Musician/actor Michael Des Barres has worn many hats over his decades-long career. As a vocalist, he’s fronted such acts as the Power Station, filling in for the departed Robert Palmer on their lone US tour (with a high profile appearance at Live Aid), and the highly underrated Silverhead, one of the finest groups of the glam rock era. He’s also released a handful of solo albums, including Somebody Up There Likes Me, a neglected LP that deserved better. His biggest success (in the form of royalties) has been as songwriter, having co-penned “Obsession,” a worldwide hit for ‘80s synth-pop act Animotion. In addition, he’s a talented character actor, most known for his recurring role as TV villain Murdoc on Macgyver. His versatility is acknowledged in the title of the fabulous documentary, Michael Des Barres: Who Do You Want Me To Be?, which is currently making the film festival rounds. Dangerous Minds got in touch with the director of the documentary, J. Elvis Weinstein, and asked him some questions via email.
How did you come to know Michael’s work?:
Weinstein: The first time I came to know Michael as a musician was when he joined the Power Station, but I recognized him from TV roles at the time. I was a TV junkie as a kid. He lived in my head as a trivia question for many years. I’d always notice him in TV and movie roles.
The many faces of Murdoc.
How and when did you approach Michael about making a documentary about him? Was he open to the idea or did it take some convincing?:
Weinstein: We met several years ago working on a TV series, me a as writer/producer, he as a cast member. We spoke about writing a book and even did some interviews at the time, but it never materialized. Then a few years ago, we ended up guests on the same radio show and I mentioned we should have done a documentary instead of a book. There was instant agreement; we were shooting within three weeks.
What drove you to make the documentary?:
Weinstein: I knew that there was a great story to be told and that there were things I could learn for myself from telling it.
Michael appears open and frank during the interview segments in the film. Were you surprised by anything he told you? One of the things I learned from watching the film is that Silverhead was really Michael’s project and the other members were hired guns—I never knew!:
Weinstein: Michael was very generous in his willingness to examine and re-examine his life as honestly as possible through this process. I think he realized very early on that I wasn’t striving for a sensationalistic telling of the story but rather a very human one.
As for surprises, I don’t have any specific ones that jump out. While Silverhead were hired musicians, they quickly became a very collaborative and tightly-knit band. Michael was very much the leader but the sound evolved from the players.
Vogue’s 1992 grunge feature, “Grunge & Glory,” becasue nothing says “grunge” like Naomi Campbell in Perry Ellis!
The “grunge speak” hoax of 1992 may be the greatest youth culture response to unwanted media hype in the history of “shut up, old man!” A reporter for The New York Times was working on a grunge story for its Style of the Times section—a little exposé on the scene’s hip, new slang. Trouble is, there really wasn’t such thing as a grunge slang, so when the Times contacted Sub Pop Records receptionist, she just made up a bunch of silly shit. The result was a comically ridiculous list of phony jargon titled “Lexicon of Grunge: Breaking the Code.” When Thomas Frank over at The Baffler pointed out that no one was calling anyone a “cob nobbler” or a “lamestain,” the Times was so miffed that they demanded Frank apologize before finally realizing they’d been had.
Like the grunge speak hoax, Hype! is a fascinating record of the grunge phenomenon, specifically because it’s about the tension between the scene and the media. The bands themselves tell the story (and I mean nearly all the bands—Mudhoney, Nirvana, Soundgarden, The Gits, The Melvins, Mono Men, Pearl Jam, 7 Year Bitch and a host of less famous acts), and though there is a genuine love for the Seattle scene and the community it produced, there is already a bitter awareness of grunge’s fate. Members of 7 Year Bitch point out the sexism of the coverage women in bands receive, Eddie Vedder expresses anguish over the immediate commercialization of the grunge phenomenon and the discomfort of living the shadow of Kurt Cobain looms large for many bands.
Far from the bitter, childish personas so often associated with angry young people and their guitars, the subjects of Hype! are thoughtful and clear-eyed, still professing a genuine love for the music and the organic nature of the scene, despite the obvious reality that Grunge has been thoroughly appropriated for mass consumption.
In a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone, Mick Jagger admitted that Their Satanic Majesties Request wasn’t a particularly good album. Interviewer Jann Wenner actually compared it to Spinal Tap, and perhaps unable to deny the resemblance to “Listen to the Flower People,” Jagger answered, “Really, I know.”
