Category Archives: Film Review

Woody Guthrie Documentaries on DVD

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There are two documentary films available about American Folk legend Woody Guthrie.  The first released in 2005 is called Woody Guthrie: This Machine Kills Fascists.  The other is a PBS documentary from the American Masters series that was released in 2007 called American Masters: Woody Guthrie.

Both films are pretty similar, obviously sharing the same subject matter and the chronological method by which they tell Woody’s story.  Each film features a introduction then eventually switches to a chronological narration of his story (w/ periodic meanderings off topic).  The 2005 doc separates Woody’s story into chapters which unfortunately doesn’t do much for the film.  For the most part they also feature the same interview subjects (Pete Seeger, various experts/biographers, and living relatives including his daughter Nora Guthrie), although the longer of the two films has quite a few more interviews.  The 2005 version is the longer of the two coming out at 2 hours and 40 minutes and the PBS doc is 90 minutes long.  The two films feature high profile narrators, the 2005 release features British Singer/Songwriter Billy Bragg, and the PBS film boasts the narration by actor Peter Coyote.  In the 2005 version Billy Bragg appears in the film in a handful of segments which honestly come off a little stiff.   The two films expertly make use of Guthrie’s large catalog of recorded material, including audio clips from interviews and radio shows.

One of the joys of watching these documentaries is you are visually given the context in which the music was created and you get a history lesson for those songs that were about actual events.  Much of the music Woody wrote was about the American experience or specific events.  It is great to have these films to walk us through those pieces of history we may not remember or be aware of.  Great examples of this are his songs “The Sinking of the Reuben James” and “Dusty Old Dust (So Long It’s Been Good To Know Yuh)” which are about about a US Navy warship that sank in WWII and the American Dust Bowl of the early to mid 1930s, both of which are discussed in the these films.

It was a great surprise to me to find out how much I didn’t know about Guthrie and these films did a great job at filling in those gaps.  This surprise was magnified by the fact that I have read Woody Guthrie’s Autobiography Bound For Glory.  Granted the book was written and published (1943) before a big chunk of Guthrie’s formative years, it did not do the job.  Let me be clear, I never found it to be boring… I just didn’t find it to be particularly informative and since watching these films I find out large chunks of it were embellished or untrue.  Woody had a way of portraying himself as a uneducated country boy, it was a part of his charm and I think that the autobiography follows that line.

Out of the two films I felt that the American Masters version was by far the most enjoyable.  This Machine Kills Fascists has its merits and among them is it’s extremely thorough and detailed.  Unfortunately with that it is just way too long and honestly when looking back came off a little flabby and a bit repetitive.  I would say that the American Masters film is just the right amount of detail and the information portrayed is also better organized.

Stay tuned to my site as I will be posting more about my studies of Guthrie including a post that will get into his life and music in a little more detail.  If you are interested in the watching the films you can find them both as part of the Netflix library or click the pics above as they are linked to the Amazon product pages.  Other suggested material would be the feature film based on Guthrie’s autobiography Bound for Glory.  Although I have not read them, you also have the pick of two print biographies that have been released in the last 10 years, Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie by Studs Terkel and Ed Cray as well as This Land Was Made for You and Me: The Life and Songs of Woody Guthrie by Elizabeth Partridge.


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O Brother, Where Art Thou?

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What a great film.  The Cohen Brothers at their best in my opinion.  It’s a wonderfully clever retelling of Homer’s Iliad in the style of a 3 Stooges movie set in an alternate universe during a time period much like Depression/Dust Bowl era America.  But as this is not a film blog, I digress and transition into talking about one of the films main tools used in transporting the viewer into the past.  That being music of course.

Now there is the obvious – the soundtrack is pretty damn good.  A fact that is indisputably evident by its critical and commercial success; it’s a little polished for my taste but I really dig the spirit of the project.  The film’s music was written/produced/selected by T-Bone Burnett, who is best known for producing a bunch of pretty successful records by artists most would recognize, but is also a folk revival focused singer/songwriter who has released a few solo records.  T-Bone did a great job transporting us into the past while still keeping the sound fresh.  He did this by re-recording quite a few folk classics by current artists; for example you’ve got an artist like Chris Thomas King doing “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” which was originally written and recorded by Delta Blues Legend Skip James.  There is a few songs that are included in their original versions on the soundtrack, most notably Harry McClintock’s “Big Rock Candy Mountain” from 1939.

