Visionary Restored Road Trip Documentary “Route One/USA” Echoes Our Current Struggles

Restored and digitized by Icarus Films, this 1989 journey down Route One exposes still timely concerns: racism’s legacy, stressed health professionals, struggling immigrants, decaying cities, a religious right and a press under attack



Great movies allow their main characters to live their own lives, to be set free from the kind of rigid determinism that all too often comes from too-carefully plotted screenplays or too-conventional audience expectations.

By those standards, as well as many others, director Robert Kramer’s Route One/USA — which begins streaming Friday Aug. 28 at Cincinnati World Cinema’s website and continues through Sept. 30 — is a great movie.

First released in 1989 but little seen then, Route One has been restored and digitized by Icarus Films and is getting a national release. Because it is 4 hours long, it streams in two parts. In The New York Times last week, critic J. Hoberman said that the film feels so timely “most of it could have been filmed last year.” 

It features the actor Paul McIsaac as Doc, a 1960s political radical who became a physician and is now returning to this country after working in Africa. He comes back for a road trip with an old friend, director Kramer, to see how the country has changed — or hasn’t — during his absence. Doc is looking for a place to be an altruistic doctor as well as a decent person. He is friendly, sometimes hopeful, but also deeply introspective and, in general, constantly searching. He consistently takes actions that catch us — and the movie — by surprise. 

In Boston, Doc visits a neighborhood Portuguese food market/gift shop, winding up drinking wine with the owner sitting among the wooden kegs. “I think you’ve built a good life in America,” Doc says, before ruefully confessing that his own father — a Scottish immigrant — did less well. In a grim Bridgeport, Connecticut, which looks like a city bypassed by progress, Doc fidgets at a free but formalized Thanksgiving dinner for the needy, then goes outside and meets a man who offers booze from an apple juice glass. The man, somewhat worse for wear, proudly says he put his kids through college. In Fayetteville, North Carolina, he visits a frail middle-aged newspaper reporter, Pat Reese, who tells him he was shot in the mouth by a man he was investigating. Doc hugs him.

What is especially surprising is that Route One/USA is a documentary. Despite the presence of the fictional Doc, most of the people he meets are exactly who they say they are. (There are a few recognizable public figures, like Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson.) Critic Hoberman compared it to Robert Frank’s classic 1950s photography series, The Americans, for its ability to non-judgmentally allow its subjects to reveal themselves, as well as the nation they live in, for better or worse. That makes the presence of the fictional character Doc a great risk, but it works triumphantly. Rather than being nostalgic, it comes across as relevant — urgent, even — today. 


“Looking at Route One, I have to look at it not only in the context of what we did when we did it, but where we are today,” says McIsaac, in a phone interview from Long Island. “I’ve lost none of my enthusiasm for our political and moral commitments of that time as I see it again.”

Kramer, who died in 1999, himself was a 1960s radical who had left his country to be able to keep making films abroad. He envisioned Route One/USA as a chronicle of his homeland return after a decade in France. He and a small crew would take a long road trip from Maine to Key West along U.S. Route 1, which had been the primary route along the East Coast before modern expressways.

Kramer was the son of a doctor who entered Hiroshima shortly after the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb there during World War II. Kramer helped found Newsreel Films, a collective of politically active filmmakers out to document protest/resistance during a time of freedom/anti-racism struggles and opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He also moved into still-political but more personal projects, like 1970’s Ice, a drama about American leftists actually staging a revolution, and 1975’s Milestones, a poetic film about trying to adapt to changing times.

McIsaac, himself a political and cultural activist, met Kramer at Newsreel Films meetings, and was cast in Ice as one of the revolutionaries who survives the crackdown. He also had a background in acting, including improvisation. After losing touch, the two rekindled their friendship at a 1984 reunion of Free Vermont, a collective of activists — including Newsreel Films veterans — who had settled in that state. (An affiliated organization, the Liberty Union Party, started Bernie Sanders’ political career.) At the time, McIsaac was a radio documentarian making “Reunion of Radicals” for National Public Radio. 

Because they both still were working in media and the creative arts, their talk turned to working together. They discussed the idea of a character who felt the 1960s revolution and turned to medicine to help others. (Doc was somewhat based on Weather Underground member Alan Berkman, who survived a jail term and as a physician dedicated himself to helping AIDs patients.) So they made 1988’s Portugal-set Doc’s Kingdom, about a physician fighting burnout.

For Route One/USA, Kramer wanted to apply his skills, and his political sensibility, to a documentary focused on his own American discoveries. He had a tiny crew and at first wanted McIsaac to serve as a kind of location scout. 

ROUTEONEUSA05Robert Kramer Image Courtesy Icarus FilmsDirector Robert KramerPHOTO: COURTESY ICARUS FILMS

“One of the things I knew to do (as a journalist) was to go into town and figure out who is the most interesting person to talk to,” McIsaac says. “(Kramer) said, ‘Why don’t you do that? We’ll have a little money for it, and see what you find.’ So, I got on the road and started doing that. Now this is me — there was no discussion of Doc at all. And as we did that…we realized I wasn’t just finding people, but Doc was sort of pressing himself into it.”

The result is that Doc’s character explores his own past as well as that of the country he left. In Concord, Massachusetts he visits the meeting hall where Henry David Thoreau spoke out in support of abolitionist John Brown, who had raided a federal armory in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia to seize weapons and arm slaves for a rebellion. Brown was executed for his act. Doc reads the speech from the stage, breathing heavily from the strain when finished. (Kramer then moves to the next scene, a bitterly ironic factory that makes the red plastic houses and play money for the capitalistic Monopoly game.)

McIsaac says that Kramer’s crew had misgivings about his desire to play Doc in the film, since Route One/USA was to be about encounters with real people. This change meant those people would still talk about themselves, but now to an actor playing a role rather than to a documentarian asking questions.

“They said people are not going to talk to a fictional character,” McIsaac recalls. “I said I don’t agree, this is America and people are completely mediated. I was right. I can’t remember a single person who said, ‘Get out of my face’ or who didn’t get it. They immediately played their role. People know what it is to play themselves.”

The scene that still amazes McIsaac comes in Brooklyn, where Doc has a job interview with physicians helping AIDS patients at a beleaguered city hospital. One asks him how he could last for 10 years working in Africa and not be exhausted by the demands; he answers that “the idea of revolution pushed me for a time, then alcohol, some drugs.” One of the interviewers warns him, “You’re not going to get any kudos here. Nobody is going to go ooh and aah when you say what you’re doing. It’s a slow war on people, slow war on us.” 

They knew Doc was a fictional character being played by McIsaac, but it didn’t matter. “They were expressing themselves and saying just what they’d say to (a real) Doc, and they just totally got it,” McIsaac says. “They knew their role at that moment is as a doctor who works at an AIDS center talking to a doctor who worked in Africa and is looking for a place to work.” 

Apart from the narrative, which can reveal itself in short, sharp segments that don’t always provide context, director Kramer’s movie is consistently visually arresting — beautiful in its dedication to both straightforward and artful abstractions. He puts together quietly moving montages, like one of the foggy, doomy landscape around New Hampshire’s Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant that conjures ghosts of Chernobyl. Or he can focus underwater to portray a coral reef within an ethereal green dreamscape. The film also lets him explore some of his own interests without McIsaac: talking to refugees; visiting the grotesque Medieval Torture Museum in Saint Augustine, Florida. The film also has a beautifully spare musical score.

Route One/USA’s greatest surprise comes when Doc, in Georgia, decides to leave Kramer and crew. McIsaac made that decision because he felt it was what Doc should do in the moment. He then goes off to Miami and puts together a fictional life for Doc — a home, a girlfriend, a job working with Haitian refugees — that Kramer filmed as real because he acknowledged it made sense for Doc. It’s tricky stuff — post-modernist, maybe, or Brechtian in the way this portion of the film risks calling attention to its theatrical artificiality. Except it plays as true because Doc consistently seems so honest and open a character, and is so well integrated into the American landscape of the time. 

“As I look back on it, I think that was honest,” McIsaac says. “He wants a job that’s meaningful, wants a person to love, a place to be. He doesn’t want to keep drifting with Robert in his abstract cinematic world. I like the fact we can let Doc be just a person. That is another revelation for me — if you’re honest to who this character has become, you can’t impose your own values or desires on them. You have to let them be who they are.”

McIsaac has said in the past that Route One/USADoc’s Kingdom and Ice shape him as a kind of Odysseus trying to come home from the wars. That’s true, but the sorrows he finds in America — environmental concerns, racism’s legacy, violence, stressed health professionals, struggling immigrants, decaying cities, a nascent religious right, a press under attack — also make this film effective as a report from America today. And Doc serves as an inspiration for change.

