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Whitney Houston was a phenomenally successful recording artist and live performer. But, as has become ever clearer in the years since her untimely death at the age of 48, she was not remotely happy.  Small wonder too, given that many of the people with whom she was surrounded were exploitative, disloyal and self-serving. This well-made and ingeniously edited documentary, the second in as many years, supplies some harrowing new examples – including alleged sexual abuse – of just how tragic the reality was behind the public myth.

Houston’s mother Cissy was of course a singer too, and arguably a better one. As a parent she could be pushy, and an unpleasant disciplinarian, but her shortcomings are easily matched by those of Whitney’s father John, who notoriously attempted to sue his megastar daughter for $100 million.

Very few people, in fact, emerge well from this film, and that includes most of the onscreen interviewees, few of whom made any attempt to arrest Houston’s decline into substance-abusing emaciation. (No one, it seems, wants to derail a gravy train if they’re a passenger.) The fall from ostensible grace is particularly spectacular given the singer’s early innocent image, and background in gospel music and religiosity. And Whitney is unfortunately not the only hapless figure in this sorry saga; her own daughter Bobbi Kristina had a short and blighted existence.

You don’t need to like Whitney Houston’s music to find this doco interesting. (Although the quorum of live concert footage will add to its appeal if you are.) It’s a very sad personal story, and pretty absorbing on that level.

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The Gospel According to Andre

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People make documentaries about all sorts of people and all sorts of worlds. What is really important, is that you pick something, or someone, that has an interesting story to tell. Director Kate Novack has at least passed one of these tests. Her somewhat overly-admiring film centres on the American fashion journalist Andre Leon Talley. To say that Andre is larger than life would be to state the obvious, but he does rather effortlessly own that cliché. For starters he is enormously tall. Though slim in his youth, he has now bulked up and his habit of wearing giant cloaks increases this impression. In full regalia he looks like one of those Marx Brothers style gags where two people hide inside the one coat. You half expect someone smaller to leap out and surprise you.

The film selectively tells his life, more or less, in sequence and without too much editorialising. It is all him just being himself on screen intercut with luminaries of fashion relishing stories of being his friend. We learn that he was born in humble (but not dirt poor) circumstances in the Deep South and brought up with a strict sense of decorum by his church-going grandma. In those days, the attendees of the black churches would put on their Sunday best to go to worship, so little Andre got an early sense of how to turn yourself out nicely. He makes his way to The Big Apple and becomes a fashion journalist, eventually writing for Vogue.

His is a very long career and, along the way, he hangs out with Warhol, gets mentored by fashion editor Diana Vreeland and is still going when Anna Wintour takes over Vogue.

He is quite engaging company and it is clear that he is thoughtful and likeable. He can also hold court but not in a boring way. He comes across as an aesthete with dignity.

The problem is that, as a film it is all a bit conflict-less. More or less everyone is reverential about him and whatever bust ups he might have had in this catty world are tastefully swept away. Andre’s sexual preferences do not need to be focused upon either, but he does vouchsafe that he never found the lifelong companion that some of his male fashion friends (like Tom Ford) did.

There is one sequence where he recalls the shocking racist comments and attitudes that he occasionally had to harden himself against (being called Queen Kong for example), but this is very much under-explored. What we are left with is just Andre as an icon being seen in all the best places and enthusing about various outfits and Haute Couture designers. It is, it must be said, a slightly rarefied world.

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It does seem like a watershed; the world pre, and post, Trump. The brute fact of his being in the White House means that every American documentary seems to have an elephant in the room. Whether it is just a momentary aberration, or the harbinger of a dangerous, global, anti-democratic lurch towards ‘strong leaders’ and authoritarian populism is too early to tell. However, this peon to the liberal supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg does end with this conundrum. Now, more than ever, we need the checks and balances to come into play. In the last few years she has consistently had to be a dissenter on the Supreme Court decisions as more and more regressive laws are adjudicated upon.

Ginsberg is indeed a remarkable person. She is a tiny Jewish lady with a great legal mind who trailblazed all her life to get more gender balance into the male dominated world. Today, at 85, she is something of a national treasure for liberals in America and nerdy female law graduates have even made social media memes and tee-shirts featuring her. In a nod to the rap generation they have dubbed her ‘Notorious RBG’, an epithet she finds highly amusing. The film gives us a potted life history as well as interview footage with the redoubtable Associate Justice of the Supreme Court herself, but it is a pretty straightforwardly told. She was born in 1933 in Brooklyn. Her mother was strict but kind.

