Documentaries

Review: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011)

Before diving in, I need to provide some context for why I’m reviewing a 2011 BBC series made up mainly of some pretty low-fi found footage. To the first point, when I stumbled upon this, Amazon Prime had labeled it as a 2020 release (which is when, I’m guessing, somebody spliced together the three episodes of the series). As for Point Two: This is, despite its lowly origins, the single most cinematic experience I’ve had in years.

 

Of course, I don’t need to be sold on watching anything with Adam Curtis’s name on it. He and Errol Morris (The Fog of War) are the two most innovative documentarians of recent times, and Curtis’s The Century of the Self (about the rise of modern marketing—and social control—springing from the ideas of Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays), The Power of Nightmares (about September 11th and how Bin Laden and the Americans essentially collaborated to create the myth of al-Qaeda), and HyperNormalization (about the consequences of embracing societal and virtual simplifications) are stunning, troubling,

unequaled works. It’s impossible for anyone with an open mind to approach his series and not have their worldview turned on its head.

 

To define my terms: Most of what passes for documentary filmmaking in the mainstream (and by mainstream, I mean TV networks, cable channels, and, primarily, streaming services—and primarily, within streaming services, Netflix) is really the bastard child of any legitimate documentary impulse, being more exercises in propaganda, marketing, and entertainment than any valid attempt to truly document anything. The filmmakers tend to know what they think and feel about a subject before they begin the project then spend the duration of the film continually reinforcing what they already believe, using their certainty and insistence to get you to buy into it too.

 

That’s not Curtis. He poses things. While he has definitely done his due diligence, he also knows a video and audio

LOVING GRACE AT A GLANCE

Documentarian Adam Curtis’s meditation on society, self, and selfishness is troubling, but also entertaining and intensely cinematic.

 

PICTURE
The series’ rich tapestry might be composed mostly of found footage, mostly low-fi, but it adds up to an oddly satisfying big-screen experience.

 

SOUND     

An aural montage almost as nuanced as the visual one, it’s an endlessly inventive exercise in complementarity, ironic juxtaposition, and deliberate misdirection.

presentation is a pretty flawed way of dealing with anything of substance and that, even if we won’t acknowledge it, we tend to go to media for a continual stream of diversions. But he also knows the importance of having an audience. So his series tend to be exercises in connecting up big things in unexpected ways, with some of those connections tentative, balancing his material between “this is” and “what if?” and, out of both a sense of responsibility and a desire to engage viewers in a way they’re not used to from TV, allowing for enough play that you ultimately have to think a lot of this through for yourself.

 

Obviously, that’s a deeply frustrating experience for anyone who’s used to being told what to think or doesn’t want to think at all, which is why Curtis is frequently labeled a “cult” personality by both his admirers and detractors. (How anyone can have a recurring presence on the BBC and still be considered cult is a mystery to me.) For others, like me, his work is consistently  liberating, partly because it runs so determinedly against the mainstream and so adamantly refuses to go to pat places. For 

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011)

all his well-seasoned British manner, Curtis is beneath it all a punk.

 

One more digression before I jump in, but it’s essential: Curtis is very much the child (or spawn, depending on your viewpoint) of documentarian Bruce Conner, specifically of his breakthrough 1967 short film Report, which used found footage from the mass media to offer an alternative take on the Kennedy assassination. The whole found-footage thing has 

become commonplace of course—stiflingly so—but nobody was doing it when Conner came up with Report, which treats its subject both seriously and with a deeply subversive wit.

 

Curtis creates knowing full well that we’ve literally seen it all before—and that’s his whole point. Yes, we’ve seen it but did we get it? Did we just buy into the bright, shiny surface and the pre-packaged context or did we maintain a skeptical distance and at least try to treat it on our terms instead of theirs? The frightening answer, for almost everyone watching his series—and this is Curtis at his most disturbing—is undeniably No.

 

So Curtis isn’t for everyone (in fact, he’s for a pretty small subset of everyone). But everything he does is, again, intensely cinematic and, despite its sometimes harrowing subject matter, often entertaining—which helps explain his relative popularity. Someone could watch his series and not grasp a single fundamental point and still have a pretty good time.

 

The first thing I need to say about All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (a title I promise you’ll never remember) is that it’s hard to find anything to say about it at all—partly because it’s so damned hard to get your arms around (deliberately 

so) and because, if you allow it to do its voodoo on you, it will leave you literally speechless.

 

Curtis’s work could be summed up as ruminations on society, self, and selfishness—which I say knowing full well I’m being overly reductive. But you’ve got to start somewhere. All Watched Over could be said to analyze the overemphasis on rationality and how it tends to be trumpeted most loudly by the most 

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011)

deeply flawed and insecure. It begins with a meditation on Ayn Rand and by its dizzying and wrenching conclusion shows the devastating (il)logic that leads from Rand, through various too-explanatory models like the various, inherently unnatural attempts to define ecosystem and the vast computer-fed breeding grounds of narcissism, to the emergence of the selfish gene and the sad and somewhat insane ends of two of its originators, Bill Hamilton and George Price.

