Reel Streaming: Documentaries for the Musically Inclined
One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 39
By Laurence Lerman
After the deathly quiet summer months of 2020, the summer of ’21 is delivering on the promise of live music, with outdoor festivals, indoor concerts, stadium tours, and nightclub engagements across the country.
But even as acts old and new plan to take to the stage (everyone from The Doobie Brothers to Lady Gaga are gearing up), there are still those fans who may want to sit out the live concert season this year in favor of just a few more months of streaming music for their ears in the comfort of their home. For many of those diehards, the prospect of the home viewing of a full-length concert often defeats the allure of a live (and livelier) show, thus opting for a music-themed performance documentary. And there are many, even those who are vaccinated, who are still worried by crowds and the close quarters of a live engagement.
Looking back to 1978, Martin Scorsese’s seminal The Last Waltz still represents the best aspects of both the music documentary and concert film genres. Smoothly interlacing dynamic concert footage of The Band’s farewell show at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom with interview footage and clips of the players while tracing the group’s music and history, it has inspired dozens of fine music performance docs ever since.
Notably, a handful of artists who performed in The Last Waltz concert in 1975 have live shows scheduled for this summer four-and-half-decades later, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and Emmylou Harris, among them. Even Bob Dylan is getting in on the action with a new concert scheduled to stream on July 18.
The last month has seen the release of a trio of intriguing performance-filled music documentaries that are all worthy of streaming consideration.
Miss Angela is a lovely new music-infused doc that tells the story of 91-year-old Cuban-American singer-songwriter Angela Alvarez, a woman whose remarkable story found her living her musical dream some 75 years after it first took hold.
The film follows Alvarez’s early years in pre-Castro Cuba, followed by her flight from the country in the Sixties and her subsequent life in Florida and Louisiana as a wife and mother. All the while, she hid her childhood ambition to be a singer and songwriter, which was only revealed when her composer-grandson inquired about the traditional Cuban folk songs she had been singing for years, many of them her own original compositions. Fast forward several years, Miss Angela held her debut concert in 2018 at Hollywood’s historical Avalon Theater, accompanied by a group of world-class Cuban musicians and master of ceremonies (and fellow Cuban refugee) Andy Garcia, who also narrated and executive-produced the film.
Alvarez’s journey to the Avalon is a compelling one, with directors Paul Toogood and Lloyd Stanton intercutting her life story (led by her harrowing exodus from Cuba) with her preparations for the big show. This method creates a solid foundation for Alvarez’s music to speak for itself, even as her life story and soulful songs underscore and complement each other.
Beyond the music and the historical context of Cuba pre-and post-Castro, Miss Angela is a wonderful immigrant story. Watching sequences of the lady performing on the concert stage make for some of the warmest passages I’ve seen in a nonfiction film in a long time.
On the far side of the musical spectrum—or, at least, as far away from the stylings of Miss Angela as I can imagine—is the strange and idiosyncratic American pop-rock synth duo Sparks, formed in late Sixties Southern California by siblings Ron and Russell Mael and represented here by the documentary The Sparks Brothers.
Helmed by spirited British filmmaker Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Baby Driver), The Sparks Brothers employs the usual VH1 Behind the Music-styled “rockumentary” approach, albeit in grander style and with an epic running time of nearly two-and-a-half hours.
Expertly mixing archival footage, Super 8 home movies, live performances and testimonials from an eclectic pool of friends, admirers and fellow musicians, self-confessed fanboy Wright takes an impressively deep dive into the world of Sparks that’s as entertainingly informative as it is awestruck and loving.
A fast-moving and colorful-bordering-on-the-psychedelic trip through the Maels’ 50-year-plus career, Wright gets it right by tracing the brothers’ ever-artistic eye and their formative years during the art and glitter rock movements of the Seventies. He’s also right-on as he tracks Sparks’ musical evolution through the subsequent years’ changing genres. Their hopscotching over the years yielded such radio hits as 1983’s “Cool Places,” 1989’s “Just Got Back From Heaven,” and 1995’s “(When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing,” all heard here.
While interviewed, the enigmatic brothers readily acknowledge their influences from the music world (producer Giorgio Moroder and musician Todd Rundgren, among them) and other art (including French New Wave films, Ingmar Bergman and Williams Shakespeare). But they’re not keen on revealing too much about themselves and the film stops just short of getting up close and personal about their private lives. This all adds up to Wright hatching an investigative query to unlock the essence of Sparks, succeeding in filling in the holes of their long story, but coming up short in solving the mystery. Perhaps that’s the way it was meant to be.
Tiny Tim, the one-of-a-kind novelty entertainer who emerged from the Sixties and had an enduring fringe career into the Nineties, receives his very own biographical documentary with Tiny Tim: King for a Day.
Born Herbert Buckingham Khaury, Tiny Tim is best remembered as the offbeat-looking, shopping bag-clutching, frizzy-haired fellow with a falsetto voice who played the ukulele and had a surprise mainstream hit with his 1968 rendition of the 1929 song “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” He also made some waves when, at the age of 37, he married a 17-year-old woman known as Miss Vicki in December 1969 on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in front of 40 million people.
Of course, there’s a lot more to the story and Swedish filmmaker Johan von Sydow carefully chronicles Tiny’s entire life, beginning with his tough upbringing in Upper Manhattan by a strict Jewish mother and Lebanese father, through his sexually confused teenaged years and into his few years of frenzied, high-profile success. This is followed by the inevitable demise of Tiny’s international celebrity and his marginal existence on the edges of the mainstream entertainment world until his death in 1996 at the age of 64.
Filled with numerous clips of Tiny’s appearances on such popular TV shows of the era as Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and The Hollywood Palace, King for a Day is also brimming with stills and wide-ranging interviews of everyone from singer Tommy James to Sixties icon Wavy Gravy. Leading Sixties documentarians Jonas Mekas and D.A. Pennebaker are also on hand, as is “Weird Al” Yankovic, who reads from Tiny’s diary, thus grounding the film in its subject’s own “voice.”
Von Sydow smartly keeps his focus on the music, noting Tiny’s strengths as a vocalist and ukulele player and his encyclopedic knowledge and championing of music from the Twenties, Thirties and Forties. His makeup-plastered appearances and mincing stage presence also corroborate von Sydow’s argument that Tiny was a forerunner to such androgynous pop and glam performers as Boy George and Alice Cooper. That’s not a bad legacy.
Oh, and speaking of The Last Waltz again, here’s a good one: Both The Band and Dylan himself provided the musical tracks for Tiny Tim’s 1968 rendition of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” (heard in the film), with Tiny singing the Cher parts in his falsetto (think Yoko Ono channeling a theremin) and vocalist Eleanor Barooshian voicing Sonny Bono’s baritone passages.
Yes, it’s as bizarre as it sounds.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.