Friday, April 24, 2015

The Who’s Original Managers Get Their Rock Doc Due

Opening today exclusively in the Triangle area at the Raleigh Grande:

(Dir. James D. Cooper, 2014)

This fascinating documentary focusing on the original managers of The Who arrives in a timely fashion to Raleigh as the iconic British rock band just played a show in town at the PNC Center earlier this week. 

I was among the thousands at the sports arena to see the remaining founding members, singer Roger Daltrey and guitarist/songwriter Pete Townshend, joined by a tight backing band including Ringo’s son Zak Starkey on drums, bash out over 20 of their classics for their “The Who Hits 50!” tour. The Who was an obsession of my youth so songs like “I Can’t Explain,” “Baba O’Riley,” and “I Can See For Miles” (among many, many others) are in my blood. Despite their advancing age and some flubs here and there, The Two, as many fans call them, really brought it.

Over the years there’s been countless docs, books, interviews, and profiles in major music magazines that have told and retold the history of The Who, but a crucial part of their back story, the intracacies of their origin story if you will, usually gets glossed over.

And that’s the story of how Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, two best friend aspiring filmmakers who, despite no management experience, managed, mentored, and helped make famous four blokes who, when they discovered them, went by the name The High Numbers.

Lambert, the son of acclaimed classical composer Constant Lambert, died in 1981, but the 70-year old, still dapper Stamp sat down for extensive interviews for first-time documentarian James D. Cooper, relaying anecdotes about the duo’s schemes and dreams that involved making a movie about a pop band that would establish them as first class filmmakers.

After months of searching, Lambert and Stamp came across the High Numbers at a small London club in the summer of 1964, and were immediately taken by them. Then Lambert and Stamp’s plan to make a film was put on the back burner as they became the band’s managers and went about reshaping their image. This included changing their name to The Who, billed on posters with the tagline: “Maximum R & B.”

Flashy black and white footage, some of the first ever shot of The Who, capture the Mod movement in full swing, while fleeting bits of live shows display how the band’s abrasive energy connected with their small but growing audience. However, one not well versed in the British rock legends, could be forgiven for watching much of this and thinking that the Who’s entire early act consisted of making loud feedbacky noise then smashing their instruments.

Daltrey and Townshend are on hand to give insights from the band’s side, particularly Pete, always a great interview subject, who passionately speaks about long-gone Who members, bassist John Entwistle (“he was a fuckin’ genius!”) and drummer Keith Moon (“he wasn’t a drummer…he did something else”), and laments about overhearing that the two were considering leaving The Who to form Led Zeppelin with Jimmy Page (“I felt like a real outsider”).

One of the film’s musical highlights is footage of the young, lanky, slightly nervous Townshend playing a solo acoustic version of a new song, “Glittering Girl,” which would go on to be a beloved outtake from the 1967 album “The Who Sell Out,” in person for the adoring managers. “I do feel like they treated me differently,” Townshend recalls now about their relationship.

After The Who starting hitting it big, Lambert and Stamp went on to manage Jimi Hendrix, Thunderclap Newman, Arthur Brown, and Golden Earring. But a falling out, seeming fueled by booze and drugs, with Townshend over the sessions for “Who’s Next” in 1971 led to the band firing the pair in ‘75. Stamp seems still a bit upset about this, and the fact that he didn’t get to direct TOMMY, the film version of The Who’s 1969 rock opera, when making a movie featuring the band was the whole idea in the first place.

Who biographer Richard Barnes, Daltrey’s second wife Heather, original Mod Irish Jack (considered to be the inspiration for The Who’s “Quadrophenia”), and actor Terence Stamp, Chris’ older brother, are also on hand to flesh out the film with sometimes witty, sometimes sad anecdotes about the bombastic band and their two eccentric managers.

Folks interested in the music scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and the mechanics of making a band in that era should enjoy LAMBERT & STAMP, but really it’s a doc that the millions of people that cheer and pump their fists to the band’s 50th Anniversary tour should really seek out. Both casual and hardcore fans alike owe it to themselves to learn about who really made The Who happen.

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Friday, April 17, 2015

TRUE STORY Is Oblivious To How Obvious It is

Opening today at both art houses and multiplexes:

TRUE STORY (Dir. Rupert, Goold, 2015)

Maybe the tag-line for this film should be “James Franco and Jonah Hill together again, but this time you won’t be laughing.”

In this adaptation of Michael Finkel’s 2006 bestseller “True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa,” Franco and Hill ditch the stoner shenanigans (and their stoner buddy ensemble) of their previous movie, THIS IS THE END, and play it dead serious.

Hill steps into the shoes of Finkel, who we first meet as a star New York Times reporter working on a story in Africa about the modern-day slave trade. In short order we are also introduced to Franco as fugitive Christian Longo on the lam in CancĂșn, Mexico using Finkel’s name as an alias.

In short order, Finkel is fired by the Times for fabricating large portions of his article, while Longo is apprehended by the FBI for the murder of his wife and three children in Oregon. After learning that Longo used his name, the disgraced and desperate Finkel arranges to meet with him in prison.

Longo, graced with Franco charm, tells Finkel that he’s a big fan, and before you know it, they’re collaborating on a book about the murders together. Longo agrees to give Finkel exclusive access on the condition that the journalist teaches the suspected killer how to write.