 

But is that really what this series is about? We’re also treated to a frightening (and exhilarating) tour of the Asian financial crisis and the subsequent backlash that then spurred the American financial crisis; the heyday of commune culture; the rise of the messiah of self-organizing networks—and, in the series climax, a searing, haunting, ultimately overwhelming recounting of the genocidal consequences of the West’s brutal meddling in every imaginable aspect of the Congo.

 

All Watched Over is far more coherent than I’m making it sound; it’s just not conveniently linear. It’s also pretty fearless. Curtis tilts boldly at sacred cows ranging from Rand, Alan Greenspan, and the Clintons to The New York Times, Stewart Brand, Dian

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011)

Fossey, Richard Dawkins, PS2, and, striking awfully close to his home base, David Attenborough and the BBC.

 

Try not to be put off by my description. This is nowhere near as abstract and clinical an exercise as I might make it seem. It’s not just engaging but compelling. Even if you don’t get everything Curtis is putting in front of you, you want to.

And I have to again emphasize how kinetic this all is. Nearly everything we watch now apes the conventions of cinema while dancing comfortably along the surface, oblivious to or dismissive or scared crapless of the depths. Curtis instead grabs your hand and pulls you down to the levels that matter, encouraging you to consider both the surface and the roots, inducing a sense of both terror and joy as you realize the tremendous distance and intricate relationships between them—and how much we’ve lost by coming to invest all our faith in the superficial.

 

He has never so deftly played with images, with the conscious juxtaposition and manipulation of their styles, their resolution, with their ironic and sometimes incongruous wedding, using edits to create deliberate gaps in which we’re encouraged to insert our own thoughts and emotions. His deployment of audio is similarly masterful, with the sound often creating a sense of dread that can seem out of place until you realize, with a shudder, where he’s heading. And then there’s his use of existing music, which transcends the usual, lazy “forget your troubles come on get happy” efforts to get the audience to slip back into the womb and instead radically recontextualizes cues in a way that reminds me of Kubrick at his best.

 

As brilliant as Curtis’s other work is—and everything I’ve seen of his has been brilliant—All Watched Over is the best thing he has done to date. Surprisingly, given how much of his reputation (like Morris’s) rests on his wry detachment, it functions on a more direct emotional level than his other efforts—but that’s just one of its many, many layers. If it were primarily emotional, it would run the risk of becoming sentimental or self-righteous in a hipster sort of way. But Curtis somehow maintains a delicate balance between all the elements of his inherently inchoate and unstable material, jazzed to be dancing on the edge of the void, which gives everything he does the thrill of a crime drama, like he’s constantly just one step ahead of the law.

 

I hope this hasn’t been hopelessly confusing, because that would be a disservice to Curtis and his creations. But it would also be a disservice to pretend his work is any simpler or less troubling than it is. At a time when we’ve actually come to prefer things we can forget about the second we see them, Curtis’s films burn their way into you, like a brand. They’re a reminder that awareness isn’t just an awkward vestige to be purged but an essential part of any inherently and meaningfully human experience. All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace is cinema by other means—possibly, at a time when the world is purging its birthright en masse, by the only means that matter.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Review: Shalom Bollywood: The Untold Story of Indian Cinema

Shalom Bollywood (2017)

Many Cineluxe readers will know that Bollywood—the Hindi-language film industry based in Mumbai (formerly Bombay, hence the term “Bollywood”)—is huge; a significant segment of Indian cinema, which produces the largest amount of feature films in the world. But how many know that Jews, and more specifically Indian Jewish women, played a key part in the origin of Indian moviemaking?

 

I certainly didn’t, until chancing upon the 2017 documentary Shalom Bollywood: The Untold Story of Indian Cinema, now available on Amazon Prime. (The term “Bollywood” was coined in the 1970s.) Written and directed by Danny Ben-Moshe, 

Shalom Bollywood tells the story of why Jews were so crucial to the development of Indian cinema from its origins more than 100 years ago.

 

Amid the more than one billion Hindus, over 300 million Muslims, and millions of Christians in India lived 3,000 Jews. They had first begun settling in India more than 2,000 years previously, fleeing the Roman invasion of Israel, and major migrations took place in the 1600s through 1800s. The Jews were assimilated into Indian culture, yet maintained their Jewish identity.

 

At the dawn of the Indian moviemaking era it was taboo for Hindi and Muslim women to perform in public. Men would play the female roles. But Indian Jewish women had no such cultural restrictions on performing, and as one of Shalom Bollywood’s narrators notes, “their high cheekbones gave them the popular ‘Hollywood look.’ And the low-light filming conditions of the time meant their lighter skin was an

BOLLYWOOD AT A GLANCE

A fascinating look at the tremendous impact India’s tiny Jewish population had on the creation of that country’s Bollywood film industry.