However the hippie-dippy experimentation of 60s Stones is in no way their most Spinal Tap era—that would be the mid-70s. In 1975 Jagger would ride a giant inflatable phallus onstage. In ‘76, they released Black and Blue with the very Smell the Glove-reminiscent advertisement you see above; the feminist group Women Against Violence Against Women protested until it was removed from the Sunset Boulevard billboard it adorned. The tour that promoted Black and Blue was a singularly debauched affair, complete with elaborate riders and highly specific luxury travel demands.
This 1976 mini-doc is a great record of the period, with footage of the band, crew and adoring fans. Highlights include a crew member trying to explain the inflatable pee-pee stage design; watching Mick and Bianca taking pulls off a champagne bottle celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary; a short Keith Richards makeup tutorial, and a surprisingly candid Charlie Watts reflecting on his ambivalence towards fame. There is a tension to the film. A fan made the Beatles/Stones comparison, despite the Beatles being long gone at this point, and the the interviewer actually questioned the band on a final album.
Nirvana fans worldwide were devastated, when on April 8th, 1994, Kurt Cobain was found dead. Adding to the distress, it was revealed he took his own life, dying from a self-inflicted shotgun wound. Over 20 years later, a new documentary, Soaked in Bleach, examines the possibility that Cobain’s shocking death wasn’t due to a suicide, but a homicide.
Largely told through information provided by private investigator Tom Grant, writer/producer/director Benjamin Statler takes another look at the case. Grant was hired by Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love, in April 1994, supposedly to find Kurt after he went missing following a stint in rehab. Almost immediately after taking the case, red flags started popping up, and Grant began recording all the conversations he had with Love and others. Statler airs selections from those audio recordings, along with interviews with Grant, various law enforcement experts, and friends of Cobain’s, taking the viewer down a path that is revelatory and often chilling. I was surprised to learn of all the myths we’ve taken as truth in regards to the crime scene, how much the media played a role in disseminating this misinformation, and just how badly the Seattle police department bungled the case. Statler also filmed several recreations, and while such a technique can often appear cheesy and cheap looking, here they are highly effective and stylistically pleasing.
Kurt in 1994
So if Kurt Cobain was murdered, who did it and why? In Soaked in Bleach, all roads lead to Courtney Love. Kurt was planning to divorce her and was drafting a new will at that time of his death; the two had signed a prenuptial agreement and Courtney had a lot to lose financially if the couple divorced. She’s portrayed, often through recordings of her own voice, as being highly manipulative and contradictory. In the documentary, she’s all but accused of orchestrating Cobain’s murder, which will surely be a stretch for many, while others will find it impossible to deny the possibility after watching the film. It’s worth noting that Love has yet to file a defamation lawsuit against Statler, nor Grant, who’s been pursuing the case, publicizing his findings—and his interpretations of those findings—for decades. (including his appearance in Nick Broomfield’s Kurt & Courtney documentary of 1998). Her lawyers did send Statler cease and desist letters and recently threatened theatre owners set to screen Soaked in Bleach, but no further action was taken.
Kurt and Courtney
Though the documentary is one-sided, and Statler doesn’t offer conclusive proof of foul play, what’s presented does raise many questions. One indication that Kurt’s death may have been a homicide is the unusually large amount of heroin found in his bloodstream. In the below clip from Soaked in Bleach, the query is put forth that if Kurt did inject the quantity of heroin that’s been stated (the toxicology report is still sealed by law), how could have he possibly fired that shotgun?
Soaked in Bleach will be released on DVD on August 14th. Watch the trailer and pre-order the disc via MVD or Amazon.
In 1974 Norman Mailer wrote an essay for Esquire called “The Faith of Graffiti”—a gripping and sympathetic investigation on the defacement of public and private property as an urban art movement of complex and fascinating depth. Mailer’s work eventually produced two collaborative pictorial books—The Faith of Graffiti and Watching My Name Go By. The beauty of tagging and graffiti art is almost taken for granted today, especially since artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat legitimized the genre to the art world in both its unlawful execution and its distinctive aesthetic, but Mailer was doing something new by recording the phenomenon as an organic outpouring of artistic expression, and this short 1976 documentary—also named “Watching My Name Go By”—is equally open-minded in its portrayal of graffiti artists and their critics.
The documentary isn’t just mindless cheerleading either; time is given to community members who hate seeing their city constantly vandalized (though quite a few also admire the work), and on some level you have to feel bad for the public servants charged with cleaning up after the kids. At the same time, no one is shocked by it; in addition to the graffitists’ own reflections on their craft, the “civilian” interviewees offer thoughtful insights on the phenomenon. There is a certain amount of juvenile nihilism of course, but some theorize this outlet of masculine delinquency as youthful rebellion. One official points out that graffiti isn’t a practice relegated to “minorities” or “kids from broken homes,” and from the accounts of the kids themselves, the graffiti “craze” appears to be appealing most of all as a hobby, rather than a denouncement of society or conscious act of dissent.
