Monday, August 8, 2022

film review: Studio 17: The Lost Reggae Tapes



Directed by Mark James

Review by Allan Tong

ChinoKino score: A-

Peter Tosh, Lee "Scratch" Perry, Dennis Brown, Alton Ellis, Lord Creator and Bob Marley are some of the reggae greats who graced Studio 17 in downtown Kingston in the 1960s and 1970s. This fine British documentary spotlights this crucial chapter of reggae and Jamaican history. At its unlikely centre is a Chinese-Jamaican family, headed by matriarch "Miss Pat" Chin, her late husband Vincent, and his son, Clive. Vincent was nicknamed Randy which was also the name of the record store attached to the studio, just like legendary Stax Records in Memphis.

The Chins' story teems with charming anecdotes, near-fatal twists and tragedy. The Chins were one of many Chinese families who comprised the merchant class of Jamaica. The Chins started reselling ska 45s in the early 1960s, and soon expanded into recording musicians themselves. Legendary engineer Clive Thompson helped shape the clean, balanced sound of Studio 17 which attracted Jamaica's reggae artists. Business was good at Randy's and Studio 17, and their early success mirrored the optimism of newly independent Jamaica of the 1960s. Clive established a reputation as a top producer of danceable ska which morphed into harder-edged reggae to reflect the growing cynicism of Jamaicans by the late-1960s.


In Studio 17, Miss Pat and especially Clive guide the viewer through Studio 17's rise. They're augmented by reflections from reggae legend Jimmy Cliff, UB40's Ali Campbell and Dave Stewart formerly of the Eurythmics. They recall Peter Tosh as a spiritual man who smoked the sacrament of ganja everywhere, including a Pan Am flight to New York; and of Bob Marley covering the bubblegum anthem, Sugar Sugar (quite well, actually). Clive recalls narrowly missing the assassination attempt on Marley during a violent national election. That political unrest and the threat of Communism forced the Chins and other Chinese-Jamaican merchants to flee the island in 1978. Clive and Miss Pat literally left everything behind, including the library of tapes recorded at Studio 17.

Though Clive later moved the tapes to his new home and record store in Queens, New York, it took a murder in the Chin family years later to convince Clive to digitize the aging reel-to-reels and release select collections to the public. Miraculously, the tapes survived. This includes an unfinished demo by Dennis Brown. A few years ago, Clive enlisted teen British singer, Hollie Stephenson, to add a new vocal which turned that demo into a sparkling duet that Dave Stewart co-produced. That is a wonderful sequence in the film. Another great story is of UB40 rescuing Lord Creator from poverty by covering his ballad, Kingston Town, in 1989.

The story of the Chins and Studio 17 is so entertaining that it compensates for the film's only flaw. Reshma B is a London journalist who interviews the subjects and sometimes pops up on camera. This is distracting and unnecessary. Making things more confusing is that someone else is narrating the film. Just who is telling this story? Luckily, the film keeps circling back to the Chins to restore its focus.

Studio 17 fills a hole in the history of reggae. It offers captivating viewing for lovers of reggae, Jamaica and cinematic storytelling.

Studio 17 will screen on August 10 in Montreal, August 14 in Ottawa and August 15 in Toronto. Check local listings for details.

Friday, July 15, 2022

art review: In The Wake of Progress


Directed and photographed by Edward Burtynsky

ChinoKino score: A-

Review by Allan Tong

Edward Burtynsky's giant photographs of strip mines, garbage dumps and high-rise jungles warn us of environmental catastrophe. His trademark images are so large, detailed and in-your-face that the message of humanity's impact on the environment being unsustainable is unmistakable. It makes sense that many of his images shot over 40 years now make the transition to a cinematic experience, called In The Wake of Progress, presented by Toronto's Luminato Festival.

