Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Film Review: LEADBELLY (1976)


"Why the Hell isn't This on DVD yet?" -- Number 70

LEADBELLY (1976 Paramount) Starring Roger E. Mosley, Paul Benjamin, Madge Sinclair, Albert Hall, Art Evans, Lynn Hamilton, James Brodhead, John Henry Faulk.  Directed by Gordon Parks, Sr.

Mosley is the titular blues legend, whose life is covered from the time he departs the family farm (one step ahead of the law) to his 'discovery' by musicologist Brodhead (as John A. Lomax) in prison a quarter century later.  After bidding adieu to his parents (Benjamin and Hamilton) he finds a Shreveport benefactor in Madam Sinclair, who connects him with his first gigs.  But Mosley isn't one to be a kept man.  He leaves her and the red light district behind, drifting between Louisiana and Texas, incarceration and freedom during the segregated Roaring Twenties with defiance, turbulence and music as the constants in his life.

Gordon Parks Sr. comes full circle with his final feature, LEADBELLY.  In bringing Hudie Ledbetter's life to the screen, the director returned to the same time period he explored in his landmark debut, THE LEARNING TREE.  While TREE was set in Kansas, LEADBELLY takes place in the South, and the guitar virtuoso confronts bigoted hostility in a two fisted style reminiscent of TREE's Marcus for much of the film.  Racist whites aren't the only ones to run afoul of Mosley's hot temper.  The high strung talent is willing to fight anyone over women, pride and music.  Especially music---his introduction to Evans (as Blind Lemon Jefferson) is a near knife-fight after Evans trash talks Mosley's playing on a passenger train.

Yes, he was that close to a violent confrontation with a blind man.  But seconds after he's poised to strike over an insult, he's laughing and forming a musical partnership with his would-be opponent.  He may have a fiercely competitive nature, but Mosley repeatedly shows a healthy respect for his fellow musicians and impetuousness towards virtually everyone else.

WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY mercilessly skewered every time-honored cliche in the music biopic formula.  Thirty years earlier, Parks painstakingly avoided almost all of them.  There's no substance addiction for Mosley to overcome: those in the audience drink more than he does.  Mosley doesn't leave home over parental rejection of his music: Benjamin sends him away to keep him out of jail, and later tries to ensure that the junior Ledbetter will always have his favored guitar.  A tearful reconciliation with his family near the end?  Nope.  The aged Benjamin locates Mosley's prison, but leaves without seeing him once he learns it isn't possible to buy his son's freedom.

Parks eschews commercialized revisionism as decisively as the genre's conventions, so forget about finding the progressive white character who assists the protagonist.   Mosley's Leadbelly encounters bigotry of some form from every Caucasian he meets.  The only "friendly" white face is that of governor Faulk, and only outwardly so---his obnoxiousness and ignorance recalls Warren Oates' character in the same year's DRUM.  Faulk allows Mosley to sing his way to freedom, thoroughly humiliating him in the process.  This is the subtlest racism Mosley encounters.  The rest is blunter and more often than not reinforced by shotgun.  The Lomaxes?  They're merely stone-faced song collectors on a mission.

The titular character's nomadic ways are interrupted only by legal trouble so covering his life requires LEADBELLY's episodic nature.  As a result, this is Mosley's show all the way.  He solidly essays Ledbetter's egotism, antagonism, and (after aging a bit) pragmatism in often demeaning situations.  This is easily Mosley's best opportunity to carry a feature film, but he doesn't carry the tunes: his singing was dubbed by Hi Tide Harris.  Sinclair, Benjamin and Evans have the most prominent supporting roles, yet all have less than ten minutes of screen time.

Parks' opportunity to direct came after a groundbreaking thirty year career in photojournalism.  He was 57 when he brought his novel THE LEARNING TREE to the screen, 59 when SHAFT became his biggest commercial success.  LEADBELLY was clearly a labor of love by its talented maker.  Reportedly, his disappointment over Paramount's failure to promote it was a factor in Parks' disinclination to make another big screen project.  It's a real shame it isn't better known. In its own way, LEADBELLY is as rewarding as his better known works.  Executive produced by David Frost.  Yep, that David Frost.

So....why isn't this on DVD yet?

Yeah, why the Hell not????

