AIDS decimated a generation of great artists, and Howard Ashman is one of its biggest casualties. He died at age 40, and what he accomplished – which is a lot – is just the tip of the iceberg of what he is capable of, artistically. I think he is probably the best of the modern day lyricists – there is wit and charm in his words and they sound always sophisticated and erudite. This fine documentary by Don Hahn shows us just that.
My first introduction to Ashman’s work, ironically, is his 1986 flop musical ‘Smile.’ I remember seeing ti and loving it, but at that time I was young and I loved everything I saw. I remember what attracted me to the show was Marvin Hamlisch – he wrote the music and of course, I knew every word and breath of ‘A Chorus Line.’ I didn’t see ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ until later, and while I admire that show, if is not really my cup of tea. Years later, and even though I am not a Disney cartoon fan, I loved the ‘musicals’ aspect of ‘The Beauty and teh Beast,’ and ‘Alladin,’ of course.
The documentary takes us chronologically through his life and work. Hahn uses mostly voice overs from interviews, and we get a lot of archival footage and cassette recordings of Ashman working. I obviously love the ‘musicals’ section, the segment with Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury recording ‘Be Our Guest’ made my spine tingle. It was harrowing to see how AIDS was teated at that time – Ashman had concerns that Disney would fire him if they found out he had the disease so he had to hide it. His legacy is safe and sound and solid – the three movies he worked on at Disney are modern classics, and we see the studio regurgitating the material in different ways, and they all work. I personally think Alan Menken’s later work with different collaborators pale in comparison to hi work with Ashman. For lovers of musicals, and Disney musicals, this film is a treat.
Once upon a time, I fancied myself a book collector. Well, once upon a time, I fancied myself a voracious reader, and when I was young, I would go to second hand book shops and buy books – the ones they were selling for a dollar. I liked the fact that the books have already been used, and for some reason has been discarded. I used to wonder why – did they hate the book? Was it a gift they had no use for? A friend of mine used to say, “when you go to someone’s house, and they do not have any books, don’t trust them.’ It’s somethinG i will always associate with my time in New York City, because when I left, it was all about the Kindle for me. In the process of all my moving, I had to throw away so many books that putting all of my collection in a small device just seemed…practical.
I got off-course on that, but that was one of my thoughts while watching D W Young’s documentary ‘The Booksellers,’ about that group of book collectors always in the hunt for rare and antique books. I found myself in a lot of the talking heads because we share that rare gene – the collecting gene. You either have it or can’t understand it. These kinds of stores used to be everywhere in New York City, nowadays even the big book chains are being obliterated, so you have to wonder how they are surviving (Barely, it seems) The film also looks at how the book market has changed since the dawn of the internet – some for the worse, but there are silver linings: manuscripts and annotated editions have garnered more interest.
I found the film mostly fascinating, but is niche of all niches. I suspect if you don’t have the gene to appreciate it, you will be bored to tears.
Under Putin’s regime right now, gay people are in danger in Russia. It’s unfathomable, but we see all the danger in David France’s documentary ‘Welcome to Chechnya,’ and it is a depressing, sobering, and disturbing watch. In the region of southern Russia’s Chechnya, gay people are haunted, tortured, and killed because of their sexual orientation. In the film, we see alarming footage of gay men whose cars are stopped, then are beaten to death by the police. A famous singer, Zelim Bakaev, visits his sister’s wedding, and suddenly disappears, and up until now, no one really knows what happened to him. We see a young girl call the crisis hotline because a young woman, Anya, has been found out by her uncle, and is blackmailing her for sex so he would not snitch to her father, who is a Government official – we see her later being smuggled out successfully. Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the region, laughs off questions about these human rights abuses, saying ‘ We don’t have that kind of people here – we ship them to Canada.’ The film is riveting, and made me want to do something to help these people. The Trump administration is a travesty to gay rights, but we still enjoy a lot of freedom here not afforded in other places. In some ways I feel lucky, but the film. ultimately made me want to throw up.
