Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jul 06, 2021 3:30 pm 
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Two remedies for big-screen deprivation

After a long fast the first meals must be chosen with care. So too with our first big screen experiences after this lengthy 14-month pandemic-imposed break from movie theaters. Do you want your first movie to be Escape Room, The Quiet Place II, or The Hitman's Bodyguard's Wife? Probably you don't. You want something that puts you in a good mood. We need that now - if we know what's good for us. As it happens there are two films that fit in that category, and I've seen them. Each one has certain drawbacks which you'll have to overlook, and then they'll both very well do the job of lifting your spirits.

The trouble with Summer of Soul is that it's not just a music documentary. It's also a passionate historical commentary. Given the circumstances that may seem inevitable. But it's always borderline annoying when great music is continually interrupted by voiceovers and explanations, especially here when what you'd like would be to see all that forgotten footage, all those acts. Let's hope there will be a special DVD edition with humungous bonus material. But this film will remain at once riveting, and tainted, even if it's tainted by home truths the filmmakers understandably felt they had to point out, using material and new interviews they've deftly edited into the concert footage they present selectively.

Summer of Soul is a revelation, not because we didn't know that these Black artists were great but because we in the white world at least never even heard of the Harlem Cultural Festival of the summer of 1969, where a series of superb acts unfolded to a huge open air audience in Mount Morris Park in Harlem on six successive weekends. Funding was limited: there wasn't enough for expensive lighting so the stage was set to face the sun. There wasn't much money for it, but the acts were filmed. We get a glimpse of many reels of film; but this film was stored in a basement for fifty years. Imagine not getting to see concerts with Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, The 5th Dimension, Hugh Masakela, The Staple Singers, Gladys Knight & the Pips, B.B. King, Max Roach & Abby Lincoln, and Sly and the Family Stone, and many more. The Reverend Jesse Jackson is there too, on stage, notably grooving, and unlike many people at this time not wearing coat and tie but sportily Clad in neck-handkerchief and vest.

For me the religious acts mean less, though when they say Mahalia Jackson was the all-time greatest, I can see what they mean: she is superhuman. What counts is the Motown acts, David Ruffin, "as thin as a barber’s pole, in a pink bow tie, with a falsetto sent from God," as Anthony Lane enthuses in a grateful New Yorker review, and Gladys Knight and the Pips, and the young, or perhaps transitional, Stevie Wonder, about to morph from galvanizing rhythm-and-blues act into one of the great original singer-songwriters of our time, or all time. Perhaps the absolute highlight, partly because the act represents a clear and present transition into something psychedelic and crossover, new and more universal, are Sly and the Family Stone. But then later I realized that Sly was one Black act (along with Ritchie Havens and Jimi Hendrix) that was also in the Woodstock Festival that summer.

Ah, yes: the Woodstock Festival! That was August 15–18; this "Black Woodstock" ran from July 29 to August 24. Both were at the same moment in American musical time. But Woodstock, a predominantly white event, got all the publicity, and the beautifully edited film about it was released, not 50 years late, but in 1970, the very next year. Woodstock was called the defining cultural event of a generation. What generation? Not Harlem. This is why Questlove's subtitle is "Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised," and why all the attendees' present-day interviews and much much more is worthwhile, and even essential. Why it is important to hear from the journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault about how she persuaded editors at the New York Times, where she was working, to replace "Negro" with "Black" in their style rules. We need to be reminded what a complex and troubled time this was in America, of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in the bloody year of 1968, of the heroin epidemic in Harlem. It's also important to learn that when the first man landed on the moon, Black Americans, then interviewed and as we see on eye-opening clips shown here, declared the moon landing of little interest to them and a big waste of money better spent combatting the ghetto drug epidemic.

It isn't that the commentary material in Summer of Soul is unimportant. The recently located and interviewed attendees provide a sense of how important, peaceful, and wonderful an experience this was. It's great to hear, if briefly, from Jesse Jackson and Stevie Wonder today. The historical background is important especially for youthful viewers. Some young Black kids were in the front row when I saw this film and it was not lost on me how important it is for them both to witness this festival and be taught about its wider context. Above all I welcomed a sophisticated Black authority on music and especially his note on how Stevie Wonder might have flourished in this young groove but chose to move forward.

All the added musical and non-musical commentary material is relevant. Some of it is enlightening. Much of it is important to know. And yet, the way it's edited in, however skillful, does not respect the integrity of the individual musical performances. Any music documentary that doesn't do that goes seriously wrong. In the meantime this is the best we have of an incredible event and a wonderful colocation of artists. And despite the interpolated home truths, the music will make you groove for days.