Ginsberg tells us that she instilled two values in her: to be a ‘lady’ (i.e. to be temperate and treat people with equanimity) and to be of independent mind. This, and her marriage to the highly understanding and fully supportive partner, Marty carried her far. It is a portrait of a marriage as well as of her life and times. She admits that Marty was unusual among men of his generation in putting his career second and moving home to facilitate hers. He also learned to cook, thereby relieving her of this inessential skill. As her grown up children jokingly testify, their mum is still a terrible cook.

The film doesn’t need to do very much to trick up its subject and nor are there any skeletons in the cupboard. Once Ginsberg got to an Ivy League law school her ferocious work ethic and her sharp mind did the rest. In an era when women were still discriminated against in statutes as well as in social practice the principle that all citizens should be equal under the law gave her a lifelong orientation. Test case by test case she set about dismantling legal barriers to gender (and other) inequalities.

The problem for the film is not just that the narrative only runs in one direction, it is more that few seem to have a bad word to say about her. This is partly about the choices of the filmmakers, of course. Apart from some contemporary Alt-right sound bites in the opening sequence nothing else balances the hagiography. A collage of historical stills and lots of talking heads later, we come to the inevitable conclusion that Ginsberg set a lot of things to right. It is saved somewhat by the fact that she is a sprightly and nimble interviewee. Even there, though, she is too politic and circumspect to really dump on the dinosaurs that opposed her along the way.

As mentioned, we come right up to the Trump era. She did come out and speak publicly against the prospect of Trump coming to power (and was chastised for doing so) but it took something as egregious as that election to get her to do so. For decades she far preferred to win her battles with stealth and reason.

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Bam Bam

Australian, Documentary, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Jemma van Loenen’s documentary introduces audiences to Bianca ‘Bam Bam’ Elmir, a young boxer from Canberra, on her quest to win a World Boxing Championship.

Elmir is a determined fighter who will let nothing get in her way. A Lebanese Muslim, who has won multiple Australian and International Championships, Elmir faces many obstacles – getting her family’s approval, the views of her community, opponents in the ring, among others. Elmir at one point is barred from fighting, due to a drugs ban.

Despite her unorthodox nature, and the odds stacked against her, the boxer revels in victory.

Winning supersedes everything. This is what she does it for. To stand victorious.

Elmir’s an individual who thrives on smashing expectations: she takes part in a Muslim Mardi Gras Event; her coach tells her not to go out and drink, she goes out until 4am; she enters a match a significant underdog, and wins handily.

She has no issues reflecting on, and savouring the gory blood of her opponent, and subverting her family’s expectations.

She relishes the fear in her opponent’s eyes, that moment before they receive the knockout punch.

But despite all her victories and tenacity, at the end of the day, Elmir doesn’t quite know how to deal with herself when she’s not fighting. This is what the documentary is about – identity and the subject’s life away from sport. Her biggest fight is within herself.

Elmir’s coach talks about the qualities of the boxer, how she gives back to the community. Unfortunately, at times this feels like a lecture.

Cinematographers William Sheridan and Stephen Ramplin provide intimate footage of the athlete’s struggle, capturing this flight.

Director Jemma van Loenen ultimately serves up an absorbing story of an athlete dedicated to their sport, a portrait of an individual fighting for, and fighting against herself.

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Australian, Documentary, Review, Theatrical Leave a Comment

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunipingu was a legend of Australian music. He was loved by many and continues to be loved even after his death in July of 2017. Gurrumul showcases the life that Gurrumul led, the highs and even the lows.

Directed by Paul Damien Williams, Gurrumul takes us into the life of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunipingu, showing his beginnings in the music industry, with his time as the quiet guitar player of The Saltwater Band and when he met producer and long-time friends Micheal Hohnen and manager Mark Grose, and how they started the Skinnyfish music record company. Williams even chooses to show the very end of his music career, which was the final performance of his orchestral album at The Sydney Opera House.

The filmmakers showcase the life that Gurrumul led at his home, Elcho Island off North east Arnhem Land and the struggles that he went through as he was born blind along with the challenges his parents faced when they first realised their son was born blind.

There’s a bittersweet quality shown with Gurrumul’s relationship to his home, with touching footage of Gurrumul singing, juxtaposed with his people on Elcho Island. This shows that no matter how far Gurrumul got in the music industry, home was always a big part of him.

Gurrumul’s music career was not all highs, he went through low points during his life which included the time where he didn’t show up to his first American tour and the death of his mother and his father.

Gurrumul is a touching homage to the life of one of Australia’s most respected and beloved musicians. This documentary will make sure that he lives on and is never forgotten.