 

PICTURE

Black & white footage is often surprisingly detailed & textured, with rich gradations of blacks, whites & grays. Color footage tends to be warm yet not overly vivid, almost akin to Technicolor.

 

SOUND

Sound quality is clear and well-mixed, serving the dialogue and music well.

advantage.” With artful makeup and clothing and the ability to speak Hindi, the Jewish women were easily convincing in playing the roles of a wide range of female characters.

 

Rather than presenting a comprehensive historical documentary, Shalom Bollywood focuses on the careers of four of Indian cinema’s greatest female stars from the 1940s to 1960s: Sulochana (Ruby Myers), Pramila (Esther Abraham), Miss Rose (Rose Ezra), and Nadira (Florence Ezekiel), as well as David Abraham Cheulkar, a slight, balding Jewish-Indian character actor who nonetheless possessed charismatic screen presence. It’s literally easy to see why the women rose to stardom—they were mesmerizing on screen.

 

The film is divided into three acts. The first act sticks most closely to a standard documentary format, laying out the historical beginnings of Indian cinema and how and why Jews came to have such a prominent role both in front of and behind the camera (where many Indian-Jewish men also worked). This segment charts the rise of Sulochana (“the one with the beautiful eyes”), Pramila (the first Miss India in 1947), and Miss Rose, offering a rich selection of film footage and interviews with the stars themselves as well as with husbands, relatives, friends, and business associates.

 

Sulochana, Pramila, and Miss Rose popularized the role of the vamp in Indian cinema, the temptress who attempts to win over the heart of the hero, who is often torn between the seductions of the vamp and the attentions of the heroine. The vamp became a key element of Indian movies. Director Ezra Mir (born Edwyn Meyers) introduced the first onscreen kiss to Indian 

cinema, which caused an outrage among censors, and the banning of movie kisses for decades.

 

The films leaned heavily on the “all singing, all dancing, all drama” format, which began in 1931 in India’s first talking picture, Alam Ara (Light of the World). Shalom Bollywood conveys the look of the era’s films beautifully. The black & white footage is 

surprisingly detailed and textured in many instances, with rich gradations of blacks, whites, and grays. The color footage has a warm yet not overly-vivid palette, almost akin to Technicolor in some instances. The sound quality is clear and well-mixed, serving the dialogue and music well—and, oh, the music! The singing, dancing, and performances are captivating. Shalom Bollywood makes me want to see and hear more, especially Ashok Kumar, who, as a narrator remembers, “Could really belt out the notes.”

 

Act One also features a wide variety of movie stills, posters, and advertisements, historical footage, playbills, shots of old movie theaters, and other material. Director Ben-Moshe clearly dug deeply to find this material. My one quibble (which I’ve noted about other historical documentaries): At times, Shalom Bollywood resorts to animation to illustrate its points, and let’s just say it’s not Pixar-level. I get it—footage can be hard to come by (according to Wikipedia, no known print of Alam Ara exists)—but it adds an element of cheesiness to an otherwise wonderfully-done production.

 

By the 1940s, Sulochana was branching out into production with her company, Silver Films. Some were hits, others flopped, but as the film notes, she continued to smash existing taboos. By then it wasn’t all singing and dancing, as 1940s filmmakers documented India’s struggle for independence, which happened in 1947.

 

Act Two looks at what Shalom Bollywood calls “The Golden Era,” beginning in the 1950s. By now, Mumbai was a center of Indian cinema and Nadira was its newest and biggest star. The 1952 epic Aan (released as The Savage Princess in the US and UK) was the first post-independence film to achieve global status. In 1954, it was followed by another hit, Shree 420, and the decade saw the rise of David Abraham, who initially tried law school but “was bitten by the bug and had to be in front of the camera.” By this time the taboos against Indian women appearing in movies had broken down even more, and the previous generation of Jewish stars began to feel competition from a new generation. Producers now wanted more “Indian-looking” actresses, and aging stars like Sulochana and Pramila were shunted into roles as mothers and other older women.

 

Act Three shifts from the historical to the personal, charting the lives of the stars and their families as the actresses’ careers fade, a younger generation blossoms, and Indian cinema evolves into the present day. The Jewish heritages of many of them remain strong. For example, Sulochana’s family decides to move to Pakistan but she stays behind, wanting to remain in a more Jewish environment.

 

I don’t want to give away too many spoilers but as can be imagined, time and circumstances pull many of the actors apart. Others stay in India and by the 2000s, many have passed away, some alone and in poverty. As Nadira observed: “When you are famous and successful, you are surrounded by loving people. But they disappear the moment you lose your stardom.” Yet there’s also a 50-years-in-the-making success story (again, I’ll back off the spoilers). The film moves from rapidly focusing on historical events and careers to slowing its pace and lingering on the stories of the people originally involved and their families and children.