In the Heights is another matter: it's a fun musical, full of buoyancy and joy, upbeat confusion and last minute decisions. This is a film version of the original 2008 Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda written by Quiara Alegría Hudes, and directed by Jon M. Chu, who gave us the "Step Up" series and the film adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never and other wonders.

Critics rarely refer to this movie version without pointing out that Hamilton, which Miranda brought to Broadway and starred in six years later, is a great deal better, a work both more original and more formally inventive. That doesn't get in the way of Chu's In the Heights being hailed as the feel-good movie hit of the summer (not counting Summer of Soul: is it going to be ignored like the films of the Harlem Cultural Festival?). I don't quite understand what makes Hamilton a great musical. Perhaps it's more an event; perhaps conventional musicals, like the ones beloved in the 1950's, Oklahoma, South Pacific, or My Fair Lady or recent big grossers like The Lion King, are all a bit passé, even if, like easel painting, they're one of those mediums that have been declared dead but will never die.

In the Heights is a "new" musical in some ways, if not many. It doesn't have songs, as such; everyone chants their lines to music. This explains why some complain they came away with no tunes to whistle. I found the performer replacing Miranda in the role of Usnavi, Anthony Ramos, appealing. The film gives us closeups that reveal an unusual feature: freckles! I liked the fresh energy of Usnavi's teenage cousin and bodega coworker Sonny, Gregory Diaz IV. But everyone is good.

I am not a Broadway musical person. Hamilton and The Lion King alike are wasted on me. But In the Heights is enjoyable, and its two hours and twenty minutes go by easily. Some of its issues seem cooked up. It's particularly hard to feel sorry for Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace), the young woman who wants to drop out of Stanford because she's not as cozy there as in the barrio. (Whether this is culot or cowardice would be hard to say.) It's her father's wise dream for her to graduate, and it's not like she has something better to do. Likewise Usnavi's dilemma over whether to stay with the bodega or return to the Dominican Republic and run his family's former beachfront business there doesn't seem very pressing. Nonetheless the performers are charming. Especially so are Olga Merediz as the sad but inspiring Abuela and Daphne Rubin-Vega as Daniela, the beauty shop owner - and I liked the no-nonsense short pants suit outfit Daniela wears in a key scene.

The movie hedges its bets on Usnavi's dilemma because it has him telling his story to a little group of kids all through the movie on a beach in the DR, and then when the story ends with him deciding [spoiler alert] to stay in NYC, he and the kids reappear in his reprogrammed Washington Heights store. This is cheating, making it look like both outcomes are happening. That can't be, even in a musical.

Chu is regarded as good at big production numbers. But some - a weakness of musicals, especially when transported to the screen - are too grandiose for the scale of the story, which by its nature ought to be intimate. This is the barrio, not the Western Front. I liked the beauty shop scene, the dance date scene, and Daniela's grand number galvanizing run-down barrio people after the blackout. The blackout, though, seems like something brought in to unify the community and to liven things up when not enough is happening. The swimming pool number, with its faux Busby Berkeley bit, is vastly overblown, as is the funeral sequence, which seems to be not for a popular old lady in an ethnic neighborhood but a national leader. You can really produce the hell out of an event, and ruin its emotion. Chu's dance numbers are, happily, not as hyperactive as they might have been, but they always threaten to overwhelm the action. Luckily, every individual actor and personality is appealing, and the sense of a warm community is, well, heartwarming. It's something that may feel dreamlike to white suburbanites. My own experience has been that not only is NYC in general friendlier and more approachable than Americans from elsewhere seem to understand, but Harlem, in my brief experience, is, or was, a place where where everyone seems to know everyone else.. If you don't leave In the Heights whistling any tunes, you do go out with a warm feeling.

(I will get to F9 soon: I've always had time for the "Fast and Furious" franchise, even though it's begun to pall a bit after so many iterations, especially since Paul Walker is gone, and it could be your non-musical big screen first treat.)

Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), 117 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2021, winning the Grand Jury prize and audience prize, and showed at over a dozen other mostly US festivals. Searchlight Pictures Hulu. Out since Jun. 25. Metascore 96%.

In the Heights, 143 mins., debuted at Tribeca Jun. 9, went on HBO Jun. 10, and in US theaters Jun. 11. Metasore: 84%.


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