”The most extraordinary film I’ve seen in my life is certainly ‘Portrait of Jason.’ It is absolutely fascinating.”—Ingmar Bergman
During a winter night in 1966, director Shirley Clarke brought her friend, Jason Holliday, to her apartment atop the Chelsea Hotel in New York City and filmed him for twelve consecutive hours. Over the course of the evening, Jason drinks and gets high as he tell stories of his life as a gay, African-American man. Clarke took the footage and edited it down to 95 minutes, resulting in Portrait of Jason (1967). In the film, Jason is charming, entertaining, funny, contradictory, and boorish. His stories concerning class, race, sexuality, and identity alternate between humorous and tragic, all told by a man who appears larger than life.
Portrait of Jason is a landmark film. In this setting, an individual was allowed to simply tell his story over the course of a film’s standard running time. Its cinéma vérité style brings to mind Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, as well as the films of John Cassavetes, but Clarke’s work is a truly unique movie experience. This mainly has to do with Jason Holliday (a/k/a Aaron Payne), the only person who appears on screen.
Jason talks about his life as a prostitute, houseboy, and drug user, as well as his dreams of becoming a nightclub performer, in a completely engaging, charming manner. His enthralling, yet heartbreaking tales of racism and homophobia—at a time when the ink on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had barely dried, and, due to anti-sodomy laws, sex between gay men was still illegal in most of the United States—are told with a laugh and a shrug. So be it, he says; through it all, he’s had a ball. It’s obvious he has a knack for storytelling, and though what he’s experienced may be true, it all feels like a performance.
Early on, Jason talks of being a hustler able to sweet talk anyone into anything, and you can clearly see why, because as a viewer you are taken in by this man from the get-go. Having said that, about half through the film I found myself exhausted by Jason’s stories and continuous, riotous laughter. When reading up on the film, I discovered that’s part of what Clarke was trying to get across; as the director later commented, her subject “is both a genius and a bore.”
At a certain point, after hours of storytelling and consumption of that truth serum known as alcohol, it appears his façade has cracked and the bona fide Jason/Aaron begins to emerge—or does it? Part of what makes Portrait of Jason so fascinating is the inability to know what is genuine and what is performance.
Nevertheless, I do believe it’s safe to say that Jason is struggling. Among other aspects of this life, he grapples with what kind of person he is; he admits to being both a deceiver and someone who “can be hurt in a second.” Though he has lived a unique life up to that point, a kind most will never know, it is through his contradictions, his inherent humanity, that we can see aspects of our own existence. Jason’s continually trying to make sense of who he is, all the while shifting between the walls of protection he has erected and allowing himself to be vulnerable, constantly moving forward as he smiles through a life filled with sadness and regret. Even if we rarely talk about those facets of being, it is through Shirley Clarke’s dazzling character study that we can relate, which is why Portrait of Jason endures.
In 2013, a restored version of Portrait of Jason arrived in theatres. It’s now available on DVD and Blu-ray via Milestone Films. If you have any interest in reading more about this incredible film, you’ll want to check out Milestone’s press kit.
Here’s a clip of Jason talking about his experience as a houseboy, in which he touches on issues of class and racism:
Last week, allegations emerged that Spokane NAACP president Rachel Dolezal—who says she is African-American and in the past claimed she was a victim of racism—is, in fact, white. Similar incidents have occurred over the years (Binjamin Wilkomirski pretended to be a holocaust survivor, for example), and after the initial shock of revelation, naturally many questions emerge, though the main one is always simply this: Why?
Lessor known is the story of Tania Head, a survivor of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, who became a beloved figure within the community of 9/11 survivors. Tania was working in the south tower of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001, and though badly burned, she made it out of the building alive; her fiancé, Dave, who was in the north tower, did not. Tania’s back-story and account of that horrific day were especially tragic, but her bright personality and positive outlook was inspiring to others, including her fellow survivors, even the media.
To behold (Tania) Head’s smile is to know the terrorists did not even close to winning. To see that smile is also to be challenged to be as decent and positive as this true survivor. (New York Daily News, September 7th, 2006)
On September 27th, 2007, the New York Times ran a front-page story about Tania: “In a 9/11 Survival Tale the Pieces Just Don’t Fit.” In the piece, it was revealed that no part of Tania’s story could be validated. Merrill Lynch, the company she claimed she was working for—the reason she was in the World Trade Center on 9/11—had no record of ever employing a Tania Head. Harvard, the school she claimed to have graduated from, didn’t have a record of her having attended. The family of Dave, who did die in the north tower, said they never heard of her. Friends and associates spoke of varying accounts that Tania had told over the years. The Times noted that she had nothing to gain financial from the deception.
