’ instruments & colorful costuming stripped away to mimic the minimalism of modern performance art. It rightfully earned a lot of praise for its honest but hopeful examination of modern American culture, but it also reminded me a lot of another, older work that was very dear to me in high school: Laurie Anderson’s United States I-IV.

United States was a four-part, two-night concert series in the early 1980s that combined lectures, performance art, digital projections, and avant-garde new wave compositions in a way that innovated much of what Byrne has been praised for in his own concert films, American Utopia & Stop Making Sense. Unfortunately, that stage show was only officially documented in audio form (on the excellent four-hour concert album United States Live). The closest motion-picture document we have for the series is the 1986 concert film Home of the Brave, which Anderson directed herself. Home of the Brave is a streamlined, 90min distillation of United States I-IV that collects the more polished versions of the show’s compositions that appeared on Anderson’s first two studio albums, Big Science & Mister Heartbreak. In the film, Anderson also observes the soul & structure of America in a series of abstracted, outsider-POV lectures the way Byrne does in American Utopia, but those monologues are interwoven into her avant-garde new wave songs to the point where there’s no boundary between them. It’s an existential “Who are we?” national identity crisis for The Reagan Era, one that still rings true even if our populist politics have only gotten more rabid and our technology has upgraded from landlines to smartphones.

Laurie Anderson begins Home of the Brave with a stand-up routine about the 1’s & 0’s of computerized binary code, then immediately connects that line of thought to America’s national obsession with being #1. From there, she continues to abstract other basic modern concepts to the point where they feel foreign & uncanny: America’s national identity, the nature of rock music, the absurdism of gender performance & 80s workout routines, basic human interactions, technology, language, etc. Musical instruments don’t look or sound the way they’re supposed to, with violins transformed into synthesized samplers and rubber-necked guitars creating hideously distorted waves of noise. Anderson waltzes with William S. Burroughs, calls her keyboardist on the phone to chat mid-set, and at one point transforms her own body into a literal drum machine. It’s difficult to say with any clarity how these individual elements directly comment on the nature & soul of modern America, especially since the screen behind her often broadcasts phrases like “YOU CONNECT THE DOTS” in digital block text. Still, the overall effect of the work is an earnest prodding at what, exactly, we are as a modern society. Instead of declaring “This is not who we are” in the face of repugnant Reagan Era politics, Anderson instead asks “Who are we?”, which is a much more worthwhile spiritual & intellectual response to the hell of modern living.

I know all this abstract head-scratching about national identity and the eeriness of modern technology sounds a little hyperbolic for a concert film, but that’s exactly what Laurie Anderson’s art & music has always inspired in me. Hanna, do you think Home of the Brave has anything direct or meaningful to say about life in the modern Western world, or in America in particular? Or did you experience it merely as a kooky performance of esoteric new wave jams?

Hanna: Both! I think I would have to watch Home of the Brave at least three more times to absorb a thesis about modern intellectual and spiritual identity. However, one of the many threads of thought I really enjoyed was the obsession with categorization to cope with complexity, and how that categorization limits our understanding of our own experience and cannot possibly provide real comfort. In the short song “White Lily”, Anderson misremembers a scene in Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz where a man walks into a flower shop and asks the florist for a flower that expresses: “Days go by, and they just keep going by, endlessly pulling you into the future …” Apparently, it’s a white lily. I’ve always liked those moments where somebody asks for a simple representation or expression of something confusing/painful/complex and receives a representation that’s totally insufficient, like the scientists in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle who discover that the secret to life is “protein”. The fact that Anderson uses a white lily instead of the actual flower mentioned in Fassbinder’s film (a white carnation) is especially appropriate: first, because people are filled with little bits of information they’ve reconstructed to suit their needs and memories; second, because it might as well be either flower – both of them “mean” the same thing, which is nothing. We’re all just desperately trying to organize the world through our grossly inadequate schemas and forget that we’re big electric meat bags, pulled endlessly forward by impulses we can’t control (0 … 1 … 0 … 1 …). I don’t think this is a specifically American impulse, but I do think that American culture is especially repulsed by ambiguity—as referenced by Anderson in her opening monologue—and is especially prone to cutting the world up into jarring and unnatural pieces to avoid uncertainty.

Even without the intellectual and spiritual reflections on modern existence, Home of the Brave is a stone cold stunner in the arena of Kooky Jams. I was absolutely reminded of American Utopia and Stop Making Sense, especially because all three concerts host ensembles of incredibly talented people and funky performances abstracting the human condition. I think the biggest difference between Byrne’s films and Home of the Brave is that I could not take my eyes off of Laurie Anderson; she is, without a doubt, one of the most commanding performers I’ve ever seen. Her short spiky hair, wide eyes, and long white silk coat give the look of a mad music scientist; her voice slivers, swoops, shrieks, and howls in the span of a minute; and her performance varies incredibly in tone, both between and within songs. For example, “Difficult Listening Hour” opens with Anderson announcing the start of the aforementioned radio show (the spot on your dial for that relentless and impenetrable sound of Difficult Music!), a concept which I find endlessly amusing; the song takes a menacing turn when the speaker comes home to find a man sitting in their house, with “big white teeth / like luxury hotels on the Florida coastline”, and a mouth like “a big scar.” Yikes! Even the delivery of her prose is mesmerizing – she withholds her speech, slowly releasing phrases one after the other with total control in a way that’s utterly captivating (“and the flame would come dancing out of his mouth … and the woman liked this … very much.”) For the entirety of the show, I had the impression Anderson was interrogating me philosophically with a fun band and big shirts and satellites. Does that make sense? No! As I’m writing this, am I realizing that maybe I have a big crush on Laurie Anderson? Yes!

Boomer, what did you think of the tonal shifts in the songs and skits throughout Home of the Brave? Did Anderson fuse chaos into something meaningful, or was I just hypnotized by her snake monologue?

