Film review – Elstree 1976 (Jon Spira, 2015)

Elstree 1976, the latest documentary from Jon Spira, explores the lives of ten people who were involved in the original Star Wars films as extras, supporting characters or inside costumes and thus were unseen. Catching up with them 38 years later, the film gives an insight into their respective positions in the wider Star Wars fandom universe, their take on one of the most bizarrely dedicated communities and their memories of their time on set.

The featured cast includes a mixture of actors and actresses who range from household names to people only die-hard fans will know. The ten are as follows:

Paul Blake (Greedo)
Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett)
Garrick Hagon (Biggs Darklighter)
Anthony Forrest
David Prowse (Darth Vader)
Angus MacInnes (Gold Leader Rebel Pilot)
Pam Rose (Leesub Sirln)
Derek Lyons (Massassi Temple Guard)
Laurie Goode (the Stormtrooper who banged his head)
John Chapman (Red 12 Drifter Rebel Pilot)

For a film where it seems there is a huge difference in the interest in each of the stars, the narrative benefits by giving equal billing to each of them. But then that is the point of the film – it shows the human side of everyone involved and cross-examines the fact that the only reason they are anything more than actors is that they have been part of a great film and the fans have an unfaltering level of affection for everyone involved.

Justice for Greedo

They didn’t realise at the time but their involvement with the film would come to define their lives. It’s something that they have forever been associated with and can’t get away from, whether they like it or not.

The film opens with a humorous montage of each of their action figures, as they talk about how they feel about how they turned out (or didn’t!). There’s also a little controversy with what different interviewees believe is the right level of relevance to permit them to attend the conventions and be classed as an actor in Star Wars.

There are some moments of real emotion, just as there are moments of hilarity. Of course, they offer their own perspective on the film and provide some morsels of tales about the production, but Spira has instead made the decision to give the stories of their subsequent lives the space to breathe. This film gives them the chance to prove that they aren’t just the Stormtrooper who hit his head or the guy whose voice wasn’t quite right for Darth Vader. What makes this film work isn’t the immense details of how the most famous of sci-fi films was made. Instead it concentrates on the human side of each of the ten people we learn about.

It has been a long road to get here for the Kickstarter backers – almost two years in fact – and Jon Spira has been absolutely transparent in what must have lost him many nights of sleep through stress (the whole distribution farce is well documented on the Kickstarter campaign page). For everyone who is now able to watch it, it was well worth the wait.

Elstree 1976 is available now on Blu-ray and DVD, as well as on streaming services.

Film review – Sour Grapes (Jerry Rothwell and Reuben Atlas, 2016)

Sour Grapes is a brilliant documentary film that makes it extremely difficult to think anything but support for its main star: Rudy Kurniawan.

Kurniawan is an Indonesian man currently serving a ten-year prison sentence for selling fraudulent wine to the aforementioned win enthusiasts at auction. To be precise, $35.3m of wine over two auctions.

All Kurniawan had was an expert memory for taste and a likeable personality, but this meant he was able to penetrate what was ostensibly an old boys’ club. This is a club that would meet on a regular basis to share wine with values totalling over $100,000 in a single night. It’s easy to not feel too much sympathy for the individuals that were hoodwinked by him.

Stop wining

There’s something ultimately deplorable about anyone that regularly spends so much on wine. Forking out what for many would be a life-changing amount of money on a drink, especially when the ultimate purpose is to prove your own status amongst a small and very exclusive group of peers, is never going to endear you to the masses.

The film builds up a balanced picture of Kurniawan and the people he had been associating with in these wine tasting circles. It follows him as he befriends the self-professed ‘Angry Men’ group in LA over a period of several years, buying up key vintage wines, developing his palette to unrivalled levels and becoming a key player in the wine buying and selling scene. The results are nothing short of fascinating.

The people he has ripped off have mixed memories of their time with Kurniawan, with some hating being duped and others in denial that he could be capable of any wrongdoing. The fact that he had the printing facilities in his house to mass-produce wine labels, several unmarked wine bottles and rudimentary formulae to recreate the most sought-after wine ever produced didn’t seem to budge their opinion on him either. That is testimant to his charm.

