Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer (2007)

anita o'dayMovie – This is the award-winning documentary about the life of the great jazz vocalist Anita O’Day (born Anita Belle Colton in Chicago). Anita provides reflections and candid recollections on her life and music, and the documentary is packed with interviews and performances. Her career was long and eventful, spanning seven decades; her last album recorded when she was 84. She left an unhappy home at age 14 and toured the Midwest “Walk-a- thons” as a marathon dancer and singer. Then, she started singing in little clubs around Chicago from 1936 to 1939 – clubs in Uptown, such as the Ball of Fire, the Vialago, the Planet Mars, the Off-Beat and the Three Deuces. At the Off-Beat she met Gene Krupa, and in 1941 he asked her to start touring and recording with his band. That year, Down Beat named her “New Star of the Year.” She sang with the Woody Herman band in 1943, and then joined the Stan Kenton band in 1944, where she recorded several hit songs and rose to fame. Subsequently, she became a solo artist. Many placed her in the same category of such jazz vocalists as Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn, saying her talents matched theirs. She toured Japan for three decades with a big band and was hugely successful. Along with Mel Torme, she is often grouped with the West Coast cool school of jazz, and her skills in improvisation of rhythm and melody put her squarely among the pioneers of bebop.

Fed Up (2014)

fed upMovie – This 2014 advocacy documentary was produced by journalist and TV personality Katie Couric, who narrates it. According to this movie, the epidemic of obesity, diabetes and other serious conditions is due to the high-sugar diet consumed by millions of Americans, especially children. Fed Up blows the lid off everything we thought we knew about food and exercise, and exposes the hidden truths contributing to our serious health crises. The film features interviews with the country’s leading diet experts, as well as former President Bill Clinton, who is now a vegan. Sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, “pure” cane sugar, and similar sweeteners are found in countless products, which are constantly marketed to small children. The fast food industry is pushing these products on all of us in the same way that the tobacco industry used to glamorize cancer-causing cigarettes. It shows why ‘calories in, calories out’ is a useless model for explaining why we’re growing around the waist as a society. The basic premise of the documentary is that sugar is the primary culprit in our diet, and that the big sugar lobby in Washington mitigates against efforts to challenge this problem. We need to improve education and get consumers to demand products that have less sugar. Similarly, the documentary posits that a return to cooking real food in our school cafeterias, and in our homes, instead of buying processed food, would result in healthier kids, and save money. Fed Up accurately highlights the multiple factors which directly interfere with getting to the truth about obesity.

Mr. Selfridge (2013)

mr-selfridge-first-season_17180TV Series – Another winning series from Masterpiece Theater – Mr. Selfridge is the ultimate armchair shopping experience.  The story revolves around the actual American retail magnate, Harry Selfridge, who owned and operated an exclusive department store in London called Selfridges which opened in 1909.  Born in Wisconsin he married Chicago socialite Rose Buckingham.  He gained his retail experience from Marshall Field’s where he worked for 25 years.  Selfridge wanted to bring shopping to a new level for Londoners.  He wanted his customers to view shopping as a pleasure instead of a necessity and he embraced the philosophy of “the customer is always right”.  He wanted Selfridges to be a place to spend the day and money as customers dined in one of the elegant restaurants, relaxed in the library or reading and writing rooms, and perused extensive displays of merchandise handled by an expert sales staff. The series magnificently portrays the glamor of the store, as well as gives us an intimate look into the lives of Harry and his family, and some of the fascinating characters of Selfridges.  A must see.  Fans of Downton Abbey will be sure to enjoy this too.

The Rolling Stones 1969-1974: the Mick Taylor Years

rollingMovie – This is an interesting documentary of a time period, after the death of Brian Jones, when Mick Taylor became the fifth Rolling Stone. If you look at the overall history of the Rolling Stones, the depth of musicianship in the late 1960s (post Brian Jones) to the mid-1970s (pre-Ron Wood) was unmatched, and they were arguably the best live band around. At that time, a young Mick Taylor was regarded as the best guitarist in the UK, and bringing in his talent to the band was a great move. Taylor’s brilliant guitar virtuosity greatly complimented the tough blues guitar riffs of Keith Richards. Mick Taylor’s presence on guitar gave the Stones a depth that allowed them to tighten up, explore different musical genres, and produced the Stones two most wholly realized albums: Exile on Main Street and Sticky Fingers.  The documentary uses penetrating interviews with noted rock music critics, remarkable behind the scenes film footage, and discussions of the group’s problems with finances, drugs and girlfriends.  The Rolling Stones are ranked by Rolling Stone magazine as fourth on the list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, and their estimated album sales are above 250 million. They have released 29 studio albums, 18 live albums and numerous compilations. Sticky Fingers (1971), for example, was the first of eight consecutive number one studio albums in the US. This documentary is not as good as Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones (1974), but it is certainly a must see.

Mushi-shi (2005)

mu2TV Series – Ginko is a mushi-shi, a scholar of those invisible, mysterious creatures called mushi which sometimes, through no fault of their own, cause serious problems for the humans and animals with which they interact. Each episode of the show follows Ginko’s attempts to resolve a particular situation caused by mushi, from the family who cannot leave a bamboo forest no matter how hard they try to the boy whose drawings come to life but only if he draws with his left hand. Because Ginko himself attracts mushi, he can’t stay in one place for too long, so he wanders from one place to another, helping others with their problems while he attempts to understand the creatures that cause so much trouble.

