‘Shine a Light’ – Martin Scorsese’s Concert Film on The Rolling Stones

I have never been to a Rolling Stones concert before. Shame on me for constantly missing out on the opportunity to see them live. Every tour they go on always feel like it will be their last. Even if no one gets all that excited about their recent albums, no one would dare miss seeing them perform onstage. Years after they formed, they still sell out seats like crazy in concert, and some are willing to pay hundreds of dollars to get a decent seat. Heck, as long I have my binoculars with me, I am confident I can get a good view for less than what most people pay. But then again, I still have to spend a lot of money for even a crappy seat at a concert. Come to think of it, I haven’t been to a concert in a long time. Maybe I am saving up too much money!

Anyway, I caught the Rolling Stones documentary entitled “Shine A Light” which was directed by Martin Scorsese. Not only that, but I saw it in IMAX where movie screens don’t get much larger, visuals are never more visually extraordinary, and sound systems capture every single sound no matter how small. At I write this, this may be the closest I ever come to seeing a Rolling Stones concert, but it was still quite the experience. Even after being around for 40 or 50 years, they still put on one hell of a show like few others can. The band members have been beset in the last few years with legal and medical problems. Drummer Charlie Watts had a cancer scare, Mick Jagger continues to father too many children, and Keith Richards continues to astound medical experts everywhere who expected him to be dead by now. But here they are, and they are rocking as hard and with as much love as ever.

Oscar winner Martin Scorsese (it is so nice to finally say this) is a master of musical documentaries, having directed one of the greatest ever with “The Last Waltz” which was about The Band at their very last concert ever and of how they (or Robbie Robertson anyway) wanted to get off the road before the road claimed their lives. “Shine A Light,” however, is not at a film about a band on its last legs. Instead, it is about a band which continues to play with the same love, passion and excitement they had when they started making music so many years ago. It is not an in-depth documentary about the band, but instead a celebration of one of the greatest rock bands ever and their music which even I cannot ever get sick of.

We see the band and Scorsese going over the details and where the cameras are going to be at this documentary’s start. There is even a moment where Scorsese is talking with Jagger via speakerphone and of how Jagger is worried all the cameras will be distracting not just to him but to the audience as well. Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson don’t even get the set list of songs until just seconds before the show begins. Jagger and the band keep going over what songs to play, having so many to choose from. The one thing I have to give them credit for is how they don’t start off the show with one of their most well-known hits like “Start Me Up” or “Sympathy for The Devil.” I guess you could say it makes this more unique than hundreds of other concerts they have performed.

This particular concert was filmed at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan, New York over a two-night period. When “Shine a Light” starts, it only appears as a small square on the enormous IMAX screen. I thought to myself, why did I spend $16 dollars to see this in IMAX? I could have seen it on a regular movie screen and saved myself a couple of bucks, you know? We see the band meeting with Bill and Hillary Clinton and also with Hillary’s mom. Hillary looks very happy here, so this all happened before her current presidential election. This turns out to be quite the star-studded event as Bill Clinton introduces the band himself, as this concert is actually a benefit for the awareness of climate change (which is very real everybody). If you look closely enough, you can see Bruce Willis out in the audience wearing a yellow hat.

But then the concert starts, and the picture goes from a simple box on the IMAX screen to encompassing 100% of it. From then on, we are instantly taken in at how the Rolling Stones is one of the greatest rock bands of all time. They may be eligible for senior benefits, but you wouldn’t know it from the way they perform. During this documentary or concert movie if you want to call it that, we get to see footage of the band from the past. Between songs, we see Jagger in a black and white interview in which he admits how he is surprised the band has lasted as long as it has. And that’s after the band has been together for two years, and he thinks that they will remain together for another year at best.

Seeing the band come onstage and perform their hearts out is inspiring. Age has not affected their love and passion for music, and I think it’s what makes this documentary especially good. No, it doesn’t get deep into the personalities of the band members and what makes them tick. Still, it does show how, even in their old age, they play rock and roll brilliantly. Even Keith Richards, who always looks like he might just keel over any second, still plays the guitar like a master. One too many cigarettes has not taken away from this man or his singing, and he gets his on solo and sings to us like a well-seasoned blues man.

This concert also features some well-known guests performing with the Stones. Among them are Jack White of The White Stripes who sings along with Jagger on “The Loving Cup.” White is no slouch on the guitar or on vocals, but we should have known this after the albums “Elephant” and “Get Behind Me Satan.” But the big treat was when Buddy Guy, one of the great bluesmen guitarists, came out to jam with the band. Richards was clearly a big fan because, at the end of the song, he ends up giving Buddy the guitar he was playing on. You can even hear Richards telling Guy, “It’s yours!”

Even Christina Aguilera is here singing with Jagger to a song which was first written and performed before she was even born. I haven’t bought any of her albums, but there is no doubt she has one hell of a voice. Does she even need a microphone? Her voice alone probably powered the extremely bright lights at the Beacon. That’s how good she was when she sang with Jagger and the others.