Walter Mercado passed away recently, and I have a lot of Facebook friends who noted and grieved his passing, mentioning how fabulous he was. I honestly wasn’t too familiar with him, though I kind of remember him from my New York years. The Netflix documentary, ‘Mucho Mucho Amor,’ through a lot of archival footage shows what a grand and majestic presence he was on Latin television, as he gives the daily horoscopes clad with capes ornately designed with glitter and Swaroski crystals (Gianni Versace made him one) I have to admit doing the gay gasp seeing some of these costumes, and also wonder how Latinos just embraced him, considering how a lot of men embraced the Macho culture. I guess Walter Mercado was non-binary before anyone knew what that was – he looked kind of like a woman, and not really like a man. It is safe and sexless, though, so in a way it felt ‘safe,’ kind of like the eccentric uncle from that side of your family.
The documentary doesn’t really try to dig deeper, Directors Cristina Constantioni and Kareem Tabsch are obviously enamored by him, so they present him in grand fashion. He sits on his pedestal, and wears his capes as he sits for interview with them. He is given the narrative, as he narrates his life, and the times when he ruled the televisions screen and seen by millions every day. Sure, thats’ nice and all, and essential for viewers like me who did not really know him that well, but I think some depth would have been nice as well. We hear from people around how devastated he was when he was betrayed by his manager Bill Bakula, but he puts a mostly brave face when he discussed it, with his guards up.
Still, you cannot help but be swept by his positive messages. For sure, Walter Mercado is a product of his times, but we all could use some of his magic right now.
Netflix’s new documentary ‘Disclosure’ has never been timely and should be required viewing during Pride Month. If there was ever an eye-opening documentary, this would be it. The film, directed by Sam feder, looks at trans representation in films throughout history, from the silent films of D W Griffiths to the current landscape. it shows us how badly represented trans people have been in history. It’s so weird, because I have seen most of the films featured in the film, and it feels like I am looking at those films with new eyes, and I kick myself for not looking at it that way before, ads I am a member of the LGBTQ community myself. It is made up of interviews with trans people, and how these films have shaped how they see themselves in society – how trans people have been portrayed for comedic purposes most of the time, and how their representation have been mostly negative – prostitutes or murderers, giving society a most narrow view. It covers a lot of things, though sometimes too much that. it doesn’t give a viewer time to think and absorb their points. But darn it if it isn’t essential viewing for everyone.
Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick’s ‘On The Record’ was the talk of Sundance early this year. Oprah Winfrey originally executive produced this documentary but pulled her name out last minute – this would have been part of her overall deal with Apple + but HBO Max bought the rights and is one of the features they are releasing as they debut the new streaming service (there are so many now, it seems) I still think that there is more to the story with her pulling her support for the film.
This documentary mainly focuses on Drew Dixon, a woman who worked for Russell Simmons at Def Jam Records. She had real passion for hip hop and had a good eye and ear for talent. She was the head of A & R for the label when she claims she was sexually assaulted by Simmons at his New York City home. She went to work for Arista Records later and was subjected again to sexual harassment from LA Reid, who took over from Clive Davis after the latter stepped down.
I veer towards believing her. Her story seems to be credible, and you can see the trauma and hurt in her eyes, still. Simmons and Reid both deny her allegations, and the documentary seems to almost mention that in passing. I have to say that it would have made for a more balanced film if more of both sides were shown, But what we have here is compelling enough. Ultimately, we either trust or believe what we see (or not)
As much as a jazz vocals fan I am, I am not as well-versed with instrumental jazz artists. Of course, I know some of Miles Davis’ work, and love his early output, when he was doing more lyrical interpretations of jazz standards. His later, more ‘improvisational’ work allude to satisfy me, but that’s just more taste. So I was coming into the documentary ‘Miles Davis: Birth Of the Cool’ with a little bit of excitement, and the thirst for knowledge about him and his artistry. Directed by Stanley Nelson, the film feels very informative – it’s a chronological telling of his life and work, and indeed it is quite educational, as we learn more about the person through interviews from people he knew and worked with, underscored by his musical work (although most of it is abridged, encouraging viewers to take notes and check it out for themselves) I found a lot of the anecdotes fresh – most of what I saw I hadn’t heard before. I didn’t know, for example, that he had an affair with Juliette greco when he was in Paris right after the end of the second world war. Like most real artists, Davis had a lot of personal demons – he used drugs heavily in episodes of his life, and his wife suffered from domestic violence. A lot of the personal stuff seemed a tad glossed-over – this is not the kind of juicy gossipy unworthy of its subject. Over and over everyone says that Davis defined and is the epitome of cool – salacious information would probably sully that. In that end, the film is truly suited for PBS, so it’s straight-laced and informative.