The only thing that lets the film down is a lack of a revealing interview with Rudy himself. It instead relies on old home videos and undercover camera work. He’s the centrepiece of the film but I suppose a man in prison is a tricky interview to land.

This a film worthy of a watch if you happen to find it.

Film review – Dancer (Steven Cantor, 2016)

Documentary filmmaker Steven Cantor’s latest cross-examination comes in the form of Dancer, which tells the story of Ukrainian ballet dancer Sergei Polunin, who in 2010 became the youngest man to become the British Royal Ballet’s leading principal.

Sergei Polunin dances to Hozier

The film uses talking heads interviews blended with some exclusive home video footage to creature a portrait of a fragile artist. Polunin is shown as a man who knows little outside his art and is desperate to change the future for upcoming ballet dancers who he fears will make the same mistakes as he did. These mistakes led to him quitting the British Royal Ballet Feeling at the tender age of twenty-two, shocking the ballet world and disappointing his fans.

Most insightful are the interviews with his mother and father. Clearly huge sacrifices were made throughout his life to get him to where he is now. The film leaves it open as to whether either of them regret putting him through it, and it’s not something that ever really needs an answer. He certainly has a different life to the one he would have had if he’d stayed in Khersan, Ukraine.

The focal point of the film comes in the form of the Dave LaChapelle-directed video that went viral earlier this year. I urge you to stop reading and watch the video below on the largest screen you can find.

This video has, at last count, been viewed 16.3m times in the last eight months. That is an astonishing amount, but then it is an astonishing piece of art. It was choreographed by Jade Hale-Christophi, a ballet dancer with Polunin met at the British Royal Ballet and one of his closest friends. The purpose of the film was to announce his retirement and have that as his “final dance”, but the response was so great he decided to change tact, and instead wants to do guest appearances and one-off pieces of art.

This is a crucial thing for him. The reason he has struggled throughout his career is a lack of time to step back, ask himself what he really wants, and make an informed decision about the next career choice.

He also spoke after the screening about where ballet’s David Beckham is. I suspect after that video and this film, he need only look in the mirror to find him.

A fascinating examination of a tortured artist now seemingly on the straight and narrow.

Dancer will receive a DVD release in April via Dogwoof.

Film review – The Beatles: Eight Days a Week, The Touring Years (Ron Howard, 2016)

There is a single reason why The Beatles hitherto remain a subject largely untouched by documentarians. Quite simply, the story has been told to death. It is a well-reasoned argument that stems from the fact that a story is far more interesting if we don’t know the ending; even less so if we know the beginning, middle, end and every conversation along the way.

As a result, we have been treated to a flurry of fascinating documentary films in recent times on artists relatively unheard of to the general public: Rodriguez (Searching for Sugar Man), Anvil (Anvil! The Story of Anvil), under-celebrated back-up singers (20 Feet from Stardom); Phil Ochs (There But For Fortune). All excellent films that manage to capture the imagination of cinema-goers precisely because they tell a story as fresh as any fictional tale in the same media.

The Beatles are, however, one of the greatest bands of all time, taking over the world as clean-living heart-throbs that made radio-friendly sounds that were loved over the world. Their live performances were legendary and, at the time, revolutionary as they proved that rock bands could turn massive profits by putting in performances in large stadia.

beatleslasvegas

It’s a story that has been told many times over and it would take a brave director to try to tell it in an interesting way that didn’t feel like retreading old ground. Fortunately, the man at the helm on the clumsily titled The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years is the one and only Ron Howard, the genius behind the likes of Cocoon, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and Frost/Nixon.

It is a truly brilliant piece of documentary film-making, managing to tell the familiar story with a flurry of individual memories that bring to life again a rise to stardom that has not and will not ever be replicated. There are wonderful talking head contributions from the likes of Howard Goodall, Dr Kitty Oliver, Sigourney Weaver (who the editors managed to pick out from the crowd footage of the 1965 Hollywood Bowl performances) and Elvis Costello. It is Whoopi Goldberg’s retelling of her mother surprising her with a ticket to the Shea Stadium performance that really stuck out and showed the positive effect they were having on both small and large scales throughout their tours.