Personally, the most impressive and enjoyable aspects of the film is how they interweave the folklore and history that surrounds the music into the movie.  Here are a few examples.

In the film real life singer/guitarist Chris Thomas King plays a character by the name of Tommy Johnson who is on the run from the law and had just sold his soul to the devil on at the crossroads.  Sound familiar?..  Yes, its just the devilishly clever Cohens working in that old blues fable about the quintessential Delta Blues guitarist Robert Johnson into their film.

During a political event in the film there is a musical act identified as The Brightsiders, singing “Keep On The Sunny Side”.  The group is made up of 2 women and 1 man and is later joined by 3 girls for the song “In The Highways”.  Both tunes are songs by the Carter Family for which the film is so obviously making tribute.

Lastly, I’d like to point out the interesting amalgamation which makes up the character know in the film as Pappy O’daniel.  In the film he is the host of a radio show entitled “Pappy O’daniel’s Flour Hour” which is a reference to a more recent radio program called King Biscuit Flower Hour.  KBFH is based on the original old timey blues radio program called King Biscuit Time which started in 1941 and continues today on WFFA in Helena, Arkansas.  In the film the character is the Governor of Mississippi, and turns out to be loosely based two different real life radio personality/politicians:  Texas Governor Wilbert Lee “Pappy” O’daniel and former Louisiana Governer Jimmie Davis.

Besides the soundtrack, for those that are interested there are a bunch of cash-in projects that came out shortly after the movie and soundtrack became such a hit.  Among those is a live concert featuring the same artists called Down From The Mountain.  Also there are a few compilations featuring selections from female Bluegrass musicians called O Sister! and a few budget imports CD compilations that compile the songs in their original incarnations.

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Low – You May Need A Murderer (DVD)

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Today’s feature is the 2008 film documentary by dutch director David Kleijwegt about one of my favorite Minnesota bands – Low.  This 70 minute document is a multimedia portrait of an unique American family and band.  The film focuses on the two core members of the band; Alan Sparhawk and his wife Mimi Parker.  Throughout the film you are treated to interviews with both members (although it focuses on Sparhawk), along with snapshots of their daily life (along with their two children), with ample time for live performances.  The locale of the film was mainly Low’s home town of Duluth Minnesota which I found a little peculiar considering I had just vacationed there a week before viewing the film.

Sparhawk is an odd interview subject as he hardly ever makes eye contact with the director or looks into the camera unless he is singing.  Most of his time is spent looking off into the distance obviously caught up in what is going on inside his head.  The film surprisingly tackles the two hot-buttoned issues (if there can be such thing) that surround the band, those being the fact that the two core members are devout Mormons, and Sparhawk’s emotional breakdown in 2005.  The film covers the two issues delicately and both Alan and Mimi answer questions honestly and bravely.  I still was left a little confused by some of Alan’s explanations about his breakdown as he was really unable to answer clearly – but I can imagine that the experience would be the least clear to him.

Considering I grew up in Minnesota, and I have been a huge fan of Low since the late 1990s I may be a little biased on this film.  Overall I thought the film was a perfect companion to their music, having the same emotional properties of their songs – chilling, pensive, minimal, and starkly beautiful.  So obviously if you are a fan of the music this film is a must see.  The film may be a little too quiet and slow for most music fans, so unless you are at least a little familiar with their music I would start with some of their early releases.  If you like that, then you will most likely enjoy the film.  Personally I dream of a world in which everyone is a Low fan, it would be a much better place.

There is also another Low documentary out there called Low In Europe which was released on DVD in 2005.

The DVD also features 6 audio tracks that were especially recorded during the filming of the documentary as a special feature titled “At Home with Low”.  Preview them below… (click here if you do not see the playlist)

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Cadillac Records

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Cadillac records is the Hollywood treatment of the story of the Chess record label.  The film centers on the founder of Chess Records – Leonard Chess and the labels first star Muddy Waters.  Although the film is not a complete disappointment, its your basic Hollywood over-simplification / over-dramatization of the true events.  Granted the film is “based on a true story”, they omit and make up connections that weren’t there to enhance the dramatic effect and dumb it down for the audience.  I had similar issues with the Johnny Cash /June Carter romance “Walk The Line”.