“It’s very exciting to try to help and be part of movements today, based on what we did back then,” McIsaac says. “That’s very dynamic and very exciting, not as nostalgia but as a feeling that one’s life has continuity.”

Route One/USA streams in two 125-minute parts starting Aug. 27 and running through Sept. 30. Rental fee is $10 per household and there is a one-week streaming window. For tickets and more info, visit

ROUTEONEUSA01Image Courtesy Icarus Films
ROUTEONEUSA05Robert Kramer Image Courtesy Icarus Films
Paul Mc Isaac

Remembering a Groundbreaking Sergio Leone/Ennio Morricone Exhibit at a Los Angeles Museum



(I am reposting this story on the occasion of Ennio Morricone’s passing. Among other things, this museum show explored the influence that avant-garde New Music had on Morricone’s famous score for “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”)


It would be fitting if, for the duration of its “Once Upon a Time in Italy…the Westerns of Sergio Leone” exhibit, the Autry National Center called itself the Museum With No Name.

For Italian film director Leone is most famous for transforming TV actor Clint Eastwood into the enduringly mythic Man With No Name in a series of three mid-1960s “spaghetti Westerns”: “A Fistful of Dollars,” “For a Few Dollars More” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

The history and impact of those films, as well as of Leone’s artistry, are the subjects of this innovative and surprising multimedia exhibit at the Autry’s Museum of the American West in Griffith Park through Jan. 22.

Leone changed the very nature of Westerns, as well as notions of movie heroism/anti-heroism in his Eastwood movies and his subsequent epic, 1968’s “Once Upon a Time in the West.” Leone saved the movie Western, which had lost its audience to TV cowboy shows in the early 1960s, by making it cool and new for Boomer-era teenagers.

“We focus on his Westerns because the West is the mission of this museum,” says the Autry’s Estella Chung, the show’s co-curator. “And the work he did with Westerns is groundbreaking.”

The accomplishment of creating the Man With No Name persona is so great that it’s trumpeted by a rare 1966 poster at the entranceway to this show. It has neither the film’s name nor the star’s on it. Rather, it contains three illustrations of a rather disreputable-looking, shadowy character. One can’t tell whether it’s Eastwood or not.

With each picture is a slogan: “This short cigar belongs to a man with no name.” “This long gun belongs to a man with no name.” “This poncho belongs to a man with no name.” And then, the kicker: “He’s going to trigger a whole new style in adventure.”

Thus was movie history and pop-cultural mythos changed. But as Chung explains, Leone didn’t plan it that way. An original Italian-language script on display in the show reveals that Eastwood’s character at first was named “Ray.” But that got dropped as unnecessary exposition.

The Eastwood films were made cheaply in Spain and released in Italy between 1964 and 1966, where “Spaghetti Westerns” were such a radical new idea that Leone at first tried to pretend he was American. An early Italian film poster here lists the first film’s director as “Bob Robertson,” an alias. But the films became hits, despite the fact the casts were polyglots of various nationalities.

Yet when MGM was getting ready to release them in the U.S. in 1967, it was stymied from a marketing standpoint. Why would Americans want to see an Italian-made Western? So it decided to hype the lead character’s lack of a name. It worked. “That mystique was a marketing ploy,” Chung says.

This is not only the largest exhibit devoted to Leone, who died in 1989 of a heart attack at just age 60, but Chung says it’s also the biggest devoted to a motion-picture director, period. The show was co-curated by Sir Christopher Frayling, a Leone biographer as well as the chairman of Arts Council England.

Objects were loaned by Leone’s collaborators on his films, including Eastwood. The actor also serves on a star-studded Leone Film Arts Committee created by the Autry for this show. And there is far more than movie posters here. “We made a decision to only bring in material that had maintained its original look since used in his films,” Chung says. “And we were lucky to find so much.”

Plentiful background material, including old photos and comic books, show how Leone, the son of a director and silent-film actress, grew up in Italy fascinated by American pulp fiction. In 1946, he entered the busy Italian film industry and worked on many English-language sword-and-sandal movies being filmed at Rome’s Cinecitta studios, including “Ben-Hur.” In 1960, he directed his first movie, “The Colossus of Rhodes.”

In 1963, he saw Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s samurai-warrior film “Yojimbo” and was impressed with its loner, man-of-few-words star. “He said if you got rid of the swords and put a cowboy hat on the guy, you’d have a terrific Western,” Chung says.

This exhibit is at its best in showing how Leone was attracted to Eastwood. On a video monitor, it plays a scene from a 1961 episode of the TV series “Rawhide,” in which Eastwood played Rowdy Yates. Called “Incident of the Black Sheep,” it shows a quiet Eastwood exuding authority. “This is where he thought Clint Eastwood could be a star,” Chung says. “The myth is that he took a picture of Eastwood, drew some stubble, and put a cigarillo in his mouth to see if he made a star.”

The exhibit features original set-design illustrations and costumes worn by actors in “Once Upon a Time in the West” and a later Leone Western from the early 1970s, “Duck You Sucker.” (A gangster film that Leone made in the 1980s, “Once Upon a Time in America,” is not part of this show’s reach.)

The most famous object here is probably Eastwood’s trademark poncho (with sewn-up bullet holes). It’s in a case. “A lot of fans are curious about the origins of the poncho,” Chung says. “In the original script, he’d taken the poncho from a man taking a bath by the side of a river. But that scene was never shot. So we have the script explaining it all – in Italian.”

Another illuminating artifact is a script bearing the terms “primo piano” and “primissimo piano” as well as “P.P.” and “P.P.P.” Those mean “close-up” and “extreme close-up,” hallmarks of the groundbreaking way Leone chose to shoot gunfights to extend tension. Those brief notations represent five long minutes of actual screen time.

To recreate the proper environment for “Once Upon a Time in the West” artifacts and film clips, the museum commissioned a fiberglass life-size sculpture of the memorable opening scene, in which three gunmen waiting at a train station for “Harmonica’s” (Charles Bronson) arrival. That sequence, itself, plays on a screen with its eloquently eerie, famous soundtrack of just background noises, except for Bronson “talking” through his harmonica.

That was the idea of Leone’s musical collaborator, Ennio Morricone, whose quirky, eccentric work also is very much part of this exhibit. “Morricone had written music for that scene, but then he went to a concert of ‘incidental sounds,’ where all sound plays a part in the definition of music,” Chung says.

“In this case, it was of a man moving a ladder on stage and making a creaking sound. So he told Leone about it and they decided to do that approach in the film.”

From such disparate and unusual sources was an American cultural legacy made.


Ron Mael discusses new Sparks album ‘A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip’ and reveals details of two upcoming movies involving the duo — an unusual musical and a long-awaited documentary


(Editor/writer’s note June 25, 2021: I wrote this interview with Ron Mael of Sparks year for Rock’s Back Pages, when it looked like 2020 was going to be the duo’s long-awaited “breakout” year. COVID-19 interfered with those plans, but so far it seems like 2021 might actually be the year that the Mael brothers and their fans have long awaited. — SR)


When 2020 was still new, it looked to be The Year of Sparks, the beloved cult rock/pop band of brothers — Ron and Russell Mael — that have released 23 studio albums and numerous compilations since 1971. This year could still turn out that way, but COVID-19 has interfered.

The new studio album A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip was scheduled early on for May 15 release (digital at first; physical copies July 3), and Sparks began offering previews online. New songs like “One for the Ages,” “I’m Toast,” “Self-Effacing,” “Lawnmower” and “Please Don’t Fuck Up My World” showed Sparks still capable of their artful, quirky yet accessible pop songs enlivened by Russell’s theatrically expressive vocals and Ron’s expert keyboard work and lyrics emphasizing humorously sophisticated wordplay or just plainly spoken poignant truth.

That record is still coming out. But the Mael brothers also had announced a European tour with their supporting musicians for October — a prelude to a 2021 world tour. They also revealed that the long in-the-works movie for which they wrote the mostly-sung screenplay — Annette, by French auteurist director Leos Carax and starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard — was finished and ready for theatrical release. Further, they said, British director Edgar Wright’s (Shaun of the Dead, Baby Driver) feature-length documentary chronicling Sparks’ long career was quickly approaching completion.

What a year to look forward to! But then, the pandemic arrived in Europe and the U.S. (and much of the rest of the world). Public entertainment, such as movie theaters and concerts, pretty much was halted everywhere. The Cannes Film Festival, where Annette was scheduled to appear, was an early casualty.

During a recent telephone interview with Ron, ensconced in his L.A. home, he worried about whether the October tour could happen. And he displayed great anxiety about what the future might hold for Sparks if concerts return at some point with strict social distancing procedures in place. Sparks concerts have played a key role in giving the duo a raison d’etre for continuing. The shows are joyful celebratory events, a chance for close bonding among those devoted to Sparks’ unconventional musical aesthetic. Audiences also boisterously enjoy the brothers’ visual presentation, with the animated, exuberant Russell playing off the studiousness with which Ron plays keyboards, his Charlie Chaplin-ish mustache a longstanding trademark. When (and if) Ron breaks character and dances, everyone goes wild.

