WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? * * 1/2
KURT COBAIN: MONTAGE OF HECK * * * *
DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD: THE STORY OF THE NATIONAL LAMPOON * * * 1 / 2
GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF * *
I suppose it says something about how the times, they are a changin’ that this year’s Sundance Film Festival opened with a Netflix Original Movie. For the first time in the festival’s thirty-one years not a single frame of 35mm film was projected onscreen, and despite a few big money purchases from theatrical distributors, one could sense from the panel discussions, Q&A’s and stray conversations in line both a free-floating anxiety and some guarded optimism about this Brave New Digital World.
The arthouse continues its migration to your house while everyone’s racing to make sense of new technologies and rapidly changing viewing habits. Evolve or die.
Perhaps appropriate then that the kick-off attraction, What Happened, Miss Simone? will feel right at home on your flatscreen. A stubbornly conventional chronicle of a life that was anything but, director Liz Garbus’ documentary about mercurial jazz singer Nina Simone checks off all the boxes on her Wikipedia page with the practiced polish of an extra-special VH1 Behind The Music episode.
There’s plenty of talk about drugs, mental illness and all sorts of abuse, tastefully mentioned but never felt. Garbus keeps a polite distance from her subject and so the film keeps us at arm’s length. It is only in the performance footage –some five songs or so are allowed to run in their stunning entirety– that the electrifying, unpredictable Miss Simone truly comes into focus. Otherwise it’s a competently assembled highlight reel that leaves us no closer to answering the title question.
There’s no polite distance in Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck, the most emotionally wrenching experience I had at the festival. A lacerating collage of the late Nirvana front-man’s personal notebooks, home movies and archival interviews, it’s as close as we’ll ever come to a first-person account of those brief few years that shook the music world and defined a generation, much to the subject’s dismay. Executive produced by Frances Bean Cobain (my goodness, where does the time go?) this is exceptionally and often unpleasantly candid for an authorized portrait.
As in his previous The Kid Stays In The Picture and Chicago 10, Morgen formally swirls stock footage, animated interludes and brilliantly edited music cues into a slippery, impressionistic rendering – this one consistently pitched at the wail of a soul in agony. Kurt was eight years older than me, which is half-a-lifetime when you’re a teenager. Watching the film now I was bowled over by just how impossibly young he, Courtney and the whole gang seemed to be back in ‘92. Montage Of Heck isn’t an easy movie to sit through, but it feels definitive… essential, even.
There’s a buoyant, anarchic spirit to Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story Of The National Lampoon that sent me soaring for the rest of the day. About as deferential as one might expect from that title, director Douglas Tirola’s raucous documentary follows the one-time Harvard humor magazine from rags to riches and then back to rags. Fueled by irreverence, Doug Kenney and a shitload of drugs, the Lampoon copped an attitude that changed comedy and launched a cavalcade of stars from Johns Belushi to Hughes.
It was a kick to watch the sophisticated Sundance audience gasp and recoil at gags more than four decades old that still haven’t lost their subversive sting. (“If Ted Kennedy drove a Volkswagen he’d be President of the United States today,” or Michael O’Donaghue’s immortally sick “Letters To Nazis From Young Jewish Girls.”) Unsparing about the ravages of time, cocaine and Lorne Michaels, Tirola’s film also does what was previously considered impossible: it makes Chevy Chase seem like a human being.
The hottest ticket and biggest non-event I attended was the World Premiere of Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief. Hundreds were turned away and the screening delayed a bit due to security concerns, stoking expectations for bombshell revelations about the secretive and notoriously litigious organization. Instead we got a workmanlike recitation of a New Yorker article I’d assumed everyone already read back in 2011.
This was Gibney’s tenth visit to Sundance and he’s racked up twice as many directorial credits just in the past decade. The assembly-line documentarian is working from Lawrence Wright’s copious research (expanded from the magazine piece into a best-selling book two years ago) so we get a lot of first-hand testimony from former Scientologists about the church’s creepy practices and some footage of Tom Cruise acting like a goony nut-job that you probably saw on YouTube ages ago.
What we don’t get is anything new. Nothing about Katie Holmes’ great escape, no Leah Remini at all, and none of those pesky rumors about church tyrant David Miscavige’s missing wife. Leaving aside the irony of going to Utah to watch a movie about a wackadoo cult religion, I suppose Going Clear will work as an overview for those unfamiliar with the subject. But this story didn’t end four years ago, and the film felt to me like much ado over old news.