The Cult Movie Club: Fourteen Days In May (1987)

It doesn’t happen very often, but occasionally a documentary comes along that makes you question everything, puts a new slant on life and death, the whole shebang. Or just gives you a damn good scare. Paul Hamann’s ‘Fourteen Days In May’ definitely fits the bill.

Shot over two weeks during the summer of 1987 at the infamous Mississippi State Penitentiary – AKA Parchman Farm – ‘Fourteen Days In May’ follows a young black man Edward Johnson as he prepares for – and, with the help of his lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, tries to evade – the gas chamber.

First shown on the BBC over 30 years ago, it has become a landmark film. Similar areas have recently been explored by Werner Herzog, Louis Theroux and Nick Broomfield, but arguably ‘Fourteen Days In May’ trumps all of them for sheer emotional impact.

It explores the inner workings of a prison geared up for taking human life. Astonishing shots shed light on a kind of modern slavery, with policemen on horseback brandishing shotguns, calling out loud reprimands and instructions to large groups of (almost exclusively) young black detainees as they dig ditches or clear roadside vegetation.

Elsewhere we are witness to the last few minutes of another (white) inmate’s life as he is strapped into the electric chair, though thankfully we don’t see the moment of truth. The gallows humour of both the killers and killed will linger long in the memory.

As ‘Fourteen Days In May’ moves painfully and inexorably on, it becomes increasingly clear that Johnson is innocent. But no-one can do anything about it. Various (black and white) prison officers bravely profess their doubts as to his guilt, while Johnson’s family rally around the quiet, unfailingly polite young man, singing him songs to keep his spirits up.

Hamann breaks the fourth wall to says his goodbyes to Johnson in a memorable scene. But shorn of a voiceover or title cards, ‘Fourteen Days In May’ offers no explicit critique of capital punishment. It doesn’t need to. The facts do that for themselves.

It would seem churlish and pointless not to reveal the ‘ending’ of the film here – Edward Johnson meets his maker. The crushing coda reveals that a young black woman came forward after the execution to verify that she saw him in a pool hall during the time of the alleged crime, but when reporting this to a white police officer soon after was threateningly advised to mind her own business.

What do we take away from ‘Fourteen Days In May’? The only correct response would seem to be rage. And fear. But after that, there’s a helplessness and a slow-burning disgust. The only slight light at the end of the tunnel is the knowledge that it was in direct response to this documentary that the Lifelines organisation was set up, arranging pen pals for death row prisoners. Stafford Smith has also founded Reprieve.

Is America still like this? Over to you. The suspicion would have to be that it is.

The Cult Movie Club: Driving Me Crazy (1988)

In the ’70s and ’80s, documentarian Nick Broomfield’s focus was mainly on societal concerns – the British class system (‘Proud To Be British’), urban decay (‘Behind The Rent Strike’), juvenile delinquency (‘Tattooed Tears’) the US Army (‘Soldier Girls’), legalised prostitution (‘Chicken Ranch’). All are superb and worth seeking out.

But 1988’s ‘Driving Me Crazy’ marked a lightening of tone and the birth of Broomfield’s post-modern style, where he became a ‘character’ in the film – and, it has to be said, often an irritant.

The movie came about when the financiers of big-budget, all-black musical ‘Body And Soul’ – booked for a six-month run in Munich – sought out Broomfield to make a ‘Fame’-style documentary about the extended rehearsal process in New York. All well and good, thought Broomfield. It was a chance to extend his range and do something different, a little more light-hearted.

But then it all went pear-shaped. The financiers reduced the documentary budget from $1.6 million to $300,000. They also wanted to incorporate a ‘fictional’ element into the film, with writer Joe Hindy and his agent playing themselves. Egos ran wild and sensibilities were messed with.

Broomfield considered bailing but decided to hang around and document the resulting drama. So ‘Driving Me Crazy’ became a film about not being able to make a film, in the tradition of ‘Waiting For Fidel’.

The good news is that it’s one of the funniest but also most awkward movies of Broomfield’s career. ‘Body And Soul’ choreographers George Faison/Mercedes Ellington and assistant director Howard Porter don’t take kindly to the film crew and give them hell. Broomfield almost becomes persona non grata. Though this must have sometimes been painful, he almost seems to relish it. He also flirts outrageously with the PA of show producer Andre Heller and there are uncomfortable suggestions of racism from some of the suits.

But Broomfield and his DoP Rob Levi also document some stunning rehearsal footage. There are memorable jazz, hip-hop, soul and doo-wop performances and beautiful images of late ’80s New York, with shades of ‘Fatal Attraction’ and ‘9 1/2 Weeks’. There’s a particularly notable panoramic cityscape shot towards the end, soundtracked by one of many fractious but funny Broomfield phone calls.

Entertaining, unsettling and sometimes exhilarating, the oft-neglected ‘Driving Me Crazy’ is well worth another look.

