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Tag20th Century

How They Got Over: Gospel Quartets and the Road to Rock & Roll

Produced by Robert Clem and Mike Tannen, How They Got Over is a vibrant tribute to the gospel quartets of the early to mid-20th Century. Groups like the Soul Stirrers, Dixie Hummingbirds, Highway QCs and the Blind Boys of Alabama, performed all over the country bringing their energy and exuberant showmanship to eager audiences. Gospel quartets became so incredibly popular especially with their spirited performances, that they went on to  have a major impact on secular music, in particular R&B and Rock and Roll. The same emotion put into a song of worship could easily be transferred to love songs. Some artists like Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin and Lou Rawls got their start in gospel before making the transition over to secular. And once that transition was made, artists were no longer welcomed back into the tight knit world of gospel music.

Gospel quartets and their influence on the energy and style of rock and roll has been overlooked and  How They Got Over seeks to change that. I would have liked to have seen more analysis of the correlations between gospel and rock and roll. Overall the film could have used more structure and a more defined purpose.

With that said, this documentary is a time capsule gem that gives viewers insight into the importance of these black artists and what they brought to the world of music. It boasts plenty of footage of those spirited performances by gospel quartets it’s clear to see how secular musicians, like James Brown and Elvis Presley, fed off that energy and imbued their own performances with it. In addition to a historical timeline of how gospel quartets were born out of spiritual, minstrel and jubilee singers, there are also several interviews with gospel quartet singers who are now no longer with us. A must-see for anyone interested in music history.

How They Got Over hits theaters both live and virtual today. Visit the First Run Features website for more details.

TIFF: Julia

Julia Child was a revolutionary. In a time when home cooks were looking for anything canned, boxed or frozen in order to ease the burden of housewives, Julia Child came on the air touting French cuisine with all its complexities. But she did so in a way that taught folks on the other side of the television screen how to  step up their game in the kitchen with materials they already had at home and food they could get at their grocery store. Child started a movement that made television cooking something that people watched for both entertainment and pleasure. She also sparked a culinary renaissance bringing back the fine art of cooking to the US.

Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, best known for their documentary RBG, Julia is a celebration of one of the greatest and most important icons of the 20th century. The doc follows Julia’s story from her early days in Pasadena, her secretarial work abroad during WWII, her marriage to her beloved Paul Child, her culinary education in France, her first cookbook, her work in Boston for PBS and her ever enduring fame that made her a national sensation. Having grown up in the Boston area, I watched Julia Child cook on my local PBS station WGBH. And over the years since her death in 2004 and the many celebrations during her centennial year in 2012, I knew Julia Child was special. But Cohen and West’s documentary really drove that home.

The documentary boasts amazing food photography woven in with archival footage of Julia Child in the kitchen, personal photographs and letters, audio recordings of Child talking about her life, as well as interviews. Talking heads include celebrity chefs she directly influenced, family members, friends and many others. Foodies will recognize some big names in the cooking world including Ina Garten, Sara Moulton, Jacques Pepin, Ruth Reichl, Jose Andres and many more. Cohen and West do a fantastic job adding context to Julia’s story while also conveying her spirit, her warmth, her tenacity and her willingness to learn and evolve. I laughed, I cried and afterwards I was starving!

Julia is part of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival’s TIFF Docs slate. Visit the Sony Pictures Classics website for more details about the film.

TIFF: A Herdade

Courtesy of TIFF

The newest film from Portuguese director Tiago Guedes, A Herdade is a sprawling family saga. João Fernandes (Albano Jeronimo) has inherited his father’s grand estate, one of the biggest in Portugal, which includes vast farm lands, a crew of workers and servants and the main house. As the patriarch he rules his family and his subordinates with a firm hand. João fares better with his right hand man Joaquim (Miguel Borges), Joaquim’s wife Rosa (Ana Vilela da Costa) and his communist mechanic Leonel (João Vicente) and than he does with his wife Leonor (Sandra Faleiro) and his kids Teresa (Beatriz Bras) and Miguel (João Pedro Mamede). He has a particularly rough time with Miguel who is already showing signs that he’s not the right fit to become the next patriarch and the tension between the two escalates as the years pass on.

The film starts in 1946 when young João is brought by his father to witness the hanging body of his dead older brother. Then it takes us to the even of the Carnation Revolution of 1974 when a military coup overthrows the current regime which puts Leonor’s parents in danger and puts into question land ownership and worker’s rights. It then fast forwards to 1991 when Teresa falls in love with Antonio (Rodrigo Tomas), Miguel suffers emotionally and mentally from being trapped at his father’s estate and João must come to terms with a great tragedy and a dark secret.


