Tag Archives: Documentaries

Documentary view — Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans

(This article was co-written with tomvox1, who helped fill in the biographical blanks of McQueen’s Hollywood career)

Legendary screen icon Steve McQueen was not only one of his generation’s most interesting and successful actors but he was also a serious motorsports addict. An accomplished racer on both two wheels and four, McQueen began spending lavishly on racing machines just as soon as he started making money as an actor after his discharge from the Marines, where he had even attempted to soup up his squad’s tank. Tearing around Greenwich Village in a wire-spoked 1950s MG, he graduated to ever more exotic fare upon moving to California and hitting the big time with his starring role on the Western TV series, Wanted: Dead or Alive. As well as means, McQueen had exquisite automotive taste and would come to be identified with some of the most remarkable cars of the second half of the 20th Century: the 1958 Porsche Speedster, the stunning Jaguar XK-SS, the 1963 Ferrari 250 Lusso and, perhaps most famously, his personal gunmetal gray 1969 Porsche 911S and the Highland Green ’68 Mustang GT fastback from Bullitt.

Throughout the 1960s, running parallel to his rise as a Hollywood superstar, McQueen honed his craft as an expert racer. While truly gifted on a dirt bike, the King of Cool worked hard to become one of the top amateur sports car drivers in the US. In fact, despite being hampered by a broken foot in a cast, McQueen and co-driver Peter Revson drove their Porsche 908 Spyder prototype to an impressive second overall at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1970, and first in the P2 class. After a gritty and inspired run, McQueen and Revson only missed out on the overall win when Ferrari drafted the great Mario Andretti into their second car as the laps wound down. It was the pinnacle of McQueen’s racing career but it was almost incidental to the real reason for purchasing the 908 in the first place: he was bound and determined to make the greatest racing movie of all time.

And that’s where the excellent documentary, Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans, picks up the story. In exhaustively researched detail, the film, a 2015 Cannes official selection, delves into how McQueen put the full force of his stardom and clout behind making his racing epic for good and for ill. Grabbing hold of a project originally titled “Day of the Champion” but now renamed simply “Le Mans,” his vision was to capture as realistically as possible the thrills he himself was experiencing in the cockpit of a high performance race car. And as the title now suggested, the indispensable backdrop for all of the action would be the greatest race of them all, the world famous 24 Hours of Le Mans. With a cast full of real-life professional road racers and innovative filming techniques, including converting the Sebring Porsche 908 into a 150 mph camera car, the aim was to mix actual race footage with realistic recreations executed at speed by top pros along with McQueen driving a Gulf-liveried Porsche 917 as the movie’s protagonist, Michael Delaney.


But despite the dedication and advanced technology brought to bear for the driving sequences and McQueen’s personal desire to eclipse John Frakenheimer’s 1966 Formula 1 epic, Grand Prix, as the the greatest racing movie of all time, production of Le Mans was star crossed from the get-go. Continue reading

What We’re Watching – Billabong’s “Pump!”

Even though summer still beats down on us, a surf movie may seem an odd choice for a serious film recommendation, but that’s how I’m offering it to you. Aside from Bruce Brown’s “Endless Summer” and perhaps one or two other exceptions, most surf movies can not fairly be called movies at all. They are more accurately known as “videos” – a collection of impressive surfing snippets set to some popular music of the day, without much in the way of structure, designed more to trigger memories of one’s own surf sessions or inspire one to new heights, all while steadfastly promoting a brand by unapologetically hyping the surfers who are sponsored by that brand. If you’re a surfer, they’re really fun to watch but never go beyond the fun one can find these days by watching a succession of surfing clips on Youtube. They don’t transcend themselves. They’re not movies. The one exception to this rule however, is Billabong’s Pump!.


Pump!, produced by surf clothing company Billabong and directed by famed surf movie director Jack McCoy, was released in 1990. On its surface, Pump! essentially sticks to the same model as other surf flicks of the 80’s, with college/alternative rock playing over the surf clips and not much else of anything to drive the film form start to finish. What elevates Pump! to feature movie level however, is the subtext within these otherwise ordinary choices.
First you have the surfers themselves. The film features many members of the Billabong team circa 1990, but two emerge quickly and wordlessly as the films protagonists- Mark Occhilupo and Richie Collins. In 1990, Mark Occhilupo (known more commonly as Occy) was a bit of a mess. Just 5 years earlier he’d been one of the top ranked pro surfers on the planet, but in 1988 he gave in fully to the pressures of super-stardom and fell into a cycle of drug abuse and depression. Up until the late 90’s (when he staged a legendary comeback and finally became the world champion) his life was marked by excesses of all kinds, manifesting publicly in cycles of huge weight gains and losses, along with attempted comebacks and glimmers of glory followed quickly by his immediate disappearance again. Pump! catches him in his periods of top form during this time. While he may appear a bit off his top form physically in one or two scenes, his surfing is incredible. The only dialogue we hear in the entire movie is a voice-over leading into one segment where Occy, in his thick Aussie twang, briefly describes his loss of appetite for competition and newfound focus on free (non-competitive) surfing. Pump! catches Occy in limbo in more ways than one, and what may have been thought of (at least by Billabong) as a chance to present their fading star as still being the invincible hero of recent memory, was instead presented by McCoy as a man with incredible gifts who is in a game of chicken with fate. While his skill seems as untouchable as ever, his future does not.

