a week with carla at the helm would be thoroughly incomplete without a healthy dose of music and today's program delivers a pair of excellent, diametrically opposed music documentaries. side A is damani baker and alex vlack's portrait of bill withers, still bill (2009).
the film takes up with withers at age 70, many years after he shunned the spotlight in favor of the pleasures of family life and not being famous. it's a decision that a good number of entertainers and athletes struggle with all the time, knowing how to quit while you're ahead. few seem to be able to manage it, but few possess the implacable calm of bill withers. the bulk of the film spends time with withers as he engages in conversation and celebration with friends and family and holds forth about the lessons he has learned growing up in the segregated south, overcoming a problematic stutter, serving in the navy and becoming a pop success at the age of thirty-two. it is quickly evident that the simple, soulful wisdom in his music isn't just artistic expression. it is that aspect of his personality that has seen him through all his trials and triumphs, from childhood to the present day. he comes across as honest, pragmatic, a loving father and husband and comfortable with where he has arrived. there is no evidence of the ego that frequently accompanies selling millions of records. he is well acquainted with the notion that even with the very famous there are still more people out there that don't know you than do and out of those that do a good number don't care. he sees himself as pennies in your pocket, content to be carried around and to be of use once in a while. the sections of the film i enjoyed the most were watching him go back to the town he grew up in and spend time with the people who have known him the longest. it probably appealed to me because i see a lot of similarities between him and my old man when i see dad with his brothers and old friends - loose, funny, down to earth, knows when to talk, knows when not to, completely at home in his own skin. i know a lot of reviewers have taken the film to task for the section where they shoehorn a conversation with cornel west and tavis smiley into the proceedings but i think it's pretty accidentally vital. it's easy to be homespun and genuine with the guys who have known you your whole life but it's an even more effective demonstration to watch withers sidestep the efforts to inject a false sense of high-mindedness into the film and just keep rolling, steady as she goes, dispensing truth and soul, giving you something you can use. i have faith that bill withers is the same man all the time, no matter who's in the room, no matter who's holding the microphone. it's one of the greatest compliments i can think to pay someone. he's not perfect, something he would tell you himself. there are flashes of some of the anxieties and frustrations that come with having an artistic temperament, but he seems fully in control of it all. he has succeeded in every facet of his life with modesty, humility and grace and his art is an accurate reflection of him as a whole. i admire the man very much.
our troubled B side is albert and david maysles and charlotte zwerin's gimme shelter (1970).
jesus, talk about catching lightning in a bottle. intending to make a simple concert film, the maysles and zwerin ending up documenting the one moment of violence that is widely acknowledged as having killed the sixties. the filmmakers are on board with the rolling stones in the waning days of their 1969 u.s. tour, at that point their first in several years. anticipation and expectations were high. the movie opens with footage of the show in madison square garden, a success by any measure. following that there are a couple of sequences documenting recording sessions at a muscle shoals studio that are among my favorite moments of the film. i thoroughly enjoy it when documentarians are confident enough to just record prolonged reactions. some of the most surprisingly profound, moving moments i have ever seen on film are of people just listening to someone or something. these are the last satisfied moments any of the principals have for the duration of the film. things get dark once the group gets to the west coast. the original venue for a huge free concert featuring the stones fell through and the event was moved to altamont speedway. logistics broke down on all fronts, the hells angels volunteered themselves/were pressed into service as ersatz security guards, bad drugs augmented the bad vibe and episodes of violence marred the event almost as soon as the gates were opened. by the time the stones took the stage, things were desperate and ugly and it all culminated in the murder of eighteen year-old meredith hunter by hells angel alan passaros. in gruesome detail, with the benefit of film editing equipment, we see hunter burst into the middle of the screen, an explosion of bright green suit brandishing an immense pistol. almost as instantly, he is set upon by passaros with an equally immense knife and stabbed twice right before our eyes. it is one of the most amazing instances of being in the right place at the right time with a camera that i have ever seen. the two things that stick with me from this experience are how much difference documentary film is capable of making and that people are sadly inexplicable to me. the events of altamont would have reverberated through the counterculture either way but the presence of the camera made it history. the altamont section of the film is such an immersive experience. it feels wrong from the moment we get there and that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach only grows as the film progresses. it is an environment that is so obviously out of control as to make you wonder how more people didn't die (four did total, the others being accidental/misadventure). everyone is on top of everyone else and people seem in pain or distraught everywhere you look. why anyone would want to go anywhere with 300,000 other people is beyond me in the first place. the massive administrative inadequacies were troublesome enough but things become criminally stupid when a young man dies because he was ridiculous enough to pull a gun the way hunter did. if this happens at a rock and roll show that was meant to be woodstock west and a gift to the people of the bay area, i am left to wonder what people would be capable of if they were faced with something truly grave. the maysles and zwerin didn't just turn out a movie, they produced an indictment - an indictment of the greed and ineptitude of the organizers and an indictment of the naivety of a generation that found its blood stomped into the dirt of a second rate speedway infield. bad news, good film.
tomorrow, things stay heavy with an entry from my favorite filmmaker ever.