Living History: Peter Jackson’s THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD (Warner Brothers 2018)

If you like history as much as old movies, Oscar-winning New Zealander Peter Jackson has a treat for you – THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD, a World War I documentary utilizing 100+ year old footage from the Imperial War Museum (most of it never viewed outside there) to tell the story of the British Empire’s infantry during The Great War. Jackson was given access to hundreds of hours of actual film and audio and commissioned to create something “unique and original”, and with the aid of modern technology he certainly succeeded in his mission.

Jackson’s narrative is told through the eyes of the young men and boys (some as young as 15) as they go through enlistment and boot camp, training to kill the enemy, then follows them to the Western Front, where they encountered not only battles in the trenches, but dysentery, rats gnawing at their fallen comrades, lice infestations, and other horrors. World War I also introduced the planet to such military practices as using tanks, bombs, flame throwers, and deadly gasses to gain an edge in slaughtering thousands of young soldiers, over nine million of whom were killed in this “War To End All Wars” (as WWI was unironically called back then).

Filmmaker Peter Jackson

The screening I saw featured another interesting treat – a 30 minute “making of” documentary with Jackson explaining how he went about turning all that ancient footage into something that would appeal to the modern audience’s eye. Much of it was shot at different speeds, and Jackson and his crew painstakingly set about to slow things down and present the cameramen’s original intent. Intricate cleaning processes were used to erase scratches (some, not all) and brighten the footage to show a clearer picture, and matte painting, rotoscoping, and CGI were used to bring the antique silent footage to vivid life. Colorization was added for the bulk of the narrative, for as Jackson says, the soldiers “saw a war in colour, they certainly didn’t see it in black and white”.

Besides the arduous computerized restoration, the soundtrack features actual voices of survivors of the war, recorded a half-century later for posterity by the BBC. These are the men who were there on the battlefront, telling what it was like through their eyes; sometimes humorous, sometimes chilling, always shocking. THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD allows them to tell their own story, and is a dazzling cinematic experience that’s now in theaters around the world, but due to Academy rules on release date (the film premiered December 17 in limited release), it was not eligible for Oscar consideration – nor will it be in 2019. But don’t get me started on THAT subject. I don’t want to distract from the power of Jackson’s marvelous film, both as an achievement in what can be done to bring historical film footage back to life, and as a monument to those brave souls who endured the horrors of life during wartime.

Rockin’ in the Film World #15: THE BEATLES: EIGHT DAYS A WEEK – THE TOURING YEARS (Apple Corps/Imagine Entertainment 2016)

Beatle fans will have a blast watching THE BEATLES: EIGHT DAYS A WEEK – THE TOURING YEARS, director Ron Howard’s 2016 rock doc covering the Fab Four’s career from their earliest club days through the height of Beatlemania, until they stopped touring for good in 1966. The film features rare and classic footage of The Beatles live in concert around the globe, juxtaposing their rise with news events of the day and interviews with all four members.

Howard conducted brand-new interviews with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, and included archival interviews with the late John Lennon and George Harrison. Through these and behind the scenes clips and press conferences, we get a sense of what it was like to be at the center of all the Beatlemania  madness. Ringo says it best: “We just wanted to play… playing was the only thing” far as these talented musicians were concerned, but the hype and hysteria, with screaming teenage fans drowning out the music, led the boys to stop touring and become a studio only band. George: “There wasn’t any joy in it, the music wasn’t being heard… it was just a freak show”.

We also get a sense of the camaraderie between the four lads from Liverpool, thrust from their working class roots into the spotlight of stardom. If you weren’t around then, I don’t think you can fully comprehend how big they were… all in a time before social media and the 24-hour news cycle. The Beatles’ popularity was strictly organic, and spread like wildfire not only in America, but globally. It took a wry, cheeky sense of humor to cope with the craziness surrounding them and trying to stay true to their art. That didn’t always go over well, as there was a Beatle backlash when John made the remark they were “more popular than Jesus” to a magazine writer, a quote that saw many Bible Belt states holding Beatle record burning parties.