The multimedia exhibit, located by the Canadian Opera Company in downtown Toronto, and running only June 25-July 17, consists of three parts and requires roughly an hour to absorb. Nearly half of this experience starts with a slideshow of images shown on three 30-foot screens accompanied by powerful, abstract music co-produced by Bob Ezrin (Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, Aerosmith), composed by Phil Strong, and performed by the Glen Gould School at the Royal Conservatory of Music and Cree-metis vocalist iskwe. Think Koyaanisqatsi bursting through a powerful sound system that leaves the floor trembling. This presentation is stunning and is the core of this exhibit.


Next, the audience views several photos in a traditional gallery setting. The images differ from the in the AV presentation but strike the same theme of environmental damage shot from places as diverse as Arizona, Turkey, Australia and Madagascar (above).

film review: Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Song, A Journey

 

Directed by Dan Geller & Dayna Goldfine

ChinoKino score: A-

Review by Allan Tong

There are many songs, but only a few become hits, and one or two endure as anthems. Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah is an unlikely anthem. This captivating new documentary charts the song's unlikely path to immortality and details its creator's lifelong conflict between sex and spirituality that birthed Hallelujah.

That birth nearly didn't happen. The 1984 album that Hallelujah appeared on, Various Positions, wasn't good enough to be sold in the United States. That was the verdict of Columbia Records' chief, Walter Yetnikoff who explained to the poet-singer: "Leonard, we know you're great, but don't know if you're any good." The album eventually surfaced on a smaller label in the U.S. and Hallelujah would find its way into Bob Dylan's set list. More importantly, John Cale, the co-founder of the legendary Velvet Underground, covered it in a plaintive, yet moving version on the 1991 tribute album, I'm Your Fan.

 
Cale's versions reached some important ears. Another hero of this story is Jeff Buckley who covered Hallelujah in the only album recorded in his short life. With his angelic voice and moving delivery, Buckley's version inspired countless other musicians, including U2, who popularized Hallelujah even further. Then, an unlikely appearance of Cale's cover in the hit animated film, Shrek, made Hallelujah mega. From there on, Cohen's song about tortured love illustrated with Biblical imagery appeared on countless singing TV contests, weddings and funerals.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

The Prism Prize returns in person


by Allan Tong

The Prism Prize for Canadian music videos returned to a live audience at the TIFF Bell Lightbox last week in downtown Toronto after two years of virtual presentations during the pandemic. Ali, performed and directed by Mustafa, took home the $20,000 grand prize after 130 jurors named it the best among a strong field of ten videos. The audience award went to Khanvict and director Anjali Nayar for Closer. A full list of winners and the videos themselves can be found here.

It's the tenth year of the Prism Prize, which recognizes the achievements of emerging music video directors and musicians. This year's nominees for top prize included The Beaches for Blow Up, Chad VanGaalen's Samurai Sword which should take a prize for the most memorable animation, and two by BABBADNOTGOOD, Love Proceeding and Timid, Intimidating for its smart jazz-rock fusion standing apart from the other nominees' hip hop and rock.

Thursday, July 7, 2022

film review: Dreaming Walls: Inside The Chelsea Hotel

 

Directed by Maya Duverdier & Amélie van Elmbt

ChinoKino score: B

Reviewed by Allan Tong

You may have heard of the Chelsea Hotel. It's that Gothic hotel-apartment that towers over 23rd street in Manhattan where artists of all stripes have stayed for days or years. Musicians like Maria Callas and Jimi Hendrix loved it for its thick walls and soundproof rooms. Arthur C. Clarke wrote the screenplay to 2001 here. Bob Dylan composed Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands here. Andy Warhol shot a film here in the mid-1960s. Leonard Cohen memorialized his stay in song,and Patti Smith wrote here. One or two Ramones resided here. Painters and sculptors of all styles call this home. In the past, they used to pay their rent with paintings that adorned the lobby.

Those walls are being renovated now as artistes are leaving. This documentary chronicles this transition as new owners spend years and millions of dollars upgrading this shabby-chic grand dame. New York teems with hotels but none is like the Chelsea. There's a lot of controversy and confusion surrounding this massive facelift. Unfortunately, Dreaming Walls doesn't clarify that. The viewer has to read that online, preferably, or track down earlier films. And there lies the double-edge sword in chronicling this famous refuge.

