Tag Archives: documentary

GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling

Glow dvd coverDespite my longstanding interest in professional wrestling and frequent investigations into its history the 1980s organisation GLOW had largely passed me by. Now, with the Netflix original drama based on the series having emerged, I thought I’d take a look back at its real life inspiration in the documentary GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.

At only 73 minutes the film is somewhat superficial and has something of the feel of a Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends show, but without the leading investigator/presenter to ground it.

What we get instead are a series of fairly rapidly cut, loosely threaded, talking heads accompanied by archive footage of the original show alongside current footage of a few of the performers in their everyday lives.

Through this though a few interesting stories come to light, even if they aren’t fully explored.

First is how the show was put together, which somehow explains why it is often not included in the wider pro-wrestling canon.

The GLOW girls

‘The GLOW girls’ and their ring announcer

Rather than relying on already established female wrestling talent (who, while few and far between did exist) of the mid-80s the conspicuously male production and creative team relied on an open casting call to bring in young models and actresses to fill their roster of performers.

While some had an interest or natural aptitude for the wrestling, many didn’t and the product was more of a variety ‘real-life cartoon’ than a wrestling show. While WWE (then WWF) was certainly veering in the cartoony direction around the same time, GLOW turned this up to 11.

In this segment we hear from the man tasked with training the performers, Mondo Guerrero (of the legendary Mexican/Texan wrestling family; brother of Eddie and Chavo, son of Gory) who seems to express a level of disbelief at the job his was given.

GLOW girls - Moretti on the right

GLOW girls – Moretti on the right

We also hear from Tina Ferrari who would become Ivory in WWF in the late 90s (real name Lisa Moretti) who was one of the few who seemed to get the wrestling and she becomes an invaluable addition to the documentary as the story rolls on given her experience from the smallest to biggest shows in the industry.

While the film seems to choose to focus more on the sisterhood of the performers than anything else this is far from entirely coherent, but, as we find out more about the promotions two biggest (in both senses) stars, it does coalesce somewhat.

Matilda The Hun was an older and seemingly more experienced wrestler when the show began in something of the mould of British wrestling legend Klondyke Kate.

While we see here in her prime we also see her now, partially wheel chair bound due to back injuries, though she clearly remains very much the same woman she always has been, bedecked in full ring attire and make up and not regretting anything of her years in the ring.

GLOW - Mountain Fiji

Mountain Fiji

Somewhat more tragic is the story of Mountain Fiji, Matilda’s rival and GLOW’s top hero. A 350lb American-Samoan shot-putter in her heyday, she has since succumbed to injuries and diabetes leaving her permanently wheel chair bound.

Like her arch nemesis she doesn’t seem to regret the damage wrestling may have done to her body, but she also seems far more abandoned by her past life.

So, when Little Egypt organises a reunion at the encouragement of the film’s producers, Mountain Fiji is something of the guest of honour and the reaction of both her and the other ladies as she enters and they all perform the ‘rap’ that introduced them on the original show is genuinely moving.

While generally somewhat rushed GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling is still interesting enough and as insight into women’s wrestling as WWE looks to distance itself from its seedier version of GLOW with the ‘Women’s Revolution’ and this summer’s Mae Young Classic tournament has a newly added dimension the producers couldn’t have known about when it was released back in 2012.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I Am Divine

I Am Divine posterContinuing my interest in cult movie documentaries, following the likes of Midnight Movies, Electric Boogaloo, Not Quite Hollywood and Jodorowsky’s Dune, I delved into Jeffrey Schwarz’s film about the ‘muse of John Waters’, Divine, aka Harris Glenn Milstead.

While my awareness of Divine was brief she was certainly a fascinating presence, known to me mostly for the early extreme films of John Waters but later finding a kind of mainstream-cult notoriety in Water’s Hairspray and a suitably surreal looking pop career.

I Am Divine then charts his/her life and career in some detail, not pulling too many punches but clearly coming from an affectionate viewpoint.

While I get the feeling this probably glosses over quite a lot of things, it does mean that many of Divine’s friends and colleagues are present as talking heads which adds a definite authenticity to the story.

Unsurprisingly Waters is a highlight among these whether in archive footage or interviews recorded for the film and it’s clear that the two shared a strange connection which gives much credence to the ‘muse’ notion.

Divine, out of costume

Divine, out of costume

That said there are a few moments where Waters, and others, come dangerously close to appearing to lead the rather naive and enthusiastic young Milstead into quite such a surreal position, particularly when it is revealed that Divine’s name and look were constructed by Waters and his crew of ‘Dreamlanders’, though for the most part it feels that Divine was fairly complicit in this too.