Kudos also goes out to the Rolling Stones for being backed up by an array of fantastic musicians. Among them are Darryl Jones of Living Color fame who has been the bass player for the band for over a decade now. There is also the great piano player Chuck Levell, and you may remember him brilliantly stealing the spotlight from Eric Clapton on his Unplugged session on MTV. Granted, the Rolling Stones don’t need all these people to sell out shows, but it certainly adds to this cinematic experience.

Scorsese and Richardson do a great job lighting the band and keeping up with them as they do their thing. The other thing which really added to this experience was the sound system in the IMAX theater I watched this film in. On top of the pristine visuals, the surround sound stereo system sucked you into the experience and made you feel like you were part of the crowd. You felt like people were clapping to the left and to right of you, and even behind you. There were points where I started looking around me to see if the people in the audience were applauding, or if it was just the sound from the film.

This all reminded me of when I saw “U2 3D” a couple of months earlier on the same IMAX screen. The 3D effects made you feel like you were in the middle of the concert. When people put their hands up onscreen, I almost told them to put them down so I could see. Then I realized it was all onscreen and not in the audience. Even though “Shine A Light” was not filmed in 3D, it didn’t need to be. I got sucked into this experience to where you can say you really felt like you were at this concert. It was also a loud film too, and this made me wonder why I didn’t bring any earplugs with me.

In the end, I’m glad “Shine a Light” was not a simple documentary which delved into the psychology of the band members and how they survived the record industry and drugs. The movie is about the fact of after so many years, the Rolling Stones continue to rock harder than ever. This is as certain as Johnny Depp’s character of Jack Sparrow from the “Pirates of The Caribbean” movies was based largely on Richards. It does not, nor should it, matter how old these guys are, but that they rock on with the same love they always have had for rock and roll. You can hear it in their music and see it in their eyes. Jagger continues strutting across the stage as though he was still in his 30’s, Richards still plays the guitar without missing a beat, Wood plays a mean slide guitar, and Watts beats away at the drum as if nothing ever serios ever happened to him. Why does age matter when you have passion for what you do?

I hope I have the same love and passion in what I do as they do in music at their age. I’m pretty sure I won’t need a boatload of drugs to get there, and even Richards would agree with me on this. Or maybe not. I guess it doesn’t matter. Or maybe I should just shut up for now…

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Exclusive Interview with Andy Summers about ‘Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving The Police’

With Andy Summers having released his latest book, a collection of his many short stories entitled “Fretted and Moaning,” I am quickly reminded of when I met him back in 2015. The documentary “Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving The Police” had just been released, and I got to attend its press day in Los Angeles, California. Based on Summers’ memoir “One Train Later,” it follows him from his early days as a musician where he performed with The Animals during the 1960’s to meeting Stewart Copeland and Sting which led to the formation of The Police, one of the most infinitely popular bands of the 1980’s. We also get to look at Summers’ personal life and his photography, another art form he is quite gifted at, and we get reminded of how important a guitarist is to a band even when the bassist gets the most attention.

It was a real honor and privilege to meet Summers, talk to him, and have him autograph my personal Police box set of “Message in a Box: The Complete Recordings.” During our time together, we talked about how the internal conflicts and strong egos helped make the band more creative even as those same things eventually tore this trio apart. I also asked him about his song “Mother,” his solo contribution to The Police’s album, “Synchronicity.”

Joining him in this interview is one of the documentary’s producers, Norman Golightly, who has several decades of experience in movies, television and social media. Moreover, he remains committed to promoting positive social change. Golightly talked about the obstacles in getting this documentary made, and they seem surprising as a this one is about a band which had Sting as its most unforgettable member.

“Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving The Police” is available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital. For fans of The Police, I could not recommend this documentary more highly.

Below is my exclusive interview with Summers and Golightly, the press conference with them, and the documentary’s trailer.  

  

Exclusive interview
Press conference
The documentary’s trailer

Exclusive Interview with Barbara Lee and Abby Ginzberg on ‘Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power’

With “Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power,” filmmaker Abby Ginzberg has given us one of the most memorable feature length documentaries of 2021. It introduces us to American politician and social worker Barbara Lee who currently serves as a United States Representative for California’s 13th congressional district, and this is someone we should now about. She has served in Congress for many years now and remains a strong voice for human rights, peace, and economic and racial justice in America and around the world. As Barbara’s story unfolds, we learn of her many experiences which shaped her life and beliefs such as volunteering for the Black Panther Party and escaping an abusive relationship. We also get testimonials from various politicians, journalists and other well-known individuals such as Cory Booker, the late John Lewis, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Van Jones, Danny Glover and Alice Walker, all of whom cite her as a tremendous inspiration to them and others.