That friendly, lively rapport now is at risk. “I try not to dwell on it too much, but it’s so depressing,” Ron says. “It isn’t just a small thing for us. There are bands that don’t enjoy live concerts, but we love doing that. An album is almost an excuse for us to play live. In classical music there is shared experience, but it’s not quite as outwardly passionate as a rock concert or festival. There’s just no substitute for that.”

After the Mael brothers started the band Halfnelson in L.A., producer Todd Rundgren took the five-member group to Albert Grossman’s Woodstock N.Y.-based Bearsville label. When a first album flopped, Grossman — tickled by the brothers’ humor and concerned that Halfnelson wasn’t a good name — suggested Sparks Brothers because it rhymed with Marx Brothers. They compromised on just Sparks. The first album was reissued credited to Sparks and a second album debuted in 1973. Still nothing.

The Mael brothers relocated to England hooked up with Island Records in time for the glam revolution and its love of music with the kind of arty, hip knowingness reflected in the title of that second album, A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing.

Their 1974 British hit (and their first masterpiece) “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” still sounds miraculous today, an operatic pop song with a jittery melodramatic melody, a veritable sound collage of special effects, authoritative rock-guitar licks and Russell’s acrobatic voice reaching high notes worthy of Maria Callas. Their accompanying album, Kimono My House, also was huge. After some further British success, Sparks moved back to L.A. The Mael brothers have continued to compose and record such much-admired songs, to an international following, as 1979’s “The Number One Song in Heaven,” 1980’s “When I’m With You,” 1994’s “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way,’ ” and 2017’s “Hippopotamus.” There have been some detours — Annette and the Swedish public radio musical The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman — but general they’ve stalwartly produced pop.

A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, their first studio album since 2017’s Hippopotamus, opens with what may be a surprise to some fans — a heartfelt and straightforwardly emotional composition, “All That.” With a lovely Beatlesque melody and arrangement, driven by acoustic guitar strumming, handclaps and choral vocal effects, Russell sings, “All that we’ve done/we’ve lost/we’ve won/all that, all that and more.”

I asked Ron if this was a statement of purpose for the brothers, a vow of togetherness, considering he and Russell have been together as Sparks for almost 50 years. “I saw it less as an autobiographical thing,” he says. “We don’t have a lot of songs that are love songs, so I felt the challenge of trying to come up with something sincere but not achingly saccharin. I never thought about it as being anything about our working relationship. The two of us are not very sentimental when it comes to (that). We never speak about those things. Neither of us are introspective in those kinds of ways.”

The funny, charming “Self-Effacing” seems more conventionally Sparks-like. It appears a subtle self-referential put-on. After all, how can someone who publicly declares himself or herself “self-effacing” — in a song, no less — actually be so? It’s a contradiction, right?

“You’re right,” Ron at first concedes. “If you were truly self-effacing, you wouldn’t be writing a 4-minute song about it.” But then he begs to politely differ. “But I also just like the idea, with so many songs in pop and rock being so macho and self-assured, of somebody stating so strongly that they’re not that. In general, and I’m sure there are exceptions, we try to be as sincere as possible about things, but because of the way things are phrased, they can come out as, ‘What are you guys really getting at?’ Sometimes we’re not really trying to get to something; things really can be taken at face value.”

Ron and Russell long have harbored hopes of being involved with movies. In the 1970s, the late French director Jacques Tati, a comedy master, wanted them to appear in his Confusion project as American television executives set loose on a television station in rural France. But the film never happened.

Thus, they are particularly proud that a film they wrote some eight years ago, Annette, has been completed. And during the process they seem to have maintained a good relationship with director Carax, whose past films include the critically acclaimed Holy Motors and Pola X. The director actually put in a guest appearance on Sparks’ Hippopotamus album, singing “When You’re a French Director.”

Ron hopes, given the Cannes cancellation, Annette can premiere at another prestige festival later this year, if such festivals can resume. “It’s a story about a standup comedian, a real shock guy played by Adam (Driver), and an opera singer played by Marion (Cotillard), and they have kind of an affair that is unlikely because of the discrepancy between their manners,” he says. “And they have — I can’t go into too many details — a child who has some special talents, and the child’s name is Annette.” (Set in Los Angeles, the movie mostly was filmed on sets in Brussels, with some scenes shot it Germany and L.A.)

“It’s 95 percent sung,” Ron explains. “We actually wanted it all to be sung, but Leos felt some of the scenes could use normal dialogue even if just as a breather. But we’re really proud it’s basically sung from beginning to end.”

Of that music, he says that there are “a lot of pieces you wouldn’t necessarily call pop songs, although there are some of those in it, but it’s more geared to that (pop) stylistically. The only pieces that aren’t occur because Marion is supposed to be an opera singer in the film, so when she’s on stage she’s performing our style of opera in front of audiences.”

Driver, of course, received acclaim last year for singing Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” as part of his Academy Award-nominated performance in Marriage Story. So he’s going from Sondheim to Sparks. “A lot of times you almost forget he’s singing — it just sounds like Adam Driver acting, but within a musical context,” Ron says. “People really will be surprised. It’s one thing to sing one song, but to do it for 2 hours and 20 minutes, that’s different.”

Meanwhile, there is now a completed three-hour edit of the Sparks documentary that Edgar Wright has been working on. He wanted Ron and Russell to come to London and see it in a theater for the first showing, but they had to cancel once the pandemic struck. “He really likes it, but the plan is to also have a theatrical release,” Ron says. “So he’s trying to figure out how to get down to a two-hour version. We’d prefer to see it for the first time in a theater setting, rather than getting a link to watch it on computer. But if this goes on too much longer, we might have to do it that way.” (They have seen individual sections of the film.)

The Mael brothers think Wright is the right person to make a Sparks documentary. “We’ve had offers in the past to have documentaries done about Sparks and we always turned them down,” Ron says. “But when Edgar approached us we said yes immediately because of our respect for him as a director. He really understood what we’re all about and also has the energy and maybe even the discretion to try to maintain a certain amount of mystique about the band.”

Wright’s plan is to give equal weight to all phases of Sparks’ career. That fits Ron’s vision. “We didn’t want it to just be a nostalgic look,” he says. To highlight the present, Wright accompanied Sparks last year to shows in Los Angeles, London, Tokyo and Mexico City. “He feels what we’re doing now is as strong as anything we’ve ever done, so he wanted to make sure there is a balance to the whole thing,” Ron says.

Still, Sparks do have a long, colorful career that the film will explore. “He has very capable people working for him and they’re able to get footage we wouldn’t have been able to,” Ron says. “It’s a treat for us in a way. Some of it is slightly embarrassing but also kind of cool, old cooking shows in England in the 70s and all.”

Ron sees A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip as continuation — an advancement, actually — of Sparks’ vision of popular music as capable of having a commercially conventional structure, a fun danceable Big Beat (to quote a previous album’s title), and also be taken seriously for its unpretentious but not accidental artfulness.

Sparks records have been guided by that unifying belief since 1971, and there’s no planned change now even if Ron is 74, Russell is 71 and they’ve just written a movie musical of sorts.

“We think we can be as meaningful in pop music as in any other genre,” Ron says. “That’s why when we’re working on film and go back to working on an album, it’s always exciting for us to see how far we can continue to take that. That’s our first love — pop music. We like seeing what can be done with it that remains within the general area of pop music but is something very, very special. We’re always pleased whenever people notice that at least we’re trying.”

(Photo of new record album from website)

The Ohio Museum that Separates Johnny Appleseed History from Legend, and Celebrates Both



(Photo of illustration of Johnny Appleseed from Wikimedia Commons)


(Writer’s note 4/23/20: Today, the Enquirer reported that Urbana University — which became a campus of Franklin University in 2014 — will shutter for good due to financial problems. In 2012, I visited the lovely small town campus to write about its unusual Johnny Appleseed Museum. I hope it survives in some form, ideally at its existing location.) 

It is fitting that Florence Murdoch is buried at Spring Grove Cemetery, since it is home to a lovely statue honoring Johnny Appleseed. For Murdoch, who died in 1977 at the age of 90, was such a devoted protector and defender of Appleseed’s legacy that some think she funded the statue.

She didn’t, but without her gift the Johnny Appleseed Educational Center and Museum in Urbana, about 40 miles northeast of Dayton, would be severely devoid of information and artifacts. The museum, on the campus of Urbana University has the world’s largest collection of items related to Chapman. And authors writing about Appleseed would find it much more difficult to search information.


