Britney Vs Spears – review

Hit Me Baby One More Time. Oops, I Did It Again. Toxic. Overprotected. I’m A Slave 4 U. (You Drive Me) Crazy. Stronger. These are some of the hits that propelled a teenage Britney Spears to global superstardom at the end of the nineties and into the early part of the new century. 

Less than twenty years on from her peak, it is difficult to express how famous Britney was at that time. She remains very famous and, though her musical output has slowed over the past decade or so, she is still enough of a name for a documentary on Netflix bearing her name, is something of an event. 

On Instagram, Spears has over thirty-five million followers, so she has obviously not been forgotten in the fallow years. In comparison, footballing superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo, has ten times as many followers. 

Even the ‘famous for existing’ Kardashian/Jenner siblings all individually dwarf Spears’ account for followers, each one comfortably commanding over one hundred million followers. 

To put the above facts into perspective, The Kardashians came into public consciousness in 2007. Spears, who had gone global with her first single – Hit Me Baby One More Time – in 1998, had released seven albums by 2007. Spears had become a star before digital downloads became the norm, before the attention grab of multiple media outlets and platforms as the internet evolved.

None of this is alluded to in the documentary. Britney Spears is part of the last, dying breed of proper global superstars. There are still artists who become famous but few, especially with the fast-paced, disposable need-for-new, internet social media age we live in, maintain that career-high over decades. 

In the documentary by Erin Lee Carr and journalist Jenny Eliscu, Britney Vs Spears, they look at the court battle of Britney to wrest control of her life, career and finances from her father, James. 

Her father had a conservatorship imposed on her through the courts, sighting her supposed inability to manage any aspect of her life competently as reasoning. 

Unfortunately, a subject with great scope for exploration and intrigue, suffers from being a bit of a fawning, fan-made exercise, with Carr and Eliscu’s bias towards the star achingly obvious. 

Told in a mix of documentary styles, employing film footage, voiceovers, hearsay and interviews, the filmmakers also take the odd decision to add themselves into the documentary, reading various accounts of happenings and snippets from redacted documents. 

The lack of impartiality, with Britney portrayed as a bit of damsel-in-distress, weakens the film, having the effect of bringing out the cynic in the non-Britney fan. Even the most myopic Spears fan would challenge the one-sidedness of this documentary. 

The makers ask pointed questions to a raft of slightly reticent interviewees, hamfistedly trying to coerce support of the notion of a Britney under, a somewhat, draconian dictatorship. 

This alleged dictatorial conservatorship is supported by the legal system and enforced by her father. It truly is the stuff of telenovelas, only not as entertaining. 

Truthfully, the documentary sheds very little light on the conservatorship. Much of what is shown, is little more than an interested party could have gleaned from the press or, especially in these highly informed times, the internet. 

Lee Carr, who instigated the documentary as the filmmaker, says she spent two years putting it together. Eliscu, for her part as a music journalist, says that she was not into Spears music and knew very little about her as an artist. After meeting her, Eliscu liked her immensely and always enjoyed interviewing her. 

It is not as though I feel they should be trying to destroy Spears’ reputation. After all, a vociferous press has spent more than a decade documenting and exposing her every foible and misstep, relishing her discomfort and misery. 

The issue is, if one is selling a documentary, which by its very nature should be factual and, where possible, impartial, Britney Vs Spears fails. 

That Carr claims to have been making it for two years does not bode well either, given the bias and paucity of storytelling. The film seems to be told with a handbrake on, due to possible legal ramifications, something hinted at towards the end of the film. 

I suspect that the use of musical footage was probably prohibitively expensive, with any musical clips ‘blink-and-you-miss-it’ brief. Most of the Britney footage is from the news, showing her multiple encounters with the press and various partners. 

It is a little haphazard, with the film trying to paint her father, James, as the villain. It is not an entirely surprising or, sadly, unusual story of those who should be looking after a star’s interest, benefitting and taking advantage of their privilege. What makes the film fail is the expectation. 

The title sets up a battle. What one expects is a little history. How the opposing sides, father and daughter, came to their positions. The public deterioration of Britney. Her family and friends reaction to it. Maybe, showing her father’s reasoning, no matter how flimsy, behind deciding to implement such an extreme measure. 

Unfortunately, as I said earlier, the people interviewed say so little that one is forced to fill in ominous blanks, something I suspect the filmmaker might have been aiming for. It is a misstep. 

Britney Vs. Spears should have been a compelling and, hopefully, illuminating insight into an unusual situation. Instead, it is a patchy and frustrating film, leaving more questions than answers. 

