Tag: Jim Brown


Still Bill

December 10th, 2011 — 11:10pm

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Still Bill- nf  It is very possible that you have never heard of  singer songwriter Bill Withers unless you are a big fan of rhythm and blues of the 1970s-1980s and thereabouts. But almost for sure  you have heard recordings of him singing his music , Lean on Me, Aint No Sunshine, Just the Two of Us and many other great hits of that time. Damani Baker and Alex Vlack as young filmmakers knew about his music and a little about the man and as is often the case with Independent films, it took them about 11 years to make this documentary. Needless to say , it has a great music track. It is a film not just about the man and his music but it is about the character of man who wasn’t out for the adulation and glory that easily descended upon him. He cared about expressing himself in the stories that he wanted to tell through his music. He led an unlikely career and then faded from the public music scene at the height of his fame. He was born the youngest of 6 children in the  coal mining town of Slab Folk  West Virgina . His grandfather was born a slave and he was greatly influenced by his grandmother whom he immortalized in one of his classic songs, Grandma’s Hand . He stuttered for the first 28 years of his life  He enlisted in the US Navy and worked as a mechanic and then took a job in an aircraft factory. Around this time he started playing the guitar and writing songs and decided to give it a try when he was given the opportunity to record an album. He had no idea if it would work out and was prepared to continue his work “ installing Johns on planes.” Almost overnight his album was a gigantic hit and he found himself on the Johnny Carson show. This documentary begins with a 70 year old seemingly very contented Bill Withers who hasn’t been on the music scene for probably at least 20 years. He is married and his daughter is  finding her way as a singer. He reflects on his career and how he has faded into the background because, as he says, he just doesn’t have much to say at present. He appears to be financially secure having had 3 gold albums with numerous successful songs and having toured and sang with many great musicians. The film makers show the essence of this man through informal conversations with several of his friends including Tavis Smiley, Jim Brown (the football player) , Bill Russell (the basketball player) , his son, wife, daughter and others.  At times he tears up as for example when he visits a school where young students with stuttering problems put on a small concert for him. In a heartwarming sequence although perhaps somewhat contrived, he decides to go back into the studio with a good friend who is a blind musician and his daughter. They begin to write and record. Wither’s delight in the process and in the music seems genuine and is wonderful to watch. The documentary ends on this note. You get the feeling that there is now more to come. (2009)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Documentary, Musical

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel

September 8th, 2010 — 9:43am

Hugh Hefner* * *
Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel
– sp – Filmmaker Brigitte Berman won an Oscar for her documentary film about iconic musician Artie Shaw. Hugh Hefner is a great jazz aficionado and founded the acclaimed Playboy Jazz Festival which is how they had occasion to meet and get to know each other. Berman then decided that she wanted to make a documentary about Hefner but one, which shows the largely unknown side of the man who in most people’s minds represents the Playboy lifestyle of beautiful women and lots of sex. Hefner liked the idea of such a film and gave Berman free access to his vast archives as well as participating in extensive interviews with her. Friends of Hefner such as James Caan, Tony Bennett, Dick Cavett, Joan Baez, Jessie Jackson, Jim Brown, Bill Maher, Dick Gregory and others also gave very fascinating interviews. What emerged in the two hour and 4 minute film was a picture of a hardworking man who was determined to be a success. He loved women (many women) and did not believe that he was demeaning them by making them sexual objects. More to the point of the documentary, he had a sense of fairness and acceptance that was completely color blind at a time when much of the country and certainly the entertainment industry was not. He did not allow discrimination towards blacks to occur in his Playboy Clubs and commonly showcased black entertainers on his after hours TV shows. Interviews with Jessie Jackson, Jim Brown and Dick Gregory were extremely clear on this point. Hefner also did not hesitate to have writers, who were blacklisted as communists or communist sympathizers by the nefarious Senator Joseph McCarthy, to continue to write for Playboy magazine under their own name, which was unheard of at that time. This film is not only enlightening about these contributions of this man but it also is quite entertaining as it includes wonderful clips of Sammy Davis Junior performing as well as adlibbing on the Hefner TV show. There was a young Tony Bennett performing in his relaxed style. We saw a beautiful Joan Baez singing and youthful Pete Seeger doing his thing with some injected clips of the craggy older Seeger reflecting on the significance of Hefner’s support of him and his causes. James Mark Stewart provided an excellent original score for the background of most of the movie There are a few counterpoints to the Hefner’s views about sexuality and the Playboy life style which are periodically presented in the film by such people as Susan Brownmiller, Pat Boone and others. They are shown as weak rebuttals, at times almost humorous. It is clear that this film is an admiring tribute to Hefner now in his 80s. Ms. Berman director, producer, writer and editor told us that Hefner was extremely pleased and touched after seeing the documentary. The filmmaker said that she wanted to show him objectively as he really was which led me to ask her if there was anything in the film that Hefner didn’t like? She said no. The film comes to an end with Hefner being true to his philosophy and reinventing himself after two marriages by now having seven intimate girlfriends which he then cuts down three. There is a very revealing statement by this older guy reflecting on his life. He indicated that he understands that his outgoing life style of loving and enjoying many women has to do with the fact that his parents were very cold and rejecting. In fact as a child he says he was never hugged. Even though he has had a very successful life, it is sad to see the lingering effects of what has been missing from his childhood. 2010

Comment » | 3 Stars, Documentary

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