Mini Fest, Big Movies
Hot Nights Cool Films 3 is the Miami Jewish Film Festival's tight and ambitious movie weekend at the Cosford. It's not the main event, but this August 5-6 minifest produced on the University of Miami campus with the Center for the Advancement of Jewish Education crams a breathtaking diversity of themes into just a few hand-picked pictures that can't be caught anywhere else.
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.
The Darien Dilemma (Israel, 2006; in Hebrew and German with English subtitles; August 6 at 3:00 p.m.): There's a good movie hiding here potentially another Exodus, with much the same plot. But the filmmakers' self-conscious, even precious approach gets in the way of the tale's undeniable emotional impact: We not only get a combination of newsreel footage and History Channel-like dramatizations, but also lots of film of the writer and director (the Israeli father-and-son team of Erez Laufer and Nahum Laufer) making the movie and talking about making the movie. Too much of The Darien Dilemma feels like the wrong disc of DVD extras for a movie that never quite got made.
The Tollbooth (U.S., 2004; August 6 at 1:00 p.m.): Anything featuring Tovah Feldshuh is worth checking out, and her turn here as a Jewish mother is at once touching and knowing, a solidly entertaining performance. There's also a splendid cast of New York actors, plus hottie Rob McElhenney, lately of television's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, as the lead's Catholic goyfriend. The script is sweet, somewhere between WB teen fare and Lifetime: Television for Women. At the heart of the story is Marla Sokoloff (an actress whose voice is innocent of any training) as an aspiring artist, fresh out of school, making her way personally and professionally in the long voyage from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Sokoloff, remembered as the irritating secretary in The Practice, is difficult to take. If you can take her, The Tollbooth is all right.
Until Tomorrow Comes (Israel, 2005; in Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles; August 6 at 5:30 p.m.): Highlighting a week in the lives of a Moroccan family that owns a beauty salon in a small southern Israeli town, this film stars real-life mother and daughter Remond Abebkiss and Yael Abebkiss. It recently won the top prizes including Best TV Drama at the Israel Film and Television Academy Awards.
Live and Become (France and Israel, 2004; in French, Hebrew, and Arabic with English subtitles; August 6 at 7:30 p.m.): This epic resounds with basic questions of cultural and religious identity, beginning with one boy's heartbreaking story of survival during the Ethiopian famine and following him throughout adolescence as an adoptive son in Israel and as a young man in search of a good life as a converted Ethiopian Jew.
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