 

Although the Jewish influence on Indian cinema is part of its heritage, Bollywood is a far different industry today, as film editor Rachel Reuben, granddaughter of Miss Rose points out: “When I was turning 30, it hit me. It does not matter if you’re woman or man, white or black, Hindu, Muslim, anything. It doesn’t matter. Here was a force of people and they were all coming together to do one thing. And I found that very, very powerful.”

 

Shalom Bollywood is an illuminating, well-researched, heartfelt, and at times just-plain-delightful movie that deserves more attention. Highly recommended.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a number of audio & music industry clients. He is also the editor of Copper magazine, a professional guitarist, and a vinyl enthusiast with multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Review: The Speed Cubers

The Speed Cubers (2020)

The Netflix-original documentary The Speed Cubers seems like exactly the sort of film whose very existence hinges upon the streaming provider’s ability to target the most niche of special interests. It is, after all, a film set at the 2019 World Cube Association World Championship—WCA being the governing body that organizes and regulates tournaments to see who can most quickly solve twisty puzzles (the most popular of which is the Rubik’s Cube, more commonly known these days as “The 3×3”).

Given the concept, it also seems like exactly the sort of film that you could easily nope out of if you have no interest in mechanical puzzles or how quickly they’re solved by kids you’ve never heard of. But if that’s the way you’re leaning, I implore you to give this all-too-brief 40-minute film a chance anyway. Because beneath the super-nerdy veneer, The Speed Cubers is ultimately about what all good documentaries are about: The human spirit.

 

The humans at the center of this story are Feliks Zemdegs, widely regarded as the best speed cuber of all time, and Max Park, the young hotshot who has in recent years broken many of the world records previously held by Zemdegs. To most outsiders, the two could be described as the Justin Gatlin and Usain Bolt of the cubing world. As The Speed Cubers reveals, though, their relationship doesn’t quite fit into such a tidy box.

 

For the profoundly autistic Park, Zemdegs is simultaneously hero, role model, friend, and fierce competitor. When Max

CUBERS AT A GLANCE

Watching other people watch other people play with Rubik’s cubes might not sound like compelling documentary fodder but this Netflix original goes beneath the gameplay to show the deep bonds that form among competitors.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K presentation is solid enough, but comes sans HDR—which might be for the best given how much the documentary relies on cellphone and home-video footage.

 

SOUND     

The front-heavy 5.1 mix does a good job of presenting the dialogue and creates an appropriate frame for Dan Vidmar’s unobtrusive but effective score.

refuses to brush his teeth, his parents merely need to remind him that Feliks always brushes his own. When Zemdegs joins the Park family for dinner, it’s Feliks, not the Parks, who encourages Max to eat his vegetables, without a hint of condescension.

 

It may sound a little one-sided, but what the film reveals is a beautiful give-and-take—a lovely friendly rivalry quite unlike

anything I’ve ever seen captured on camera.

 

I hate to say much more than that, lest I spoil any of the surprises in this wonderful little haiku of a film. And yes, there are twists and turns along the way, though none of them is contrived. There are also laughs aplenty and even a few tears, so have some tissues ready if you’re a sympathetic crier.

 

Perhaps the most surprising thing

about The Speed Cubers, though, is just how well it’s made. Cinematographer Chris Olson—whose own short film Why We Cube was previously the best documentary on the subject of twisty-puzzle competitions—shows amazing restraint in serving as the viewer’s eyes into this world, turning what could have easily been a voyeuristic exposé into a tender tribute instead. It’s a shame his work is only presented in 4K, without the benefit of HDR, but given how much of the film relies on home-video and cellphone footage of Max and Feliks in their younger years, it’s debatable whether it would have benefited from an HDR grading overall. Thankfully, Netflix’ presentation is artifact-free, save from that found in archival footage.

 

Similar restraint is shown by music composer Dan Vidmar—better known by the stage name Shy Girls in the alt-R&B music scene—whose score honestly didn’t capture my attention at all until my second viewing. That’s the mark of good film music, in my opinion. What you notice when you specifically listen for the score is that Vidmar has a knack for accentuating both action and emotion without Mickey Mousing either.

 

Don’t go in expecting the Dolby Digital+ 5.1 sound mix to fill your surround speakers or stress your subs. The front-heavy mix does its job of presenting the dialogue and music in a perfectly straightforward manner, exactly as it should in a documentary.

 

Really, the only thing you could complain about here is that The Speed Cubers is over far too quickly, leaving you wanting to know more, even if you previously had no interest in the ostensible subject matter of the film. If you’re hungry for more, most of the biggest names in the online cubing community have made their own supplements for the film, the best being Ming Dao Ting’s in-depth interview with director Sue Kim and cinematographer Chris Olson, which runs longer than The Speed Cubers itself. Search YouTube and you’ll find hours of additional commentary where that came from.

