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Documentaries, 2011

Is there a more powerful emetic than the Cineplex trailer?

You've walked or driven or shelled out for a cab or roughed it on the bus to get to the theatre.  You've stood in line for tickets.  You've handed over an Alexander Hamilton plus maybe a George Washington or two.  You've waded through the crowd for a seat.  And just as you sit down in the cozy air-conditioned dark to relax you're repaid for your efforts with twenty or more minutes of ads for shit you'll never buy and trailers for movies you'll never see that pass by in a barrage of gimmicky images that have all the flavor and nourishment of aspartame on Wonderbread©.  Once again you're reminded of the numbing mediocrity  of most Hollywood product, a handful of safe stories repeated endlessly, with little deviation; as you wait for the "pre-show entertainment" to come to a merciful end you recite the serenity prayer and hope that the feature film makes it all worthwhile.   

But all hope is not lost.  Thanks to technological advancements that allow movies to be made on the cheap, cineastes can find plenty of honest filmmaking - no-frills narratives with real people that reflect life as it is actually lived - in the 21st century proliferation of documentaries.  2011 looks to be another promising year.

Following on the heels of 2010’s street art smash “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is “Stick ‘Em Up!,” about wheat pasting.  According to the movie’s official site, “Stick ‘Em Up!” “delves into the minds and motivations behind several guerilla street artists capturing the lifespan of their art...conception, creation, placement and ultimately the removal by the city abatement enforcement.” 

A second movie that zeroes in on urban landscapes is “Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles,” which the director describes as “graffiti, guerrilla art, and an unsolved mystery wrapped into one.  [Toynbee Tiles] are four-lined message plaques found in the asphalt road in numerous major US (and in four cases, South American) cities.  Their message reads, ‘TOYNBEE IDEA, IN Kubrick’s 2001, RESURRECT DEAD, ON PLANET JUPITER.’ With occasional variations and frequent additional texts.”  The tiles – which have been in public view since the early ‘80s - combine references to Arnold Toynbee, a historian of once-dominant civilizations, and “2001:  A Space Odyssey,” but no one is exactly sure what they mean.  “Toynbee” will be showing at Sundance, whose official program says that “Foy’s story is that of the classic underdog, true independent first-time filmmaker who made significant personal sacrifices to get his unusual film made, handling all aspects of the production largely on his own as a kind of one-man band.”

Shaped by Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”) – with executive production from Ridley Scott - “Life in a Day” weaves together snippets from 4,500 hours of film submitted to Youtube by people who recorded their lives on July 24, 2010 all around the world.  The filmmakers even sent hundreds of cameras to the far reaches of the globe to ensure that the movie would have a broad geographic representation.  “Life” will premier simultaneously at Sundance and on Youtube’s Life in a Day channel on January 27 at 8 p.m. EST.

While “Life in a Day” employs post-postmodern crowd-sourcing, other documentaries will offer time-capsule biographies of interesting Americans from days past.  Shane Salerno, a screenwriter for “Armageddon,” will put out a documentary about J.D. Salinger, author of “Catcher in the Rye.”    Like his famously reclusive subject, Salerno has been tight-lipped about the film, and is rumored to have imposed strict non-disclosure agreements on people connected to the project.  Salerno told Newsweek, “You’re going to see a very different Salinger than you’ve read about for five decades.”  Among the interviewees will be Gore Vidal, E.L. Doctorow, Tom Wolfe, Robert Towne, Martin Sheen, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Cusack, and Edward Norton. 

First-time writer/director/producer Keya Morgan will be releasing “Marilyn Monroe:  Murder on Fifth Helena Drive,” which posits that Marilyn Monroe’s overdose of barbiturates in 1962 wasn’t accidental.  If it’s anything like a BBC documentary on the same subject, it's likely that John and/or Robert Kennedy will be implicated in Monroe's death; organized crime is another possible suspect.  Included will be archival footage of many major players in mid-2oth century America:  Marlon Brando, Joe DiMaggio, J. Edgar Hoover, JFK, RFK, Arthur Miller, Frank Sinatra, and Sam Giancana. 

Giancana will get a posthumous documentary of his own, “Momo:  the Sam Giancana Story.”  Giancana is best known for being a ruthless Chicago mob boss who many believe was involved in the conspiracy to assassinate JFK in 1963 after Kennedy's brother Robert had harnessed the full force of the U.S. attorney general’s office to go after the Mafia.  According to Nicholas Celozzi II, the writer/producer, “Momo” will try to humanize the subject by portraying a multi-dimensional person who took care of friends and family as surely as he butchered his foes.  The movie includes interviews with Giancana’s daughters and other people who knew him.  According to HollywoodChicago.com, “Momo” features “FBI transcripts, letters, audio, videotapes and photos, and is the inside story of what it’s really like to live in a Mafia family.”        

During the summer following JFK’s assassination, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” author Ken Kesey led a gaggle of
hippies named the Merry Pranksters around the country in a psychedelic-colored bus.  Among their stops was the World’s Fair in New York.  Alex Gibney (“Enron:  the Smartest Guys in the Room,”  “Taxi to the Dark Side”) will bring this adventure to life in “Magic Bus.”  The ever-prolific Gibney is also working on documentaries about Lance Armstrong and Steve Bartman, an infamous Chicago Cubs fan who interfered with a fly ball that could have put the long-suffering team one out closer to a coveted World Series birth that never came about.

