A freelance writer and copywriter for over fifteen years, Helene has written for publications and brands all over the world and couldn’t imagine herself in any other job. A shameless film freak, her first onscreen experience involved a trip to Avondale’s Hollywood Theatre at the age of five to see Yul Brynner in The Ultimate Warrior and she hasn’t looked back since. A big fan of documentaries, she has interviewed subjects as diverse as Henry Rollins, Jimmy Choo and Beyonce Knowles, and also has her own beauty blog - which can be found at www.mshelene.com - for the purpose of raving about red lipstick, big hair and other essential indulgences.

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UNDERFIRE: The Untold Story of Pfc. Tony Vaccaro

Posted on Thursday 2/9/2017 February, 2017 by

Just when you think you’ve heard every clever anecdote, happy tale and sad story about what it was like to be a soldier or correspondent in World War Two, along comes another one with a wonderful and compelling new twist. This takes a tale of combat and weaves into it an amazing story of artistic determination, and comes complete with a happy ending. How great is that?

Called UNDERFIRE, it’s an HBO Original Documentary about the inspirational Tony Vaccaro, a WWII infantryman who smuggled his $47.00 portable camera into battle and went on to create one of the most comprehensive and intimate records of the war ever recorded.

Back in 1944 Vaccaro was a young man with an eye for photography who decided he’d like to join the official photographic ranks of the U.S. Army's Signal Corps and do his bit. It was easy to see why: they had the admirable job of both relaying the news of the troops at work so that citizens could keep up with their battles, and documenting the action for future War Department records. It would be a career that endured, and provided a legacy.

However, as he recounts in tonight’s documentary, at 21 Vaccaro was told he was too young to qualify as an Army photographer, but didn’t let that dampen his spirits. Undeterred, and despite the knowledge that an infantryman was not supposed to be taking pictures, he decided to bring his aforementioned trusty camera along for the ride when he went to war, and he created something amazing. Vaccaro didn't just snap the occasional image, but an incredible document of what he saw. Before the war ended, he had taken more than 8,000 photos that offer a rare, close-up view of what a soldier on the front lines really sees. His vivid, candid work showed the war as it was actually experienced by the men who were fighting, and it is impossible not to be moved by it. In addition, the camera he used, an Argus C3, was smaller than the large, unwieldy Speed Graphic models the Signal Corps shooters employed. And because it was a 35mm range-finder camera, Vaccaro could react very quickly and shoot what he was seeing, as it happened.

On top of all of that, he became very resourceful when it came to the end result. Naive enough to believe he could find a camera shop on the European front to actually develop his negatives, Vaccaro instead found a shop that had been badly shelled. Picking through the ruins, he found the chemicals he needed and developed the film himself in four standard issue army helmets, hanging the negatives on nearby trees.

Highly decorated with medals such as the Legion of Honor from France, the World Press Photo Gold Medal, and the Art Director's Gold Medal, World War II veteran Vaccaro was also wounded in action - more than once - when fighting abroad. He told CNBC: "I did the war, Omaha beach to Berlin, and I was wounded twice, and I could have gotten killed many times”. He became familiar with death and dying, and photographed it with great respect and poignancy. "The Last Steps of Private Jack Rose" is a Vaccaro photo caught at the moment an explosion ended the man's life, whilst "White Death" is an image of the corpse of an American soldier partially covered in snow. Vaccaro later discovered the man was his close friend, Henry Tannenbaum.

Vowing never to return to war photography again, after he returned home and recovered from his experiences abroad Vaccaro chose to “show beauty to the world”. He went on to work with the likes of Harper's Bazaar as a fashion photographer, and soon to celebrate his 94th birthday, still shoots today. He is a wonderful subject and that is what makes this documentary such a joy.

UNDERFIRE premieres on Rialto Channel on Thursday 9th February at 8.30pm  


Posted on Thursday 2/2/2017 February, 2017 by

In 2008, actor turned editor and director Tom Meadmore set out to explore the lives of two independent music artists In Melbourne. Their names were Amanda Medica and Tony Jackson, and the end result was the many-years-in-the-making documentary showing on Rialto Channel tonight, HOW TO LOSE JOBS AND ALIENATE GIRLFRIENDS.

A critically acclaimed, warts-and-all film about the creative process, HOW TO LOSE JOBS AND ALIENATE GIRLFRIENDS also comes with an interesting twist (hint: it’s in the title). In his feature-length debut, Lonely Planet film editor turned budding documentarian Meadmore has turned the camera on not only two budding musicians, but they also happen to be his girlfriend (Amanda), and his boss (Tony).