More importantly, Ginzberg shows how Lee has remained steadfast and true to her beliefs to where she is not worried about popularity. While politicians mostly vote along party lines and are more concerned with their corporate donors instead of their constituents, Lee is not one to merely obey those in power. This is made especially clear when we see her oppose George W. Bush’s resolution granting the President unlimited war-making authority as it did not include much in the way of specifics and was, as she put it, “too broad.” In addition, she was the only representative in Congress to vote against this resolution. While everyone else was beating the war drum, Lee did not succumb to the cries for vengeance as she issued this stern warning to her colleagues: “Let us not become the evil we deplore.”

I got to speak with Ginzberg and Lee recently about the making of this documentary. Ginzberg herself has been a filmmaker for over 30 years, and her movies are about tackling discrimination and the legal profession. Her works include “Soul of Justice” which is about federal district judge Thelton Henderson, “And Then They Came for Us” about the forced incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, and “Soft Vengeance” which documents the life of anti-apartheid freedom fighter Albie Sachs. With “Speaking Truth to Power,” she is keen in making Barbara Lee’s existence known to the world at large.

During this interview, the two discussed why this is not meant to be a chronological or linear documentary, Lee expressed her thoughts on President Joe Biden’s recent extension on the moratorium for renters, and they talked about what needs to be done about homelessness and the war on drugs in America.

Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power” will arrive in theaters on August 20, 2021. In Los Angeles, it will be playing at Laemmle’s Royal Theater in West Los Angeles, and there will be a Q&A with Lee and her son following the 4:30 pm showing on August 21st. In Northern California, it will be showing at Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley, and at the Roxie in San Francisco. Barbara will appear at the Roxie after the Thursday showing on August 26th. It will play in theaters for one week, after which it will be available to stream on Amazon and iTunes.

Please feel free to check out the interview below as well as the trailer for the documentary. And remember, stay woke!

‘Moby Doc’ is Not Your Average VH1 ‘Behind the Music’ Documentary, Thank Goodness

After a year and three months, I finally got the opportunity to sit in a movie theater, in this case the Nuart in West Los Angeles. While many seats were taped off as social distancing rules are still in effect, it was nice to sit down in one of my favorite places to be as I have been away from it for far too long. Furthermore, being able to take my mask off to enjoy buttered popcorn along with a Barqs Root Beer made the experience even more special as I had ever reason not to indulge myself in these things as I am trying to lose a few pounds to say the least.

The movie which finally brought me back into a movie theater was “Moby Doc,” a documentary about, and I quote IMDB’s description here, the “trailblazing electronic musician and animal rights activist” whose music we hear on the radio, in TV commercials and in movies, several of them directed by Michael Maan, every day, Moby. But while I went into this documentary thinking it would be the average kind of its genre, both Moby and director Rob Gordon Bralver have given us one which is intentionally defiant of normal documentary rules, and what results is something which goes far deeper than the average episode of VH1’s “Behind the Music.”

“Moby Doc” starts off with Moby in the present day talking directly to the camera about how we think if we have “the right amount of money, the right amount of recognition, you will find perfect human happiness. But I tried, and it didn’t work.” Not many artists who have been through what he has experienced in terms of finding fame and then suffering a precipitous drop from it can say this as their lives often get cut short at such a young age. Moby, however, has come out on the other side a humbled human being who has found a peacefulness and happiness in life which, as we learn, has often eluded him.

Through the use of animation, crude stick puppets and a troupe of actors Moby has cast to portray his parents, we learn about traumatic his upbringing was as his father ended up committing suicide by driving his car straight into a brick wall, and the relationship he had with his mother was dysfunctional at best as he could not always reach out to her the way he wanted to. What’s even worse is how years later Moby missed her funeral because he slept in after an evening filled with drugs and alcohol. Judging from the animated images shown to us in the aftermath, lord knows if he has yet forgiven himself for this transgression. Heck, I still am haunted by a memorial service I wanted to attend but didn’t as the dates got mixed up in my head. As a result, I still have yet to find any closure on it.

One thing I really liked about “Moby Doc” is how it shows the importance of the arts in a person’s life. Moby freely admits how the act of making music was like a “form of self-healing” to where I believe how it saved him. When it comes to things like music, acting and writing, they really do lift the spirits of those who feel out of place in a society which does not automatically welcome them. I hope those school districts which are considering cutting art classes from their curriculum will watch this documentary and think second thoughts about doing so.

Seeing Moby discover music and how to mix music together is done through the use of home movies which feature him during a time when he had hair. The time when he lived in an abandoned factory seems frightening as he recounts all the horrible things which happened there including people getting murdered, but we also see how he evolved as an artist and a musician in this space to where it makes sense how it provided him with some of his happiest memories in life. This is especially the case when he compares these memories to the times when his ever so famous, and those times cannot compare despite all the wealth and attention fame brought him.

