Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Difficult Tunes: Amy, Montage of Heck & What Happened, Miss Simone?

Towards the end of Asif Kapadia’s documentary on Amy Winehouse, we see the late singer in the studio with Tony Bennett. We know that Bennett is one of Winehouse’s idols, and she’s visibly nervous as they begin recording "Body And Soul". Bennett sings a verse, then Winehouse comes in and does what she did better than any of her compatriots: Make an old standard new and surprising. But she looks miserable, and asks Bennett if they can start over. “I was terrible. I just don’t want to waste your time,” she mutters. He reassures her, telling her they’ll keep at it until they get one that works. “You’re not in any hurry, are you?” he asks.

The sad thing is that Winehouse really was, if not in a hurry, then at least out of time. Whether she knew that she would be stepping off the roller-coaster her life had become is difficult to say. What we do know is that the 23 March 2011 recording was her last studio session. She died on 23 July that year, just 27 years old, of accidental alcohol poisoning.

Amy traces her sudden rise to stardom after her single "Rehab" and her drawn-out and extremely well-documented fall. It’s the first great documentary of the TMZ era, where all your missteps are recorded and all your demons are public if you’re a celebrity. London-based Kapadia creates a life out of small fragments, gathering all the audio and video matter relating to Winehouse that he could lay his hands on and piecing them together to form a mosaic of opinions, recollections and judgements. He also spoke to over 100 people connected to Winehouse. However, instead of showing us the interviews, Kapadia uses them as narration, layering them over footage of Winehouse, often as a comment on whatever is unfolding.

Amy’s patchwork nature may strike several viewers as haphazard, lacking in the kind of structure one expects from films that are telling a life story. Yet there is great skill involved in piecing together material this way. By the time Winehouse enters her drugs and rehabilitation phase, the film has already foreshadowed this. At the same time, there’s a refusal to underline things and foist a point of view on the viewer that makes this a lot more challenging (and moving) than your average rockumentary.

Amy emerged as an unlikely critical darling when it premiered at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Amazingly, this wasn’t the first documentary about a troubled musician to premiere at a major festival this year. Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck played at the Sundance Film Festival in the US in January. Director Brett Morgen was approached by Courtney Love, Cobain’s widow, to make a film on her husband. What makes it unique is that he was given access to a storage facility full of recordings, journals and drawings belonging to Cobain—material that no one, not even the family, had seen before.

Morgen creates an astonishingly intimate portrait of a man about whom one might have assumed there was nothing left to be said. It’s not that we see a new Cobain through this film—those who’ve read Charles R. Cross’ biography Heavier Than Heaven will recognize the sardonic, petulant and, yes, brilliant man on screen here. What’s surprising is the perspective we’re offered. Montage Of Heck is Cobain on Cobain.

Morgen’s foregrounding of the long-buried material he found means that this film is the closest we’ve come—probably the closest we’ll ever come—to an autobiography of the man. In the absence of a voice of god narrator, Cobain becomes a kind of narrator himself, with Morgen arranging his recordings, interviews, scribbles and artwork (the film’s title refers to an audio montage that Cobain made) to tell his story. In the parts where visual evidence is missing, the story is continued either with animation sequences or Cobain’s macabre drawings transformed into motion graphics.

Montage Of Heck stumbles when Morgen peppers his narrative with that rock-doc staple—talking heads. We hear from Love, Cobain’s mother and father, his bandmate Krist Novoselic (though Dave Grohl is absent) and his old girlfriend. The Cobains had never spoken about their son on film before, so one can understand Morgen’s reasons for including their views. Still, it feels like a mistake, a nod to convention that’s both unnecessary and out of sync with the rest of the material.

There was another documentary about a brittle, brilliant pop star at the Sundance Film Festival. This was What Happened, Miss Simone?, which takes its title from a tribute by poet Maya Angelou. Though its subject matter is just as incendiary as the other two films, director Liz Garbus’ treatment of Nina Simone’s life is done in a manner more akin to a PBS, or Public Broadcasting Service, biography—professional but not revelatory. A film like Amy or Montage Of Heck would have taken the assertion by Simone’s daughter, early in the film, that her mother was “Nina Simone 24x7, and that’s where it became a problem” and run with it. Instead, the film only connects this to the singer’s bipolar disorder in the closing moments of the film.

What Happened, Miss Simone? has no problem relying on talking heads to push its story. This works on some occasions—the reminiscences by Simone’s daughter are especially poignant—but there’s also the perplexing decision to give a lot of screen time to her abusive former husband, Andrew Stroud, who disparages her shift towards political activism. There are a couple of unnecessary recreations of scenes from the young Simone’s life. Also, there’s not nearly enough time given to explaining what made her music—a melange of jazz, soul, gospel, folk and classical—so unique.

There’s a lot to recommend this film, though. By devoting a large chunk of its running time to Simone’s politics, the film finds a breadth of perspective that the Cobain and Winehouse ones, both claustrophobically focused on their subjects, miss out on. And the clips of her performing are electrifying. The opening, with her performing at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival, shows the viewer what a hair-raising, unpredictable performer she could be (“Sit down!” she barks at an audience member). We see her performing "Mississippi Goddam" at a charged civil rights gathering. Even her TV appearances are thrilling, transporting—which is saying something when one of them involves being introduced by Playboy founder Hugh Hefner.

Taken together, these three films are great additions to the warts-and-all music documentaries tradition, which includes such warped classics as Let It Be, Madonna: Truth Or Dare, Some Kind Of Monster and I Am Trying To Break Your Heart. It also marks a great year for the musical film in general. Love & Mercy, a film about The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, opened to strong reviews, as did Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden, about the birth of the French House scene. Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s film on Miles Davis, will close the New York Film Festival in October. And there’s the tantalizing prospect of a documentary on masked techno duo Daft Punk. Happy viewing, then, and happy listening.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

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