Generally the production of I Am Divine is fairly standard but given the less than standard story it tells this doesn’t really matter as the straight forward interviews reveal an honesty that is essential while the archive footage of Divine both in and out of character helps bring the stories to life.

Away from the Waters link particularly interesting are stories from Holly Woodlawn about Divine’s meeting with Andy Warhol, tales from the time Divine toured as a disco pop performer, including an appearance on Top Of The Pops where British tabloids typically declared the appearance as ‘worse than Boy George’.

Divine in Pink Flamingos

Divine in Pink Flamingos

As with the best of these kind of films it has encouraged me to look further into Waters’ and Divine’s films and gives those I have seen a somewhat new aspect based around the difference between Divine’s on and offstage demeanour.

While all of this is fascinating the thing that really makes I Am Divine something different from many similar profile documentaries is the family and personal story that is threaded through.

This is made all the stronger thanks to the participation of Divine’s own mother.

While this side of the story has its ups and downs it overall is one with as happy an ending as it can have given Divine’s ultimate fate.

In the end I Am Divine is a fascinating, surprisingly touching, film with a story that, while ultimately tragic in many ways, never fails to be uplifting and delivers much of the same message of pride espoused by much of the LGBT+ plus movement and, appropriately enough, the message of The Rocky Horror Show could easily be applied as a message to take from Divine’s life… ‘Don’t dream it, be it!’

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Oasis: Supersonic

Oasis Supersonic posterIn the mid-1990s there was something of a gap in the area of credible, popular music. Following the rave and ‘Madchester’ scenes in the UK and the influx of grunge from the US (halted somewhat overnight in the eyes of the mainstream with the death of Kurt Cobain) something different needed to emerge to fill that void, that something became known as Britpop.

Britpop was (as these things often are) a mishmash of sounds and styles all loosely stemming from British based guitar bands so there was Pulp (already veterans of the scene), Blur (less ‘kitchen sink’ in approach than many of their contemporaries) and, arguably, sat atop the pile, was Oasis.

If you grew up in the UK in the mid-1990s its very hard to believe you weren’t part of this movement on some level or other, either you were a fan of one of the bands (it seems you had to be on a certain ‘team’) or you hated all of it and, much like punk rock, even that added fuel to the movement.

Now, twenty years from its peak, Oasis: Supersonic looks back at the formation and rise of the band that came define the style.

The film tells this story using both new interviews and archive clips of the band and surrounding characters, but of course the protagonists are the Gallagher Brothers, Noel (songwriter and guitarist) and Liam (singer).

Oasis on stage

Oasis on stage

Stylistically the film does some interesting things. We don’t get standard, sit down, talking head clips of the leads, instead the audio of their interviews (often with subtitles, I’m assuming for the American market where their Mancunian accents may be more impenetrable) is overlaid on footage or photo montages of something roughly around what they are talking about.

In this we get some amazing sights, from the brothers childhood, which by all accounts was rough on all of them, but they both make it clear they don’t carry that any kind of device for gaining sympathy, to the early days of the band where, if everything here is accurate, they were followed around almost constantly by people with video or film cameras – something that today is commonplace but in the mid-90s is fairly astonishing.

In these moments is where the sense that this was somewhat a constructed reality started to creep in. Understandably the film is very much on side with the Gallaghers, they were both executive producers, but at the same time it doesn’t entirely shy away from their troubles, albeit in a slight tidied up manner.

Liam and Noel Gallagher

Liam and Noel Gallagher

Generally though, much like in the work of Julien Temple (who I can’t not refer to when looking at a music documentary), any ‘construction’ of the reality is done to help tell the story within the allotted running time.

As the story goes on and the band hit their stride, being signed by Alan McGee to Creation Records and then making their debut album and heading out on the road, it becomes a non-stop ride and captures the chaos of this excellently through its montage approach. Included in this are well placed cuts back to Manchester and their family and youth when it reflects moments of their adult life.

Particularly impressive here is the section dealing with the recording of their debut, Definitely, Maybe, which captures an aspect of the inexplicable alchemy that goes into a record going from a few good songs, to a classic product that has stood the test of time now more than two decades on.

The second act of the film treads many of the same paths as other music documentaries as the band teeters on the brink of self-destruction but the openness of the Gallagher’s interviews (particularly Noel’s) does add an interesting new insight into just how these things can happen. Of course, heading to America and discovering new drugs is a major contributing factor.

Oasis knebworth site

The crowd at Knebworth

The film is bookended by the band’s peak (and arguable final moment of relevance) playing sold out shows at Knebworth, dubbed the biggest rock ‘n’ roll shows in British history. The movie does a great job of capturing the atmosphere and place in history of this event, as the Gallaghers say, before music became taken over by talent shows and the internet.

While this view may be slightly overstating it, the film shows there is a certain element of truth to this and it is a nice point to end on as going too much further would have just been watching a band tailspin for a further half decade before finally entirely imploding.

