After further review

At some point I suppose I have to reckon my lukewarm regard for The Band as a conscious and foolish decision to deprive myself of one of the endearing figures in rock music. The first step is admitting the problem; the second is taking a proactive step. So I did this week by picking up a DVD of the 1978 classic concert film “The Last Waltz,” shot at The Band’s 1976 farewell performance at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. The movie’s mystique, carried by the premise of a beloved group calling it quits at its artistic peak, endures in critical circles as both a filmmaking and musical triumph. That it was shot by Martin Scorcese, who already owned claim to one of the best movies ever made in “Taxi Driver,” only enhanced the mystique.

Was it everything I expected? Sure, I’ll go with that. It was what it was: a finely tuned ensemble of veteran musicians commanding a wide variety of American musical styles with a loaded roster of guest players, captured in action via expert camera work. But much like 1970’s “Woodstock” (which featured a young Scorcese among its crew), it was the pieces rather than the whole that interested me. An unintended guitar lick. Singers harmonizing with careless perfection. A smile (or scowl) shared across the stage between bandmates. A moment of “I’m-too-old-for-this” candor amid the bravado of backstage interviews. These are the slices of life Scorcese captures so well.

Here then are some snippets that stood out, along with some general observations on the film:

1. Scorcese is a master. Yes, we already knew that, but his visual grasp of the concert stage is remarkable. There are a lot of moving parts during a rock show, yet the camera angles and focal points are invariably spot on.

2. A young Ray Liotta could’ve played Robbie Robertson. I kid of course — it’s a documentary, so Robbie makes the perfect Robbie. But it’s worth wondering whether Scorcese’s experience with his lead subject stuck with him when casting Liotta for 1990’s “Goodfellas.”

3. Neil Young has the goofiest grin.

4. Joni Mitchell has the cutest grin.

5. The Band’s good-guy, anti-rock star reputation was for real. It always struck me that they never seemed to have a true leader, a front man through which the group’s energy was channeled. On the stage you see it: a conspicuous absence of ego in a profession that rewards, even demands self-promotion. More amazingly, this odd humility rubs off on their musical guests, some of whom bring significant star power to the gig. One after another, top guns like Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and Muddy Waters shuffle onto the stage with shy grins, do their song with The Band, and depart with little more than a wave. No bows. No preening. No adulation. In a look-at-me business, it’s refreshing.

6. That said, I quickly got the sense that Robertson was pulling the strings. He has a low-key manner about him, but on stage and backstage, he holds the center of gravity. It turns out I was onto something — the final credits list Robertson as producer.

7. Robertson is a much better live guitarist than I’d imagined based on Band records I’ve heard.

8. Levon Helm was one of the great singing drummers of rock ‘n’ roll. Much like the Eagles’ Don Henley, Helm could rightfully have held the title of lead singer had he not been stashed behind his kit. Not that I’m blaming The Band for doing so — his drum work brings pop to the group’s somewhat slumbering vibe. But his ability to turn a lazy growl to a plaintive wail and back is a unique bonus.

9. Scorcese did humanity a favor by committing the live rendition of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” to celluloid immortality. It reminded me of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” performance in “Woodstock,” in which Stephen Stills’ spellbinding guitar work made me completely forget that I’ve never much cared for that song. Likewise, I’ve always had mixed feelings about “Dixie” and its sympathetic view towards defeated Southern rebels, but the musical mastery on display — particularly the impassioned delivery from Southerner Helm — can’t be denied.

10. If there was any truth to what I’ve read of Marvin Gaye’s legendary insecurity, he had to be chewing his nails off hearing The Band reconstruct his “Don’t Do It” into a brassy, slow-groove masterpiece. This wasn’t the studio. This was one take, on stage, and they nailed it. That band was tight.

11. Van Morrison… thud. The first blip in the film arises in his inability to read the band’s wind-down sequence to “Caravan.” After some confused warbling at the mic, Van and The Band ultimately bring it home, but the moment was there, and the show loses some of its luster.

