DOC NYC jacks ups the glitz quotient with three documentaries profiling high-status singers and entertainers. One looks back at a pioneering career conducted against the odds, a second tackles an idealistic experiment gone wrong, and one focuses on how an endlessly creative artist came to terms with death. All have their charms, but one film in particular makes a noteworthy score while cutting an admirable artistic swath of its own.
SAMMY DAVIS, JR.: I GOTTA BE ME
Can the need to be liked undermine an artist’s potential? The question hangs unspoken over Sam Pollard’s film. From the moment he made his movie debut hoofing in black-and-white at age three, Sammy Davis Jr. burned with talent and drive. The one-eyed black Jewish convert wanted nothing less than to break America’s color bar and become our favorite entertainer. A natural bridge-builder buoyed by the civil rights movement, Davis marched with Martin Luther King Jr. one minute and buddied up to Richard Nixon the next. This go-along-to-get-along ethos could explain why such an exciting star scored his only number one U.S. hit with the cheesy “Candyman.” Maybe Davis was too “colored” for the silent majority and too easygoing for a black America that eventually sought stronger, funkier leaders.
Davis’s winning smile hid a lot of pain. He took nasty lip from the Rat Pack. Harry Cohn busted up his affair with Kim Novak (here seen wistfully reminiscing about the romance) and forced him into a brief beard marriage with a black woman to calm white America down. But he never brooded, and he stayed busy. Pollard divides his career into phases —impressionist, comedian, singer, activist—that provide a sense of his scope and aims.
Davis emerges as a thoughtful bon vivant, a hugger, kibitzer, and a card. Notoriously difficult showbiz types like Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis counted him as a dear friend. On Vietnam outreach missions to black troops, he decked himself out in military para-hippie outfits ablaze with one-of-a-kind flair. He was a rebel but also an optimist who respected others and laughed at himself. That wasn’t enough to satisfy some people. Black authors talk about the black community’s impatience with Davis’s overtures to a club that would never truly accept him.
Politics aside, Davis enticed audiences Pied Piper–style with his agile dancing and smooth, full-throated voice. Rich with clips, Sammy Davis, Jr.: I Gotta Be Me invites a renewed appreciation of Davis, not only as a trailblazer but as a showman.
THE BEATLES, HIPPIES AND HELL’S ANGELS: INSIDE THE CRAZY WORLD OF APPLE
Sammy Davis is loaded with boffo footage of its star strutting his stuff. The Beatles, Hippies and Hell’s Angels: The Crazy World of Apple falls short in that department, but it finds ingenious means to tell a good story anyway. One handy device is actor Peter Coyote, who narrates the film and adds personal reflections of his own short, warped visit to Apple Records, the Beatles’ media company. Like many visions of the 1960s, Apple began as a promising innovation and ended up a hot mess. For the survivors, it was fun while it lasted.
The Beatles enjoyed charmed early years. But by late 1968, three blows had shaken the wonder boys: the overdose death of their protective manager, Brian Epstein; the humiliating rejection of the misdirected film Magical Mystery Tour, broadcast to a baffled public by the BBC on Boxing Day; and the revelation from their accountants that they were broke. The Beatles needed a tax dodge and an ego boost, and fast.
Recasting themselves as liberated businessmen, the group formed Apple, a new collective that combined music, film, electronics, even a fashion-forward boutique. Apple called for submissions from the public and proposed itself as an alternative to the hidebound record biz. (Paul McCartney labeled the Apple concept “Western Communism.”) The corporation started out strong with hits from James Taylor and Badfinger (find out what weepy standard this scrappy little band wrote–it will surprise you). But as demos piled up, Hell’s Angels and crazed hangers-on moved in. The company crumpled in a snarl of conflicting priorities, runaway spending, and the Beatles’ final breakup and years of lawsuits.
Remaining Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr declined to be interviewed, so director Ben Lewis had to talk to people on a lower rung. The film actually benefits from the restriction. Beatle docs tend to rely exclusively on men to share reverent tales, but here women bring a fond, cheeky edge to their memories. Doodle-driven animations and jazzy, tongue-in-cheek versions of Beatle tunes come together for a droll, jaunty ride, a salute to the Fab Four’s daring, as well as a frank chronicling of their failures. As Coyote ruefully says about the era, “We were right about a lot of things, and we were wrong about a lot of things.”
DAVID BOWIE: THE LAST FIVE YEARS
Wall-to-wall killer footage. Monster songs. The astonishing career of a multihued, polymorphic talent. And a reminder of the darkness that awaits every one of us as one of our prettiest stars begins the awful rowing toward God (to borrow from Anne Sexton). David Bowie: The Last Five Years has it all. This BBC and HBO production, directed by Francis Whiteley, is a moving, stunning spectacle that builds to something even bigger than the sum of its magnetic parts.
Aware that he was dying after an onstage heart attack, David Bowie quietly checked items off his last-wish list and put his artistic legacy in order. With little notice, he produced two albums, a much buzzed-about video with Tilda Swinton, and a downsized Off-Broadway musical starring Michael C. Hall. His last record was recorded with a jazz combo usually consigned to the basement of Manhattan’s tiny Smalls Jazz Club, and the resulting Blackstar’s stark chords ring out like a last soliloquy into the void.
Who but Bowie would face a dark fate so squarely while completely defying expectations? From his Carnaby Street years through the glitter heyday up to the agonizing end, cannily chosen clips and interviews identify themes that echo through all phases of Bowie’s career: isolation, shifting identities, and the power of real emotion to break through the glassy veneer of stardom. Impeccably edited, these sequences add up to an endlessly varied but consistent body of not just pop music but vital ideas. Those less interested in Bowie’s cerebral sorties can thrill to electrifying concerts backed by crack bands. They can enjoy darting glimpses of Bowie’s sly, off-the cuff humor. And they can marvel at the array of looks, vibes, and hairdos sported by the Thin White Duke, the best-dressed man in rock for more than 40 years.
Longtime Bowie friends and collaborators like bassist Gail Ann Dorsey and producer Tony Visconti share bittersweet stories of the late genius. Their memories provide welcome intimacy in a documentary that can overwhelm with the breadth of a stellar career and wow with arresting images. As an homage to an unequalled artistic run, David Bowie dazzles. And by revealing how a rock star faces mortality, it makes its own measure of the destiny that we all share.