So, why did she do it? Why would she pretend to be a involved in one of one of America’s greatest tragedies? How could she befriend and lie to actual victims of this horrific event?
In many ways, R.E.M. were always the quintessential MTV band. The group’s first single came out in July of 1981, while MTV debuted but a few weeks later, on August 1. MTV must’ve had a lot of rabid R.E.M. fans working there when they launched, because from the very beginning the band was seemingly always on the channel, a practically ubiquitous “indie” presence on programs like The Cutting Edge (which was produced by their label, I.R.S. Records), Alternative Nation, and 120 Minutes. Their career moves, tours and general gossip about them were constantly chronicled on MTV News. They were usually on the MTV awards shows getting them, presenting them and playing live. I think it’s safe to say that when MTV beckoned, R.E.M. showed up on time and did a great job and made everyone’s lives easier. That’s how a group stays on top for thirty years. To sustain that long of a ride you need to be professional, hardworking, easy to deal with, etc, etc.
As a result of their practically symbiotic relationship, MTV documented practically everything about R.E.M. right up to their decision to disband in 2011. R.E.M. BY MTV, the critically acclaimed feature-length documentary by Alexander Young, draws exclusively from archival events and traces the history of R.E.M. (and MTV itself) in a chronological manner, which makes it feel as exciting and immediate as it did when it first took place.
R.E.M. BY MTV is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD on June 2 from Rhino, and includes some rarely-seen live performances. You can win a copy of the film—and a whole lot more—by entering to win in the widget below the trailer.
The question arises, how is it? The simple answer is, it’s very good. I’m a little too close to the subject to review it properly, so while recommending the documentary (directed by Neil Berkeley, who also directed Beauty is Embarrassing: The Wayne White Story) I thought I’d also express some thoughts about why Harmontown (the podcast) is such an achievement as well as a few things the documentary inevitably missed (not a diss, it would have been impossible to cover everything).
Spencer Crittenden, Jeff B. Davis, Dan Harmon, and Erin McGathy
Dan Harmon is a TV writer and showrunner who is responsible for Community (NBC) and Rick & Morty (Adult Swim). He’s from Milwaukee and he drinks too much and he’s got some impressive verbal gifts and he has issues with people telling him what to do. Harmontown (the podcast) is taped every Sunday at the NerdMelt Theater, the back room of Meltdown Comics in Hollywood. The governing conceit is that Dan Harmon is the mayor and his buddy Jeff B. Davis is the comptroller. Dan occupies a unique niche, as something like the world’s most dangerous showrunner (i.e. writer who oversees a television show). The advent of high-quality TV that requires attention to long-form narrative issues has made a figure like Harmon nearly inevitable—who knew who ran Kojak? If America loves Chuck Lorre’s shows, then that leaves an opening for an uncompromising indie showrunner who caters to a coterie—that’s Harmon, who plays Pulp to Lorre’s Oasis, perhaps.
Every show involves a mix of discussion about whatever has been occupying Harmon lately, audience participation, special guest appearances (Robin Williams, Patton Oswalt, Eric Idle, etc.) and a 20-minute chunk of D&D. The shows are entirely unscripted, and somehow they manage to be pretty darn diverting just about every week. As Davis points out in the movie, because it’s constructed from scratch every week, every episode feels completely different. What’s guaranteed is that because everything is filtered through Harmon’s lively, dangerous personality, there’s not much out there like it. What it feels like is unprecedented.
Harmon’s a dork of long standing, and his audience overwhelmingly consists of smart, introverted creative people (this is a euphemism for “on the Spectrum”) who, possibly, were bullied in high school; were far too interested in the Alien movie series and pop culture artifacts of that type; and have found some private fulfillment as adults in some interesting endeavor. What’s key is that the generosity, tolerance, and democracy behind Harmon’s sincere efforts at outreach have struck a massive chord among the people of this sub-sector, who in turn regard Harmon as their own special hero. The documentary is largely about Harmon going out into the country from LA to meet the throngs that make up his adoring audience. As Harmon often jokes, “his people” aren’t great at eye contact, which made the lengthy meet and greets after every session of “HarmonCountry” interesting social events in their own right.