The Two Killings Of Sam Cooke – review (Netflix)

The Two Killings Of Sam Cooke is a documentary by Kelly Duane that is emotionally resonant but ultimately underwhelming. In essence, it rehashes the story of Cooke’s death and how it was shrouded in and remains shrouded in mystery. That is the first and obvious killing. 

The second killing is more opaque, speaking to his growing impact in black society and influence in an America growing through the Civil Rights movement, with blacks in the south still suffering segregation and inequality.

The second death is how Cooke’s growing influence in black America was growing at a rate that some felt it needed to be checked. 

Unfortunately, Duane’s documentary devotes very little time to the murder and the circumstances surrounding it, instead preferring to focus on Cooke’s career, life and influences. 

That is not to say the documentary is bad. It is, for the most part, a very engaging film. It is just that the title of the documentary gives one a very different expectation. 

What the documentary does very well, is to tell us about Cooke’s musical journey and how focussed he was in politics and his beliefs. His talent as a singer was discovered early and he was a star in his twenties, his good looks helping him to crossover to white audiences in a time when segregation was still commonplace. 

His father was a pastor and used to take his children around to churches to sing. Sam, like a lot of black singers from that era, started with gospel music. Later, singing as part of a group, The Soul Stirrers, Cooke gained fame throughout the black community. 

His family moved north to Chicago, to get away from the still racially oppressive south. When he travelled around with The Soul Stirrers, as a young adult, heading back to the south, he saw and experienced how very differently black people were treated there. 

According to those who knew Cooke, the murder of Emmet Till had a profound effect on him. Emmet Till was a young black boy, fourteen years old, who was lynched and beaten to death because he had the temerity to, allegedly, whistle at a white woman.

Till’s death and the savagery of it, triggered not only Cooke but most of black America. Many believe it was the catalyst for the Civil Rights movement.

Rock n’ roll was beginning to come to prominence across America and the youth were embracing it. Cooke was reluctant, like a lot of the black acts and singers who came from gospel singing, to cross over to rock n’ roll. 

Amongst church communities, rock n’ roll was considered the Devil’s music. He knew if he crossed over to rock n’ roll, he could never go back. 

He also knew what he wanted. He wanted to be famous and be able to reach a lot of people and help his people.

He would not be able to do that with gospel music. On his first foray into rock n’ roll and pop, getting away from gospel music, he did not use his first name, instead going under the name Dale Cook. His next song catapulted him to national stardom. 

You Send Me was a hit. It got him invited on to the Ed Sullivan Show and had black people gathering around television sets, televisions not being common in black households at that time, to see him. 

He got invited on to American Bandstand by Dick Clark. American Bandstand was a show that was, perhaps, the most influential music show for young people at the time.

The Klu Klux Klan did not want him going on the show. They threaten to blow up the studio if Sam Cooke appeared on the show. They also threaten Cooke. 

Dick Clark had reservations but went ahead anyway, Cooke appearing on American Bandstand. 

Cooke got married and moved to California, closer to the Mecca of television and film. He continued to appear on television. He was becoming very successful and was only second to Elvis Presley in record sales. He was famous. 

Sam did not like that, as a black performer, with all of his fame, he would till be invited to play at venues where segregation was a thing. He refused to play at such venues and stopped playing in segregated states.

He would go on to meet other prominent black men of his time; Muhammad Ali, who at that time went under the name of Cassius Clay, and Malcolm X. 

Cooke started a record company and understood that controlling the music and the rights to the music was where the money was. He also wanted to protect black artist, many of whom had been burnt by record companies giving them contracts that did not benefit them at all. 

Even as a person who understood this, Cooke was not immune to getting ripped off himself and found himself unwittingly, in an unfavourable contract drawn up by Allen Klein, an account, days before he died. 

Cooke’s popularity kept growing. His friendship with Ali and Malcolm X bringing him to the attention of the FBI, who were watching both men. Cooke’s crossover appeal was admired by the money men but his refusal to leave his black roots behind did not sit well with them. 

Cooke wanted to create a black music agency. Organised crime – the mob -, whose tentacles tended to be in anything that made money, tried to discourage him. 

The death of his son, Vincent, by drowning, really affected Cooke and he plunged himself into work. He also started seeing other women, his marriage suffering. 

He made a deal with RCA as a subsidiary of their label. This was the deal that involved Klein. When he found that Klein was ripping him off, he had planned to fire him. 