Here is a quick list of my disagreements with this movie:

  • Very early on they portray Leonard Chess as being the underdog with a ridiculous exchange between him and some girls father.  Additionally they play up his death as if it happened on the way out from his last session with Etta James.  In reality he died a few months after he sold Chess Records.
  • The relationship between Leonard and Etta James is completely fictitious.  Many other relationships and conflicts in the movie are also embellished including the scene in which Little Walter hits on Geneva.  Also Muddy’s conflict with Leonard about his pay (in truth he cheated Chuck Berry more in that he was using his earnings to pay Muddy during hard times) was played up quite a bit.
  • The story completely omits Muddy’s trusty pianist/band leader Otis Spann and doesn’t lend any focus on his guitarist Jimmy Rogers.  Also almost completely passed over save for one scene in which Etta James is introduced is Leonard’s brother Phil who was part owner of the label/studio.  There was also no mention of the fact that Leonard & Phil got their start in the record business when they bought stake in Aristocrat Records where they recorded a lot of Muddy’s original hits.
  • Even though I think Jeffrey Wright (Muddy Waters) is a very talented actor I did not feel him in this role and thought they could have casted someone more fitting.

In the interest of being fair & balanced here is a list of things I enjoyed or thought the film did well:

  • Casting in the film overall is right on.  The choices of Mos Def as Chuck Berry, Eamonn Walker as Howlin Wolf, and Columbus Short as Little Walter were perfect.  I even found myself enjoying Beyonce as Etta James and I usually find her unbelievably blank.
  • One relationship they hit right on was the tension between Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.  I think in later years they chilled out but early on there was a rivalry between the two blues singers.
  • The film does a wonderful job remaking the music with the actors doing the vocals for the most part.  I thought Jeffrey Wright was a little weak, but the others did a great job.  The song picks were also well done.  Leonard’s son Marshall acted as the Executive Music Producer on the film.
  • Included are quite a few important moments and characters for which the film does a passable job at blending them in.  For example the introduction of Muddy Waters getting recorded by Alan Lomax & John Work which was true.

Overall not the worst movie, but what things the film does well are ruined by the film bending the truth to make it more interesting to common movie goers.

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The Carter Family: Will the Circle Be Unbroken (DVD)

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This is the one and only documentary that I could find on The Carter Family.  Produced as part of the American Experience series on PBS in 2005, it is a 1 hour straight forward chronological document of the history of the original Carter Family narrated by actor Robert Duvall.  The film leans heavily on interviews with writers, family members, and other famous musicians (including Gillian Welch, Marty Stuart, Joan Baez, and Rodney Crowell.)  You will also see archival footage and photos spiced up with the “Ken Burns Style” pan and zoom technique.  The film also throws in filmed reenactments which thankfully are done tastefully and are hardly noticeable.  Definitely a great introduction to Country Music’s first family.

I picked up a bunch of great nuggets of music knowledge… here is a few tidbits to wet your appetite.

  • The “Original Carter Family” is made up of A.P. Carter, his wife Sara and A.P.’s sister in law Maybelle (later would include some of Maybelle’s daughters).  The film does not cover the second incarnation of the Carter Family which featured just Maybelle and her daughters.
  • Sara and A.P. married in 1915 but didn’t start recording until they were discovered by a Victor Records representative by the name of Ralph Peer in 1927.
  • When A.P. discovered he could make money recording and copywriting songs began to travel door to door all over the rural south collecting the peoples songs and then re-arranged them.  Not necessary the most honest way to make a living when you look at it, but I guess if he hadn’t done it, a lot of America’s early folk music would be lost.
  • The Carter Family recorded and performed roughly from 1927 to 1943 and became widely known and popular across America.  Their public image was of a solid wholesome family unit, when in reality Sara and A.P. had been having marital troubles ever since the mid twenties.  In 1936 unbeknownst to their fans they separated but continued to perform together.  In 1943 Sara filed for divorce which also split up the original lineup.