As a whole Supersonic is a celebratory affair looking at a creative and revolutionary period, not just for Oasis but for British music as a whole, as elements of punk and the 60s ‘British invasion’ merged into something new and fresh and equally relevant to their time all held together by a mix of great stories and storytelling and some songs lodged in the heads of anyone who was discovering music at that time.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Gimme Danger

Gimme Danger posterBefore The Offspring and Rancid, before The Sex Pistols and The Damned, before The Ramones and The New York Dolls one band stood out as a link from the garage rock of the mid-1960s to the supposed nihilistic shock of punk.

A quartet of misfits from Ann Arbour, Michigan now in many ways more famed for merely existing than for what they actually did during their initial brief explosion of a career; Iggy Pop, Rock Action, Ron Asheton and Dave Alexander, aka The Stooges.

With Gimme Danger filmmaker Jim Jarmusch explores the band’s formation, career and aftermath in a surprisingly open fashion with contributions from as many past members of the band as possible along with a few who were close to the band both personally and professionally.

Throughout though it remains clear, for better or worse, that this is a story centred on The Stooges’ focal point, beating heart and barely contained explosive generator, Jim Osterberg, otherwise known as Iggy Pop.

After an initial intro of the bands mid-1970s demise amidst a miasma of drugs and feedback, Gimme Danger takes a relatively chronological trip through the history of the band from Pop’s formative musical steps right up to their Raw Power-era reunion in the early 2010s.

Iggy Pop interviewed for Gimme Danger

Iggy Pop

For the most part this is navigated by Pop, interviewed in two striking locations of a trailer like the one where he grew up and an elaborate throne like seat in an ostentatiously appointed ‘rock star’ abode, tellingly accompanied by a pair of skulls that’s it hard to not link as the spiritual presence of the Asheton brothers.

Pop takes us through his uncontrollably hyperactive childhood, his discovery of the drums and his brief time spent as a jobbing drummer with a love of the blues in Chicago before the formation of what was to become The Stooges began.

This opening chunk of the movie is certainly its most interesting before all the standard machinations of the record industry and excessive life of a touring band come to the fore.

Here we get a real sense of not just the band’s reputation as performers but where they came from and how they came to make the noises they did.

Along with Pop we hear from Scott ‘Rock Action’ Asheton and the Asheton’s sister Kathy about their formation in the counterculture hub of the Mid West that Ann Arbour was, as an interest in blues, freeform jazz and garage rock all came to bear on the initial trio before Alexander joined their ranks and they began to make waves in nearby Detroit.

Iggy Pop and Jim Jarmusch Photo credit: Ken Settle

Iggy Pop and Jim Jarmusch

As a whole things are presented in pretty standard format; talking heads, archive footage and contemporary, scene setting news reel tell us the visual story.

With this comes a real sense of this band being something different and that comes across in the mesmerising story telling by Iggy. Backing him up are interesting asides from recent interviews with Scott Asheton and the band’s saxophone player Steve Mackay.

In this intro Iggy lays out the basic philosophy of the band which, it seems according to the singer at least, remains to this day as they moved into a squat in Detroit and lived as ‘real communists’ in a non-political, all shared communal sense.

Once the band are formed and encounter the MC5 its a non-stop ride with barely a pause for breath and Jarmusch creates a real atmosphere of this through the recording and touring around their self-titled debut and Fun House and then again around Raw Power and the total collapse of the band in its aftermath.

The Stooges In the Studio

The Stooges In the Studio

Here members come and go and interactions with the likes of Nico and David Bowie sweep by with little time for analysis which feels entirely fitting for the band and I’m not sure I’d want too much analysis of their primal noise which is typified by the astonishing blast of fuzz that opens I Wanna Be Your Dog and sets this passage in motion with a genuine shock cut feel.

A great montage shows us the influence the band has had on others, including some great editing together of the likes of No Fun being performer by various bands, before we head into the reunion years.

Much like the formation years this is an interesting section due to it being less well-known and less formulaic of so many music documentaries, but equally it doesn’t feel over dwelled upon as this is far from The Stooges creative zenith.

The Stooges on stage

The Stooges on stage

Rounding off with a great time warping montage of I Wanna Be Your Dog and a choice quote from Pop that again gets across his outsider philosophy, Gimme Danger is a no frills exercise in telling the story of a band without removing their mystique but still offering insight.

I think its fair to say a film like this has done well when the first thing I want to do afterwards is dive into the back catalogue at the loudest volume possible, with this Jarmusch gets the all important ‘groove and feel’ of The Stooges that is what marked them out and still makes their initial trio of records so impressive.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records

All Things Must Pass posterOn a visit to London as a teenager I remember heading into a record store on Piccadilly Circus with distinctive red and yellow signs, Tower Records. In my naivety I assumed this was a one-off store as it didn’t feel like part of a major chain like the HMV and Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street did.