The documentary covers all of this back story—the poster’s touting of the appearances of Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Joel McHale, and John Oliver is a bit of a cheat, they only appear in the movie for a couple of seconds apiece, as talking heads testifying to Harmon as a co-worker in the world of TV (Sarah Silverman and Jason Sudeikis are both in the movie in a fuller way). Implicit in that promotional strategy is that there’s not that much here to sell the movie. Much like Community, Dan Harmon himself is an aquired taste, and people watching the documentary should know that the movie features huge amounts of footage of exactly four people: Harmon, Davis, Harmon’s girlfriend (now fiancée) Erin McGathy, and Spencer Crittenden, the D&D dungeon master who was recruited from the live audience in an early episode and has appeared in the largest number of episodes since, excepting Dan himself of course).
Watching the movie, I found myself wondering what non-devotees will make of Dan Harmon. It’s a little like when you introduce your favorite noise-rock band to a friend, you might not have the best antennae about who will like this band. Same thing here—I love Harmon, but from all external appearances he’s a talkative alcoholic and egomaniac with a mean streak. It would be easy to imagine him wearing on people, which I sincerely hope doesn’t happen because I think Harmon’s worth the trouble. The thing to understand about Harmon is that he’s an idealist of the highest order. For instance, the HarmonCountry tour, even if it was the act of an egomaniac, was essentially an attempt to execute the world’s largest hug. A devotee of the Jungian mythologist Joseph Campbell, Harmon sincerely believes that his own writing accomplishments are merely a reflection of universal wisdoms that could equally well be expressed some other way. Harmon drinks too much and is self-destructive, all of which makes his penchant for unvarnished revelation all the more admirable. The list of his uncomfortable admissions (his purchase of a Real Doll many years ago, for instance) would be long indeed; would that we were all so honest! (Thus we see the idealism at work.)
One of the central issues in Harmontown the documentary is Harmon’s treatment of McGathy, who is clearly Harmon’s #1 supporter as well as his lifetime companion. The legendary Pittsburgh entry of HarmonCountry devolved into a huge onstage argument between Harmon and McGathy; the tour was clearly taking a massive toll on their relationship (they’re still together, obviously). Harmon did a bit about trying to become “visibly” aroused in full view of the audience by fantasizing about an attractive young lady in the audience, a bit that understandably wounded McGathy, who said so onstage some minutes later. The slack-jawed Pittsburghers were treated to a bit that wasn’t a bit, in essence a drawn-out, gut-wrenching conversation about the ways Harmon can wound McGathy and Harmon’s refusal to change.
Harmontown the documentary faithfully captures the complexity of Harmon and the appeal of the show, almost entirely. Inevitably, a documentary of this type must maintain its focus on Harmon and the rapid rise to nerdy prominence of Spencer, the D&D dungeon master. What a movie of this kind can’t, by definition, capture is one of the central sources of appeal of the podcast, which are the longer-form discussions/banter, and especially the longer set pieces in which Harmon improvs a rant about the injustice of being told to tie his shoes or the faulty logic of Uber or why Captain America is an unsatisfying movie. That’s the stuff I go to Harmontown for, and there’s virtually none of it in the documentary (again, not a diss; Berkeley made the right movie that was there to make). For that, go to Harmontown.com (episode 1) and listen to the podcasts. I wish they’d captured the dapper charm of Jeff B. Davis or the comedic genius—yes, genius—of Erin McGathy. In the movie you would get the impression that McGathy is a fairly typical supportive indie chick, but she has a lengthy background in improv and her comedic instincts are every bit as developed as those of Harmon himself. If anything she’s even quicker, and her bits don’t always depend on the filter of her own psychodramas. She has a podcast of her own about relationships called This Feels Terrible, which I highly recommend.
Download Harmontown the documentary—for some interesting insights into the making of the documentary, the Nerdist episode with Harmon and director Neil Berkeley is well worth a listen.
Celebrities and artists discussing religion is always a tricky business. Fame tends to be a of a very worldly nature and often threatens to cheapen the subject, or distract from the gravity of spiritual matters. This can go doubly awry when westerners project their exotic fantasies on Asian religions—the fantastic book, Karma Cola, by Gita Mehta is an insightful look at the phenomenon of American and European “pilgrims” traveling to India, hoping to find enlightenment. (Since people are people, anywhere you go, many of those pilgrims were defrauded by fake yogis—India’s snake oil salesman and televangelist swindler equivalent.)
However, Leonard Cohen’s narration of the 1994 documentary pair, The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Way of Life and The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation, is both understated and dignified (with the first film featuring The Dalai Lama himself). Cohen, who was ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk in 1996, is staid in his narration of Tibetan Buddhist theory and practice, but the films are neither dry nor academic—a scene with a man in a hospice dealing with his own mortality is particularly affecting. I have to say, I initially just checked this out looking for something on Cohen’s Buddhism; what I found was an extremely respectful and compelling documentary, devoid of voyeurism, and mindful of the humanity of its subjects.