Boomer: One couldn’t blame you for being entranced by her poems or monologues. Poetry is a peculiar form of writing in that its beauty exists (and one could argue must exist) in two distinct realms, the physical and(/or) the abstract, in the performance or on the page. Even a novel or essay with the most melodic prose elicits something different than the poem, and some poems cannot exist on the page and must exist in the performance. There’s no way that this is a universal experience, but by the time I was seventeen, I thought that there was no better demonstration of fauxlosophical depth than being obsessed with Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” and found the exultation of it within my peer group to be annoying, until an undergrad class years later in which a professor played a live audio reading of it, and it just clicked. There’s a division in poetry between what can exist and remain both alive and meaningful on the page (and each person’s mileage on which poets for whom that might be the case) and what demands a performance, requiring bombacity and the meaningful pauses Hanna mentioned.

It’s that same mesmerism of her activity that means that I can’t rightfully say whether or not something “meaningful” was created in this synthesis of images, ideas, and sounds. It may be partially due to the quality of the version I was able to track down, but there are large sections that are verbally focused and wordy (like the discussion of the one-zero dichotomy) and some that are less clear for a first time viewer like I was; I was a little lost during the phone call with the keyboardist and although I feel like I absorbed the essence of the skit, any meaning was outside of my grasp. There’s a certain rhythm to what Anderson’s doing that, stripped of all of the props and projections, there’s a kind of sermon happening before you. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, but I spent a lot of time in churches in my youth with a lot of “fellowship” that was indistinguishable from the instruction of the week before, and the week before that; as such, my mind often goes into a kind of self-defense mode, where I get absorbed in the melodicism of the language but the words themselves sort of float past me in the stream. Home of the Brave does something similar in parts, as it moves from music to spoken word to skit to music again and so on, all flowing into one another without discrete sections. This is an immersive experience, and a beautiful one, but until I read Brandon’s description of the film, I failed to CONNECT THE DOTS between a philosophical criticism of American opulence/consumption and the specifics of Anderson’s recitations (even though it’s right there in the title).

I do love Anderson’s ear for lyricism in her koans. I’m not familiar with any of the works referenced, but I do know her album Big Science; in particular, the track “From the Air” was in the digital library at KLSU when I was a DJ there, and it got heavy rotation during my three years as the morning drive DJ as both a phone-in request and just because I like it. I always loved the self-reflectiveness of the line “This is the time / And this is the record of the time.” It’s such a pure distillation of the artist’s experience: the semiotic thing that is being signified is the time, but the art which is the signifier is also the sign, and the record of the time, as it both creates and captures. Even though I didn’t digest Home of the Brave‘s intent as well as I might have, I knew what I was in for when I heard that we were watching a Laurie Anderson concert film. Britnee, is she an artist with whom you had prior familiarity? If not, what was your experience going into this “blind’? And if so, where does this work fit into your larger cognitive framework of her art?

Britnee: I wasn’t very familiar with Laurie Anderson prior to watching Home of the Brave. I knew of her, and I knew that she had a very unique music style. When I was younger, my aunt had a wicker basket filled with cassette tapes. I would love digging in it to find new musical discoveries, and I vividly remember picking out a copy of Laurie Anderson’s Strange Angels. The album was mesmerizing, with “Coolsville” being my favorite song from it. I didn’t know what any of the lyrics meant, but it made me happy. This is the same feeling I got from watching Home of the Brave. I didn’t pick up on the meaning behind all of it, but I enjoyed every minute.

Mainly, what I took away from Home of the Brave was admiration for Laurie Anderson as an artist. She’s the total package. Watching her move across the stage with her mad scientist business suit, doing all of her strange choreography, was a real treat.  I was way more focused on her than I was on what she was trying to say. One of my favorite stage props was the screen with all sorts of images and messages projected. “What does it all mean?” was a constant question in my mind while watching the wacky journal entries and animal drawings pop up on the screen. I still don’t really understand what it all means, but I found it to be exciting and thought provoking. This is definitely a film I would have to watch a few times to truly get its full effect, but I think that’s more of a personal problem and no fault of Anderson’s.

Lagniappe

Britnee: Anderson’s Nash the Slash style getup at the beginning was such an attention grabbing opener. The voice modulator she used to create this disturbing electronic male voice was both chilling and brilliant. That will forever be the first thing I think about when I think about Home of the Brave.

Boomer: There’s a moment in this film where Laurie Anderson is dancing in her silk suit with her back to the audience/camera and the spotlight on her is a yellow gel, and her body movements are very similar to those of Jim Carrey in The Mask, and she suddenly turns around with a very “large” expression on her face, for lack of a better term. As much as I can’t stand The Mask (I have a Pavlovian dislike of Carrey’s work as the result of having a peer with severe ADHD—before they learned to pacify kids in the classroom—who would endlessly repeat every Carrey film routine on a daily basis in class, with at least one outburst per hour from 1995 until 1999, and only then because Austin Powers started airing on TNT constantly so there was another reference point to beat to death and then some), I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the mannerisms of the character were inspired by elements of Anderson’s performance art.

Hanna: A short stream-of-consciousness from my notes while watching this film:

She pops up through the floor! Squeaky voice! “Bending” the guitar! It sounds terrible! Now he’s hitting it with a mallet! Everybody’s just jumping around! A big fish bowl porthole magnifying her face! Ballerina accordion player! Huge drumsticks! Hitting a ball with the guitar!

So, if that (in addition to abstract new wave) sounds at all appealing, I highly recommend Home of the Brave.