The real stars are The Fab Four themselves, and with hours and hours of footage recorded by a press hungry for a piece of them (a point touched on in the film by Paul McCartney), we are lucky enough to be able to build up a truthful story of what was happening to a level impossible for all other artists in the charts at the time. As Eddie Izzard points out, their ability to respond to heckling in press conferences puts them all up at the same level as professional comedians.

The film is centred around their live performances rather than their time in the studio and as such it was essential the largely bootlegged sound recordings from their gigs were remastered to a usable state. Up steps Giles Martin, son of the late George Martin, to ensure everything hits the mark. Audible for the first time in such high quality, these sound recordings are evidence that despite them not being able to hear themselves or each other play they still functioned as a wholly tight musical four-piece. All that hard work out in Hamburg seemed to have paid off, then.

beatlesrooftop

It is a shame that the film cuts off in the middle of 1966 as the band released Revolver. They wound up their US tour in California, and it was a tour they were glad to see the back of. John Lennon had to painfully respond to the “bigger than Jesus” comments, there were death threats from the Ku Klux Klan and ticket sales were in decline (a point unsurprisingly missed out of the film). As a result, whilst Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band gets partial coverage, the albums Magical Mystery Tour, The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album), Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road and Let It Be are covered in about 30 seconds, before a welcomed clip of their Abbey Road rooftop performance rounds thing off with them revisiting their glory days just before bowing out.

The film is genuinely crying out for a sequel to do justice to these missing years and perhaps beyond, though many of this is covered by the much-celebrated Anthology series released in 1995 but sadly still awaiting a Blu-ray release.

If you’re a fan of The Beatles then put this straight on your Christmas list as it will be a perfect trip down memory lane to revisit the greatest band of all time.

Eight Days a Week is available to purchase as a special edition Blu-ray and a standard DVD.

Film review – Weiner (Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, 2016)

The worst thing about watching the political equivalent of a car crash is that politicians never seem to learn from their predecessors’ mistakes. Wars keep happening, smear campaigns take precedent over actual policies in the run up to elections, mayoral campaigners Tweet pictures of their erect penises to strangers.

Wait, what?!

Okay, that last one is a new one on the political landscape. Anthony Weiner is a great sport though. He lived up to his name whilst figuratively – though thankfully not literally – taking one for the team by playing out the lesson twice, first in 2011 and then again in 2013. That the second one happened during under the prying eyes of documentary filmmaking duo Kriegman and Steinberg, at the time trying to capture the rebuilding of a shattered political empire, makes it all the more fascinating.

The film left me a little split on my opinion of him. On the one hand, he is clearly a driven man who is good at his job, galvanising public opinion and canvassing support for what he truly believes is right for his city.

What I can’t deny though, and I think we can all agree on this, is that the mayor of New York shouldn’t have an alter ego on the dark web called Carlos Danger tweeting pictures of his dick to women behind his wife’s back.

His wife, Huma Abedin, leaves the film with her head left relatively high. She is a woman of unbelievable strength in the face of a continuously catastrophic husband who laughs in the face of public opinion, even though his livelihood depends on being popular with his public. The only question is why she sticks around when he is clearly a huge damage to her political career (she has been an aide to Hilary Clinton throughout the two scandals and leading into the presidential election later this year).

As a documentary, Weiner is about as good as it gets. It isn’t putting the pieces together after an event, instead getting lucky and being able to present a truly spectacular political scandal from the inside of the bubble. The characters are their interactions are as captivating as any fictional story.

It might not be a comfortable watch, but there’s something about Anthony Weiner that’s hard to not get addicted to. He’s an almost great political swamped by his own ability to ruin his own chances of achieving anything other than the total humiliation of himself and everyone associated with him.

Well worth 90 minutes of your time.

Film review – The Hard Stop (George Amponsah, 2016)

‘The Hard Stop’ documents the 2011 London riots that erupted in the aftermath of the police shooting of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black British man. Given the current events in Dallas, Texas, the release of the film couldn’t have been more relevant.