Of course I now know better and, in his Kickstarter funded documentary All Things Must Pass, Colin Hanks recounts the story of Tower Records from its inception in Sacramento in 1960 to its demise in 2006 and beyond.

The man behind Tower was Russ Solomon and here he is the linchpin of the story, as it seems he was of the company, appearing in a series of interviews tracing the company’s history and coming across as a kind of spiritual guru of the record retail business.

Other members of staff who joined the company in this early years as it grew from Sacramento to San Francisco and the Los Angeles are also interviewed building up this image of Solomon. In a lot of cases this kind of reverence for, essentially, a businessman would feel somewhat contrived but here I was left with the sense that actually Solomon was all he comes across as, including some dubious financial decisions during the companies rapid expansion in the 1980s and 90s.

Russ Solomon, circa 1970s

Russ Solomon, circa 1970s

The story that Solomon began is portrayed here as a kind if last hurrah for the American Dream and again this comes across with a refreshing lack of cynicism, giving the feeling that Tower really was the a local music store on an international scale.

A collection of archive photos and videos of the store’s various early locations, particularly its original location in Sacramento and the San Francisco ‘superstore’ at Columbus and Bay (now somewhat depressingly a Wallgreen’s chain pharmacy), really help build this image of ‘classic America’.

These shots of the old stores are a fascinating view back into the heyday of the record store with vinyl stacked floor to ceiling and flying off the shelves.

The original Tower Records

The original Tower Records

In its telling the film is relatively run of the mill with a collection of talking heads telling the story with the help of some well-chosen archive footage and some celebrity extras (here including former staff member Dave Grohl, they let him keep his hair style, and the self-proclaimed man who spent more than anyone else at Tower Records, Elton John, who seems genuinely emotional about his memories of buying seemingly every album ever).

What elevates it though is the sense of genuine feeling that comes through, particularly when the companies first 30 years are being discussed by the staff, who tell stories of all night parties and just how the gap between customers and staff was all but non-existent as the stores acted as meeting places and community centres for music lovers in their respective towns and cities.

As the film continues into the 90s Tower Records appears to act as a microcosm of the problems facing the record industry with cultural changes around music listening habits being poorly handled, though it’s refreshing to see many of the original Tower team embracing new ways of listening while the issues these caused and poor handling is levelled at the ‘industry’ not Tower or its guru who, well into his 70s here, seems just as positive and enthusiastic as when the store first opened.

Tower Records on Sunset Strip

Tower Records on Sunset Strip

This sense of positivity and enthusiasm pervades the film until the credits role, despite the collapse and closure of Tower Records in 2006, making what could be a nostalgic but ultimately melancholy story become something uplifting and celebratory of what may be a largely lost era but one that still means a lot to many.

And it’s always good to remember the slogan adopted from their expansion in Japan… No Music, No Life.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster

Some Kind of Monster posterIf you’ve read my past reviews of Through The Never then you’ll know that I have been a fan of Metallica for a good while. They were the band that really piqued my interest in heavy metal and, in Ride The Lightning, they made what I consider to still be one of the best examples of the genre more than 30 years on from its release.

The past 15 years though have been a bit different, with the once vital and vicious band descending into something of a nostalgia act, having released only one new album in the last decade (Death Magnetic), and that being at best a re-tread of former glories, while their status as a live band has waned as well.

You could cite their collection of covers, Garage Inc., as the start of that decline, or their S&M project with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, but, in listening, both still have their merits. I would argue that the point were ‘the biggest metal band in the world’ really, for want of a better expression, ‘jumped the shark’, is the movie documenting the making of their St. Anger album, Some Kind of Monster.

Taking place over the best part of two and a half years we join the band just after they lost their long time bass player, Jason Newsted, and headed into a makeshift studio facility in San Francisco’s Presidio to, supposedly, try to recapture the spirit of the garage band they once were.

Metallica and Phil Towle

Metallica and Phil Towle

With no new songs and no permanent bass player (producer Bob Rock takes on those duties) it’s not surprising this doesn’t go well as the band demonstrate a spectacular inability to jam out any ideas without descending into arguments, largely between founders Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield.

It’s at this point that some of the limitations of the film itself begin to become evident. Obviously instigated by Metallica it is designed to tell the story they want it to tell and, to their credit, this is far from a flattering picture, but, within that, it seems to chop and change its own chronology fairly freely which, particularly with Ulrich’s hairstyles chopping and changing (colour) almost from shot to shot, means it’s hard to get a real sense of authenticity from this first act which ends with Hetfield walking out on the recording sessions and seemingly the band, to enter rehab for alcoholism and other undisclosed addictions.