When it comes to “Play,” which is still Moby’s best-known album, its success remains astounding as it came after one of his biggest failures, “Animal Rights.” He was on the verge of quitting the music business and getting a real job, something many artists would be quick to consider as a permanent defeat to their ambitions. But while “Play” started off as a slow seller, it emerged as the equivalent of the Energizer bunny as, while that one kept going and going, the album kept selling and selling and selling…

As Moby delves into the amazing success “Play” gave him, he also is quick to describe how his follow ups did not sell anywhere as well, and this led to an increased desperation in him which many of his friends came to see as a case of complete narcissism. There’s even a scene where we see Moby getting tortured as if he were like Bruce Campbell at the beginning of “Army of Darkness,” and a lyric from Eminem’s “Without Me” song keeps getting said over and over; “Nobody listens to techno!”

Throughout this documentary, Moby and Bralver keep pulling the rug right out from under us as they want to keep the audience off-balance, and it is like John Cleese whenever he is on “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and saying at any given moment, “And now for something completely different.” Things move from one scene where Moby discusses his problems with a female therapist to another visual of him standing in a desert or some other isolated place to where we are reminded of how lonely fame can be. 

Some may find the use of the various visual motifs and the non-linear style distracting or perhaps too artsy fartsy, but I found it to be extremely effective in digging deeper into Moby’s life as his work as a musician takes him out of his depressive depths to extreme success and then to devastating lows which made him consider suicide even at the height of fame. Thank goodness for us and him that windows in certain upscale hotels are not big enough for a human being to fit through.

But what really hit me hard about “Moby Doc” is when he talks about how he felt much happier creating music in the abandoned factory than he was when “Play” was selling millions upon millions of records. His point of how we strive for certain things like fame and fortune, thinking it will bring us the happiness which we believe is constantly eluding us, proves to be fruitless is something we cannot deny as he has seen it all and has come out of everything as a relatively sane human being, or as sane as anyone can hope to be in this day and age. It is this state of mind which not everyone gets to as many would be, as Paul Williams once put it, asking for a second cup of fame.

These days, Moby fights for vegans and has recently released the album “Reprise” which, as Peter Gabriel did with “New Blood,” contains orchestral and acoustic arrangements of songs from his long career. Some of those arrangements are featured here in this documentary, and they force you to look at his songs in a different way as not everything about them could have been seen on the surface.

It is nice to see an artist like Moby get a second chance in life. Some get so caught up in the realm of fame and fortune to where they cannot connect with any other human being in life, and this constitutes a tragedy which I hope people in general avoid. But while some artists like Amy Winehouse met a tragic end, he still lives on doing what makes him feel happiest and most fulfilled. Here is hoping others like him can see through the clouds and not get caught up in the shallowest of things.

* * * * out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: ‘Music From The Big House’ – A Glorious Prison Musical

Music From The Big House” follows Rita Chiarelli, or “the goddess of Canadian blues” as she is known, as she visits what is considered to be the birthplace of blues music: Louisiana State Maximum Security Prison (a.k.a. Angola Prison). What she finds once there is a number of inmates who have long since found solace through their love of music, and this leads her to stage a concert at the prison with them. But unlike when Johnny Cash did his performance at Folsom Prison, Chiarelli performs with the inmates instead of just for them.

Cinematographer Steve Cosens originally filmed this documentary in color, but the decision was later made to show it in black and white which suits this documentary perfectly. McDonald goes over the history of this prison which was at one time known as the bloodiest in America. The descriptions given to us of how it operated years before gives you a picture of what hell on earth must seem like. The fact the filmmakers and Chiarelli were allowed access inside this prison is amazing to say the least, and it almost seems like a miracle they made it out of there as well.

We get a chance to meet the individual inmates who end up playing in the concert, and they are a fascinating bunch. It is not until the very end when we are told what crimes they have committed which got them sentenced to time behind bars, and this was a smart move on the part of the filmmakers. By not learning of their crimes right at the start, we are forced not to judge them ahead of their musical performances. Some of them do allude to their crimes without too many specifics, and one in particular hints at how he isn’t apologizing for what he did because he’s not sure he is yet.

Some might consider this project to be a self-serving one for Chiarelli so she can get good press and sell a lot of records, but that is not the case. Her love for blues music is never in doubt, and those who have seen her perform live can verify what a powerful musical presence she can be. Those not familiar with her work will be blown away by her performances, and there is no forgetting her once the lights go up. There are also moments where Chiarelli questions why she is doing this concert as she’s not blind to what these felons have done to earn long prison sentences. Still, none of it deters her from performing with them in what turns out to be a joyous occasion, and the kind many do not expect to see from hardened inmates.

Speaking of the concert, we do get to see a lot of it here. The musical numbers are utterly invigorating, and the audience I saw this documentary with couldn’t help but clap along with the music. They even applauded at the end of the songs and for good reason; the music is incredibly thrilling to take in even if you are not a fan of the blues. I haven’t been to many movies over the years where the audience really got into what was onscreen, so this is not a cinematic experience I am going to forget any time soon.