Shooting the film began in 2008 but the editing wasn’t completed until 2013, by which time Meadmore was living in London, and you guessed it - single. A former actor who appeared briefly on Neighbours, Meadmore founded his own film company, Go Fish Films in 2001 but until tonight’s outing, was relatively unformed as a director. His bread and butter was reportedly editing and producing wedding videos, until he released GRACE, a short film that screened at several international film festivals, including the Warsaw International Film Festival, and the Palm Springs International Shortfest. Next up was HOW TO LOSE JOBS AND ALIENATE GIRLFRIENDS, which has had considerable success. It has played at festivals around the world including Cinequest Film Festival in the USA, the East End Film Festival in London and at Australia’s Splendour in the Grass, also garnering four-star critical acclaim from Total Film magazine upon its limited cinema release in the UK. 

Key to the film’s success I think is the personalities at its heart, including the director’s own. We get to look on as Meadmore’s own insecurities flare while struggling to “find a story” in the process of making the film, which is a factor that could definitely grate on some viewers. It can get hard to watch as he begins challenging his participants’ flaws on camera, inflicting his own opinion at times when they are vulnerable. It starts jeopardising the film, his relationships with Amanda and Tony and quite honestly, his career. Meadmore’s brutal insensitivity at times threatens to destroy two of the most important relationships in his life, and one wonders if he actually cares.

Amazingly, Meadmore actually managed to keep his job, even after having a major falling out with his boss as a result of the film. As aforementioned, his relationship with his girlfriend didn’t survive the process, which is no surprise. In hindsight, he has told interviewers he wouldn’t have done anything differently, though he admits to feeling a bit “shameful” when he thinks about “how untactful I was at times”. As an artist himself, his treatment of his subjects when they are wrestling with their own insecurities is quite bloody awful! Having said that, the film also has some hilarious moments, especially when Tom and Tony really start to butt heads.

A fun watch? I reckon, and I’ll be interested to watch Meadmore’s career develop...

HOW TO LOSE JOBS AND ALIENATE GIRLFRIENDS premieres Thursday 2 February on Rialto Channel


Posted on Thursday 1/26/2017 January, 2017 by

Stephen Holden said in his New York Times review of tonight’s documentary, DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD: THE STORY OF THE NATIONAL LAMPOON that the film “looks longingly back at the 1970s when a smart, tasteless joke could make you laugh out loud without worrying about hurting someone’s feelings or being attacked on social media”. Whether he’s lamenting the political correctness of today or applauding it is debatable, but when you consider the magazine published an article calling the Indian race “dismal, obsequious demi niggers whose gods have too many arms and legs” you know that even then, they took things too far. And then some.

From the 1970s through to the (very) early 1990s, it could be said that there was no hipper, no more outrageous comedy in print than the National Lampoon magazine. It was hailed as a groundbreaking, laugh out loud tome that pushed the limits of taste and acceptability - and then pushed them even harder. Parodying everything from politics, religion, entertainment and the whole of American lifestyle, the Lampoon eventually went on to morph into everything from successful radio shows to albums, live stage revues and hugely successful movies. Some, like ANIMAL HOUSE and NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION, launched dozens of huge careers that still continue today, and industry names like Judd Apatow list the Lampoon crew as akin to comedy gurus.

Director Douglas Tirola's DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD focuses mainly on all the glory years of National Lampoon: the drinks, drugs, clubs, parties… oh and smashing publishing records, too. It’s a fast-paced watch full of big personalities, and part of documentary’s easy charm lies in the fact that Tirola’s subjects are a group of messed up but very clever satirists, a cabal of misfits who at one time helped make National Lampoon the second most popular magazine in the US and a world-changing counter- cultural force.

Founders Doug Kenney and Henry Beard are the main subjects, a couple of damaged visionaries who, along with the help of publisher Matty Simmons, launched the magazine. For those not so familiar with its history, the National Lampoon magazine actually spun off a Harvard publication in 1970. It immediately went in hard on all manner of subject matter, with no holds barred. Politics, race, gender, the rich, the famous – they were all fair game and National Lampoon tore them to shreds.