During this next section, which lasts nearly a year of real-time according to the captions, we see nothing of Hetfield but get to spend time with the other two band members. In the case of guitarist Kirk Hammett this includes a few understated sequences mostly focusing on his, at the time, new hobby of surfing, which he openly admits has taken the place of other, less healthy, pass times.

James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich

James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich

The sequences with Ulrich are a rather different affair as, if he hadn’t come across too well before, we now get to see more of the man who genuinely comes across like something of a petulant child, just one in his mid-40s, including a rather cringe-worthy look at his art collection as Lars tries to explain his own reasons for making and collecting art – this could be lifted straight from Spinal Tap.

Throughout all of this there is the constant presence of ‘performance coach’ Phil Towle who, at first, seems to be trying to help the band work together, but as things go on just seems cynical and only there for personal gain, and his interactions with Ulrich serve to show possibly the worst sides of both, particularly in a sequence where Lars’ father visits and offers some less than positive feedback on the new material.

It’s also at this point that the dates involved dawned on me as having some significance. The whole process begins in mid 2001 and continues to summer 2003, a period containing some rather significant world events that, I think its fair to say, feature in pretty much any documentary film set over that time. But, in Some Kind Of Monster, they are not referenced, and nor is anything else about the outside world beyond a couple of asides about Echobrain, a new project from Newsted.

James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich

Hetfield and Ulrich at a less friendly point

To me, this says a lot about the attitude of the band (who ultimately had final cut on the film), that they exist purely in their own world, cut off from reality with all the good and bad points that brings. Some of these are highlighted here and, in hindsight, often show the band members’ less admirable traits, though I couldn’t help but feel the band would have thought this was showing their positives, just showing their disconnected nature.

As the album continues to develop we get to see more childish behavior from both Ulrich and Hetfield, including a genuinely hilarious bout of swearing from the drummer into the face of his frontman. Then hatchets seem to be buried as the pair team up against Towle who has crossed several lines in their (and any reasonable person’s) opinion, including suggestion lyrics for the record.

I get the impression that, at this point, as a fan I was meant to side with the band against this character’s interference, and maybe once I did, but now, I just had the feeling that all three men were being generally unreasonable with the only one who had any kind of defence being Hetfield as he tried to find a new equilibrium, post rehab.

Rob Trujillo

Rob Trujillo

Ending on a slightly triumphant note with the album, St. Anger, finally released and the band setting off on tour, Some Kind Of Monster, as a whole, is a fascinating insight into the workings of a band at this level and the effect a lifestyle like that of Metallica who had been consistently on the tour-record-tour-etc cycle since their late teens can have one people.

This, unfortunately for Metallica, includes no one really being shown in a good light (with the exception of newly recruited bass player Rob Trujillo) while the film itself is a strange effort that has no clear directorial voice or story to tell which hampers any potential interest from anyone outside the band’s fanbase and other musicians curious about the inner workings of the band – though watching multi-millionaires argue like children is at times entertaining in a bleak kind of way.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Jodorowsky’s Dune

Jodorowsky's Dune posterI have always been happy to admit that David Lynch’s (or Alan Smithee’s) Dune is something of a guilty pleasure of mine and that its source novel, Frank Herbert’s epic hard sci-fi myth, is one of my all time favourite books (in a non-guilty way). Between these two though lies another version of the story that long remained shrouded in mystery and had become something of a legend in itself among sci-fi and film fans the story of which is told in Frank Pavich’s documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune.

The film sets the scene by introducing director, and undeniable auteur, Alejandro Jodorowsky, explaining his career as a theatre director working in the avant-garde and then a film director famed for “the first cult film” El Topo and the grandly surreal The Holy Mountain.

Not only does this introduce us to ‘Jodo’s’ career but to the man himself. Interviewed here at the age of 84 he is more lively, animated and enthusiastic about his work than almost any other filmmaker I can think of and displays such a genuine passion it easily explains how he found funding and collaborators for his far from mainstream work.

Alejandro Jodorowsky

Alejandro Jodorowsky

It is his energy that carries the story of the film from his impulsive declaration of making Dune into a film to its sadly almost inevitable ‘death’ at the hands of understandably reluctant (and if the film is to be believed simply confused) Hollywood studios.

At only 90 minutes I couldn’t help but think there is potentially much deeper this movie could go, but it flies along at a pace set by Jodorowsky and embellished by interviews with his collaborators (in his words “spiritual warriors”) and partially animated sequences mixing photographs with the storyboard artwork of Moebius and the concept art of Chris Foss and HR Giger.