 

Instead, this documentary follows several long-term tenants, who continue to create as they navigate workmen hammering, upgrading and rewiring their hallways, floors and ceilings. Many tenants are old and frail. You wonder how long they can stay at the Chelsea and where they will go next.

Tenants allude to former manager, Stanley Bard, a legendary figure and gracious man who accepted paintings in lieu of cash to pay the rent. It's a pity that the film doesn't shine a light on Mr. Bard. When I stayed at the Chelsea 25 years ago, I had the pleasure of talking to him at length. He was patient and considerate. He respected his tenants' privacy--which was why folks like Janis and Jimi crashed here. 

I'm of two minds about Dreaming Walls. I come to the film knowing the history of the Chelsea, so I could appreciate the intimate profiles of these longtime tenants. They don't want to leave, and I understand. The filmmakers treat the Chelsea with reverence and respect. I also get that. However, those who have never heard of the Chelsea may be left scratching their heads. Why is this place so important? True, past documentaries and books have chronicled the history of the Chelsea, so why recycle that? Then again, a little more historic context would have filled in blanks for less-knowing viewers.

Distributed by Mongrel Media, beginning July 8.

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

ICFF film reviews: The Treadmill & On Our Watch

 


The Treadmill (Tapirulàn)

Directed by Claudia Gerini

Written by Fabio Morici with Claudia Gerini and Antonio Baioccio (story)

ChinoKino score: A-

 

On Our Watch (E Noi Come Stronzi Rimanemmo A Guardare)

Directed by  Pif

Written by Michele Astori & Pif

ChinoKino score: B 

The Italian Contemporary Film Festival returns to Toronto's big screens in 2022 following an absence during the pandemic. The ICFF coped well by offering a fine selection of drive-in movies, but this year returns to the cinema proper as well as to home computer in a hybrid model. Directly and indirectly influenced by the pandemic, two of the best films involve technology, The Treadmill and On Our Watch.

The Treadmill stars Italian's renown Claudia Gerini who also directed and co-wrote. She plays a therapist named Emma who treats "clients" via videophone (a la Zoom) while she runs on a jogging machine. Why? It's good for her body and mind. 

 

She offers comfort to a depressed artist, persuades an abused wife to flee her abusive husband and helps a teenage boy accept his homosexuality despite living in a strict Catholic family. She listens and empathizes, even when a suicidal man insults her. Here, technology bridges patient with therapist, but therapist also uses technology to distance herself from others.

Emma herself reveals her own vulnerabilities when a long-lost sister tracks her down and begs her to see their dying father. Emma shuts her down and wants nothing to do with that man. Emma resumes jogging on her treadmill, but she can't flee anywhere.

Though a lot of the action on screen happens in Emma's condo, The Treadmill keeps moving and never feels stuck. The audience sticks with Emma from the first frame and follows her as she treats her client-patients as well as heal her own family rift. Gerini portrays Emma with natural ease, offering her character complexity and authenticity. All supporting characters are fleshed out and feel real. Gerini carries the film, which she scripted with writer Fabio Morici and Antonio Baioccio who conceived the story. The Treadmill is superb and marks a fine directorial debut by star Gerini.


On Our Watch takes a lighter, slightly comedic view of technology through Arturo, a mid-manager at a company who unsuspectingly introduces the algorithm which renders him redundant. Overnight, Arturo loses his job and girlfriend, and resorts to delivering food on his bike at a tech behemoth called FUUBER. Think Uber Eats and Foodora, but also Facebook, Google and Amazon all rolled into one suffocating megatech that tracks its users' lives across the internet. 

Wisely, Fabio De Luigi plays Arturo deadpan. The satire is already in the script on screen and director Pif controls the comedy to avoid it tipping into silliness. There is no shortage of mayhem. Anything that can go wrong for Arturo delivering food, goes badly. He pays FUUBER for a virtual girlfriend, rents a room to a real-life roommate who has his own digital problems, and keeps getting penalized at his job. He can't catch a break in this digital world. Eventually, Arturo gets fed up with FUUBER enslaving him, and crosses the ocean to find the real woman behind his virtual girlfriend.