 

But if all you’re interested in is the documentary itself, what you’ll find in The Speed Cubers is one of the sweetest, tenderest, most life-affirming short films I’ve seen in ages. And I think we could all use a bit of that in our lives right now.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Review: The Social Dilemma

The Social Dilemma (2020)

Netflix’s The Social Dilemma is one of the most frustrating viewing experiences I’ve had in ages. Frustrating because it has a really important message to convey, but sometimes undermines that message with cutesy animation and heavy-handed musical accompaniment. Frustrating because it wants to be equal parts documentary and drama, but fails in the latter respect. Frustrating because I wanted to write it off entirely, but ended up being won over despite my better judgment. But most of all, frustrating because it relies on some of the same tactics it decries.

 

As you could probably ascertain from its title, The Social Dilemma is about the dual-edged sword of social media and the impact it’s having on society. What makes the documentary aspect of the film work as well as it does is the reliance on 

Silicon Valley experts like Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin, who helped create the very tools that they’re now warning us about.

 

Harris—co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology and the “closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,” according to The Atlantic—dominates the film with a series of cogent explanations about how the algorithms that drive everything from Google searches to Facebook interactions work. On the upside, he’s given a lot more room to breathe here than in his famous TED Talk on the subject, allowing him to connect some dots I’ve never seen connected before, at least not in the way they’re connected here.

 

But for every illuminating observation from Harris, The Social Dilemma feels compelled to spoon-feed the viewer a disjointed dramatic narrative that feels like the mutant child of an ABC Afterschool Special and one of those awful Chick Tracts that used to litter the gutters of New Orleans.

SOCIAL DILEMMA AT A GLANCE

This often penetrating look at the ill effects of social media is effective when it sticks to interviews but goes astray with inappropriate music, animation, and dramatic vignettes.

 

PICTURE     

This image displayed none of the artifact problems you would have expected from a UHD image being streamed without HDR.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 mix has a lot of overbearing sound effects and a generally doom-and-gloom score but doesn’t overwhelm the all-important dialogue.

It’s in these dramatizations that The Social Dilemma commits its greatest sin: Assuming the stupidity of the viewer. The story here is about a family whose two youngest children are being harmed by social media—one child whose entire sense of self-worth is based on “Likes” in response to photos she posts, the other who ends up sliding down the slippery slope of fake news and becoming radicalized.

 

Handled well, I suppose it could have worked. But in attempting to explain how the algorithms that encourage engagement trap users in a dopamine-driven feedback loop, the filmmakers decided to anthropomorphize these algorithms and give

them dialogue, à la a twisted techie version of Pixar’s Inside Out.

 

This takes what is genuinely a malignant phenomenon and turns it into a seemingly malicious one, which undermines a lot of the film’s messaging. It also directly contradicts the views of the experts, who do a much better job of explaining the nuances of these wholly impersonal 

algorithms and the way they manipulate users to generate revenue, engagement, and growth. But nuance doesn’t suffice these days, I suppose, so we end up with these wholly unnecessary abstract dramatizations that do little more than confuse the uninitiated and drag down the film.

 

By the time its closing credits rolled, though, The Social Dilemma won me back with a well-developed conclusion that cuts straight to the heart of the divisiveness, anxiety, depression, suicide, social upheaval, and general discord sowed by social media—as well as some of the upsides of this technology. I wish some of this balance had been sprinkled more evenly through the rest of the film, because we can’t have an honest conversation about the impact of social media without covering the good as well as the bad (although, full disclosure: I’m a little biased in this respect since Facebook was responsible for my reunion with my daughter).

 

If the entire 94-minute running time of The Social Dilemma had lived up to the quality of the last 10 minutes or so, it would be much easier to recommend. But I’m left with a dilemma of my own here, because I think the message of the film is so important that you should view it despite its flaws. Just go in armed with the knowledge that director Jeff Orlowski employs some of the same psychological sleight-of-hand the film warns us about.

 

As for the presentation of the film itself, Netflix delivers The Social Dilemma in Ultra HD without HDR10 or Dolby Vision high dynamic range. As soon as I noticed this, I deliberately kept an eye out for the sort of visual artifacts inherent in high-efficiency streaming without HDR: Banding, crushed blacks, poor shadow detail, etc. Surprisingly, I couldn’t see them, which makes me think Netflix may be employing a higher-than-usual bitrate for the film, but I’m just speculating. Whatever the explanation, it points to the fact that streaming services are constantly evolving in terms of quality of presentation. Even just a couple years ago, Netflix would have had to stick this SDR film in an HDR container to deliver a stream this artifact-free.

 

The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtrack has a lot of overbearing sound effects and a generally doom-and-gloom score that could have easily gotten out of hand with the wrong sound mixer. Thankfully, it’s a mostly front-channel affair, and dialogue clarity

is topnotch. It should sound fine whether you’re watching on a full-fledged home cinema system or a simple soundbar.

