Sparks Documentary

The thought stuck me that there really needs to be a documentary about the band Sparks. The chameleon like pop-glam-rock group comprised of brothers Ron and Russell Mael really need a documentary to help people understand and chart their four decade long career, with all its twists and turns. A quick Google search for “Sparks documentary” returned a blog post from Dangerous Minds about a fan-produced Sparks documentary documentary comprised almost entirely of archival material. There you have it – the good and bad of the Internet. We suddenly have ability to come up with an idea and instantaneously realize you’ve been beaten to the punch.

At the same time we have the ability to find amazing new things and while this 30 minute tribute to the band is  not the Number One Song in Heaven, but this Suburban Homeboy is impressed. Packed with amazing visuals from a slew of music videos, all more interesting than most music videos you’ll see today, and peppered with some hilarious live performances, this documentary’s greatest asset is the variety of footage it brings to both fan and first timer. A homemade voice over gives very dry expositional information and while it would be better served by a more dramatic voice or a more in-depth script it certainly avoid the bias praise of an obsessive fan.  More interviews would be nice, but that is always a dangerous wish. The clips of the band being interviewed by Dick Clark are amazing, but some of the more journalistic interviews are meandering and dry, lacking greatly in the eccentric stage personas that the brothers have refined and expanded over the years. If anything this lovingly made short simply shows that Sparks blazed a unique and cutting edge trail and in their wake they have left behind a wealth of material that needs to be revisited. This band deserves far greater recognition in the annals of music. Hopefully, this documentary will open eyes and ears to the band and the potential of some larger documentary project.



Let’s Give Thanks

Two short documentaries to help us remember why we celebrate Thanksgiving and why we should be thankful for documentaries.

“also known as The Turkey Film, this is the film that inspired me more than anything else when I saw it as a high school student in 1979, screened at the Hirshorn Museum in Washington, DC. It totally re-wired my head, and I credit the director, music video pioneer Chuck Statler, with inspiring me to pursue a life in filmmaking.” – Jeff Krulick Heavy Metal Parking Lot


And then there is this…

Enjoy !

It Started with Muybridge

Maria Popova of BringPickings brought this to my attention. It’s another documentary that explains how Eadweard Muybridge’s early explorations of motion photography helped pave the way for the Atomic age. While it’s not as interesting as Zoopraxographer, this film does serve as a nice compliment to it.

In 1965, more than half a century after Muybridge passed away, the U.S. Department of Defense commissioned It Started with Muybridge — a fascinating short documentary, currently in the public domain, tracing how Muybridge’s motion studies contributed to the science and technology of the Atomic Age, from testing the safety limits of nuclear reactors to measuring the speed of supersonic missiles.

Maria Popova –

It Started with Muybridge   YouTube

Day of the Fight

Day of the Fight is a black and white boxing short made on a shoestring budget. The quality of the video could be better, but one can still sense Kubrik’s keen eye through the degradation. The blunt, informative narration lacks fits for this era of documentary, but feels out-of-place in Kubrick film.

Open Culture just ran a nice piece about Stanley Kubrick’s early documentary work. What is most interesting about the film comes from information in the article. Kubrick sought to make this film on the cheap and turn a big profit. That he thought documentary was some express ticket to riches is laughable. You have better odds making money at the horse track than in documentaries. Kubrick wised up to this a bit later when he switched from non-fiction to fiction. Check out the link after the video to see two other Kubrick documentaries.

Stanley Kubrick’s Very First Films: Three Short Documentaries  Open Culture

Child of Rage

Child of Rage is an early HBO documentary about an abused 6 year old who has become an abuser. Were it not for the chilling confessions of Beth Thomas, who so casually talks about the abuse she’s suffered and the abuse she now inflicts upon others, I’d say this film were a dated educational expose on abuse and attachment therapy. Still, there is history in this piece for two reasons. The first being that Beth Thomas grew up to be a normal, caring individual, while her therapist was charged with the death of another patient. This tragedy is not part of Child of Rage, but has been dramatized more than once for television. TV also produced a made-for-television reworking of Beth Thomas’ story, this was also called Child of Rage. Obviously, the subject matter was compelling, but it is not hard to see why it would be spun into TV drama. Which brings me to my second point. I am interested in this documentary because of its dry, toned down, even rudimentary production style. This was made before HBO turned its America Undercover series into a sex parade and well before they started producing Academy Award nominated films.

Child of Rage  You Tube  Carl Howard

You can read more about the film and the tragedy  40 Years of Faulty Wiring

Lonely Boy (1962)

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Musically, I could not care less about Paul Anka. As a documentary, I find Lonely Boy endlessly fascinating.