In doing so, Arturo rips the mask off FUUBER and exposes its totalitarian grip on him and countless others. The end of the film takes a jarring dramatic turn and suffers from preachiness, but this is foregivable. On Our Watch is a witty, observant warning of the perils of digital privacy.

 

Monday, June 27, 2022

film review: Ennio

 


 

Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore

ChinoKino score:A

Review by Allan Tong

If you don't know the name Ennio Morricone, you have heard his music in films such as Malena, The Mission, In The Line of Fire, The Untouchables, Days of Heaven, Once Upon A Time In America, and the one that launched him internationally, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. The Italian trumpeter and classical composer scored over 400 films in his 91 years and is considered the greatest. Morricone collaborated with director Giuseppe Tornatore on 1988's Cinema Paradiso, which was was a Valentine to cinema. So is Ennio, which Tornatore made as an obvious tribute to Morricone. The result is an essential documentary about the Maestro and the mysterious, but powerful art of creating music for film.

 

The strength and structure of Ennio lies in the subject itself who freely shares his life story from his childhood in Rome. Morricone wanted to be a doctor, but his father ordered him to take up the trumpet like he did in order to feed his family. Hungry years inevitably dawned, which did not satisfy the young trumpeter. Morricone studied classical composing which was unusual for a trumpet player. Versed in Verdi and Mozart, of course, Morricone surprisingly admired avant-garde musician John Cage who was infamous for making music out of ordinary sounds. Morricone's gift for melody, his classical training and his affection for experimentalism gradually made its way onto Italian, TV then film.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

film review: Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road

 

Directed by Brent Wilson

ChinoKino score: B+

Review by Allan Tong

Five minutes into this new documentary about Brian Wilson, I thought, Oh, no, not another Brian bio. The opening sings the praises of the genius behind the 1966 masterpiece, Pet Sounds, how his songs fueled The Beach Boys' rise to stardom, and he has forever left his mark on popular music. As a Brian fan, sure, I agree with all that, but I've also heard this before in other docs.

Then, Long Promised Road takes viewers on a different ride. Literally. The rise is with Brian and longtime friend Jason Fine who get in a car and drive to Brian's old haunts around Los Angeles as they spin tunes by the Beach Boys (as a group and individually), and Brian reminisces. This is the key to the film where Brian opens up about his troubled family, marriage, career, and personal and legal battles. Now, this is new. The film captures the shy Brian unguarded through a camera resting unobtrusively on the car's dashboard. Fine first met Brian as a journalist profiling the musician for Rolling Stone magazine, and they've remained buddies ever since. Fine gently coaxes unfiltered thoughts and reactions out of Brian that will surprise casual and hardcore fans alike.

The ride covers the usual bases, starting with Brian's abusive father. The film excerpts an infamous 1965 studio clash between (drunk, belligerent) father and son during the recording of Help Me, Rhonda and stops outside his childhood home. Here, a wall sculpture now honours his band. The ride takes him to his old luxury home, where folks like Sly Stone dropped in (and passed out after getting stoned). The ride goes to more innocent places, like Paradise Cove where the Beach Boys posed for the cover of their first album (a plaque now marks the spot). Through it all, Brian makes unguarded reflections, great and small, about his career highs, disappointments, battles with mental illness, drug use, and his love for his brothers. These are simply the highlights of this film.

The most revealing moment comes when Fine informs Brian that former Beach Boys' manager, Jack Rieley died a few years ago. Brian is speechless, stunned, and tears well in his eyes as he processes the stunning news. After some heavy pauses, Brian announces that his heart is broken--and we feel for him.