 

In the end, as I said, I’m of two minds here: I want you to watch The Social Dilemma, but I also want you to know what you’re getting into here. It’s a significantly flawed film, but it’s also an important one. If the hypnotic animation 

and ham-fisted dramatizations are too much for you to stomach, though, I highly recommend watching Tristan Harris’ TED Talk instead. It doesn’t connect the dots nearly as effectively as does The Social Dilemma, and it isn’t nearly as well-produced, but it also isn’t burdened by all the saccharine fluff that mires this docu-drama.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Review: Remastered: Devil at the Crossroads

Remastered: Devil at the Crossroads

Singer/songwriter/guitarist Robert Johnson is the most legendary bluesman in the genre, with a story to match, and the Netflix documentary Remastered: Devil at the Crossroads (one of eight episodes in the ReMastered series) examines his life and myth.

 

Johnson was born in 1911 in Hazlehurst, Mississippi and died in 1938 at the age of 27. He was not a good guitar player until, as the story goes, he went down to a crossroads at midnight and sold his soul to the devil in order to become one of the greatest Delta blues players of all time. The details of his recorded output are inextricably woven into the Robert Johnson legend—he only released 29 songs (along with some alternate takes) for the American Record Company—and there are only three authenticated photographs of the man.

 

Yet Johnson, who scuffled as an itinerant musician and didn’t become famous outside his local area until long after his death, became a 

towering influence on people like Keith Richards, Eric Clapton (who famously covered Johnson’s “Crossroads” on the Cream Wheels of Fire album),  and uncountable other blues and rock artists. Many of his songs are classics, like the “Cross Road Blues” (as it was originally titled), “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” and ”Love in Vain Blues” to name a few. As Bonnie Raitt says, “If you love the blues, you just gotta go back to the root of Robert Johnson.”

 

Devil at the Crossroads examines Johnson’s life in detail in its approximately 45-minute run time. It features many excerpts from his recordings, as well as artists like Keb’ Mo’, Taj Mahal, and Bonnie Raitt playing his songs. Much of the documentary consists of interviews with his grandson Michael Johnson as well as Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, artist and Columbia 

Records producer John Hammond, and others, along with archival footage of the era and of musicians he influenced like Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Robert Plant.

 

The documentary brings a lot of information to light, debunks some received wisdom, and leaves unanswered questions. This isn’t the documentary’s fault—not all that much is known about Johnson and much that’s been passed down over the years is contradictory.

 

The cornerstone of the Robert Johnson myth is that he sold his soul to the devil in order to become an extraordinary guitarist. In fact, at one point in his life Johnson left his Delta home for about a year and came into contact with guitarist Isaiah “Ike” Zimmerman, the best guitar player in the region. The story goes that Zimmerman took Johnson to a grave and showed him how to play. When Johnson returned 

DEVIL AT A GLANCE

Part of the Netflix Remastered series, this 45-minute documentary on legendary bluesman Robert Johnson suffers from some ill-considered animation and could use some extended performances of Johnson’s work, but otherwise does a good job of telling the story of his obscure life and his tremendous influence on contemporary music.

 

SOUND     

Clear, full-bodied, and well-mixed. The audio of the original recordings has been cleaned up and de-noised, but not intrusively so.

home, he had become so good that people thought he must have made a deal with the devil. As Michael Johnson notes, “Playing music in the graveyard perpetuated the myth.”

 

We learn that not much was known about Johnson until his death certificate was discovered in 1967, after which more information came out and “a new key would open up yet another door.” Johnson grew up in an environment of sharecroppers and wanted to make a living with the blues, but it was dangerous for a black musician to travel during those times. Yet as Taj Mahal points out, “You played that music and you could be outside of yourself and you could take everybody else [in the audience] out.”

 

Devil at the Crossroads doesn’t go into depth regarding Johnson’s playing technique, although Terry “Harmonica” Bean notes that Johnson had exceptionally long fingers, which allowed him to do things other guitarists couldn’t. Keith Richards points out that Johnson could sound like a one-man band, covering the bass, chords, and melodies simultaneously on the lower and upper strings. “One part of what he’s playing is talking to the other part and he’s [singing] in the middle.”

 

The documentary goes into far more detail about his personal life, his first wife dying in childbirth, his conflicts with family members, and his never knowing his biological father. All of this and other difficulties fueled his need for playing music, traveling, drinking, and womanizing. “Robert’s life was just one tragedy after another. It never seemed to end for him,” says Michael Johnson. It did in fact end after Johnson drank from a poisoned whisky bottle at the Three Forks Juke, given to him by the jealous husband of a woman Johnson had taken up with. He died on August 16, 1938.

 

Johnson’s music began to be rediscovered in a major way by, of all things, what the documentary calls “78 geeks”—college students in the 1950s and early 1960s who would buy boxes of 78 RPM records. In 1961, John Hammond was instrumental in the release of Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers, which introduced a new generation to Johnson’s music.

 

Devil at the Crossroads does have flaws, the most egregious of which is the use of cheesy animation to illustrate some of the narration. It distracts from and cheapens the seriousness of the subject matter. And while there are plenty of song excerpts by both Johnson and the performers, I wish they would have included a full performance or two. Another thing that will irk blues aficionados to no end: The documentary shows the “crossroads” where Johnson supposedly sold his soul—and shows it over and over again. However, it is not known which intersection is actually the crossroads.