The series in its entirety is divided into five segments below, four being about 20 minutes long, with a two-minute clip in the middle.
I first discovered the amazing 1976 BBC documentary Princely Toys—about the incredible antique automaton collection of a man named Jack Donovan—on an art film tracker with the description “creepy toy documentary.”
That seemed too good to pass up and I’m glad I didn’t. Princely Toys is an unexpected pleasure and, yes, it’s a little creepy (check out the animated smoking monkey doll dressed as Napoleon in the beginning or the doll hacking a woman’s bloody torso with a butcher knife) but mainly it’s just… really neat. The soundtrack is probably from a music library, but it’s a suitably weird synth-based Muzak-y sort of affair that fits perfectly with the dimly-lit footage of Donovan’s superb 19th century animated doll collection.
There’s next to no information about this doc online. After his death, much of Jack Donovan’s unique collection was apparently acquired by the York Automata Museum, and after that closed down, sold to a Japanese collector.
WOW this film looks AMAZING! And NOT in the way that the creators intended!
Fuck For Forest is a new documentary following the titular eco-activist group FFF, who have a simple modus operandi: convince strangers on the streets of Berlin to film gonzo porn with them, which is then sold with all profits going to help save the Amazon rainforests. The movie makers travel with FFF to the wilds of South America to meet the people they aim to ‘help’, only to discover, unsurprisingly, that the locals are not enamored with their unique brand of spirituality (which seems to entail a lot of nudity.)
It sounds like it came from the mind of Sacha Baron Cohen, but alas, it’s real. Here is the Fuck For Forest group’s Wikipedia page, which states that they are the world’s first ‘eco-porn’ org.
In its first year of existence,[when?] the organisation’s website netted over $100,000 for rain forest protection through the sale of paid memberships. In their first six months of existence the group received seed funding from the government of Norway. They are the world’s first eco-porn organization.However, the organisation’s unorthodox methods have made it difficult to distribute the money it makes. The Norwegian chapter of the Rainforest Foundation Fund as well as the WWF both in the Netherlands and in Norway have refused to accept donations from FFF. As a result, Fuck for Forest is working on a project to work directly with indigenous communities in Costa Rica and the Brazilian Amazon rainforest.
The film has just gotten a very limited cinema release in the UK, and the reviews have not been good. In fact, it was a damning review by the Guardian that seemed to imply unintentional hilarity that really piqued my interest, making me seek out the trailer and to place it immediately on my “to see” list.
Seriously, check out the additional footage in that Guardian video review after you watch the trailer, it has me wondering if Fuck For Forest is the damning, hilarious portait that this “eco-punk” (or neo-hippy, crusty, whatever you want to call it) scene has always needed?
When it comes to alt-culture icons, they don’t come much bigger or more fabulous than Divine, who was born Glenn Harris Milstead 67 years ago today.
I shouldn’t need to explain to the readers of Dangerous Minds how important a figure Divine was, not just to gay people, drag queens or the plus-sized, but to freaks, misfits and outcasts anywhere and everywhere. I mean, you just gotta love Divine. Anyone who flaunts their flaws that proudly and boldly, turns them into cornerstones of their appearance in fact, should be held up as an inspiration to everyone.
Divine’s legacy has gotten stronger since Milstead’s death in 1988, and in a strange way Divine has come to represent a time when society was both more conservative, but oddly more liberal. What film star would gulp down real, live dog shit on screen these days and be called a hero? I think we need Divine now more than ever, so it’s no surprise to me how truly iconic she has become in recent years.
As today is Divine’s birthday, I contacted Lotti Pharriss Knowles, the producer of the upcoming feature documentary I Am Divine, to discuss the incredible performer, and to get the scoop on their film, which promises to be the definitive document of Divine’s life.
THE NIALLIST: How did this project come about in the first place?
LOTTI PHARRISS KNOWLES: Our director, Jeffrey Schwarz, has been kind of obsessed with Divine and John Waters since he was introduced to their films in college. Many years later Jeffrey interviewed Waters for SPINE TINGLER! THE WILLIAM CASTLE STORY, and many other Dreamlanders for the doc YOU CAN’T STOP THE BEAT: THE LONG JOURNEY OF HAIRSPRAY, and became inspired to make a definitive documentary about the immortal star that is Divine.
TN: How is the Kickstarter going? And when is the finished film due?
