Watch Gil Scott-Heron in “Black Wax”

Gil Scott-Heron, who died yesterday at the age of 62, is best known for the spoken-word single “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” His influence on black culture, political poetry and music is tremendous, but what about documentary film? Well the title of his most famous track has been borrowed for the title of one prominent non-fiction film: Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain’s 2003 film on Hugo Chavez, which unintentionally/fortuitously documented the attempted coup in 2002.

And then there is Robert Mugge’s “Black Wax,” a 1983 music doc focused on Scott-Heron as he performs in and walks around D.C. and hangs out with wax figures of political and historical figures. You can’t rent it from Netflix as it appears to be out of print, with new DVDs selling for about $80 on Amazon — VHS copies are only $3, though. There are at least a few clips here and there on the web, one of which — I think it’s the beginning — you can check out after the jump.

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Where are the True Summer Doc-Busters?

I have a new documentary column at For now it’s a bi-weekly feature and it’s called Doc Talk, so look for it again in early June. This first installment tackles the term and the concept of the “doc-buster,” which Morgan Spurlock coined for his new doc “POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.” I also will be leaving room at the end of each column for new docs I recommend. Here’s an excerpt from “Doc Talk: Where are the True Summer Doc-Busters?”:

How anyone would think a documentary would make a lot of money is beyond me, and I love the darn things. A Justin Bieber concert film, okay, that should be called a doc-buster. Disneynature’s latest Earth Day feature, titled “Al Gore Presents: Global Warming is Making These Cute Baby Animals Sad.” Oh yeah. Doc-buster. A Michael Moore film featuring penguins getting launched into the air inside a portable toilet, in 3D? Maybe that’s a doc-buster. But you really just never know with docs what will be a phenomenal hit and what will fall by the wayside.


Another Unavailable Oscar-Nominated Doc: “The Race for Space”

One of these days I’m going to attempt to see as many available Oscar-nominated documentaries as possible. Today I noticed one of the many that could be difficult to find: David L. Wolper’s 1959 TV special “The Race for Space.” Wolper, who died last summer, is best known for producing “Roots” and “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” though he also had some hand in classic docs like “The Hellstrom Chronicle” (an Oscar winner), “Four Days in November” (Oscar nominee) and “Imagine: John Lennon.”

“Race for Space,” which lost to the only other feature doc nominee of 1960 (“Serengeti”), was Wolper’s first of two directorial efforts (the other is a 1961 doc titled “Hollywood: The Golden Years”), and it’s sadly not available in any format I can find. I stumbled upon it while looking for films about Yuri Gagarin and the Soviet cosmonaut program since today is the 50th anniversary of the first manned space mission.

Wolper’s film came before Gagarin’s milestone, of course, but it featured exclusive footage from Russia of Sputnik and such. The point isn’t the film’s relevance to the anniversary, though; it’s that it needs to be made available for doc aficionados like myself.

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Who Wants to See Sidney Lumet’s Rare Oscar-Nominated MLK Documentary?

Sidney Lumet directed a whole lot of movies, but only one of them is a documentary. And sadly this Oscar-nominated feature, “King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis,” has been unavailable in really any format accessible to most Americans for many years. The original cut features extensive archival footage of Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as onscreen readings of his speeches, by the likes of Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, James Earl Jones, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Ruby Dee, Bill Cosby, Walter Matthau, Burt Lancaster and Charlton Heston.

Co-directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry in 1999, it is a film I haven’t yet seen. Few recently have, I guess, since it initially screened one day — March 24, 1970 — in its 185-minute entirety at more than 600 cinemas, later aired a few times on commercial TV and then was cut down to less than two hours for a VHS release (with all celebs but Belafonte removed). Apparently the 3-hour cut screened at NYC’s Museum of Modern Art earlier this year, and I’m very sad that I wasn’t aware of the event.

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Richard Leacock’s Lesson and Legacy

“Screw the tripod. Screw the dollies. Screw all the stuff.”

