DOC NYC spotlights highs and lows in music documentaries


This year's edition of DOC NYC, the eighth, continues its tradition of exploring and expanding the boundaries of documentary. With 111 features on the schedule, it can be difficult to find your way around. That's why it helps that director of programming Basil Tsiokos, artistic director Thom Powers and executive director Raphaela Neihausen have split the program into 18 sections, or themes, such as True Crime, Science Nonfiction and Sonic Cinema.

The seven features in Sonic Cinema run a gamut of musical styles from classical to hardcore. They also show the strengths and weaknesses of a genre that often settles into complacency.

Some music docs are geared strictly for fans. They follow a chronological timeline, from childhood to success, building from interviews and archival material. If the musicians cooperate with filmmakers, the documentary will include them in interviews. If not, filmmakers rely on whatever they can get, usually public-domain TV interviews, TV performances (often lip-synched), and more recently promotional clips and music-videos.

Take The Beatles, Hippies and Hells Angels: Inside the Crazy World of Apple. You'd think by now, after official anthologies and a BBC TV series, the subject of The Beatles had been exhausted. But director Ben Lewis has managed to construct a feature-length documentary almost entirely from recycled material and the often-suspect recollections of people who used to work for Apple, the multimedia company the group formed in 1967 in part to stave off bankruptcy.

The Apple entity, which still exists, refused to cooperate with the documentary, as did surviving band members. Lewis is left interviewing accountants, secretaries, chauffeurs and the occasional musician.

There's plenty of public-domain photos and footage, most of them heavily altered. Black-and-white footage is colorized, aspect ratios are ignored, filters (imitating scratches and grain) are added, photos animated and distorted. Lewis backs them with easy-listening or lounge versions of Beatles hits, the original recordings unavailable except in brief snippets from films.

The memories of those interviewed are often hazy or outright wrong. Narrator Peter Coyote, apparently chosen because he used to be a hippie and once visited the Apple offices in London, adds innocuous commentary that fails to explain how the company actually operated.

Apple was known for its excesses and failures. The artists it signed, like James Taylor and Jackie Lomax, left the label for more stable record companies. Its main movie, Magical Mystery Tour, was a financial and critical failure.

Having employees largely out of the decision-making loop add their two pence does almost nothing to increase our understanding of The Beatles. Nevertheless, look for The Beatles, Hippies and Hells Angels: Inside the Crazy World of Apple to anchor many upcoming PBS fundraising campaigns.

David Bowie: The Last Five Years examines the artist's last albums and his play Lazarus, contrasting them with clips from his earlier work. Bowie controlled his image more than any rock star of his time, maintaining a core mystery despite groundbreaking tours and music-videos. The Last Five Years emphasizes his theatrical approach over the years, with generous clips from videos, backstage footage and interviews.

Producer and director Francis Whately shot much of the material after Bowie's death in 2016 from cancer. He interviews musicians who worked with Bowie in his final years, as well as longtime producer Tony Visconti. Whately also shoots band members in rehearsals as they pretend to play back to Bowie's vocals. Most of the songs (except a version of "Five Years" Bowie sang on "The Dinah Shore Show") are truncated, broken up by talking heads whose observations aren't always relevant.

A portrait of Bowie gradually emerges. His humor, sense of experimentation and impatience with celebrity contrast with his insularity and paradoxical thirst for fame. But there's little in The Last Five Years that Bowie fans don't already know.

Also in the Sonic Cinema section: Bill Frisell: A Portrait, looking at an innovative guitarist whose work spans jazz, rock and country; Itzhak, about the legendary classical violinist Itzhak Perlman; Hello Hello Hello: Lee Ranaldo: Electric Trim, in which the Sonic Youth guitarist records an experimental album; The Godfathers of Hardcore, on New York City's Agnostic Front; and Streetlight Harmonies, about the rise of doo wop.

Eric Clapton will attend DOC NYC's closing-night film, Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars, which concentrates on his start as a rock and blues guitarist in groups like The Yardbirds, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, and Cream.

The best musical documentary at this year's DOC NYC could be director Sam Pollard's Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me, found in the Centerstage section. Pollard, also represented this year by Maynard, about Atlanta's first black mayor Maynard Jackson, directed 2016's Two Trains Runnin', a fascinating account of how blues musicians Skip James and Son House were rediscovered during the Freedom Summer of 1964.

In I've Gotta Be Me, Pollard avoids all of the pitfalls of music documentaries. He starts out with a brief introduction to Sammy Davis, Jr., a talented but complicated performer whose mistakes in life were inextricably tied to his talent and to the society around him. On stage at the age of three, Davis worked in movies and on the "chitlin' circuit" instead of attending school. A dancer, singer, impressionist, actor and musician ("He played everything except his coat," says an admiring Janis Paige), Davis bore the brunt of racism during a transitional period in society.

Davis wore blackface on stage, was beaten and abused in an integrated unit in the Army, and was often a "token black" in television, on Broadway, in the Rat Pack. He was the first black person to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House, and one of the few black celebrities to endorse both Martin Luther King and Richard Nixon. He lost an eye in a car accident, converted to Judaism, had a contract taken out on his life for dating Kim Novak, and had his biggest hit with the dreadful "The Candy Man."

Pollard keeps a firm grip on the remarkable details in Davis' life, includes generous performance clips, and seems to understand what was behind this famously driven man. The songs selected—"I've Gotta Be Me," "Me and My Shadow"—explain a lot about who Davis was, as do interviews with admirers like Billy Crystal and Jerry Lewis.

By his account almost illiterate, Davis lived an incredible life, one that was circumscribed by his own poor choices and by the casual cruelty of a white ruling class. Help arrived unexpectedly—from Bill "Bojangles" Robinson; Eddie Cantor, who got him onto the important "Colgate Comedy Hour" on TV; Humphrey Bogart, who gave the performer tips on impersonating him; Jerry Lewis, who sat by his hospital bedside for a week after his car accident.

Pollard builds his picture of Davis carefully, honestly. By the time he performs on his 60th-anniversary special, Davis has become something remarkable for a celebrity: a survivor and hero.