The band always said it’s all about the music, and this film has plenty of it, from seldom seen performances of “She Loves You”, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”,  and “Twist and Shout” to more familiar ones to fans like their rendition of “All My Loving” on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW. There’s clips from the movies A HARD DAY’S NIGHT and HELP!, and tunes such as “I Saw Her Standing There”, “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Boys”, and “Day Tripper”, among others. The film covers their final ’66 stadium tour, the first of its kind in rock history, from the insanity at New York’s Shea Stadium to their farewell to concerts at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. By this time, the band had had enough, and retreated to the studio, evolving into a more experimental, avant-garde style, culminating with their masterpiece “Sgt. Pepper” .

Credit is given to manager Brian Epstein, a visionary who knew The Beatles had that something special and groomed them for success, and record producer George Martin, who became their musical mentor and guided them through their career. The film has some talking head sequences (no, not David Byrne and company), including famous people like Elvis Costello, Whoopi Goldberg, Eddie Izzard, and Sigourney Weaver. It concludes with The Beatles’ last live performance on the rooftop of their Apple Corps building (used in the 1970 doc LET IT BE), singing and playing “Don’t Let Me Down” and “I Got a Feelin'” like it was 1964 all over again. But  by this time, the band was being pulled apart by internal egos and outside influences, and the entity known as The Beatles was dissolved. The band is gone, Lennon and Harrison are dead, but the music remains eternal, a joyful noise that rocked the world for a brief, shining period of the 1960’s. Ron Howard has put together a film Beatle fans of all ages will cherish, whether you were there at the beginning or discovered them after the fact. It’s one of the best rock docs I’ve seen, mostly because of the music.

RIP ADAM WEST, TV’S CAPED CRUSADER

News has spread that Adam West, star of 60’s campy superhero series BATMAN, has passed away at the age of 88. In his memory, I’m reposting my piece on the documentary STARRING ADAM WEST, first published 7/22/15 on the website “Through the Shattered Lens”. I’ll have more on West’s career tomorrow:

Holy high camp! STARRING ADAM WEST is a fun documentary about the quest to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for 60’s TV star Adam BATMAN West. The film also serves as a biography of the cult actor, from his humble beginnings as a child in Walla Walla, Washington to his rise as TV’s biggest star of the mid-60s, and his fall after being typecast as the Caped Crusader, reduced to performing in crappy car shows and carnivals. West later resurrected his career as an ironic icon in the 90s and still does voice work today, notably on the animated FAMILY GUY. Through all the ups and downs, the star has retained both his sense of humor and love of family. An entertaining look at a down to earth guy in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of show biz, STARRING ADAM WEST is playing all this month on Showtime.

Rockin’ in the Film World #9: JIMI HENDRIX: ELECTRIC CHURCH (2015)

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Back in March, I attended the “Experience Hendrix” live show, featuring guitar gods Kenny Wayne Sheppard, Buddy Guy, Zakk Wylde, Dweezil Zappa, Jonny Lang, and others jamming to the music of Jimi Hendrix. But as they say “Ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, baby”, and the documentary JIMI HENDRIX: ELECTRIC CHURCH is a full-on aural assault chronicling Hendrix’ 1970 performance at the Atlanta Pop Festival.

Director John McDermott begins the film with some famous talking heads (Paul McCartney, Steve Winwood, Susan Teschi, Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, Rolling Stone writer Anthony DeCurtis), as well as residents of the tiny town of Byron, where the festival was actually held (and they seem to be having a ball reminiscing!). There are clips of Hendrix on THE DICK CAVETT SHOW and of segregationist Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox (who hates them damn hippies!).

