When Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori’s documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me made its North Carolina premiere at Full Frame Documentary Film Festival last April, the Triangle area music scene was largely represented in the Carolina Theatre audience.
The N.C. connection—local pop artists/producers Chris Stamey and Mitch Easter are interviewed in the film—was an attracting factor, as was a performance preceding the screening by the Stamey-led band The Fellow Travelers, but the place was packed more because of the love of the original music itself. I certainly felt that love full force throughout the film as the infectious rifts of such should-be classics as “September Gurls,” “Ballad of El Goodo” and “In the Street” were received with enormous warmth, over and over.
The Memphis power pop combo consisted of Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens. During their existence from the early- to mid-’70s, they never had a hit single or got much radio airplay—despite album titles such as #1 Record and Radio City. But their legend has grown substantially in rock circles over the last several decades.
DeNicola and Mori’s superb rock doc gets to the heart of how the players came together, and then fell apart just a few years later, but left behind music that R.E.M.’s Peter Buck said “served as a Rosetta Stone for a whole generation of musicians.”
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me returns to the Carolina Theatre as part of Magnolia Pictures’ Summer Documentary Series, running Aug. 19 through Aug. 27, so curious folks and fans who missed it the first time around can now catch up with the story of the cult band.
We spoke with the film’s co-director, Brooklyn-based Drew DeNicola, about the filmmakers’ attempts to get Chilton on camera before his death from a heart attack in 2009, why the band’s 2005 attempt at a comeback album was not covered and what juicy bonus material will be included on the film’s DVD release later this year.
INDY WEEK: What documentaries, either about musical subjects or otherwise, influenced the making of this film?
DREW DENICOLA: I would say very few documentaries influenced me. I like to think of documentaries as I do narrative films. I often refer to Citizen Kane, though, mainly in the way that this documentary of Big Star is not a first-hand account. Instead, we go from person to person and get their perspective. The film is never really definitive. It's more that you get these impressions from the people we interview, and they become part of the story as well.
As it’s said in the movie that Alex Chilton could be prickly about the attention given to Big Star. Do you think, had he lived, he would’ve taken part in this film? I heard you were trying to get him involved—was he receptive to the idea, or do you think he would’ve opted not to participate in the end?
No, I don't think he would have. He said only, “It's not the sort of thing that I'm inclined to do.” But was always open to talking. It was sort of maddening, really. I think he got used being sort of an outsider over the years, and he had pretty much put the Big Star era behind him, I think, musically and personally.
I noticed that Big Star’s 2005 studio reunion album In Space was shown (in a montage made up mostly of Chilton solo album covers), but not discussed. Was this because of the mixed critical reaction to it, or was it because of time constraints?
More time constraints. We made a decision early on that this was not to be a definitive chronicle of the band but more like a primer. The great surprise as I got deeper into it was that the story of the band and that music had such universality to it that it became more of an essay on where art comes from and how it manifests or not in a commercial space. We sort of connect that idea back to much of the culture of Memphis, and I feel like finally reconcile this anglo-rock supergroup with their Memphis roots.
The 1978 album Third/Sister Lover was the first music of Big Star’s that you heard and got into. Any particular song, or songs, that are favorites from that?
“Kanga Roo,” “Take Care” “Dreamlover” were my faves. But I love the whole collection—must be careful not to call it an album! To me, the music of Big Star is so much a part of their story and lives that it's tough to pick favorites. I take it as a whole, now.
I’m working on bonus features right now. There’s a lot. We never covered Big Star's two shambolic tours, there's more info on the early days before the band was formed—Alex's life as a pop star in the Box Tops and Chris Bell’s various studio projects/bands, Rock City and Ice Water.
Lesa Aldridge, the muse of Sister Lovers might make an appearance—I think she said it would be OK. Also, Chris Bell’s two trips to Europe to work with Geoff Emerick are interesting. On one he met Jimmy Page, and another he met Paul McCartney. Also, the circumstances of Bell’s death and the many encounters people reported to have contact with him from beyond the grave are pretty interesting. Yeah, there’s a lot! The film could have easily been five hours long.
For those born to a post-Star Wars world, the Escapism Film Festival’s transformation into a revival house for SF/fantasy films has been a stroll down memory lane, with the likes of Flash Gordon, Enemy Mine and The Last Unicorn available on the big screen at past shows. This year’s lineup of 17 films, all but one of which were released in the 1980s, speaks to cable TV and home video’s influence on a generation—both for better and for ill.
There are plenty of well-known hits at this year’s Escapism, held as always at the Carolina Theatre in Durham, but what’s most notable is just how many were part of the first generation of movies to build their reputation through VHS and cable packages. Indeed, surprise hits at the last two Escapism festivals were Return to Oz and The Legend of Billie Jean, two basic-cable mainstays that flopped on their initial theatrical releases.
