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What We Started

Review by Ale Turdó

RATING: 8/10

Pushing up the tempo.

Writing and directing duo Bert Marcus and Cyrus Saidi came up with a solid (re)telling of Electronic Dance Music’s past, present and future in their feature documentary What We Started (2017). Household names such as Tiësto, Paul Oakenfold, Steve Angello and David Guetta -among several other DJs, producers and promoters- share their thoughts and first hand testimonies of 30+ years of EDM.

But just like any story that makes its way into the screen, What We Started develops its narrative focusing on two pivotal and opposing characters: Veteran DJ and producer legend Carl Cox, and the upcoming dutch sensation Martin Garrix. Fifty-five year old Cox is about to wrap his 15 year tenure as the main DJ in Ibiza’s hottest club called Space, while eighteen year old Garrix tries to pull it together as he prepares to open Ultra Festival in Miami, being the youngest DJ to do so ever in the history of the festival.

The smart thing about What We Started, is the way it blends Cox and Garrix career paths with a detailed reconstruction of EDM’s close-to-official History: from New York’s disco days to the house scene in Chicago, Detroit’s techno and Manchester’s acid house scene, revisiting all the fundamental stops from dark crowded basements to neon crowded arenas. 

The narration tries to make its most honest effort not to avoid sensitive issues inherently attached to the nightclubbing culture – mainly drugs and alcohol- and the way illegal activities seem to latch on this scenario.

Documentary-wise, the producers take an enormous advantage out of the fact that EDM is still a “young” musical and cultural phenomenon, meaning they can get their hands on lots and lots of footage -mostly from the digital era- to help paint the most accurate picture of this movement thru the decades, from close to illegality to standard industry professionalism. The exact same way it happens with pretty much every music genre.

Contrary to other genres, like Rock-n-Roll or Pop for example, there seems to be no room in EDM’s environment for egocentric feuds or vanity beefs. What We Started tries to portrait this singularity as utopic as possible. It is only accurate to say that it succeeds most of the time, except when small arguments arise, dividing old school-vinyl-scratching DJs and young-USB-button-pushing upcomers. That’s pretty much as far as rivalry goes in this domains.

There is a lot of detail and effort put into pointing out the craftmanship of the DJ as a creative artist and not just a mere extension of its turntable, a character that started out in the darkest corner of the shadiest clubs and now has a prominent place on the main stages of the world. While the electronic movement continues to develop decade after decade, the documentary stresses the importance of considering the figure of the DJ as the equivalent of a lead singer or lead guitar player from the Pop/Rock Music universe.

But without a doubt the biggest achievement of What We Started ends up being its ability to tell a thorough and solid chronicle of EDM’s journey that entices both the fan and the non-initiated, coming from out of the mouths -and tracks- of the top players of a genre that keeps on writing its own history.

Foto Ale TN_2018

Ale TurdóBased in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Alejandro is a film critic and movie enthusiast that has been writing about movies for the past 7 years, covering everything from blockbusters to indie gems and all in between. He majored in Sound Design and Cinematography in college and is a full time digital content producer. He’s the kind of guy that thinks that even the worst movie can have something interesting to write about. Additionally, he writes for Escribiendo Cine and A Sala Llena. Twitter: @aleturdo and IG: @hoysalecine

SXSW: My Darling Vivian

Vivian Liberto Cash, Johnny Cash’s first wife and the mother of his four daughters, passed away on May 24th, 2005. This was a few months before Walk the Line (2005), the critically-acclaimed and award-winning Cash biopic starring Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon and Ginnifer Goodwin, was released. Vivian didn’t live to see the film nor did she want to. The script circulated and the way it portrayed Vivian was far from the truth. It created a myth about Vivian as a vindictive woman who tried to get in the way of Cash’s music career.

In reality, Vivian Liberto was a complex woman. A strong-minded woman who was fiercely private and devoted to her husband and her children. The daughter of Italian-American Catholics in San Antonio, Texas, Vivian first met Johnny Cash in 1951 when she was a teenager and he was an Air Force cadet. They had an instant connection and exchanged love letters when Cash served abroad. When he returned in 1954, they married. Cash’s career took off. They moved to California and into Johnny Carson’s old home. They had four children together: Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy and Tara. Vivian had a difficult time with Cash’s fame. It was intrusive and put Vivian on guard. Cash spent more and more time away from the family, started using drugs and started a relationship with singer June Carter that would eventually lead to Vivian and Johnny’s divorce. Vivian wasn’t the perfect mother but she did what she could to raise her four children. She re-married and wrote a book about her life. But her desire for privacy meant the world didn’t really know or understand Vivian. By the time her book published, it was too little too late. A new myth would eclipse the truth.

Filmmaker Matt Riddlehoover’s new documentary My Darling Vivian sets the record straight about the woman behind the legend. The film features extensive home footage and photos. Only Vivian’s four daughters Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy and Tara are interviewed. There are no other talking heads, no other family members, friends, pop culture experts, historians etc. This documentary keeps it in the family. It’s easy to watch this film and immediately get defensive of Vivian. You might reconsider your feelings on Walk the Line and how it portrayed her. Of course there is some bias but I was impressed how frank and open the four daughters were about their mother. They discussed both the good and the bad about their parents. My Darling Vivian is a well-rounded and fairly intimate film about a misunderstood woman.

My Darling Vivian was set to have its world premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival. Visit the official website for more information.

SXSW: Strange Negotiations

“There’s this push for your faith to be fully integrated into your person, into your identity.”

David Bazan on being Evangelical Christian

In 2006, Christian Rock star David Bazan left his band Pedro the Lion to pursue a solo career. Bazan’s entire world had been deeply entrenched in Evangelical Christianity. When he begins to question his belief and ultimately loses his faith he struggles to find a way to maintain his music career and support his family.

