‘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 * * * *

The Initial Reaction Audiences Had to ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’

John McNaughton’s “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” was made back in 1986, but it did not get a theatrical release until 1990. All these years later, it remains a very disturbing look at a murderer lacking a conscience who essentially kills at random. For those who’ve seen “Henry,” you know how unnerving it gets, and the fact it got released at all is amazing.

Michael Rooker, who plays the Henry of the movie’s title, appeared at the Egyptian Theatre back in 2011 to talk about audience’s initial reaction to it. Neither he nor anyone else involved in its making believed it would ever get any response whatsoever. They filmed what they thought people wanted to see, a scary movie, but this was no average horror flick like “Halloween” or “Friday the 13th.” “Henry” involves real life horror, the kind we often do not go to the movies to see. And in the end, what’s scarier than real life violence?

Chuck Parello, who would later direct “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Part II,” managed to get the film screened at the 1989 Chicago Film Festival, and this later led to it being shown at the Telluride Festival. Rooker recollected about the first time he saw “Henry” in a theater, and he said there was around forty people in the audience. There were not a lot of sounds coming from them, and no laughter. This led Rooker to say that, after you’ve watched “Henry” twenty times, you begin to see the humor in it. For the record, I completely agree with him on this.

“Henry’s” most disturbing and controversial scene comes when Henry and Otis (Tom Towles) do a home invasion and murder an entire family. We watch these two as they view the video they shot of them killing each member, and Otis finds watching it once is not enough. After this scene ended, Rooker said more than 60% of the audience left after this scene, and they all left at the same time. Many of them were vocal about what they had witnessed:

“Fuck this shit!”

“This is bullshit!”

“This is what cinema’s coming to?”

Rooker was sitting with the producers when this happened, and he freely admitted how they all loved the response “Henry” was getting.

People came out of the film stunned and silent, and Rooker remembered seeing one guy walking out of the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles with his hands shaking. The actor also said a friend of his yelled at him because the film made him think “those thoughts.” There were no car chases, no gratuitous violence, and the violence shown in “Henry” is mostly minimal. Many of the murders Henry commits are never shown but heard as the camera circles around the bodies of his victims as we hear them take their last breath over the speakers. It ends up leaving a lot of room for imagination as you can’t help but think about what you didn’t see. Sometimes it is what you don’t see which is the most frightening thing of all.

But the most memorable incident for Rooker happened when he arrived late to one screening. As he headed into the theater, a woman, who was not walking but running out of the movie, ran right smack dab into him. When she realized who he was, she screamed and raced to the women’s bathroom. The ushers and producers had to come out and calm her down, saying to her over and over, “He’s really an actor. “

“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” is seriously disturbing, but for good reason. Unlike other horror movies which revel in blood, gore and vicious fantasies, this was one which dealt with horror of real-life viciousness. Every once in a while, you need a film like this one to remind people of the ugliness of violence, and to make us realize we are not as desensitized to it as we may think. If “Henry” didn’t cause a good portion of moviegoers to walk out, then the filmmakers would not have succeeded in making this point clear.

Exclusive Interview with Olga Szymanska on Marcin Wrona’s ‘Demon’

It was very sad to learn of Polish director Marcin Wrona’s passing on September 18, 2015. He committed suicide before a screening of his latest film, “Demon,” the last in a trilogy which began with “My Flesh, My Blood” and “The Christening.” Like those two films, “Demon” deals with the nature of evil and a fate the protagonist is forced to deal with. Itay Tiran stars as Piotr (a.k.a. Python) who is on the verge of getting married to the beautiful Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska) and moving into a family home which has survived from one generation to the next. But on the day of his wedding, Piotr suddenly becomes possessed by a spirit which will no longer remain silent, and what should be a joyous day soon turns into the wedding from hell as the past will no longer remain buried.

While Wrona is no longer with us, his “Demon” is a tremendously well-made horror film which allowed him to leave his mark on the world of cinema, and it provides us with an interesting take on the Jewish legend of the dybbuk. It is a beautifully filmed movie with incredible vistas and an all-encompassing darkness as a bad situation gets even worse, and that’s not just because the wedding guests have drunk far too much vodka. Watching “Demon” also reminds us of the power of ambiguity as not all questions are answered here, and this forces the viewer to think more deeply about what they have just witnessed.

I got to speak with Olga Szymanska, the producer of “Demon” and Wrona’s widow, while she was in Los Angeles to promote the film. I applaud her for supporting her late husband’s work while dealing with a loss which is still hard for many to accept. She talked about what went into the making of “Demon,” how it relates to Wrona’s previous two films, if she was ever worried about people not understanding the legend of the dybbuk, and of how Wrona and his cinematographer Pawell Flis gave the film such a striking look.

Please check out the interview above, and be sure to check out “Demon” which is playing at the Nuart Theatre through September 15.

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