2016 Sydney Film Festival - The American Epic Sessions

One documentary in four parts shown in three sessions. That is pretty much how you get to see The American Epic Sessions, a documentary that captures contemporary American artists lay down songs from the beginning of the twentieth century. The director, Bernard MacMahon focuses on capturing the 'lightning in the bottle' of a raw, unedited live take of a song.

This is a fascinating series of documentaries for the music nerd who likes to know how the original vinyl records were made and the history behind those songs. This was one of the first time these films were seen by a cinema audience and they were well received with a insightful Q&A with the director and the editor, Dan Gitlin. These films track the origins and growth of American pop music and ultimately the growth of a nation of immigrants into a dominant cultural influence across the world. 

The rawness of the one take, three and a half minute song is explored in the fourth movie when the songs are recorded on the original technology by modern artists. As music producer Jack White (of the White Stripes) says in the film, the musicians turn up like they are coming to church, dressed in their Sunday best and prepared to put on their best as there is no dubbing or editing. All live and in one room.

Keep an eye out for these movies on a television or streaming service near you this December and take some time out to witness some history in the making.

2016 Sydney Film Festival - Janis: Little Girl Blue

Janis: Little Girl Blue is the 2015 documentary from Oscar nominated director, Amy Berg. Watch her talk about making the film during The Hollywood Reporter documentary roundtable. Very insightful.

Biographical documentaries about famous artists are hard to make unique as some to most of the facts about that person's life is known. Especially how it all ends. Berg anchors the emotional elements of her documentary around Joplin's open, raw, powerful and leave it all there stage performances. Joplin's drive for love, acceptance, and honest comunication is all there on stage, and the absence of that love and acceptance when she is off stage is keenly highlighted and gives us insight into possble reasons for Joplin's heavy drug use. What is quite apparent is the huge natural talent Joplin was and that her death cut short what could have been a monumental body of work from a great artist.  Check out the perfornace below that announced her arrival on the music scene, and watch Joplin blow the audience away. 

With Big Brother and the Holding Company, she performed the song at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 to an enthusiastic audience and critical reception. The first performance on June 17 was not filmed, so the band was persuaded to perform the song again on the next day.

This is a well made documentary and a must see for Janis Joplin fans.

Sydney Film Festival 2015 - Democrats

Democrats is the first feature documentary from Danish filmmaker Camilla Nielsson. I am going to give you the description from the Danish Film Institute website - "Over the course of more than three years director Camilla Nielsson was up close in the inner circles of politics in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. With the process of creating Zimbabwe’s new constitution as the film’s narrative backbone, Democrats tells the story of the political elite in Zimbabwe fighting the battle over the founding principles defining the country’s possible future." As a Zimbabwean I cannot give you an unbiased review of this film. The content cut far to deep. It is a documentary that sits within the in-depth current affairs sub-genre as they delve into life and politics in an African dictatorship.  Filmmakers worked in a country where news crews, photo journalists, well any form of free media, could end up in jail (in the conditions described in the documentary) or dead. Especially if you are a foreigner.  

The co-chairs of COPAC who were tasked with the impossible were Munyaradzi Paul Mangwana of the ruling party, ZANU-PF, and Douglas Mwonzora of the opposition, MDC-T. Their story anchors the documentary over the three years it took for the new constitution to be drafted. But it is evident by the end of the film that the written word is not going to oust a dictator. As Mugabe says in the documentary, the law is not where the power lies. At this moment the power is still with the 91 year old dictator of Zimbabwe.

Sydney Film Festival 2015 - Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of National Lampoon

Next up at the Sydney Film Festival was another documentary - Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of National Lampoon. Like Lambert & Stamp, this is a straightforward documentary that follows a similar path of two very different young men creating something in reaction to post World War Two conservative western society. In this case the subject is comedy rather than music, but the trajectory is similar to that of a band making it big, setting a trend, blowing out and having a tragic end to one of the founders. Just like Lambert & Stamp. What is quite astonishing in this documentary as you track the rise of a very American style post war comedy that started out as political and social satire and ended up as frat boy humour. It is a very particular type of humour that started as the brain child of Henry Beard and Douglas Kenney, who met at Harvard University. They took what was then Harvard Lampoon and made it a national magazine. They tapped into the end of the counterculture in the USA at the beginning of the 1970s and gave the establishment the big finger. As it was said in the documentary, US culture from 1946 to 1970 with subjects such as Nixon and the Vietnam War were a rich source for satire. The National Lampoon magazine provided the Second City comedy group of John Belushi, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Harold Ramis, and Gilda Radner a stepping stone to Saturday Night Live and beyond, and launched comedy radio programs, books and finally they made it in Hollywood with Animal House.   And the rest they say is frat boy comedy history. It is an interesting documentary if you are into the history of this type of comedy and the influence it had.  Here is a great review on the documentary below.