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Documentary view — Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007

Everybody has a favorite James Bond movie and a favorite actor who played the legendary British secret agent. But today relatively few have ever read Ian Fleming’s original books. Fewer still know the story of the men behind the myth and their herculean efforts to get Bond to the screen and keep him on top throughout the decades. 2013’s superlative documentary Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007 brilliantly fills in the blank spaces and inside history for both the casual 007 enthusiast and the hardcore fanatic.

With unprecedented and officially sanctioned access to the key players in Bond’s creation and remarkably enduring success as a cinematic staple for generations, Everything or Nothing delves into Fleming’s biography to show how his conception of James Bond was forged by his work as an intelligence officer for the British Navy during WWII. A cunning planner of sabotage operations, Fleming was nonetheless primarily a desk man who had to live the action vicariously through the exploits of the men “playing Red Indians”, his colorful term for Special Forces commandos operating behind enemy lines. After the war and with a new Soviet enemy to face, Fleming kicked around a bit before finally finding his calling with the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, in 1953. Wonderfully informed with details from his wartime espionage experience if somewhat crudely written in a potboiler style, Casino Royale struck a cord and was an immediate success. This enabled Fleming to devote his energies to writing new adventures for his super spy to please an enthusiastic public if not always the hot-and-cold critics. Between 1952 and his death in 1964, Fleming cranked out twelve full-length Bond novels and two collections of 007 short stories.

James Bond’s exploits were inherently cinematic and almost immediately various film and television producers approached Fleming with ideas for adaptations, with very mixed results initially. Continue reading

Documentary view — Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

Of all the legendary, cautionary tales of shoulda’ been contenders in Rock history perhaps none went on to have as profound an influence on future artists as Big Star. After all, the losers, beautiful or otherwise, are supposed to remain in the cut-out bins with a small but dedicated fan base of maybe a couple of hundred stalwart fans proudly fanning whatever flickering flame remains. But the funny thing about Big Star was that the couple hundred stalwarts who kept their flame alive after they never caught on the first time around were mostly rock critics and aspiring rock performers. And what happened in the intervening decades is that the music of Big Star, a truly lost band during the 70s, wound up being disseminated through a thousand music reviews and a thousand demo reels going forward to become something like an archetype, a touchstone for the entire Indie and Alternative Rock scene. It somehow became instant street cred to name check Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, to seek out the original vinyl of the band’s seminal albums back in the days where you couldn’t just hit up iTunes and own it in an instant, to lay down a ragged cover of “Back of a Car” during a gig. But beyond the entrancing complexity and slowly dawning greatness of their ostensible pop music, Big Star was also shrouded in mystery, with a lot of vague tales about record deals gone bad, mental illness and creative self-destruction. Which, of course, only added to their mystique. At long last, 2012’s comprehensive documentary, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, shines a light on the mysteries that beguiled and bedeviled their fans for so many years. It also proves yet again that all that retrospective adulation was well earned, however bittersweet their career trajectory.

Formed in 1971 by Memphis natives Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, the original lineup also consisted of drummer Jody Stephens (the only surviving founding member) and bassist Andy Hummel. Chilton was already well established, having been a teen sensation as the blue-eyed soul frontman for The Box Tops, a well-produced outfit that clocked several hits including 1967’s classic Billboard #1, “The Letter” (later covered to even more dramatic effect by Joe Cocker). Chris Bell was a local kid dreaming of the Beatles and pop success, as well as an outlet for all the achingly beautiful and earnest compositions swimming around in his head. The result of their intersection was Big Star and their debut album, #1 Record, an unusally accomplished masterpiece with roots in the singer-songwriter ethos of the 60s but leavened with the angular hooks of British invasion power pop and more than a pinch of the Velvet Underground’s sonic subversiveness. Cuts such as “In The Street” (later famously covered by Cheap Trick as the title song for That 70s Show), “Thirteen” and “When my Baby’s Beside Me” spin gold from conventional romantic youth rebellion through the freshness of their composition and the unabashed belief in the power of the 3-minute pop single. As drummer Stephens wryly observes in the documentary, it could be said that by choosing such audaciously cocky names for their band and debut album they were tempting the Rock gods, as well as showing confidence (or hope) in their endeavor. But knowing Chilton’s later oeuvre, the implicit irony of such grandiosity seems entirely intentional.