Director Brandon Vedder’s documentary Strange Negotiations follows Bazan a decade into his journey as he travels across the country as a solo act, performing in fan’s living rooms and in many other venues. There is this sense of community when you’re religious. It almost acts as a safety net. And when everyone in your life, your friends, your family, and your colleagues are in that world, leaving it can be incredibly isolating. The viewer goes on a road trip with Bazan and he becomes a spiritual guide. In interviews, we hear Bazan process his past, present and future within the scope of his religion and his personal struggles. Bazan’s story is juxtaposed with NPR coverage of the Evangelical movement in the U.S. and how that has effected the current political climate.

“I [saw] vulnerability as the antidote to all this anxiety and self-loathing.”

David Bazan

The cinematography in this film is absolutely stunning. I still have mixed feelings about the use of fancy drone shots but in this case it just plain works. The drone flies high above the barren landscape of the Bible Belt as we follow Bazan on his road trip. These shots are gorgeous, almost ethereal. It’s as if we’re seeing Bazan’s world from an angel’s point of view. The camera also gets right up into the personal space of its subject with Bazan being filmed in a tight frame while in conversation, driving through an urban landscape or in the intimate space of one of his performances.

Strange Negotiations is a poetic and deeply personal documentary about the loss of faith and the struggle to find oneself. If you’re someone, like me, whose struggled with faith, you may find a kindred spirit in Bazan. If the faith aspect doesn’t speak to you, it’s simply an interesting story about a musician at a crossroads in his life and career.

Strange Negotiations had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their 24 Beats Per Second documentary series.

SXSW: Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall

“These people have let you into their lives… to violate that trust is criminal.”

Jim Marshall (1936-2010)

In Jim Marshall’s illustrious career as the photographer to the stars, he captured some of the most enduring images of Rock-n-Roll legends. He elevated artists with quality photographs, capturing their images with a level of intimacy that required trust and an attention to detail that signaled respect. And that’s what these artists had with Jim Marshall, a mutual admiration. The musicians offered him their vulnerability and he in return showcased them as the rock stars they were.

In director Alfred George Bailey’s new documentary, Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall, we learn about the man behind the camera. From his early days making a photography scrapbook, to his legendary career as a celebrity photographer, this film charts the ups and downs of this talented yet difficult man’s life. It includes footage of Marshall reminiscing about his career as well as interviews with the people who knew him best including his former assistant Amelia Davis, fellow photographers, friends, musicians and a variety of experts. Notable talking heads include actor Michael Douglas (Marshall was an on-set photographer for the show The Streets of San Francisco) and Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Who did Jim Marshall photograph exactly? Everybody. In the documentary we learn about his work with some of the following artists:

  • Janis Joplin
  • Jimi Hendrix
  • John Coltrane
  • The Grateful Dead
  • Bob Dylan
  • Joan Baez
  • Jefferson Airplane
  • Ray Charles
  • Miles Davis
  • Crosby, Stills and Nash
  • Thelonius Monk
  • The Beatles
  • The Who
  • The Rolling Stones
  • The Doors
  • Johnny Cash

“Jim had an eye for the moment.”

Graham Nash

The biggest takeaway from this film is not the legends Marshall collaborated with, although that is pretty interest too, but the analysis of what it took for him to do his job and to do it well. We learn about how a photographer relates to his subject. Marshall was an active and passive participant. He blended in seamlessly with the scene yet was not afraid to plant himself into the personal space of his subjects. 

“He died like a fucking rock star.”

Amelia Davis

Jim Marshall was quite a character himself. His love of guns and his drug use got him into trouble. And his temperamental personality often ostracized those near and dear to him. There is a dark side to every great artist and Marshall was no exception. Yet his body of work speaks for itself.

Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall is a compelling portrait of a difficult man with great talent who made an impact on the careers of the 20th century rock stars we know and love.

Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall screened at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their 24 Beats Per Second series.

Slamdance: Memphis ’69

“But the music prevailed…”

Directed by Joe LaMattina, Memphis ’69 is a new documentary that serves as a time capsule for the 1969 Memphis Birthday Blues Festival held on the 150th anniversary of the city’s founding. Made up almost entirely of archival footage from the three day festival, a few title cards at the beginning give the film some context. The festival ran from 1965 to 1969 during a time of much racial strife in the city. It was one year after the Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and the KKK held a rally in the city concurrent with the event.

The folk and blues revival of the 1960s helped launch new stars of the genre but also allowed for the rediscovery of older blues performers. A wide range of blues, folk, country and even gospel musicians performed on stage for a motley crew of attendees. The attendance fluctuated throughout the three days but it never put a damper on the spirits of the musicians who played their hearts out. 

Memphis ’69 takes viewers on a time travel trip to this one-of-a-kind blues festival. It lingers over many of the performances and also captures the spirit of the time. All of the performers featured in the documentary are long gone and this film now serves as a tribute to them.

Performers featured in Memphis ’69 include:

  • Rufus Thomas
  • Bukka White
  • Nathan Beauregard (106 year old, blind performer)
  • Sleepy John Estes
  • Yank Rachell
  • Jo Ann Kelly
  • “Backwards” Sam Firk
  • Son Thomas
  • Lum Guffin
  • Rev. Robert Wilkins & Family
  • John Fahey
  • Sid Selvidge
  • Molloch
  • John D. Loudermilk
  • Furry Lewis
  • Piano Red
  • Jefferson Street Jug Band
  • The Insect Trust
  • Johnny Winter
  • The Salem Harmonizers
  • Mississippi Fred McDowell

Memphis ’69 was screened at Slamdance 25 and is nominated for a Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary Feature.

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