12. Bob Dylan… double thud. Remember what I said about lack of ego and preening? Check that. For a pair of songs, along with the ensemble concert finale, Dylan jealously projects himself in front of the entire venture, and for those few minutes, I genuinely lost interest in the film. Unfortunately for Scorcese, that’s how the show ends, leaving me to disappointedly scan back through the DVD for more congenial chapters. Theatergoers in 1978 didn’t have that option.

It’s interesting that a while back I blogged, somewhat carelessly, a list of revered musical acts I’m supposed to like but don’t, and wouldn’t you know it, leading off were none other than Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and The Band. “The Last Waltz” shows in part why the first two earned my scorn, but I now realize The Band, mixed bag that it is for me, is better than that.

I can objectively say The Band’s greatest asset is its musical breadth. It’s difficult to place the group into an identifiable style or genre, and the guest pairings in “The Last Waltz” hammer this point home. Ostensibly a rock ‘n’ roll outfit (the movie opens with a title card stating “This film should be played loud!”), The Band effortlessly slips into blues (with Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters), yet shows itself equally comfortable doing folk rock (with Neil Young for “Helpless”), jazz (“Coyote” with Joni Mitchell) and even its own gospel-tinged “The Weight” with the Staple Singers. It may be a chameleon act of sorts, but while most chameleon acts lack a core, that’s the not case with The Band. Their feet are firmly planted in American roots rock (interesting for a group of mostly Canadians), and their catalog constitutes a road map of 20th century American music — the country, blues, jazz, gospel pieces, and the rock ‘n’ roll they comprised. Perhaps it’s their versatility that causes problems for me, but that’s my problem. “The Last Waltz” gave The Band darling status in perpetuity, and through Scorcese’s cameras, we see a band quite deserving of it.

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Guitar hero

There’s a scene in the 2014 documentary “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me” that goes something like this:

Campbell, the faded country-crossover musician battling Alzheimer’s disease, is in the doctor’s office for a checkup. The doctor asks him to wiggle his fingers like he’s playing the piano, to which Campbell retorts, “but I’m a guitar player.”

Somehow, through the fog of Alzheimer’s, a lucid, wise-cracking Campbell sparkles with trademark Southern sass, right down to the folksy pronunciation of “GIH-tar.” And then just as quickly, the fog returns.

It was a phenomenon with which I was familiar, having watched my father spend his final years succumbing to Alzheimer’s, only to fire the occasional spark of humor or recollection. For anyone desperately hoping to see the return of the person they knew, it’s easy to be seduced by notions of an unexplained reversal, or perhaps a miraculous misdiagnosis. But my siblings and I knew the diagnosis to be correct, and we also knew there was no reversing the course of this disease.

I was in the doctor’s office with my dad when the diagnosis came. It was matter-of-fact, even cold, considering the weight of such news. Dad took it with puzzled acceptance and his trademark good cheer. I’ll never know whether he really understood the implications. I didn’t ask. It would be devastating to process, and he could be excused for shrugging it off the way he would a poor glucose test. Shortly after the doctor’s visit, we had lunch at his favorite diner, the “dad jokes” flying fast and furious. I wasn’t in a laughing mood, but even then, he scored a couple of direct hits that had me cracking up. For a moment the old Dad sparkled, and for a moment I entertained notions of a reversal or misdiagnosis.

“I’ll Be Me” features an eerily similar doctor’s visit for Campbell, who meets the presentation of MR scans and medical mumbo jumbo with the too-eager “uh-huhs” and “oh yeahs” of a student in biology class. Like my dad, he didn’t show it, but I suspect he knew what all of it meant. And yet, he responded by launching a last hurrah tour and agreeing to have filmmakers document it. The burning question is why?

His reasons weren’t clear to me, but perhaps Campbell wanted to give Alzheimer’s a face. Not just one face, but many faces — the sufferer, his family, friends or anyone else affected by the robbing of a person’s mind in the most brutal and heartless way imaginable. The film doesn’t sugarcoat the increasing difficulties Campbell has with touring, and the accompanying headaches his family navigates in managing their erratic headliner. There are some very uncomfortable moments in “I’ll Be Me,” and I struggled with the family’s insistence on going forward with a tour that reduced this once-great performer to a lost, confused, occasionally angry high-wire circus act robbed of his most important remaining possession — his dignity. I had to take it on faith that the entire venture, while endlessly skirting disaster, was in accordance with Campbell’s wishes.

