1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything
Asif Kapadia’s look back 50 years ago is decidedly British. The director and his team divide the decade into eight episodes, from Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On to David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The ’60s takes a lot of hits. “There was hardening of arteries in England,” notes Bowie. After five or six years of psychedelic experimentation, it was time for something new. That new was indeed Bowie and Mark Bolan’s T-Rex, the androgyny and makeup as a reaction to ’60s machoism and male rock ego. Bowie’s the savior of this story, rising above other greats who succumbed to drugs. The “Exile” episode is pretty much all about drugs, when the Stones wrote Exile on Main Street in a stupor with Keith Richards and others nodding out on heroin. But it produced a great album. In a weird segue, the Osmonds are introduced as the antidote to druggy music. “I wanted to be Sly Stone without the drugs,” Donny Osmond says. It’s hard to tell if the series is anti-drug, but it sure feels that way at times. Chapters veer off to cover songwriters Carole King and Elton John; Black revolutionaries Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets; and R&B heavy hitters James Brown, the Staple Singers and Bill Withers. But it all comes back around to Bowie, the Starman of this engaging project.
Charles Officer’s gritty drama focuses on a teenager who’s being trained to be a gangster. During a robbery of the Acropolis dispensary in Toronto, Sheppard (Thamela Mpumlwana) is captured by one of the employees, Akilla (Saul Williams). Most of the movie is spent tracking down the stolen loot ($150k) and product. Along the way we learn about Sheppard’s difficult life growing up in a crime-ridden Jamaican family. Williams (Slam) offers a kind voice in a cacophony of anger and bullets. The reggae soundtrack, including Bob Marley’s “Punky Reggae Party,” and several spliff scenes are also highlights.
Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell
The life and times of Brooklyn rapper Notorious B.I.G. (nee Christopher Wallace) is a popular Hollywood subject. While George Tillman Jr.’s 2009 biopic Notorious and the 2017 A&E documentary, Biggie: The Life of Notorious B.I.G. have covered Wallace pretty well, this year saw the release of a drama about the killings of Tupac Shaker and B.I.G., City of Lies, and this new documentary directed by Emmett Malloy. Biggie, a former drug dealer and major blunt smoker, had a brief, explosive rise and fall, all in just 24 years. Following a beef with West Coast rapper Shaker, both were mysteriously murdered in 1996 (Shaker) and 1997 B.I.G. Charges have never been made with either shooting. Biggie’s mentor Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs gets a lot of screen time (he’s a producer). So does Biggie’s Jamaican mother Voletta, who like in the previous doc, is the star, sharing thoughts about her only son. She lights up an otherwise depressing rehash.
Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry
Billie Eilish is pretty much an open book in R. J. Cutler’s familial doc. The pop singer was just 18 when she took the music world by storm in 2019, winning five Grammys for her debut album, When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? A DIY artist, Eilish and her older brother Finneas created the album in their parents’ house. With lyrics that speak of anxiety and depression, she’s built a solid fan base among young girls like herself. Musically, Eilish swings between upbeat dance numbers and jazzier ones that border on trip-hop; she performs quite a few of them in various settings, from hotel rooms to festival stages. Her road manager mom Maggie Baird holds things together. Eilish remains grounded even in her lowest moments like when she hurts herself on stage and then has a panic attack for all to see. One of the more revealing aspects is Eilish's love of Justin Bieber, who befriends her as she becomes more successful. Warts and all, plus many hair color and clothing changes, we get to see what makes the now 20-year-old tick.
“Super Freak” Rick James is a complicated figure in cannabis history. This is clear from the opening and ending song, “Mary Jane,” in the documentary directed by Sacha Jenkins. James’ ode to weed appeared on his debut album in 1978. Back then he featured a large joint on stage and made constant toking references to the crowd. James embodied the ’70s ethos of racial liberty, drug experimentation and open sexuality. However, after a wave of success, the R&B star’s personal life went off the rails, as he inhaled massive amounts of coke and assaulted women. His last few years were marred by drug abuse and poor health. So, enjoy the pot-smoker before he turned the corner to coke and megalomania.
Bobbi Jo: Under the Influence
An alcoholic and drug addict, Bobbi Jo Reed saw the light in 1995 and began to turn her life around. She credits it all to God. Brent Jones’ film hails the Kansas City, KS native as a saint which she may well be. Once she was sober, Reed founded Healing House for female addicts coming out of treatment or prison. Healing House has since expanded to 14 buildings, with a total of 7,000 people (both female and male) coming through the program. “Does everyone make it? No,” Reed says at one point. Another resident acknowledges the faith-based approach “turns off a lot of people.” But this doesn’t stop Reed from preaching her brand of gospel, with the help of pastor Luther Eatman Jr. A promotional film disguised as a documentary, it’s the weakest opioid-themed movie in a year of many.