Unnecessarily, the film cuts away to Brian's famous admirers (Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Linda Perry, Taylor Hawkins, Don Was) to tell us how great Brian's music is. This interrupts the flow of Brian's ride and adds little to our overall understanding of him. Granted, these stars say nothing inaccurate, and it's a thrill to hear Sir Elton recall going ga-ga over his idol when they met in the 1970's.

Another issue with the film is that it meanders, also jumping back to Brian rehearsing and performing with his current band. I get it: Brian remains an active, creative artist to this day, but again these jumps break up the film's overall flow and don't build up to anything.

However, vintage film clips are chosen well. One interesting clip is an early interview with the young Beach Boys where brother Dennis flirts with a female interviewer. This nicely detours into a sequence centering on the handsome bad boy, and Brian explains how close they were. Cocaine was one bond, but it went deeper than that. One commentator points out that playboy Dennis and introverted Brian secretly envied each other, though the film glosses over Dennis' battles with addiction which eventually killed him at age 39.

Finally, the film deserves credit for exploring the theme of mental illness with sensitivity. Brian has long suffered from schizoaffective disorder, in which he hears bad voices in his head and wrestles with periodic depression. A link between his father's abuse (mental as well as physical) is strongly implied. This disorder to is stated at the start of this film and colours everything we then see. Brian's condition led to disgraced therapist Eugene Landy taking over Brian's life and even career in the 1970's through the early 1990's, until Brian successfully sued him. Landy (who died in 2006) is seen only in still photos, thankfully.

In the end, you admire Brian for surviving his long, hellish journey to somehow keep making music while also raising five adopted children. (We briefly see his two daughters from his first marriage.) Director Wilson (no relation to Brian) indeed takes us on a journey through the wonderful, harrowing and unique life of a special musician.

Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road is now available on VOD.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

film review: The Beatles: Get Back (sneak preview)

 


Directed by Peter Jackson

ChinoKino score: B+

Review by Allan Tong

Delayed by the Covid pandemic for 18 months, and hidden by the band itself for decades since its 1970 theatrical release, the very-long-awaited Let It Be film finally sees the light of day this American Thanksgiving weekend. However, tonight in Toronto, a 100-minute sneak preview of the new eight-hour, three-part docuseries that will stream exclusively on Disney+ on November 25-27 was shown at the TIFF Lightbox cinema #1, one of the classiest movie houses in the city.

This is, in fact, not the 1970 film directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, but re-imagined by Peter Jackson. His reinterpretation is based on 60 hours of 16mm film footage and 150 hours of audio tape that's been restored and enhanced into eight hours. The preview revealed 100 minutes.

It starts with Jackson cradling a Hofner bass and telling the camera how he felt unsure at first about tackling this massive project. Let It Be, he says in so many words, is The Beatles' epitaph, long known as a depressing diary of the band's final days. However, he changed his mind when he began watching the original footage which he discovered dispelled this myth. We see him walk through an underground labyrinth and into a vault containing rolls of the original film canisters, which would make any Beatles' freak drool.

Jackson then explains how technology plays a big role in his film. He demonstrates on the big screen how machine learning or artificial intelligence teased apart a mono track into multi-track audio. In other words, he shows us the Beatles jamming with all the instruments and vocals lumped into a single, sludgy mono track, then he plays only the lead guitar in isolation, then Paul's bass by itself, then Ringo's drums alone, then the vocals. If you've never heard this, it is incredible.

Another breathtaking moment happens when the original grainy, dirty 4x3 film bursts into gorgeous, widescreen imagery. The colours explode and the screen bursts with stunning visual detail. The Beatles come alive before our eyes.

Jackson then introduces a montage, running roughly five minutes culled from the eight-hour series. The tone is overwhelmingly cheerful as the Beatles joke and jam, clearly challenging the long-held epitaph myth about Get Back/Let It Be that Paul McCartney himself has described as "the most miserable sessions on Earth." (More on this later.) The montage feels like a long promo, but at least we see and hear the digitally scrubbed footage on the big screen--and it is stunning.