While Appleseed is one of the great American folk heroes, like John Henry and Paul Bunyan, his legend is actually based on the life, times and exploits of a true person. John Chapman, who lived from 1774-1845, was a nurseryman who traveled this region saving apple seeds and planting trees to help residents of the still-rugged frontier find shade and sustenance from the land.


He was born in Massachusetts and traveled Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana before his death in Fort Wayne. Through time and storytelling, he came to be portrayed as a mythical itinerant figure that walked the land barefoot and wore an upside-down pot as headgear.

He was also a missionary with the Swedenborg church, founded by followers of 18th Century Swedish theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, who claimed to have been directed by God to reform and update Christianity. A key church belief was that angels are real. Chapman traveled to Swedenborg meetings in Cincinnati in the 19th Century, as the church had made Cincinnati a Midwest center. (Urbana College is a Swedenborgian-founded university.)

And as a member of Cincinnati’s Swedenborg Church of the New Jerusalem as well as its librarian, Murdoch fiercely collected and preserved material related to Chapman, and advocated on his behalf. She had a personal connection – he stayed with her great-uncle, Milo Williams. (She grew up in Urbana.)

“She became known as the keeper of the Johnny Appleseed collection,” says Joseph Besecker, director of Urbana University’s Johnny Appleseed Society. “People sent her things they felt were worthwhile to save.” When the church, at the corner of Oak Street and Winslow Avenue, was demolished for Interstate 71 in the 1970s, all of Murdoch’s collection was donated to Urbana. (The church’s Tiffany-designed stained-glass windows, also preserved, were displayed this year at Taft Museum.)

Murdoch, who lived in Clifton and never married, held powerful sway in her church. In Carol Skinner Lawson’s short 1999 memoir of the Church of New Jerusalem, It’s Not in Buildings, she remembers the older Murdoch as “a pear-shaped lady of great determination (who) used her snapping black eyes to underscore her opinions.” She also says Murdoch was “a watercolorist who specialized in tiny florets, which she observed through a 30-power microscope as she pained the enlargements.”

Mary Ann Fischer, who today is keeper of the church’s records (the congregation no longer has a building) says she has heard colorful stories about Murdoch from members. “Florence had a great big trunk and traveled through Europe sell her stuff. She did that rather than having a coming-out party, because she did have a family with money.” She also helped the state purchase Cedar Bog nature preserve in Urbana.

The “definitive” biography of Appleseed, in Besecker’s estimation, would never have come about without Murdoch. The museum has bound copies of letters between her and Robert Price, an Otterbein College professor who wrote Johnny Appleseed: Man and Myth, that go back years before he finally published in 1954. (The book has been republished three times since, most recently last year by Urbana University.) Price’s book was groundbreaking in locating the actual properties that Appleseed owned and/or was active. He relied on her information and contacts. “As you look through the letters, it’s clear how much she helped,” Besecker says. “He gave her credit, but didn’t give her enough. He did the legwork, but she saved him a lot of trips by telling him where to go.”

The museum separates the history from legend concerning Chapman’s life, while celebrating both. It is inside the oldest building at Urbana University, the 1850 Bailey Hall. The historic building had been closed and slated for demolition before concerned faculty and trustees put the Appleseed museum there in 1999.

After a $1.6 million renovation to stabilize Bailey Hall, and a $75,000 remodeling of the museum space, the museum at Urbana University now has a bright, cheerful, modernized space. The gallery has one wall lined with book cabinets and an apple-shaped table for children. There are graphics repeating quotes about Chapman from the likes of General William Sherman, Sam Houston and Chapman, himself. In an entry room, there is a small gift-shop area with items ranging from books and photo reproductions to apple earrings and glass apples.

Some display items are pop-cultural – you can hear songs about Appleseed by Bing Crosby and Gene Autry; there’s a case full of Appleseed figurines. And there are offbeat ephemera – a fire department patch, depicting an apple, from Chapman’s birthplace of Leominster, Mass. Some items are historic. The museum owns the cedar apple press that belonged to an Urbana resident, John James, whose trees were planted by Chapman and who gave his land to create the school.

And for those doing library research, there is invaluable information on how he has been remembered throughout American and Ohio history. That includes files on Ohio’s now-forgotten Appleseed Highway, which followed existing state routes from the Ohio River in the southeast to Toledo and was planted with crabapple trees. The museum would like to replant and rededicate that highway.

It was Murdoch’s attempt to protect Chapman’s reputation that is responsible for one of the museum’s most fascinating artifacts – correspondence between her and Walt Disney Studios relating to its 1948 animated movie, “Melody Time.” These are framed and occupy choice display space. The film, which combined storytelling with American popular music, featured a segment on “The Legend of Johnny Appleseed,” (The character was voiced by a singer of the era, Dennis Day.)

Murdoch had only seen an ad for it when she wrote to Disney, on May 26, 1948, to complain that the animated Appleseed is shown with the “extraordinarily grotesque figure of a ‘guardian angel.” She requested it be changed to a child or the “spirit of the frontier.”

Less than a month later, she received a reply from Hal Aldequist, manager of Disney’s Story Department, that showed how seriously the company took her complaint. “We trust that after you have viewed the picture you will agree that we have treated the angel with a sincere respect and endowed him with a certain dignity,” he wrote. Aldequist goes on to argue that Chapman believed in “the direct physical manifestation of heavenly beings upon this earth.”

Murdoch did see and enjoy the film, and wrote back to say so. But she waited until 1955 to do it. That letter, and so much more concerning Johnny Appleseed, is on display at this museum.



Andy Warhol’s Silver Screen


AC1The Chelsea Girls1966Pictured Left To Right Nico Ondine;©2019The Andy Warhol Museum,Pittsburgh,PA,A Museum Of Carnegie Institute All Rights Reserved Film Still Courtesy The Andy Warhol Museum Andy Warhol’s “Chelsea Girls.” From left: Nico, OndineFILM STILL COURTESY THE ANDY WARHOL MUSEUM

So much of the creative work that Andy Warhol was associated with in the 1960s has become touchstone reference points of American culture that it’s tempting to call him this country’s one-man Renaissance. This month, there’s a chance to experience one hard-to-see aspect of his artistic prescience — his early movies, especially Chelsea Girls — at Columbus’ Wexner Center for the Arts.

We’re reminded of his Pop Art’s enduring impact every time we visit a museum. The band he managed, The Velvet Underground, is ground zero for the Indie Rock movement as well as adult lyrics in music. And the strange underground films he directed (sometimes with co-director Paul Morrissey) have become avant-garde cinema landmarks, as well as vivid chronicles of New York’s alternative artistic lifestyle of that fervid time. His actors — often improvising for the camera and seeming to portray themselves rather than characters — were called “superstars.”

This acceptance of his early movies has been a slow process — at the time, they seemed intentionally alienating or confrontational, with their slow pacing, deadpan tone and non-judgmental depictions of drug use and sex.

Of the approximately 60 films that Warhol made between 1963 and 1968, none has turned out to be more influential than 1966’s Chelsea Girls, codirected with Morrissey. Some three-and-a-quarter hours in duration, it featured 12 separate 33-minute reels (or vignettes) that often played more like extended, unedited improv. Chelsea Girls was sometimes slow going yet simultaneously riveting. It was originally presented split-screen style via two side-by-side projectors, each synchronously showing a separate reel, but only one had an accompanying dialogue track.

Watching it was a challenge: Where do you look? The different vignettes could be in grungy black-and-white or splendiferously psychedelic color. And the subject matter could be daunting at the time to a “straight” audience — superstars inject speed, a young man describes his LSD trip as it’s occurring, two men talk in bed.

For all the above reasons, Chelsea Girls has been a hard movie to see, even as its fame has grown. But now, the Wexner Center is presenting not only a new digital transfer of the film, but is also showing it in a series of other, shorter Warhol films.

The overall series is called Chelsea Girls Exploded and gets underway this Friday (Sept. 6) with a screening of Chelsea Girls and continues through Sept. 25. Organized by Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum and New York’s Museum of Modern Art, it will also present Afternoon and The Closet on Sept. 11; The Trip [Version 1] and [Unknown Eric Reel] on Sept. 19, and The John and The Pope Ondine Story on Sept. 25. These are important because they were either originally intended for inclusion in Chelsea Girls or are alternate takes from it — Afternoon, with the dynamic Edie Sedgwick, for instance, was removed from the film when she complained.

Additionally, Chuck Smith’s superb new documentary Barbara Rubin & the Exploding NY Underground — about a young, rebellious New York filmmaker and creative thinker of the 1960s who befriended and influenced Warhol, The Velvet Underground, Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan, among others — will screen Sept. 18, along with the radically visionary avant-garde film she made from 1963-65, Christmas on Earth.

