Thursday, March 24, 2011

Richard Leacock, 1921-2011

Cinematographer, editor and pioneer of cinéma vérité, Richard Leacock, passed away yesterday. His work spanned seven decades, including the seminal Monterey Pop which captured the groundbreaking rock festival of June 1967, directed by long-time collaborator and friend, D.A. Pennebaker. The film laid the way for all concert docs to follow including Woodstock.

Vérité is simply fly-on-the-wall documentary filmmaking where the camera observes the action without commentary or the presence of the filmmaker. Leacock helped create this style along with director Robert Drew as they discuss in this clip.

Monday, March 14, 2011

TIFF Celebrates the Juno Awards

The JUNO Awards at 40: Celebrating Canadian Music on Film

In celebration of the return of the JUNO Awards to Toronto, TIFF Bell Lightbox is hosting a full week of rock docs celebrating Canadian musicians. **** indicates my person picks:

Neil Young: Heart of Gold, Jonathan Demme ****

Introduced by JUNO Award-nominated recording artists Suzie McNeil and Emm Gryner.

Sunday, March 20 at 7:00 p.m.

This Movie is Broken, Bruce McDonald

Introduced by Stuart Berman, author of This Book Is Broken.

Sunday, March 20 at 9:45 p.m.

Look at What the Light Did Now, Anthony Seck

Introduced by Stuart Berman, author of This Book Is Broken.

Monday, March 21 at 7:00 p.m.

Music from the Big House, Bruce McDonald

Introduced with a performance by Rita Chiarelli.

Monday, March 21 at 9:45 p.m.

Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, François Girard

Introduced by Brian Levine, Executive Director, Glenn Gould Foundation with a special performance by pianist Claudia Chan.

Tuesday, March 22 at 7:00 p.m.

Hard Core Logo, Bruce McDonald ****

Tuesday, March 22 at 9:45 p.m.

Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen

Introduced by directors and Juno Award winners Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen

Wednesday, March 23 at 9:45 p.m.

Escarpment Blues, Andy Keen ****

Introduced by director Andy Keen and JUNO Award winner Sarah Harmer.

Thursday, March 24 at 7:00 p.m.

Festival Express, Bob Smeaton ****

Introduced by legendary concert promoter and music publicist Richard Flohil, joined on stage by Garth Douglas, Executive Producer of Festival Express.

Thursday, March 24 at 9:45 p.m.

Oscar Peterson: Keeping the Groove Alive (with short Begone Dull Care), Ron Allen

Introduced by Kelly Peterson and with performance by JUNO Award nominee Robi Botos

Friday, March 25 at 7:00 p.m.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Sacha Gervasi ****

Introduced by 102.1 The Edge’s Alan Cross and special guests.

Friday, March 25 at 9:45 p.m.

Blue Rodeo: In Stereovision, Ron Mann

Introduced by Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor.

Saturday, March 26 at 7:00 p.m.

Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, Lian Lunson ****

Introduced by JUNO Award winner Amelia Curran and video introduction by CBC’s Peter Mansbridge.

Saturday, March 26 at 9:45 p.m.

For tickets & further info click.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Now playing in theatres is an ambitious anthology of stories centering on the Starlight, a Montreal disco, North America's first in the seventies. Directed by Daniel Roby (his Peau Blanche is a wickedly clever vampire picture), Funkytown takes audiences from 1976 through 1980 against the backdrop of Quebec separatism, the rise of gay rights, the proliferation of hard street drugs, and the invasion of shag carpeting. There's also a constant stream of disco that acts like a pulse in the lives of nine Montrealers, such as the eponymous 1980 hit by Lipps Inc:

The strongest story belongs to Bastien, the haughty MC of a Quebecois disco show who falls for Adriana (top), an opportunistic bimbo, and loses his wife, daughter and soul.

Bastien spirals into a vortex of booze and drugs, a familiar tale which is rather heavy-handed (drugs are bad, kids). However, Patrick Huard (Bon Cop, Bad Cop) delivers a super performance that holds this sprawling film together.

Another highlight is Raymond Bouchard who perfectly plays Gilles, the veteran, sleazy record producer who bullies his son, the owner of the disco, and steals Adriana from Bastien. Less convincing is Tino, a superb dancer who hails from macho Little Italy but denies that he's gay, even as he's opening his back door to co-host Jonathan (an impressive Paul Doucet). Tino's story is compelling, but Justin Chatwin is miscast and never looks comfortable. The same can be said of Sarah Mutch who certainly looks like a hot model, but can't act.

Loosely based on real characters and a real disco, Funkytown crackles with energy throughout, though it struggles to tie all the storylines together towards the end. In this sense Funkytown recalls 1996's marvellous Boogie Night, another Altmanesque take on the disco age, but the former resonates to Canadians because of the issue of separatism humming in the background like a bassline in a Donna Summer tune. Vive le disco.