Those few names give an idea of quite how impressive Jodorowsky’s list of collaborators was and as the film goes on this list grows and grows to include Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali and Orson Welles as actors and Pink Floyd as musicians. Each of these comes with a story from the director about how they were brought into the project, along with those who fell by the wayside, including special effects legend Douglas Trumbull who was ‘not spiritual’ enough.

Chris Foss concept art

Chris Foss concept art

All of this could leave Jodorowsky coming across as something of a crackpot but his enthusiasm, combined with the slightly eccentric nature of the source material itself, somehow makes it seem perfectly suitable – even when he is talking about how he prepared his son for the role of Paul Muad’dib Atreides it makes a kind of sense.

While the main body of the film charts the pre-production of the movie that was never to be its epilogue puts things into a kind of current perspective. While the movie is clearly made with the view that Jodorowsky’s vision should have been completed and so is somewhat biased, the evidence it produces for just how influential this unmade work has been in compelling.

Of course a majority of the pre-production crew worked on Alien, most famously Dan O’Bannon and HR Giger, but there is clear evidence of visual ideas from Dune cropping up in The Terminator, Cannon Films’ Masters of the Universe (yes I was surprised by that one as well), Blade Runner, The Matrix and Prometheus, amongst others.

Moebius' storyboards

Moebius’ storyboards

As previously stated Jodorowsky’s Dune is clearly onside with the director but none-the-less tells its story in a fascinating and vibrant fashion that brings it to life in a way even the best making-ofs rarely do.

Not only that but, it leaves things on a vaguely positive note as Jodorowsky comments that with all the work they did, if someone wanted to make an animated version of his movie the ground work is already done, and I for one would love to see it – despite the fact it would clearly be one of the strangest things ever committed to celluloid.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films

Electric Boogaloo - The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films posterWhen it comes to the more obscure, esoteric, end of the world of cinema I’m not sure if what I prefer are the films themselves or the stories of what goes into the making of them.

From Stuart Samuels’ Midnight Movies to Mark Hartley’s Not Quite Hollywood, the tales of the people behind some of the best-worst films ever projected are often fascinating and engaging in a way a big budget making of rarely is.

Continuing this trend, the excellently titled Electric Boogaloo, tells the story of Cannon Films, one of the studios that emerged into the disarray of the post-studio system, pre-blockbuster era of Hollywood and proceeded to gain a reputation for releasing the un-releasable.

Mark Hartley is once again in the director’s chair and the feel of the movie is similar to his previous ‘Ozploitation’ doc with a series of engaging, entertaining and informative talking heads talking about a representative selection of the studio’s films.

Before that though we are introduced the two men who gave Cannon its reputation, Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. The duo gained a reputation as Israel’s premier filmmakers before making the move to the US and buying into Cannon – this whole sequence sets the scene for what’s to come with a choice quote describing the overbearing Golan as being “Like Jabba The Hutt… if he were on meth”.

Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan

Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan

From there the film’s chronology gets somewhat confused but it loosely focuses on the period from the late 1970s through to the mid to late 1980s when the Golan-Globus version of Cannon went through an impressive rise and decline.

The movies focused on start with The Apple (a genuinely fascinatingly insane looking musical intended to ape The Who and Ken Russell’s Tommy), the Death Wish sequels, the ‘discovery’ of Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme and onto the likes of Superman IV and Masters of the Universe.

While somewhat run of the mill in style what carries the movie along are the stories from the various cast and crew members interviewed.

These paint the cousins, and Golan in particular, as exceptionally misguided if devoted fans of film who may have been fairly horrendous to work for and have very little idea of what would make a good movie, but loved what they were doing.

Charles Bronson

Charles Bronson

Sadly lacking from the film is any current input from Golan and Globus themselves, though they are present in archive footage, but it does make the whole thing feel a bit one-sided – though the view is so one-sided it’s hard not to believe it must be fairly accurate.

While the conclusion is fairly inevitable, Hartley does manage to get us a bit more onside with the duo – though as it is revealed they made their own version of the same story once they heard about this production it does make one wonder and rounds off a fascinating insight into an often overlooked area of the film business that has, arguably, had quite a lasting effect on the state of cinema today, especially in terms of the current, effects driven, franchise culture.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Owen Hart: Hart of Gold

Owen Hart: Hart of GoldI’ve been a fan of professional wrestling since I first saw it around early 1992, in the build up to WWF’s SummerSlam show at Wembley Arena. As with all these things trends and styles come and go and, as the so-called Attitude Era dawned in late 1996 I stopped watching.

In early 1999 I caught up with the WWF and one of the faces who was still there (and there weren’t many) was Owen Hart. His feud with his brother Bret (The Hitman) had been one of the high points of my years of loving wrestling as a kid so having him as a touchstone into the new era was great.