LPK: Kickstarter is going great—we made our goal of $40,000 earlier this week! But that goal was the bare minimum we needed to raise to help finish this film, so we are setting a new, “unofficial” goal of $50K to see how far we can get by Friday at midnight when the campaign ends.
We don’t have a specific due date, but we are applying to festivals where, if accepted, we’d premiere early next year. So time is definitely of the essence to make sure we polish the edit, get the soundtrack and graphics completed, and legally clear all the photos and footage we’ve included. And none of that comes cheap!
TN: What personally attracts you to the character of Divine?
LPK: I’ve always been an oddball and attracted to others who are, especially people who are fearless about being different. No one embodies that spirit of the in-your-face punk misfit more than Divine. I also love that while Divine was completely subversive, you always felt a tender heart beating underneath the wild persona—I think that combination is ultimately why Divine’s fans love him so fervently.
TN: Divine’s legacy has gotten stronger since her death - why do you think that is?
LPK: Well, we always seem to truly idolized those who leave us too soon: Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, Divine. They go out when they’re still young and beautiful, and they’re forever trapped in time… There’s something sentimental about that, because the fans are left to fill in the blanks of what might have happened had they lived longer. I also think there are always those new fans coming along, the next generation of folks seeing the Waters movies for the first time, and responding to those characteristics I mentioned. There are always going to be misfits and outsiders, and so there will always be a need for a role model like Divine.
Divine in Melbourne, Autralia in 1984, pic by Andrew Curtis
TN: Where do you think Glenn Harris Milstead would be today if he hadn’t died?
LPK: I think he’d be an accomplished actor with a wide variety of roles under his belt. He had so much talent, and was just about to enjoy a breakout role out of drag on “Married With Children” when he passed away. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have seen Divine live to play Edna Turnblad again in the Broadway musical??
TN: Indeed it would!! Do you think modern society/culture could produce another Divine? And who do you think is closest to that mantle now?
LPK: I think it’s possible but tough, because since the 1970s we’ve already kind of seen it all and done it all in our culture, and no one could truly have the shock value that Divine and the Waters movies did at the time that they were made. There is no one even close to Divine who exists now, but I see shades of Divine’s legacy in people from Lady Gaga to Sharon Needles [check out The Niallist’s interview with Sharon Needles here], Sacha Baron Cohen to the “Jackass” crew—I think Divine paved the way for them and others like them.
TN: What’s your favorite Divine song?
LPK: Maybe a cliche, but I gotta go with “You Think You’re A Man.” It’s classic, catchy, and totally fuck you. I love it.
TN: I have to admit I am a huge fan of Divine’s music, from “Born To Be Cheap” to the Bobby O-produced classics, all the way up to the Stock, Aitken and Waterman productions. For a complete non-singer, Divine really knew how to belt out a song, and by compensating for the vocal weaknesses with pure attitude made for a very compelling performer. I also like the music because it’s overtly gay but takes no prisoners, it’s very “fuck you” which “gay” music hasn’t been for a long time. My favorite Divine track is probably “I’m So Beautiful”, which actually IS beautiful, as well as cheap, nasty, funny, filthy, and funky as hell. Anyway, what is your favorite of Divine’s many looks?
LPK: God, there are so many… But I have to pick the one-armed green leopard print mini-dress from “Female Trouble,” just ‘cause I love how she STRUTS down the avenue in Baltimore in it, and the (real!) reactions from people on the street. That’s the spirit of DIVINE in her purest form!
TN: Thanks Lotti!
In the meantime, here’s a PSA on body image and self-esteem from the I Am Divine camp, featuring John Waters, Mink Stole, Sharon Needles and Latrice Royale, all set to the wonderful tune of “I’m So Beautiful”.
The last few years have formed a tiny goldmine of music documentaries for fringe music fans, ranging from the previously covered “Bastard Art” to the harrowing Wild Man Fisher film, “Derailroaded” to the Faces-of-Death-trip of the Johnny Thunders documentary, “Born to Lose.” Somewhere in the middle was the Jeffrey Lee Pierce centered work, “Ghost on the Highway” and more recently, is “Autoluminescent,” about the life and work of guitarist, singer and songwriter extraordinaire, Rowland S. Howard.
The figure of Rowland was and forever is, unlike any, in music. The slight, ethereal looking figure, with a shock of dark hair and a cigarette permanently attached to his fingers, approached guitar like a musical whirlwind, sounding almost devoid of any proper musical forefathers. He elevated the Boys Next Door and was the needed catalyst to take them from basic pop-rock to the infernal swamp-rock of The Birthday Party. (A fact that is acknowledged in the film by Nick Cave himself.)
