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and D.A. Pennebaker
Over the course of their careers, the styles of documentarians Nick Broomfield and D.A. Pennebaker have neatly transposed. The first Broomfield effort shown in Washington, Soldier Girls, made with Joan Churchill in 1980, was tidily “objective.” Lately, however, Broomfield has adopted guerrilla tactics similar to those of the ’60s work of Pennebaker, whose recent films (made with wife Chris Hegedus) are much less edgy. While Hegedus and Pennebaker have been training their camera on James Carville and Carol Burnett, Broomfield has been chasing Heidi Fleiss and Courtney Love.
Unlike Pennebaker, who has always kept his face off the screen and his voice off the soundtrack, Broomfield has increasingly personalized his documentaries, admitting that they’re really about one confused guy’s attempt to understand outrageous, troublesome women. Lucky for him that he already established this persona before making Kurt and Courtney, since grunge-rocker-turned-Hollywood-clotheshorse Courtney Love (born Michelle Harrison) is a lot less amenable than Fleiss or another, earlier Broomfield subject, serial killer Aileen Wournos. This time, Broomfield’s central character is largely absent.
As you may have heard, Love did not cooperate with this film. In fact, she managed to get it yanked from the Sundance Film Festival and refused Broomfield rights to all Nirvana, Hole, and Kurt Cobain music, including recordings of the teenage Cobain provided by the late rocker’s Aunt Mary. (Broomfield says he purchased the rights to use Top of the Pops segments by Nirvana and Hole from the BBC, but he ultimately deleted them from the film.)
Love has reason to be upset, of course. Broomfield gives prominence to several people who believe that Love had Cobain killed, although he says he doubts their claims. For what it’s worth, these are not people with no firsthand knowledge of Love, Cobain, and their relationship: One of them, in fact, is Love’s father, Hank Harrison, perhaps the least sympathetic figure in a film whose characters include junkies, opportunists, and a member of Parents Music Resource Center-publicized porn-metal band the Mentors who claims he was offered $50,000 to kill Cobain. (This guy, we’re told, was later run over by a train.) The consensus, in the words of one former acquaintance: “He was very nice. She was a harpy.”
Although it’s hard on the latter, Kurt and Courtney finally decides to be an elegy for the former; the film ends with Aunt Mary using her nephew’s death to teach elementary school kids about the dangers of drugs. Few people have anything bad to say about Cobain, except for when he was under Courtney’s influence. He joined his wife, for example, in leaving a death threat on the answering machine of journalist Lynn Hirschberg, who alleged in Vanity Fair that Love took heroin while pregnant.
Actually, Broomfield could have been harder on Love. He doesn’t get into the allegations that Cobain wrote some of the songs credited to Love, that Billy Corgan wrote much of Hole’s upcoming album, or that Dana Kletter provided more than backup vocals on Live Through This. When Broomfield and Love finally end up in the same room, it’s at an ACLU banquet where Love presents a “Torch of Freedom” award, and the moment is more devastating to the organization than to the woman. Broomfield takes the podium to denounce the ACLU for hosting a demonstrated enemy of the First Amendment and is quickly led away. At that point, it becomes clear how the ACLU prefers the banalities of well-dressed celebrities to the legitimate questions of scruffy outsiders.
Messy, lurid, and blackly hilarious, Kurt and Courtney provides lots of information about the controversial couple, much of it titillating and some of it possibly even true. Broomfield embraces the chaos of life among self-destructive rockers and heroin addicts, perhaps letting it shape his own outlook too much. It’s fine for the director to demonstrate how some questions are unanswerable, and to show how documentarians are sometimes at the mercy of unwilling subjects. Still, it would have helped his film if Broomfield had brought a little perspective to its parade of losers and users.
Like The War Room, Hegedus and Pennebaker’s best-known documentary, Moon Over Broadway is the story of a campaign. The goal is considerably less momentous this time, though: The subjects of the film just want to have a hit with a newly written but old-fashioned stage farce, Moon Over Buffalo, that’s notable mostly for being TV comedian Carol Burnett’s first Broadway appearance in 30 years.
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We see only snippets of Ken Ludwig’s play, enough for one reviewer of the film to call the comedy “a pretty funny show” and another to suggest that “it looks wretched.” The latter is more accurate, as demonstrated by Ludwig’s growing panic as the producers ask for rewrites and even suggest soliciting outside gag writers to punch up the play.
Hegedus and Pennebaker initially focus on Burnett, whose star power is expected to sell the show but who consistently overplays and can’t remember her lines. (Her somewhat pompous co-star, Philip Bosco, also blanks out spectacularly in one scene.) Ludwig calls casting Burnett a “pact you make with the devil” and laments that his play will be compromised because she “can’t do it.” As the comedy progresses through rehearsals in New York and tryouts in Boston, however, it becomes clear that Burnett’s audience appeal is more important than Ludwig’s script. The latter may be compromised, but it was never anything more than a routine swinging-door farce anyway.
