Tag Archives: Documentary

Hometown Glory: “The South Got Something to Say” a Highlight of Atlanta Film Festival

Both a venerable newspaper and a half-century of long-gestating music and cultural movement reclaim global relevance in the excellent documentary The South Got Something to Say (A), directed by The Horne Brothers as the first film created and curated by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper. The film, presented this week in competition at the Atlanta Film Festival and now streaming on the newspaper’s website, has been hatched with the imprimatur and immediacy of immersive gonzo journalism. It is a testament to how news coverage can shape-shift with the times into a genre most befitting its subjects. This era-spanning oral history gives context to its story of musicians with a mission as it chronicles early days of hip hop in the 1970s through the eyes of Atlanta’s first rapper Mojo, the election of Maynard Jackson as the first Black mayor of the Southeastern city, the pall of the Atlanta Child Murders and the celebration following the apprehension of a perpetrator, the gentrification of events such as the Olympics and, most recently, protest movements in the light of a nation’s racial reckoning. Directors Ryan and Tyson Horne wisely structure and set their scene to authentically ground the family tree of music movements emerging from an unlikely place, including chart-topping earworms unleashed by eager and creative self-made mega-producers, music that emerged from unlikely places such as the projects and “dank dungeons” and pristine churches, plus crunk and trap soundscapes and innovations still evolving today. The movie’s title comes from the mic-drop moment at the 1995 Source Awards, as East and West coast factions feuding was the simmering cycle of the day, when Outkast member Andre 3000 proclaimed his part of the country the epicenter of the music movement, and his city’s creatives haven’t taken their feet off the pedal since, en route to global cultural dominance. The filmmakers blend anecdotes from artists who are lesser-known or potentially forgotten to time with some of the most renowned headliners on earth to spotlight the inspirations for their emerging sounds and how adjacent fashion, dance, lifestyle and self-expression trends all reflect deep roots in community. Speech, T.I., Dallas Austin, Princess, Killer Mike, CeeLo Green and the late Rico Wade are among the fascinating storytellers, showcasing history in interviews, archival footage, music videos, home movies and of course the enduring songs themselves. From afternoons gliding through nostalgia of skating rinks to peering at campus life at HBCUs to trialing new tracks at Magic City, plus life at concerts and cookouts, the movie expresses joy and its subjects’ will to be seen and heard. The devil comes down to Georgia in all the film’s rich details, from graphic identifiers reminiscent of old cassette tapes to a climactic event in downtown Atlanta depicted with immediacy from multiple points of view. Neither overly bossy nor glossy in its hot takes, the filmmakers stuff ample history into the movie’s shaking bounty. Shedding light and insight to creativity in constant motion, this definitive documentary is highly recommended.

Atlanta Jewish Film Festival Closes with “Shari and Lamb Chop”

Like Sweeney Todd and his glistening knives or Tom Brady and his spiraling football, famed ventriloquist Shari Lewis was wielding something mighty at the end of her arm. Lisa D’Apolito’s feel-good documentary Shari and Lamb Chop (B+) chronicles the multi-hyphenate singer, dancer, comedienne, educator and puppeteer through a veritable variety show of every major era of television as she showcases astounding work ethic and a charm offensive. The daughter of a vaudeville magician, a young Shari aspires to sing and dance and becomes famous for a sassy sock puppet that no late night talk show or game show host will ever let her forget to bring along. Through intimate found footage including some remarkable on-set sequences from multiple iterations of Shari’s various children’s shows, D’Apolito finds an array of heightened emotions in her subject. Surprising tidbits include both puppet and ventriloquist doing a full show in Japanese as well as Lewis co-writing a Star Trek episode. The film is vibrant and colorful with a wistful nostalgia for an old-fashioned brand of good-natured humor. Through Shari’s myriad talents on display and interviews by the likes of illusionist David Copperfield, SNL’s Sarah Sherman and surviving Lewis family members, it’s a lovely tribute. With so much at arm’s length, this film will make you want to hug someone you love.

