The Beatles in LET IT BE (1970) – And in the end…

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The following is my entry in The 4th Annual British Invaders Blogathon, being hosted by Terence at his blog A Shroud of Thoughts from Aug. 4-6, 2017. Click on the above banner, and read blogs about a wide variety of British-based and -themed movies!

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I’m really glad that most of our songs were about love, peace and understanding.” – Paul McCartney, The Beatles Anthology, 1995

“This is what we are like with our trousers off, would you please end the game now?” – John Lennon’s take on Let It Be, 1970

There are several good reasons that Let It Be has not been released on DVD or other recent home viewing formats.

One is that it’s a just-plain-sloppy documentary. You have to be at least an intermediate Beatles buff to understand or have any perspective on the movie. Initially, it was to have been made as a TV documentary that would accompany a live concert. When the Beatles then nixed the concert idea, the movie’s format was changed to theatrical so as to become the final film required under the group’s contract with movie studio United Artists.

The movie shows the band rehearsing songs at both Twickenham Film Studios and their Apple Records studio, and the film ends with their performing the once-requisite live concert during a London lunch hour on the rooftop of Apple. But again, you have to be a Beatles buff to know any of this.

The film does nothing to identify any of the surroundings, or even The Beatles or others within the movie. Songwriter/performer Billy Preston performs with the group throughout the movie, and the soundtrack album took the unprecedented step of crediting him along with the group — but the movie does not. We also see Yoko Ono (then a fairly fresh presence in John’s life), Paul’s adopted daughter Heather, and the group’s music producer George Martin, all unidentified. It’s as though they were merely movie extras flitting around the Beatles’ orbit.

The movie’s biggest debit, though, is that it fairly justifies John and George’s later complaints that, after their manager Brian Epstein died in 1967, the other group members spent much of their time serving as “sidemen” for Paul. The movie’s first third shows the group rambling through early rave-ups of songs from this movie’s soundtrack and Abbey Road, as well as some rock-and-roll chestnuts. And they perform so lackadaisically that, if you didn’t know that these were the famous Beatles, you might wonder why they were even the subject of a documentary.

The group finally manages some solid performances, but mostly of songs by Paul. Other than a duet with John on “Two of Us,” the middle section is Paul’s show all the way, with him lovingly performing “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road” to the camera as the other members drudgingly provide backup.

John finally gets some wind in his sails (literally — it looks awfully cold on that rooftop) during the final concert, as he rips through “I’ve Got a Feeling” and “One After 909” (both with Paul) and a soulful “Don’t Let Me Down.” But even that concert feels strange. Considering, in the late 1970’s, how hopefully anticipated a Beatles reunion concert had been, here most of the public onlookers seem to regard these guys as freaks who are simply being rude to interrupt local business.

As always with The Beatles, their music is enough to carry the show, half-baked as some of it is. (The movie won the group a “posthumous” Academy Award for Best Original Song Score.) But if A Hard Day’s Night depicts The Beatles at their sunniest and most vibrant, Let It Be makes everyone but Paul look as though they’re ready to be somewhere else.

DON’T LOOK BACK (1967) – One rock legend’s ego

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D.A. Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back has been described for years in glowing terms such as “one of the most influential rock films ever made.”

But the movie it seems to have influenced most is This Is Spinal Tap, Rob Reiner’s legendary mock-documentary about a rock group whose egos far outweigh their talent. (There’s even a scene in the Dylan movie, where Dylan’s entourage wanders endlessly to find an exit door, that seems to be directly parodied in Spinal Tap.)

The ostensible reason for this movie’s being is to record the ups and downs of Dylan’s 1965 tour of England. But no matter what the setting is — a concert, a press interview, hanging out with friends — “Don’t Look Back” assumes the same two points of view: mere mortals arriving to worship at the feet of Bob Dylan, or Dylan sneering at fans who try to look for deeper meaning in his music.

Heaven knows that, from the ’60s “British invasion” on, pundits have spent too much time looking for subtext in pop music. But since Dylan’s enigmatic lyrics have always invited such analysis, it’s a bit pompous of Dylan to continually put down the fans who made his name.

The movie’s most famous scene is the confrontation between Dylan and Donovan, a ’60s singer best remembered as a Dylan wanna-be (remember his hit “Mellow Yellow”?). The movie takes little potshots at Donovan throughout, until Dylan meets The Great Pretender himself and sings a sneering version of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” to him.

