Saturday, March 02, 2019

True/False 2019: The Queen of Soul and the Queen of the Bronx

Aretha Franklin in Amazing Grace (2018)

Amazing Grace (2018, directed by Sydney Pollack and completed by Alan Elliot) chronicles the recording of the album of the same name by Aretha Franklin. The album remains the biggest-selling Gospel album ever recorded; the film has sat unreleased for nearly fifty years, beset by technical problem that have only been correctable with the advances of filmmaking technology of the present era, and by Franklin's own dissatisfaction with the film. I think I "get" why Franklin might have had qualms. As presented in what is basically a church service, she sublimates her own personality to the decorum of religion, something of which the Rev. James Cleveland reminds the audience at the outset. There is certainly a patriarchy at work in the musical and religious traditions from which this is drawn (Ray Charles, for example, famously appropriated the call and response dynamic of a male preacher revving up a choir). Aretha doesn't really talk much in the film--she's there to sing after all--but Cleveland and Aretha's father sure do. There's also a curious merging of the religious and the secular, which is pronounced even if it is at the heart of soul music in the first place.

This was shot in a church in Watts, when the open wounds of the riots of the late 60s were still open wounds, so there's an unstated, but blatant political element to this film that maybe would have more sting had it premiered in 1972 as planned. The audience is mostly black, such that the white film crew seem like intruders, and maybe even a kind of blasphemy. The presence on the second night of Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts has a similar feeling, though I'll admit it's more palatable because Jagger is clearly into the spirit of things; Charlie, by contrast, is his usual unflappable self.

If Aretha has sublimated her personality to decorum here, she most certainly hasn't done that with her voice. There are times when her voice acts as a spiritual bludgeon and I'm sympathetic to critics who have sometimes thought her performance on Amazing Grace was overbearing and showy. I think part of that is because there was only the evidence of the album before now. Now we can see just how invested she is in her faith as she sings. If she's being overgenerous to the audience, it's because she's being as generous as she can be to God.

The film itself resembles other concert films from its era, down to the Woodstock-style split screens that change the film's aspect ratio into a particularly wide screen. It's visually gritty, too, showing a lot of grain which renders the film as a time capsule in this present era of pristine digital images.

As an aside: I had a conversation with an atheist friend some years ago in which he asked me point blank why I liked certain types of religious music if I was an unbeliever (which I am). The music in question was by Johnny Cash, but it applies here, too. If being an atheist means I don't get to listen to Marvin Gaye or Al Green or Aretha Franklin, then it's worthless. And besides, the secular is definitely present in this music. James Cleveland acknowledges this as he introduces Carol King's "You've Got a Friend," which can be read in multiple ways. Aretha makes it a hymn. It is true, though, that if I were a believer, I'd probably find some kind of transcendence in this performance, but I'll probably always be outside of it.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Knock Down the House (2019)

There's an old saying that it's better to be lucky than good. I couldn't help but have that idea rattling around in my head as I was watching Knock Down the House (2019, directed by Rachel Leers), which on its own terms is a good enough, but fairly conventional political documentary. Its structure is familiar, following four characters in similar circumstances, crosscutting between their stories. The film follows four insurgent first-time candidates for congress who are primary-ing established Democrats from the left. The film was "cast" by the filmmakers in concert with Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats, two organizations dedicated to electing grass roots candidates instead of corporate yes men. The four women are Amy Vilela in Las Vegas, Cori Bush in St. Louis, Paula Jean Swearengin in West Virginia, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in The Bronx. When filming began, none of these women had any kind of public profile, and, indeed, Vilela, Bush, and Swearengin all ultimately lost in spite of the passions they each brought while on the campaign trail. But Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, on the other hand...well, the filmmakers won the lottery. There's a reason this film sold to Netflix for the most money ever paid for a documentary at Sundance.

It becomes very clear in the course of this film why AOC won over Joe Crowley in one of the biggest upsets in recent political history. Crowley is so confident of his political infrastructure and his position in the party that he doesn't even show up for the first scheduled debate with AOC, and she absolutely devours the city councilwoman he sends in his stead. In their first television debate, he presumes that she doesn't know all the facts about his sponsorship of the Dodd-Frank act, and that it's something he can use to counter the perception that he's a shill for Wall Street, and when he makes that mistake, she darts in like a shark and draws more blood than one is used to seeing in this kind of forum. And at their third debate, there's a priceless shot of his face as he realizes that he's made the same mistake again, and that he might, just might be screwed.

There's not a lot of political distance between the four candidates this film follows. They're all progressives who are pursuing left of center solutions to problems on which the Democratic party has remained stubbornly centrist in recent years. They all are equally committed and all of them seem equally hard working. It may be a function of the emphasis given to AOC by the filmmakers (who are based in New York, and are thus local to her), but there's a sense that while the other three women are smart and passionate, AOC is a political savant. Never is this more evident than when she takes apart Crowley's campaign mail pamphlet, describing it as a Victoria's Secret catalogue and as the product of a Democratic establishment who employ shit strategists who consistently lose. When AOC appears at a gay pride celebration mid-film, it seems natural given her multi-cultural embrace of her community. When Crowley shows up at the same event, one wonders if he would have bothered if she wasn't there forcing his engagement. On top of this, AOC is charismatic in a way that politicians almost never are. This is all a lethal combination that her future political opponents will continue to underestimate and rue, taking her lack of experience as a weakness rather than seeing the ruthless intelligence that more than makes up for it. Just ask Joe Crowley, who is now unemployed.

The drama of the other three campaigns takes a back seat to this, which is unfortunate. Swearengin's phone call with Senator Joe Manchin after her loss is a bitter and enraging pill to swallow, and Cori Bush's presence in the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri after the murder of Michael Brown lends her story an immediacy from the zeitgeist that has dominated the last couple of political cycles. Vilela's motives for running for office are heartbreaking. All of them are dramatic candidates worthy to have their own stories told. But AOC's story is the one people will remember, and not just because she won and because she provides the film with an inspirational uplift. There's the sense in her story that she's a pebble that will start an avalanche. She tells Amy Vilela on the evening of Vilela's primary loss that it's going to take a hundred candidates like them to get just one of them elected. But once the crack in that dam appears, the film suggests, the inevitable will follow eventually.

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