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.

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.

Uppity: The Story of Willy T Ribbs – review

Back in 2008, Lewis Hamilton found himself the subject of racist chants from sections of the crowd in Spain and Bahrain, the British press condemned the actions of ignorant few who had sullied the reputation of Formula One by bringing to the sport something that was more common and, in some ways, acceptable, at football and on football terraces.

Across the pond, a certain Willy T. Ribbs must have broken into an ironic smile on hearing about the much-decorated world champions troubles. He knew just how he felt and some. Willy had a dream and it was a dream he had harboured since he was nine years old. He wanted to be a racing driver.

Willy is the subject of directors Nate Adams and Adam Carolla captivating documentary Uppity: The Willy T. Ribbs Story. Told for the most part by Willy himself with additional commentary from his family, other racing persons, ex-drivers and notable people of the time, Uppity tells the story of Willy becoming the first black man to qualify for the Indy 500.

Willy tells of how his grandfather, whose words and character influenced him greatly, worked hard so as he would not have to depend on others and would always be able to work for himself. He handed his business on to Willy’s father, William. William liked to race cars as a hobby. Willy took it far more seriously than that.

Willy began his career in England, starting with Formula Four. An exceptional driver, he won the championship with six races still left for the season. Unfortunately, to get to the next level he needed money, real money, not the sort of money that could be provided by a few friends and family who, though comfortable, were not rich.

Willy was forced to return to America. It was on his return that he really experienced opposition to his presence in racing due to his colour. This was the late seventies, less than twenties years after the civil rights movement and in the racing world, especially in the Indy 500, there were no black drivers.

Willy tells of meeting Muhammed Ali, who himself suffered in his career due to his Vietnam stance, and was told how his sport was particularly difficult as, unlike basketball, baseball or even his own sport, racing was a white sport.

Most of Willy’s battles to get into racing were almost entirely down to others not wanting him to succeed, as if they felt that him being a talented driver was a slight on them. Even members of his own driving team sabotaged his dream at times.

If truth be told, Willy did not always help himself. A proud man and one who had perhaps grown up with more than many blacks of his era, he had and nor does he display none of the almost innate subservience many black people feel society places on them. He knew he was the best driver around and he was not afraid to tell anyone or show it. This rubbed people, white people, the wrong way.

That being said, there were those who went out of their way to try and help Willy. Paul Newman knew of his talent and offered him assistance. Even as he got into driving, his teammates and team did not appreciate his attitude and desire to win. Willy just wanted to win races. He resented playing second fiddle to a driver in David Hobbs, an established driver, who he felt he was better than.

The next year, Willy was determined to be the lead driver. Unfortunately, an altercation with another teams driver gave his team the excuse they had been looking for to get rid of him. Willy was not unemployed for very long, receiving a call to join another team the very next day.

Willy was very successful and brash in his success, goading those who felt irked by his, to them, getting above his station. Willy was fuelled by this racial hatred. If they wanted him to stop being so brash they would have to beat him on the track.

When Willy got his first chance to try out for the Indy circuit, his opportunity was thwarted by the engineer of the team that had been put together. The engineer refused to talk to him, making it impossible for him to drive on a circuit in an unknown car, at speed of two hundred miles per hour, without almost certainly coming to harm. Willy decided against racing and was pilloried in the press.

These are just some of the challenges Willy faced that are covered in Uppity. The story is told in such a way that even those who have very little knowledge of race driving can understand and appreciate his struggles. At just over one hundred minutes long, Uppity is a strangely compellingly watch, even if the man himself is not especially likeable.

Not that Willy is detestable or even particularly awful, it is just that he still retains the arrogance, confidence, that probably made him such a great driver. Uppity is definitely worth watching even you are not a fan of driving – I am not – and is a fascinating look into a sport and era that few scrutinise.

Devil At The Crossroads – review

    Even though slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865, the effects and influence of it still persisted over the next hundred years and beyond. Though slavery was abolished, many opposed the freedom of black people, some violently so, giving rise to the Ku Klux Klan, a pro-white resistance group formed in the deep South in 1866. 

     Though legally speaking, blacks were equal to their white counterparts, in the southern states it was still dangerous for black people, who mostly did the same work they had done as slaves; cotton picking, housework, field work and general labour, for a lowly wage. 

     For those blacks, predominantly men, who did not want to be wage slaves, there were few options. The more entrepreneurial started small businesses, making money providing some sort of service for the community. A few became musicians, music having always been a strong balm against the harsh realities of life for the black man and woman. 

      The blues, the melancholy, sparse rhythm of oppressed blacks of the south, with lyrics of bittersweet love, death and life’s hardships, often accompanied by a guitar or a mouth organ, was, along with the aforementioned hardships of the time, the backdrop for the excellent documentary on Robert Leroy Johnson on Netflix’s, Devil At The Crossroads. 

