Media Armchair Cinephile 

Punks, pimps, and preachers

I don’t know how many Current readers know the name Tom Snyder, or ever saw his ‘70s talk show. Those who did may find it odd to think that this square character hosted such rowdies as Iggy Pop, Johnny Rotten, and the Ramones on his program, but those encounters are just what you’ll find on The Tomorrow Show: Punk & New Wave (Shout Factory), the most left-field of the current crop of music-oriented DVD releases.

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Lower-profile titles range from two discs on Rhino (one live, one of MTV cuts) from Björk’s old group the Sugarcubes, concert films such as the Velvet Underground reunion show Velvet Redux (also Rhino) and Nick Cave’s twofer The Road to God Knows Where/Live at the Paradiso (Mute) to stranger works like Messiah (Koch Lorber), in which photog William Klein pairs irreverent images with Handel’s sacred composition, and Sonata for Viola (Facets), a tribute to Shostakovich from Russia’s Alexander Sokurov.

In the feature department, some recent titles that depend heavily on their soundtracks (Cameron Crowe’s goodhearted but terribly awkward Elizabethtown from Paramount, Jim Jarmusch’s perfect Broken Flowers from Focus, even Buena Vista’s Robin Williams vehicle Good Morning Vietnam) are joined by proper musicals The Corpse Bride (Warner), Chicago: The Razzle-Dazzle Edition (Miramax), and Kid Galahad (MGM), in which Elvis plays a boxer.

Two studios have dipped into the vaults for a trio of vintage musicals each. Fox offers “Marquee Musicals”: Daddy Long Legs, with the reliable Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron; Betty Grable impersonating a Broadway star in Pin-Up Girl; and Carmen Miranda hosting Week-End in Havana with the Joker himself, Cesar Romero.

From Warner Brothers comes a threesome that, featuring all-black casts, also reminds us this is Black History Month: The strange, gospel-based The Green Pastures is a 1936 Sunday-school story that shows its age. In the substantially more playful Cabin in the Sky, angels and devils play tug-of-war with a man’s soul. Hallelujah, from 1929, was the first all-black title from a big studio.

Seven-plus decades later, music is still one of the main ways for black actors to get in Hollywood’s door. The gifted Terrence Howard, for instance, found the spotlight as an aspiring rapper in Hustle & Flow (Paramount). Unfortunately, his character is also a pimp, and hordes of white critics were far too ready to accept the movie’s ass-backward attitudes. I’m tempted to blame that reaction on misguided race-based nervousness or herd mentality, but maybe they simply recognized a star in the making and took any opportunity to point him out. If Hustle is an awkward updating of Blaxploitation, the real thing arrives with 1972’s Trouble Man (Fox), which would probably be forgotten by now if not for its lush, fantastic soundtrack by Marvin Gaye.

Did I say a black man had to be a musician to get a break in Hollywood? How silly of me. He could also be an athlete, of course. James Earl Jones had a breakthrough in 1970 with The Great White Hope (Fox), in which he plays Jack Johnson, the boxer who received renewed attention just over a year ago in the biography Unforgivable Blackness.

When straying from music and sports (and genre fluff) to serious movies dealing with black issues, it’s funny how often the main characters are white. Occasionally, that’s for obvious reasons, as with Criterion’s lovely new edition of the John Ford film Young Mr. Lincoln, in which Henry Fonda brings humanity to a man destined to be deified. But there’s something a bit screwy — a little Mississippi Burning-ish — about A Dry White Season (MGM, part of a Marlon Brando collection highlighted by The Fugitive Kind), an Apartheid-era drama whose hero is Donald Sutherland. Not to minimize the contributions of righteous white South Africans, but does star power mean these stories must always be told from their POV?

I have to admit that complaint can also be made against one of my favorite films of 2005, The Constant Gardener (Focus). Yes, it’s about a white outsider who comes to his senses and risks everything to do some good for an exploited African community. But in the astoundingly talented hands of director Fernando Meirelles and actors Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, this becomes something much richer than just another political thriller with a social conscience; it’s a love story above all, a mysterious one that only deepens upon the death of one partner.

Finally, from New Yorker Video comes one of the precious few African films available in the States, Black Girl. Directed by Ousmane Sembene, probably the most celebrated director on that continent, the 1965 Senegalese feature follows a maid whose employers take her with them to Europe. Europe, we learn, has as hard a time treating black people as individuals as Hollywood does.

By John DeFore


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