Note: This was the closing night film of the 2024 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival with streaming films continuing through March 7. A full line-up of streaming films can be found here: https://ajff.org

Wonderful Documentary Shows Why Women “Still Working 9 to 5” and Beyond for Equal Rights

In months since the release of a Barbie movie celebrated for giving voice to the plight of women but derided by detractors for being pedantic, it’s clear we are witnessing history repeating. Camille Hardman and Gary Lane’s compelling documentary Still Working 9 to 5 (B+) explores the past decades of the women’s rights movement with the 1980 film comedy 9 to 5 as a pop cultural anchor. The co-directors congregate the film’s funny trio Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton for fond reminiscences as the popular movie made them unofficial spokeswomen of an equal rights movement picking up steam. Interlaced in the documentary are participants in pop culture with workplace pioneers such as Lilly Ledbetter, each sharing their personal anecdotes across the continuum. The movie also does an elegant  job linking the early exposure of topics such as fair pay and sexual harassment with later movements such as #MeToo. Fans of the classic workplace satire will find themselves enjoying the behind the scenes footage and back stories while learning important lessons of modern American history too. Hardman and Lane deliver a touching and timely look at vital issues affecting us all. They tell their story with nifty nostalgia and utmost urgency.

“Remembering Gene Wilder” is Fond Farewell to Beloved Actor

One of the great comic actors of film is immortalized with a warm tribute in Ron Frank’s documentary Remembering Gene Wilder (B), chock-full of clips, interviews, behind the scenes footage and the title subject’s own narration from the audiobook of his 2005 memoir. Mel Brooks is always an enjoyable interview, and he doesn’t disappoint here with his sentimental observations. The best parts of the film involve recollections of work on Brooks films The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein plus Willy Wonka and his series of pairings with Richard Pryor. The late stages of Wilder’s life are marred by tragedy, which is covered gracefully. The film is a solid if uninspired largely chronological telling of Wilder’s life without too many surprises. Unlike many of the actor’s most memorable manic performances, the film could have been just a little wilder. 

Note: This screening was part of the 2024 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. The festival’s theatrical movies run through February 26 with streaming films also available through March 7. Full line-up of offerings can be found here: https://ajff.org

Sundance Documentary ”Every Little Thing” Shows Hummingbirds Learning to Fly Again


A surprising film debuted at Sundance 2024, and you could say it’s got buzz. And whistles, beeps and chirps. Sally Aitken’s documentary Every Little Thing (B) is a gentle, non-ironic glimpse at the life’s work  of a West coast woman named Terry Masear, who operates a hummingbird rescue mission out of her L.A. home. This consummate and patient healer’s own wounded background undergirds the true tale, but the recovering birds are really center cage in this realm, each with cute names and back stories as they begin their fragile resurgence. Aitken gently follows some amazing animals in startling close-up as they learn their flights of fancy again. Like March of the Penguins, it’s a canny diorama exploring the sociological machinations of a bird order. This engaging journey is quietly observant, inspiring and entertaining. 

The Indomitable Great White Way is on Display Post-Pandemic in Documentary “Broadway Rising”

On demand December 27, 2022.

This is the story about how one creative community rebounded from the biggest existential threat to its way of life: the chronicle of how Broadway survived 551 dark days benched by COVID-19. Capturing the full ecosystem from producers and performers to the folks who launder the costumes and staff the venues, Amy Rice’s documentary Broadway Rising (B) is a tribute to resilience and a stirring summons to the best in all of us. Rice cleverly accesses multiple theatre community personalities and perspectives to trace the time period between the shutdown and reopening. Some people passed away, some cope in unexpected ways and others still found a whole new way to give back to their adopted stage families and others in need. Interviews with actors and artisans such as Patti LuPone and Lynn Nottage help knit the tale from a true behind the scenes vantage point, with performers from popular shows such as Wicked, Waitress, Hamilton and Hadestown drawing in a populist POV . Rice deftly weaves vital issues of social justice and inclusion into the piece and finds apt intersections to propel her central storyline. The idiom dictionary for the phrase, “the show must go on” would undoubtedly point directly to this film.