Brandon: I know that Stop Making Sense has been communally anointed as The Greatest Concert Film of All Time, but this movie certainly belongs in that conversation, if not only for highlighting how Anderson’s work pioneered a lot of the more Conceptual Art elements that bolster Byrne’s stage shows. At the very least, it’s outright unforgivable that it never made the format leap from VHS & Laserdisc to DVD or Blu-ray. I would love to see a cleaned-up version in a proper theatrical setting someday, but for now all we’ve got is dead formats & fuzzy YouTube uploads.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
April: Boomer presents London Road (2015)
May: Britnee presents Trouble in Mind (1985)
June: Hanna presents Chicken People (2016)

-The Swampflix Crew

Le Choc du Futur (2020)

The French historical drama Le Choc du Futur (The Shock of the Future) is a shameless nostalgia piece. Almost 100% an exercise in aesthetic posturing, its entire thesis is that late-70s synth music sounds cool as fuck and women didn’t get enough credit for pioneering that sound. It’s not wrong; early analog synths and the women behind them are incredibly cool and, apparently, endlessly watchable. The film’s late-70s Parisian setting indulges in the same fashionable, intoxicating cool as last year’s phenomenal porn-industry slasher Knife+Heart, except without all the pesky murders getting in the way of the fun. Even with all that shameless nostalgia driving its every decision, the film somehow comes across as effortlessly charming and, more surprisingly, very much of the moment.

Alma Jodorowsky stars as a fictional synthpop composer in late-70s Paris, an amalgamated character designed to pay tribute to the real-life women who weren’t properly credited for developing the analog-synth sound. At only 80 minutes, the movie is a short & sweet day-in-the-life portrait of this made-up pioneer synth composer. We watch her perform her morning exercises (cigarette in mouth, of course), switch on her wall of heavy-duty synth equipment (with an accompanying, satisfying buzz as the machines fire up), and go about her day creating songs while attempting to pay her bills. Our Moog-wielding heroine occasionally clashes against music industry sexists who devalue her work, but this is mostly a film about process. We’re treated to a crash-course demonstration of what individual pieces of her mysterious equipment do in creating a full synthpop sound, how an individual synthpop song is built from scratch, and what bands were important in inspiring these early analog synth experiments: DEVO, Kraftwerk, Throbbing Gristle, Tangerine Dream, Suicide, etc. It’s all very laidback, unrushed, and effortlessly cool (especially if you watch the film with a nice pair of headphones).

Le Choc du Futur stumbles into its of-the-moment relevancy in a very roundabout way. Synthpop (and most subsequent electronic music) is a very private, insular artform – especially in the composition stage. It’s the quintessential bedroom music, a craft that’s usually honed while artists are left alone in their workspaces tinkering with their toys. I’m not sure if you’re aware that the world is ending outside right now, but a lot of us have been holed up inside our homes busying ourselves with similar self-satisfying art projects in an effort to stay sane. The only reason I was able to watch this movie in the first place is because the SXSW film festival was cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns and temporarily moved to Amazon Prime as a public service. In that specific, ongoing cultural context, there is something incredibly relatable & satisfying about watching a character work tirelessly alone in their apartment on niche art & go-nowhere projects no one else in the world seems to care about.

It absolutely sucks that women musicians were not properly credited for their contributions to early synth compositions in the 1970s, and Le Choc du Futur is a lovely tribute to the work they created. The film is also just an aesthetically pleasing primer for new-to-the-table fans of the artists & songs that defined that era. More practically, though, this movie is a very comfortable, relatable watch for the current moment we’re struggling through – a snapshot of a D.I.Y. artist creating music for her own satisfaction, despite the crushing odds of the commercial music & marketing industries that do not value her work. Businessmen frequently enter her apartment to disrupt her creative art-for-its-own-sake workflow with concerns & disagreements about her music’s commercial viability, but she mostly blocks out their interference just like how her cheap, tattered curtains block out the sun. We hardly ever see her leave the apartment (except for a couple brief, round-the-block walks), but she uses her confounding wall of heavy-machinery music equipment to go on adventures of her own design, as if she were standing behind the control panel of a spaceship. Le Choc du Futur is the perfect 2020 quarantine movie in that way, even if it was intended to evoke an entirely different era.

-Brandon Ledet

Meeting Nash The Slash at the Vampire-Infested Donut Shop

One of the most immediately fascinating aspects of September’s Movie of the Month, the Gen-X vampire slacker drama Blood & Donuts, is its “Music By” credit for a musician known simply as Nash the Slash. It’s taken us years of patient scouring to finally access this forgotten low-energy horror gem on a legitimate streaming platform, which has afforded it an allure as an esoteric cult curio. Given its sub-professional budget, its dodgy distribution, and its bit role participation from Canadian horror legend David Cronenberg, the film flirts with the same regional cinema Canuxploitation territory as gems like The Pit, The Gate, and Cathy’s Curse. It makes sense, then, that it would be scored by local weirdo musician known almost exclusively to Torontonians – the enigmatic Nash the Slash. His work on the film is a drowsy, industrial guitar-driven post-rock soundtrack that matches its weirdly melancholic mood, but there was still something about his name that suggested he’d be more exciting as a persona than what those atmospheric sounds were letting on. Nash the Slash did not disappoint.

Maybe he wasn’t playing guitar at all? Jeff “Nash the Slash” Plewman was a versatile musician who was best known for playing electric violin, electric mandolin, and various percussive instruments he would mysteriously describe as “devices” in his liner notes. After abandoning a non-starter of a rockstar career fronting the prog band FM, he turned his interest in music into a kind of performance art. Appearing onstage exclusively in mummy-like bandages (often accessorized with a top hat & steam punk goggles), Nash the Slash used the mystery of his identity & the Silent Era horror looks of his costuming to drum up press coverage of his atmospheric New Wave compositions (press that struggled to reach past the confines of Toronto). He developed an interest in scoring films after performing live accompaniment to Silent Era horror classics like Nosferatu & Un chien andelou, which eventually led to a few notable modern horror gigs like Blood & Donuts & Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood on top of his regular pop music output.