Mushi-shi is a faithful adaptation of the manga series by Yuki Urushibara, originally published in Japan from 1999-2008. It’s absolutely beautiful, with gorgeous animation reminiscent of both Studio Ghibli films and the watercolor paintings used for the book covers. The stories are similarly haunting, emotional pieces very like ghost stories in most cases. Since there’s no overarching plot, they’re great to watch one at a time and savor.

In Search of Mozart (2006)

mozartMovie – This is the definitive documentary about the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the prolific and influential composer of the Classical era.  Mozart lived from 1756 to 1791, and during those short 35 years, he composed over 600 works, many acknowledged as pinnacles of symphonic, concertante, chamber, operatic, and choral music. He was born in Salzburg, Austria, and by age five showed prodigious musical ability and could play piano and violin and compose. Without resorting to docu-drama, In Search of Mozart traces the composer’s life through his music and extensive correspondence. Over 80 musical excerpts are featured in chronological order, fitting his life around the music. It dispels the common myths about his genius, health, relationships, death and character, quite unlike the glossy lies disseminated by the movie Amadeus. For example, Mozart did not die a pauper. The documentary weaves musical performances with authoritative interviews with musicians, historians, and world-famous scholars. After Mozart moved to Vienna, he established himself as the finest keyboard player in that city, but also composed his most famous and beloved operas:  The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute. He lived at the center of the Viennese musical world and had many friends. He enjoyed billiards, dancing and pets; he kept a canary, a starling, a dog and a horse for recreational riding. In Search of Mozart is a remarkable achievement, original, accurate, endearing and wonderfully entertaining.

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Princess MMovie – This animated feature film was the highest-grossing Japanese film of its time. The director Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away), sometimes described as the Japanese Walt Disney, is a pioneer of anime. In this epic adventure set in pre-industrial Japan a young prince incurs a life-threatening curse and sets off to find a cure. He becomes a central figure in a war between man and nature when a mining clan battles a variety of forest gods led by Princess Mononoke, a young woman raised by wolves. This film portrays mythology and surreal characters that are uniquely Japanese.

The viewer definitely picks up on the anxiety of the Japanese about the diminishing of their natural environment.  Although there is beautifully painted animation, it also contains some violence and it is not a story for young children. I appreciate that the characters and the social issues addressed in the film are complex and thoughtfully presented. A budding romance develops between the Prince and Princess Mononoke, but they often place duty above their personal relationship. This English version of the film was adapted by Neil Gaiman (Stardust, The Ocean at the End of the Lane)  and it is voiced by actors that include Claire Danes, Billy Bob Thornton, and Jada Pinkett Smith.

Listen Up: the Lives of Quincy Jones (2008)

listenMovieListen Up is the documentary that provides an intimate look at the life of multifaceted music icon Quincy Jones, who shaped four generations of American sound. In an unusual, kaleidoscopic way, this movie takes you on a journey from Quincy’s early life of poverty on Chicago’s south side, to his move to an all-white environment in Seattle, and his life on-the-road as a trumpeter with Lionel Hampton. It follows him as he leads his own big band, and moves into production, arranging and film composing. Filmmaker Ellen Wiesbrod gets very close to Quincy, capturing many moods and remembrances. There are many comments from the great stars that he worked with, i.e. Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, Oprah Winfrey, Dizzy Gillespie, Steven Spielberg, Miles Davis, and many others including Jones’  family. Listen Up is a fascinating summation of his career in jazz, pop, R&B, hip-hop and other styles, and his film composing (In the Heat of the Night, Roots, In Cold Blood, The Color Purple and many more). He was the 1st black to write movie scores and the 1st black VP of A&R for a major record label. He produced Off the Wall and Thriller, the two albums that launched Michael Jackson into the pop stratosphere, and was the musical mastermind behind We Are the World. Only Sir Georg Solti has more Grammy Awards than Quincy Jones, who has 27. Listen Up is like a fine jazz number, layered and intricate with rhythm, flow and nuance.

Keeping Mum (2005)

keeping_mum_xlgMovie-Keeping Mum is a dark English comedy that’s sly humor tickles me every time. With a cast like Rowan Atkinson, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Patrick Swazye you kind of know things will go awry in a most amusing way. Keeping Mum takes place in a sleepy hamlet where Rowan Atkinson plays a hard-working and completely oblivious Vicar. More attuned with his flock vs. his family he is clueless that his daughter is sleeping around with everyone, his wife has been thinking lewd thoughts about her golf instructor and his son has been bullied at school. In comes Maggie Smith, the anti-Mary Poppins. Hilarity ensues as this group comes together as a family.

This is an R-rated movie with nudity and adult topics. For fans of Kinky Boots, Hysteria, Saving Grace, and The Full Monty.

Muscle Shoals (2013)

muscleMovie – This is the new documentary history of the Muscle Shoals, Alabama recording studios. It is the story of how Rick Hall founded FAME Studios in the unlikely small town of Muscle Shoals, along the Tennessee River, and a group of white farm boys (known
as the “swampers”) became The Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section session musicians. Countless major hit songs and great albums were subsequently recorded in these studios – as amazing as it seems. Many great recording artists are interviewed in the documentary, such as:  Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bono, Alicia Keys, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Gregg Allman, Lynyrd Skynard, Elton John, Boz Scaggs, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan and many more. It is the remarkable story of how initial successes in soul and R&B led to the arrival of more mainstream rock and pop performers, and how the Muscle Shoals vibe produced so many great hits. Literally every big name wanted to record in Muscle Shoals, and to “get down and get greasy.” Filmaker Greg Camalier premiered Muscle Shoals at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013, and the soundtrack alone will give you goosebumps. I loved this documentary and all the incredible vignettes, such as how Aretha Franklin just blossomed for the first time, when she got into the Muscle Shoals studios.