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Tribeca 2018: What’s Up? Docs!

April 24, 2018


I never thought I’d become one of those people who say they prefer documentaries to scripted movies (they’re close cousins to those obnoxious twits who claim they only watch PBS), but most of the best films I’ve seen so far in 2017 have been non-fiction. That includes a pair of HBO specials — Judd Apatow’s profoundly moving tribute to his comedic mentor, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, and Thom Zimny and Alan Light’s eye-opening Elvis Presley: The Searcher — as well as Alison Chernick’s lovely Itzhak, a note-perfect profile of the great violinist and mensch Itzhak Perlman.

I’ve been attending the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, and most of the docs I’ve seen have been better than the fictional features so far. And it’s no coincidence all of these documentaries deal with pop culture, since that’s my lifelong obsession.

The opening-night film, Love, Gilda, paints a heartfelt portrait of the late Saturday Night Live great Gilda Radner. Executive-produced by her close friends Alan and Robin Zweibel, who also appear on camera (including at their wedding, where Gilda sang), director Lisa D’Apolito’s film effectively uses the legend’s own words to tell her story as much as possible. Her life was often more tragic than comic — she struggled with bulimia and succumbed to ovarian cancer at 42 in 1989 — but Love, Gilda radiates with hope and joy, just as she did all the way through her final TV appearance, on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (which was also Alan Zweibel’s show), where she joked about her illness and got the last laugh.

Eerily, Garry Shandling also appears in Freaks and Geeks: The Documentary, during a scene from the ’80s-set cult favorite in which ubergeek Haverchuck (Martin Starr) watches the comic’s stand-up act on The Dinah Shore Show and nearly chokes on his grilled cheese with laughter.

That was an autobiographical moment for exec producer Judd Apatow, who joins creator Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) and cast members including James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel and Linda Cardellini to reminisce warmly about the high-school dramedy that launched their careers. Produced by my journalistic alma mater Entertainment Weekly for A&E’s upcoming Culture Shock anthology, director Brent Hodge’s ebullient 75-minute film chronicles F&G‘s too-brief life and amazing afterlife.

Sadly, that description also applies to Howard Ashman, the lyricist of The Little Shop of Horrors and The Little Mermaid. He died of complications due to AIDS at 40 in 1991, the same year he posthumously won an Oscar for Beauty and the Beast. Now that film’s producer, Don Hahn, has brought Ashman lovingly back to life with Howard.

The film features affecting new interviews with his loved ones, including his professional partner, Alan Menken, as well as his life partner, Bill Lauch, laid over archival footage. The most remarkable sequence shows Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach recording “Be Our Guest” in a studio with a full orchestra.

Another tragic casualty of the AIDS crisis gets the biopic treatment with Mapplethorpe, starring former Doctor Who and current The Crown king Matt Smith as the controversial titular photographer. Smith delivers an impressive performance, but the script’s episodic structure never really allows viewers to get too far under Robert Mapplethorpe’s skin. What drove him to create images that still have the power to create shock and awe three decades after his death at 42 in 1989? (Spookily, that’s the same year Gilda Radner died at the same age.) We’re left with more questions than answers, but like his character’s photos, Smith’s work continues to haunt me.

Mapplethorpe set

The same can’t be said for The Party’s Just Beginning, the directorial debut of another ex-Doctor Who star, Karen Gillan. Set in her native Inverness, Scotland and inspired by the city’s startlingly high suicide rate, the downbeat drama casts Gillan as a supermarket deli-counter employee who engages in risky sexual behavior, gorges on fish and chips, and drinks and drugs to excess, all set to a headache-inducing EDM soundtrack. Call it Light Railspotting.

Gillan’s good — and it’s nice to hear the Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle star’s brogue for a change — but the movie has no real narrative thread, just a string of subplots about her character’s alcoholic mother, would-be-transgender best friend, anonymous sex partners, etc. In short, this Party never really gets started.

Last (night} but far from least, I caught the world premiere of director Sophie Huber’s jazz doc Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes, and it’s as propulsive and impressionistic as the seminal label’s music and album covers.

Rather than taking a traditional approach to telling the company’s story, Huber utilizes an aptly improvisational style. She follows tangents and weaves plotlines together to convey the sense of freedom created by Blue Note’s founders, Holocaust refugees Alfred Lion and Frances Wolff. That spirit continues to this day under the supervision of Don Was, who oversees a recording session with young lions like Robert Glasper, Derrick Hodge and Kendrick Scott alongside living legends Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes is an exhilarating ride — and more dramatic than any scripted flick I’ve seen since Black Panther. And that’s no fiction.

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