Music biopics – both documentaries and narrative features – are a dime a dozen these days. Even if your only claim to fame is cult status as a 1970s folksinger, chances are good someone has made a movie about you. That is, unless you’re a woman. Although 2013’s “Twenty Feet from Stardom” put the spotlight on ladies in music, biopics about female musical artists are still few and far between. For that reason alone, it’s worth checking out these three documentaries about groundbreaking female singers that were released this summer. Happily, there are plenty of other reasons to do so as well.
“The Outrageous Sophie Tucker”
Few know who she is these days but in 1962, ninety-two percent of people polled associated the name “Sophie” with “Tucker.” That’s how popular the eponymous singer and comedian used to be in vaudeville, cinema, and television. A Ukrainian Jew who fled a restrictive Orthodox family, she first made her name performing in the Ziegfeld Follies but quickly became known in her own right as a larger-than-life presence in every sense of that term. Through rare footage and interviews with Carol Channing, Paul Anka, Michael Feinstein, Tony Bennett, and Barbara Walters (whose father Lou headlined Tucker in his nightclubs), director William Gazecki paints a portrait of the woman who referred to herself as “the Last of the Red Hot Mamas.” Gazecki’s filmmaking is not especially innovative but this may work in his favor. It’s best to let the details about this pioneering woman speak for themselves: She was a self-marketing genius half a century before Madonna; a fat activist before Ms. Magazine was a twinkle in Gloria Steinem’s eye; an unabashed civil rights advocate, especially when it came to singers like Josephine Baker; a pal to the Kennedys and J. Edgar Hoover (the closeted cross-dresser asked to borrow her spangled gowns); and a highly sexualized being who had three husbands to her name and, this documentary suggests, many female lovers as well. She also was a highly innovative jazz stylist who mentored Mae West and Judy Garland. Bottom line: See this movie to know exactly who you should be thanking, ladies and germs. Continue Reading →
It’s not an overstatement to say Hilton Als is one of the most important cultural critics working today. The theater reviewer for The New Yorker, he also is the author of the essay collections The Women (1996) and White Girls (2013), both highly original takes on the intersection of class, gender, race, and sexuality.
At Brooklyn’s packed Light Industry venue on July 16, he discussed author André Gide’s “Voyage au Congo,” a 1927 silent documentary that examines African “natives” with an appallingly detached curiosity. Als called it out with his characteristic mix of compassion and candor.
“This is a messed-up film,” he began, clad in a seersucker blazer and white bucks that put the resident hipsters to shame. “But it taught me not to look away.” He went on to discuss the abundant nudity in the film: “Gide had a lot of trouble with the black female body,” he said, and acknowledged the many other white male authors who had the same trouble, including poet Arthur Rimbaud. “Even educated people can be rude and ridiculous,” he said, and discussed recent instances in which colleagues and students had made nasty comments about his own physicality. (Als sometimes refers to himself as a “negress.”) “Perhaps this film would best be shown as a double feature with something by [black folksinger] Carole Walker. Perhaps cinema is not the best way to examine how black bodies have been treated.”
But he went on to say it is important that films like “Voyage au Congo” continue to be watched, so long as films made by people “in the margins” are watched as well. “We need to take in this material and change how it fits into our story and our society. As the world changes, this is our right and our responsibility.”
The applause from the usually too-cool-for-school audience was deafening.