Then in May 1999 I saw in a national UK newspaper that he had died the night before. The first thing that struck me about this was that a UK newspaper was carrying the story (UK newspapers even today are highly unlikely to mention pro-wrestling) then it started to sink in what had happened, surrounded by the rumours flying around the internet and between the few wrestling fans at school.

Luckily I was able to catch that week’s Raw, then broadcast on a few days delay on Sky, and it was and remains one of the most moving episodes of it I’ve ever seen where all the wrestlers broke character to pay tribute to the man I knew as ‘The Rocket’.

Owen Hart as European Champion

Owen Hart as European Champion

After that a lot of controversy has surrounded the relationship of the Hart family and the WWF (now WWE) so its taken 16 years for any further chance to relive and celebrate Owen’s life and work to happen in any kind of official way, and that is a new DVD/Blu-ray set, Owen Hart: Hart Of Gold – though it seems these legal wranglings are far from over.

Along with a fine selection of matches, including some rarely seen examples from the Hart owned and run Calgary Stampede Wrestling and tracing his entire career up to his match with Edge in September 1998, the centre piece of the set is a new documentary.

As with most new WWE documentaries I can’t help but find it a bit short. At just over an hour it’s clearly designed to fit in with WWE Network programming, but, none-the-less a lot is packed in.

The basic structure is to chart Owen’s life and career so it starts with his being born as, famously, the youngest of the 12 Hart siblings. This is all particularly interesting as there are new interviews with a number of his brothers and sisters which, if I’m honest, I wasn’t really expecting, as well as archive clips of the late British Bulldog, Davey-Boy Smith, Owen’s brother-in-law.

If you’ve read Bret Hart’s autobiography there won’t be too much here that’s a surprise or particularly new, but hearing it from the horse’s mouth so to speak, adds more detail and nuance and makes it clear that Owen had a great mind for pro-wrestling from a very young age.

Owen Hart with Bad News Allen in Stampede Wrestling

Owen Hart with Bad News Allen in Stampede Wrestling

The early sections of the documentary are also made extra interesting thanks to the inclusion of footage from the Stampede Wrestling TV shows where Owen was the top star in the late 1980s before his move to WWF. As we track his first run in WWF the documentary is surprisingly candid with Bret Hart commenting about the fact WWF didn’t seem to know what they had, something echoed by Jim Ross about Owen’s short run in WCW (which I had no prior knowledge of) and Daniel Bryan speaking as a fan of Owen.

A fair chunk is taken up going into detail of the brother vs brother feud I mentioned earlier and we get some clips of some of the best wrestling matches I’ve ever seen, including Owen vs Bret at Wrestlemania X which opened and, arguably, stole the show.

Interspersed between all the main sections of the documentary are a series of ‘Owen tales’ where wrestlers from across Owen’s career recount stories of some of the backstage antics for which he was well-known. These add a real extra depth both in showing the much remarked upon fun-loving real life side of Owen, as well as offering a window into the world of pro-wrestling that had its roots in carnivals, fairs and side shows that I can’t help but feel has been a bit lost in recent years.

Owen Hart with the Sharpshooter on Bret Hart

Owen Hart with the Sharpshooter on Bret Hart

The story continues through Owen’s time as a tag partner of both Yokozuna and the British Bulldog (sadly of course there is no comment from either really) and his time as the highly entertaining ‘Slammy Award Winning…’ character.

The reinvigorated Hart Foundation gets a nice examination, but then we reach the still controversial events of Survivor Series 1997 and, arguably, well-known WWE politics rears its (ugly) head. A lot of Owen’s career after that is glossed over, including feuds with Shawn Michaels and his partnership with current WWE persona-non-grata Jeff Jarrett. Also skipped is the incident where Owen accidentally broke Steve Austin’s neck at SummerSlam.

While I didn’t feel there was a big gap here as the running time of the documentary is short, it is a shame these things weren’t covered for completeness and its sad that politics and legal issues clearly still have a troubling place in this story (particularly as it is obvious that these have created a rift in the Hart family themselves and Owen’s widow and children are conspicuous in their absence here).

And then things come to May 1999.

British Bulldog and Owen Hart

British Bulldog and Owen Hart

Obviously no detail is given, and I wouldn’t want there to be, but this is a genuinely effecting section hearing from Owen’s colleagues and some of the wrestlers he inspired about their feelings at the time and thoughts now.

In the final moments of the documentary it is particularly interesting to hear from Chris Jericho and then Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens as wrestlers who, in their own ways, have really taken influence from Owen Hart and have paid tribute to him – in the case of Kevin Owens both through his WWE/NXT ring name and in naming his son Owen.