Part of Chelsea Girls’ ongoing allure comes from the fact it is set in Manhattan’s Hotel Chelsea, at the time a bohemian paradise for artists, intellectuals and those who wanted to live near them. One of Warhol’s most famous superstars, the chanteuse Nico, not only is prominently featured in the movie but also subsequently released a tie-in album, Chelsea Girl, featuring a song written by Lou Reed called “Chelsea Girls.”

(While the hotel is one of the film’s locations, only one of its actors — poet René Ricard — lived there at the time. Further, not all the separate vignettes are about women; the movie should be called Chelsea Boys and Girls. Also, two of the vignettes are scripted by Warhol associate Ronald Tavel.)

It begins with “Nico in the Kitchen,” a black-and-white vignette notable mainly for Nico trimming her blonde bangs. I don’t say that sarcastically — her bangs descend like a meticulous waterfall over her lashes and even a bit of her eyes, so there’s real tension to the trimming process. It’s mesmerizing and far more interesting than so many clichéd commercial movies.

Another highlight is the vignette known as “Hanoi Hanna,” which Tavel wrote for Mary Waronov, who went on to make some much higher-profile movies, including playing the stern principal in the cult classic Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.

It appears she is rehearsing the part of a North Vietnamese radio host during the Vietnam War, interrogating (or perhaps brainwashing) an American woman.

Waronov’s face in close-up can move from being warm and teasing to cruel and dominating, and her voice has a chilling calm to it that tries to avoid but also reveals a personality. Her Hanna also announces over the imaginary airwaves a menu for her “listeners” — “Chinese apples with 1,000 seeds of blood, blue strawberries, and may we suggest for dinner squash.”

The vignette known as “Eric’s Trip” or “Eric Says All” is famous in itself — Sonic Youth named a song after it. In the scene, the young, long-haired Eric Emerson narrates us through his LSD trip in real time. Warhol’s photography provides colorful psychedelic effects. I’m not sure if what Emerson is saying is profound, but he’s so involved in self-discovery — describing how a chill going through his body feels good, declaring how he likes to “groove on sex” — that you can’t help but like him.

You certainly like him (and LSD) compared to “Pope Ondine,” who injects himself with speed before beginning his spiel as a priest hearing confession from a young woman, Ronna Page. (There are two separate Ondine vignettes in Chelsea Girls.) When Page questions his wisdom, he violently, brutally attacks her — for real. It’s shockingly upsetting (Page escapes and isn’t seen again), especially because Warhol’s camera never stops running and he seems so non-judgmental about depicting what’s occurring. I would have called the police.

But even here, you have to acknowledge his commitment to Warhol’s vision. Ondine desperately stays with the filming and tries to keep performing. Warhol’s superstars showed an amazing dedication to Chelsea Girls.

For directions to the Wexner Center for the Arts and information about movie times, tickets and fees, visit

Overlooked But Unforgotten: Documentarians Refuse to Let the Figures and Events of the Age of Unrest Fade from History

Tania, aka Patty Hearst. From Robert Stone's 'Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst,' a Magnolia Pictures release. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures(Tania, aka Patty Hearst. From Robert Stone’s ‘Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst,’ a Magnolia Pictures release. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)


Shola Lynch, director of Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed , has had an ongoing discussion about the nature of remembrance with her father, a retired history professor at Columbia University.

Why does history so quickly forget so many fascinating people? she asks him. She knows the father-daughter, back-and-forth by heart: “I go, ‘He was left out of American history!’ And he says, ‘A lot of people get left out.’ I say, ‘But that’s unjust.’ And he says, ‘Relax.'”

But she hasn’t relaxed and accepted it—and she’s not alone, either. Lynch is among a growing group of documentary filmmakers making features about often-forgotten or overlooked figures and events from the turbulent 1960s and 1970s-the “backwash,” so to speak, from the simultaneous political, sociological and cultural revolutions of the period.

One person Lynch felt had been left out is Shirley Chisholm, the African-American  New York congresswoman who in 1972 improbably sought the Democratic presidential nomination. She was the first black woman to do so.

In that year, the first in which 18-year-olds could vote for president, Chisholm was one of many Democrats seeking the unenviable task of challenging President Nixon. But she also represented something more—the aspirations of women and minorities to fully participate as equals in all aspects of society. Including being President of the United States.

“I studied American history, and I knew very little about her,” says Lynch, who at the time was too young to be aware of Chisholm’s campaign. “So, as a woman and a person of color, it made me think there are all these other people who may have been left out of the American historical landscape. I thought I’d start with her while she was still alive. Often, historical documentaries tell stories about people who have already passed, so they don’t get to participate in the telling of the story.”

Lynch’s film, which Lantern Lane is preparing for a limited theatrical release before a POV broadcast on PBS early next year, reveals just how serious and thoughtful Chisholm’s campaign was.

Besides Unbought and Unbossed , there are other new documentaries about this period. One, Steve Vittoria’s One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern, even covers the same 1972 Democratic primary—as well as the Presidential election that underdog liberal Democrat candidate McGovern, an anti-Vietnam War South Dakota senator, lost in a landslide.

Others include Guerilla, Robert Stone’s look at the Symbionese Liberation Army’s (SLA) kidnapping of Patty Hearst; Negroes with Guns, about early Black Power advocate Rob Williams and his flight to Cuba; and Home of the Brave, Paola di Florio’s remembrance of Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights worker slain in Selma, Alabama, in 1965.

These follow such previous works as the Oscar-nominated The Weather Underground (Sam Green and Bill Siegel, dirs./prods; Carrie Lozano and Marc Smolowiz, prods.); The Cockettes (Bill Weber and David Weissman, dirs./prods); Alcatraz Is Not an Island (James M. Fortier, dir.; Jon Plutte, prod.); MC5* A True Testimonial (David C. Thomas, dir./prod.; Laurel M. Legler, prod.); Festival Express (Bob Smeaton, dir.); The Same River Twice (Robb Moss, dir./prod.) and others.

For the most part, such films are looking back at the liberal/radical side of that era’s famous “generation gap,” when a youth- and minority-oriented protest culture, with its own heroes and celebrities, challenged virtually everything that older society valued. Divisions over Vietnam and civil rights, especially, often spilled onto the streets. With time, the nation made its accommodations with its various rebels and moved on. Some parts of the counterculture successfully merged with mainstream pop culture, while others were written off and faded from public consciousness.

Except, apparently, from the memories of documentary filmmakers.

In a way, these new films represent a revived “power to the people” movement, albeit backward-looking, to redress history’s forgetfulness. It’s helped by the fact that many subjects are still alive and eager to do interviews, and also by the plethora of available footage. It’s also helped by a philosophical sense of mission among the filmmakers.

“You fail a lot in pursuing success,” Lynch says. “But somehow in history we only talk about the success. I could not be interested in history until I understood the failures that lead to success. And this is from a period where there was a feeling of hope that I, as an individual, could make a change. That’s not failure.”

That’s certainly how Chisholm, herself, sees her life. Now retired, but still outspoken in the same demonstratively articulate way she was in 1972, she closes Lynch’s film by saying, “I want to be remembered as a woman who lived in the 20th Century, who was a catalyst for change.”

If Lynch’s motivation for the Chisholm film is to teach people who she was, Vittoria’s purpose in One Bright Shining Moment is to restore McGovern’s reputation. Most people still have an opinion about him; he’s derided as a loser.

“American history has used George McGovern’s campaign for the past 30 years as a punching bag for producing the biggest presidential loss,” says Vittoria, whose film will screen at this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival and then seek theatrical release. “But my message is that in fact it was one bright shining moment in American politics. He was being fair and honest with people, working on issues instead of rhetoric. He got destroyed by one of the most unsavory characters in political history.”

For Vittoria, the film also was a way to finally meet McGovern, who is now 81 and cooperated with the project along with Gary Hart, Warren Beatty and others active in the campaign. In 1972, as a teenager, Vittoria temporarily dropped out of high school to work for the McGovern campaign. Afterward, fired by political activism, he ran for the school board in West Orange, New Jersey, while still a 16-year-old student. It took a decision from a US Supreme Court justice to get him off the ballot.

Whereas Chisholm and McGovern sought change within the system, Rob Williams, the subject of Negroes with Guns, was ready to fight the system, if need be. A black activist in Monroe, North Carolina, in the 1950s, he got into trouble for advocating armed self-resistance against the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups.

Questionably charged with kidnapping a white couple, he fled to Cuba in 1961, where he exhorted blacks via his Radio Free Dixie broadcasts to fight for power. He also wrote the book Negroes with Guns, the story of his life and a manifesto, of sorts. Returning to the US in the early 1970s after first going to China, he became a symbol for the Black Panthers and other militants but never a crucial player in the civil rights movement. He died in 1996, a mere footnote.

Sandra Dickson, who wrote and co-directed (with Churchill Roberts) the film with support from the University of Florida’s Documentary Institute, says she likes stories about “unsung heroes.” She earlier made Freedom Never Dies, about a forgotten Southern civil rights activist, Harry Moore, who was murdered by segregationists.

