Capone's Art-House Round-Up with BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB: ADIÓS and HAROLD AND LILLIAN: A HOLLYWOOD LOVE STORY!!!
Published at: May 26, 2017, 4:03 p.m. CST by Capone
Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…
BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB: ADIÓS Twenty years ago, director Wim Wenders captured and popularized the making of a band. It just so happened that the band was made up of men and women, mostly in their 60s and 70s (although some were in their 90s) who were among Cuba’s leading musicians and singers, many of whom had never even played together until they made an album under the name of the Buena Vista Social Club, which was also the name of the resulting documentary. The film captured the band recording its groundbreaking album in Havana and making a few choice stops on a world tour that took them, among other places, to New York’s Carnegie Hall.
In that movie, the musicians talked a bit about their long and storied history in music and the changing role of music in Cuba after Fidel Castro took power. But in the new film, BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB: ADIÓS, director Lucy Walker (COUNEDOWN TO ZERO, WASTE LAND) doesn’t so much pick up where Wenders’ film left off. Instead, she revisits the musicians and dives deep into their individual histories with remarkable archival footage—some from a time where certain types of rhythmic music was forbidden—to find out about the lives these players and singers lived before musician Ry Cooder came to Cuba to capture these legends before the passed away.
As the titles of the film might indicate, quite a number of the first film’s subjects have died in the past two decades, so it’s particularly fitting and wonderful to fill in the gaps in their sometimes tragic life stories. Some were the victims of discrimination, simply because their skin was a darker shade than more popular artists. In the case of the group’s standout singer Ibrahim Ferrer, he was living in abject poverty when Cooder found him, having given up on music so many years earlier. We get background and updates of such dignitaries as Compay Segundo and the marvelous singer Omara Portuondo. The movie also shows us the full impact that the popularity of the original album had on the lives of those who played on it.
As much as the music still resonates and the most recent tour still resulting in dancing in the aisles, BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB: ADIÓS has a sense of sadness rest just under its surface. Director Walker makes us wait until she’s told all of the backstories of these lovely people before revealing who is still with us and who isn’t. But above all else, she puts the music front and center, subtitling every song to reveal the tragic lyrics about slavery, death, revolution, and the occasional heartbreak. In other words, Walker makes us care about these soulful human being once again and then devastates us with who is dead or ailing.
The mood is more melancholy, and yet somehow, Adiós still finds way to celebrate and raise our spirits with rousing, passionate songs and hope for the future as the story also includes a performance in the Obama White House when the president lifted sanctions in 2015 and restored an open-door policy between the two countries for the first time since 1961. Less a sequel and more a deluxe edition of the first film—complete with a full slate of updates, new music, and a thorough set of visual liner notes—BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB: ADIÓS is a worthy companion to the original film and well worth seeking out.
HAROLD AND LILLIAN: A HOLLYWOOD LOVE STORY A thoroughly researched and fantastically told story about two of the unsung heroes of Hollywood, HAROLD AND LILLIAN: A HOLLYWOOD LOVE STORY tracks the careers and love story of Harold and Lillian Michelson, whose names rarely appeared in the credits of movies but whose input into some of the most famous films of all time is undeniable.
Harold was one of the great storyboard artists of all time, providing guidance and shot suggestions for films by everyone from Hitchcock to DeMille to Mike Nichols, who used Harold’s sketch of Dustin Hoffman positioned in the bend of Anne Bancroft’s leg in The Graduate, and the image became iconic almost immediately. Director Daniel Raim (who previously made a short and feature—SOMETHING’S GONNA LIVE—about production designer Robert Boyle) provides many side-by-side comparisons between Harold’s original artwork and the nearly identical finished film.
Of course, in the 1950s and ’60s, quite often storyboards were destroyed so that directors and cinematographers didn’t have to admit that some of their best ideas about camera angles and composition came from storyboard artists. But Harold seems to have a sizable collection of this work, and his understanding of perspective, lenses and the dimensions of a space made for fairly incredible work on such films as THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and THE BIRDS.
Lillian became one of Hollywood’s top researchers and built up an unprecedented library and Rolodex of contacts that helped her get visual images for writers, production designers, directors, costumers, and anyone else who needed cues on time- or place-specific films. The film goes into detail about the lengths she went to to find out background on Latin American drug kingpins while working on SCARFACE. Testimonials on her contributions come from everyone from Mel Brooks, Francis Ford Coppola, and family friend Danny De Vito (who executive produced the doc).
But in addition to the parade of professional accomplishment, HAROLD AND LILLIAN details their relationship that began in Florida, turned into a long-distance relationship highly contested by his family in particular, and finally a marriage of two struggling but creative souls who became the secret weapons of the film industry. He went on to become an Oscar-nominated (and fully credited) production designer, while she and her enormous library became part of two new studios—Coppola’s Zoetrope and Spielberg’s DreamWorks.
I especially adore this documentary because it’s not about people whose accomplishments are well documented. In some cases, director Raim had to do some real digging to find material and images of Harold on set, on those rare occasions when he worked closely with directors, or in isolation, when the filmmakers didn’t want any direct contact with his department. The interviews with the couple are charming and quite honest as they discuss the hardship of raising an autistic son or their struggles to make ends meet or a terrible on-set accident that Harold suffers that keeps him out of work for months and led to excessive drinking.
The Michelsons lived lives that were different every day, sometimes quite exciting, but often mundane and unappreciated, except by those in the know, and this film captures all facets of their worlds, with the help of some fantastic interstitial storyboards by artist/animator Patrick Mate. Even those of you that aren’t deep-cut oriented when it comes to movies, the humanity of the Michelsons’ life and the dedication to their respective crafts are universal in their appeal. HAROLD AND LILLIAN: A HOLLYWOOD LOVE STORY is appealing to both cinephiles and people who love a great romance.