Given his penchant for trolling local Toronto press, the strong iconography of his stage gear, and the esoteric allure of his performance art compositions, it’s incredible that Nash the Slash hadn’t broken through to a wider audience, at least to music nerds outside Canada. If for nothing else, I’m super thankful to Blood & Donuts for leading me to such a distinctly bizarre weirdo, whose contributions to the film are a kind of post-New Wave, pre-drone metal industrial guitar rock that really helps solidify its sleepy, melancholic tone. It was frustrating to me as a curious potential fan that he had never received the weirdo-musician documentary treatment afforded to similar artists like Frank Sidebottom & Daniel Johnston, but it turns out that won’t be the case for long. A successful Indiegogo campaign has crowd-funded a Nash the Slash doc titled And You Thought You Were Normal, due sometime in early 2020. I look forward to learning more about this masked enigma then, but for now it’s just been fun digging through the music video scraps of his visual art I can find on YouTube, a rabbit hole I strongly advise falling into:

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, the Gen-X Canuxploitation vampire drama Blood & Donuts (1995), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its unlikely symmetry with Tangerine (2015), and last week’s discovery of its campy horror-comedy equivalent Attack of the Killer Donuts (2016).

-Brandon Ledet

Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story (2019)

My first exposure to the iconography & persona of the cult British comedian Frank Sidebottom was in the 2014 black comedy Frank, where he was portrayed by Michael Fassbender in a Fleischer cartoon-style paper mâché mask that he never removed onscreen. It turns out that luchadorian gimmick of never appearing in public unmasked is just about the only detail from the “real” Frank Sidebottom’s life that was at all factual. The appeal for savvier (and, let’s face it, British) audiences in seeing a documentary about Chris Sievey, the musician behind the Frank character, is in finally getting a peak under that mask to learn about the artist who created it after decades of cheeky mystery. The appeal for relative newcomers like myself, lured in by the Fassbender film or the Pop Art iconography of the Frank mask on the poster, is just learning about the Frank Sidebottom art project in the first place. What was Frank’s whole deal? Why do a specific subset of British pop culture nerds care so much about a decades-long bit built on a single sight gag – a sinisterly cutesy paper mâché mask? In either case, whether you’re looking to learn about Frank Sidebottom or about Chris Sievey, Being Frank is a definitive, helpfully informative documentation of both characters from start to end.

In the early goings-on of the film, it appears as if Sievey were a Daniel Johnston-type figure: a troubled young Beatles fanatic who lost his goddamned mind inside his own weirdo art after a few youthful experiments with LSD. Survey’s self-obsessive back catalog of home movies, Outsider Art drawings, and moldy cassette recordings of early music projects certainly recall the raw material of the wonderful documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, but comparing the two artists’ personal lives in a direct 1:1 parallel does them both a disservice. Despite how he was portrayed in Frank– which is now clearly a work of fiction – Sievey was not some mentally ill free spirit who lost his true persona inside the Frank costume. A few myth-building interviewees in the documentary (mostly art dealers & punk scenesters) will try to convince the audience that there was no telling where Sievey ended & Frank began, that their personae were inextricable. That doesn’t seem to be true to the family & friends who knew Sievey well, though, the same way a luchador or an Andy Kaufman type would only drop the bit once in private. Give or take a decades-long bout with alcoholism, there wasn’t anything especially mysterious or enigmatic about Chris Sievey as a human being. He was just an incredibly driven, meticulous artist who wanted to turn his passion for songwriting into a lucrative profession, and Frank was his best chance to make that dream happen.

In that way, Sievey most reminds me of the microbudget backyard filmmaker & songwriter Matt Farley, who regularly churns out a massive flood of multimedia content for a small crowd of dedicated fans. So much about Sievey’s feverish commitment to the Frank Sidebottom project is distinctly Farleyesque: his aggressive self-promotion, his habitual publication of his personal phone number, his detailed record of his personal sports stats (in this case, revolving around a minor league soccer team), his obsessively fussed-over hand-drawn zines, his absurd dedication to prideful small-town localism (in this case, the village of Timperley). That’s not a sign of madness or possessed genius. It’s just a driven artist with a superhuman work ethic. Sievey’s story affords Being Frank drama & pathos in other ways, though. There’s a heartbreaking story to tell here about a fame-focused artist who almost made it big as a Legitimate Musician (most notably with his sarcastically chipper New Wave group The Freshies) only to be overshadowed by a paper mâché novelty act of his own creation. There’s even more heartbreak in interviews with his close family who had to suffer his self-absorbed bullshit whenever he’d put his various projects over their day to day wellbeing – which is always the risk when you love or depend on an artist. I just think framing Sievey as an outsider weirdo instead of a tireless, hardworking showman is doing his artistry a disservice, and I’m saying that as someone who still loves the movie Frank for its own merits as a work of fiction.

Maybe you’d disagree with me and believe Sievey to be a mad, tortured genius who lost himself inside Frank’s paper mâché head. Maybe you wouldn’t think he’s a genius or an impressively productive artist, but rather a half-arsed troll who lucked into a pre-Internet meme that happened to pay his (many, long overdue) bills. Whatever the case, Being Frank does Chris Sievey the service of contextualizing Frank as just one (wildly successful) project in the artist’s decades-spanning portfolio, offering a fairly comprehensive view of who both Frank & Sievey were separate from one another. It’s a thorough document of a bizarro art project and a necessary counterbalance to the fictional mythmaking that’s sprung up around it.

-Brandon Ledet

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2006)

I don’t remember ever crying over a celebrity’s death before this week, when Daniel Johnston died of a heart attack at 58 years old. A singular talent as a songwriter and a cartoonist, Johnston deserved so much better than the hand that life & biology dealt him. He lived long enough to see his work respected by other outsider artists who could tune into the pained genius of his uniquely perceptive song lyrics, but he was also crushed under a life-long struggle with schizophrenic & manic-depressive episodes that could only be kept at bay with a debilitating routine of heavy medications. Johnston’s art, career, and eventually his body where cut short by a mental disorder beyond his or anyone’s control, and it fucking sucks. He deserved so much better.