“He’s an incredibly important part of the civil rights movement that hasn’t gotten much attention, so people don’t know the story,” Dickson says of Williams. “Rob was representative of the way many African-Americans felt, particularly in the South. They were non-pacifist, particularly when off the protest line.”

For some filmmakers looking at contemporary America, studying the revolutionary militancy at the fringes of 1960s and 1970s protest has value. They want to root around in that era’s shadowy corners, looking for hidden keys to what troubles us today.

“In many ways, there was a wound that opened in American society then, a conflict as to what sort of direction our country would go in, what we would be about, what we would stand for,” said The Weather Underground ‘s co-director Sam Green, when interviewed by this writer for a recent Denver Post story. “That hasn’t entirely healed. It keeps bubbling up in strange ways. A lot of these movies are trying to come to terms with that. They’re trying to make more sense of it than simple histories of the ’60s and ’70s would do.”

Nothing seems wilder—or more aberrant—about the period today than the story of the California-based SLA, which assassinated an Oakland school superintendent in 1973 and then kidnapped Patty Hearst in 1974. Though tiny, it was essentially a revolutionary cell. Stone’s Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, about that event, will be released theatrically by Magnolia Pictures in November.

The film is lively and frequently even witty, incorporating images from old movies and TV series like The Adventures of Robin Hood and Zorro to attempt to show the all-American roots for the SLA’s strange ideas. Stone also shows that the group could be trenchantly biting in critiquing Big Business and Big Media, as when it issued demands on Hearst’s father, newspaper publisher Randolph Hearst, to spend his money giving away food.

And when Patty Hearst joined the SLA and started participating in bank robberies and issuing leftist communiqués of her own, the story set off the kind of hysterical journalistic circus that today seems commonplace. She eventually was arrested, and she stood trial and spent time in jail; other members were either killed in a shoot-out with Los Angeles police or are in jail now for a bank robbery that resulted in a woman’s death. “The story is epic,” Stone says of the SLA. “I certainly think it merits a feature-length tribute.”

Stone’s 1987 film Radio Bikini, about the atomic bomb testing at Bikini Atoll in 1946, was an Academy Award nominee. He subsequently directed and edited a multimedia exhibition about President John F. Kennedy for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, among other projects. He is interested in finding contemporary meaning in historical events, and believes the SLA’s impact continues to reverberate.

“Their adventure really marked the end of what we know as the 1960s,” he says. “A whole period of upheaval came to a symbolic crashing end with the SLA. I think that’s one of the things that drew me to the story. It was a way to come to understand these crazy times we were emerging from. The SLA was probably the most extreme group politically to emerge from the time.

“One of the interesting things about the SLA is that their focus was anti-corporate,” he continues. “They were ahead of the curve, and a lot of what they said was true. That was another thing that drew me to it—you could separate the craziness from the core message, and there was some truth to it, which is probably why Patty Hearst got sucked into it.”

To Stone, we are not in a quieter time now, nostalgically looking back on the weirdness of those good old radical days of baby boomer youth. Since September 11, 2001, we are in a new, different kind of constant state of alert and fear—and there are lessons to be learned in the recent past.

“It’s always difficult when you’re in the middle of a transformative moment—as we are now—to come to grips with it and to make a film about it,” he says. “It’s a moving target. We’re in a swirl of chaos now. That’s why history is useful—to look back at things in the past where there are similarities and lessons to be learned.

“And it’s best to do that with a really good story rather than doing some kind of didactic documentary about terrorism and media,” he says. “If you’ve got a story that’s compelling and you can take people on a journey and they walk out and think about something, you’ve made a movie.”

Meanwhile, where will this documentary trend end? The better question is, What will the next one’s subject be? “Is anybody doing a film on Eugene McCarthy?” asks One Bright Shining Moment ‘s Vittoria.

D.A. Pennebaker’s Unreleased Dylan Film


(R.I.P. D.A. Pennebaker, who died Aug. 1, 2019 at age 94.)

BY Steven RosenDenver Post, October 17, 1998

IT’S 1966 ALL over again in the world of pop music – and the
Denver International Film Festival, which just concluded, was in
the center of it. That’s because the record Bob Dylan Live 1966: The ‘Royal
Albert Hall’ Concert’
 was just released this week – some 32
years after the performance.


It was instantly hailed as one of rock’s great live
recordings. And the publicity surrounding the long-delayed
release has interested old and young music lovers in the story
of how folk singer Dylan switched to amplified rock ‘n’ roll in
1965 and 1966. He changed pop culture forever.

Actually taped at the Manchester Free Trade Hall on
May 17, 1966, the new album reveals Dylan and his band playing
majestically loud in response to hecklers who wanted to hear him
solo, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar and harmonica. In
July, after the European tour was over, Dylan was seriously
injured in a New York motorcycle accident and for many years
retreated from touring.

The story of “Dylan goes electric” has become contemporary
myth on the order of Arthur finding Excalibur and becoming king.
Now, after all these years during which bootleg tapes circulated
among collectors, a wide audience can hear a concert recording
from that time.

But few people know there are still two never-released films
of Dylan’s 1966 European tour, where he and his band members –
including Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard
Manuel of the Hawks – played blistering rock ‘n’ roll to a
sometimes-resistant audience. (Dylan opened shows with an
acoustic set.)

But two people who do know about the movies were at this
year’s Denver film festival – directors D.A. Pennebaker and
Harry Rasky. Both were involved, to varying degrees, in trying
to make a movie of the tour.

“It is rather strange,” Pennebaker said. “You go for a
long period of time and there’s not much interest in it and you
think, ‘Well, it’s not as great as I thought it was.’ And then
suddenly something starts it back up.”

Pennebaker is one of the pioneers of cinema-verite
documentaries. He was in Denver with his wife and filmmaking
partner of some 20 years, Chris Hegedus, to show their latest
work, Moon Over Broadway. They also received the festival’s
John Cassavetes Award.

In 1965, Pennebaker filmed Dylan’s solo tour of England,
which occurred just before the musician’s shift to rock. That
movie became the now-classic Don’t Look Back. Dylan called
him in early 1966 to help film his upcoming European concerts.
Dylan had contracted with ABC to produce a television special
about his tour.

“We had a meeting in Los Angeles and Bob said, ‘You got your
movie and now I want you to help me make mine.’ And I said
‘sure,”’ Pennebaker said.

Dylan’s plan, apparently, was to create a film that was both
structurally and emotionally confrontational and radical – just
like his music of the period. (A spokesman at Dylan’s record
company said he was unavailable for comment.) But ABC had other
ideas, and hired Harry Rasky to be the director.

Rasky, who now produces documentaries for the Canadian
Broadcasting Corp., was in Denver to show his new Christopher
Plummer: King of Players.
 He recalled his Dylan ’66 experience
“one of the great traumas of my life.” He had just completed a
program on Fidel Castro’s Cuba, including a rare Che Guevara
interview, when ABC called him.

“It seemed to me they chose me as a free-minded guy,” Rasky
said. “But the minute Dylan found out I had been asked by ABC
to do the film, he thought I was the voice of authority.

“He said, ‘OK, you can make the film but I won’t listen to
direction.’ I thought I could ingratiate myself to him. So we
all went to London and stayed at the Mayfair Hotel. Dylan said,
‘We’re going to do things my way.”’

After a week, Dylan’s manager paid him a full salary to
leave. But he did have one unusual experience – attending a
private late-night screening of Don’t Look Back with Dylan
and the Beatles. When it was over, he said, he discovered the
Beatles asleep.

Once the tour began and filming started, Pennebaker recalled,
Dylan intentionally tried to keep people around him on edge.

“He was getting a big pot boiling, with everybody kind of at
odds and uncertain and confused and even a little … (annoyed)
and then film that condition in various ways,” Pennebaker said.

“It’s a way for people who aren’t filmmakers but are
consummate dramatists in one way or another to create a kind of
scene for a film,” he said. “They’re not writing; writing
scenes is an art in itself. So Bob just simply said, ‘I’ll get a
lot of people together and we’ll see what happens.”’

Pennebaker, who, along with Howard Alk, was filming selected
concert dates, doesn’t recall crowd response because he was
watching the musicians. “The music was wonderful,” he said.
“They were some of the best concerts I ever shot. It was
wondrous. And I was taken up with how to film them.”

In particular, he wanted to get close – right on stage, if
necessary – to film the musicians. “Dylan and Robbie (guitarist
Robertson) really were into it, and cut themselves off from
everything else, as if they weren’t even aware there was an
audience there. It was an amazing thing to watch.