Whitney Houston: Can I Be Me?

Whitney is seldom mentioned in the list of ’80s biggies (Prince, Bruce, Bon Jovi, Madonna, Jacko, Hall & Oates etc.) – strange considering her 1985 debut album sold 22 million copies, her second 25 million and she’s still the only artist in history to have seven consecutive US number one singles (one more than the The Beatles).

Her death in 2012 at the age of just 48 followed decades of worldwide success but also attendant tabloid speculation and a multitude of legal problems (her father John sued her for $100 million in 2002). Her marriage to R’n’B ‘badboy’ Bobby Brown was endlessly analysed, as was her close friendship with Robyn Sampson.

Nick Broomfield’s ‘Can I Be Me?’ (Rudi Dolezal gets a co-director credit for the inclusion of his scintillating 1999 concert/backstage footage) is the first Whitney doc out of the blocks – another ‘authorised’ film is apparently on the way shortly – and it’s a significant change of style for Broomfield. He dials down the quirkiness, resists on-screen cameos and cranks up the gravitas, seeming far more affected by Whitney’s demise than he was by the deaths of Biggie, Tupac, Kurt Cobain or Aileen Wuornos. There are no obvious laughs in this one and it’s by far his most commercial film, possibly reflecting the influence of Asif Kapadia’s similarly-themed ‘Amy’.

But other things haven’t changed – Broomfield’s impressive range of interviewees (including Whitney’s brothers, friends, bodyguard, hair stylist, drug counselor, musical director and backing singers) are shown in unflattering close-up, but all speak with sometimes breathtaking candour. The only notable no-shows are Bobby Brown and best friend Robyn Crawford, for reasons which become abundantly clear.

We get a strong sense of Whitney’s childhood in Newark, New Jersey – ‘the hood’ – when ‘Nippy’ was a lovable, caring, somewhat mischievous kid brought up singing gospel in church and mucking around with her brothers. Inheriting a formidable set of pipes from her mum Cissy Houston, legendary impressario Clive Davis signed Nippy as a charming, cheeky 20-year-old and demanded a debut album that would appeal to White America; as an Arista A&R man says on camera, ‘He DIDN’T want George Clinton music.’

Broomfield analyses this as the crux of the problem, in the sense that Whitney achieved her huge early success without ever referencing the sort of music she was passionate about. The title of the film comes from her catchphrase developed when touring in the late ’90s when she would insist on bringing in elements of gospel, jazz and R’n’B (presumably against the wishes of her record company).

Broomfield doesn’t fudge the drug issue, and finds plenty of self-criticism from Whitney as well as corroboration from various sources. Bobby Brown comes across as somewhat of a loose cannon but essentially harmless. Despite his posturing, the intimate backstage footage demonstrates that he certainly loved Whitney and vice versa. Their Ike and Tina ‘abuse’ skits are amusing, though may offend some. More troubling was Brown’s relationship with Robyn Crawford, who allegedly was having an affair with Whitney throughout much of her career.

Broomfield hasn’t been able to secure the rights to any of Houston’s recorded catalogue, so the film arguably relies too much on Nick Laird-Clowes’ mournful, somewhat clichéd original score. But Rudi Dolezal’s concert footage is evocative and moving. Love or hate ‘I Will Always Love You’, it’s hard not to be affected by Houston’s mesmerising live performance during a 1999 gig in Germany, one of many great musical moments in the film.

Michael Baker’s yin/yang bass-drum skin from that 1999 tour says it all – ‘Whitney: Can I Be Me’ is finally another desperately sad music-biz story. But it’s well worth catching even if it (understandably) lacks the anarchic zeal of Broomfield’s best work.

One interviewee who might have been worth tracking down is Bill Laswell, who to the best of my knowledge was the first producer to tap into Whitney’s potential when he helmed this early gem, recorded when she was just 19 years old.

Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus

51dnFsTtIPLEvery serious jazz fan seems to have a favourite Sonny Rollins story. One whose origins I forget – but it may be recited in Ken Burns’ ‘Jazz’ documentary – concerns a late-night Carnegie Hall New Year’s Eve concert sometime in the 1990s.

Rollins embarked on a typically Herculean solo at around 11:30pm. This went on for quite a while. At EXACTLY ten seconds to midnight he quoted from ‘Auld Lang Syne’.*

Truth or fiction, it’s the kind of story that has followed the brilliant Harlem-born saxophonist around throughout his career. It also speaks volumes about the intellectual vigour of the man.

Robert Mugge’s excellent 1987 documentary ‘Saxophone Colossus’ spawns yet more Sonny stories, inadvertently filming an extraordinary moment during an outdoor New York gig.