No earthly idea from me.  Poor studio support was the major factor in the film's underperformance in 1976.  Continuing interest in both Leadbelly and Parks would seem to ensure sales for a legitimate DVD as bootlegs have been plentiful in recent years.

Why it should be on DVD:

Gordon Parks Sr. made precious few films, and THE LEARNING TREE (preserved by the National Film Registry in 1989) and SHAFT are undisputed classics.  LEADBELLY is his lone effort that is still missing from DVD, an oversight that needs to be corrected.

The extras alone would make a release more than worthwhile.  A commentary with Mosley would be particularly interesting.

And now, one purely gratuitous reason.  This is the most revealing outfit that Horn Section favorite Madge Sinclair ever wore onscreen.  You'll never see more of her than you do in this film:

Ms. Sinclair almost pops out of her top, but not quite.  Dammit!

LEADBELLY is currently available for viewing at Netflix Instant.

You're a perv, Hal!

Friday, November 18, 2011


Put away your bootlegs: it's time for Missing No More!  Two more of The Horn Section's past review subjects are now on DVD for the first time, thanks once again to our good friends at the Warner Archive.   It's almost becoming a monthly occurrence.

While our two cult movies were released fifty-four years apart, they surprisingly have a lot in common.  Both center around a southern girl who is tough as nails: one a Corpus Christi teenager, the other a New Orleans secretary.  Both women suffer injustices at the hands of powerful males and financial hardship afterward.  Both also draw the line at providing physical favors to the men who wronged them.  When each lady defends herself, a felony is the (unintended) result, so both heroines end up running from the law.

That's a lot these two films have in common, despite the features taking place in very disparate eras: SAFE IN HELL (1931) is product of the "anything goes" pre-Code early thirties, while THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN (1985) was produced in the middle of a decidedly conservative decade for Hollywood.  Reflective of their respective periods: the bulk of the former takes place in a literally Godless atmosphere, while BILLIE JEAN's title character is inspired and empowered by SAINT JOAN.  But hey, enough comparisons and contrasts.  Let's get to the good news.

The folks over at the Warner Archive finally agreed that fair is fair and released THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN on November 1st.  Released through the label's Columbia Classics subdivision, it is reasonably priced at $14.96.

BILLIE JEAN's steady march to a loyal following didn't get off to a promising start, as it was an outright disaster at the box office in the summer of 1985 despite considerable promotion from MTV.  BILLIE JEAN was lost in the shuffle at theatres during the summer of BACK TO THE FUTURE.  It finally found its audience the way many initially overlooked movies did in the Eighties, via healthy home video rentals and saturation showings on cable.

THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN did produce one immediate success, from its Chrysalis-heavy soundtrack: Pat Benatar's "Invincible", complete with the music video below featuring a healthy dose of clips from the film.  Ironically, one person who isn't a fan is Pat Benatar, who reportedly to this day derides the film in concert as "the worst ever made" before performing her hit "Invincible", the smash hit from the film's soundtrack. 

If this is true, then lighten up Ms. Benatar!  It's been twenty-five years and you were ten years older than the target audience to begin with.  In my review I noted that BILLIE JEAN has its problems script-wise, but it's also easy to see why this film strikes a chord with many.  It's great to see it not only newly remastered, with including an all-new commentary as well.  Way to go, Warner!

Perhaps even more impressive is the release of SAFE IN HELL (1931), which never saw a home video release of any kind before November 8th, when Warner Archive came through for us pre-Code aficionados and made it available for $19.95.  Here's a few minutes from the film, as leading lady Dorothy Mackaill checks into the Tortuga hotel managed by Nina Mae McKinney:

It's a rare appearance by McKinney, who was only 19 at the time, and features the equally underappreciated stars Dorothy Mackaill and Clarence Muse.  I have to say that in all my years seeking out obscure hidden treasures of cinema, SAFE IN HELL remains one of the most pleasant surprises I've ever stumbled across.

Directed by the great William Wellman (PUBLIC ENEMY, A STAR IS BORN), SAFE IN HELL offers McKinney and Muse non-sterotypical roles, all too rare for African-American actors in the Thirties. Wellman's underrated work is also tough and uncompromising right up to the less than happy denouement which is a surprise, even for pre-Code Hollywood.

If you haven't shopped at the Warner Archive yet, by all means browse the inventory, as they are adding new films weekly.  Hey, if you're reading this blog regularly, you're probably interested in what they have to offer, right?

More reviews on the way, as always.  In the meantime, how about a little more of THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN's soundtrack?  Here's the late Wendy O. Williams with "It's My Life":

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Film Review: PATERNITY (1981)


"Why the Hell isn't THIS on DVD yet?" -- Number 69

PATERNITY (1981 Paramount) Starring Burt Reynolds, Beverly D'Angelo, Norman Fell, Lauren Hutton, Juanita Moore, Elizabeth Ashley, Paul Dooley, Peter Billingsley.  Directed by David Steinberg.

Reynolds is a single, successful Madison Square Garden manager who realizes at 44 that he wants a child to carry on his name.  He also wishes to remain foot loose and fancy free, so he opts to hire a surrogate mother "with no strings attached".  Friends Fell and Dooley help him interview prospective "applicants", with Burt eventually deciding that waitress D'Angelo is his best choice.  Since D'Angelo is saving to move abroad and study music, she agrees--for $50,000 towards her goal.  Burt continues to woo the likes of Ashley and Hutton while his bun is in the oven, but it soon becomes obvious to everyone that D'Angelo might be right for him in more ways than one.

The last of Paramount's "sensitive Burt" trifecta, PATERNITY was the least successful of the three with critics.  As noted in the ROUGH CUT review, Reynolds alternated good ol' boy action films and chick flicks annually during the final years of his heyday. The former resulted in financial successes but critical brickbats while the latter succeeded on both fronts with STARTING OVER (1979) but struck out afterward.  Despite a good supporting cast, PATERNITY is pretty tepid from the get-go.  The cloying, Razzie Award winning song "Baby Talk" opens the movie--a harbringer of things to come.

On projects directed towards his female audience Reynolds almost exclusively worked with proven (and usually Oscar-nominated) directors: Don Siegel (ROUGH CUT), Blake Edwards (THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN), Alan J. Pakula (STARTING OVER) and Norman Jewison (BEST FRIENDS).  By contrast, comedian David Steinberg was making his directorial debut with PATERNITY.   Steinberg fails to build momentum in the hour and a half that precedes the curt finale.  After one more failed feature (GOING BERSERK) he would find his niche on television, directing classic episodes of SEINFELD, CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM and Burt's own EVENING SHADE among many others.  Screenwriter Charlie Peters (BLAME IT ON RIO) was also doing his first feature, and he saddles Steinberg with a script that is way too light on humor and presents Burt's character as unlikably narcissistic much of the time.

Reynolds had done the "selfish man seeing the error of his ways" bit a year earlier in a terrible fit for that subject matter, SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT II.  While the sequel to Burt's biggest hit had a built-in audience that ensured brisk ticket sales, many moviegoers felt that SMOKEY II lost the breezy fun of the first film with the focus shifting to the Bandit's (rather sudden) egomania and insecurity.  The attempt to present an often unsympathetic protagonist might have worked here with assured direction and a strong script, but PATERNITY lacked both.

Mr. Roper agrees.  No marriage!

Burt Reynolds experimented far more during his career peak than he was ever given credit for, and the results were frequently interesting, but PATERNITY is a real snooze.  By this time only his action comedies were making the top 10 grossers at year's end.  He would return to critics' good graces with SHARKY'S MACHINE a few months later, but the film's mildly disappointing box office helped send him back to good ol' boy land.  The resulting STROKER ACE was one trip too many to that well. 

So...why isn't this on DVD yet?

PATERNITY is probably the most forgettable film of Reynolds' peak years, and the target audience is more likely to root for his comeuppance than for him and D'Angelo to get together. 

Why it should be on DVD:

Even when not wholly successful, Reynolds' chick flicks usually had points of interest.  Burt gave terrific performances in THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN and ROUGH CUT and both STARTING OVER and BEST FRIENDS are well crafted, funny films (the latter has some hilarious moments).  But I can't make much of a case for PATERNITY, which is strictly for the actor's completists.  

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Film Review: SISTER, SISTER (1982)


"Why the Hell isn't this on DVD yet?" -- Number 68

SISTER, SISTER (1982 20TH CENTURY FOX/NBC-TV) Starring Diahann Carroll, Rosalind Cash, Irene Cara, Paul Winfield, Dick Anthony Williams, Robert Hooks, Kristoff St. John, Albert Popwell.  Directed by John Berry.