Go to the American Experience – Carter Family website to see info on the film and take advantage of web extras.

Here is a few tracks from The Carter Family for your listening pleasure (if you don’t see the embedded playlist, follow this link.)

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Desperate Man Blues – Discovering the Roots of American Music (DVD)

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Released in 2006 this film is a documentary about Joe Bussard Jr., a man that has devoted his life to the pursuit of rare 78s from the golden era (1924 – 1933) of American folk music.  I was immediately charmed by this old codger, dancing around with his lanky frame and smiling with a cigar hanging out of his mouth in pure glee while listening to these lost gems of American music.  He is the archetypal record collector that is truly passionate about the music and the hunt for the next rare find.  Not an extremely exciting story but a wonderfully interesting portrait of a man that is devoted to and obsessed with searching out these forgotten treasures.  Being personally interested in the music of this era it was a great pleasure to hear his favorite picks and some of the background behind them.  This DVD not only features Desperate Man Blues but also a shorter more recent documentary called “King of All Record Collectors” which I would say was a little better than the feature.

Among Bussard’s accomplishments include his long running radio show “Country Classics”, being the go-to guy for transfers of these extremely rare 78s for countless collections and organizations, and running the last American 78 record company called Fonotone Records which he operated from 1956 -1969 and released tons of almost true to the original old timey music.  In 2005 the Dust To Digital record label released a 5 CD box set of all the material ever pressed by his company, learn more about it here.

Also available is the soundtrack for the film which features a bunch of great tracks that are heard in the movie.

Check Joe out on the web at:  http://www.vintage78.com/ or Joe’s Myspace page.

Just as an added bonus, I’ll post up some music that is similar to what you’ll experience in the Documentary below (if you don’t see the embedded playlist, follow this link.)

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Patti Smith – Dream Of Life

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Dream Of Life is a stark and haunting portrait of Rock N Roll singer, poet and artist Patti Smith released in 2008.  Part historical document and part multimedia art project filmed by Steven Sebring but populated by Smiths talents and works.  The film begins with a rapid overview of the subjects life narrated by Smith herself in her own words.  The whole film is in fact narrated by Smith and includes a mixture of mundane, touching and bizarre moments.  The narration is an absolute pleasure as I have always found Smith’s voice hypnotic, and her words are particularly wise and elegant in this film.  Filmed over the span of 11 years, you’ll catch glimpses of Smith’s friends, family, and the legions of her adoring fans.  Patti Smith is a bit of a super fan, in the film you get the pleasure of hearing about many of Smith’s favorites including William Burroughs, Rimbaud, William Blake, Bob Dylan, and Walt Whitman.  The film is a little short on coverage of the CBGBs years and focuses more on Patti’s early upbringing, later family life, and the people that she has lost over the years (including her brother, good friend – Photographer Robert Mapplethorp, and her husband Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5).  Overall the film can be slow and abstract at times but the space and oddities make it fit and gives it relevance in Smith’s body of work.  Her main strength has always been her words and I found it particularly easy to hang on each and every one.

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Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars – The Motion Picture

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This concert film of David Bowie & the Spiders during the last public appearance as his alter ego Ziggy Stardust is directed by D.A. Pennebaker who is best known for directing the classic Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back.  Oddly the film took a rather long time to surface as it only premiered in 1979 and didn’t see wide distribution until 1983.  The film was originally filmed in Pennebaker’s rough cinema verite’ style on 35mm and then remastered in 2003 for its 30th anniversary release on DVD.  This remaster didn’t do much for the quality of the picture, it is still grainy, dark and sometimes jerky.  This of course really doesn’t diminish its enjoyment, or at least it didn’t for me as it is a landmark performance from Bowie and his Spiders.  The band includes the extremely talented guitarist Mick Ronson, who I consider to be criminally overlooked.  The costuming and make up is a thing to see as Bowie takes the stage wearing his strange gender bending alien glam, alternating between wearing a kimono from mars and other strange sci-fi hero costumes the whole time sporting his killer space mullet.  The concert features songs from Bowie’s albums Hunky Dory, Aladdin Sane, and the album of the same name.