“Music From The Big House” is one of those small movies, let alone documentaries, which deserves a bigger audience than it has already received thus far. While you could just get away with buying the soundtrack (and please do buy it), this documentary invites more than one viewing, and it would make a wonderful double feature with the Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense.” You will not be able to keep your feet still while watching either film, nor should you.

* * * * out of * * * *

Rita Chiarelli Speaks About the Making of ‘Music From The Big House’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about a screening which took place on June 13, 2012.

Canadian blues artist Rita Chiarelli made a special appearance at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica to talk about the documentary “Music From The Big House.” Directed by Bruce McDonald, it follows Chiarelli as she goes inside the Louisiana State Maximum Security Penitentiary to perform with inmates who share her love of music. Chiarelli’s appearance was part of her tour with the documentary which has her traveling to 60 cities in 70 days for post-screening Q&As and performing the blues, and she blew us away with what she had to say as well as her music.

Moderating the Q&A was Richard Matson of Matson Films, the company distributing “Music from the Big House” in the United States. His first question for Chiarelli was how she managed to persuade the prison to let her in, and she said she had to be “very charming.” She admitted to having many meetings with the warden and other prison officials in Louisiana and managed to gain their trust over time. Putting it very bluntly, she said, “They let me in… and they also let me out.”

One audience member asked why the documentary was shot in black and white, and Chiarelli said cinematographer Steve Cosens originally shot it in color. However, it was decided later on to take the color out as everyone thought this was really how the movie should be seen. The way Chiarelli says she saw it, black and white “carried the story more” and made it “truer to its meaning.”

Chiarelli also added how the whole documentary was shot in just two and a half days and that everything done “was a first take.” Everything we saw on screen was “totally how it went down.”

Another person asked why the prison had so many African-Americans and young men incarcerated there. Chiarelli responded that 80% of the population in Louisiana is black and added “whatever that speaks to, that’s what’s going on.” She also said the laws in Louisiana are “very strict” and that it is the only state in America which still operates on the Napoleonic Code which allows more in the way of judgment calls than anything else.

One thing I wondered about, as did others, was why the crimes these inmates convicted of and serving time for were listed at the end of the documentary. We don’t know exactly what they had done to be behind bars while watching, but we do get hints at times of what landed them there. Chiarelli stated this was done so we “wouldn’t judge them before meeting them.” She and McDonald wanted us to meet the inmates first, get so see them in their present state and show how their love of music elevated their souls, and then we got what she called the “nitty gritty” of their crimes.

Chiarelli said she found it hard to ask the inmates what they did as it felt “rude to ask.” Her hope was they would eventually “open up by choice” and they would trust her and the filmmakers to tell their story.

Chiarelli finished her evening at the Aero Theatre by performing some songs from “Music from the Big House” live, specifically “Rest My Bones” and “These Four Walls” which she wrote after the making of the documentary was completed. She certainly has a great set of pipes on her, and her passion for blues music is beyond measure. It is this same passion which is shared by the inmates onscreen, and it makes for one of the most exhilarating musical documentaries you could ever hope to see.

Exclusive Video Interview with Michele Ohayon About ‘Strip Down, Rise Up’

Pole dancing has long been associated with strip clubs, but it has since expanded from that realm to dance studios where it is taught as a form of aerobic exercise. Still, there is a strong stigma to this form of dancing as it most people refuse to see it as anything other than pornographic and debasing. But with the new documentary “Strip Down, Rise Up,” female instructors use pole dancing as a way to help women deal with traumas and body-image issues which have plagued people for far too long. Through sensual movement, the participants find themselves transforming to where they succeed in reclaiming their self-esteem and sexuality, and they find a power within themselves which can never be lost.

The director of “Strip Down, Rise Up” is Oscar-nominated filmmaker Michèle Ohayon, and her cameras capture a diverse group of women from various walks of life. Among them are Evelyn who has lost her husband and trying to deal with her grief, the successful businesswoman Patricia who is uncomfortable in her own skin, and the very brave Megan who was sexually abused and ended up testifying against her abuser. We also get to see instructors like Sheila Kelley, Amy Bond and Jenyne Butterfly whose methods differ from one another in fascinating ways.

Ohayon hails from North Africa, and she has said her films are largely about transformations. In addition to “Strip Down, Rise Up,” her work includes “Colors Straight Up” which is about at-risk youth in Los Angeles who turn their lives around through the performing arts, the hidden homeless women documentary “It Was a Wonderful Life” which had the privilege of being narrated by Jodie Foster, and the docu-comedy “Cowboy del Amor” about a cowboy who becomes a matchmaker. Her inspiration for “Strip Down, Rise Up” came about when she and her daughter attended a pole dancing class as a way to explore a new form of exercise.