The one minor consolation in his passing is that Johnston recorded hundreds of songs about death & depression while he was alive to help fans process this deeply shitty news. His low-fi recordings & confessional songwriting style established an intimacy with his audience that’s only fueled by his relative in-the-know obscurity. I first heard Daniel Johnston in the pre-file-sharing days when I got my hands on a burned copy of the Kids soundtrack (years before I saw the actual movie), which featured his song “Casper the Friendly Ghost.” It was a perfect intro to his insular world for not only reflecting his fixations on Death & pop culture iconography, but also feeling like a window into an obscure, unobtainable catalog of outsider music – the exact kind of in-the-know exclusivity you crave as a teenager. It took me years to piece together a collection of Daniel Johnston recordings in the early aughts, starting with a purchase of his sole major-label release Fun and eventually moving on to what stray mp3s I could find on file-staring platforms. That changed drastically with the arrival of The Devil and Daniel Johnston in 2006, a documentary about the fame-seeking-turned-reclusive singer that told his whole life’s story thirteen years before his death. Suddenly, Johnston’s catalog was more accessible in local pop culture media stores; I could find cassettes, CDs, and reissue LPs of his work with much greater, much appreciated ease. He also miraculously started appearing in concerts nearby, arriving as one of the first touring acts I remember seeing in New Orleans post-Katrina, and at least twice more in the decade since.

Weirdly, with this sudden wealth of Johnston material in my life after years of waiting & searching, the documentary itself became almost more of a personal favorite than the recordings it was promoting. You’d think that as a 20-year-old hipster dipshit (with all the protective “I got here first!” snobbery that comes at that age of music fandom), I would have had a chip on my shoulder about a documentary boosting Johnston’s public profile (to the point where his song “Story of an Artist” that’s prominently featured in the film was recently deployed in an Apple commercial, unfathomably). Instead, it became an obsession, the first documentary I ever truly fell in love with. We would watch this film over & over again in my college years, back when it was much cheaper & more convenient to just grind the few DVDs you owned into dust than to constantly loop back to the (rapidly disappearing) local rental stores for fresh content. Not only did The Devil and Daniel Johnston fill a need for more information about a niche musician I could previously only access through the occasional scraps that trickled down to Southeast Louisiana, but the story of his struggles with mental health really hit close to home at that time. A close college friend, like Daniel, had recently triggered an inevitable crisis with bipolar disorder in a period of recreationally experimenting with LSD. After he shed his possessions, began raving about God & The Devil, and started putting himself & others in danger in high-risk situations like moving traffic, we eventually (and conflictedly) found ourselves having him committed to a grim mental institution nearby. Unlike Daniel, that friend appears to be doing fine now, but it still meant a lot to see that same story play out on the screen at the time, even with the worse ending.

Revisiting The Devil and Daniel Johnston the night his premature death was announced, it felt great to confirm that, yes, this is an exquisite specimen of the modern documentary and that I didn’t replay it incessantly in college only because I loved and related to the subject. In the thirteen years since its release, the film’s visual & storytelling style has since become a kind of standard norm in documentary filmmaking, but it really felt emotionally & formally exceptional at the time. Talking-head interviews, still photographs, home movies, television clips, and animated illustrations of Johnston’s songs combine to create a collage portrait of an artist whose world had been fractured many times over. Seeing this template repeated for other troubled artists like Amy Winehouse, Betty Davis, and DEATH in the years since has admittedly lessened some of the film’s impact as a structurally playful piece, but there are still details to the film that make it feel unique in its musician’s portrait genre. Firstly, Johnston’s life story of recording songs in his basement while his parents yelled at him from the stairs to give up on his dreams and get a job, only for him to later make those very tapes infamous by elbowing his way onto MTV (in-between joining a traveling carnival & working at McDonald’s) is incredible. Then, the way his mental disorder disrupted what could have been a thriving career as a songwriter by making him obsess over The Devil and a “love of his life” who he hardly knew (before finally wrecking his ability to take care of himself on a daily basis) makes the film just as much of an emotional experience as it is an informative one. Finally, the wealth of documentation of Daniel’s daily life—from audio recordings, super-8 home movies, photographs, journals, etc.—afford the filmmakers a wealth of material to illustrate the story they’re telling. It’s an incredibly rich experience, one of the very best of its kind.

Much like Johnston’s countless songs about death & depression in his music catalog, this documentary is incredibly helpful in processing the heartbreaking news of his passing. Also like with his songs, that process is not necessarily easy or fun. The opening shot is of Daniel talking in a selfie pose with his super-8 camera pointed at a mirror, announcing, “Hello, I am the ghost of Daniel Johnston,” as if from beyond the grave. Much of the movie plays this way, prematurely covering his life & art as if he were already dead. The final credits play over footage of Johnston posing in a Casper the Friendly Ghost costume in what appears to be a public park, obscured & wraithlike. It hits an emotionally raw nerve, but it’s also beautifully & radically honest, perceptive work. It’s pure Daniel Johnston in that way, so that the movie feels just as essential to his body of work as any of his songs or drawings. If you’re interested in becoming familiar with the life & art of this eternally tragic entertainer or if you need a way to properly say goodbye after years of sharing an intimate connection with his deeply personal D.I.Y. recordings, I highly recommend returning to this film. It will likely fuck you up, but you might also find yourself incessantly replaying it for morbid comfort & for curious friends the way I once did. Life was incredibly shitty to Daniel Johnston, but at least this movie was worthy of him.