Monday, January 31, 2011

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector [film review & director interview]

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector
Directed by Vikram Jayanti

Review & interview by Allan Tong

There's a moment in this film where Phil Spector discusses John Lennon's assassin, but he could be describing himself: a madman who is so "out of it" that he callously takes another life. It's a chilling moment uttered by a deranged man who's now serving hard time for killing B-movie actress Lana Clarkson in his secluded L.A. mansion in 2003.

Spector, of course, is the legendary record producer who built the "wall of sound," constructing Wagnerian pop symphonies for the Righteous Brothers ("You've Lost That Loving Feeling"), Tina Turner ("River Deep, Mountain High"), the Ronettes ("Be My Baby") and ex-Beatles John and George. Spector is also famous for his guns and violent paranoia.... [click to read more at Exclaim! magazine]

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Mother of Rock: Lillian Roxon [TIFF review]

Directed by Paul Clarke

I'm dubious about this film.

Sure, Lillian Roxon deserves credit for promoting the first wave of feminism in the late-60s and for helping to usher in the age of serious rock criticism. As a journalist, initially in Australia then in sixties Manhattan, she chronicled the social and cultural upheavals of that age and rode the zeitgeist, from The Beatles to The Velvet Underground. Later, she would witness the rise of Glam (Lou Reed et al) from Max's Kansas City.

What I'm uneasy about is this documentary itself. It's a good film, I'll admit, but not great. And I expect every documentary at TIFF, the world's second-largest stage for film, to hit grand slams at every chance. Mother of Rock has the feel of a TV documentary with its ubiquitous narration, talking heads and heavy reliance on stills. Close friend, Danny Fields, dominates the film with his recollections of fiery free-spirit, Roxon. Linda McCartney, sadly, cannot speak of her broken friendship with her, so Fields does.

Others, like Iggy Pop, weigh in with largely pleasant recollections. Germaine Greer, however, steals the show. Reading between the lines, it appears that the Aussie Greer exploited her friendship with Roxon to promote her career in America. Roxon didn't suffer fools and verbally slayed her "friend" one evening at Max's. On the flipside, we also sense that Roxon was envious and vindictive, shadows on her character that director Paul Clarke plays down.

There's a lot to celebrate in Roxon's short life, but was she mythic? Was she a giant? Was her life a grand drama? Again, this is a good doc, but so are hundreds of others that never make it to a festival like TIFF.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Exile On Main Street is a rip-off

I love the Stones and rank Exile On Main Street as one of the greatest rock albums made by anyone, but the newly remastered Super Deluxe CD/book/DVD package of Exile and now this DVD documentary (released today) amounts to pure greed by The Rolling Stones.

For $141 (all Canadian retail figures) you get the remastered CD, another CD of outtakes, a DVD (we'll talk about that) and a hardcover book of photos. The remastered album sounds marvellous. It's warm and bright, though Mick's vocals remained buried in the mix (just what is he singing?). The outtakes however could've been better. It barely tops 40 minutes and misses key tracks such as the acoustic version of "All Down The Line." You're better off seeking a bootleg like this:
Now, the DVD: This barely tops a full hour, and consists of several scenes from the unreleased Robert Frank film of the 1972 tour, Cocksucker Blues, and a few live songs from Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones, a traditional concert doc that Eagle Vision will release later this year. The Blues footage is presented in the best condition I've ever seen, compared to numerous bootleg versions. You see the R-rated clips, not the naked-groupies-on-the-private-jet stuff that may never ever see the light of day. However, these are merely tastings, not the entire course.

The third element on the DVD are yet more samples from a new 61-minute doc about the making of Exile. So, this begs the question: Why didn't the Stones release the entire film in this expensive package?

This is a good film, but not as great as it could've been. Not every song is explored. Apart from Mick and Charlie, there is no contemporary footage of any other Stones or their associates like Anita Pallenberg, Keith's ex. The doc isn't exhaustive, though it paints a vivid picture of decadence and a slack creative process that somehow yielded an amazing album. I don't blame the filmmaker who had to work within the restrictions imposed by the Stones who paid for the film, nor was he given much time. (See my full review here.)

So, for the poor souls for shelled out nearly $150 for the super deluxe limited editon whatever, you gotta pay another $20 for a DVD you should've received already. Do the Stones need the money?

What worries me is that behaviour like this only encourages bootleggers to assemble their own "super deluxe" packages which they'll then offer free online. To be honest, the fans often do a better job of assembling these packages, because they know the material inside out and they love it. Music keeps these guys alive and they don't care for the money.

I love buying packages like this, but I don't like feeling screwed when I'm shelling out $150 for an incomplete, inferior product. Oh well, it's only rock 'n' roll.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


The NXNE film series closed last night with the Canadian premiere of Stephen Kijak's doc about the making of Exile On Main Street, which has just been remastered and re-released. Stones in Exile itself will be released on DVD on Tuesday. Unfortunately, Exile was scheduled against the free Iggy Pop and Stooges show, and the screening suffered from a muddy mono sound at the newly opened The Underground Cinema, a beautiful 700-seat former Chinese movie palace.