Jumping off the stage mid-solo to join the audience, he misjudges the height and breaks his heel in the process. Lying stricken on the floor, alone and unaided though still holding his horn, there’s the briefest of pauses before he continues soloing as if nothing was amiss.

The film also features fascinating interviews with Sonny and his wife/manager/producer (and now sadly departed) Lucille. Writers Gary Giddins and Ira Gitler contribute intelligent, revealing summations of Rollins’ career. There’s also some superb concert footage of Sonny’s ‘Concerto For Tenor Saxophone And Orchestra’ premiere in Japan.

Watching the film again has led to a period of Sonny woodshedding, and I’m unearthing some real gems. It’s exciting that he has continued to be an absolutely vital presence on the jazz scene, performing when possible and frequently contributing to media debates about the music. He has also written obituaries for his long-time producer Orrin Keepnews and long-time bassist Bob Cranshaw in recent issues of JazzTimes magazine.

More power to Mr Rollins. Here’s some of that woodshedding, in chronological order:

*(This is total BS. The concert was the day before Easter Sunday and the quote was from Irving Berlin’s ‘Easter Parade‘… Ed.)

Strike A Pose (2016): An Interview With Co-Director Ester Gould

71e6e7c242045b1aefaf0a5aa90969f0In the late summer of 1989, Madonna held a series of dance auditions for her Blond Ambition world tour, eventually choosing seven virtually unknown male artists: Luis Camacho, Oliver Crumes III, Salim Gauwloos, José Gutierez, Kevin Stea, Carlton Wilborn and Gabriel Trupin. 

Camacho and Gutierez were possibly the best known of the group, members of the Harlem House Ball that became famous for ‘voguing’ (as seen in the ‘Paris Is Burning’ documentary and Madonna’s ‘Vogue’ video).

The heightened environment of the Blond Ambition tour forged a bond between Madonna and the dancers but also conjured up some demons. ‘In Bed With Madonna‘ (AKA ‘Madonna: Truth Or Dare’), Alex Keshishian’s hugely successful 1991 film of the tour, had ramifications for the dancers too – three filed a lawsuit against Madonna, claiming she had invaded their privacy.

A fine new documentary ‘Strike A Pose’ catches up with six of the dancers nearly 30 years on (Trupin sadly died of an AIDS-related illness in 1995), investigating the impact that instant fame had on their lives and unveiling the deep, personal traumas that haunted many of them before, during and after the tour.

Co-directed by Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan, it’s a powerful, sometimes moving meditation on ageing, artistic integrity, celebrity and identity. I caught up with Gould to chat about the film.

MP: Where did the original idea for ‘Strike A Pose’ come from and was it easy getting the funding?

EG: The original idea was co-director Reijer Zwaan’s: he was 11 when he first saw ‘In Bed With Madonna’ and was immediately blown away by these seven dancers and the film’s bold, liberating message. For the first time in mainstream media, there was this wild, loud, fun-loving troupe of dancers who were being themselves – gay and happy. Over the years, Reijer wondered what had happened to those men. When he told me about the idea for the film, I immediately loved it. We did some online research and found out that there was an entire generation out there thanking these guys for helping them dare to be themselves. At the same time, it wasn’t till we met each of them separately in summer 2013 that we knew we had a film. Our premise was that these paragons of pride and self-expression had each, in their own way, struggled with shame and self-doubt. We always wanted ‘Strike A Pose’ to be more than a ‘where are they now?’ story. We were looking for a larger narrative. It took us about 18 months to finance the film mostly with Dutch government funds. There were questions about whether Madonna would be on board and how she’d be depicted; it’s strange that when there’s a celebrity in the picture there are always forces who want to attack or uncover some dirt. For us, it was never about that.

Was it difficult tracking down Luis, Oliver, Salim, Jose, Kevin and Carlton? And were they easily sold on the idea?

Thanks to social media it wasn’t that hard to find them, but it took some time to get some of them on board, specifically José and Luis. They were tired of people asking them to gossip about Madonna – how could they know we were any different? There was also some fear going back down memory lane perhaps because it had been so hard to move on with their lives after such an impactful experience. What persuaded them was our genuine interest in telling their stories.

The film is a powerful statement about the devastating physical and mental issues around HIV and AIDS, and also the social stigmas surrounding them. In that respect, ‘Strike A Pose’ feels just as relevant today as ‘In Bed With Madonna’ felt in 1991. Was it your intention to make a ‘statement’ or just tell an interesting story about these attractive, fascinating people?

We did want to make a statement, but for us that statement isn’t solely about HIV and AIDS. It was about the emotional consequences of hiding a part of yourself, of feeling unworthy of being loved. It’s really hard to dare to be yourself, to fully accept yourself, if you feel different for whatever reason. Because we all want to belong – it’s deeply engrained in human nature. Of course, gay rights and AIDS awareness have improved since the early ’90s. On another level, it’s one thing to be loud and provocative when you’re young, it’s another to accept yourself on a deeper level when you get older and reality kicks in.