The magazine’s New York office was reportedly a hub of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, with the brief being: do whatever the f**k you want, as long as a stellar magazine came out at the end of each month. It comes as no surprise to learn that women were ridiculously under-represented at the offices, and when they did land a job there it was generally as a nude model or as a writer who was almost always objectified by her co-workers

In 1974, the magazine’s monthly circulation apparently exceeded one million – an insane amount by any era’s standards. It’s funny to note though that even when sales were healthy, no ad agency in its right mind would recommend that their client buy space in there - the humour was just that irreverent. Deadline became like a coke-fuelled marathon that ensured they kept up with demand, and inevitably, there was a fall: think broken friendships, drug casualties, untimely deaths, and other assorted tragedies.

But back to tonight’s the documentary, which features rare and never before seen footage that will thrill comedy nerds and casual fans alike. The film is also the story of the generation of writers and performers who took over and reinvented American comedy after a kick start at Lampoon’s, like John Belushi, Christopher Guest, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Anne Beatts, Harold Ramis, John Hughes, Michael O'Donoghue and P.J. O'Rourke (who was responsible for the aforementioned, outrageously racist quote).

In conclusion, I found DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD: THE STORY OF THE NATIONAL LAMPOON to be a little one-sided, applauding generally bad behaviour a little too much for my liking. What it does do is truly give you the sense of how savage and uncompromising the National Lampoon was in its heyday - In the era of “social media mad c*nt Jimi Jackson” and questions like “is the Mad Butcher’s racist?” it is an interesting watch, especially given how far many of their jokes really did go.

DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD: THE STORY OF THE NATIONAL LAMPOON  premieres on Thursday 26 January on Rialto Channel

Since 1953 and Edmund Hillary’s legendary ascent with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay to the summit, Everest has fascinated the world. The arduous yet rewarding journey has been added to many a bucket list, and Westerners the world over have also attempted to “knock the bastard off”. It seems like a magical goal in a brutal but beautiful place, but the scene of a fight? Unheard of.

But it happened, and back in 2013 news channels around the world reported an ugly brawl at 6400 m (21,000 ft) as European climbers fled a mob of angry Sherpas. What had happened to the smiling local guides from Eastern Nepal, their faces so common to many summit snaps, and their dedication to getting foreigners to the top of the mountain they held so sacred? Something was amiss, and it clearly had been for a long time.

Determined to explore what was going on, filmmaker Jennifer Peedom and her crew set out to make a film about the 2014 Everest climbing season, but this time from the Sherpas' point of view as opposed to the Western climbers’. Whilst there, they also witnessed a tragedy that would change the world’s view of Everest forever. 

Peedom had reportedly always been interested in the lives of the Sherpa guides, having worked as a camera operator in the Himalayas filming two Everest expeditions with guide teams. She was fascinated by the risks the local men took, and had become frustrated at how their lives and stories were so often excluded from narratives about the mountain. As well as guiding their charges, they set up the tents, prepare the food, carry equipment, prepare routes, and ensure that crucial pieces of equipment like oxygen tanks are in working order. With this in mind, when she set out to make what would become tonight’s documentary, SHERPA. Peedom went in with the goal of turning the spotlight on what a Sherpa guide actually does - and how high the costs of their job can be to them and their families.

The latter is bought to the fore even more keenly when the documentary takes a tragic turn. Peedom and her crew had been filming a group of Sherpas as they left camp in the dark hours of the very early morning to fix ropes and prepare the next route for climbers they were assisting. It is the time when ice is apparently most stable, but at around 6:30 am, Peedom heard a noise and realised that there has been an avalanche of sorts. A 14 million-tonne block of ice had crashed on to the Khumbu Icefall, crushing the guides below. Chaos ensues as it emerges that 25 men have been buried by snow, ice, and rocks. Devastatingly, 16 are declared dead in what has become the worst disaster in the history of Everest.

It was the final straw for the tight-knit Sherpa community, who had quite frankly had enough of their treatment by Westerners and the dangers they faced every day. Peedom reveals how mistreated and disrespected by their clients the group feels, and how underpaid they are. While Western climbers routinely pay sums like USD$75,000 to climb Everest, the Sherpas are paid little and expected to undertake massive risks. The documentary also demonstrates the spiritual toll of working on a mountain they see as equivalent to a god. "We see the mountain as a holy place," one Sherpa says. "The Western people, they see it as a physical challenge."

After the April 2014 avalanche, the Sherpa guides held meetings and announced that they would not be climbing for the rest of the season in honour of those who died. Peedom follows what happens next, talking to members of the community and their families. We also see Western climbers frustrated that their long-awaited expeditions would not go as planned, including one who complains that the Sherpas should just do what "their owners" want. Ugh.

