A 1938 portrait, when she appeared at Cafe Society in NYC with a swatch of gardenias in hair hairstyle, which from then on became her trademark. (Photo by George Rinhart)
Billie Holiday. Her name is eponymous with the phrase “jazz singer.” There is no jazz figure so well-known, yet shrouded in mystery, as Lady Day. Many important details of her life and her musical genius have been overshadowed by a lurid interest in her love life and drug use. Recently some articles based on faulty interviews emphasize her persecution in Hoover’s war on drugs without realizing this was a fact of life for all African American jazz musicians. I do not see the same attention given to Miles Davis’s or Charlie Parker’s drug use or their abusive relationships. Davis’s and Parker’s “women” are not given a megaphone to comment on them, and I never have seen their musical genius attributed to drug use. I sometimes see the hardships of being a Black man highlighted but I do not see the same courtesy given to Miss Holiday.
Many fine films tell the story of charismatic teachers who change lives, and they serve to inspire. The new documentary River City Drumbeat is one of these films. Promoted as “a story of music, love and legacies,” it follows a dynamic African drumming corps for kids founded and taught by the magnetic Edward “Nardie” White as he prepares to turn the operation over to a successor after a 30-year run in urban Louisville, Kentucky.
Within the first seconds of Ella Fitzgerald: Just One Of Those Things British Eagle Rock’s documentary on the jazz vocalist, the seamless connection between the tempo and lyrics of Ella Fitzgerald singing How High The Moon and the shaky black and white images of Ella racing down the highway in a car portends that this is going to be a great film. Sit down, relax, and fix yourself a drink because this is a movie worth savoring.
A good documentary can take a subject we think we already know, and present it in a fuller and more complex context, leading us to a new level of understanding and appreciation. ONCE WERE BROTHERS; ROBBIE ROBERTSON AND THE BAND does just that, by telling the story of an iconic and pioneering Americana band of five that Robertson describes as “a beautiful thing—so beautiful it went up in flames.” The film, directed by Daniel Roher, also greatly benefits from interviews with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Taj Mahal, George Harrison, and many others. Continue reading →
I have attended dozens of film festivals from the biggies like Cannes, Berlin, Toronto, Venice, SXSW and Sundance to more intimate gatherings of movies and their makers from Telluride high in the Colorado Mountains, Morelia in Mexico’s Michoacán to Devour! In tiny Wolfville, Nova Scotia.
Most screen new movies with occasional restorations while others focus exclusively on the classics. I like many of them though have burned out on the monster events. The San Francisco Bay Area hosts nearly one hundred film festivals a year including some of the best and most unique.
It is easy for me to claim that the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is my favorite. Some might say, “But they only show old movies.” It is true that most of the films were made before 1930 and the only sound is that of the live music and enthusiastic audience reactions.