Jackson then introduces most or all of the filmed session of January 27, 1969 that took place in the basement of the Apple office at 3 Saville Row. What Jackson doesn't mention (perhaps the finished film does) is that the Beatles were miserable filming in the grim Twickenham Film Studios earlier that month, and were delighted to locate to the cosy Apple basement where a studio was hastily constructed. Also enlivening the mood was the presence of an old friend from the Beatles' Hamburg days, keyboardist Billy Preston whom George invited. The jovial Preston lifted everyone's mood which is clearly seen in this footage. This section runs roughly half an hour.

What follows is the jewel in the crown of the original Let It Be and likely Jackson's cut: the rooftop concert. I don't need to introduce. All I will do is applaud Jackson for employing split-screen footage to capture the reaction of the startled/delighted/grumpy crowd in the streets below, the various Beatles onstage having a great time performing live for the first time in three years, and the police who eventually end the show. Jackson does a fantastic job intercutting the footage shot on the street, in the Apple lobby (through a hidden camera), from a rooftop across Apple, and from various angles on the rooftop to create a thrilling sequence. This sequence puts you on the rooftop (at least on the big screen). The audio, remixed by Giles Martin (who did a superb job with the Beatles' box sets starting with Sgt. Pepper) leaps out of the screen. The bass and drums are muscular. The Beatles kick ass on the rooftop.

All in all, the 100-minute preview was a pleasure to watch and hear on the big screen. However, I wonder how Jackson will handle the Twickenham sessions where the Beatles looked glum, John was strung out on smack, George rows with Paul, and apathy gripped the band as Paul sadly tried to rouse his bandmates into another take of Two of Us. 

Disney+ subscribers will know soon enough, starting Thursday when the streaming service premieres part one of the docuseries; Friday will unveil part two, then part three, including the rooftop concert, will be shown Saturday. Remember: this is one part per day. After that, you got to pay extra to see it. It's rumoured that the Blu-ray/DVD set will come out in the new year.

Beatles' fans will be thankful this year, but I will be eager to see if Jackson whitewashes the "most miserable sessions on Earth" or reveals fresh truths of the most controversial, but hidden, chapter of the Beatles' legend.

The Beatles: Get Back docuseries streams exclusively on Disney+ starting November 25, 2021.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

film review: Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free: The Making of Wildflowers

 

Directed by Mary Wharton

ChinoKino score: B

Review by Allan Tong

This new documentary unearths the sessions of Tom Petty's Wildflowers album, based on 16mm footage shot by a friend in 1993-5. It amounts to a tribute rather than an exploration of the late musician, told with care and respect, though offering few revelations. Petty fans will revel in seeing him recording in the studio and discussing his songwriting craft. Occasionally, the normally personal Petty opens up. This is significant, since Petty was a guarded individual though apropos here, because Wildflowers was one of his most reflective, personal statements. Hence, this is a canny choice of a period in the artist's life to spotlight.

The film is largely seen in black-and-white, and intercuts to concert footage, say at the Hollywood Bowl, or to an interview in colour. The B&W apporach casts the film in the past. Remembrances abound, mostly laudatory which is frustrating for the viewer. However, patience leads Petty to eventually admit that Wildflowers was about his troubled marriage, but even here he says it was unconsciously done. Petty's daughter disagrees; she insists this album declared her father's feelings more than other statement. She also admits that her dad was going through therapy at the time.

Rick Rubin weighs in on the actual recording. He enters the story explaining that he found Petty too "melodic" until Full Moon Fever, a global smash that (ironically) yielded several radio-friendly hits. Petty admits that he never officially hired Rubin who, instead, was simply there offering feedback on a regular basis. Rubin chimes in that his hip-hop background influenced the rhythm of the hit, You Don't Know How It Feels. He also lauds Ringo Starr's guest drumming for its presence. Also getting a nod was Mary Jane's Last Dance that Petty quickly wrote and recorded to fill a greatest hits collection. Not bad for a knock-off.