-Brandon Ledet

When I Get Home (2019)

When I Get Home is a feature-length music video from R&B singer-songwriter Solange, who has presented the work as an “inter-disciplinary performance art film” and a companion piece to her album of the same name. As such, the film has been projected in select art museum spaces and arthouse movie theaters across the country (including NOMA and The Broad in New Orleans) instead of being quietly shoveled off to streaming platforms like so may “visual albums” have in recent years, despite their lofty cinematic ambitions. I went into my screening When I Get Home not being especially familiar with Solange’s work as a musician (despite her status as an adopted New Orleans local), but still wanting to support projects like this, Lemonade, and Dirty Computer getting the proper theatrical treatment – as they often prove to be among the best filmmaking achievements of their respective years. I’m a huge sucker for the feature-length music video as a medium; it’s a format that’s primed to reach levels of #purecinema ecstasy that traditional narrative features are often too weighed down by plot & logic to achieve, as it’s free to experiment with the basic sensory combination of visuals + sound that defines cinema in the first place without being distracted by any other concerns. When I Get Home is no exception there. It’s pure visual poetry, the exact transcendent visual lyricism we look for when we venture out for Art Movies at the cinema, which are sadly in short supply as of late (at least through proper distribution channels).

The “home” referred to in this title is not New Orleans, but rather Solange’s nearby hometown of Houston, TX. Although the film does not follow a clear plotline the way Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer video anthology project did last year, this concept of examining Houston as a homeland does serve as a unifying theme for When I Get Home. This is a kind of R&B sci-fi acid Western portrait of the Black people of Houston that reaches more for poetry than it does for clear messaging. Traditional Black cowboys & cowgirls on horseback trot through the Texan deserts that surround the city, as well as the more rural suburban environments that define its borders. The crisp, geometric lines of Houston’s downtown business district present the city as a modern space as well (albeit one somewhat stuck in the sensibilities of the 70s & 80s), and that architecture is abstracted throughout the film as a backdrop for a series of high-fashion photo shoots. We also jump from this stylish present into a peculiarly kitschy retro-futurism, where a Barbarella-type astronaut stripper drags a sparking spaceship motherboard through the desert (in heels!) and glitchy agriculture robots with giant dongs dance under a crop duster in a sports-stadium-turned-future-farm. It’s a bewildering collection of past-present-future imagery that’s most clearly tied together by Solange’s constant soundtrack – which includes Houstonian touches throughout among its melancholy vocals & synthy flourishes (like DJ Screw chops & tape-warps and lyrical references to “candy paint”) to keep the picture on-theme. This is a sprawling multimedia work that invites subjective interpretation more than straightforward communication, but it does amount to a stunning portrait of Black life in Houston across time when considered in total.

What really lands When I Get Home close to my own heart is the way it juxtaposes high-art formalism with pedestrian Digital Age media like text messages & YouTube clips – a combination that I will always be on the hook for. So much of this film operates like an ethereal art piece dedicated to seeking pristine beauty in every frame that it’s outright jarring when these sensual pleasures are interrupted with Power Point-level animation graphics and flip phone-quality online found-footage. I couldn’t get enough of it. I’ve seen dozens of feature films from 2019 so far and, yet, there’s a montage in this where Solange adjusts the webcam on her laptop over & over again that I swear is the most invigorating thing I’ve seen on the big screen all year. There are more affordable, wide-ranging means of production in filmmaking than ever before, yet most of the tech that’s available to us in our daily lives (even in just the tools we use to record & broadcast our day via social media) are often locked out of inclusion in Legitimate Cinema. Already freed from these concerns a both as a music video and as a multimedia collage, When I Get Home uses every tool at its disposal to create its surreal Houstonian dreamscape, and its most effective moments often come across when its imagery look cheapest – if not only through the virtue of contrast. There’s also a kind of overexposed photography aesthetic about its high-art vignettes that ties them into the more pedestrian online imagery, as it affords the film the patina of a well-selected Instagram filter (even though these images were mostly recorded on actual celluloid). There’s something vitally honest and comprehensive about this high-low filmmaking inclusivity that I found more daring & exciting than most Real Movies I’ve seen projected in theaters all year.

The synth-heavy, off-center musical compositions in the film are phenomenal. The fashion, sculpture, choreography, and makeup artistry on display are exquisitely composed & presented in surreal juxtaposition with their locales. Its vision of an eternally black, mystical Houston is pure cinematic poetry. Even the old-fashioned cowboy aesthetic of this Black Houston portraiture (complete with exaggerated Spaghetti Western zoom-ins) is remarkably well timed, considering “Old Town Road’s” year-long dominance of the Billboard charts. When I Get Home is not a novelty act or a meme-in-motion like that Lil Nas X hit, however, no matter how much irreverent humor and dirt-cheap online imagery it weaves into its more pristine cinematic impulses. This is a work of pure artistic ambition, unconcerned with the limitations of its medium that are usually dictated by commercial concerns (despite it effectively being an advertisement for its accompanying album, in longstanding music video tradition). My only disappointment when leaving the theater was that I didn’t get to see Dirty Computer or Lemonade presented in the same proper theatrical environment, as these visual album projects really are pushing cinema forward as an artform in a way few other modern genres even dare to attempt.

-Brandon Ledet

How a Japanese Anime Theme Song Found Way into an Italian Romcom Set in Greece

When discussing our current Move of the Month, the horned-up Italian romcom Ginger & Cinnamon, one of our major fixations was on the chaotic nature of its soundtrack. This early-aughts romcom, set in the Spring Break-style hedonism of the Grecian island Ios, features a jarringly eclectic collection of tunes that seemingly have nothing to do with each other: romantic sitars, pop music from Culture Club & The Village People, post-punk from Wire, a lengthy homage to musicarello star Mina, and every other spur-of-the-moment indulgence the film wishes to entertain itself with. The track that really stood out to me, though, was a very short disco number that the two main characters (a heartbroken aunt who’s recovering from a breakup and her lovelorn teenage niece who’s aiming to shed her virginity) walk down the street to, singing along with every rapid-fire syllable. Given the disco-flavored rhythms of the tune and the film’s setting, I assumed the track was an Italian entry into the wildly popular Eurovision Song Contest. As such, I was shocked to learn later that it was titled “UFO Robot” and was, in reality, a theme song to a 1970s anime television show.