Anyway, it’s an important tale that needed to be told, and Peedom does that well. One would hope that if people are thinking of climbing Everest, they will watch it – and you should too.

 SHERPA premieres on Rialto Channel on Thursday 19 January at 8.30pm

NORMAN LEAR: JUST ANOTHER VERSION OF YOU - and a definitive tale of him

Posted on Thursday 1/12/2017 January, 2017 by

“I think of Donald Trump as the middle finger of the American right hand,” said the ever astute Norman Lear last year, a man who at 94 has still got his finger firmly on the (slightly elevated) pulse of the American nation, its foibles and its fears.

Even if you are way too young to have watched his television masterpieces like “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons”, if you’re a pop culture fan then you’ll know the Norman Lear name and its signature style. Often called “the most influential creator, writer, and producer in the history of television”, the once- poor Jewish kid from Connecticut singlehandedly brought US primetime television into step with the times back in the Seventies, and his talents have never waned.

Tonight’s documentary NORMAN LEAR: JUST ANOTHER VERSION OF YOU – airing for the first time on New Zealand television on Rialto Channel, naturally – is the story of how one man came from modest beginnings to become one of the most successful television producers ever. Importantly, Lear also brought provocative subjects like war, poverty, and prejudice into 120 million homes every week – a veritable first for US TV at the time. He proved that social change was possible through laughter, and the impact he made was both impressive, and important.

NORMAN LEAR: JUST ANOTHER VERSION OF YOU filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s have made a fun, classy and well-assembled celebration of the TV veteran. It uses a clever theatrical devices to tell the tale and ask important questions, in that the producer’s life is presented as a theatre dressed with overlapping television screens. It’s cool to see the 9-year-old Lear (played by Keaton Nigel Cooke) walk around a live collage of past, future and present, while the genuine item - then 93, now 94 - looks on.

I love that as well as talking to big names like George Clooney, Louise Lasser and Rob Reiner, the film shows Lear himself watching on, shedding a tear for loved ones past and laughing along with us at some of his funnier memories. One of the most affecting looks back at the past features “All in the Family” star Carroll O’Connor, who played the bigoted working-class nightmare known as Archie Bunker. Lear acknowledges that Archie is a version of his own father, and openly cries watching a famous episode where Archie describes his dad, a bigot who beat his values into his son, as a great man and a loving parent.

Bunker’s satirised bigotry on screen directly reflected a US population still raw from the Civil Rights battle, and unaware of how it felt about true racial equality. It has even been said that the upwardly mobile black family at the heart of Lear’s creation “The Jeffersons” paved the way for the likes of “The Cosby Show” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air”, and that he decided to create the show after a couple of Black Panthers burst into his office to tell him that his then-screening show “Good Times” was racist!

Interestingly on that topic, NORMAN LEAR: JUST ANOTHER VERSION OF YOU also features footage of an interview with Esther Rolle, the African-American star of “Good Times,” in which she condemns the show’s breakout character JJ as “a way of putting us all down,” closing with a plea for “comedy without buffoonery”. I would have liked to have seen the filmmakers show Lear’s reaction to these claims in detail, if only for a little shade during an otherwise pretty damn effervescent outing.

So in conclusion, watch! Even if you are one of those aforementioned folks too young to have seen Lear’s seminal work, it’s a great night on the couch anyway.

NORMAN LEAR: JUST ANOTHER VERSION OF YOU premieres at 8.30pm on Thursday 12 January on Rialto Channel SKY TV 39


The band behind the music, James Brown and the love of a good dog.

Posted on Thursday 12/22/2016 December, 2016 by

The last few documentaries left on Rialto Channel stellar schedule for 2016 will see a somewhat dodgy year off with a bang, whilst the first for 2017 sets us all up with a whole lotta love.

The first up is THE WRECKING CREW, which makes its New Zealand television debut tonight. This one is a definite winner if you were a fan of 20 Feet from Stardom, 2013 American documentary film directed by Morgan Neville delving into the lives of background singers and their own hopes and dreams. It focuses on the era of popular music of the 1960’s in America, which was dominated by young bands like the Beach Boys, the Mamas & the Papas, Jan and Dean and the Monkees. Rather than zeroing in on the stars of the era, THE WRECKING CREW looks at the work of the super studio players who recorded the tracks for such hits as "California Dreamin'", "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'", "Be My Baby", "The Beat Goes On", and "Good Vibrations”.