There will no doubt be plenty of moviegoers who show up to this year’s Escapism to catch such pop-cultural titans as The Road Warrior, Beetlejuice, Airplane!/The Naked Gun and Stand By Me (the opening cover of the title song on the soundtrack is enough to get my eyes tearing up; River Phoenix walking away at the end is like a swift tug to the nose hairs).
But the majority of the films this year are ones seen more widely on a television screen than on the silver screen. Fletch might rank as one of Chevy Chase’s best movies, but repeat video viewings are what has helped such lines as “You using the whole fist, doc?” maintain their quotability (1999 Onion headline: “Area Insurance Salesman Celebrates 14th Year of Quoting Fletch). Likewise, Bill Murray’s 1988 A Christmas Carol update Scrooged has earned enough of a following from basic cable airings that AMC aired it four nights in a row last November.
Or there’s 1986’s Short Circuit, starring Steve Guttenberg, Ally Sheedy and a robot. Today, what stands out more is the cheesy plot and the offensiveness of Fisher Stevens as a heavily accented Indian scientist. But when I see Short Circuit on the list, the first thing I remember is how my brother loved to rent it from the Video Bar on Lake Boone Trail in Raleigh, and how he grew up to work on robots, and is now doing a graduate program in computer science at N.C. State. Even if he doesn’t recall the adventures of Robot Number 5 with any great vividness, there’s still that sense of association with the past for me.
If you want to explore some of the outer limits of theatrical discourse this evening, you now have two choices, not one.
For as chance—and producers’ schedules—would have it, less than half a mile away from IN THE HEIGHTS’ amazing musical fusion of slam poetry, rap and meringue-edged songs at DPAC (which earned our latest 5-star review earlier this week), Dublin's Abbey Theatre pursues a different form of verbal gymnastics in a production of Irish dramatist Mark O’Rowe’s latest work, TERMINUS, at the Carolina Theatre.
Given the edgy spoken-word jazz already intrinsic to O’Rowe’s work (which the region savored in a Delta Boys’ production of HOWIE THE ROOKIE in March 2008), the literary dare he undertook here is at least understandable: to write a contemporary full-length play, using rhyme, from first to last. The few indulgences allowed by technique—since rhymes, after all, can be broken, perfect, internal, off-center or slant—are likely the only factors permitting any other outcome here besides kitsch.
With a gripping tale, grippingly told by this trio of actors, TERMINUS is not a disaster by any means. But as much as I’d like to report that O’Rowe bests his self-set challenge, when literary filigree upstages the drama as often as it happens in TERMINUS, the work can't be called the artist's best.
There’s plenty of fun to be had with the older films—those who enjoyed Liam Neeson’s psycho ass-kicking in Taken or plan to see him in Unknown can enjoy him at his most over-the-top Neeson-est in 1990’s Darkman. Before he helmed the Spider-Man films, Sam Raimi directed this nutzo variation on Tim Burton’s Batman with Neeson as a scientist who gets brutally disfigured and uses his special mask-generator (and adrenaline-induced superhuman strength) to fight crime.
Or you could enjoy the film that launched an empire with the original 1980 Friday the 13th (warning: Jason isn’t the bad guy in this one!), or to go from lowbrow to highbrow, 1991’s Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs, with Anthony Hopkins’ celebrated performance as Hannibal Lecter (and let’s not forget Ted Levine as the lotion-loving Buffalo Bill).
“We really shook the pillars of Heaven, didn’t we?”
—Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) in Big Trouble in Little China
I’m sitting next to another journalist in the Carolina Theatre’s Cinema One on a Friday night, watching 1987’s Robocop on the big screen. “Best line coming up,” he whispers to me, moments before Kurtwood Smith’s character bursts through the door and deadpans, “Bitches leave.”
A little later, I’m elbowing him. “Best random part,” I whisper as Paul McCrane’s character gets melted by toxic waste, thus creating an impromptu monster movie in the middle of the climax.
We’re at the Escapism Film Festival, an annual event celebrating genre cinema that boosted its attendance last year by more than 64 percent after switching over to all older films (this year, they’ve added a few R-rated numbers for the 9 p.m. showings. Their focus on nostalgia offers a rare opportunity to see films on the big screen that most moviegoers only know from TV and video.
This is a bigger deal than you’d think. Even as the technology that allows us to watch movies grows smaller and smaller (“You’ll be able to watch them on your fingernail soon,” grouses Carolina Theatre Senior Director Jim Carl), there are fewer and fewer prints available for the original 35-mm versions of these films.
In fact, as discussed in an earlier Artery post, five of the 12 films screening at the festival are either the last or among the last remaining 35-mm prints in North America. Almost none are films I’ve ever seen on the big screen.