Lonely Boy is one of the earliest celebrity documentaries. It predates Don’t Look Now and hints to the endless celebrity reality shows cranked out by today’s cable channels. This short film is part teen idol expose, part promotional film designed to introduce the star to a larger audience, and part experiment in various observational and cinema vérité techniques.

Throughout the picture Paul Anka and his manager attempt to present Paul as both a normal young man looking for that one special girl and a highly manufactured musical commodity making bold moves to break into newer markets. The subjects of the film have a clear agenda for the piece, continue feeding Paul’s teenage female audience the image and sound that drives them wild, while showing those in the music industry that Paul can appeal to a more sophisticated, older crowd; the kind that frequent upscale night clubs. Directors Koenig & Kroitor capture all of this, but they capture something deeper.

A good percentage of the film is presented as fly-on-the-wall observation. We see Paul sing. We see him, in only his underwear, rushing to get dressed before taking the stage. We see him on the Atlantic City boardwalk signing autographs and giving girls kisses on their cheeks. Then there are isolated moments with either Anka or his manager, direct interviews telling the audience just how Anka has risen to fame, while all the while making it seems like he’s just an ordinary kid with big dreams, a solid work ethic, and some raw talent. In a word, he’s wholesome. Then, midway through the documentary the film changes from being about Paul’s rise and his adoring teenie-bopper fan-base to an artist in transformation.

Performing for the first time at the illustrious Copacabana night club Anka must not only win over an older clientele, but also the nightclub’s owner. The filmmakers capture a strange, almost foreign, ritual as young Anka presents gifts to the older club owner. A piece of jewelry to match the owner’s pinky ring and a blown up photograph of Anka for the club’s office are as much symbols of gratitude as they are offerings. This owner is a king-maker who can make or break Anka’s career. As the ritual unfolds before the camera kisses the owner on the cheek. However, the camera misses the kiss and from behind the camera we hear Koenig or Korinor ask Anka and the owner to re-do the kiss. Both subjects laugh and agree to do it again. It’s such a transformative moment for the film, showing new sides to both Anka and the club owner as they drop their pretenses and joke for the camera, as well as showing the makers’ abilities to manipulate a situation.

It would be naive to think whole film is without manipulation, either by the filmmaker or its subjects, one always knows a hand or force is guiding the process. Still, a stark contrast is struck when we see this hand at play. For, there is no technical reason why the filmmakers had to leave in the first, failed, attempt at a kiss. Its inclusion does show a change in behavior in the subjects. At the same time it is a moment of manipulation in a scene about manipulation. After the incident in the nightclub, the question of just how constructed the entire piece is becomes magnified. When the film closes with an unknown passenger in Anka’s car saying he’s unsure why he’s on the road with Anka and that he should be back home with his wife and kid, Paul Anka responds to the man by saying that the guy is not fooling anyone and that he knows exactly why he’s on the road with Paul. The unspoken answers is – because he is part of the business team. Paul is this man’s job and this is how he makes a living to support his family. At the same time, the mention of a family, a wife and child, comes right after we’ve heard Paul singing his hit “Lonely Boy” – a syrupy lament about Paul’s inability to find the right girl. The stranger’s line suddenly echoes Paul’s lyrics. Two seemingly unconnected elements get spliced together to equal the summation of Paul Anka, a manufactured lonely boy singing about his search for the woman who will complete his life, but really he’s just trying to make it big in show business.

Tomorrow’s Saturday (1962)

Tomorrow’s Saturday cheer-up. Michael Grigsby‘s Free Cinema documentary makes exquisite use of sound to connect a loose pastiche of images depicting the weekend activities of an English town. Starting in a factory and ending after a night in the pub, the film wanders from children at play, to a busy marketplace, to a soccer match. Everything is leisurely captured in black and white, with a wide range of grays. Routinely, the audio precedes the images we are about to see. This technique creates a curiosity for what lies around the corner.

Even when the source of a sound is reveled the film’s lack of fully synchronous sound keeps the viewer from a full entrance into the lives of the townfolk being documented. The noise of a factory or the boisterous singing in a pub forever keeps us from evesdropping on the whispered words shared between co-workers and friends. Upon our final arrival at the futbol match we are left outside the field’s stone walls. The sounds of the match spill outward to the crowds filing inside. These moments of great noise give way to quiet, contemplative shots of lone figures traversing the landscape. A compelling tension is born of the intimacy of the imagery and the spatial boundaries of the audio.

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