Moon Over Broadway generates some tension as the cast and crew wait for the supposedly all-important New York Times review to determine the play’s fate. Only hard-core theater buffs, however, will find those scenes riveting. It’s interesting to watch swaggering producer Rocco Landesman stay cool, amiable director Tom Moore doggedly hang on, and the high-strung Ludwig lose it altogether, but it’s hard to identify with their quest. Whether a middling comedy like Moon Over Buffalo closes on opening night or runs for a decade ultimately doesn’t matter to anyone except the cast, the crew, the backers, and the members of the Carol Burnett fan club.
It’s become common in recent years for writers and editors to add an apostrophe to the title of Dont Look Back. That’s terribly wrong. D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary is an artifact of Dylan’s no-apostrophe period, and it no more deserves to have its punctuation regularized than Pennebaker’s dim, natural-light, black-and-white cinematography needs to be digitally brightened. You are there, and apostrophes weren’t.
Like the gnomic songs that Dylan was just starting to write when this movie was filmed during his 1965, still-acoustic British tour, Dont Look Back is emphatically open to interpretation. Both upon its initial release 30 years ago and during its several revivals, the singer’s mocking treatment of British journalists and other innocent bystanders has been heard variously as proof of his genius, a demonstration of his bratty emptiness, or even evidence of his growing interest in marijuana. (No drugs are shown, but then Pennebaker only shot 20 hours of film during the two weeks he accompanied Dylan.)
The movie opens with the famous footage of Dylan spelling out the lyrics to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” with oversized flash cards, a scene copied by Bob Roberts, among others. It also includes the infamous conclave with “rival” Donovan, in which Dylan supposedly eviscerates the Scottish folkie. (That too is a matter of interpretation; Dylan’s most withering comment is “That’s a good song.”) The rest of it is solid concert and intermittently interesting backstage footage, featuring the sleek, smooth-cheeked, leather-clad Dylan, still strumming “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” but dressing as if he needs an electric guitar, and such entourage members as Joan Baez, Bobby Neuwirth, manager Albert Grossman, and Animals keyboardist Alan Price. Do they think Dylan is a genius? Absolutely. Will you? I’d be surprised.
Movies like Armageddon are overloaded because they want to appeal to as many audience demographic segments as possible. Lethal Weapon 4 is guilty of that, too, but it’s also seriously afflicted with pack-rat syndrome. Director Richard Donner and the five credited screenwriters just can’t bring themselves to throw anything, or anyone, away. So Joe Pesci’s Leo, the comic foil introduced in Lethal Weapon 2, is still on hand, even though there’s a new joker this time: Chris Rock as geeky, garrulous police detective Butters, who’s secretly married to the daughter of family-man hero Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover). Rene Russo is back as Lorna, the tough-cop true love of Murtaugh’s formerly lone-wolf partner, Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson), and she’s pregnant, to boot. So is one of Murtaugh’s daughters. Even as Riggs and Murtaugh get slammed, kicked, and thumped, there’s no doubt in which wing of the hospital the film will end.
Aside from its domestic agenda and distracting comedy asides, Glover is issued a homophobic running gag and Rock and Pesci actually do a stand-up routine about cell phones, the movie has a plot that allows for the usual inventory of explosions, car chases, and brutal murders. It has something to do with smuggling Chinese immigrants into L.A. and something else to do with buying the freedom of senior Chinese mob figures who are in mainland-Chinese custody. The baddest of the bad guys is kung fu master Wah Sing Ku (Jet Li), who’s simply the most formidable representative of a nationality that Lethal Weapon 4 depicts with matter-of-fact racism: The movie’s Chinese are ruthless, heartless, and frankly inhuman.
There’s something else that Donner and company didn’t discard from 2, however, and that’s a crusading-liberal agenda. In that film, Riggs and Murtaugh tangled with apartheid; in this one, Murtaugh imagines himself the LAPD’s Great Emancipator, giving anti-slavery speeches as he hides an extended family of Chinese immigrants in his house. This cuddly pack of would-be Americans, however, is small compensation for the film’s revival of the 19th-century stereotype of the diabolical Chinese archvillain. When the flick ends with mawkish statements of Judeo-Christian kinship and interracial brotherhood, there are no Asians in the house.
The irony is that the movie owes both its pace and its moments of grace to Hong Kong action cinema. Despite the bloat of characters, this is the most kinetic (and violent) of the series, and Jet Li dominates the heroes of every scene he’s in. Riggs and Murtaugh alternate between Beavis and Butthead (told that a pigeon ate a corpse’s eyes, Riggs exclaims, “Cool!”), the Three Stooges (when they and Butters get stoned on nitrous oxide), and creaky aging boomers (Riggs is now echoing Murtaugh’s frequent refrain, “I’m too old for this shit”). Li, who’s best known for defeating British imperialism in Hark Tsui’s Once Upon a Time in China series, keeps his dignity; Donner, Gibson, Glover and the rest of the regulars seem to have forgotten if they ever had any.