“Always up to that point, when Dylan would go out acoustic,
he was completely aware of the audience – he dominated that
audience,” he said. “He almost dared them to make a noise or
get out of line. And in this case, it was as if he didn’t …
(care) what they were doing or thinking. And in order to get
that, I began to think we couldn’t film that with long lenses.

“I had to get out on stage, put a wide angle lens on the
camera and get into it, myself. That was a big decision. It
meant the first time Dylan came out on stage and I was standing
there with a camera, he almost flipped. He laughed because he
hadn’t expected it, but it made it possible to get the kind of
performance we couldn’t otherwise get.”

In June, after the tour concluded, Pennebaker said, Dylan’s
management found itself with no movie and facing an ABC
deadline. So at management’s request, Pennebaker edited his
footage into a 45-50 minute “rough sketch” called You Know
Something Is Happening.
 (The title comes from a phrase in a
Dylan song.)

“It would be like a continuation of Don’t Look Back,
Pennebaker said. “Don’t Look Back 2 – what happened when the
electricity was turned on.”

But Dylan didn’t like it and, with Alk, used different tour
footage to construct his own anti-documentary called Eat the
 ABC rejected it, and both movies have been more or
less forgotten.

But with the release of the new record, there has also been a
revival of interest in Eat the Document. The Museum of
Television & Radio branches in New York and Los Angeles are holding
special screenings of the film. There are no plans, however, to
make “Something Is Happening” available.

Rasky meanwhile said he still regrets not having the chance
to help Dylan make the kind of film he wanted – one that
explores a highly regarded, singer-songwriter’s personality and
relationship to his audience while also featuring music.

“But I made it up a few years later by making that film with
Leonard Cohen – The Song of Leonard Cohen,” he said.

That, too, has remained virtually unseen seen since its
Canadian TV broadcast.

Neil Young and Jonathan Demme talk about ‘Heart of Gold’ at Sundance




PARK CITY, Utah – Jonathan Demme orders orange juice for himself, Neil Young and this reporter at downtown’s  Zoom Restaurant — a  refreshing way to begin a morning interview on behalf of the concert film Neil Young: Heart of Gold.

The film, which Demme directed, features Young showcasing gently intimate, quietly thoughtful acoustic arrangements of folk- and country-rock songs from last year’s Prairie Wind CD, plus older material. The concert was staged for the camera over two days last August at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, with audiences present.

At the world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival two nights before this interview, the sold-out audience at the 1,270-seat auditorium gave a standing ovation to Young — dressed in black Western-wear and cowboy hat with longish gray hair — right at the start.

This reception was a kind of unspoken “thank you” from the audience to the 60-year-old Young for surviving surgery last year for a potentially fatal brain aneurysm. The melodic Prairie Wind songs, with quietly reflective lyrics about his life until now, were for the most part written and recorded between his initial diagnosis and surgery.

The movie, in turn, was a means by which Young was offering his own form of “thank you” for being alive. It was filmed not long after his recovery from the surgery. Young and Demme first worked together when the singer-songwriter contributed a song to the director’s 1993 drama Philadelphia.  Demme also made one of the all-time greatest concert films, Stop Making Sense, for Talking Heads as well as Storefront Hitchcock with British singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock.

“Everything I do in one way or another from now on is going to be a thank you — just walking down the street,” Young declares, sitting at the restaurant table next to Demme. His voice, unaffectedly straightforward and plainspoken, perfectly matches the direct way he looks at his interviewer while answering questions.

The Prairie Wind songs sound affecting in the film. And the elegiac power of the older songs from the late 1960s and 1970s, as well as from 1992’s Harvest Moon, is surprising. There’s something at work here besides nostalgia in his versions of such compositions as “Heart of Gold,” “Old Man,” “I Am a Child,” “Comes a Time” and “Needle and the Damage Done.”

In this film, they become about watching how Young has changed — or remains unchanged — while one is also struck by how preternaturally mature these songs were when written. As a young man, he already seemed so concerned about “getting old,” to quote a memorable phrase from 1972’s “Heart of Gold.”

“I seemed to know more about it then than I do now,” Young says, prompting him and Demme to heartily laugh. “I don’t even know where I was coming from back then.” That prompts him to remember the circumstances under which he wrote one of his earliest songs, the mournful “The Old Laughing Lady.” “It’s the oldest song in Heart of Gold, he says. “I wrote it before I even got to Buffalo Springfield (the late-1960s rock band in which he was a member). I was in a White Tower in Detroit, across from a club and wrote it on napkin in the middle of the night. I had no place to go, no house, no hotel, no money.”

The job of the troubadour, Young explains, is winning an audience over with new material and then making it hear the old songs in a new way. And that’s not easy for someone as famous as he is.

“I have to overcome the celebration aspects of it — you know, people see me and get so excited and want to hear every song that’s their favorite song,” Young says. “Once you succeed at that, people are opened up and really listening to you. So then we get to the point we’re doing old songs and they’re still in that mode. They’re going, ‘I’ve got to pay attention here.’ It presents a whole new look at the old songs. This is what singer-songwriters are supposed to do.”

Here, Demme — who will be 62 on Feb. 22 — interjects that a Boomer audience that grew up with Young may indeed hear some of those songs differently now than decades earlier. “I know, when I first heard ‘Heart of Gold’ or ‘Old Man,’ I loved them and I was really grooving to them,” he says, snapping his fingers.

“When I see them now in the film, the emotional kick lurking under those lyrics comes across to me in a way it never needed to do before. At that phase in my life I wasn’t contemplating anything. I was digging the music.”

Young acknowledges that important change. “In some ways, some of the lyrics resonate a little differently than they did,” he says.

He also credits his fellow musicians at the Ryman event for giving the older songs added power — they include Ben Keith on pedal-steel guitar, slide guitar and dobro; Spooner Oldham on B3 organ and piano; and singers Pegi Young (his wife), Diana Dewitt and Emmylou Harris.

After the interview comes to an end, this reporter takes a few minutes to collect belongings and go down the stairs from the restaurant’s second floor to the exit. Coming up from a quick break is Young.

So one final question is asked: What next? Young answers directly with the unexpected frankness of a man who is still a bit shaken by his experiences, but glad to be alive. “I’m just looking for a sign,” he says.

(Photo by Peter Bregg/Getty Images)

When Slavoj Žižek visited University of Cincinnati for a radical confab



I came across the Slovenian theorist/writer Slavoj Žižek in the recent movie The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, in which he passionately used scenes from Hollywood movies to spotlight his observations about the humanist struggle against repression and totalitarianism in oppressive capitalist systems.

His actual ideas were so densely intellectual, and delivered in such a rapid-fire manner, that I truthfully understood very little. But god (if I may use that word in reference to Žižek, an atheist), was he ever a fascinating cultural critic and film buff! In Pervert, he claims that one of John Carpenter’s more obscure horror movies — 1988’s They Live, in which aliens use subliminal advertising to control humans — is one of Hollywood’s most radically leftist movies ever.

Wanting to learn more about Žižek (pronounced Zhi-zheck), I discovered University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning was hosting the second-ever International Žižek Studies Conference and Exhibition. And it was going to focus on “parallax future(s) in art and design, ideology and philosophy.” Not only was it going to have a strong visual-art component, but Žižek himself was going to give a keynote lecture. So I attended last weekend.

It attracted around 100 or so Žižek scholars, students, artists and others from around the world — someone came from China. With panel discussions and workshops bearing titles like “Visualizing Metalepsis in Sites of Exception,” it wasn’t easygoing.  

Struggling to understand the concept of “parallax futures,” an important one in Žižekstudies, I asked the DAAP coordinator of the conference, assistant professor Kristopher Holland, what that meant. 

“We’re trying to figure it out,” he said. He also explained, as an example, that F. Scott Fitzgerald had first written and published Tender Is the Night one way, with flashbacks, in 1934, to poor reception. He then authorized a reconstructed version that was published posthumously in 1948. “So when we talk about Tender Is the Night, what are we talking about? Both exist. There are two ways of looking at things,” he said. 

The art for the most part was quite interesting. At the conference site, the mazelike DAAP building, several artists either had installations or did performances. Sue Wrbican from George Mason University encased a 1960s-era sail inside a 20-foot-high open bamboo construction to suggest the difficulty of navigating “between reality/fiction and male/female.” 

Nearby, Mira Gerard of East Tennessee State University intermittently reclined on a homey fainting couch and quietly read aloud from journals about her ongoing Lacanian psychoanalysis. 

In conjunction with the conference, DAAP’s Noel Anderson worked with Hebrew Union College’s interim museum director Abby Schwartz to curate a small but choice art exhibit called Parallax Futured: Transtemporal Subjectivities at HUC’s Skirball Museum. (It’s up through May 14.) 