I got to speak with Ohayon recently, and this marks my first ever video interview done via Zoom, so please bear with me as the video quality is a bit different from what we are all used to.

“Strip Down, Rise Up” debuts on Netflix on Friday, February 5, 2021. Please check out the interview above and be sure to check this documentary out when it drops.

‘Belushi’ Documentary is an Intimate Portrait of a Hilarious ‘SNL’ Icon

One of the opening scenes of the documentary “Belushi” features a packed audience at the Hollywood Bowl, waiting for the Blues Brothers to make their grand entrance. There was something about the size of this crowd which blew me away, and their excitement at seeing John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd come onto the stage as Joliet Jake and Elwood Blues was very palpable. When they do finally appear, it’s an exhilarating moment as Belushi in particular looks as though he was on top of the world, and back in 1978 he certainly was. But then we hear a voiceover from the late Harold Ramis who says about Belushi, “Knowing his appetites, I don’t think he’ll survive this.” As we all know, he didn’t.

Like another documentary about another “Saturday Night Live” star who left us way too soon, “Love, Gilda,” “Belushi” is at a disadvantage as we all know what happened to this beloved comedy icon and of how he died of a drug overdose at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles on March 5, 1982. Several books have been written and several movies were made which detailed his life and death, and Aykroyd once said how many of them were written by “unfeeling, unqualified personnel.” But with “Belushi,” writer and director R.J. Cutler takes the time to look at him not so much as a comedy icon, but as a man who had his passions and loves which deserve more of our attention than his excesses ever did.

Among the most interesting parts of “Belushi” come at the beginning as animation is used to illustrate his life as a young boy in the west side of Chicago. It was a kick to learn how he would sometimes go to homes of his neighbors to tell stories or do performances. Seriously, John was the kind of person William Shakespeare wrote about, and this is summed up perfectly in his line of “all the world’s a stage.”

To learn of John’s troubled relationship with his father, an Albanian immigrant named Adam Anastos Belushi, was a revelation of sorts as I am tempted to think this played a large role in his development not just as an artist, but as a person as well. Adam expected John to take over the family business which was the Fair Oaks Restaurant, but John was determined to become an actor. There is something about the last meeting between these two which seems to linger throughout the documentary to where I could not help but wonder how deeply this affected John throughout his life. Of course, I have to remember I am not a psychotherapist.

One of the benefits of “Belushi” is it contains interviews which are featured as voiceovers throughout. These interviews were conducted by Tanner Colby for his book “Belushi: A Biography,” and in this documentary we get to hear these interviews for the first time. Whether or not the thoughts of Aykroyd, Lorne Michaels, Carrie Fisher or John Landis surprise you in the slightest, I am thankful we get to hear their most specific thoughts about John as they help to fully describe a man who would have truly done anything to get a laugh from everyone and anyone.

But perhaps the most telling addition to “Belushi” is the participation of John’s widow, Judith Belushi-Pisano who shares, among other things, the letters John wrote to her over the years. In those letters, we see how John was hungry for success, that he did not want to be like his father, and how even he knew he was on a path to self-destruction. The one letter which stood out to me the most was when John confessed to Judith of how he didn’t know how to be comfortable with himself in life. This is a man who yearned to connect with other people, and the one thing he craved, success, kept him from do so.

There was a point where John was in the number one movie in America (“Animal House”), had the number one album in the country (the Blues Brothers’ “Briefcase Full of Blues”), and was starring on the television phenomenon “SNL.” While this may have seemed like a tremendous accomplishment, it is almost treated as though it were a death knell for John as he had nowhere to go but down. Lorne Michaels once said drugs did not kill John, fame did. After watching this documentary, I could not agree more.

Watching “Belushi” quickly reminded of other documentaries about other tremendous talents whose lives were cut far too short. There was Asif Kapadia’s “Amy” which gave Amy Winehouse the eulogy she never would have received from any other filmmaker, and we watched as she walked up to the stage in one scene to accept an award, and the applause from the audience kept getting louder and louder to where any cries for help were forever washed away from our collective consciousness. And then there was also “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” which chronicled the life of the Nirvana front man, and the interview with his mother when she realized just how famous Kurt was going to end up being still haunts me as she quickly realizes he will not be able to handle in a healthy way. Like John Belushi, these are talented artists who the song “Shooting Star” by Bad Company was all about, and their lives were quickly swept up in the tsunami of fame.

Granted, there are some problems with “Belushi” as I was hoping this documentary would go a little deeper in certain areas. When it comes to movies like “Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers,” they deserve their own documentaries as their reputations remain very enthralling, but I would have loved to see Cutler examine John’s performance in “Continental Divide” a bit more as this was a movie in which he dared to go in a more serious direction. And yes, there is the issue of Cathy Smith being omitted from here. Cathy gave John the controlled substances which ended his life at the far too young age of 33. I am not saying Cathy deserves to be crucified, but her role in John’s death does deserve some more insight as it may allude to how certain people treat celebrities who are at their most vulnerable.