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Then it’s showtime, as Jimi and his band dive into classics like “Fire”. “All Along the Watchtower”, “Foxy Lady”, “Purple Haze”, “Hey Joe” , ‘Voodoo Child”, and “Stone Free”, which segues straight into “The Star Spangled Banner” and “‘Straight Ahead”. Jimi’s at the peak of his powers, using every trick in his repertoire, playing with his teeth, bending over backwards, working that whammy bar to bend those beautiful notes. It’s easy to forget what a powerhouse drummer Mitch Mitchell was in light of Jimi’s brilliance, but damn if he doesn’t approach Keith Moon territory with his furious playing. Billy Cox keeps a steady bass beat while Hendrix and Mitchell bounce off each other into the stratosphere.

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The performance was filmed on July 4, 1970, and less than three months later Jimi Hendrix was dead at age 27 of a barbiturate overdose. The footage for this film sat in filmmaker Steve Rash’s barn for over thirty years before being made into this documentary and released on the Showtime network. It’s been a long time coming, but now fans can enjoy this seminal piece of rock’n’roll history. It’s on DVD and Blu-Ray, and would make a fine Christmas gift for the classic rocker in your life.

No Safe Space: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story Of The National Lampoon (2015, directed by Douglas Tirola)

National Lampoon was the most outrageous satire magazine in history, and this excellent review is reblogged courtesy of Through the Shattered Lens:

Through the Shattered Lens

Drunk_Stoned_Brilliant_Dead_PosterThe documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead pays tribute to National Lampoon.  Founded in 1970, National Lampoon was published for 28 years and, at the height of its popularity, its sensibility redefined American comedy.  When it came to National Lampoon, nothing was sacred and nothing was off-limits.  The success of National Lampoon led to a stage show called Lemmings and The National Lampoon Radio Hour, which featured everyone from John Belushi and Bill Murray to Chevy Chase and Harold Ramis.  Michael O’Donoghue, famed for his impersonations of celebrities having needless inserted into their eyes, went from writing for the Lampoon to serving as Saturday Night Live‘s first head writer.  National Lampoon’s Animal House, Vacation, and Caddyshack are three of the most influential film comedies ever made.  Everyone from P.J. O’Rourke to John Hughes to The Simpsons‘ Al Jean got their start at National Lampoon

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Rockin’ in the Film World #2: THE BLUES ACCORDIN’ TO LIGHTNIN’ HOPKINS (1968)

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“The blues had a baby”, sang Muddy Waters, “and they called it rock’n’roll”. One of rock’s many parents was the legendary Texas country bluesman Sam “Lightnin'” Hopkins. Lightnin’s phenomenal guitar wizardry is heard echoing in everything from The Animals to Led Zeppelin and beyond, and it’s given a fine showcase in this 45 minute documentary by filmmaker Les Blank. Blank gives us an amazing time capsule of life in 1960’s Centerville, Texas, a predominately black rural community midway between Dallas and Houston. We follow Lightnin’, with his ever-present shades and hip flask of whiskey, as he visits his hometown, jamming with friends like Mance Lipscomb, greeting relatives, attending a rodeo, and playing at a BBQ party. This short, cinema verite film lets the man himself tell the story through his music and tales of a life in the blues.

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Les Blank began as an industrial filmmaker before deciding to follow his own muse. Blank focused on musicians in many of his films, including Leon Russell, Ry Cooder, and Huey Lewis & The News, as well as regional genres like New Orleans jazz, San Francisco psychedelic, Afro-Cuban stylings, Tex-Mex, and Polka (yes, polka!). Blank also did documentaries on subjects as diverse as a garlic festival in California, gap-toothed women, and two spotlighting the German director Werner Herzog (WERNER HERZOG EATS HIS SHOE and BURDEN OF DREAMS).

If you love the blues as much as I do, THE BLUES ACCORDIN’ TO LIGHTNIN’ HOPKINS is a must-see film. Even if it’s not your kind of music, you’ll enjoy this well-made documentary for a glimpse into a bygone era. Who knows, you might even end up getting converted to the blues after watching!

Here’s a small sample. Check out that washboard player!: