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.

 

Taj Mahal Travelers on Tour (1972)

Over the holidays I received a copy of  JaprocksamplerJulian Cope’s encyclopedic account of how Rock’n’Roll collided with Japanese culture to create a freaked out fusion of pop, folk, and experimental music.  Cope writes with authority and unabashed passion, but he lists more musicians, bands, and records then one feels they have time left to track down. One of the first bands I wanted to check out was Taj Mahal Travelers, a sextet of long haired musicians straddling the worlds of rock and art. When Cope mentioned that someone produced a tour documentary about Taj Mahal Travelers, I immediately set out to find it. Knowing that only one of their albums shows up on Spotify, I thought I’d have to do some real Internet mining to find this documentary, but low-and-behold someone has posted it to You Tube. Unfortunately, there are no subtitles. That’s okay, the music transcends the language barrier.

 

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 !

Filmmaker: A Diary by George Lucas

Before he blew up the box offices with his special effects driven spectacles George Lucas was a rather reserved documentary filmmaker who leaned more towards experimenting than empire building. Watch, Filmmaker, a documentary about the making of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain Peopleand you’ll find a wholly different filmmaker than the man who gave the world Jedi Masters and Wookies.

Confession: I was once an unabashed Star Wars fan. Episode IV: A New Hope was the first film I ever saw. I had all the toys and so much other crap plastered with the Star Wars logo. I saw the Star Wars Holiday Special when it originally aired! My love for the original Star Wars trilogy never wavered during those dry years after Return of the Jedi and before the Special Editions, when hope of Lucas ever fulfilling is promised 9 part saga grew dimmer and dimmer.

My love for Star Wars is what drove me to attend film school. I entered film school right around the time of the Special Editions and when Lucas announced that he’d begin making new Star Wars episodes. While I didn’t like the digital dicking around with the old films, I was excited for the new ones. But, Lucas was now also saying he’d only make three more, denying that he ever said that Star Wars was a 9 part saga. I should have taken that as a sign of a man who had grown sick of his own creation. When the new trilogy finally arrived. I fears were confirmed.

Of course, By the time Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released I wasn’t the same 3 year old who went gaga for lightsabers and X-wings. I had completed film school and undergone a transformation into an artist who no longer wanted to make fantasy films. I wanted to make neo-realist independent films, documentaries, and experimental videos. Still, I loved Star Wars. It was, after all, such a big part of my life. That all changed with The Phantom Menace. Sure, I watched the subsequent prequels. Each one only further confirmed my lack of interest in the franchise and my growing theory that Lucas was more interested in making money than telling a mythical tale.

Today, I’m like a reformed Catholic. I know all the saints. I know all the rituals, but I don’t believe any of it and I don’t waste my time thinking about it. I’ve moved on. So, when Disney announced that they would be buying Lucasfilms and making new Star Wars films I didn’t mind. What could they do to besmirch the Star Wars franchise that Lucas hadn’t already done with his megalomaniacal prequels or his lack of interest in protecting the brand? Heck, he’d already been in bed with Disney for two decades, thanks to Star Tours at MGM Studios in Orlando, where you could witness this travesty.

If anything, the sale of Lucasfilms to Disney meant two things. First, it means that the Star Wars saga might get some writers who can do a have decent job of writing a story. Face it, without help, Lucas is a piss-poor writer. Secondly, and far more interesting to me, is the fact that Lucas, freed from the burden of running Lucasfilms, might get back to making experimental and documentary films. It is something he has said he wants to do for many years. I never understood what was stopping him before, but now he has even less of an excuse.

Lucas was once a very technically minded film student who enjoyed foreign and experiment films. He once mentioned Arthur Lipsett‘s 21-87 as a life changing film experience. Lucas’ student work reflects these non-mainstream tastes. He produced animations, visual tone-poems, lyrical documentaries, and experimental narratives, few of which predicted the blockbuster kiddie films that would make him a household name. While never profound and perhaps not even that original, for student work, Lucas’ films showed the promise of a growing filmmaker dedicated to his craft and curious about the ways film could be used. This notion carried with him after college when he went on to make behind the scenes documentaries for Columbia pictures and Francis Ford Coppola. These works are far more spectator than spectacle and I would be far more excited to see him return to making these kinds of films than another Star Wars.

I’m a Stranger Here Myself (1975)

Today, would have been Nicholas Ray‘s 101 birthday. To celebrate one of American cinema’s true maverick’s lets all watch I’m a Stranger Here Myselfa 1975 documentary about Ray shows him near the end of his life when he was teaching for SUNY Binghamton. The production of We Can’t Go Home Again – a collaboration between Ray and his students – is interesting, but certainly not his best work. Clips from his earlier films as well as interjections by François Truffaut help illustrate why Ray is one of America’s finest directors. However, it is the footage of Ray, old but feisty, that remains the number one reason to watch this rare documentary.

[FILM NO LONGER AVAILABLE ONLINE]

R.I.P. – Robert Hughes & American Visions Episode 1

Little did I know a few days ago that when I posted about Robert HughesShock of the New he’d soon depart from this existence. It seems every post I make, as of late, has the Spector of death about it. Perhaps, this is fitting for a blog about documentaries. So many documentaries are about life or as it is sometimes stated, “real life”, but they are also about death. Unlike fictional films, where death is visibly far more prevalent, death is still quite taboo in documentary. We hate to be reminded us of our own mortality, especially us Americans. At the same time, the thought of death often runs through documentaries. The notion that one day, we will all pass on is very real. What happens after that is up for debate, but the truth that we all die is one of the more solid truths of this world and very much a part of many documentaries.

I’d just started exploring Robert Hughes’ American Visions. Now, seems like a good time to plow ahead. Here is the first episode, get started before it is too late.

 

Who are the Sikhs? (1997)

Today, senseless gun violence erupted near Milwaukee, just miles from where I live. The Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin has become the latest location of a mass shooting and has probably left many questioning just who are the Sikhs. This 1997 BBC documentary works as a good primer to the religion.

If we are going to turn back the tide of violence in this country and in this world we are going to have to start by understanding one another, what makes us different and where we hold common ground.

* Special thanks to Andy Nelson for digging up this documentary.