“The Automat” is a Delightfully Nostalgic Documentary

Now available on demand, via select streaming services and in limited theatrical release.

Phone booths, penny arcades and locomotive cabooses may all be things of the past, but the safe space to rhapsodize about bygone icons is the stuff of immortality. Director Lisa Hurwitz deftly turns her attention to the most democratic of U.S. food chains in her sweet and sentimental documentary The Automat (A), and in creating this nostalgic work, she traces nearly a century of imagination, immigration, wartime, fluctuating finances plus transformations in American tastes and temperaments. Horn & Hardart was the venerable “lemon meringue” phenomenon with the novel approach to quality fast food, home to the slot-machine lunch served in Art Deco cathedrals. In its heyday these restaurants were as universally accessible as the NYC subways and nourished nearly ten percent of Philadelphia’s population; everyone from bums to billionaires shared the same elegant communal tables, with newcomers marveling at the marble, crooning over the chrome, wistfully wondering at the windows how this magic gets made. Hurwitz rounds up an auspicious cast of eyewitnesses to the eatery, lunching with the stars including consummate entertainer Mel Brooks and Starbucks’ enterprising Howard Schultz as well as late greats Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Colin Powell and Carl Reiner. It’s a treat to crack open the multimedia archives and learn from people involved in the heart of house at the business; it would have been additionally insightful to hear from nickel throwers and commissary craftspeople, but presumably many of these company men and women are also lost to history. The director’s bento box of treasures includes a look at the origins of the European technology, the silver dolphin-head coffee spouts, the prescient retail shops and even the TV and movie tie-ins associated with the chain. Her requiem for the brass, the pillars, the cuisine and the chatter earns its place among the Edward Hopper paintings and Audrey Hepburn movies immortalizing the institution. In lionizing the American automat, Hurwitz helps viewers re-live a simpler epoch when meatloaf, cream spinach, strawberry rhubarb or coconut custard pies were just a token away and when a melting pot of consumers could intersect and simply savor timeless moments together.

Netflix Documentary “My Octopus Teacher” is Fascinating

You’ll want to wrap your tentacles around this feel-good, feel-sad nature documentary. James Reid and Pippa Ehrlich’s My Octopus Teacher (B) centers on diver Craig Foster who swims for a year with an octopus that lives in a kelp forest off the coast of South Africa. Through visiting her den and tracking her movements every day, he creates a symbiotic bond that rejuvenates his faith in his own human world. The octopus is a tad more interesting than the guy, and the human drama seems a little tacked on to add extra resonance. But the underwater camera work is spectacular, from camouflaging to evade pyjama sharks to feasting eyes on predatory seafood banquets. Much of the detail is nothing short of miraculous. It’s immersive and occasionally rousing and an unexpected find suitable for families.

“Woman in Motion” Showcases “Star Trek” Star

Now streaming on digital and on-demand.

This nostalgic and uplifting documentary is a testament to the notion that representation matters and a surprising tale of a hidden figure in the space program who changed the institution forever for the better. Todd Thompson’s Woman in Motion: Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek and the Remaking of NASA (B) is the true story of how renowned Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols, known for her iconic Uhura character, pioneered the NASA recruiting program to hire people of color and the first female astronauts for the space agency in the late 1970s and 1980s. The film chronicles its subject’s life as a singer who performed with Duke Ellington, her launch into stardom in the boundary-breaking sci-fi property and ultimately her fiction-turned-fact work national blitz to recruit 8,000 of the nation’s best and brightest, including astronauts who became the first African-American, Asian and Latino men and women to fly into space. As a subject, Nichols is compelling, although too brief in direct interviews and footage. It’s wonderful to see interviews with other luminaries ranging from the late John Lewis and co-star George Takei to Mae Jemison, the first Black woman to travel into space when she served as a mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour. Seeing history through Nichols’ eyes and her indelible impact on real-life events delivers a powerful punch. Although the film is a bit linear in its guardrails of telling a chronological story, it does so with gusto and quiet might. It’s a must-see for Star Trek fans and budding scientists who will undoubtedly find new ways to be inspired by this trailblazer.