So it’s got a SHATTERED GLASS meets CAPOTE vibe, with Hill’s Finkel and Franco’s Longo developing a creepy relationship as Longo’s trial looms closer. It’s obvious that Longo is manipulating Finkel from their initial encounter, but the film trudges onward continuously trying to make a point that it had already made in the first 10 minutes.

That point is that these two guys are alike. They are both characters with deplorable moral ethics; every action they make can be seen as self serving. And, of course, they’re both using each other – we get it.

The rest of the cast seems to know this. Felicity Jones, as Finkel’s girlfriend Jill (the archetypal worrying woman on the side), even goes to confront Longo to tell him she’s got his number in one of the film’s most contrived scenes. Even if this really happened, and I bet it didn’t, it’s a horribly handled plot point that adds nothing. Well, except that it gives Jones something to do.

Scripted by first time filmmaker Rupert Goold and suspense scribe David Kajganich (THE INVASION, BLOOD CREEK), TRUE STORY has neither the depth nor thrills (or even attempts at thrills) required to be considered a psychological thriller. It’s more a tense drama with transparently artsy ambition.

The storytelling, whether true or not, gets pretty muddled and strained towards the end. I got annoyed at Finkel for falling for Longo’s shtick, which at times reminded me of Franco’s breakout Freaks and Geeks role, Daniel Desario, but with a brain.

This whole overly calculated, and bleedingly obvious, exercise will most likely be jokingly dismissed by Franco and Hill someday in another meta-minded project with their fellow graduates of Apatow University. Probably like this: “Remember when we did that TRUE STORY shit? We were all so serious ‘n shit? Remember that? Yeah, me either.”

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MERCHANTS OF DOUBT: Only Two Thirds Of A Must See Doc

Opening today at a indie art house near me:

(Dir. Robert Kenner, 2015)

Robert Kenner’s follow-up to FOOD, INC., the new documentary MERCHANTS OF DOUBT opening today at an indie art house near me, opens aptly with an illusionist displaying his impeccable slight-of-hand card trick skills to a rapt audience.

The master magician is Jamy Ian Swiss, an associate of Penn & Teller, who identifies himself as an “honest liar.” Swiss gets the theme of the film’s ball rolling when he explains that “it offends me when someone takes the skills of my honest living, if you will, and uses it to twist, and distort, and manipulate people and their sense of realist, and how the world works.”

From there we jump right into a credit sequence montage, set to Frank Sinatra’s “That Old Black Magic,” and decorated with sound bites like “Global Warming is a hoax,” “there is no consensus - this is a myth,” “asbestos is designed to last forever,” and “it is not known whether cigarette smoking causes cancer.”

Inspired by the 2010 book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Keller and co-writer Kim Roberts take us into the world of phony punditry, in which a small group of so-called experts can have an enormous impact on public opinion.

The roots of what Oreskes and Conway called a “history of manufactured ignorance” can be traced to the 1950s when the tobacco companies, aware of undeniable evidence that smoking was hazardous and highly addictive, hired a public relations firm, Hill & Knowlton, to cast doubt on the scientific facts.

Anti-smoking activist Stanton Glantz lays out that “the playbook that they developed to attack science worked for them for 50 years,” and “so other businesses that were faced with regulatory challenges had to look at this and say ‘boy, if this worked for tobacco, we ought to be able to use that playbook too.’”

This is confirmed by the next segment on the Chicago Tribune’s investigation on flame retardants involving journalists Patricia Callahan and Sam Roe, who appear as interviewees; but this is just a prelude to the film’s central focus, the fossil fuel industry’s war on climate science and scientists.

Old cold warriors/climate change deniers Fred Seitz, S. Fred Singer, and William Nierenberg join the growing cast of collected con artist characters the film profiles, as does the slick, slimy Marc Morano, a frequent Fox News regular, and a former Rush Limbaugh producer. Morano casually discusses going after scientists via underground newsletter take-down pieces (later on his blog Climate Depot), and sending vulgar, death threat emails to them.

On the good guy side of the debate, the film gives us prominent climate scientist James Hansen, Skeptic Society Director Michael Shermer (key quote: “Data trumps politics”), earnest environmentalist (his words, not mine) John Passacantando, and the aforementioned co-author of the book, Oreskes, identified here only as “Science Historian,” whose commentary is certainly the most insightful.

However, despite all these fascinating factors, the film peters out roughly an hour into its 96 minute running time as all the major points have been made and what’s left gets pretty tedious in its repetition.

In addition to that grievance - a lengthy ending thread involving former Republican South Carolina congressman Bob Inglis going on a right-wing talk radio show feels tacked on, interviewees throughout are indentified so fleetingly that it’s easy to forget their credentials, and, as much as I love them, the film really doesn’t need pop song punctuation like David Bowie’s “Changes,” and Big Star’s “Don’t Lie To Me.”

Also, the magician stuff is fine in the intro, but, as charismatic as Swiss is, it’s a weak linking device that made me wince every time they return to it.

With a little more time in the editing bay, MERCHANTS OF DOUBT could’ve been the year’s first must-see documentary. As it stands, it’s only two thirds of that.

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