Running for 74 episodes from 1974 to 1975, the Japanese sci-fi action cartoon UFO Robot Grendizer was only a brief blip in the overall output of the country’s long-running success in exporting animation abroad. Arriving as Force Five: Grandizer in the US, the show never quite found the domestic cult following other properties like Astro Boy, Speed Racer, and Sailor Moon enjoyed here. However, it was a massive hit in other countries – including France, French-speaking Canada, across the Middle East, and—wait for it—Italy. Packaged as UFO Robot for the Italian market, Grendizer was retrofitted with an Italian-language soundtrack from the (seemingly fictional) disco group Actarus, who provided several dance-beat themes for the series, including the titular one featured in Ginger & Cinnamon. While the original Japanese theme to the show has a serious, militaristic tone, all the Actarus songs I can track down on YouTube are much more fun & playful, which I’m sure helped make the show iconic for the Italian kids who grew up with it. That would at least help explain how the titular “UFO Robot” track was treated with the same nostalgic weight as major hits like “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?,” “Y.M.C.A.,” and Mina’s “Ta Ra Ta Ta.”

Nostalgia actually seems to be the unifying force behind Ginger & Cinnamon’s chaotic soundtrack choices in general. The “Ta Ra Ta Ta” sequence directly recalls the traditional musicarelli the wistful, nostalgic aunt character would have watched on television as a young child. The “1.2.X.U. “ cut from Wire (along with the more traditional 80s club hits) evokes the more rambunctious era of her teen years, when she was just as dangerously young & horny as her niece. In that way, “UFO Robot” fits right in with the rest of the collection. The aunt is the exact right age where UFO Robo would have been her standard Saturday Morning cartoon viewing as a child, making it a song selection just as primed for nostalgia as a Village People single – as long as you grew up in Italy at the exact right moment.

It turns out she’s not alone. Just last year, for the 2018 Record Store Day, a vinyl LP collection with all of the Actarus disco tracks for UFO Robot was printed for collectors on red, numbered wax. It’s enough of a nostalgia trigger for a specific group of people that it’s freshly back on the market in the most nostalgia-friendly format around. Even if for some reason you don’t want to personally invest in a physical copy of an Italian soundtrack to a Japanese television show you’ve likely never heard of before, though, you should still at least check out the “UFO Robot” track below. It’s a bop, and it’s one of the highlights of the Ginger & Cinnamon soundtrack.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the horned up Italian romcom Ginger & Cinnamon (2003), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its musicarello inspirations.

-Brandon Ledet

The 2019 Concert Films that Saved Me a Ticket to Jazz Fest

We live only a few blocks away from the New Orleans Fairgrounds where the Jazz & Heritage Festival is staged every year. This means the festival is automatically a part of our annual social calendar, if not only because our house effectively becomes a cab stand for the occasion (which makes for some excellent front porch people-watching, I tell you what). In that way, we’re already a part of the Jazz Fest experience every day of the two-week ritual no matter what, but we also usually manage to attend at least a couple performances at the festival each year in-person for good measure. 2019 is the first year since we purchased a house in the Jaz Fest orbit that we weren’t able to actually attend the fest on-the-grounds – due to a lack of funds, comped tickets, and free time. We still got in some good people-watching on the periphery of the festivities, but the closest we got to attending a performance was hearing a voice just clear enough from our porch to tell that it was Alanis Morrissette’s but not clear enough to actually tell what she was singing. Thanks to a couple well-timed concert film releases over the past few weeks, however, I was more or less able to achieve the general Jazz Fest experience in the air-conditioned darkness of my living room & a nearby movie theater. It may not have been quite as pure of a concert-going experience as witnessing a Jazz Fest performance in person, but at least it saved me from my annual Jazz Fest sunburn – a ritual I was happy to skip.

For the outdoor, mainstage Jazz Fest experience, the recent Netflix release of the Beyoncé concert documentary Homecoming was extremely well-timed. Documenting her two instantly historic performances at last year’s Coachella, the film’s obviously imbued with a larger stage production, a harsher climate, and more massively overpacked crowds than anything you’ll ever experience on the Fairgrounds. Still, it took me back to the Hell of watching Elton John serenade an oversized crowd of dehydrated bullies a few festivals ago – making me grateful that Beyoncé documented this spectacle for posterity so that those of us without the money or stamina required for Coachella can enjoy it into perpetuity. A major departure from the diary-like intimacy of Lemonade, Homecoming finds Queen Bey entertaining her masses in grand spectacle – putting on one of the all-time great stage shows in the medium of pop music. Like Jazz Fest at its best, the project is also deliberate in its explicit preservation & exultation of black culture. Besides presenting a bewildering two-hour catalog of Beyoncé classics with mesmeric precision in craft, the film also functions as a feature-length love letter to Historically Black Colleges and Universities – particularly in its drumline & steppers percussions that accent the songs throughout. And, because HBCUs are specifically a Southern black tradition, the film’s sensibilities often incorporate a distinct New Orleans Flavor in their creative DNA. The marching band brass, DJ Jubilee bounce beats, Big Freeida vocal sample, and in-the-wild wild Solange sighting all felt at home to New Orleans more so than California, where it was actually staged.

