Directed by Lee Daniels and starring Andra Day, this biopic portrays jazz singer Billie Holiday as an early victim of the War on Drugs. Tormented by the Feds because of her drug use and song choices, Holiday is a tragic figure in the jazz movement of the ’30s and ’40s. The singer was just 44 when she died in 1959. Everything changed for Holiday when, in 1939, she recorded “Strange Fruit,” a song about Blacks being lynched in the South. The FBI pursued Holiday from that point on, arresting her several times for heroin and opium possession. She spent a year in jail in 1947. Narcotics Bureau chief Harry J. Anslinger had it out for Holiday, who was arrested for heroin possession one last time while she was chained to a New York hospital bed. Day dives right into Lady Day’s raunchy character. She curses, drinks and smokes up a storm, shoots heroin (her “medicine”) and enjoys rough sex. Day’s vocals are convincing and her acting is surprisingly solid for such a meaty title role for the rookie actor. It netted her Golden Globe and BET Awards and an Oscar nomination.
MUSIC DOC/'60S CLASSIC ROCK
The Velvet Underground
The house band for Andy Warhol’s Factory scene in New York in the late ’60s, The Velvet Underground consisted of Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Moe Tucker and French chanteuse Nico. Though they had a psychedelic droning sound and great visuals courtesy of Warhol, the Velvets considered themselves an anti-hippie band; in fact, Tucker says, “We hated that peace and love crap.” Reed was into and wrote about “Heroin” and “Waiting for the Man.” His more commercial solo career is not examined as Todd Haynes rushes to complete the Velvets’ story after Reed and Warhol go separate ways. Haynes’ multiple-screen effects break up the doc monotony and there’s one really jarring section with intense images as La Monte Young takes a honking sax solo over the obligatory Cage drone. Only Cage and Tucker are left to provide up-to-date commentaries. Haynes adeptly fills out the rest with historical footage and plenty of Velvet Underground music.
While Tina Turner's tale of abuse at the hands of Ike Turner, her former husband and musical partner, has been told before, Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s powerful doc shows how the singer recovered and regrouped to become an international pop star in the ’80s. Now 82, the recent Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee is a symbol of how you can free yourself from cruelty and violence and achieve success too. After years with Ike & Tina Turner, the singer finally broke though as a solo act in 1984 with Private Dancer, which won four Grammy Awards a year later. Turner, who played the Acid Queen in Tommy, received a kidney transplant in 2017.
Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free - The Making of Wildflowers
Tom Petty was at a crossroads in the early ’90s when he started writing his solo masterpiece, Wildflowers. The rock star’s marriage was breaking up and he’d just bolted from MCA to Warner Brothers Records. It was time to do something different. Mary Wharton (she directed last year’s Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President) has great footage shot then by Martyn Atkins to work with. Rick Rubin, fresh from his turn as interviewer in McCartney 3, 2, 1, recalls producing the record. Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench share their memories. Song by song you understand Petty’s vision – to reveal layers of himself while taking the music down a notch so that it’s more acoustic and natural. “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” with its famous lyric, “Let’s get to the point/Let’s roll another joint,” proved to be the album’s only hit (No. 13, 1994). Petty wrote more than 25 songs (including “Girl on LSD”), but only 15 made the final cut. In 2020, All the Rest was posthumously released. Sadly, Petty died of a prescription drug overdose in 2017. He left a legacy of excellent music, topped off by the exquisite Wildflowers. Just don’t expect to learn that much about Petty, like where he was from or his upbringing. That’s for another doc.
Truth to Power
The family of System of a Down frontman Serge Tankian fortunately survived the Armenian genocide in the early 20th Century when as many as one million people were sent on death marches. Garin Hovannisian’s doc captures Tankian spreading the message of democracy in the West Asian nation.
Director Kerry Mandragon’s film reflects his early career when he was strung out on opiates. Luke (Dylan Sprouse) plays that role, a young guy in the throughs of addiction. In a hellish pandemic landscape, he meets two women who are bent on helping people beat the virus with meds they rip off at pharmacies Drug Cowboy style. Luke gradually beats back withdrawal with the help of Blake (Sara Quartin). They travel with the mute Bobby (Nekhebet Kum Juch) to a place called Free City, which looks like a camp at Burning Man. In fact, a car is torched during one of the trippy scenes in the burned-out desert outpost. Quartin is particularly convincing navigating the serpentine plot while Sprouse generally stumbles around. BTW, the Tyger title refers to the William Blake poem, “The Tyger,” which begins: “Tyger Tyger, burning bright/ In the forests of the night.” It’s quoted in the movie.