Along with the documentary and the selection of great matches, there are a number of bonus stories which are, in many ways, more of the same but are all very entertaining and offer that glimpse into the behind the scenes of the world of pro-wrestling that is always so fascinating – especially when it comes with no agenda as seems to be the case here. These also show a genuine sense of feeling and emotion from the wrestlers who knew Owen who come across as genuinely happy when recounting the stories and, contrastingly, still devastated about Owen’s death.

Owen Hart as Intercontinental Champion

Owen Hart as Intercontinental Champion

It may have taken 16 years but its great to finally have something to celebrate the great and innovative work Owen Hart did in pro-wrestling. Within that I think it even has a lesson for pro-wrestling (particularly the WWE) today that when wrestlers are allowed to have ‘gimmicks’ that are extensions of themselves is when they are most compelling and Owen is a perfect case study for this.

Following this release I hope Owen Hart can be recognized with a spot in WWE Hall of Fame next April as, like Warrior and Randy Savage in recent years, he has been something of a lost soul to WWE who deserves the recognition and respect that is long overdue. Though it seems ongoing legal issues may mean this won’t be happening.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson

The Ecstasy of Wilko JohnsonIn January 2013 rhythm and blues guitarist Wilko Johnson was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and, electing not to go through chemotherapy, was given 10 months to live. At this point, for what all expected to be barely a few months, his career went into overdrive as he appeared on BBC Breakfast TV and in pretty much every UK newspaper while crisscrossing not only the British Isles but Japan as well, as he undertook a farewell tour.

At the same time filmmaker Julien Temple documented this while conducting seemingly lengthy interviews with Johnson to create this feature, The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson.

In most hands this would likely have become an enjoyable career retrospective and partner to the concert film shot in 2013 at Koko in London carrying on where 2009 film Oil City Confidential left off, Temple though is not most hands. Having built a reputation documenting particularly British bands, musicians and institutions from The Sex Pistols and Joe Strummer to Glastonbury and London (in The Modern Babylon), Temple takes a subject and lays it alongside other British archetypes through film and other imagery to create documentaries that tell the story of their subject but also offer insight into what they may mean to culture as a whole.

Wilko JohnsonIn that regard, for The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson he takes 1946 David Niven vehicle, A Matter of Life and Death, and Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Throughout the film Temple calls back to these two pictures in different ways; much of the interview with Johnson is conducted on the beach at Canvey with the guitarist sat across a chess board from a robed figure, highlighting the (then) inevitable and unwinnable game with the reaper. In contrast, and I can only think this was added later, we get clips of Niven from the 1946 movie that sees him return from a perceived afterlife.

Along with this Temple takes clips of other films and imagery to really use his chosen medium to tell the story he wants to tell and make the points he wants to make in a way very few manage. Another who springs to mind with this talent is Mark Cousins, making for something absorbing both visually and aurally, in a way to match the more obvious story being told with perfect balance.

Wilko JohnsonOf course, Wilko is the main focus of the film and the title gives a hint of what he brings. While his situation might suggest the film could be quite a depressing experience, it really isn’t. Certainly there is a sadness in clips from his farewell shows and in his anecdotes of saying goodbye to not just people and fans but even the planet Saturn from his modest, home observatory.

What cuts through this though is the revelatory nature of Johnson’s response to his diagnosis where he explains, in typically poetry filled detail, how he suddenly realised how to live in the moment and see the wonder in everything. This may sound somewhat trite but, coming from the very grounded persona of Wilko, it is clearly honest and true and Temple captures Johnson’s genuine nature expertly.

Wilko Johnson, Norman Watt-Roy, Julien Temple and Dylan Howe

(l-r) Wilko Johnson, Norman Watt-Roy, Julien Temple and Dylan Howe

Along with this Temple still finds time to give something of a look back at Wilko’s life and career from his birth on Canvey Island through the childhood flood of the estuary island to his marriage, forming Dr. Feelgood and subsequent life as a seemingly non-stop touring musician and minor renaissance in the late 2000s with a mix of photos, archive footage and material shot for Oil City Confidential.

As it seems things are about to reach their inevitable climax there is, as in all the best stories, a twist. The film concludes with a pair of new interviews with Wilko, sat in his garden and on the beach again with his guitar, talking about his (still on going) astonishing recovery and his new outlook on life on, as he says, the birthday he wasn’t meant to be there for.

In this we hear Johnson playing guitar for the first time since his supposed retirement and see footage of his return to the stage with Norman Watt-Roy. Throughout there is something of a new perspective and humility from Johnson which brings the film full circle but with the earlier spectre replaced with the signature red and black Fender Telecaster.

Wilko Johnson at KokoMuch like Temple’s other films The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson is a kind of visual poem telling its story through the language of film as well as the words of its subject and in doing so goes deeper than a straight documentary ever could telling a story that is at once human, political, spiritual and, above all, honest in its outlook.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,