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 thematical 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

Buckjumping (2019)

Mardi Gras has an elusive spirit that’s impossible to accurately capture onscreen – whether in documentation or in fictional restaging. That’s largely because it’s a participatory culture – one that can only be reveled in, not observed. Countless local documentaries have attempted to tackle that impossible topic over the years anyway, usually through the lens of specific pockets of New Orleans Mardi Gras culture: the costume-beading traditions of Mardi Gras Indians, the pageant-drag of gay Carnival ball culture, the disruption of festivities caused by Hurricane Katrina, etc. For my money, the only doc that’s truly come close to nailing down the spirit of Mardi Gras is the classic Les Blank pic Always for Pleasure, which spreads its love & attention around an impressive portion of the city by partying along with its subjects. I mention this only to clarify that I mean it as a huge compliment when I say that the recent documentary Buckjumping feels like a 2010s update to Always for Pleasure, and a damn good one at that. Shot with at least six cinematographers over a three-year span, this low-budget doc demonstrates incredible patience in spreading its admiration, observation, and participation in New Orleans culture across the city to reach as many traditions as possible. At times, its parallels to the Les Blank classic feel deliberate, such as how it updates Always for Pleasure’s recipe tips from soul legend Irma Thomas by staging kitchen interviews with 90s bounce rapper Mia X (among interviews with other local hip-hop royalty like Mannie Fresh & DJ Jubilee). More often, their shared sensibility is more apparent in how they relate to the city and how well they capture its elusive spirit.

To be clear: Buckjumping isn’t specifically about Mardi Gras per se. Its announced subject is New Orleans dance traditions, which just naturally tend to revolve around the holiday. The ambition of that subject’s scope gradually becomes apparent as the overwhelming number of New Orleans dance traditions pile up onscreen: second-lines, jazz funerals, high school marching troupes, Mardi Gras Indians, dive bar drag acts, etc. Although it does conclude on the most modern addition to this tableau (the shaking & twerking of New Orleans bounce), it’s not so much a historical timeline of dance traditions from the city’s 300 year past as it is a participatory record of the traditions that are still thriving today. Led by head cinematographer Zac Manuel, the camerawork feels alive & alert in its hands-on engagement with its subject – filming the parade marches of dance troupes, footwork stunts of second-liners, and sweaty body-popping of bounce club hedonists with impressive intimacy & craft. There are extremes of emotions that naturally arise through that intimacy, from the soul-crushing grief of mourning to the ecstatic out-of-body experiences of second-line footwork at its most jubilant. Of course, this up-close, privileged documentation should be of interest to anyone who studies dance as an artform, but I think labeling Buckjumping simply as a dance documentary would be selling its merits short. This is a document of the elusive spirit of the city at its best, without comprising the black, queer, and radically political influences that propel that culture the way so many #NOLA commercializations of the city do. In other words, it’s an Always for Pleasure for the 2010s.

Living on Broad Street in the 7th Ward, one of my favorite Mardi Gras traditions is to hide in my living room from the first second-line after Fat Tuesday, not making it to the porch to cheer on the brass bands & rhapsodic dancers the way we usually do for the rest of the year. I’m always amazed that the local Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs still have the energy to party in that post-Carnival refractory period, the most recent one of which occurred the exact week I saw Buckumping at its second-ever screening. There are plenty of historical anecdotes & explanations of political context in this documentary that detail the evolution of our dance traditions (especially regarding their roots in slavery), but its greatest accomplishment might just be in how well it conveys the passion & compulsion that makes that bottomless dance energy possible. Maybe it takes an enthusiastic outsider to accurately capture that spirit onscreen (like Les Blank was when he filmed Always for Pleasure, Buckumping’s director Lily Keber is a young outsider relatively new to the city). More likely, this film is one of the few to accurately capture the elusive spirit of the city because it instinctively knows to participate rather than to merely observe (working with local cinematographers is likely also a plus). Either way, it’s an impressively successful, if not outright essential document of local Mardi Gras traditions – dance and beyond.

-Brandon Ledet

Cold War (2018)

There’s an expensive type of fine art photography print—one with processing names like Ilfochrome & Cibachrome—that makes black & white prints look positively silver, vibrantly metallic instead of merely devoid of color. It’s a look that’s been digitally replicated recently in comic book noir visual experiments like (the positively dreadful) Sin City & Mad Max: Fury Road’s (surprisingly worthwhile) “Black & Chrome” reissue. It’s also so old-fashioned to cinematic language that the phrase “on the silver screen” is a well-worn cliché. The most striking thing about the romantic Polish drama Cold War is the silver glow of its cinematography – so visually stunning it recalls seeing an expensive Cibachrome print in person instead of in recreation. Shot in a boxy “Academy” aspect ratio and covering nearly two decades of a tragic romance in 90 rapid-fire minutes of editing room efficiency, Cold War is undeniably impressive as a formalist object. It’s absolutely stunning as a fine art photograph – both handsome & haunting in its cold, metallic imagery. Yet, as a motion picture it’s a little too formally rigid for its own good, and staring at any still image photograph for 90 consecutive minutes is going to test your patience, no matter how well composed.