Over the course of the festival, I manage to make it to eight of the 12 films, which I try to watch from two perspectives. First, how does seeing the film on the big screen change the experience, for better or worse? And second—for all the fond memories, how many of these actually hold up?
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn: Haven’t seen this scenery-chewing contest between William Shatner and Ricardo Montalban all the way through since it came out. As I catch it on the first screening of the festival, the verdict is that Montalban gets more cheesetastic moments, but Shatner gets the big licks in with his classic scream of “KAHHHNNN!”
Other than the fact that 23rd-century computers look very bright and cardboard-y, the film holds up better than I remembered—the script is relatively tight, and there’s plenty of character moments. But the big screen doesn’t add that much—the effects are fun, but mostly serviceable. Greatest note—Spock’s sacrifice at the end was ripped off in the final episode of Lost, only instead of a reactor, it was…a stone in a big…watery…island…thing. It’s not good to think about that show too much.
DURHAM—The license plate on the car parked near mine across the street from the Carolina Theatre read, “ASK TELL.” Though North Carolina was long burdened with the anti-gay views of the late Sen. Jesse Helms, the attitude in downtown Durham was out and proud as the North Carolina Gay and Lesbian Film Festival celebrated its 15th year—and a new attitude for festivals in the area.
Approximately 500 filmmakers and festival-goers were present for the event, a simple tent with music, chairs and hors d’oeuvres with a bar (and, there was also free ice cream, the truest sign of a good party) in the plaza outside the Carolina Theatre. But the soiree’s goal is surprisingly ambitious—to build and foster a community among festival attendees that stays close to the theater.
Last year, “people were looking for a community aspect outside of the films,” says Bob Nocek, the Carolina Theatre’s president and CEO. He hopes to make the party aspect a regular feature of future festivals at the Carolina Theatre. “I’m prepared to lose money,” he says.
He didn't confirm if they’ll do the same thing for the SF/ Fantasy-themed Escapism Film Festival in September, but fingers crossed. Parties are always better with a Klingon.
The festival itself remained a big hit, selling about 8,000 tickets as of Saturday night and one of the “liveliest” audiences in years, according to theater senior director Jim Carl.
And it continues drawing back regular filmmakers, such as producer Jerry Blackburn, who didn't have a new film this year but has come just to enjoy the festivities. “It’s like coming home for Christmas for me,” he says.
The party broke up around midnight, as remixes of Ke$sha, Lady Gaga and Cher blast through the speakers as the remaining tired-but-wired partygoers continued to dance.
Adrienne Zi, director of the short Mother of the Year, says she’s formed a strong opinion of North Carolina based on her experiences here. “The stereotype of the whole Southern charm is a reality,” she says.
“It really sucks to go back to LA.”
North Carolina’s reputation may slowly be changing, one gay filmmaker at a time.
Edgers also revealed that his film's music licensing cost $25,000 and that he lost $15,000 on an interview with Paul McCartney that the Sir Paul later blocked him from using. Then there was a short set with local tribute band The Kinksmen, who were joined by local jangle-popsters Peter Holsapple, Chris Stamey and Mitch Easter.
Here is the full text of Indy writer David Klein's interview with Edgers, which was published in abbreviated form in our print edition.
Independent Weekly: It kind of struck me as almost a benevolent rock’n’roll Roger & Me…Ray & Me.
Geoff Edgers: I wasn’t trying to be Michael Moore. I mean, this is the Kinks, it’s not GM There’s no wrong for me to fight for, for the people. It’s really just about a fan wanting to get a band back together.
I just meant the setup of one person’s unlikely quest to reach someone who’s really hard to pin down.
But I think you’re right though. Morgan Spurlock or Michael Moore, very similar in many ways. One big difference: I didn’t direct this movie. I had somebody who directed it.
Was it a hard sell, getting this director [Robert Patton-Spruill] who is not a Kinks fan, or did he just see what you were getting at immediately?
No, it was not a hard sell. He was into following me, while I was into the Kinks. And so the fact that we couldn’t get the Kinks to cooperate in a typical way meant that we had to figure out a way to make a compelling movie. And Rob is a storyteller, and he was equipped to do that. And it’s not like we didn’t use Kinks music. And I paid the licensing for that stuff. We used more Kinks music than any other movie I know of.
3 1/2 stars
(closed March 21)
Call the Durham Savoyards a theatrical anachronism—if you dare. For the truth is this: At this writing, over 50 such companies in the United States (and another 100 or so, back in Britain) exist to do one thing only—cart the lot of us back to the last two decades of the 1800s, and plant us in the boxes of the Savoy Theater of London, as William S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan employ classically-trained musicians and singers to ever-so-gently ridicule the absurdities of Victorian culture. Gilbert’s penchant for unhinging the conventions of proper society and send them careening to their logical (and hyper-verbal) conclusions qualifies him as a great-grandfather to those fantastical creatures, the Goons, the Fringe and the Pythons: in short, the British comic vanguard from the middle of the last century on.