Documentary “More Than Miyagi” Showcases Trailblazing Actor

Available Feb. 5, 2021 on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, DVD and Blu-ray.

Director Kevin Derek’s melancholy documentary More Than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story (B-) traces the titular Japanese-American actor’s journey from origins as a sick child witnessing internment camps to a man who masked his troubled soul with comedy, alcohol and of course an iconic role as cinema’s iconic sensei. Through home movies and sentimental stories told by actor and crew colleagues plus the love of his life and his third wife Evelyn Guerrero-Morita, viewers get a glimpse into a singular and trailblazing pop cultural personality known for his (Garry) Marshall comedies as well as his martial arts. Ralph Macchio, William Zabka, Martin Kove, Henry Winkler and Marion Ross are among those celebrating their friend, even as the film plumbs the depths of the late Oscar nominee’s addictions which weren’t necessarily known by his fans. The film hovers around a variety of themes ranging from overcoming racial stereotypes to finding one’s voice, even if Derek doesn’t always land a clear thesis or consistently effective style. But when waxing (on) poetic about this icon, the filmmakers find greatness in a flawed but formidable man.

Note: Available Feb. 5, 2021 on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, DVD and Blu-ray.

“Unapologetic” Captures Zeitgeist of Social Justice Movement

Photo Credit: Chan C. Smith. Now on the film festival circuit.

Two young Black women activists grow in grassroots glory in Ashley O’Shay’s timely and prescient documentary Unapologetic (A). Confronting injustice and unrest in Chicago’s Westside and exploring the rise of resistance from prominent provocateurs in the Black, queer, feminist community, the skilled director presents with urgency and sensitivity a you-are-there multi-year story about a duo of powerhouse change agents. This fascinating film focuses on youth organizer and Ph.D. candidate Janaé Bonsu and rap-tivist Bella BAHHS, two sterling Everywomen who summon powers of the strong female role models who paved the way for them to tackle on their own terms tough issues such as police violence and intergenerational incarceration. Intersecting with events ripped out of today’s headlines, this real-life chronicle is revelatory in both moments of creative protests as well as simple solidarity over intimate family cookouts and photo albums. The microcosms presented in the documentary demonstrate the cradle of a social justice movement which has truly come of age this year. Ultimately it’s a tribute to the Black women who have been the bedrock of their families and communities, and its debut at film festivals is a landmark moment to cherish and celebrate.

“Howard” a Heartwarming Documentary About Disney Legend

Now playing on the Disney+ streaming platform.

An old axiom proclaims a feature film shouldn’t be less interesting than its makers sitting around discussing that very movie, but the reverse holds true for documentaries. Serviceable when it should be sensational, Don Hahn’s film about the life and word craft of Disney legend Howard Ashman, Howard (B-), strings very few pieces of found footage and plaintiff narration to memorialize a man who deserved a much more special tribute. After all, this lyricist and storyteller helped reinvent the wit and whimsy of an iconic animation studio while secretly harboring AIDS in the height of that epidemic. The film plumbs Ashman’s roots in theatre with glimpses into his stage musicals about man-eating plants and pageant queens before his breakthrough trilogy of animated mermaids, genies and a beauty who fell for a beast. His successes were largely posthumous, so there wasn’t as much AV evidence as is often the case of what it was like to know and work with him, and the eyewitnesses don’t really have the way with words that Howard did. The film does little more than sprinkle some pixie dust on a Wikipedia entry before it finally generates some tender moments toward the end. There’s also a nice bit in the recording studio with Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury voicing “Be Our Guest,” but it otherwise seems like Ursula the sea witch stole the soaring magic right out of the Disney vaults. While sometimes an interesting glimpse into a feisty and fabulous artist, this so-so documentary feels like it’s showing viewers just part of his world.