Despite being universally praised by rock critics and industry mags, 1972’s #1 Record went nowhere fast due to the vagaries of bad timing and worse distribution. Continue reading

Documentary view — Salinger

One of the literary world’s great mystery men, J.D. Salinger famously disappeared from public view in 1965, when his last work was published and 14 years after the release of The Catcher in the Rye, arguably the most influential novel of the post-World War II era. Immensely private almost to the point of mania, Salinger’s opaque personal history and life in seclusion have fascinated generations of fans, literary peers, critics and the media. Shane Salerno’s 2013 documentary Salinger, which can be viewed via streaming with a Netflix membership, attempts to “find” the reclusive author by investigating and fleshing out his pre-fame life and examining the motives behind his self-imposed exile after achieving literary immortality. For the most part, it succeeds extremely well at this daunting task.

Not a great documentary but a pretty damn good one, Salinger features interviews with lifelong friends and acquaintances dating back to his pre-WW II days in New York City when he was just an aspiring writer striving for success and any sort of recognition. Significantly, it explores his engagement to the fetching debutante Oona O’Neill, Eugene O’Neill’s daughter, who eventually dumped Salinger for the much older Charlie Chaplin. Shortly thereafter Salinger was sent to Europe as a combat soldier in the Army. Salinger saw action on D-Day, in the Battle of the Bulge, the Battle of Hurtgen Forest and was at the liberation of one of the Dachau concentration camps. The documentary posits convincingly that it was these twin traumatic experiences, particularly his harrowing war service, which informed all his future work and lead to his compulsive focus on unspoiled youth, eventually driving Salinger to seek to create and control his own private universe.

It also chronicles how he was constantly submitting to and being rejected by his dream venue, The New Yorker, before during and after the War, even as he achieved modest success in the so-called “slick” magazines. He finally found a sympathetic figure at the The New Yorker in fiction editor William Maxwell, who agreed to publish “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”, which became a major success. It also introduced the world to the brilliant and strange Glass family through its troubled eldest son Seymour Glass, a shell-shocked war veteran. The history of the Glass family would later become Salinger’s lifelong obsession. But before that detour, several more short stories were published by the New Yorker, including “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut”, which Salinger eagerly optioned to Hollywood for a film version. The result, a Dana Andrews-Susan Hayward romantic vehicle retitled My Foolish Heart, was so unfaithful to his original story that Salinger never again allowed a film version of his work despite his obsessive love of cinema and constant entreaties from producers, directors and actors.


But if Salinger was smarting over Hollywood’s betrayal he put that anger to good use, channeling his rage at the “phonies” into the archetypal youth novel, The Catcher In the Rye. Continue reading

Documentary view — The Last Gladiators

Since it’s that ultra-exciting time of year known as the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, it seems fitting that we take a look at Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney‘s 2011 documentary, The Last Gladiators. This compelling and viscerally satisfying examination of hockey’s most feared enforcers is also a paradox, serving as both cautionary tale and celebration of professional hockey’s unique culture of acceptable violence and the men who best practice it.

With unprecedented access to the toughest men to play the game, Gladiators’ main focus eventually settles on Chris “Knuckles” Nilan, a hard-nosed kid from Boston whose NHL dream came true as a beloved character on the 1986 Stanley Cup-winning Montreal Canadiens, the NHL equivalent of the New York Yankees. With relentless bravado and aggression, Nilan stepped into the fray to defend his more skilled teammates from other teams’ taking liberties, the key function of the enforcer, and went toe-to-toe with the toughest guys of his era. Craving validation as more than just a goon, Nilan even scored 21 goals in his best season under legendary coach Jacques Lemaire. But as it does with many athletes, Nilan’s career slowly declined due to injuries and, after a decent stint with the New York Rangers, petered out unhappily with his hometown Boston Bruins, where the the former Canadien was viewed with deep ambivalence.

The fascinatingly complex star of the film’s many present day interviews and great historical clips, the older Nilan comes across as extremely intelligent, self-aware and still quite cocky. Continue reading

What we’re listening to today — Harry Nilsson

Just saw a really good documentary last night via Netflix streaming on singer/songwriter and soft rock superstar Harry Nilsson called Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?. As implied by the title, Nilsson is somewhat forgotten today but was fairly omnipresent in the late 1960s throughout the 70s, with several big hits recorded by him or written by him and recorded by other artists. You’ll probably recognize his tunes if not his name, which fall into what I lovingly call the “Crap Rock” genre (America, Player, Ambrosia, Bread, Bob Welch, etc). His own breakthrough was the theme song from 1969’s Oscar-winning downbeat classic Midnight Cowboy, “Everybody’s Talkin'”:

Although “Everybody’s Talkin'” was ironically not actually written by Nilsson, it was clear a major vocalist had arrived on the scene after many years of cult status earlier in the 60s. Of his own material, “One” is arguably his best known and also most successful single.

Even so, it wasn’t a huge blockbuster for Nilsson but rather for AOR staple Three Dog Night (as well as a ton of artists subsequently). Their signature blues-rock version reached #5 on the Billboard charts.

Having established himself in a short period as a hot commodity, Nilsson went on to have a huge commercial and critical success of his own with 1971’s Nilsson Schmilsson. Continue reading