 

That said, Devil at the Crossroads is visually well done, artfully mixing archival footage, location shots (including the shack where Johnson was supposedly born!), and interviews. The sound is clear, full-bodied, and well-mixed. The audio of the original recordings has been very obviously cleaned up and de-noised, but not intrusively so. And the songs and performances make you realize how much the haunting sound of acoustic slide guitar is crucial to acoustic blues music.

 

Most of all, Devil at the Crossroads conveys the tragedy and the emotion of Robert Johnson’s music and life. As grandson Michael Johnson points out, “I really believe he was searching for the freedom within, the soul within.”

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian

Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian

One of the biggest concerns I’ve had about about the home video marketplace in the years since we started to transition from discs to online distribution is the decline in well-made behind-the-scenes supplemental material. We’ve seen some exceptions, like Beyond Stranger Things on Netflix, but bonus goodies of this sort almost seem like a vestige and little more, and they’re far too rare even at that.

 

I’m not sure if Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian is a full-blown reversal of this trend, but it’s certainly a welcome addition to the ever-growing library of content available on Disney+.

 

You know what? Strike that. To call this series a return to the glory days of behind-the-scenes documentaries that flourished during the DVD era would be to sell it short. Unlike far too many of those bonus features, this eight-episode exploration of the 

making of the first live-action Star Wars TV series doesn’t have a promotional or congratulatory bone in its body. Nor does it lean on all of the tropes that practically defined the making-of doc in decades past.

 

Few and far between are the stereotypical shots of creatives or performers answering questions in front of a green screen. In fact, one almost gets the sense that director Brad Baruh has never seen a behind-the-scenes documentary and is making up his own formula as he goes along.

 

That’s actually not the case. Baruh has been involved in the making of a few Marvel Cinematic Universe docs and even had a hand in a couple of the best “one shot” short films set in the MCU. But with Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian, he breaks the mold, structuring the series around a series of roundtable discussions, each focusing on a different aspect of the series or its legacy, rather than following the making of the series in chronological order.

 

The first episode takes a deep dive into the directors who worked on the show, and subsequent episodes explore its place in the Star Wars universe from a storytelling perspective as well as a pop-culture phenomenon perspective, along with the actual grunt work of production and post production.

 

But what really makes Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian 

such a joy is that it’s wildly unpredictable. Rambling discussions that would have been left on the cutting-room floor in the hands of a more seasoned pro instead become the centerpiece of an episode. Actors, directors, producers, and effects artists are allowed to take the conversations in directions that interest them, rather than simply pandering to the voyeuristic tendencies of the viewer.

 

(Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the trailer for this series, which seems intent upon cherry-picking the few shots and discussions in which it does gravitate toward tried-and-true territory, but oh well. Marketing people are gonna market. Don’t let that turn you off.)

The series even treats some of the controversies behind the making of The Mandalorian with unapologetic honesty—like the fact that star Pedro Pascal wasn’t really behind the mask of the titular Mandalorian all that much, and was instead played primarily by stuntmen Brendan Wayne and Lateef Crowder depending on the needs of the scene.

 

The best episodes of the series so far are those that focus on the technical wizardry that made The Mandalorian possible, like the advances in virtual set technology and the reliance on video-game engines for real-time rendering of backdrops that responded to camera movement. But at its heart, what makes Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian such a pleasure to watch is 

that every story it tells is ultimately a human story. While watching the series, my mind has been blown on several occasions to discover that things I thought were special effects actually weren’t, and things I never would have suspected to be special effects actually were. But instead of treating these technological wonders as the subject of interest in and of 

Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian

themselves, Baruh treats them as the efforts of creative humans solving problems in a way that no one ever solved them before.

 

And in a way, that’s a bit of a metaphor for Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian as a behind-the-scenes documentary. You’ve certainly seen bonus features that aim for the same end goals. But you’ve rarely seen ones that approach those goals in quite this way.

 

As I write this, three episodes have yet to air, and the last will hit Disney+ on June 19. Whether you dig in now or wait to binge the complete run of eight episodes is your choice, of course, but don’t sleep on this one. Even if you’ve never been a fan of supplemental material, this series is so original in its approach to deconstructing the creative process that you owe it to yourself to give it a shot.