Ryan Murphy, again, produced the new documentary ‘A Secret Love’ on Netflix and just like the earlier ‘Circus of Books,’ it is wonderful and a testament to power of gay love, and well, any kind of love. The film, directed by Chris Bolan was supposed to debut at SXSW Film festival in Texas, but that shuttered after the pandemic. It is about a couple, Pat and Terry, who meet in the 40s, and, at the start of the film, had been together for almost 66 years. They tell their love story, with Pat being on of the first female baseball players in the All American Teams, which was the basis for the Penny Marshall Movie ‘A League Of Their Own.’ For decades, they have made their home in the Chicago area, and now have to face obstacles from aging – Pat has been experiencing tremors, and their home has started to be an unsafe place for both of them. Terry is resistant at first, unable to let go of the life they have shared together there. This seems like a simple story, and it is, as we see their struggle as they grow old together – and finally able to marry. The last fifteen minutes of the film is heartbreaking, as we see them finally move to an assisted facility, and then get married. ‘Love is love’ is not just a saying, this film is the embodiment of it. Don’t proceed to watch without tissues.
Rachel Mason directed the Netflix documentary ‘Circus of Books,’ about the popular porn bookstore in Los Angeles. Tt turns out, she has a personal connection to the subject. Her parents, Barry and Karen Mason, were the proprietors of the one-time largest distributor of gay porn in the country. In this moving and engrossing documentary, she explores the beginning (and eventual ending) of the family business. Who would have thought that a nice Jewish couple were the owners? Barry answered Larry Flynt’s newspaper ad looking for secondary distributors for his Blueboy Magazine, and before they knew it, they were the owners of Book Circus in West Hollywood, taking over from its troubled business owners. And we see the business grow (eventually expanding to Silverlake and Sherman Oaks) But of course, the bookstore had other significance in the gay community – it was a place where gay people can interact with other gays, a haven where they can feel that they were not alone in the world. The back alley, dubbed Vaseline Alley, was a huge cruising spot as well. Porn was huge in the 80s and we see the couple move to production, eventually producing Matt Sterling productions fo Jeff Stryker films.
But there’s a deep personal story to the documentary as well. When their kids were growing up, they were very tight-lipped about the business, as they didn’t want to be a distraction for their kids growing up. Karen is pretty religious, and that dichotomy is explored here as well. They are a very sensitive couple, and some of the most touching scenes are when Barry would take about friends and colleagues that passed during the AIDS epidemic. And wouldn’t you know it, but they also have two queer children, and we see Karen go through hardship in accepting them, to being proud PFLAG members.
In a lot of ways, the book store is a perfect backdrop for how gay life has changed over the years, and with the internet moving content to online, there was no choice but to eventually close the store – we see the bittersweet ending at the end of the documentary. There is a silver lining, though – Chi Chi Laroue has rented the space and transformed it to ChiChi’s Circus, now a gallery/store space, still for queer content.
To most, Vlentine’s Day is a day for flowers, chocolates, and romantic dates. But to some people, it is a remembrance of a horrible day – when in 2018 a gunman shot young men and women at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Can you imagine that feeling? In Jake Lefferman and Emily Taguchi’s ‘After Parkland,’ we how some people most affected by the tragedy deal with it just soon after, and how the incident inspired them to try to make a change.
It’s devastating. I found myself sobbing in various parts of the film, and sometimes it was a little too hard to take. There is focus on two fathers – Andrew Pollack, who lost his young daughter Meadow, and Manuel Oliver, who lost his basketball playing son Joaquin. The two have different approach to change – Pollack tries to get new safety legislation approved and even goes to meet Trump and Betsy Devoes in Washington, with both looking bored while speaking to him. Oliver works as a Creative Director, and uses his son’s image for an organization he started, ‘Change The Ref,’ which opts to get rid of the lawmakers who are complacent to the broken system we have,
The film also focuses on David Hogg, who rose to fame via March for Our Lives, and has been ridiculed by the Republican Party because of it. We see him take a gap year before going to Harvard just to he can galvanize his cause of getting the youth to register to vote.
The film is quite powerful, and if it doesn’t inspire you to do something about the world we are living in, then I don’t know what else can.