Unfortunately, he was killed before he would see Klein again. His death, murder, happened in strange circumstances. He was shot by a black woman, Bertha Franklin, who claimed Cooke had forced his way into her room and was harassing her. 

Franklin had been the manager at the hotel Cooke had gone to that night with another woman, Lisa Boyer, who accused Cooke of trying to kidnap her and had escaped, taking his clothes. Cooke had, allegedly, been looking for Boyer when Franklin shot him. Franklin got off with justifiable homicide. 

The issue with Duane’s documentary is the title. I found out more about his death reading Wikipedia than I did from watching the documentary.

It may be because the documentary is quite short at only seventy-four minutes long or the focus on his music career but there really is not a great deal about one death, let alone two. 

The Two Killings Of Sam Cooke is definitely worth watching but do not watch it hoping to gain any clarity around the mystery surrounding his death. This film will not give you that.

The Black Godfather – review (Netflix)

Life is about numbers. That is the mantra of the man featured in the fascinating Netflix documentary, The Black Godfather. Like the fictional character of the simpleton, Forrest Gump, who came in to contact with major figures of history in the film of the same same, Clarence Avant is a man who name and influence span several decades and takes in many famous faces. Unlike Gump, Avant was no simpleton. 

By his own admission, Avant was no academic. He never went to college but had enough schooling to understand maths and life had shown him what poor was. The oldest sibling of eight, Avant fell into the music business via Joe Glaser. 

Glaser was a music talent manager who started managing Louis Armstrong and went on to have a roster of jazz artist under his umbrella that included, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Dave Brubeck and Sarah Vaughan. Glaser asked him to take on Vaughan. Avant told him he did not know anything about the business. 

Glaser would become a mentor to Avant. Avant became the manager of Rn’B singer Little Willie John and many others followed after that. Avant was a popular person and had a talent for talking to people. 

Not like a salesperson but as a person who had others wellbeing at heart. This gift made him a bit of a conduit between black talent and white businessmen who wanted to recruit the best in any field. 

Avant lived through the Civil Rights movement and was very conscious of it but he was not one for the spotlight. His talent was connecting people and he did it better than anybody. 

He also looked after the artist, not allowing them to get ripped off. Something he was admired for and that Glaser saw in him. He decided to send him to California with pianist Lalo Schifrin to get Schifrin into movies. 

Avant did not know anything about the film business but he did what he does; he got to know everybody, meeting and befriending all the studio heads.

Schifrin went on to become one of the most successful composers in Hollywood. Avant got married and moved to California. There he met Lew Wasserman who was one of the most powerful people in Hollywood. 

Avant’s ability to befriend people was called upon again when the legendary Jim Brown did not want to appear in a documentary that was being made about the Cleveland Browns football team he played for.

Clarence got him into the documentary and the movies. He started a record label and signed artist on their musical talent, surprising many when he signed white artist, especially as it was a black-owned label. He also signed Bill Withers, who at the time underwhelmed many. 

Soul Train was a weekly black music show that ran from 1971 to 2006. Fronted by its creator, Don Cornelius, it challenged Dick Clark’s American Bandstand for the ears of American youth. American Bandstand was on the ABC network and Clarence worked as a consultant for ABC. 

ABC created their own black music show, Soul Unlimited, to go up against Soul Train. Dick Clark asked Clarence to endorse it, even offering to pay him. 

Avant refused. Avant went and saw the people at ABC and persuade them that it would be in their best interest to stop Soul Unlimited. The show was canned. 

These are a few of the stories related in the documentary about the man they call The Black Godfather. There are interviews from people who know and have met him and been helped or influenced by him over a five-decade career and the man himself. 

The Black Godfather has interviews from music, both young and old; Quincy Jones is a longtime friend, Sean Combs holds him in great reverence. Politics; two ex-presidents in Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, Civil Rights: Al Sharpton, film and even sport; Hank Aaron – hall of fame baseball player and icon of the twentieth century, Muhammad Ali. 

Avant is the true definition of a person with a finger in every pie but not in a negative sense. Clarence was always helping people get what he felt they deserved, in a time when black was truly a detriment to advancement. 

Directed by Reginald Hudlin, The Black Godfather is a positive spin documentary on a behind-the-scenes person who was a mover and shaker in American black society in the sixties, seventies, eighties and into the nineties. 

With his daughter, Nicole, having a producer credit on the film, it was never going be a ‘warts and all’ documentary. 

Clarence is portrayed throughout as the man to know if you want an introduction or you need to get a deal done. The man himself, Avant is less forthcoming with his influence on things, preferring instead to acknowledge those who have helped him moved up in life. 