The film concentrates on Marcus Knox-Hooke and Kurtis Henville. Both were close friends of Duggan for many years prior to his death, and both were members of the Tottenham Man Dem, a gang formed out of the Broadwater Farm housing estate in Tottenham. Broadwater Farm was the setting for a brutal riot in 1985 that was believed to be caused by the police raiding a home and causing the heart attack of resident Cynthia Barrett. The main reason it is remembered across the UK is the death of PC Keith Blakelock, the first policeman to die in a riot in the UK since 1833.

The film paints a balanced view of both Marcus and Kurtis. Growing up in the aftermath of the 1985 riots, the two are family-oriented men with their home community at the centre of their make-up. Their upbringing – and that of Mark Duggan – has clearly been one overshadowed by suspicion and resentment for a police force that should be there to protect them, but instead seem to constantly be at odds with their community.

the hard stop screenshot

It is an unsettling film for a number of reasons. The media portrayal of the 2011 riots (that quickly spread around the country) seldom touched on the root cause, instead focusing on the looters and chancers that saw it as an opportunity to make some money out of the pandemonium. The anger from the black community in London at the injustice of what happened to Duggan was completely suppressed. I am sorry to say that as a white man, the underlying cause of the riots was not apparent to me and none of the many news outlets I have touch-points with exposed me to the full picture.

The reveal of the eventual findings of the inquest into his death was the most shocking moment of the film. The inquest found that, whilst it was unlikely that Duggan was carrying a gun, the killing was unfathomably still deemed lawful. The emotional response of the community in which Duggan lived was one of absolute devastation and was captured in a moment of brilliant documentary film-making by director Amponsah. This is not a community that wants to fight, but as the opening quote of the film states, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

‘The Hard Stop’ is one of the most important documentary films to hit the big screens this year. Out of necessity, it is rough around the edges. It has, at the heart of it, some of the greatest social themes facing Britain today. A riveting watch.

Orion: The Man Who Would Be King (Jeanie Finlay, 2015)

ORION: The Man Who Would Be King (12A), the latest feature documentary from award-winning director Jeanie Finlay (Glimmer Films) is released into UK cinemas from Friday 25 September and has received distribution support to enhance this theatrical release from Creative England and Ffilm Cymru Wales.

Orion tells the story of Jimmy Ellis, an American singer with a natural voice that drew unavoidable similarities to Elvis Presley. In the aftermath of Elvis’s death in 1977, music producer Shelby Singleton of Sun Records played on the conspiracy theories about Elvis having faked his own death and created Orion – a masked singer with a mysterious past who had the look and sound of Elvis whilst never laying claim to being the man himself. For four years success lay in the hands of Ellis as he toured and rode the waves of popularity, but frustrations crept in about the public perception of him and the deals he had signed and he finally broke away from his deal in some style.

This documentary was spawned by a chance purchase at a Nottingham market, where director Jeanie Finlay picked up a copy of the Reborn album on 12″ vinyl, Orion’s debut release. That was where the interest in him started, and between then and now the director has visited almost everyone closely involved in his life to discuss their experience of a man driven by a desire to sing on his own terms. It is excellently put together. It is a story that threatens to be either not very interesting or flawed due to lack of decent source material (the Presley estate provide little footage for these kinds of films and many of the key people in the film were unavailable for interview). Fortunately, neither of these things threaten to creep in and the end product is fascinating.

Oh Ryan.

Oh Ryan.

It goes a long way into intimately portraying a man torn between being forced to hide behind a mask and enjoying the limited success he was achieving. It is balanced and as such avoids over-celebrating Ellis, concentrating on his personality rather than his success. As with most music documentaries, many of the anecdotes bring huge amounts of comedy to the table and Finlay has been careful to interview as many people as were available, no easy task when on such a tight budget.

Orion: The Man Who Would Be King is a documentary worth watching, and it’s an experience enhanced if you know nothing about Ellis. A full list of screenings can be found on the official website.