“Autoluminescent” not only documents this, starting from Rowland’s first band, The Young Charlatans all the way to his work with Lydia Lunch, Crime & the City Solution, These Immortal Souls and his own solo career. The later produced two albums, 1999’s “Teenage Snuff Film” and “Pop Crimes,” made ten years later as Howard was dying from liver cancer. What his solo career may have lacked in quantity it is epic in its brilliance. Like a true rock & roll alchemist, the man was able to take a schmaltzy song like “She Cried” (made famous by Jay & the Americans) and make it layered and real.
One of my biggest personal pet peeves with music documentaries is often the lack of actual music. Sometimes it is a legal issue, which was the case for both “Ghost on the Highway” and the Runaways film, “Edgeplay.” That is one thing, but then there are films where they just tease you with scraps, despite the fact that the whole reason you are watching is inadvertently tied to the music itself. Thankfully, that is not a huge issue here, as the balance between the music, interviews and atmospherically poetic interludes is well thought out. (Of course, I wouldn’t have minded even more music, but if it was up to me, all good music documentaries would be 8 hours long. With Rowland S. Howard, we’re talking “Berlin Alexanderplatz” lengths.)
Another thing that is obscenely beautiful about “Autoluminscent” is the way that it is weaved together, merging more traditional documentary elements, like interviews and archival footage, along with the pseudo-cinematic interstitial scenes of smoke and swampy filigree, as Rowland off screen reads narrative bits. The brilliance about this, as well as the marked prominence of the music, is that with artists, the only purely honest truths you are going to get is the art. With anyone, artists and laymen alike, you could talk to eighty different people that know you, but each one of them will get something wrong. It’s rarely an intentional dishonesty but everyone, at one point or time, ends up a victim of round robin.
That said, there are some great interviews here, featuring a veritable who’s who of cool, alternative artists, including Greg Perano from Hunters & Collectors, filmmaker Wim Wenders (whose film “Wings of Desire” featured both Crime & the City Solution and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds), longtime collaborator, member of These Immortal Souls and ex-romantic partner Genevieve McGuckin, Honeymoon in Red collaborator and ex-paramour Lydia Lunch, Birthday Party band mates Cave and Mick Harvey, Barry Adamson and more. There’s also documentary-stalwart Henry Rollins, whom coincidentally appears in about 95% of the documentaries I have seen in my entire lifetime. The most effective out of the great lot, however, is McGuckin and Rowland himself. It is those interviews that reveal Rowland the most as both layered and flawed (as are we all) human and creative force of nature.
“Autoluminscent” will break your heart and though I knew it was an inevitable heartbreak because Rowland S. Howard died only a scant three years ago, the pain and loss are tangible by the end. It doesn’t revel in Rowland’s sickness and keeps an outright respectable distance while still acknowledging the various factors that hindered the man. Anyone dying at 50 is sad but when it is someone as beautiful and brilliant as this man, it just feels like the whole damned world was robbed.
Despite the sadness of it all, at the end of the day what matters is the work and Rowland S. Howard left behind a discography that is timeless, textured and striking. “Autoluminescent” is a fitting film document of a musician that should still be here.
A special treat this Sunday for all our disco-fan readers outside the UK, The Joy Of Disco is a BBC documentary about that much derided music genre that seemed to come out of nowhere to change the world in the late 70s.
I’ve seen a lot of documentaries about disco, and this is undoubtedly one of the best. Featuring new interviews with many of the key players (Giorgio Moroder, Nile Rodgers, Nona Hendryx, David Mancuso, Tom Moulton, Kathy Sledge, Nicky Siano and lots more) and some great, rare footage of top nitespots like The Gallery and Studio 54, this is a real treat for the disco fanatic.
But what really makes The Joy Of Disco so good (and well worth a watch, even if you are not a disco fan) is the placing of the music in its proper historical and social context. Disco was black, urban music that became the soundtrack to the gay liberation movement and, according to the program makers:
foregrounded female desire in the age of feminism and led to the birth of modern club culture as we know it today, before taking the world by storm.
All up to the (seemingly inevitable) racist and homophobic “Disco Sucks” backlash. That put paid to the faddishness of the genre, but ultimately, by driving it back underground to the gay and black clubs that spawned it, helped make it stronger than ever and actually did very little to kill the sheer joy of the music itself.
The Joy Of Disco explores these issues in the kind of detail they deserve. It aired on BBC4 on Friday night, and some industrious soul has already put it up on YouTube to share the love (yes, it’s another case of get it before it’s gone). This is highly recommended viewing - you won’t see anything this interesting, exciting or fabulously funky on your screens this evening: