The Delightful Documentary “Bathtubs Over Broadway” Remembers A Forgotten Art Form

(Focus Features)

“I don’t know whether this is real … or if this has been some wonderful dream!” That fevered confusion is sung with enthusiasm by a Wal-Mart employee in a fairly recent example of the industrial musical, the subject of a delightful documentary that I first saw during AFIDocs.  Director Dava Whisenant follows comedy writer-record collector Steve Young along for an obsession that began as a joke and became much more.

Although the term may suggest a tap-dancing number scored by Throbbing Gristle, industrial musicals are in fact a by-product of peak capitalism, big-budget song-and-dance productions commissioned by such giants of industry as Ford and General Electric, or by smaller, less glamorous outfits that manufacture, say, paper hospital supplies.

Young, a self-proclaimed “cynical comedy writer,”  first took this stuff as a joke.  How else would you respond to something like The Bathrooms are Coming!, American Standard’s musical survey of the season’s new fixtures, with lyrics celebrating a room, “That’s much more than it may seem/ Where I wash and where I cream”?


Industrial musicals became a major part of “Dave’s Record Collection,” a recurring bit on the comedian’s late night TV show (Letterman appears here, post-retirement but pre-beard). Young became more obsessed with this corporate subgenre, its music produced for annual conferences or sales meetings and, as he explains, never meant to be heard by the ordinary consumer. As his obsession grew, he began to track down the people behind the music, becoming their champion and their friend. The movie plays like a thriller,  with quests and surprises and personal revelations meted out for full dramatic or comic effect.

Like no other movie, Bathtubs Over Broadway shows you the magic of record collecting, and the connections that the dedicated enthusiast begins to make as they dig deeper into the music’s history.

Industrial musicals starred such familiar names as Florence Henderson and Martin Short. Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, the men behind a Ford tractors musical, also wrote Fiddler on the Roof. Although the shows were made for a limited audience, no expense was spared; one Chevrolet musical had a $3 million budget, as compared to the mere $446 thousand that went into a contemporary staging of  My Fair Lady. 

Yet other composers, like Sid Siegel, toiled in obscurity, making a living in the scene but never breaking out of it. Young laments this injustice, admiring, “melodies so primal and durable that you wonder if with different lyrics … would everyone in America know this man and his work right now.”

As industry declined, so did industrial musicals; time moved on, the nation changed, David Letterman retired; as hilarious and dazzling as its excerpts can be, this is a finally somber movie about a changing America and the passage of time,  marking the end of an era whose like we will never see again.

Quest documentaries that put a seeker in the story can be self-serving, but Whisenant leads us on the quest with all its sense of excited discovery.  You might expect a man who was long employed by the nation’s senior wise-cracking comic to be smug about such things, but Young is humbled and awed by this material, and is determined to preserve it and share his passion with the world:  “It was supposed to be all thrown away and forgotten, But we played a trick on history and we saved it.”

(Disclosure: Young visits the Library of Congress, where I work, as part of his quest–in fact, he walks into my old office! I was not involved with the making of this film, though I’d love to get a look at the material he dug up in the collection.)

Opens today in Washington, D.C. at Landmark West End Cinema. 

Book Review: ‘A Complete Guide to Ventriloquism: Principles, Practice and Performance,’ by Dr., Naveen Sridhar

9781463684372_p0_v1_s260x420Article first published as Book Review: ‘A Complete Guide to Ventriloquism: Principles, Practice and Performance’ by Dr. Naveen Sridhar on Blogcritics, where I’ve logged seven other reviews this month.  Movies: 3:10 to Yuma and Jubal,  The Pierre Etaix Collection, the Vietnamese nail-salon melodrama Touch, and the Big Star documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me;  a new translation of Sakyo Komatsu’s classic (but really boring) 1960s sci-fi novel Virus: The Day of Resurrection; a reissue series of three Swamp Dogg albums from the early 1970s; and a couple of episodes of River Monsters. This list doesn’t include the weekly writing I do over at DCist, and the outlet I’ll start writing for any day now, Spectrum Culture.

The art of ventriloquism can seem Sisyphean in nature. An apprentice works long and hard on vocal technique and hones routines for comedy audiences prone to heckling, all in order to find their creative voice through the plaster jaws of a blank-eyed familiar. The field has been the subject of a pair of documentaries in the past few years. I’m no Dummy looks at the history of the field through vent greats like Paul Winchell and Senor Wences to contemporaries like Jeff Dunham. Dumbstruck is a moving study of struggling unknowns. Both films emphasize the hard work of throwing your voice, but viewers of the latter film, when faced with the vents who didn’t make it, or haven’t yet … well you can’t blame audiences for finding them a bit creepy.

Ventriloquism is loaded with a stigma of uncoolness. When is the last time you saw a hipster ventriloquist? But more than just square, the ventriloquist often comes off as strange. The travel guide Buenos AIires Bizarrohas a whole chapter on the city’s vent scene. Ventriloquist instruction goes even further into the unknown, culminating in recordings like this mysterious instruction to Throw Your Voice.

Despite these hurdles of societal acceptance, throwing your voice is an intriguing creative outlet. Everyone puts on a mask when talking to strangers; the vent simply externalizes this mask. Several years ago, I was stuck on a writing project when I happened on a jawless ventriloquist dummy on eBay. I called him Mmrma, which is how I imagined a jawless dummy would struggle through the sound of the name Mortimer. With my dummy in hand, I found my story, throwing my literary voice through this damaged conduit. But what if I actually wanted to learn how to use it?

Mmrma, a dummy from the reviewer's personal collection.
Mmrma, a dummy from the reviewer’s personal collection.

I strongly suggest that would-be practitioners of the art consult a new guide to ventriloquism. Dr. Naveen Sridhar earnestly takes the art seriously, even making apologies in an eloquent preface to his book A Complete Guide to Ventriloquism: Principles, Practice and Performance. Sridhar does not make any false promises, and admits that he cannot guarantee that one can learn the art from his book, or any book for that matter. He answers an issue that had never occurred to me: for those worried that such knowledge may “fall into the wrong hands,” Sridhar assures them that “whether it would seduce less serious dilettantes to abuse the art, proliferating it and making it profane, I believe such a fear is unfounded.”

This is a good example of the author’s elegant if slightly awkward language. Sridhar writes with a kind of old-fashioned formality that makes one imagine the book as not a 21st century release but a musty nineteenth-century edition with marbled endpapers and mild foxing. Such is his literary ventriloquism. This formality also lends itself to clarity: He cannot guarantee success, but his instructions, and diagrams, are easy to follow.

The technical aspects of ventriloquism may not appeal to the casual reader, but his tutelage also provides helpful guides to life. In a section on dealing with hecklers, Dr. Sridhar offers his optimistic worldview”All men and women are by nature peaceful and happy.” I don’t know about you, but that makes me want to take up a ventriloquist dummy right there.

VOD Review: A Band Called Death

Article first published as Music DVD Review: A Band Called Death on Blogcritics.

We live in the middle of a golden age of documentaries. For the past few years, music documentaries have featured prominently in my top ten lists. Paul Williams: Still Alive and Searching for Sugar Man were among my favorite movies last year, and this year Beware of Mr. Baker will probably sit beside sit title on my year-end list.

What this cross-section of music docs has in common is at least the perception that the subject documented has fallen out of the public eye. The story behind Death goes further than that. The all-black power trio from Detroit played a fierce and fast rock and roll that, like fellow Detroit bands like the MC5 and The Stooges, anticipated punk. Until a few years ago, hardly anyone had heard them.

Death only released one 45 in their lifetime, and as the story goes, were almost signed by Clive Davis. The Arista records impresario was ready to snap up their debut album, recorded at Detroit’s legendary United Sound Recording Studio, on one condition: they change their name. David Hackney, one of three brothers who made up the band, had developed a fairly positive symbolism around the band’s name, and refused to change, leaving the demo tape to smolder in obscurity for decades.

The band may have been ahead of their time but they were not influential. By the time the 45s got into the hands of hipsters, their music was quaint and their name an asset. The movie’s strength is that it doesn’t depend on the music for its dramatic weight. This is a movie about family: three brothers trying to make it as musicians in a Detroit whose black music scene was generally more favorable to R&B acts (the P-Funk Diaspora aside), a mother who supported her sons’ creative ventures even if the din drove her crazy, and supportive siblings with great personality and affection for each other.

A third-act sidebar brings in the outside world. When Death’s sole 45, “Politicians in my eyes,” got into the hands of record collector/former Dead Kennedy’s front man Jello Biafra, word began to spread, and reached critical mass around the time of a New York Times article in 2009, the same year their   1974 album ...For The Whole World To See was finally released on Drag City.

The band’s discovery could have made for an annoying aside – the always self-righteous Henry Rollins is the most prominent of the hipster talking heads assembled. These celebrity appearances are thankfully kept to a minimum, and the next generation of the family rises to the occasion to make this music come to life again. Even if you don’t think Death is the second coming of rock and roll, as a movie, A Band Called Death rocks hard.

A Band Called Death will be available for digital download and VOD on Friday, May 24. Pre-order on iTunes here.

DVD Review: Merce Cunningham Dance Company Park Avenue Armory Event

(Stephanie Berger/Park Avenue Armory)
(Stephanie Berger/Park Avenue Armory)

Article first published as DVD Review: Merce Cunningham Dance Company Park Avenue Armory Event on Blogcritics.

The work of the late choreographer Merce Cunningham, who passed away in 2009, was well documented by videographer Charles Atlas. His work can be found on Microcinema’s three-disc set Merce Cunningham Dance Company: Robert Rauschenberg Collaborations. Atlas shot dancers in static, uninterrupted takes, and this theatrical simplicity captured sets and costumes in a controlled if somewhat clinical setting. In motion picture terms, Atlas’s work sometimes felt more like a document than art.

Perhaps a better tribute to an artist who threw the I Ching and thrived on serendipity is Microcinema’s release of the 3-DVD set Merce Cunningham Dance Company Park Avenue Armory Event . The surviving company performed six pieces across three stages in the round in the Park Avenue Armory’s drill hall. The event took place in the days before New Year’s Eve 2011, and the resulting video captures the spectacle that rang out the old year and sent off one of the great choreographers.

The filmmakers convey the excitement of that performance by taking an approach far from the clinical work of Atlas. Two camera teams operating fourteen cameras filmed the event in a variety of angles, alternating distant views of the action appearing on all three stages, with close ups that focus on the featured dancers on a single stage. In other words, cinema.

The documentary begins with behind the scenes excitement: close-ups of the printed program, shots of taxis depositing attendees and moving away into an artfully blurred Manhattan nightscape. This approach reveals more of the art by sometimes looking away from it.

The first disc is an edited one-hour summation of the Park Avenue shows, but two generous bonus discs provide both single shot versions of each if the pieces performed as well as bonus repertory performances from the tour. These last include footage shot by Charles Atlas, which are a starkly academic contrast to the main event. These repertory excerpts include the challenging “CRWDSPCR,” a piece that demands a dynamic visual approach. The static camera that Atlas points at the dancers record the work but do not engage with it. I’m glad I have Atlas’s dance videos on my DVD shelf, but when I want to watch some Merce Cunningham, I’ll put on the Park Avenue Armory Event.

A Review of Harmony Korine’s Book, A Crackup at the Race Riots, Bridging Conventional Critical Practices with Korine’s Fragmented Methodology

condosArticle first published as Book Review: A Crackup at the Race Riots by Harmony Korine on Blogcritics.

1. Photographer Larry Clark is best known for the iconic photobook Tulsa, a document of sex, drugs, and violence among young people in Oklahoma. Clark’s 1971 book was accused of exploiting his young charges, and Clark’s admission that he partied with his subjects runs a fine line between documentary and bad-boy indulgence. It seems a natural that Clark would give Harmony Korine his first shot of notoriety. Korine wrote the screenplay for Clark’s 1995 movie Kids, an expose/possible exploitation of another generation of teenage sex and drugs.

2. A dwarf in a Ku Klux Klan hood has AIDS.

3. Korine has since been a kind of cause célèbre, making difficult and some would say self-indulgent movies under the forgiving auspices of independent cinema. He has notable defenders, most prominent among them being director Werner Herzog. Herzog has appeared in three of Korine’s films, and contributes a blurb to the Drag City reissue of Korine’s episodic novel A Crack-Up at the Race Riots . “I was struck from the very beginning that there is a totally independent and new voice in writing. I believe that [he] is a great talent as a writer.”

4. Hand-written notes on celebrities and their muffs reproduced in facsimile evoking the DIY essence of the fanzine as well as its self-indulgence.

5. The writer-director’s latest film Spring Breakers, makes a play for mainstream acceptance but is still very much of a piece with his bad boy sensibilities. The publicity machine made big news out of the fact that he cast a pair or former teen stars (Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens) along with his wife in an exploitative look at the annual bacchanal, which Korine both revels and despises.

6. Incestuous suicide note, one of a series of eleven with space for the reader’s signature.

7. So now seems a good time for Drag City to revisit Korine’s 1998 book. The fragmented format and edgy attitude of Korine’s “novel” owes a lot to Kathy Acker’s form-busting fiction . But however you may feel about Acker’s work. it seems to spring from a personal, tortured vision. Crackup seems like the indulgent notes of a wunderkind who thinks that every one of his utterances is worth preserving for posterity. It’s not.

8. That said, I liked Spring Breakers.

Photobook/App review: The Afronauts, by Cristina De Middel

Article first published as Photobook/App Review: The Afronauts by Cristina DeMiddel on Blogcritics.

How many photography apps come with a spoiler alert? Ubicuo Studio, who produced an app based on Cristina De Middel’s limited edition photo book The Afronauts, gave me the option of learning the app’s secrets right away or exploring it for myself. Much as the photographs explore its subject matter in a novel and personal way, exploring the app on your own gives the consumer a chance to make their own discoveries.

Courtesy of Ubicuo Studios
Courtesy of Ubicuo Studios

The Afronauts is famous in the photobook world, so I envy those coming to the app from outside the field. Cristina DeMiddel’s self-published photobook was on a lot of best of 2012 lists. But good luck finding a copy. The modest tome book sold out months after its release. In a photobook market that is already insane, its rise from a $40 artist’s book to a thousand dollar (and up) collectible is legendary, and as DeMiddel told me in an interview for Lay Flat, the attention has been daunting.

DeMiddel can’t afford a copy of her own book at this point. Interest in The Afronauts has skyrocketed much like the dreams of the Zambian Space program that inspired the project. What made the print edition stand out besides its unusual subject matter was its mixture of photography and ephemera, assembled in a lovingly designed object.

De Middel cut her teeth as a photojournalist, and was intrigued by the way that images can reveal an audience’s prejudices. She created images of an African space program knowing full well the subject is potentially loaded. DeMiddel explains, “One of my intentions with The Afronauts was to raise awareness of how we consume the image of Africa that is given in the media, and how a whole continent has been stigmatized. This uncomfortable reaction and prejudice belongs to the viewer as it is not literally included in the images.”

This uncomfortable reaction is more provocative that it’s provoked by such a charming guise. The Other is dressed up in what appear to be hand-made space suits embellished in what we imagine are tribal designs. DeMiddel’s photos and invented ephemera work against the kind of images we have come to expect from Africa.

The material is fascinating any way you present it. But, in print form, The Afronauts raised the bar on what great design can do for a photobook. It was more than the sum of its parts, and the same is true for the app. DeMiddel wanted to make the material available in a new and affordable form, and designer Maria Cerezo had some fun with it. The app is set up as a game that requires the consumer to do a little exploration on their own before they can get at the images inside. The images themselves are laid out in a way that respects the book’s layout, but have the added app-behavior of an iPad’s finger gestures. You can pinch and expand the images in a way that you cannot do with the book. I have never handled the Afronauts book, but from images and video, the photo reproduction of the app seems to take advantage of the display resolution to present a much different tonal experience. The app images are processed with a higher contrast than the more subdued tones of the book, which had the look of a softly aged artifact. The app is a thing of the future present, a bright and shiny dream. Buy it here – only 99c until April 20, when the price goes up to $5.99.

Music Review: George Jones, The Complete United Artists Solo Singles

Article first published as Music Review: George Jones – The Complete United Artists Solo Singles on Blogcritics.

Hard living and harder drinking are the time worn clichés of the old school country singer, and one of the hardest drinking lights in the country music firmament is George Jones. His nicknames have been variations on self-loathing: the diminutive Possum, the self-fulfilling No-Show Jones, the persona of Deedoodle Duck. Jones channeled self-hatred in his moniker, on the surface a cuddly mascot, but one holding depths of pain and remorse.

The opening chapter of Bob Allen’s biography of the country singer reads like a Jim Thompson novel, a spiraling rage that turns inward until even the bottle fails him. Jones’ signature anthem, 1979’s “He stopped loving her today,” is more popular on the funeral circuit than on country music radio. Its story of a man whose love ended only because he died was selected for the National Recorded Sound Registry, and while it’s countrypolitan strings, courtesy of producer Billy Sherrill, threaten to overwhelm the song in syrup, Jones’s relies not on pyrotechnics but phrasing to sing his sad song to heaven.

Jones’ stature as a singer is complicated by the label-jumping he’s made throughout his career. Omnivore does justice to one of the formative stages of Jones’ output with The Complete United Artists Solo Singles. The material, spanning from 1962 to 1966 is not consistent. For every classic like the opening, “She thinks I still care,” and “The race is on,” there’s an uninspired gospel number like “He’s so good to me.”

A handful of tracks are more curiosities than classics. The set includes several Christmas novelties like “My Mom and Santa Claus,” a variation on “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus that replaces a peck with the twist. Even more unusual is the B-side “Geronimo,” a tie-in to a Chuck Connors movie. Songwriter Johnny Western wrote the song in a couple of days after Jones’s manager-producer Pappy Daily mentioned that the singer loved the TV show “Have Gun Will Travel.”

But then the chaff falls away and the wheat sustains in a ballad like “I saw me.” When you hear Jones’s mature phrasing convey deep founts of pain and self-doubt, you remember that this is one of the great vocal interpreters. If you throw some Billy Sherrill strings on “Lonely Christmas call, from 1966, you could be listening to something from the classic 1970s era.

The Jones catalog can still be a hit and miss adventure for the uninitiated, and even an essential survey like Anniversary: 10 Years of Hits passes over great album tracks like One Woman Man’s “The King is Gone.” Complete UA Singles is less definitive than that Columbia era collection, but any fan of the singer will have to own both.