That’s not to say there’s no passion, music, or movement to the story Cold War tells. In fact, its story about two mismatched lovers whose passionate, unavoidable attraction to each other inevitably leads them to ruin is full of life & music. It’s just that its overwhelming, soul-consuming emotions are directly at odds with its art gallery formalism. A music director of a Polish folk preservation project falls in love with one of the more mysterious, magnetic performers in his cast – a young woman with a violent past. Their lust for each other is consummated quickly across class lines, but they subsequently fail to establish a normal, healthy life together as romantic partners. As an artistic musical project meant to preserve authentic Polish folk culture is coopted as nationalist propaganda under Stalinist rule, indicating the general political landscape around them, the two lovers make drastically different choices in how they relate to their shared homeland. Their mutual attraction to each other is deadly powerful, however, and they continually cross social, political, and ethical boundaries over a decade or so of dangerous cat & mouse “romance.” The problem is that the harshly segmented edits, rigidly formalist photography, and overall machine-like precision of the filmmaking does little to match or enhance their passion. As impressed as I was with the film’s storytelling efficiency, it felt like the deadly attraction at its core kept getting cut short every time it started to heat up. The result was very pretty to look at, but also frustratedly stilted in its movement.

The opening “Poland’s Got Talent” portion of Cold War, where hipster sophisticates “elevate” “peasant-style” folk art by affording it a proper stage, matched the rigid fine art photography of its formalist structure perfectly. As the wild, destructive passions of its story heat up & flame out, however, the film does little to signify that change in any noticeable way. It’s like watching a handsomely composed still photograph try to break form and become a motion picture, but it never leaves its fixed spot on the art gallery wall. This is a complaint I saw lodged much more frequently (and, to me, erroneously) at another one of this year’s Oscar frontrunners: Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. If any film’s form does not match its subject, it’s Cold War, where it’s easy to be impressed with the silver screen artistry of the projected image, but difficult to get swept up in the music, movement, and emotion before they’re harshly cut short. I can’t deny the potency of the film’s visual achievements, but I wonder if they were applied to the right project.

-Brandon Ledet

Hunky Dory (2011)

There’s certainly other cinematic comfort food just as laidback & eager to please as the 2011 high school drama Hunk Dory, but rarely does it look this nice. Set in 1970s Wales, the film looks like a sunlit Polaroid dipped in honey, a perfect amber hue to capture the stoney-haze nostalgia of high school summers. This is a slow-moving hang-out picture molded after the Linklater tones established in Dazed & Confused and Slacker, but one that makes little effort to match those films in narrative complexity or character development – instead choosing to find its own distinct voice in the basic pleasures of its sights & sounds. The tendency of most 1970s nostalgia dramas would be to over-indulge in playing dress-up & recreating the era’s lingo. Hunky Dory instead busies itself by capturing mood, searching for the perfect tone of sun-damaged, over-exposed photographs so that it looks like a memory. Even its soundtrack of 1970s glam & stadium rock standards are mutated to feel like nostalgic memory & mood instead of being presented as original-recording needle drops. It’s cinematic comfort food in its deliberate embrace of narrative & thematic simplicity, but also just in the way it feels like an afternoon nap in a hammock.

Minnie Driver stars as a high school drama teacher struggling to hold her teen students’ behavior together at the tail end of a troublesome semester. She encourages them to examine & process their emotions through a class project that reimagines Shakespeare’s The Tempest as a jukebox musical featuring then-modern rock numbers by groups like ELO, Roxy Music, and Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders from Mars. There’s a twee tinge to the instrumentation behind those glam rock covers (recalling those early 2010s YouTube clips of grade school choirs taking on acts like Beach House & Tame Impala), but the musical performances are thoughtfully arranged & relevant to the themes of The Tempest in a remarkably rewarding way. Less remarkable is the hangout character drama that fills the languid spaces between performances: teenage runaway crises, minor romantic betrayals, Driver arguing for the academic value of artistic expression to her more narrow-minded colleagues, etc. Anything that’s lacking in those conflicts is easily paved over by its endearing “Let’s put on a show!” dramatic structure, so that when the film concludes with a glam rock, outdoors staging of The Tempest it’s all smiles & warmth. The only frustrating thing is that you can’t watch the stage play in full.

Hunky Dory introduces its characters as if you already know them from a pre-existing television show or stage play, spending way more time on the “Where are they now?” wrap-up in the end credits than in opening minutes’ exposition. It mostly gets away with it too, since its archetypal depictions of 1970s teen behavior feels instantly familiar despite the specificity of its Welsh setting. The frustrated violence, denim-on-denim make-outs, and low-key hedonism of high school brats verging on summer break are so familiar that sketching out individual character traits among this sprawling cast of fresh faces is almost unnecessary. The film easily gets by on capturing the mood of the time without weighing itself down in specifics. This is accomplished mostly through sights & sounds: honey-dipped digital photography & choral arrangements of nostalgia-inducing ear worms. Hunky Dory is marketed as being “from the producers of Billy Elliott,” which should give you an accurate expectation for what you’ll find in its unambitious, but perfectly endearing nostalgia-drama indulgences. Its greatest sin is that the full-length staging of its glam rock Tempest isn’t included as a DVD extra, since the song selection & arrangement of what’s included in the film is thoughtfully planned out enough to indicate that it could be done.

-Brandon Ledet