“No No:  A Documentary” profiles major league pitcher Dock Ellis, who claimed to have taken LSD before throwing a no-hitter in 1970.  Through the life of this unorthodox athlete the picture looks at the political and racial upheaval of the time, the effects of free agency on professional baseball, and the war on drugs.

“No-No” is just one of many 2011-release documentaries to touch on sociopolitical subjects.  “We Were Here:  Voices from the AIDS Years in San Francisco” relates the details of the epidemic that ravished San Francisco’s gay community in the ‘80s from the perspective of five people who lived to tell the tale. 

How to Die in Oregon” chronicles terminally ill people wrestling with the right to die, which has existed in Oregon since the Death with Dignity law passed in 1994.  According to the Sundance description, “From its opening scene, where a terminal ill cancer patient takes a lethal dose of Seconal and literally dies on camera, it becomes shockingly clear that HOW TO DIE IN OREGON is a special film….The topic is explored in all of its complexity, involving not only individuals facing this all-important decision, but their families, caregivers, and advocates, and how it affects them.”

The Flaw” dissects America’s recent crash and shows how the arc of the US economy over the past 30 years brought us to our current predicament.  Directed and written by David Sington, who has done “Nova” and other science productions, the movie incorporates patriotic propaganda cartoons from the ‘50s, data, and critical thinking. 

Danfung Dennis, recently named one of Indiewire’s 25 New Faces of Indie Film, directs “Hell and Back Again,” which moves from embedded footage of a battle between Marines and the Taliban in Afghanistan to the life back home of one of the soldiers who is wounded. 

On a lighter note, "Supersize Me" creator Morgan Spurlock (pictured at right) will give us "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," a study of advertising, marketing, and product placement in television and film – purportedly funded entirely by advertising and product placement.  (Spurlock is also working on a documentary about Comic-Con with Joss Whedon.)      

Other intriguing documentaries include “Memphis Heat:  the True Story of Memphis Wrasslin,’” “Woke up this Mornin’ in the Arkansas Delta,” and “Bettie Page Reveals All.” 


A whole host of music documentaries are coming out in 2011.  Seemingly taking a page from last year’s successful “Anvil,” “Tantrum” follows a hair metal band who ruled Peoria, Illinois from 1987-1991.  IMDB.com’s plot summary says, “The authentic ‘80s clothes and conversations have aged like a fine wine.  But ultimately it’s the story of every band, in every garage around the country, in every era.  The story is a common tale of potential derailed.”

There are a number of flicks coming out about musicians that made it.  “Dylanology” will examine the legions of fans who hang on every word of America’s most enigmatic bard.  “Troubadours,” by Morgan Neville, will tell the story of '70s singer-songwriters, specifically Carol King and James Taylor.  Johnny Depp will narrate a documentary about Keith Richards, the inspiration for his Jack Sparrow character.

Two Jimi Hendrix documentaries are scheduled for release.  One will center on Hendrix’s two February 1969 performances at the Royal Albert Hall in London.  It will also have off-stage footage.  Hendrix’s half-sister Janie described the doc to Billboard as “a day in the life of Jimi”.…”There were about four cameras that followed Jimi and the guys around Europe and filmed the two concerts….As well as them coming off trains, planes and automobiles, signing autographs, Jimi backstage getting ready, in his apartment doing little apartment jams with his friends and them later playing the Speakeasy.” 

A second documentary, “Jimi Hendrix:  The Guitar Hero,” is narrated by Slash of Guns N’ Roses, and has interviews with powerhouse contemporaries Ginger Baker, Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor, Eric Burdon, and Stephen Stills, as well as Jimi’s brother Leon and main squeeze Kathy Etchingham. 

Martin Scorsese is working on a documentary of George Harrison entitled “Living in the Material World.”  Harrison’s widow Olivia is involved in the venture, so the film should be an intimate portrait, with never-seen footage and first-hand recollections from people who knew George well:  Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Phil Spector, Tom Petty, Ringo Starr, Eric Idle, and Yoko Ono.

“Sing Your Song” is about Harry Belafonte, best known for “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).”  “Sing” will survey Belafonte’s life, particularly his political activism. Belafonte was active in the civil rights struggles, both in the planning for Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington and the recruitment of celebrities to bring notoriety to the cause.  He also organized against Apartheid in South Africa, and has been active in The Gathering for Justice, a group that fights youth incarceration. “Sing” is directed by Susanne Rostock, who served as an editor on “Incident at Oglala:  The Leonard Peltier Story.”

Coming soon to general release is “Lemmy:  49% Motherfucker 51% Son of a Bitch,” which shows Lemmy Kilmister on tour with Motorhead and has interviews with James Hatfield, Dave Grohl, Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper, Joan Jett, and Slash.  According to a press release, the movie includes “candid at-home interviews, studio sessions, and priceless live concert footage.”  A DVD with four hours of special features will go on sale February 15.  

Cameron Crowe, the director of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," is making a documentary about Pearl Jam to celebrate their 20th anniversary.  The movie will be rooted in pre-existing footage that the band has on hand.

Other established acts getting documentaries will be Tupac Shakur, Ministry, the Mekons, Quiet Riot, and A Tribe Called Quest.

Last, there will be a documentary about the Sunset Strip, the street that helped launch the Doors, Frank Zappa, The Seeds and a whole host of hard rock bands, from Van Halen to Motley Crue to Guns N’ Roses.  Expect interviews, archival footage, and if that isn’t enough to draw you in, a recent live performance by vaunted Strip alumnus Ratt

© Dan Benbow, 2011




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