Sydney Film Festival 2015 - Lambert & Stamp

My first film at the 2015 Sydney Film Festival is a straightforward music documentary about Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp the managers and creative guides to The Who. The film, directed by James D Cooper tracks the meeting, friendship, subsequent rise and flame out of the son of a world renown conductor, Lambert and the son of a working class East Ender, Chris Stamp with the backdrop of the creation of the band, The Who. There are interviews with Roger Daltrey, Pete Townsend, Chris’ brother, actor Terence Stamp, long-time friends and most importantly Chris Stamp. Unfortunately Kit Lambert died in 1981. The documentary is interesting to anyone who wants an insight into the beginnings of The Who, 1960s London, the Mod subculture and a look at an unlikely friendship. It is not a ground breaking documentary but, like Good ol’ Freda, the documentary about Freda Kelly, The Beatles secretary, it highlights those behind the scenes of some of the biggest English bands of the 1960s.

Sydney Film Festival 2014 - Jodorowsky's Dune

In 1973, Chilean-French cult film director Alejandro Jodorowsky was asked by French producer Michel Seydoux what film he wanted to make next. Jodorowsky said Frank Herbert's book, Dune without having read it. What follows is two years of development that involves the collaboration of artists, (H.R. Giger, Christopher Foss, Jean (Mobius) Giraud) musicians (Pink Floyd, Magma) and special effects creators (Dan O'Bannon) that results in ideas and concepts that are still being seen today in science fiction movies. 

For a movie that was never made, Jodorowsky's Dune has a lasting impact.  This documentary opens up the thoughts and inspirations of the men involved in the project as they look back on their youth, their creative impulses of the time and the dreams they have about the power of art as transformative medium. Jodorowsky has a certain cinematic style that I am not a huge fan of, but his vision and drive for this project makes the movie that he did not make the most important cinematic legacy he has. It is interesting to see how the project is felled by the lack of commerciality and the fear of the unknown in Hollywood, and it is especially fascinating to track how these original ideas filtered into Hollywood science fiction films over the next 30 years. Imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery. This is a documentary for the cinefiles, science fiction fans and lovers of that inspirational and original idea. 

Hitler's Children - A Documentary about the Sins of the Fathers

This little known 2011 documentary is a German/Israeli co-production that focuses on the descendants of five senior Nazis, Heinrich Himmler (the head of the SS, Chief of the German Police and the Interior), Hans Frank (Governor General of occupied Poland), Hermann Göering (Hitler's deputy, founded the Gestapo and was Head of the Luftwaffe), Amon Goeth (commandant of the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp in Płaszów in German-occupied Poland). and Rudolf Hoess (Commandant of Auschwitz).  Directed by Chanoch Zeevi, the documentary portrays the family members who are in opposition to the beliefs held by their father, grandfather or great uncles. It does not offer an alternative view to this opposition but delves into it to unpick the emotions of legacy, horror, guilt, shame and how each of the subjects discovered their family history, how that impacted them and their siblings and family relationships and what they have chosen to do and be as a result.

The descendants are represented by Göering's grand niece, Bettina Göering, she has a brother and speaks of her cousin, Göering's daughter; Katrin Himmler. Himmler's grand niece and author of The Himmler Brothers: A German Family History; Niklas Frank, Frank's son, Hitler's Godson and author of The Father: A Settling of Accounts and In the Shadow of the Reich; Rainer Hoess, Hoess' grandson, and Monika Goeth, Goeth's daughter.

To tell you anything more would spoil the impact of the documentary. I recommend tracking it down and watching this slice of social history. The BBC did show this in 2012, so I am sure it is available on DVD or online with English subtitles.

Note - there is a second documentary with the same name, which is a 5 part TV show that focuses on how the youth of Germany were indoctrinated into the Third Reich.