Regardless, “Belushi” represents the kind of documentary which digs deeper than the average showbiz expose ever does. So many movies on famous people like this one typically just skim the surface and focus on the most controversial moments at the expense of everything else, and this one does not. For that, I am very thankful as I have always been a big fan of John Belushi, and until Cutler’s film, I truly felt I never got to see him as an individual. Regardless of how you feel about him, John Belushi was a human being like the rest of us who craved love and respect, and he should still be with us all these years later.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Robin’s Wish’ Sets The Record Straight About The Late Mr. Williams

As with the deaths of Jim Henson, River Phoenix and Phil Hartman, Robin Williams’ hit me like a punch in the gut and left me speechless for a time. Here is a man whose work I had followed ever since I first saw him in Robert Altman’s “Popeye,” and we have always known his brain to work at 100 miles a minute. He was an extraordinary talent who kept us laughing hard as he managed to improvise routines out of what seemed like thin air. The fact we were now living in a world without him seems unreal even today, and there are times when I think August 11, 2014 should be designated as the day the laughter died.

Among the striking images shown in the first few minutes of “Robin’s Wish,” other than the beautiful vistas of San Francisco and Marin County, are images of newspapers, magazines and tabloid rags which pondered over why the Oscar-winning comedian committed suicide. Was it because he suddenly left a 12-step program where he was dealing with alcoholism? Was he in dire financial straits? Was he upset the show which marked his return to television, “The Crazy Ones,” was cancelled after only one season? Did he really never get over the death of John Belushi? Did all those years of drug and alcohol abuse finally catch up with him? In the wake of his passing there were many questions, and they eventually became rumors which spread like wildfires. As many sought to get to the truth, the rest of us felt so far removed from it.

The documentary “Robin’s Wish” is filmmaker Tylor Norwood’s attempt to set the record straight about what really happened to Robin Williams and why he died. It also serves as a deep examination of disease Lewy Body dementia (LBD) which may sound new, but has actually been around for many, many years. We also get a close and personal look at Robin’s last days before his tragic death, and it proves to be both very sad and yet hopeful all at the same time.

Instead of a full-fledged biography, Norwood looks specifically at Robin’s evolution as an actor and comedian. We see Robin talk about how the brain is “an extraordinary three-and-a-half-pound gland” and that he does not have an act as much as he does a “cesspool of consciousness.” He discusses his time at Julliard in New York where he got heavy duty training as an actor, and of how he left before he could have graduated and moved back to San Francisco to find acting work. When he couldn’t find any, he started doing stand up comedy in which he succeeded in, as one close friend put it, in “demolishing” every single audience he performed in front of. Back then, everyone was in awe of his talents as his mind moved at lightning speed, and this was only the beginning. Like them, we were in awe of what he could do.

Throughout, the documentary moves back and forth from his life to the subject of the LBD which, while it may pale in comparison to Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or ALS, can be every bit as debilitating and deadly. UCSF Professor Bruce Miller is shown describing it as a devastating disease which is fast and progressive and a killer. It also increases mental disorders such as depression, anxiety and insomnia, and paranoia and delusions are also major symptoms. There is no none cure for this disease as of yet, and it usually ends in suicide. But even worse, is often misdiagnosed.

Robin’s widow, Susan Schneider, did not have a name for what killed her husband until she read his autopsy report. Initially, Robin was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, but this was not the case. Susan says had Robin known what he was suffering from while he was alive, then he would have at least had some peace. As for Professor Miller, he described Robin’s case as being the most devastating case of LBD he had ever seen, and he was amazed the “Good Will Hunting” actor could move or walk at all.

As “Robin’s Wish” goes on, we see how LBD came to affect the actor long before he died, and it is devastating to witness the effect it had on his comedic gifts. Whether it was on the set of “The Crazy One” or the third “Night at the Museum” movie, he started to have trouble memorizing his lines and coming up with stuff to improvise. At one point, he tells someone how he is not himself anymore, and you feel his disassociation around everyone to an infinite degree. To realize you are not who you once were has got to be horrifying.

Learning about this mental disintegration from friends and colleagues such as Rick Overton, David E. Kelley and Shawn Levy helps to shed light on what Robin was going through as LBD was already taking its toll on him. To see someone lose gifts few are ever endowed with is painful, and it also reminded me of the last time he was a presenter at the Oscars. Whereas in the past he would come up with some hilarious thing to say or take aim at Jimmy Swaggart (“Remember, there is no such word as audit in the Bible, okay?”), he simply just listed the nominees and read the winner. Many wondered why he seemed so listless, and now we know.