With both parents deceased, the three Lovejoy sisters have inherited the North Carolina house they were raised in. Carroll is the eldest, a prim, proper, conservative churchgoer who harbors feelings of guilt about concealing a relationship with her minister Williams (who has political aspirations and a divorce that is still pending).  Carroll maintains the rules of the house with an iron fist in her late father's memory, but her younger sisters don't have such fond memories of him.

Self-described "prodigal daughter" Cash is a divorced mother returning home with her sassy son St. John's after many years of estrangement.  At 20, Cara is the baby, resentful of Carroll's heavy hand and the knowledge that her father wanted a boy.  Against Carroll's wishes, she dreams of pursuing a skating career.  The vagabond sibling's return shakes up Carroll's orderly world as Cash urges Cara to live for herself and (unaware of her older sister's secret) makes a play for Williams.

SISTER SISTER was the first feature length solo teleplay by Maya Angelou (GEORGIA, GEORGIA) and reunited Carroll and Berry after their Oscar-nominated collaboration in CLAUDINE.  The film also featured rising star Cara, hot off her success in FAME.  NBC was perennially the last place network during the Silverman era, and with the talent involved you'd think SISTER, SISTER was welcomed to the airwaves as a prized sweeps event.  Instead, it was produced in 1979 but inexplicably shelved for three years.  When it finally aired the film was dumped onto the schedule in the summer of 1982, premiering in the midst of the reruns and busted pilots.

Carroll starred in two Angelou TV projects (the other was 1979's WHILE THE CAGED BIRD SINGS) back to back to close out the decade.  Her role here bears similarity to Mary Tyler Moore's cold, fixated, but frail mother in the following year's Oscar-bait, ORDINARY PEOPLE.  Carroll is repressed and controlling, unwittingly driving away many people she cares about with the latter quality.  Guilt-ridden over her secret affair, she projects her image, protects her father's, and is in denial about both.  Carroll's restraint anchors the film effectively.

While CLAUDINE brought Carroll an Oscar nomination in 1974, it curiously did not lead to further silver screen leads, just several TV movies with top billing, including this one.   Both Cash (CORNBREAD, EARL AND ME, MONKEY HUSTLE) and Cara (AARON LOVES ANGELA, SPARKLE) actually appeared in more features during the latter half of the 1970's.  A key theme in Angelou's script is small town relocation as an antidote to the more unsavory elements of a large city: a stated reason for Cash's return is her desire to get her son away from drug experimentation in Detroit.  The author would return to this subject matter in her 1998 directorial debut, DOWN IN THE DELTA.

If SISTER, SISTER has a key flaw, it's the abrupt, too pat "happy ending", something that seems a little forced and was far too common for made for TV movies from the era.  Not that this is a major gripe: there's fine work here from all involved.  No getting around it, NBC dropped the ball big time in its reticence to air and promote SISTER SISTER.  Both the film (Best Television Movie) and Cara (Best Actress) won NAACP Image Awards in 1982 and SISTER, SISTER found a loyal following almost immediately that has grown in the three decades since.

So....why isn't this on DVD yet?

It gets mentioned a lot around here, but made for TV movies from the 1970's and 1980's have a spotty history at best in making it to DVD, even some of the most acclaimed (see earlier reviews).  But at least MY SWEET CHARLIE and TRIBES (to name two) received VHS releases.  SISTER SISTER has never been released to home video in any format.

Why it should be on DVD:

It's long past time for Fox to rectify this well-loved sleeper's lack of availability: in spite of its lack of availability.  SISTER, SISTER has many devoted fans who relate to its themes of sibling rivalry and family devotion.  It is arguably one of the best-remembered chick flicks of the 1980's.  Carroll, Angelou and Cara could all contribute to extras, which would be welcome.  NBC's treatment of SISTER, SISTER was a puzzler, since Carroll was already a proven ratings winner for the network (JULIA made Nielsen's top 10 in 1968-69).

She has less screen time than Carroll and Cash, but Cara gives the most critically acclaimed performance.  At the time Cara seemed poised for major stardom as both a singer and actress, but she disappeared from theatres after a supporting role in CITY HEAT, the poorly received CERTAIN FURY (with Tatum O'Neal) and her 1986 marriage.  SISTER, SISTER offers the opportunity to see her at her peak.