One of my favorite moments is when Bowie starts miming… I’m not kidding he actually mimes that he is behind an invisible wall up on stage which he eventually is able to break through and bridge the gap between him and the audience.  I was fairly surprised that the venue was populated by mostly young women screaming in adoration, I guess I underestimated Bowie’s sex appeal during the early 70s.  Early on in the film you get to see the crowd file into the venue which is always fun because Bowie fans really like to get dressed up decked out in all sorts of costumey clothes, makeup and accessories (something I got to witness first hand when I went to see him on his Earthling tour in 1997).  Other highlights include a particularly jazzy rendition of “Changes”, and covers of “Love Me Do” (as part of a medley w/ “Jean Genie”), “Lets Spend the Night Together”, and The Velvet Undergrounds “White Light/White Heat”.  You will be disappointed if you are expecting any documentary footage as you really only get glimpses of Bowie getting his make up and wardrobe done backstage during breaks.  These scenes go by uneventful except for a surprise appearance by Ringo Starr and Bowie’s now infamous first wife Angela.  Angela was particularly fun for me to see because I had heard all about their “open relationship” and drugged out escapades together as they are both featured in the Punk book Please Kill Me (see my review here).

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New York Doll – The Movie

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This documentary released in 2005 is about Arthur “Killer” Kane, former bassist of the legendary New York Rock band The New York Dolls and his involvement in the New York Dolls reunion at the 2004 Morrissey curated Meltdown Festival.  After the Dolls broke up in the mid 70s (after releasing only 2 great records),  Arthur started a few different bands that didn’t really go anywhere and eventually his drinking had gone out of control and he sank into obscurity.  Fast forward almost 30 years we find Arthur living in LA and working at the local Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Family History Center Library having converted fully to the religion.  In 2004 Arthur’s dream came true when Morrissey put together a New York Dolls reunion.

The movie surprisingly give a pretty decent (although abridged) history of the New York Dolls besides giving you Arthur’s compelling story.   I had thought the film New York Dolls – All Dolled Up* was going to be a documentary on the band but was extremely disappointed as it is just 3 hours of rough live and interview footage filmed when the band was together.   The other film is interesting but far from a must see.

One of the best things about this film is that you get the interesting perspective of getting Arthur’s story not only from the subject but also from his friends and higher ups in the LDS church and his coworkers.   The film also includes interviews with the other living band members (David Johansen & Sylvain Sylvain), old friends from the scene (Photographer Bob Gruen, other proto-punk/punk musicians), and famous musicians (Chrissie Hynde and Bob Geldof).

Check out the trailer via youtube.

Other New York Dolls related films:

New York Dolls – All Dolled Up (2005) *note that this is not a documentary as I mention above

Morrissey Presents The Return of The New York Dolls – Live from Royal Albert Hall 2004 (2004)

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Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Rust Never Sleeps (DVD)

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Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Rust Never Sleeps (DVD)

The live concert video featuring a performance from the 1978 Rust Never Sleeps Tour.  Originally released in 1979 and reissued by Sanctuary on DVD in 2002.  I’ve never really enjoyed live concert films very much, but I regard this one as a gem with its classic set list, bizarre interludes, and odd stage props.  Neil really went all out on the concept for these shows in 78′ as his usual humorous between song banter is replaced by weird rock music and pop culture references.  One of the most striking things about the film/tour is the inclusion of the “Road Eyes”, which were glowing eyed jawa looking creatures who took over the stage hand/roadie duties during the performance.  Another interesting inclusion is the PA announcements that take place during the intermission, which after awhile you may or may not realize are from the overblown festival Woodstock (an event that Young played at as part of CSNY).  Even after all the osbscure references, costuming, and odd set design… at the films core is a rock solid performance from Young and the Horse.

A little known fact about the title for the film and album of the same name is that its a direct quote from the lead singer of Devo, Mark Mothersbaugh (aka Booji Boy).  Neil first heard Mark say this during filming of the feature Human Highway; a film project that Neil worked on in the late 70s and early 80s that featured the actors Dennis Hoffman & Dean Stockwell and also the members of Devo.

Enjoy the performance of one of my favorite Neil Young songs from the show below.  Beware if you are short on patience… its a long jam.

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