The funny thing is, Donovan is remembered these days, if at all, as a one-hit wonder. If Dylan had it in for a famous peer such as Elvis Presley or The Beatles, it might make for some interesting drama. But for Dylan to use a major documentary to display his resentment about a minor-league imitator speaks volumes about the man’s ego.

For Bob Dylan buffs, Don’t Look Back is probably tantamount to a lovefest. But the non-converted will be left scratching their heads wondering why and how.

 

THE ARISTOCRATS (2005) – Stop me if you’ve heard this one…

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Never has a single joke been so thoroughly deconstructed, much less to such satisfying effect, than in the documentary The Aristocrats. The movie is the brainchild of performers Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller fame) and Paul Provenza, who have analyzed the workings of an off-color joke that (according to the movie) has been around since the days of vaudeville.

The basic form of the joke is this: A guy walks into a talent agency and tells the agent, “I have a family act you won’t believe.” The guy then proceeds to describe himself and his family members doing feats that can never be adequately described on a PG-rated blog. The stunned agent says, “And what do you call this act?” The guy haughtily replies, “‘The Aristocrats’!”

As you can probably guess, it is in the second third of this joke where its teller goes to town, as he/she expounds upon the ethical and physical lows to which this family will stoop in order to make it in show biz. To be sure, many versions of the joke (told here by three or four generations of actors and comedians) are enough to prevent you from munching on your popcorn for a while.

But one of the movie’s points is how a comic’s style can make the joke his own, and that often happens here. The Smothers Brothers make it sound like a slightly racier version of their usual routine. A mime does a version of the joke that wouldn’t have been out of place in Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie. There’s even a sleight-of-hand card-telling version of it.

And the quiet subtext of this bawdy, often hilarious movie is how some people are easily offended by certain subject matter, while the movie illustrates that once shock value is opened up for discussion, its power is often dissipated. As such, the movie is as interesting an argument for the First Amendment as The People vs. Larry Flynt.

But finally, the movie’s lure isn’t due to its power as a political treatise. It basically shows how talented comedians can make even the most unsavory material funny. And in these times, that might not be such a small talent.

LOST SOUL: THE DOOMED JOURNEY OF RICHARD STANLEY’S ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (2014) – An excellent movie about a very bad movie

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I make it a point never to gawk at car wrecks while I’m driving. But I was recently fascinated by the cinematic equivalent of one. It’s an absorbing documentary titled Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau. (I learned about this movie thanks to Noah Redfield’s contribution to the blog Pop Chomp, which I hereby happily acknowledge.) You don’t have to know anything about Richard Stanley or have seen the infamous Marlon Brando movie of Moreau (Sorry, I plead guilty on both counts) to appreciate this tale of a big-budget movie gone haywire.

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The story is that Stanley (above) initially made a name for himself as the director of two independent movies, the apocalyptic Hardware (1990) and the supernatural horror film Dust Devil (1992). Stanley is then hired by New Line Cinema, then a mini-major studio making a name for itself, to realize his dream of filming a full-on adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr. Moreau.

But from the start, forces conspire against Stanley to thwart the production. New Line thinks it has pulled a coup by getting Marlon Brando to star, but when Brando’s young daughter commits suicide shortly before production begins, he remains incommunicado from the movie for a long time to come. A hurricane comes to the Australian island where the movie is to be filmed and sweeps away most of the set. But Stanley’s biggest obstacle is a psychological one. Val Kilmer, a then-white-hot star who is the movie’s supporting actor, balks at Stanley’s every direction and runs roughshod over the cast and crew.

When it’s clear that Stanley can’t handle this big-budget movie, New Line unceremoniously removes him from the set and replaces him with veteran director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate), whose main interest is in working with the legendary Brando. But when Brando shows up “in character” wearing gauze and kabuki make-up and he proceeds to dictate one crazy script idea after another, it’s clear that nobody will be able to guide this train back onto the track.

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Unlike the misguided Moreau movie, Lost Soul director David Gregory offers a clear-headed entertaining story of what went wrong. The movie gallops along at a terrific clip, aided by footage from the movie and from cast members taken on the set, as well as interviews with New Line executives, Richard Stanley, and Moreau actors Rob Morrow, Marco Hofschneider, and Fairuza Balk.

As Redfield points out in his blog, there really are no longer any flop movies; between theatrical release, DVD, cable, and Netflix, every movie now creeps into the black sooner or later. But even as recently as 1996, a bloated, big-budget mess such as The Island of Dr. Moreau could be branded a failure just for quadrupling its original budget and sacrificing its original vision (What tentpole movie doesn’t these days?). If anything, Lost Soul proves that they just don’t make bad movies like they used to.

