By Juan Barquin
By Amy Nicholson
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Travis Cohen
By Juan Barquin
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Amy Nicholson
By Juan Barquin
These movies deal with not only the Holocaust, the Austrian Anschluss, and the early days of Israel's Mossad, but also with the Jewish roots of a golden age of American pop music and the birth of rhythm and blues, the plight of Ethiopian Jews, and the growing pains of a basic Brooklyn teenage girl. Family life, cultural identity, the New York art world, the Danube frozen in winter, and Manhattan at its hottest in song: Is there any possible thread running the festival fare? "When I stepped back and looked at the films being shown," says festival director Ellen Wedner, "a common theme emerged: Each one seems to deal directly or indirectly with the question of what choices people make with their lives."
The choices vary, and so do the pictures from the heartfelt documentary The Darien Dilemma and the indie chick flick The Tollbooth to the terrifically entertaining Hitmakers: The Teens Who Stole Pop. There's even a welcome reprise, Live and Become, which was voted the Audience Award Winner at the 2006 Miami Jewish Film Festival. "This is such an exceptional film," says Wedner. "It sold out immediately when we showed it in January during our festival. Weeks later, people kept stopping me on the street, saying that they couldn't get in to see the film. While I don't usually bring back something that was recently shown at the festival, this one deserved to be the exception to the rule. "
Rules, shmules. The big surprise here is Hitmakers. Who knew that Florence Greenberg, a nice Jewish housewife from New Jersey, founded Scepter Records and launched the careers of Burt Bacharach, Hal David, and Dionne Warwick? That Jerry Wexler coined the term rhythm and blues? That the legendary Don Kirschner discovered Bobby Darin cleaning latrines in New York before the teen splish-splashed his way to the charts? Or that a single high school in Brooklyn boasts among its alumni not only Aaron Copland and Allen Ginsberg but also Woody Allen, Carole King, and Barbra Streisand?
The story of Tin Pan Alley goes back far and has been told often, and the legend of the Brill Building, at 1619 Broadway, is inextricably linked to some of the most exciting American music of the Twentieth Century. Hitmakers concentrates on the Brill's last days, the late Fifties and Sixties, just before the music industry moved to the West Coast and "covering" a song became a sin. What the documentary endearingly and accurately calls "the most authentic rhythm and blues white Jewish guys ever wrote " were followed by platoons of young disciples eager to make great music: Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield, Burt Bacharach and Hal David. It was a close family: Little Eva, before she pushed the twist off the dance floors with her "Loco-Motion," was Carole King's babysitter! Sedaka's hit "Oh Carol" spawned King's in-joke record "Oh Neal," which also climbed the charts.
And it all couldn't last, whether you blame it on divorce, on the British Invasion, on international conglomerates devouring the small labels, or simply on the whims of taste. Still, it was a great time. Much of it was best told à clef in the underrated flick Grace of My Heart. But Hitmakers captures much of the real feel of the times through live footage of the Shirelles, the Drifters, the Righteous Brothers, and many others, as well as with some very touching, even serene interviews where everyone, particularly Carole King, comes off as immensely generous. The hits keep coming in the movie, with the original artists onstage as well as with the composers at the piano a parade of everything from "Stupid Cupid" to "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," to "On Broadway," "Natural Woman," "Take Good Care of My Baby," and "Leader of the Pack." After "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?," King and Goffin recall in the film that "we never had to do an honest day's work since." Life was good.
Halfway through the picture, as song after hit song comes alive onscreen, suddenly there is Burt Bacharach and an audible quantum jump in musical depth and quality. The movie's only flaw a major one is that it teases with the briefest interviews of Bacharach, David, and Warwick. The best of the Sixties, the best American pop this side of the Gershwins and Cole Porter, is otherwise left out. Here are the highlights of Hot Night Cool Films 3:
Hitmakers: The Teens Who Stole Pop Music (U.S., 2001; August 5 at 9:30 p.m.): Not to put too fine a point on it, but where would American pop be without American Jews? These hit-makers were young, talented, Jewish, not all straight but all straight out of Brooklyn. And in the Sixties they joined forces in the Brill Building to make music history. The movie's live performances go a long way to explain the hits, and the interviews with the principals years later suggest the public's love was well placed.
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