Filmmaker Denny Tedesco has emphasized that the amount of work that the crew were involved in was tremendous. As well as the big names, they were also involved in groups that Tedesco likes to call the “Milli Vanillis of the day”. A producer would get the guys in and lay down some instrumental tracks. If it became a hit, they would record an album and put a group together to go on the road. This happened many times with groups like the Marketts, Routers, and T-Bones. The next day they would do the same thing and call it another name. Same musicians, but different group name. Fascinating stuff, and oddly soothing to know that manufactured pop acts were just as rife back in the good old days!

Denny also has a deeply personal connection to the film and the era, as he is the son of legendary late Wrecking Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco. His father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and Denny wanted to get as much on film or on tape as possible before his father passed. What transpired over the next few years surprised everyone involved and created one hell of a story.

The last documentary airing on Rialto Channel for 2016 is a humdinger - MR. DYNAMITE: THE RISE OF JAMES BROWN. 

The legendary Brown changed the face of American music forever, but by god he was a controversial figure off stage. Charting his journey from rhythm and blues to funk, MR. DYNAMITE: THE RISE OF JAMES BROWN was made with the cooperation of the Brown estate, which opened its archives for the first time. And it shows. The documentary features rare and never-before-seen footage, interviews and photographs, chronicling the musical ascension of the "hardest working man in show business," from his first hit, "Please, Please, Please," in 1956, to his iconic performances at the Apollo Theatre, the T.A.M.I. Show, the Paris Olympia and more. 

But how do you capture the full story of hardest working man in show business in just two hours? Well you don’t. Filmmaker Alex Gibney makes the decision to rush the biographical aspects of Brown’s early years, providing almost all the family history of the man over still photos with on-screen text. The director is clearly more interested in Brown’s on-stage personality than what he did off stage, which is where his most controversial tales can be told. It glosses over his status as an acknowledged domestic abuser (no surprise there), which is kind of the story that I want to see finally explored on screen – in all its unpleasantness. It does cover the importance of Brown to the civil rights movement, however. From the show he did to stop the riots sure to ensue on the night that Martin Luther King was shot to the international reaction to the legendary “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” Brown was more than a musician, he was a cultural and political figure. Just not the best guy to be in a relationship with.

Last up in my rave but first up for 2017 is HEART OF A DOG, which chronicles multimedia artist Laurie Anderson relationship with her beloved terrier, the super cute Lolabelle.  “From the gripping, hypnotic and warm opening moments, Anderson’s Heart of a Dog becomes a deft exercise in balances of various styles and forms of artistic philosophies,” said the Toronto Film Scene, to which I say yes – and more. Dedicated to Anderson's late husband Lou Reed (who presence can be felt throughout), it started life as a lament of sorts to her clearly much loved but now deceased terrier, and it’s an eccentric, erudite essay-film that is pure Anderson. Yes it moves all over the place - from an eerie explanation of the Buddhist view of death to some astonishing childhood anecdotes and kooky dreams – but it does so in an arty, beautiful way. It’s the kind of paean that we’d all like to create for our beloved pets, and a magical, meaningful watch.

Rialto Documentary, every Thursday on Rialto Channel SKY TV

KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON – an incredible tale of talent and friendship

Posted on Thursday 12/15/2016 December, 2016 by

“When you hear Clark, you hear his life. Only a master can do that.”  

Herbie Hancock on late musician, Clark Terry

A true labour of love in every sense of the word, tonight’s music documentary, KEEP ON KEEPIN' ON is the perfect film for this most silly of seasons. Without wanting to lay the mozzarella on too thick, it is a chance to pause and reflect on the good in the world, so cancel that Christmas party, pour a glass, put your feet up and enjoy.

Shot over the course of five years by first time filmmaker and drummer Al Hicks, the film depicts the remarkable story of jazz legend Clark Terry, who died at the age of 94 not long after the film was finished. Sometimes called a “living monument to the Golden Era of Jazz” in his time, Terry is among the few performers ever to have played in both Count Basie's and Duke Ellington's bands and his talents knew no bounds. Right-handed, he taught himself to manipulate the valves of the trumpet with his left hand too, and could even play the instrument upside down with the backs of the fingers of either hand. This enabled him to play flugelhorn in one hand and muted trumpet in the other, swapping four-bar exchanges with himself!