     Robert Johnson died at twenty-seven years of age back in 1938, having been poisoned. Such was his influence on the blues, specifically blues guitar, that many credit him as having influenced most of the musical styles through the twentieth century. Besides the fact that he died at such a young age and spent most of his life in Mississippi, the facts of his life are scarcely documented. 

     He only recorded twenty-nine tracks in his lifetime, barely gaining recognition outside of Mississippi. Most of his history is oral, somewhat like when an old person tells you about seeing George Best play football or Sugar Ray Robinson box or Nureyev dance, they relate the stories with such passion, such conviction, it makes you feel as though you missed something. 

    Written by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, Devil At The Crossroads explores the influence and myth surrounding Johnson. Interviewing his grandson and people who knew stories about him. What is apparent is how much the music means to the people who get interviewed. 

    The most interesting aspect of his story and the thing that gives the documentary its title is how Johnson came to be such an extraordinary guitar player. Another blues player of the time, Son House, was an established musician of the time.

Several years older than Johnson, the younger musician used to follow House around and ask to play. According to House, Johnson was not very good. Johnson disappeared, returning a year and a half later.

    When Johnson returned, to House’s amazement, he was not only improved, he was brilliant. No one could believe that he could improve to such an extent in such a short space of time.

The history of poor people, both black and white, has always been tinged with stories of dark magic and religion as a way to define things that they could not readily explain. In Johnson’s case, the vast improvement in his guitar talent was said to have come from a deal he made with the devil at the crossroads. 

     His grandson has a more plausible explanation. He believes that he had returned to the town of his birth and met Ike Zimmerman, a guitarist considered one of the best of the time in Mississippi. Ike would become Johnson’s mentor and they would play guitar in the graveyard. Ike taught Johnson all that he knew about guitar playing and, by all accounts, Johnson was a keen and brilliant student. 

    Outside of his music, Johnson’s life was that of an itinerant musician, travelling around the deep south. His love of playing the blues, alienated him from many older blacks because they considered it the devil’s music. Many black people were religious, the thought of associating with a blues musician, a definite non-starter for many of them. 

     He lost two wives to childbirth, the first losing the child as well. His second wife fathered a son, who was brought up by her parents. They never allowed Johnson to see the boy, their strong religious beliefs opposed to his lifestyle. 

    Devil At The Crossroads is an interesting and passionate documentary, mixing myth and facts. At only forty-eight minutes long, it is an easy and captivating watch, recounting a story not widely known of an interesting man whose influence on music is still evident to this day. For anyone into music, this is a must see.  

    

Holiday period insomnia.

Like most people, I enjoy the holidays. Not necessarily for the festivities, though they are nice, or even the presents – I am truly invested in the western aspects of a consumer society, i really don’t need anymore stuff! What I like is the time off. Even though I have a fair bit of free time, because of the nature of my work, I tend to work, even if just for a little bit, everyday. So most days i am up at six. On late days I am up at eight, even on Sundays. Not that I’m complaining (maybe just a bit, winter mornings suck!) If I should get into the field of work I really want to embrace – film – I suspect i would be working a lot harder than I do now.

So the holidays give me time to unwind and chill out and, with the better half galavanting around Scotland, do very little. And stay up too late. My body clock is completely out of sync now. The late nights, sleeping in and overload of sugar foods – I didn’t mention that my day job is fitness – has taken a toll and I am here at quarter to one in the morning writing even though i am up in a little over six hours!

I thought I may as well get up and write, as I was only laying in the dark thinking about a documentary I plan to make next year – sneaky segway into film talk and a bit of blatant self promoting! haha! –  I plan to make a documentary about the black influence, or lack of it, on British society. Most of my black history knowledge is US based; MLK, Malcolm X, civil rights movement, but black people have been in the United Kingdom for centuries, yet we do not seem to have made anything like the same progress our US counterparts have. Granted we are not running in fear of being strangled or shot – actually, we could still get strangled! – but I think that is more to do with our adoption of a no arms policy, rather than being a progressive society. This documentary is definitely something I want to get done.

Of course, with the end of year in sight, one turns to reverie. What did I get done this year? Truthfully not as much  as I would have liked. I had wanted to make at least two more films this years. Got one done. The second one was ready to go but got interrupted by my needing a knee operation. Hmm. Having to reschedule, i took the time to put together a crowdfunding page here. That has been….different.

Also, with the knee and sugar rush indiscipline – put sugar in it and I will eat it! – my fitness goals have taken a bit of a hammering as well. Phooey. Aw well, can only affect the future, though I am loath to make resolutions! I mean isn’t that something you should be doing all the time?

Enough of my random meanderings. I shall return to my bed and stare into the dark. Come up with some of my best plot lines that way.