Avant repeats, often, that is all about the numbers; life is all about the numbers. This makes it sound as if he was only interested in money but, though he made a good living, the overall impression is that he wanted to uplift black people, to gain a level playing field. The ‘all about the numbers’ mantra seems to be something he says because he understands that it is easy for anybody to relate to. 

Numbers are measurable and, for the most part, truthful. In the world that Clarence Avant straddles, numbers- the ones you can get and the ones you can offer – make all the difference. Numbers open doors and get attention. Clarence understood that and with his people skills got things done. Life is about numbers.

Dolly Parton: Here I Am – review

Dolly Parton: Here I Am is a ninety-minute documentary that should have been called Dolly Parton: Queen Of Country. The documentary takes the shallowest of dives into her life and where she came from. 

With interviews from musicians she has worked with and friends who have known her over her fifty-year career, as well as interviews with the good lady herself, Dolly Parton: Here I Am is a moderately entertaining documentary but, especially in this day and age, a little frustrating. 

Parton has become a fabric of society, a part of musical and entertainment history. Her large chest and bouffant blonde hair, along with her country and western-lite dress code, make her instantly recognisable the world over. And then there are her songs. Jolene, I Will Always Love You, Island In A Stream, Nine To Five, Here You Go Again, to name a few. 

Dolly Parton has been so ever-present that one feels as if you know her but you do not. Dolly Parton: Here I Am does not get one any closer to knowing her either. That is not to say it is not interesting. There is, even in the little that is said by Parton herself and her friends, hints at the determination and steeliness of her character. 

From a large family, with eleven siblings, Parton knew from the age of ten that she wanted to sing and be famous. Eight years later, she arrived in Nashville determined to launch her career in the home of country music. She learned quickly that, as a young pretty woman, she would have to stand up for herself. 

A pleasant country girl, Parton’s confidence came to the fore when she sang. Such was her talent for both singing and songwriting, she found a manager and music deal quickly. Another thing that points to a particular type of intelligence, was Parton’s understanding of image and how she wanted to be perceived. 

She met her husband, Carl Dean, in 1964 and they married two years later. Dolly married Carl against the advice of her producers and kept the marriage secret for a year. From an early age, Dolly did what Dolly wanted to do. 

Dolly has been to married to Carl for more than fifty years and most of her session musicians have never met him or even seen him. 

Parton was not only an engaging songstress. She wrote songs that appealed to her demographic of young women in the sixties during the height of the sexual revolution. 

Though her songs broached serious subjects and told thoughtful stories, in her public appearances and interviews, Parton never spoke in support of or against any political or social subject. 

In this regard, Parton is and was very much a throwback to the famous of years gone by, before the internet age and the proliferation of media and the need and want of sensational stories. 

Most of the stars, of music and screen pre-internet, were only known for their on-screen images, what they released or their management released to the public. 

In these days of constant and relentless attention-seeking, many in media feel the need to stay in the public eye, trying to project an everyman image. Parton sticks with what has always been known of her; big chest, tiny waist, big voice and country.

Never a frown or a scowl, never a solemn look, ever the sunny country girl/woman looking to spread love and joy through her music. 

One of her session musicians tells a story of inviting her to his son’s wedding. She was accosted all evening by fans and the curious. After a few hours, he told her she did not have to pander to the guest as she was there herself as a guest. Dolly explained to him that it was something that she accepted came with being famous. 

Parton maintains a cheerfulness and presents an almost lucky outlook to her fame, as though it were a happy accident as opposed to astute decision making such as refusing to sell, at the time, the world’s most famous artist, Elvis Presley, the rights to the song I Will Always Love You, a song that would make the already successful artist extremely wealthy when Whitney Houston made it a worldwide hit.

Fans of Dolly said Whitney claimed it was her record. Dolly agreed; it was Whitney’s record and she loved Whitney’s version. But it was Dolly’s song and she got paid. 

Her relentless work over five decades in both music, television and film does not point to a person who got lucky, especially as she focussed on her career from such a young age. 

Like I said at the outset, Dolly Parton: Here I Am is not a warts and all biography and some will be frustrated by that. It is a charming look at her career and trawls through some her extensive music catalogue. There is some good footage and the voice is always a delight to hear. 

Dolly Parton knows who she is and knows what Dolly Parton she wants the world to see and that is the one she portrays. She knew way back in 1980 when she was making her film debut in Nine To Five and her co-stars, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, who remain lifelong friends with her, said they never saw her without her wig or makeup. That is Dolly.