Schneider deserves a lot of credit for being so open about Robin’s struggles as she still feels the pain of his death from day to day. The love they had for one another was very real, and we see the two of them at their wedding and in many pictures which illustrated just how close they were to one another. She also shares why the two of them had to sleep in separate beds at one point as Robin’s insomnia worsened to where he woke up at early hours and accidentally injured her.

“Robin’s Wish” does make a solid case for how serious a disease LBD is, and after watching the documentary there is no doubt this is what killed him. It makes clear what a wonderful soul he was as he took the time to meet with soldiers who were wounded, children who were sick and others who needed a laugh during a dark time in their lives. It also makes clear of the fact Robin was clean and sober at the time of his death. Drugs and alcohol did not rob us of him.

If there is anything I feel is left out here, it is the thoughts and feelings of others close to Robin such as his children or his ex-wife Marsha Garces whom he was married to for 20 years. Their absence here makes me wonder how they feel about all of this. Perhaps they were not invited to participate or chose not to. Even though this is not meant to be a full out biography of Robin Williams, it feels like some pieces are missing which would have made this portrait more complete.

“Robin’s Wish” is not the easiest documentary or movie to sit through as we know how it ends. The void the famous comedian and actor left in his wake is still deeply felt all these years later, and it is impossible not to feel bad for his closest friends. This is especially the case for the one friend who was informed of Robin’s death over the phone by a reporter who said he died by suicide. This is not the way to inform someone of their friend’s passing.

Nevertheless, as sad as “Robin’s Wish” may seem, it also filled with hope. As debilitating as LBD was for him, he fought it like a warrior even if he did not know exactly what he was fighting. We are also reminded of his perspective on life which he earned through a lot of life experiences and mistakes he learned from. To him, life was always about other people, and he simply wanted to make everyone feel less afraid. Norwood definitely finds the right note to end this documentary on as, while Robin may be gone, he shows we can still carry on his legacy from one generation to the next. No one who knew Robin Williams will ever forget the impact he had on others, and no one ever should.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Click here to find out how you can donate to the Lewy Body Dementia Fund of the American Brain Foundation.

Underseen Movie: The Interrupters – Trying to Stop Violence in America

“The Interrupters” is a truly brilliant documentary which explores violence in America, and of a group of people working desperately to stop it. It covers a period of a year in South Side Chicago, but the events we see could be happening in any other city where violence has long since engulfed its citizens. At its center is the non-profit group CeaseFire (now known today as Cure Violence) which treats violence like an infectious disease, and those employed by it work to stop the violence before it happens. While the description of this documentary sounds bleak, it is full of hope and redemption that most fiction movies can only dream of portraying honestly.

What makes CeaseFire an especially unique group is the workers have been on the wrong side of the law in the past. These are not just citizens wanting to live peacefully, but those who were once as bad as those gang members they are working with and trying to help. They are well-meaning and working to find redemption for their wicked pasts which could easily have destroyed their lives. Among them is Ameena Matthews, whose father, Jeff Fort, was a notorious gang leader. Through finding peace in her Muslim faith and having children, she turned her life around and started helping those who are travelling down the same path she once did.

The most compelling moments in “The Interrupters” involve the workers of CeaseFire themselves. We watch as Ameena struggles desperately to get through to a deeply troubled teenage girl who seems stuck in between going into a life of crime and seriously trying to find a way out of it. Seeing Ameena working with her is understandably exhausting emotionally; we all want the best for this person, but there is only so much that can be done.

Next there’s Cobe Williams who spent much of his years in and out of prison before joining CeaseFire. Cobe manages to get some footing with the toughest of people through his genuinely good nature and disarming sense of humor. Then we have Eddie Bocanegra, who served 14 years in prison for a murder which haunts him to this very day. His attempts in teaching art to children show how sincere he is in his efforts to help them avoid the mistakes he made, some of which can never be undone.

Directing “The Interrupters” is Steven James, the same filmmaker who is responsible for one of the greatest documentaries ever made, “Hoop Dreams.” Not once does Steven try to beat us over the head with statistics showing us how bad things are. We can tell the situation is bleaker than many of us could ever imagine. In capturing the memorials of those slain (most in their teens or early 20’s), we feel the innocence cruelly deprived just by looking at the names listed underneath them.

But perhaps the most powerful scene to be found here comes when a former gang member, now released from prison, visits the barbershop he robbed with friends to apologize for what he did. It is an amazing moment, and one I do not often expect to see (but certainly hope to). You can feel the raw emotions of the employees as they respond to this most unexpected of visits, and if this does not make you believe in the power of redemption, you have a heart made of stone.

“The Interrupters” is a must-see documentary which captures moments that cannot be found elsewhere, let alone in many Hollywood movies which boast about being “based on a true story.” This is real life being shown here, and it is the kind many of us do not see up close. The hope and redemption it captures is completely genuine, and it is a one of a kind cinematic experience in this or any other year. This is a must see!

* * * * out of * * * *