Aside from Petty and his daughter, past band members like Mike Campbell and producer Rick Rubin chime in. The latter confesses that he found Petty and the Heartbreakers too melodic until Full Moon Fever, Petty's worldwide hit album that ironically featured pop hits like Free Fallin'. Song excerpts are illustrated by effective animation. Overall, the film flows well and gently guides the viewer through the making of Wildflowers. It doesn't dive too deeply, though. After all, we don't hear much about the troubled marriage after the initial mention though that friction fuelled the heart of the album. However, this film is the closest that fans and viewers so far have gotten of Tom Petty. Thankfully, Somewhere You Feel Free, honours what is perhaps the most important work by this beloved rock 'n' roll musician.

Somewhere You Feel Free premieres in selected theatres for a limited engagement across Canada, starting October 20.

Friday, May 7, 2021

film review: Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street

 


Directed by Marilyn Agrelo

ChinoKino score: A

Review by Allan Tong

Chances are you grew up watching Sesame Street and/or your children watch it now. Its blend of entertainment and education charms pre-schoolers into teaching them the alphabet and counting, and yet is smart enough to entice grown-ups. Sesame Street deserves to be a global phenomenon for the last 52 years and 4,561 episodes (and counting), and this superb documentary explains how this happen.

Circle back to the late-1960s when a TV producer named Joan Ganz Cooney and a Carnegie Foundation exec and psychologist, Lloyd Morrisset, were alarmed that children, especially Black ghetto kids, knew how to sing beer commercials before they could recite the alphabet. Why not use the power of TV to educate? That was a revolutionary idea, but also a gamble. Ganz gave free reign to free-spirited creatives, who were riding the experimental vibe of the sixties. They were led by director Jon Stone and puppeteer Jim Henson.

Stone was disillusioned with TV, but like Cooney was an activist and understood her vision for this show. Stone saw a PSA shot in the streets of Harlem and decided to set the series on those stoops, which gave the show an identity light years from any previous children's show. Going further, the show featured a multiracial cast of Blacks, Latinos and whites that was revolutionary for its time and (sadly) decades to come. Stone's masterstroke was inviting Henson to come on board. Actually, Henson had only done puppetry for adults on TV, but was game to adjust for children.

Throw in a mix of dazzling animation, Big Bird and hip musical guests from Stevie Wonder to Johnny Cash, and Sesame Street became an instant smash. Even folks like Muhammad Ali were signing its praises.

Monday, May 3, 2021

film review: Chinatown Rising

 


Directed by Harry Chuck & Josh Chuck

ChinoKino score: A

Review by Allan Tong

Though it was completed before Covid struck, Chinatown Rising couldn't be more timely. Racist attacks against Asians, particularly those of Chinese descent, have erupted across the United States and Canada. Asians are being scapegoated for the pandemic, but Asians are now fighting back, and they can draw inspiration from the earlier generation, depicted in this riveting documentary.

Co-director Harry Chuck was a film student and community activist in the turbulent 1960s. He was part of that generation that grew up after the Chinese Exclusion Act and were no longer afraid of keeping quiet. This younger generation was inspired by the Black Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. Their turning point came in 1965, when the U.S. liberalized immigration policies and many more Chinese were allowed into the country (the Exclusion Act had forbidden it). In 1969, the activists demanded a school at the San Francisco State College to teach the contribution of the Chinese community. Also, they wanted Chinese to be used in classrooms in order to teach younger immigrant kids. They clashed with the Six Companies, a group of Chinatown elders whom they felt were out of touch and ineffectual.

The activists demonstrated in the streets, sometimes battling the police, and they fought city hall. Victories came, but not easily. The activists also worked hands-on within the community, particularly to stem the rise of street gangs, fed by kids who didn't assimilate and turned to crime. Tragically, they likely killed the head of the Youth Services Center, Barry Fong-Torres (brother of celebrated Rolling Stone magazine writer Ben Fong-Torres). Also in the 1970s, activists demanded better housing for the elderly and young families. Thankfully, Chuck captured these squalid conditions on camera which were presented at a rancorous city hall debate.