Movie – 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.
Movie – 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.
Movie – 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.
Movie – Listen 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.
Movie – 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.
Movie – Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women is based on the biography of the same title written by Harriet Reisen. The docudrama gives us an intimate look at the great American author Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888). She was raised by transcendentalist parents and grew up living near many of the well-known intellectuals of the day, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau. The documentary uses dialog taken from diaries and letters, as well as interviews with scholars of American literature. Poverty made it necessary for her to go to work at an early age as a teacher, seamstress, governess, domestic helper, Civil War nurse and writer. It was the tremendous popularity of her most famous work Little Women that lifted the family out of poverty. Alcott became the equivalent of a multimillionaire in her lifetime, based on the astounding sales of her books. Most surprising is that she led, anonymously and under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard, a literary double life, not discovered until the 1940s. As Barnard, Alcott penned some thirty pulp fiction thrillers, with characters running the gamut from murderers and revolutionaries to cross-dressers and opium addicts. The documentary is a remarkably detailed portrait of a strong-minded woman who was far ahead of her time and much more complex than the dainty lady others have presented.
Movie – Ernest Hemingway: Rivers to the Sea is the DVD for American Masters, a PBS documentary about the life of the Nobel Prize winning author Ernest Hemingway. The treatment is typical post-Ken Burns music/words over pictures montage. Obviously, you can’t pack Hemingway’s work and adventures or complex personality into 90 minutes, but the narrative does capture most of his life. It uses fragments of his fiction, diaries and letters plus interviews with his friends, relatives and various academics. More than 40 years after his death, Hemingway is one of the most widely read, and widely written about, American authors. In literally throwing himself into a variety of challenging and potentially life-threatening situations, Hemingway swayed public perception of writers from that of presumed privilege to that of bold action. He lived a “big” life but under the macho exterior beat the heart of a sensitive soul. The documentary, in a kind of stream-of-consciousness style, moves through his early life in Oak Park, IL, to his war injury in World War 1 Spain, to Paris in the ‘20s, to his home in Cuba, to his final days living in Ketchum, Idaho. It speaks to the difficult art of writing and the writer’s lonely life, as well as bullfighting, fishing, big-game hunting, gangsters, boxers, soldiers and, of course, his four wives.
Movie – This new DVD is the definitive life story of Bob Marley, the musician, revolutionary, and legend. It is the story of the man from his humble beginnings in the Jamaican slums to his rise to international superstardom. Over 30 years after his death, Marley remains the most widely known and revered performer of reggae music. He is credited for helping spread Jamaican music to the worldwide audience. Working with official rights to the music and access to Marley’s family and friends, Oscar-winning documentarian Kevin Macdonald creates a thorough account of Bob’s life. The film features rare footage, never before seen performances, previously unreleased music, and revelatory interviews with the people that knew him best. His death, at age 36 in 1981, does not dominate the movie. Instead, the message of hope and freedom from oppression for people everywhere is the theme, as much as the great music. Marley’s music and imagery was popular during the protests in the Middle East and Africa and at the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. Bob’s album Legend is the second-longest charting album in the history of Billboard magazine’s record-keeping. Marley is an impressive and thoughtful portrait that will remain one of my favorite documentaries.
Movie – If you are in the mood for something different, or want to do a bit of armchair traveling via stunning visuals from distant locations, Samsara may interest you. It is a movie that is experienced rather than simply watched because of the impact of the graphic imagery of landscapes and human culture that are presented without a defined context. Filmed over four years, the images were photographed entirely in 70mm and transferred to 4K digital projection format. I’ve read recommendations for seeing this film on as large a screen as possible because of the splendid visuals, and I completely agree. Amazing real-time and time-lapse images that are as diverse as natural landscapes, spiritual sites, and industrial settings are accompanied only by ambient sound and music, and no dialog accompanies the film. This enriching film alternates between soothing meditative scenes of aesthetic grace and thought-provoking, slightly disturbing, scenes evoking social commentary. Samsara follows in the footsteps of two award-winning predecessors Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi (which was accompanied by the music of Philip Glass).