Once again, I have waded through the summer’s action-franchise-superhero swamp to find no new ground broken. “Jurasssic World: Fallen Kingdom” was a fun, velociraptorous romp through a gothic mansion. “Oceans 8” was an entertaining heist with fab female fashion and locations, but a plot full of holes which anchored its all-star female cast to a template created by men. So I abandoned the world of fiction and headed straight for the facts, alternative in the political realm, but ringing true on the big screen. Three documentaries riveted my attention, fed my hope for the future, and left me reeling with the hard-won lessons of real human lives.
The most important film out there right now may be WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR about legendary children’s TV host Fred Rogers–therapist, minister, and saint– who somehow retained unique access to his own childlike vulnerability and was able to connect with children who felt accepted and loved by him, just as they are. Tears rolled down my cheeks just watching the trailer, and it wasn’t nostalgia; I never watched him as a child.
Morgan Neville who directed the brilliant 2014 Oscar-winning documentary “20 Feet From Stardom” decided to make the movie after renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma told him that Mr. Rogers had mentored him about how to handle fame in the world. The documentary masterfully interweaves 33 years of TV episodes, letters, and interviews with family, friends, colleagues, and famous folks who loved him. Rogers found a way to talk to kids about big scary things like death, divorce, and racism, and spoke volumes by example on the small screen. He also dealt with the little everyday tragedies, i.e. a child’s favorite toy damaged in the dryer. Rogers delicately located the deeper anxiety a child might feel in such circumstances and could summon just the right comforting words to say.
The film’s most extraordinary moment finds Mr. Rogers appearing before a panel of hardbitten congressmen in Washington D.C., gently asking them for funding for Public Television. I promise you, it’s a flipping freakout of a sequence. Mr. Rogers performs a miracle before your very eyes– just like his TV show, an unexpected hit. According to his producer, “If you take all of the elements that make good television and do the exact opposite, you have ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.’ Low production values, simple set, an unlikely star. Yet, it worked.”
And he unabashedly shared the simple but elusive magic of his mission, which was somehow to help people “know that we are loved and capable of loving.” In our increasingly dangerous and divided global neighborhood, we need Mr. Rogers resurrected in reruns now.
Which brings me to Whitney Houston, the tragic singer of singers who surely would still be here had she known Mr. Rogers. WHITNEY is a stunningly crafted, raw and revelatory document of the heart, soul, and talent of this luminous and mysterious artist.
Writer/Director Kevin MacDonald opens the film by diving into the middle of her life and what feels like a dream, as we hear Whitney recounting a dream in haunting voiceover. He then laps back to her complex beginnings in Newark’s rough neighborhoods during the race riots, her musical roots in Church as the niece of singer Dionne Warwick and daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston who knew how to groom a superstar, but not nurture a daughter. Through home movies, interviews with family, friends, ex-husband Bobby Brown, her inner circle of caregivers, colleagues, industry insiders, and Whitney herself, we get shockingly close to unlocking the source of her brilliance, instability, and pain.
We are with her backstage as she jokes, or curls up childlike on her mother’s shoulder, or puts on makeup and argues with herself in the mirror about who she is. We watch her squirm in that lurid “crack is wack” interview with Diane Sawyer, and eventually slur her words in a haze of altered consciousness. We see her tense and pulled between her own success, the declining career of a jealous spouse, and longtime friend and rumored lover Robyn Crawford. The camera tracks her through stadium tunnels, like a fighter hooded in a white robe, heading out to face another crowd of hungry, screaming fans.
The film refocuses our attention on what is easy to take for granted: that silken powerhouse of a voice which catapulted her to meteoric, global success. The film luxuriates in the expansive range and beauty of Houston’s vocals and her interpretive genius. She was so dynamically emotive she could excavate the deepest recesses of a song and bring every nuance into the sunlight of a voice in full bloom. (Check out her first appearance on live TV on The Merv Griffin Show.) Who could forget her at Super Bowl XXV at the onset of the Gulf War, performing the national anthem before a global audience of hundreds of millions, letting it soar with no rehearsal, leaving us blinded by her radiance and rejoicing at the freedom in that explosively jubilant voice. She seemed to do this as easily as breathing– the way Hendrix played it– as an extension of herself.
The film lets us understand the deeper toll her early success took, the “pop” packaging for white, mainstream audiences that backfired in her being booed at the Soul Train Awards. It’s a pivotal evening; she met her husband Bobby Brown that night and the rest is almost history. The film gradually accumulates an impressionistic and narrative power as the pieces fall tragically together. The voice, coarsened by drugs, starts to crumble; it’s agonizing to hear. We are witnessing the slow motion crash and burn of a fragile self ripped apart by split loyalties, crushing fame, the betrayal of intimates, and her desperate bid to mother her only child Bobbi Kristina but not knowing how. But I didn’t see the last piece coming, the revelation of a hideous trauma embedded in her beginnings (corroborated by her brother, disputed by her mother), and it made my heart ache. See it and weep.
Finally, you must see RBG a timely documentary about the only superhero whose exploits I care about this summer: U.S. Supreme Court Justice RUTH BADER GINSBURG:
“Notorious RBG” may be THE quintessential iron fist in the velvet glove. Filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West document Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s iconoclastic career in American jurisprudence, her pioneering stances on gender equality, civil rights, and her acute mental and physical stamina. Now 85 years old, Ginsburg has dozed off in public, does push-ups in private, and gets a kick out of Kate Mckinnon’s killer impression of her on SNL. She’s inspired at least one slogan I’d be proud to wear on a T-shirt: “There is no Truth without Ruth.”