THE UNKNOWN MARX BROTHERS (1993) – Excellent documentary that hits its Marx

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The title of this made-for-TV documentary, The Unknown Marx Brothers, is obviously meant to evoke memories of Unknown Chaplin, the astounding 1983 British documentary featuring much previously unseen footage of Charlie Chaplin. Unknown Marx Brothers isn’t quite in that league but is well done and quite eye-popping nonetheless.

Narrated by actor-turned-slapstick-comedian Leslie Nielsen, Unknown offers a wealth of facts, interviews, and TV and movie clips. There’s minutia that was little-known prior to this bio, such as the birth of a sixth Marx Brother, Manfred, who died shortly after birth. Interviewees include Groucho’s first daughter Miriam, Chico’s daughter Maxine, and two of Harpo’s adopted children, Bill and Minnie; Maxine and Bill, in particular, are most generous with their facts about the Marxes’ career and their anecdotes about growing up as Marx children.

Most astounding is the doc’s wealth of clips, many of them rarely seen. Trailers for nearly every Marx Bros. movie are shown. A scene from Harpo’s film debut in Too Many Kisses (1925) shows that, ironically, this silent movie was the only film appearance in which Harpo had dialogue (albeit in a subtitle).

Generous clips from the Marxes’ TV work include segments from: the TV pilot for Groucho’s quiz show “You Bet Your Life”; an attempted Chico pilot named “Papa Luigi”; a 1959 extended routine (beautifully preserved on video) between Harpo and Milton Berle; one of Groucho’s final TV appearances, on 1973’s “The New Bill Cosby Show”; and most interestingly for Marx buffs, reassembled footage from the Marxes’ final team work, the aborted TV pilot “Deputy Seraph,” depicting Harpo and Chico as pratfalling angels commandeered by heavenly boss Groucho.

There are nitpicking debits with the show. The background music, credited to Harpo’s son Bill, sounds like random spewings from a synthesizer. Many of the less savory details of the Marxes’ lives, such as mother Minnie’s overdominance and Groucho’s beleaguered final years, are simply ignored — as are, strangely, the final deaths of the Marxes, leaving any Marx novice to wonder if they’re still alive. And while much of the doc’s second half features very funny footage from “You Bet Your Life,” this seems a too-often-used source (perhaps because it has been used so much by less imaginative TV shows). But overall, Marx Bros. completists will find much to shout about here.

UNKNOWN CHAPLIN (1983) – Manna from heaven for Charlie Chaplin buffs

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

It’s not for nothing that silent-film historian Kevin Brownlow has been regarded as a demi-god among Hollywood buffs and received an honorary Oscar in 2011. And if he, along with partner David Gill, had accomplished nothing in his life but Unknown Chaplin, Brownlow would have more than earned his accolades. Acid test for Chaplin buffs: Watch just the first two-and-a-half minutes of the first segment, and see if you’re not moved to tears.

This is an extraordinary silent-film documentary that, by rights, shouldn’t have existed in any form. Like a master magician, Chaplin was secretive about the tricks of his trade, and it was believed that he had destroyed all unused footage from his films. Happily, this documentary proves us wrong – and all the richer for it.

Besides providing eye-popping footage that shows, in a wildly different light, films we thought we’d endlessly seen and known, Unknown Chaplin clearly demonstrated Chaplin’s working method: that of “rehearsing on film,” as it’s described by actor James Mason (who does a lovely job of narration throughout). Time after time, we see Chaplin fleshing out a germ of an idea – sometimes to full fruition, other times to heartbreaking pointlessness and deletion from the final film.

The documentary also makes clear that Chaplin didn’t care how much time and money he spent to get things right. The “suits” at Mutual and First National often had to be placated when it seemed as though Chaplin was blowing their budgets to no result, but when Chaplin became his own producer at United Artists, his behavior was the same, putting his money where his mouth was in order to achieve a quality film.

Unknown Chaplin is divided into three 50-minute segments. The first, “My Happiest Years” (Chaplin’s description of his 1916-17 period with Mutual Film), uses generous clips to detail the origins of many of his Mutual shorts. The Immigrant, for example, began as a simple comedy of manners set in a small café, with Chaplin trying to impress Edna Purviance, and Chaplin’s long-time associate Henry Bergman played a not-very-assertive waiter. After much trial and error, Bergman was replaced by the far more intimidating Eric Campbell, and Chaplin stumbled upon a valid reason for Purviance’s appearance: she and Charlie had just come to America as immigrants. Several other examples show Chaplin grinding away to no apparent purpose, only to come upon a perfect excuse for risible comedy.