 

And if nothing else, its title—not The Making of the Mandalorian, or Behind the Mask, or anything of the sort, but rather Disney Gallery—gives me hope that this isn’t a one-off, that indeed Disney+ will be home to future series of this nature, which maintain the spirit of old DVD making-of supplements by documentarians like Charles de Lauzirika, Van Ling, David Prior, and Laurent Bouzereau, but in a fresh new way that embraces the streaming era of home cinema.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Once in a Lifetime Sessions with Nile Rodgers

Once in a Lifetime Sessions with Nile Rodgers

Like so many of us, when using Netflix or some other streaming service I tend to browse to find something to watch rather than zeroing in on a particular show. Since my tastes run to music, I usually seek out music-related documentaries and concert films. So I somewhat semi-randomly stumbled upon this episode of a Netflix series called Once in a Lifetime Sessions, a documentary series featuring musicians talking about their careers and performing live in concert and in the 

recording studio—including a live-to-vinyl session! If you’re looking for a “history of the band”-type documentary, this isn’t it—but it is an insightful look into Nile Rodgers’ career, life, and flat-out incredible musical chops.

 

Rodgers is the co-founder of Chic (along with bassist extraordinaire Bernard Edwards), a band that burst upon the disco and pop music scene in 1972 with hits like “Le Freak,” “I Want Your Love,” and their signature, oft-sampled mega-smash “Good Times.” Rodgers is also an extremely successful producer—a small sample of songs he’s been behind the board for include David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge, “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross, and a little thing you might have heard recently—Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.”

 

He is also known as one of the best rhythm guitarists of all time, with a distinctive funky propulsive style that, while 

NILE RODGERS AT A GLANCE

The Chic co-founder, hitmaker, and legendary rhythm guitarist dissects his most famous tracks, talks about his life, and stages a super-tight club performance with his bandmates. 

 

PICTURE     

Attractive and direct documentary-style visuals mercifully free of gimmicks.

 

SOUND

Clean, rich sound, with plenty of bass and with each instrument clearly heard—but in a mix so lacking in stereo spread it borders on mono.

deceptively simple-sounding, no one else can quite duplicate. Think of that opening riff to “Good Times.” You’re probably hearing that unstoppable guitar groove in your head right now, along with Edwards’ iconic bass line, maybe the greatest electric bass riff ever.

 

Naturally I wanted to know—how did he do it? The documentary answers that question and a whole lot more, featuring plenty of interview footage at Angel Studios, London, where Rodgers tells exactly how he did it. An engineer pulls up individual tracks from the master tapes so you can hear each musician’s parts while Rodgers explains the creative process of how and why the players came up with them. For a musician like me, fascinating, and even if you can’t play a note you’ll learn a lot about the process.

 

Rodgers goes into rich detail about how he and others wrote the songs. Just one of many quotes: “As musicians, we want our voices to be heard, right? That means we want hit records . . . We knew that we had to come up with our own formula for making hits, and we knew that the chorus somehow was what people always wanted to get to . . . So we thought, well, what if we just started with the chorus? That way we give people the dessert first!”

 

He doesn’t just talk about the song-creation process, though. The interviewer draws plenty of life experience from Rodgers, whose parents were drug-dependent. As a result, the family moved a lot and he was the only black kid in a lot of the schools he wound up in. “I didn’t fit in and I was bullied a lot.” Rodgers is unblinkingly candid about his bouts with alcohol and drug

use and falling into the vortex of the 1970s and 1980s partying lifestyle. He thought he was young and invincible and could sustain that level of excess (it worked, for a while), but after it started to affect his playing, he just stopped cold and has been clean ever since.

 

But, for me, the highlight of Once in a Lifetime Sessions with Nile Rodgers

is the live performance footage. Rodgers and his musicians and singers are incredibly tight. I mean, unbelievably tight. I mean, ridiculously superhumanly astoundingly tight. Watching them is a master class in how to play together, how to lock in as musicians, how to groove. As a musician, I can tell you it’s tough to just play through a song without hitting a “clam” (wrong note), let alone play with any kind of feel and swing and togetherness.

 

In this respect, watching Chic play together is in the true sense awe-inspiring and more than a little humbling. In both the concert footage (actually a club somewhere in the UK) and the in-studio performances, these guys and gals are killing it. Nailing it. Destroying it! Every musician is remarkable, and singer Kim Davis-Jones is hair-raisingly good, just an absolute complete knockout. I don’t care if your thing is folk, rock, hip-hop, whatever—if you’re a musician, consider this required viewing.

 

The sound quality is extremely good—clean, rich, and with plenty of that all-important bass and kick drum, and every instrument can be clearly heard. Yet the sound is somewhat mono-ish, lacking in stereo spread. Although I’m usually a sonic purist, I tried various modes on my old but great-sounding Harman Kardon A/V receiver and found the music most enjoyable while listening in surround, particularly Harman Kardon’s Logic 7 Music mode.

 

The visuals are fine—pretty much straightforward. I mean, how much “production” can you do with interview filming that wouldn’t ultimately be distracting? And the concert footage is refreshingly direct, alternating between shots of the band and the individual players with a lack of distraction and gratuitous effects. (We’ve all seen way too much of that sort of thing.)

 

Rodgers concludes the documentary by talking about his “insane” work ethic, something he’s never let go of. For him, hard work and life are one and the same. The 67-year-old Rodgers states, “I always say that I have 10 good years left. I’ve been saying that since I was 20!” Amen, brother.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.