Justin Peck in Ballet 422 (Jody Lee Lipes)

Justin Peck in Ballet 422 (Jody Lee Lipes)

The Power of Art: Real or Fake


Documentaries on artists are an annual presence at the Tribeca Film Festival, but the breadth of art this year is exceptional.

Tomorrow We Disappear

By the time directors Jimmy Goldblum and Adam Weber finally got around to finishing Salman Rushdie’s 1981 novel Midnight’s Children (just before I did), they were surprised to discover that his exuberantly described “ghetto of the magicians” was the real Kathputli (meaning “The Colony of Wooden Puppets”). Almost 2,000 families of traditional artists and performers have settled there in New Delhi since India’s independence. But by 2010, it was being threatened not just with the usual corrupt police harassment Rushdie decried, but, sadly, with redevelopment.

The footage springs straight out of Rushdie’s description of a sprawling, ramshackle, self-governing slum of tin huts filled with busking contortionists, jugglers, magicians, dancers, musicians, and puppeteers teaching their children the arts they learned from their parents.

Their amazing talents and the very practical difficulties they face are exemplified through three longtime resident artists and the beleaguered president leading the negotiations with the developers, who got a sweetheart deal for their land from the government. (Their plans for a “temporary relocation camp” look as depressingly sterile as it sounds.) Puran Bhatt the Puppeteer has traveled the world bringing his life-size marionettes to life. Rahman Shah struggles to make a living as a street magician in the modernizing city, and young Maya the Acrobat is astoundingly physically flexible and looks forward to walking a different path than her family’s tightrope. You are left heartbroken that their political power doesn’t match the vitality of their arts.

Ballet 422

The New York City Ballet is the epitome of high culture, and this tradition is being continued and modestly modernized through 25-year-old choreographer-in-residence Justin Peck, the creator of Paz de la Jolla last year, its 422nd original ballet. For all the focus on Peck’s intense concentration, the documentary takes flight when it shows how necessary collaboration comes into play in forming a new piece. Though they aren’t identified on screen, the input of the three principal dancers, among many others, are key for the whole to come together. (As a former arts administrator, I couldn’t help but imagine a calculator totaling the hour-by-hour costs.)

Director Jody Lee Lipes uses a fly-on-the-wall verité style to catch only the surface. The film becomes more like a promotional video than Frederick Wiseman’s overview La Danse (1999) about the Paris Opera Ballet. There is not an inkling why Peck chose a 19th century art form to express himself, and about all that’s revealed of the handsome Peck is that he takes the subway to work. Non-balletomanes, who won’t pick up the references to Peck’s earlier work for the company Year of the Rabbit, might be surprised at the ending, when for all his hard work as a choreographer, he goes back to sweating on stage with the corps de ballet. Still, everything is beautiful at the ballet.

Art and Craft

The museum world is always grist for a good tale of chicanery, theft, and pretense, let alone misunderstood talent, but the hoax perpetuated and exposed here explores how flattery can drive a curator and a con artist into obsessive compulsive behaviors. This is as fascinating as it is more than a bit uncomfortable to watch.

Museum registrar Matthew Leininger in Cincinnati has made it his life’s calling since 2007—to the point of losing his job—to identify the man donating fraudulent art works to dozens of institutions around the country for more than 30 years, even repeated copies of the same works. Directors Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman track down the man with the uncanny ability to reduce acclaimed artists’ work into paint-by-numbers copies, Mark Landis in Mississippi, and his sad, pitiful biography of mental illness is slowly revealed.

They follow him as he buys art supplies, busily paints, and “ages” the copies while watching old TV shows and listening to 1940’s tunes, like his late mother did, and as he continues to prey on tempted institutions with pretty canvases and grandiose hints of future contributions in what can gradually be viewed as a desperate plea to ward off loneliness and isolation. There is nothing illegal in his puffery, though clearly gift horses really should be looked in the mouth for better authentication and not waste staff time or museum space. Oscilloscope Laboratories will release the documentary this fall.

April 24, 2014

Time Is Illmatic

The festival’s opening night film, which will be released by Tribeca Film this fall, is a revealing tour of the roots of Nasir “Nas” Jones’s classic autobiographical 1994 debut hip hop album, Illmatic. Looming large is Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing project in the country with over 3,000 units, where he grew up. Director One9 sets the historical context for its construction in 1939, and Cornel West describes how later white flight affected the city and the projects. A rapper neighbor notes changes over the subsequent decades—the African-American families went from largely two working-class parents, to single mothers, to grandmothers raising the kids.

His brother Jabari “Jungle” Jones provides the family history as he nostalgically tours the development. The Joneses also started out there as a two-parent household, but father Olu Dara traveled the world as a jazz musician and became even less of a presence after the parents’ divorce. (Too bad the only piece of his we hear is “Father Blues.”) Nas recalls his legacy of an apartment full of music and serious books on black identity.

Nas thrived on a musical education amidst emerging local heroes of hip hop. DJs with sound systems filled the local parks, and competitive rapping brought people together, presented in a terrific oral history by seminal producers and local fans. They mourn that the culture was lost when the crack epidemic and soaring violence ravaged any sense of community, a plague that Nas documented in the album about the losses around him without taking on gangsta pretensions. Track-by-track videos with on-screen lyrics support the power of his words to express what he witnessed, despite the film’s formulaic closing with the celebrity returning to the old neighborhood.

Two other bio-documentaries take opposite approaches towards the typical tale of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll; one takes an unusual visual approach to a familiar trajectory, while the other makes bland an unconventional pathway.

Alice Cooper, left, with his manager Shep Gordon in 1975 (Bob Gruen)

Alice Cooper, left, with his manager Shep Gordon in 1975 (Bob Gruen)

Super Duper Alice Cooper

The transformation of Vincent Furnier from a preacher’s son in Arizona into a rockin’ Alice Cooper, the glam rock and global heavy metal icon, is filled with the usual Behind the Music detours into multiple addictions and career ups and downs. But the animation, photographic collages, and archival performance footage from early days on, overlaid with visits to the formative places where he lived, are a dazzling accompaniment to the mostly fresh audio interviews that help to set the facts straight. The documentary is now out on DVD.

The Other One: The Long, Strange Trip of Bob Weir

If Bob Weir was a fictional character, his life would be a baby-boomer’s fantasy camp. As he tells it, a high school drop-out meets up with a bearded guitarist at their local music shop outside San Francisco in 1964. They drop acid together, jam endlessly for the next 30 years around the world, and transform popular culture and the music business with a uniquely devoted fan base. But the handsome, affable Weir of the iconic jam band Grateful Dead—co-founder of the group with Jerry Garcia, singer, songwriter, rhythm guitarist par excellence—has since had a full musical and, much lesser known, personal life as a happy, healthy husband (to an ex-groupie) and father in the 20 years since the death of his, in effect, older brother Garcia. Judging by the clips of his performances, his after-premiere concert must have added considerably to this modestly entertaining trip down memory lane, with a touch of grey.

July 29, 2014