Terry actually played mentor to Miles Davis in his early days, and the young upstart soon fell under the spell of the slightly older musician. Terry befriended Davis - who was six years younger - In St Louis, and was trusted by Davis’s father to take the teenage Miles to play at all-night jam sessions. Davis said of Terry: “I started to play like him. I idolised him.” The two men remained lifelong friends. It was Terry who showed Davis the beauty of the mellow flugelhorn, which resulted in its becoming a major jazz instrument.

It was also Terry who reportedly initiated Davis’s interest in boxing and boxers. The former was an extremely good boxer when he was younger, and was friendly with the great light heavyweight Archie Moore, also from St Louis. Terry recalled: “Archie used to tell me that if I had stayed in boxing, I would have become a champion, but I stopped to think that I’d have had to meet cats like Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta, and I’m glad I got out of that.”

In the 1960's, he broke the colour barrier as the first African-American staff musician at NBC (on "The Tonight Show"), and continued to work as a teacher and mentor to young people in the music industry until his death almost two years ago. The man never slowed down and never stopped giving, and just to hear him speak will fill you with joy.

But back to KEEP ON KEEPIN' ON, which documents an unlikely mentorship between Terry and a driven, blind piano prodigy, Justin Kauflin. Equal time is given to the younger musician, which is a great plot driver and stops the film from just being a biopic – despite the fact that Clark’s work is worthy of a biopic and more! The camera introduces us to the world of 23-year-old Kauflin, who met Terry through one of the programs the trumpet player ran for many years for young musical talent. Kauflin went blind when he was in sixth grade, which he admits seriously limited his life. No playing with friends, no video games… so he sat down in front of a piano, and something truly amazing came flowing out. Kauflin’s story is one that falls into what Roger Ebert likes to call the “perspective documentary genre”, which is a phrase I really like and try to employ when the time is right. If you think you’re having a rough day or can’t escape from whatever hole life has dug for you, Kauflin’s – and Terry’s - worldview should give you a little perspective. As I said, perfect for dealing with Christmas madness and end of year stress!

During the course of the film it emerges that Justin – a true rising star if ever there was one - is invited to compete in an elite, international competition while battling terrible stage fright. Terry is dealing with his own struggles, finally starting to lose his battle with diabetes in a serious way. His health takes a critical turn for the worse, and during the course of filming, he loses his sight completely. Amazingly, this deepens his bond with Justin, and we witness the two great friends tackling the toughest challenges of their lives. 

But enough said – this is an inspiring story of multi-generational friendship and it is a joy to behold. Clark Terry becomes so much more than just his Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, an inspiration as much for his character as for his talent. A beautiful film, and one so perfectly timed to make one stop, and smell those damn roses.

 KEEP ON KEEPIN' ON premieres Thursday 15 December on Rialto Channel 39 SKY TV 

MAVIS! – celebrating the power and the voice that is Mavis Staples

Posted on Thursday 12/8/2016 December, 2016 by

This week’s music documentary on Rialto Channel is MAVIS!  - airing December 8 on New Zealand television for the first time. It is an ode to an extraordinary woman, Mavis Staples. A key member of family gospel group The Staples Singers, she and her family members inspired millions and even helped propel the civil rights movement with their music. Mavis was a true trailblazer (as well as one hell of a vocalist) and after 60 years of performing, her key messages of love, acceptance and equality are more relevant than ever.

Staples was born way back in 1939 in Chicago, the youngest of four children born to Oceola and Roebuck "Pops" Staples. Pops worked as a meatpacker by day but played in a gospel quartet called the Trumpet Jubilees at night, eventually growing frustrated with his bandmates' lack of commitment to their music. The solution? Turning to his talented children to become his new bandmates. "Pops finally came home one night, got the guitar out of the closet and called us in the living room, sat us on the floor in a circle and started giving us our parts," Staples has recalled.

When Mavis was ten, the family band made its debut singing at a local church. After they received an enormous ovation, Staples recalled her father saying, "Shucks, these people like us. We're going home to learn some more songs!" Although she was the youngest member of the band, Mavis soon became its lead singer with a voice that many thought belonged to a woman several decades older and reportedly many times larger! She has gone on record as saying that her father told her: "Mavis, listen, your voice is a God-given gift. You know, you don't know music. You don't even know what key you sing in." Staples added, with a laugh, "And I still don't know what key I sing in."