Courtesy of TIFF

Waves of nostalgia washed over me as I watched A Herdade remembering my father’s estate (which was tiny in comparison) and 1990s era Portugal. I wanted to love this movie but I really only liked it. It’s gorgeously shot, firmly rooted in Portuguese culture and history and all the actors did a wonderful job with their various roles. However the film is overly long (nearly 3 hours) and takes too much time to solve its final dilemma. There is no real plot here. It’s close to a half century in the life of João and the drama only comes from the political strife and dysfunctional family dynamic.

Seeing a Portuguese film is such a rare treat for me. If you have any interest in Portuguese history, clear your schedule and check this one out.

A Herdade had its North American premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Special Presentations series.

TIFF: The Moneychanger

“We money brokers are the root of all evil. We’re to blame for everything that’s rotten in this world.”

Humberto Brause (Daniel Hendler)

Humberto Brause (Daniel Hendler) makes money off of money. He gets his start in the currency racket by way of his new boss Swostaiger (Luis Machin). He even marries the boss’ daughter Gudrun (Dolores Fonzi), an emotionally reserved woman who is no nonsense and all business. Brause’s success catches up with him and he gets greedy, taking advantage of the Uruguay’s fragile economy and his boss’ good nature. After going to jail for three years for his involvement in a corruption scandal, he’s back at it. Narrated by Brause himself, we follow his journey over two decades spanning from early 1960s to the late 1970s. The story is mostly set in Montevideo, Uruguay but Brause’s adventures also take him deep into the Amazon of Brazil, to Buenos Aires and to Switzerland. Brause gets deeper and deeper into trouble. His biggest nemesis Bompland (Luis Machin) threatens to take him for all he’s worth. When he isn’t facing financial problems he’s dealing with his failing health and a wife who doesn’t love him but is determined to keep the business of their marriage going. To get out of his bind with Bompland, Brause will have to go to great lengths to protect his future and that of his family.

Directed by Federico Veiroj, The Moneychanger (Así habló el cambista) paints the portrait of a man who is simply up to no good. It has a terrific sense of place and time and offers wonderful performances from its stars Hendler, Fonzi, Machin and in particular Benjamin Vicuna who is brilliant as the evil Bombland. The film suffers from a lack of consistent tension and overall clarity. The actual currency fraud is confusing and the viewer is left in the dark of what exactly Brause is doing to get himself in all of this trouble. This isn’t a thriller and I found it effective as a saga focusing on its one main character. The story incorporates references to Jesus and the Cleansing of the Temple. As a trilingual viewer (English, Spanish and Portuguese), I was curious to see the two Brazilian characters, including Moacyr (German de Silva) who becomes Brause’s business partner and confidante, speak Portuguese to Brause while he responds in Spanish. Fascinating!

Last year I watched Veiroj’s Belmonte at TIFF which worked similarly to The Moneychanger as the portrait of one man whose life starts to spiral out of control. You can read my review of that film here. It’s also currently available on Netflix. I quite enjoy Veiroj’s approach and look forward to more of his work in the future.

Federico Veiroj’s The Moneychanger had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Platform competition series.

TIFF: While at War

Set during the early days of the Spanish Civil War, director Alejandro Amenábar’s While at War/Mientras dure la guerra takes place in Salamanca where celebrated novelist Don Miguel de Unamuno (Karra Elejalde) serves as dean of the local university. Unamuno, known affectionately as Don Miguel, was known as one of the early opposers to the uprising and Generalisimo Franco’s (Santi Prego) dictatorship. Don Miguel meets to discuss the fiery political climate with his trusted friends a protestant priest (Luis Zahera) and college professor (Carlos Serrano-Clark) who soon become victims of the new regime. The highly respected author is safe for the time being but as Franco rises in power, controlled by commander and tyrant Jose Millan-Astray (Eduard Fernandez), Don Miguel flails between the loss of hope and the desire to take a stand. During it all he is haunted by the memory of his dead wife Chanta who appears to him in his dreams. The movie ends with Unamuno’s famous last speech.

Courtesy of TIFF
Courtesy of TIFF

While at War offers a grand production, fine performances but lacked in emotion. The first half felt a little stale and distant. The second half makes up for this makes up for this as Don Miguel loses his friends, develops a bond with his grandson, and repairs his relationship with his daughter. Throughout the film Don Miguel creates origami animals and this ends up being an important plot point at the end. This was a nice touch that added some personality to his character. Elejalde is absolutely brilliant as Don Miguel de Unamuno. He seamlessly transforms himself into his character. I’m a big fan of Alejandro Amenábar’s film The Others (2001) and was excited to see more of his work. The cinematography, costumes and sets are simply glorious and worth watching for that alone. While at War offers a fascinating story I just wish it didn’t hold its audience at a distance.

I can only evaluate While at War as a film and not as a representation of Spain’s military history. I don’t know if there are any inaccuracies in its representations of real life figures. It does offer a clear warning that neutrality is dangerous and we need to appreciate the past if we have any hope of a future.

While at War had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Special Presentations series.

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