The pieces tend toward minimalism and conceptualism with a twist. For instance, Tyler Hamilton’s “Untitled” features a concrete cube on which three metal legs have been attached, making it a kind of faux camera and tripod. And a beautiful small oil painting called “Mattress” by Zoran Starcevic is a close-up of gray-white mattresses seams, the repetition interrupted by a black diagonal slash. Is it, too, painted…or real? You want to touch it to find out. 

But the art — and everything else — took a backseat to Žižek’s own appearance Saturday afternoon. The DAAP auditorium attracted a couple hundred people who were enthralled by a rambling but fiery lecture (with Q&A) that went past two hours. 

Talking excitedly while compulsively tugging at his sweater or his face, the 65-year-old Žižek touched on so many topics so fast, good luck keeping track — Jacques Lacan to Ayn Rand, Marx to Edward Snowden, post-Colonial Africa to the Holocaust, the pending failure of global capitalism and so on.

But it wasn’t a dry dissertation by any means — the talk was peppered with non-academic words like “bullshit,” “stupid” and “blahblahblah.” And also with more of his fascinating, contrarian film references — he prefers Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to Spielberg’s Lincoln because it shows the violence of the fight against slavery. 

He believes Bela Lugosi’s 1932 horror classic White Zombie is vividly about class struggle. And he highly recommended the DVD of thriller The Butterfly Effect — “with the great American artist Ashton Kutcher,” he said sarcastically — for the atheist aesthetics of its “much more radical” non-theatrical-release ending.

As the applause finally ended, like at a Rock concert, I thought whatever else, he needs his own TV show. Maybe At the Movies With Slavoj Žižek? 



Rocker’s a role Bill Nighy can love, actually


Nighy has a blast playing a boorish, aging pop star in Richard Curtis’ new romantic comedy.

November 03, 2003|Steven Rosen | Special to The Los Angeles Times
“The bad granddad of rock ‘n’ roll? Yeah, that’s me, I guess,” Bill Nighy says, laughing at the thought of his late-blooming screen persona.
In Richard Curtis’ romantic comedy “Love Actually,” Nighy’s Billy Mack — a devil-may-care, foulmouthed aging British rock star — is given the “bad granddad” moniker by a DJ. He has recorded and is promoting a loathsome (to him) version of the 1960s hit “Love Is All Around,” with lyrics altered for Christmas. (The film opens Friday.) His dubious publicity tactics include impertinent and often-salacious remarks on interview shows. With his “stray cat blues” of a scratchy and growling voice, he gleefully cackles and snorts through his outrageous remarks. Whether or not he’s too old to rock and roll, he’s certainly too old to be polite. The record stinks, he says, so please buy it. He’s having a blast — as is Nighy in the part.

This is Nighy’s second turn as an aging rocker. In 1998’s “Still Crazy,” another comedy, he played the fumblingly insecure, frightened and wife-dependent lead singer of a 1970s-era British band attempting a comeback tour. It was “This Is Spinal Tap” humor, but undercut with melancholy and pathos. His character anticipated the Ozzy Osbourne we came to know on “The Osbournes.”


“We have rock ‘n’ roll pioneers now — they’re my generation or slightly older than me,” says Nighy, 53, sipping a Coke with lime on a restaurant patio. “We never had middle-aged rock ‘n’ rollers before because there was never rock ‘n’ roll before. So this is a new breed of survivor. And I seem to have the legs for it, apparently. In the 1970s, you had to have legs so thin you could get into those skin-tight pants.”

Indeed he does. Tall and slender, wearing a blazer over a blue sports shirt with his long legs packed into crisply pressed slacks, the British actor has a casually proper look far removed from his visually loud on-screen rockers. His thick black glasses tucked in a pocket so his blue eyes are unobscured, thinning brown hair gently brushed back, he exudes quiet politesse. If he were a British rock star, he’d be shyly debonair and erudite like Bryan Ferry. He even greets the arrival of his Coke with a liltingly delivered “lovely, smashing” compliment to the waiter.

This is only his second time in Los Angeles. The first was when “Still Crazy” received several Golden Globe nominations (but lost). “I’m terrible. I had never been to America until ‘Still Crazy’ came out,” he says. “My only excuse is that all actors get out of the habit of going places unless it’s part of their work. The idea is that if you leave, the phone will ring. And if you’re like me, you spend a lot of time without money in the early days so you didn’t go anywhere.”

Nighy is like this in conversation, almost apologetic in responding to questions. He has a self-deprecating manner, along with a wry sense of wordplay, that makes him seem embarrassed about his career, even though he clearly is proud of his work.

“I have a kind of recognizably average British career,” he says, without irony, before listing some enviable highlights. “I worked with David Hare a great deal, Tom Stoppard, Trevor Nunn. I’ve done world premieres of plays that I would suggest will be performed 200 years from now.” During one of those productions, of Hare’s “A Map of the World” at London’s National Theatre, he met his wife, actress Diana Quick. They have a 19-year-old daughter.

In the 1980s, Nighy also started appearing on British television — he most recently played a newspaper editor in the miniseries “State of Play.” And he also made the odd movie. “And then I got to be in ‘Still Crazy,’ which meant I could play principal roles in the movies,” he says. “And I’ve been in a number of independent British movies since.”

“Love Actually” is actually his fourth film to reach American theaters this year, following British indies “Lawless Heart” and “I Capture the Castle” and the wide-release horror film “Underworld.” In “Love Actually,” Nighy could be called a scene stealer, no easy feat in an ensemble-cast film featuring Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Keira Knightley, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Laura Linney, Billy Bob Thornton and others. Curtis, the writer of “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Notting Hill,” wrote and directed this bittersweet look at love and friendship in contemporary Britain. The characters range from the idealistic new prime minister (Grant) to the shameless sellout entertainer (Nighy). Not all the characters know each other, but there are degrees of connection among them.

“I got the script through the mail and was terribly grateful because he [Curtis] is the heavyweight champion of this kind of comedy,” Nighy says. “But I got the script just to do an open reading, to see which bits worked. And then we had to all go into this high-powered reading where if a bomb dropped on the building, British show biz would have been in serious trouble. No pressure, like, really,” he says, punctuating that observation with one of his quick snorts of humor. “But it went quite well and I got the job.”

He may also get a hit record out of it. Universal confirms that “Billy Mack’s” version of “Christmas Is All Around” will be released as a single in Britain on Dec. 15. On the same day, a new Christmas single by the actual boy band Blue — with whom Nighy’s Billy Mack is battling for the top spot on the pop charts in “Love Actually” — also will be released.

“Love Is All Around” previously was featured in “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” which resulted in a massive British hit by Wet Wet Wet. The original version was by the Troggs of “Wild Thing” fame and was a hit in Britain and the U.S. in late 1967-early 1968.

Nighy was born in Croydon, just south of London, where his father operated an auto garage and his mother was a psychiatric nurse.

The family lived in a house that came with the job, and he likes to say he was born in a gas station. He loved rock, especially the Rolling Stones; he also was shy with girls and enjoyed being by himself. “I’ve never gotten over the sound Keith Richards and Charlie Watts make — it’s my kind of thing,” he says. “As a 14-year-old male, I did throw a few shapes in front of the bathroom mirror with a view to maybe one day being selected by the great god of rock ‘n’ roll. But I became an actor instead,” he says, again with that telltale hint of apology in his voice.

After a youthful flirtation with a writing career that led to Paris and back, he decided to audition for the Guildford School of Dance and Drama. Nighy recalls it as a lark, prompted by a girlfriend, that ended in disaster when he inadvertently chose two female parts for his tryout. One was intentional, but he didn’t realize “Twelfth Night’s” Cesario was Viola in disguise. “I made a complete fool of myself,” he says.

By his second attempt, he decided he really wanted to be an actor. And he gave it all he was worth. One speech, as required, was from Shakespeare. The other, his choice, was from a 1965 Dennis Potter teleplay called “Stand Up, Nigel Barton.”

“I was amazed when I got in,” he says. “But I did all right.”

Billy Mack represents the latest one of Nighy’s screen portrayals — in comedies and dramas — of men behaving badly during midlife crisis. In “Lawless Heart,” he was a farmer scared to discover he was drawn toward adultery; in “Castle,” he was a blocked writer protected from the harsh world by his wife and daughters. “If you get to my age and you’re lucky enough to be working, the guys you’re playing are going to have a midlife crisis,” he says.

An exception, it should be noted, is Nighy’s portrayal of a vampire in “Underworld” — “He had a midlife crisis in the 14th century,” he jokes. Nevertheless, in his north London neighborhood, that’s the role currently getting him the most attention. It’s the first time one of his movies registered on box-office charts — even if he was under six hours’ worth of makeup.

“I’m quite famous now with the kids around my way,” he says. “I’ve always slightly worried the kids who play football around my house. They know I’m an actor, but felt slightly sorry for me because they’d never seen anything I’ve done.”

(Photo from Los Angeles Times)