The second segment, “The Great Director,” features generous interviews with several of Chaplin’s co-stars, such as Jackie Coogan (the kid from the same-named movie) and The Gold Rush’s Georgia Hale (who makes it abundantly clear that the romance she portrayed with Chaplin wasn’t just acting). The bulk of the segment is devoted to City Lights, with Chaplin frustrated by Virginia Cherrill’s initially limp acting as the blind flower girl (Cherrill, interviewed here, offers no ill will towards Chaplin), and Chaplin’s desperation to derive a plausible reason why the blind flower girl would think the Tramp is a rich man (Solution: The Tramp, eluding a cop, slipped through the door of a real rich man’s limo and thereupon met the flower girl).

For me, the weakest segment is the final one, “Hidden Treasures.” The first half is mesmerizing, as it demonstrates how Chaplin would do casual comedy routines, such as at parties, that later turned up in his movies. The segment also shows a fascinating fragment from a never-completed Chaplin film, The Professor, in which he was to play a run-down stage performer with a flea-circus act (some of which Chaplin later incorporated into his feature film Limelight).

On the other hand, the segment also shows scenes which make perfectly clear why Chaplin deleted them. There’s a very lengthy passage that was to have been in The Circus (part of it even involving split-screen special effects) in which a jealous Charlie tries to prove himself superior to the circus’ high-wire man. The movie as is states the theme and then moves on briskly; this protracted segment would have slowed the film and, frankly, doesn’t even make sense on its own terms. (At one point, Charlie is clearly irritated when a stranger in a restaurant bullies and pesters him; yet shortly thereafter, Charlie befriends the man to suit his own purposes. Huh?) Similarly, deleted scenes from City Lights and Modern Times provide a big build-up to a small pay-off.

But these scenes are hardly enough reason to discourage any Chaplin buff from indulging in this lovingly produced documentary. It’s as though Chaplin left one more remnant of film behind, just for some close friends.

Z: A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (2004) – Murder most foul

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It’s a bit disconcerting when you personally know the subject of a documentary. It’s even stranger when that subject was a murder victim.

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession chronicles the ups and (many) downs of a deceased Los Angeles film buff named Jerry Harvey. If you think you’re obsessed with movies, you have nothing on Harvey. In the movie, Harvey’s ex-wife tells how he once literally spoke of nothing but Stanley Kubrick’s movie Dr. Strangelove for 24 hours.

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Harvey began as a programmer for a movie theater but made L.A. history when he joined The Z Channel, an independent cable-TV channel that began broadcasting in 1974. In the prehistoric days of cable before HBO, Z gained its reputation and cache by showing uncut movies of all kinds, 24 hours a day.

After Harvey wrote several letters of complaint to Z about their informational errors and lack of range, Z decided to hire him as a full-time programmer. Harvey went to town on movies, showing everything from obscure European art films to Star Wars.

In the movie, several major filmmakers and stars, including Robert Altman and James Woods, rave about how their more obscure movies received a second life via broadcast on Z. (Although Woody Allen’s long-time producer Charles Joffe is interviewed, strangely unmentioned is how it’s believed that Z’s frequent broadcasts of Annie Hall help to win the unsung comedy several Oscars, including Best Picture.)

Along with Harvey’s successes, the movie chronicles his checkered family history and his life-long battle with depression. When cable channels such as HBO muscled in on Z’s territory, Z’s owners looked more to the bottom line and decided to run sports events along with movies. The movie’s final half-hour covers the sad decline of both Z and Harvey, whose depression finally moved him to shoot and kill his second wife and then himself.

The documentary is well-done and extremely engrossing. Yet it almost serves as a cautionary tale, a Taxi Driver for movie buffs, showing how a singular obsession–-even with something as artistically worthwhile as film–-can have negative consequences.

(My personal connection with the story: Harvey’s murdered wife, Deri Rudulph, was my employer for the brief time that I lived in L.A. She was one of the most generous, wonderful people I’ve ever met. Ten days after I returned to Jacksonville, I received the sad news about her murder. I was asked to be interviewed for this movie but could not make it to L.A. in time.)