In 1953, the Staple Singers dropped their first single, but it wasn’t until 1957 that they scored their first major hit with "Uncloudy Day”. They had toured the country and developed an impressive grassroots following, but limited their concerts to weekends until Staples graduated from high school that same year. From there on in it was all guns blazing and their career went full steam ahead.

In 1963, the group played a concert in Montgomery, Alabama that was attended by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. A meeting with the civil rights leader after the show had a profound effect on the group's direction, and for the next several years they wrote songs exclusively in support of the American civil rights movement. "We sing about what's happening in the world today, and whatever's wrong we try to fix it through a song," Staples has recalled her father explaining. "We're living in dark times, troubled times; we wanted to spread a ray of light on the world."

The Staple Sisters achieved their greatest financial – and global - success in the early seventies when they moved away from traditional gospel and protest songs to record now-legendary anthems like "Respect Yourself" and "I'll Take You There". It was around the same time that Mavis’ solo career took off, and she actually released eight solo albums during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, all of which received high praise from critics but didn’t sell as fast as her work with the group. Oddly, that pattern changed when she released her self-financed album, Have a Little Faith in 2004 - her first release following Pops’ death. This time she received rave reviews as well as major album sales, making way for a late career renaissance that still continues today.

But back to the film, which features raves about Mavis from such luminaries as Bob Dylan, Prince and Bonnie Raitt, all of who profess to the difference that the work of the living legend made in their lives. It’s common knowledge that Dylan had a crush on Mavis Staples when they met in the early ’60s, and Staples felt the same. Dylan had long admired The Staple Singers, covering their song "Dying Man's Prayer" in 1962, and the Staple Singers had in turn recorded several Dylan compositions. In the late 1960s, the folkster actually proposed marriage to Staples… but she turned him down. Although she now considers Dylan the “one that got away” and laments dropping him like a hot coal, she explained her reasoning at the time in a 2004 Washington Post interview: "We had gotten with Dr. King and I was young and stupid, and I was thinking Dr. King wouldn't want me to marry a white guy." Dylan has referred to Staples ever since as "the love that I lost”. Awwwww!

As well as looking back, MAVIS! looks forward – and for me, that is one of its true charms. I love that the film shows her continuing to tour and perform – and most definitely winning new fans - as she remains a formidable force of nature well into her 70s. And she has no intention of giving up the calling that has consumed her since she was a child. "Ain't no stopping me, I will sing," Staples declared in a recent interview. "You know, you'd have to come and scoop me off the stage. I'm gonna sing till I die."

MAVIS! premieres Thursday 8th December on Rialto Channel

AS THE PALACES BURN – where metal meets courtroom drama

Posted on Thursday 12/1/2016 December, 2016 by

2013’s exceptional - and not unexpected - choice of ‘Searching for Sugarman’ as the Oscar Academy’s Best Documentary Feature reinforced what many of us music fans have been saying for years: we are living in the Golden Age of the music film. With the unmissable backing singers documentary ‘20 Feet From Stardom’ up for the same award and the Coen brothers’ ’60s New York folk scene period drama ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ also nominated that year, of late we have been truly spoiled for choice. To say that there are literally scores of great music documentaries making the rounds right now would be an understatement - and even if the genre is not always your bag, the subject matter can still be utterly compelling. 

Rialto Channel’s upcoming collection of lovingly curated music documentaries – under the banner “Where words fail, music speaks” are a great reminder of some of the compelling films of late that fall under the music genre, and there just may be something in the line up for everyone. 

The first to air is one for the metalheads like me, and comes in the form of AS THE PALACES BURN, showing December 1 on New Zealand television for the first time. The correct word to use when describing the documentary about metal band Lamb of God would be the same word I would use to describe their music i.e. heavy. But in a different way. The band set out with the intention of making a movie about how their genre of music has gone global, named after one of their most celebrated albums. Following a successful tour in the Czech republic, they decide to return to the country a year later whilst making the documentary as they have always had such a great response there. However, upon arriving at the airport the band are taken away by the authorities and lead singer Randy Blythe arrested and charged with the manslaughter of a young fan from the previous year’s tour. Completely blindsided, it was a death the band knew nothing about, and they are understandably in shock. Paroled only after lengthy negotiations (he was held for 38 days), Blythe opted to later return to Prague to stand trial, where he faced the very real possibility of a lengthy prison sentence. 