CAROLINA THEATRE/ DURHAM—Ask any high-school theater geek, and they'll have heard of Gilbert and Sullivan. Ask me, I was one. But amazingly, I graduated high school and went all through college without once seeing one of their plays or hearing any of the songs.
All of that changed when I attended a rehearsal for The Mikado, performed by the Durham Savoyards. Founded in 1963, the troupe is dedicated to performing solely Gilbert and Sullivan standards. While they rotate through a number of titles, they return to the more popular ones more frequently.
This outing marks director Derrick Ivey's second time helming the opera. His first time directing for the Savoyards occurred in 2003, when he directed a different version of The Mikado.
"The one we did in 2003 was a really radical re-visioning. It was a modern setting, and we had a huge back story," Ivey says, noting that the text and music remained unchanged. The modern characters then stepped into the Japanese story after the choreographed overture, creating a layered story-within-a-story effect. That production was the last time the Savoyards performed the opera.
Though the Savoyards only have one large performance each year, they make sure to do it in style. Sarah Nevill, one of the show's producers, says that the group has sold more tickets than at this point last year. As far as Nevill knows, no other group like the Savoyards exists in North Carolina.
A technical rehearsal was underway during my visit; as I walked through the Carolina Theatre's backstage corridors, cast and crew bustled about, absorbed in their preparations. A peek into the makeup rooms revealed actors getting their faces brushed with white paste to simulate Japanese Kabuki-style makeup. Actors padded around the halls in dressing gowns, with hair held in caps to aid in wearing wigs later. Orchestra members tuned up in the pit the cast's first full-dress rehearsal (involving not only costumes, but also make-up and wigs).
[caption id="attachment_1674" align="alignleft" width="204" caption="Jennifer Coolidge in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call—New Orleans, which plays its final Triangle engagement Thursday, Jan. 14, at the Carolina Theatre in Durham. (Photo courtesy of First Look Pictures)"]
It took one simple acronym to put Jennifer Coolidge in the public eye: "MILF." Since her appearance as the teen-deflowering Stifler's mom in 1999's American Pie, the actress says she's been inundated with scripts for "horny mother and trophy wife" roles. But she looks back on the part with fondness: "It's gotten me a lot of dates."
Coolidge will appear at Goodnight's for a stand-up comedy show beginning tonight and continuing through Sunday, though she doesn't quite know what her set will be: "Probably a lot of weird stories about being an actress." She should have plenty of those, for the last decade has made her a familiar face in film and TV, particularly in such films as Legally Blonde, A Cinderella Story and Best in Show.
"Kids will go up to me who've seen Cinderalla and go 'Are you a bad witch?' Sometimes you'll get someone who goes, 'You're the crazy evil lady in Pootie Tang! Someone said they loved the girl I played on an episode of Friends, and I forgot I did Friends. It all becomes a distant memory."
In the past year, Coolidge has played a hooker on ABC Family's The Secret Life of the American Teenager, a plastic surgery addict on Nip/ Tuck, another mom in Gentlemen Broncos, and a small part in Bat Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans for Werner Herzog and Nicolas Cage.
"It's honestly my favorite film from last year," says Coolidge, who that both Cage and Herzog were a pleasure to work with, despite their gonzo on-set antics. "I had no idea what it would be like working with Nic Cage, but he's just such a nice person, a real professional."
And she's a big supporter of the film, which is still playing in the Triangle: "I think it's one of the best movies of the year, and not just because I have a small part in it. Watching it, it was just brilliant. And I think it's the best thing I've ever seen Nic Cage in. He takes such huge risks sometimes, and he just went for it." She also praises Werner Herzog as "un-Hollywood," and reveals that despite the outrageous content of his films, he's "never taken anything stronger than an Aspirin."
Who would she like to work with? "I always liked Jack Nicholson, and I always hoped one day to get in a movie with him. I've always been obsessed with him and Anthony Hopkins. I would love to be like the mother or mentor of Angelina Jolie, or some up-and-coming young actress and show her how to operate the high-powered guns."
Despite her prolific output, Coolidge says her acting plans this year are unclear." "I'm doing the standup so I don't get bored with my life," she says. "When you live in Hollywood, it's like you're behind a tall hedge, this life that doesn't feel normal. When I started doing standup as a lark, you have to fly everywhere and hang out with people at hotels and get to know the area. I've gotten to see all these parts of the United States I never would have seen otherwise. It's like there's this whole life I've been missing."
She's looking forward to checking out the local sights in Raleigh, which could include the flea market. "I have yet to go to a city where they don't have a good flea market," she says.
"It's hard to find places where people are enthusiastic about what's local," she says. "I went on a date with this guy at one stop, and he took me to the mall."