However, this doesn't detract from a good film. At 61 minutes, Stones in Exile packs as much information and impression as it can in a stylish and entertaining manner. The Stones hired Kijak to tell the story behind the chaotic sessions which took place in a humid basement in Keith Richard's mansion located in the south of France. It's spring 1971 and Mick Jagger just got married. His new wife, Bianca, was about to have a baby in Paris, so Mick was distracted as he shuttled back and forth. Meanwhile, the extended band (horn section, singers, pianist) hung around the house with their wives and kids, giving the Nellcote mansion a communal feel (this was the afterglow of the 60s after all).

There was lots of jamming and yes, there were drugs, but that's only part of the story [see the Q&A below]. Somehow, despite the lacksadasical recording sessions and fragmented schedule, a great album was made, one that regularly shows up in Top 10 lists and is often hailed as the band's finest achievement.

Kijak tells the story through stills by photographer Dominique Tarle and most tantalizingly with footage and outtakes from Robert Frank's unreleased doc of the 1972 tour, Cocksucker Blues. Long bootlegged, those clips have never looked so clear and beautiful. There's a magnificent, never-seen snippet of Mick and Keith spinning an impromptu blues number on acoustic guitars. At times, Kijak throws in concert clips from the soon-to-be-released doc, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones.

Kijak also relies heavily on vintage and recent audio interviews with the Stones and their associates. Unfortunately we don't see those people on camera, like Keith's ex-wife Anita Pallenberg, and their former (and best) guitarist Mick Taylor. Instead we get unnecessary talking heads of Jack White and Sheryl Crow praising the album.

Some tidbits:

* "Tumbling Dice" was inspired by the housekeeper of the mansion who used to gamble at the nearby casino, recalls Jagger.

* "Casino Boogie" was written by Jagger a la William Burroughs by stringing random phrases together scribbled on strips of paper.

* Keith explains his smack habit, "to hide from the world." Meanwhile, Mick warns that at some point "you control the lifestyle, but then the lifestyle controls you."

* Charlie Watts, who would've been an art director had he not become a Stone, fingered photographer Robert Frank to design the cover.

We hear snippets of outtakes (such as a lovely demo of "Loving Cup") and studio chatter that only begs for more. Kijak does a good job of establishing the world from which Exile sprung, one of post-sixties decadence and bohemianism. You walk away from this film amazed that an album was finished under these difficult circumstances, especially one as great. However, I wish each song was discussed, a la the "Classic Albums" series, the interviews took place on camera, the film was longer, and a few more voices were included, such as a Jann Wenner or a rock critic.

Of all the guest interviews, the most observant comes from Jake Weber who was only eight-years-old at the time. He recalls rolling joints for his old man, who was a dealer and guest of Keith and Anita. "At this point, this was the moment of grace. This was before the darkness," he says mindful of Richards' subsequent heroin addition which almost destroyed the band. "This was the sunrise before the sunset."

What follows is a distillation of Kijak's post-screening Q&A, answering questions from myself and the audience:

1) Was your film tied in with the recent remaster release of Exile On Main Street?

Oh yeah. In an ideal world, I would've spent three years making a three-hour version. It was a work for hire--I was hired by the Stones. It was very fast. We started production and post [editing] the same day. It was all for the [reissue] deadline.

2) You had rare access to Robert Frank's footage [from Cocksucker Blues]. What footage did you not include in the film?

Drugs! [laughter] Mountains of cocaine. The famous groupie scene where she was [quote sign with his hands] gang-raped on the plane. Those reasons why Cocksucker Blues is suppressed. We do address drugs, which you can't separate from the story....Then there was the extended sequence of The Stones pulling up to this suburban home in Atlanta I think, of the family of one of the roadies or back-up singers. This big black family has cooked a Sunday brunch. The Stones pull up in station wagons and hang out. Grandma is at the stove literally cooking. It was great footage, but I had only an hour [for the film]....The challenge was, Was this applicable to the story? The film was intended for network television.

3) How does Stones In Exile compare to other accounts about the making of Exile On Main Street?

Robert Greenfield's A Season In Hell is the sex, sex, sex, drugs, drugs, drugs, rock 'n' roll story version of the story. It's great. We all love that kind of stuff, but we had to make a choice. Do we do all that or flip it. They did make a really great album. We wanted to get inside that process. Greenfield's book is really salacious, but it's a really good read. Bill Janovitz wrote one of the 33-and-a-third books [Continuum Books 33 1/3 Music Series] and that's the exact opposite--for music geeks extreme. He writes about every influence of every song.

4) Why didn't you include any of the songs found on the bonus CD found on the remastered Exile On Main Street?

Like I said I could've gone three hours on Exile alone. It's a good, little extra disc, but I didn't think why edge out some of this material for the extra disc.

5) Why didn't you film inside of the Nellcote mansion where the Stones recorded Exile?

We couldn't. A Russian billionaire now owns the house and doesn't give a shit about its legacy. We almost got arrested trying to run with the gate as it was closing. We went there with a 16mm camera. All those shots of the house, we rented a boat and zoomed up. The house is right there in the bay....It's a shame. It should be a museum.