This caused the project, which was originally meant for fans, to drastically switch tracks, turning it into an edge-of-your-seat legal thriller – and it’s a good one, with some incredible twists and turns. At the time Blythe's trial was only being covered by Czech papers, and this film does an incredible job of filling in all the blanks and providing the true version of the story. 

We see plenty behind the scenes as the band rally together to find memorabilia to auction in order to fund Blythe’s defense, as well as his work with his legal team as he struggles to make sense of the crime of which he is charged. We also get see the heartbreakingly emotional final statement from the uncle of the young fan who died, a powerful speech where he states Randy ultimately was not responsible but that doesn't stop the loss and hurt his family ultimately feels. 

One of the most powerful moments in the movie is when the final verdict is read and Blythe’s confusion due to the language barrier is palpable. The exact moment where Blythe learns he's exonerated is made even more powerful by the soaring, very personal score by Lamb of God guitarist and composer Mark Morton. Gripping stuff. In conclusion, the film is a fantastic insight into a terrible time for Lamb of God, whose fan base continues to grow on a daily basis. Time spent early on with a male fan in Colombia and a female fan in India discussing the impact the band's music had on them is heartwarming and real, but the courtroom drama - with an unbelievable twist – that follows elevates AS THE PALACES BURN above the usual music doco. Not a metal fan? Then watch anyway, as in the words of The Guardian’s reviewer: “even if you hate the music, there's much here to impress”.

AS THE PALACES BURN premieres 1st December at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel

LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM – the chaotic end of one hell of a war

Posted on Thursday 11/24/2016 November, 2016 by

Nominated for an Academy Award in 2016, tonight’s documentary LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM looks at a war that we have all heard about time and time again, but tells it from a refreshing – for want of a better word –new angle.

The Vietnam War has been depicted on film and in documentaries for nigh on forty years, and many of us are familiar with the iconic image of the last US plane leaving the country. It signaled the end of an event that had affected a generation of young people most acutely, and that moment of escape was fraught with difficulty. This documentary tells the historic tale of that particular moment in time from the point of view of those who were there – and examines the emotional turmoil they faced.

Like most wars, the war in Vietnam was a goddamn mess. The end was no different, but it came swiftly. The Fall of Saigon, or the Liberation of Saigon - depending on who you talk to – was in effect the capture of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, by the People's Army of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (also known as the Việt Cộng) on April 30, 1975. The event marked the end of the Vietnam War and the start of a transition period to the formal reunification of Vietnam under the Socialist Republic.

North Vietnamese forces, under the command of General Văn Tiến Dũng, began their final attack on Saigon on April 29, 1975, with Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces commanded by General Nguyễn Văn Toàn suffering heavy artillery bombardment. This bombardment at the Tân Sơn Nhứt Airport killed the last two American servicemen to die in Vietnam, Charles McMahon and Darwin Judge. By the afternoon of the next day, North Vietnamese troops had occupied the important points of the city and raised their flag over the South Vietnamese presidential palace. The South Vietnamese government capitulated shortly afterward and the city was officially renamed Hồ Chí Minh City, after the Democratic Republic's late President Hồ Chí Minh.

The capture of the city was preceded by the evacuation mentioned earlier of almost all the American civilian and military personnel in Saigon, along with tens of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians associated with the southern regime. During those chaotic final weeks as the North Vietnamese army closed in on Saigon, American soldiers and diplomats alike confronted a soul-destroying moral quandary: whether to obey White House orders to evacuate U.S. citizens only…or to risk treason and save the lives of as many South Vietnamese citizens as they could. Slowly, they began the difficult mission of evacuating as many friends, family members and South Vietnamese collaborators as possible before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese.

The evacuation culminated in Operation Frequent Wind, which was the largest helicopter evacuation in history. The images from this chaotic mass evacuation have become iconic. They show people being helicoptered away, sometimes under fire, to waiting American warships. Such was the speed of the evacuation and the number of people involved that the ships soon became overwhelmed with humans and the helicopters that had brought them. Orders were given to push surplus helicopters over the sides of the ships to make room for more. Some pilots were told to drop off their passengers, then ditch their machines in the sea, bailing out at the last moment to be picked up by waiting rescue boats. It was utter madness, and a messy end to a messy war.

Exhausting, heartbreaking and also heart warming at times, LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM paints a picture of ordinary people with human consciences who are caught up in a truly crazy war. It shows them defying their orders to do the right thing when bureaucracy fails them, and refreshingly, the film makes no apologies or justifications. A great watch.

LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM premieres Thursday 24 November at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel

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