Personally, I find the in-the-sun concert experience of Jazz Fest’s main stages a little overwhelming, even with only a fraction of the Beychella crowd in attendance. As a result, I often find myself hiding out from the major acts in the smaller tent venues, where the Sun can’t find me. The Gospel Tent is a required stop every year to complete the Jazz Fest ritual, then, an experience I was able to approximate in a movie theater thanks to the recent Aretha Franklin concert doc Amazing Grace. Originally filmed for television in 1972, Amazing Grace was delayed from release for decades – reportedly due to technical difficulties regarding its sync-sound editing, but mostly just so it could arrive at a nearby AMC at the exact year I missed my annual pilgrimage to the Gospel Tent. Filmed over two nights in a Los Angeles Baptist church, Amazing Grace is a raw, emotionally powerful showcase for Franklin’s soul-rattling vocals – which tear through a catalog of Gospel standards with a divine fury. Franklin isn’t offered the same stage show spectacle or auteurist control Beyoncé commands in Homecoming here, but the sweaty intimacy of being locked in a church with her incredible voice for two nights is almost enough to make you weep – even with the remove of a half-century and a movie screen. It’s the essence of the Gospel Tent amplified to thunderous effect. Mick Jagger even showed his face in the crowd among the attendees, which was more of the Stones than who showed up for this year’s Jazz Fest, even though they were initially the biggest act booked.

There are certainly more substantial comparisons to be made between Homecoming & Amazing Grace than how they can evoke a full music festival experience in tandem. These are two essential, transcendent documents of powerful black women performing at the top of their game – distinct achievements in the concert-movie medium that could inspire endless discussions of their subtext & nuance. CC & I even touched on some of these nuances ourselves in a recent podcast episode that paired the two films with Childish Gambino’s own recent Coachella-season release, Guava Island. For anyone who missed this year’s Jazz Fest like I did or anyone who just wants to let those post-Fest vibes linger a little longer, however, I do encourage you to pair these two incredible works to synthesize the general effect of physically attending the fest – without the crowds & heat.

-Brandon Ledet

Betty: They Say I’m Different (2018)

Betty Davis doesn’t owe us shit. After putting out three raw, sweaty albums of highly sexual, unapologetically political funk in the 1970s, Davis had far too little to show for her contributions to black feminist art, fashion, and music. In a famous pull-quote, her ex-husband Miles Davis described her as “Madonna before Madonna, Prince before Prince” in an effort to bolster her notoriety, but it’s an empty platitude that at best reads as too little too late. Betty is often contextualized as “Miles Davis’s wife” in her press and reduced to her contributions in changing the direction of his own fashion & art. That has got to sting, considering her acknowledgements that Miles had physically abused her in the brief time they were married. Her contemporary press was also severely critical of her art & appearance – labeling her as a disgrace to her own race & gender for exploring & exhibiting her sexuality in an aggressive manor onstage. Denigrated in the press, abused by her partner, never afforded the commercial adulation she deserved, and essentially locked out of the mainstream music industry by the white men who own it, Betty Davis eventually got fed up with us and chose to disappear. For the past few decades her closest collaborators and most adoring fans have been attempting to reach her and boost her profile, to let her know that her work is valued and to help her enjoy some of that value in back-owed monetary gain. The brisk, crowdfunded documentary Betty: They Say I’m Different (named after her most iconic album) is a major part of that effort to boost her public profile and to draw her out of her shell enough to see that she is adored & idolized. The problem is that she’s not very interested in reconciling with her public, and we have no right to pressure her into it.

This documentary has taken on the unenviable task of boosting the profile of a reclusive artist who’s been actively trying to disappear for the last few decades. It’s a well-intentioned primer in sparking wider public interest in Davis’s too-long buried funk albums, but also struggles to build a story around the very few scraps of information Davis is willing to reveal about herself. That self-conflict can make the film feel a little frustratingly thin as entertainment media, but also admirable in going out of its way to respect Davis’s privacy. You can tell Davis had substantial creative input in how her story is told here, if not only because so little of it is told at all. Most of the hard facts on display are what’s already public knowledge: her move from a childhood in Pittsburgh to an artistic life in NYC, a timeline of the few albums she managed to release while she was in the public spotlight, and press clippings exploring why she was so controversial in the context of the Civil Rights Era. Besides a few surface-level interviews with family, friends, and scholars, Davis relays the rest of the story herself through several careful removes. Her narration is delivered in first-person but written in collaboration with director Phil Cox and recorded post-production by a voice actor. She appears briefly onscreen, but always out of focus in her modest Pittsburgh apartment, back turned to the camera and to the world. The explanation of her disappearance is filtered through several layers of metaphor – allowing the imagery of perched crows, wilting flowers, and trips to Japan to substitute the gaps in her narrative she’s not willing to reveal. We have no right to ask any more of Betty as a “public” figure, but that elusiveness leaves the film stuck between wanting to tell her story her way and needing to pad out its slim 54-minute runtime with something, which becomes its biggest struggle as a standalone work.

As someone who knew too little about Betty Davis before seeing this documentary, if anything at all, I found They Say I’m Different well worthwhile as an advertisement for her few commercial releases as a funk artist. The movie is incredibly useful as a fandom primer in that way – often filling out its runtime with YouTube-style lyrics videos of her most significant songs. It’s a tactic that’s led to actual, real-world good – boosting album sales of vinyl reissues of her work that are directly putting money in the pocket of an artist who deserved that payout decades ago. On the other end, I’m sure that the most dedicated of longtime Betty Davis superfans will be ecstatic for the few isolated glimpses of her current life that she reveals here, as sparse & limited as they are. The other ways the film treads water to respect her privacy are a little less satisfying – animated pop art collages, repetitive snippets of slo-mo concert footage without sync-sound, time elapse photography of wilting flowers that feels like it was borrowed from an unrelated project, etc. Hindered by the privacy of its subject, They Say I’m Different finds itself scrambling to fill in dead air with artsy-fartsy techniques on an extremely limited budget, which often leaves it feeling like an hour-long trailer for a more complete film. For it to have done any better, though, it would have had to violate the wishes of the very subject it aims to promote & support. The way it ties one arm behind its own back as an entertainment is actually an ethical victory for it as an effort of retribution to Betty as an artist and a person. We don’t deserve a better Betty Davis documentary any more than we deserve Betty Davis herself; she doesn’t owe us any more than she’s already given. The best any modern profile of her can hope to achieve is boosting her record sales and then leaving her alone, which this one does as respectably as possible.

-Brandon Ledet