Reijer Zwaan and Ester Gould at the 'Strike A Pose' premiere, Tribeca Film Festival, New York City, April 2016

Reijer Zwaan and Ester Gould at the ‘Strike A Pose’ premiere, Tribeca Film Festival, New York City, April 2016

At any point did you seek a contribution from Madonna for the film, and has she made any public or private comment?

We did successfully reach out to her management and lawyers to secure the rights to use fragments of the original film. We also thought a lot about asking her to be part of ‘Strike A Pose’ but always felt like her presence could overshadow the whole film. In a strange way, she was the elephant in the room, because even if she had turned up at the reunion dinner, wouldn’t that somehow ruin the point that these young dancers have moved on, matured and become grown men? We did have one specific scene in mind, almost a title sequence at the end, which was to see these men and Madonna performing ‘Vogue’ once more on stage. We wrote to her about the scene but never got a reply. We do know that she has seen the film and liked it.

What’s your favourite scene in the movie and why?

My favourite scene is the one with José, his mother and her disappointment that he never managed to buy her a house. It’s really hard-hitting and there’s something painfully beautiful about the fact that José is translating what his mum is saying in Spanish, and at the same time he’s moved by what she’s saying, by her sadness that he’s messed up his professional career. We see two broken people and it’s such an honest scene about shattered dreams.

I agree. Your film reminded me a little of ‘Anvil! The Story Of Anvil’ in its depiction of fast fame and then the return to ‘normal life’, but you don’t go into much detail about the dancers’ professional lives after the Blond Ambition tour – was that a conscious decision or one forced by time constraints?

I would say it was mostly forced by time constraints but also for us it was more about this larger narrative that the individual facts. We wanted the film to be cathartic but it was quite hard to interweave all these individual life stories into one film. Also, the reunion of the dancers kind of got in the way of shedding more light on their current lives. Hopefully you do understand that they all still dance or teach dance and have overcome their darker moments. We end with the power of dance rather than talk about their lives today.

‘Strike A Pose’ has enjoyed a limited but successful run at the Dochouse in London but what’s next for the film? Will there be a DVD release?

The film will very soon be released on digital platforms in the UK. And then later this year it’ll be on Netflix, so there are lots of chances to see it.

This is a golden era for documentaries and ‘Strike A Pose’ is a fitting addition. Have you got another project in the pipeline?

I’ve just finished a six-part documentary series for Dutch public television, co-directed by Sarah Sylbing, which was a great success. It’s about the debt problem. We set out to make it as exciting and compelling as fiction, looking at ‘The Wire’ for inspiration. I’m still busy with the impact of that series. I’m also cooking up new ideas but it’s too early to say anything concrete. What I can say is that I love documentary filmmaking and have a lot of faith in its narrative power to reach audiences, especially since there is much more freedom now with genre and form.

Movie Review: Command And Control (2016)

cmd-ctl-movieThis is a golden age for documentaries, and, in its own way, ‘Command And Control’ may just be as powerful as 2012’s BAFTA-winning ‘The Act Of Killing’. As nail-biting as any Hollywood thriller and carrying a terrifying message, it’s also a remarkably timely film given this week’s Theresa May Trident controversy.

Based on the book by acclaimed journalist and author Eric Schlosser (‘Fast Food Nation’, ‘Reefer Madness’), Robert Kenner’s documentary looks in detail at the notorious accident of September 1980 at the Damascus underground nuclear base in Arkansas, when the fuel tank of an idle Titan II missile was damaged – with disastrous consequences.

Meticulously researched and beautifully paced, the film expands into a shocking and riveting exposé of the US nuclear industry. Testimonies of the accident survivors are heartfelt, often surprising and occasionally moving, describing a world where human error can be catastrophic and is usually the result of an unreliable – and sometimes unjust – system.

Any event which leads to loss of life can hardly be classed as a ‘near miss’, but Damascus could easily have been a lot worse – we learn that Vice President Walter Mondale and Governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton were just 46 miles down the road at a Democratic convention in Little Rock when the accident happened. They would have been pulverized if the warhead had exploded, along with thousands – if not millions – of other citizens.

The scary facts pile up: during the Cold War, it was believed that the US needed between 50 and 100 nuclear weapons to keep up with the Soviet Union – there are currently around 7,000 nuclear weapons on US soil and surrounding oceans, including approximately 500 primed and ready to go. And some experts estimate that 1,000 similar accidents to the one at Damascus have occurred in the US since the advent of nuclear weaponry.

According to Schlosser, the fact that there hasn’t been more loss of life is down to the excellence of the weapons designers and bravery of the (mostly very young) site engineers. But mostly it’s down to luck. And the thing about luck is that it eventually runs out, as ‘Command And Control’ so harrowingly depicts.