Richard Leacock, who died yesterday, speaks on the freedom of Direct Cinema in the following video, which also features Robert Drew:

Read the documentary legend’s obituary and some reactions to his death in Eric Kohn’s indieWIRE piece (which I contributed to).

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Miami 2011: “Mooney vs. Fowle”

I don’t know that I’ve ever attended a screening where the crowd is so into the documentary on screen (well, maybe the Bieber doc). James Lipscomb’s 1962 “Living Camera” episode “Mooney vs. Fowle” played to a crowd mostly made up of people who are in the Drew Associates’ vérité classic, and they understandably treated the film as if it were a slideshow projected at their high school reunion. People all around me talked amongst themselves, pointing out themselves or friends. At first it irritated me that I couldn’t always hear the dialogue from the actual film, but after a while I had an appreciation for what this experience was for everyone there. Most had apparently never seen it.

The doc brings us back to a 1961 football game played in front of 40,000 people at the Orange Bowl. A high school football game, pitting Miami High against their rivals from Edison High. The title refers to the coaches of each, and the film follows them separately, with their real families and their clan of players, in the days leading up to the big event. And then at last it astonishingly chronicles the game from all kinds of angles you wouldn’t expect from even the newly mobile tools of the Drew crew. Today’s television coverage doesn’t come nearly as close to capturing the spirit of the sport and its fans the way Lipscomb does here.

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Doc Talk: Oscar Winners vs. Classic Documentaries

Doc Talk is a bi-weekly column at dedicated to non-fiction cinema.

Which film is more likely to become a documentary classic, ‘Inside Job’ or ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’? Regardless of our preference, we can all agree Banksy’s Oscar-losing fan favorite is a more timeless story and will likely be more enjoyable with repeat viewings. Charles Ferguson’s Academy Award-winning look at the financial crisis will certainly remain a great piece of historical document but probably won’t be revisited often for entertainment or artistic value. And sadly, like many timely docs, it could even one day be forgotten, like Lee Grant’s 1986 Oscar-winning Reagonomics critique ‘Down and Out in America,’ which is pretty obscure only 25 years later.

Before announcing the Best Picture winner Sunday night, Steven Spielberg made a comment clearly meant to appease Team ‘The Social Network’ by implying that losing the award still puts a film in good company (his examples being ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ ‘Citizen Kane,’ ‘The Graduate’ and ‘Raging Bull’). The same goes for the Best Documentary Feature award. ‘Inside Job’ joins the likes of ‘Woodstock,’ ‘Hearts and Minds,’ ‘Bowling for Columbine’ and ‘Man on Wire.’ ‘Exit,’ meanwhile, joins a group including ‘In the Year of the Pig,’ ‘Streetwise,’ ‘Capturing the Friedmans’ and ‘Encounters at the End of the World.’

Continue reading this column at Cinematical.

Documentary Channel Presents Oscar Marathon This Weekend

Since Turner Classic Movies’ 31 Days of Oscar is pretty lacking in the documentary department, The Documentary Channel comes to our rescue this weekend. Or yours. Unfortunately, I don’t get the network (Cablevision be damned). I wish, even if it would mean I got nothing else done the next few days besides catching up on old docs. The channel’s marathon of Oscar-nominated shorts and features starts tomorrow at 4pm with the 2004 short “Hardwood” and continues through Monday, ending with the 1978 short “Gravity is My Enemy.”

Here’s the trailer/ad:

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Trailer: “Cinema Verite”

“Cinema verite, right? Whatever happens happens”

That’s the sound bite to leave with from this trailer for HBO’s Cinema Verite, which dramatizes the making of the pioneering reality series (then still thought of as a documentary series) An American Family. Directed by American Splendor‘s Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the movie  stars Tim Robbins and Diane Lane as the Loud parents, Thomas Dekker as gay hero Lance, James Gandolfini as producer Craig Gilbert and Patrick Fugit and Shanna Collins as future Oscar winners Alan and Susan Raymond.

All this does is make me want to finally get to watch the original series, which isn’t officially commercially available.