When Glen Campbell died last week at the age of 81, I immediately thought of “I’ll Be Me.” I was aware of his tremendous musical legacy, beginning with his early days as a Beach Boys fill-in before breaking through with solo hits like “Wichita Lineman” and “Gentle on My Mind.” His defining “Rhinestone Cowboy,” a radio staple during my youth, made him a bona fide pop star, but it wasn’t until later that I discovered what a marvelous GIH-tar player Campbell was. And yet, it was “I’ll Be Me” that gave real meaning to his death. I felt not only grief but relief at the peace that had finally come to him and his family.

Performing artists succeed as pop stars because of their ability to effectively convey common themes. Through their expression of universal emotions, we feel less alone, and that’s why we listen to them. Before I watched “I’ll Be Me,” I stupidly regarded our family’s experience with our dad as somehow unique, a bizarre and embarrassing dysfunction that outsiders couldn’t comprehend. The film was a revelation, and perhaps that answers the “why” that nagged me as I began to recognize so much of my father on the screen. Campbell was conveying — in fact demonstrating — an experience that’s more universal than any of us imagined, and most importantly, true to his chosen vocation, by sharing his pain and loss, he made me feel less alone in mine.

A win for the fanatics

We’re all familiar with sports-as-war metaphors. I see them regularly in my day job with Packersnews.com: the “battles” between linemen “in the trenches,” the quarterback as “field general,” the NFL draft “war room.” It can be a bit much, particularly for those who have served and suffered in the real deal.

But there’s a purpose to such staged combat. Sports provide a safe outlet for our primal inclination toward periodic social conflict. Uniforms and logos establish which tribes we belong to. The winner is decided in accordance with game rules enforced by mediators, all of which is agreed to by combatants who shake hands as compatriots regardless of the outcome. We’ve satisfied our tribal and territorial impulses, with no one getting (badly) hurt.

Modern organized sports thrive off of the cohesion that has otherwise gone missing in a much of Western society. Outdated concepts such as honor, loyalty and territorial defense still matter — at least in the stands. While players play for whoever pays them, fans exhibit a devotion that, as the “fanatic” root word indicates, borders on the irrational. It’s about the hometown, the colors, the mascot. “We” define ourselves by not being “them.” It’s a tribal thing.

All of this is fairly harmless (not to mention big business) as long as people let it go at the final gun. Sure, there will always be sporadic bar fights and intra-family snubs as a few of us take the big game a little too seriously. But what happens when a sports team grows beyond a mild dalliance into tribalism, beyond geographical borders and comes to define an ethnic or racial identity? That’s the subject of “Forever Pure,” an Independent Lens documentary recently screened on PBS.

“Forever Pure” explores the unique story of the Beitar Jerusalem Football Club, an Israeli soccer team that is historically identified with the nation’s political right. Supported by a rabid fan base that has not only embraced but steered the team’s ideological bent, Beitar demands enthusiastic and vocal allegiance from any Likud party member with political ambitions. So it was a bombshell in Israeli sports and politics when in 2012, Beitar’s enigmatic owner, Arcadi Gaydamak, signed a pair of Muslim players. Never mind that the two athletes were Chechnyan; for supporters of a team that had never signed an Arab player, the act was tantamount to treachery.

The documentary follows the football club through its turbulent 2012-13 campaign, as sports and politics intermingle to sometimes uncomfortable degrees. After a smiling, highly orchestrated public welcome to Israel, the two young Chechnyans are subjected to Jackie Robinson levels of taunts, abuse and threats from fans. Their Israeli teammates, some well-meaning and others reluctant, offer half-hearted encouragement that scoring goals and winning games will turn the crowds in their favor. But as the Israeli players begin enduring collateral damage from the stands, whatever initial lukewarm support extended to the guest Muslims fades, and all quickly sour on the experience.

Gaydamak presses on, touting motives that on the surface appear altruistic, although somewhat perplexing. He admits he has little interest in the game of soccer, or sports in general, and seems intent on conducting a massive social experiment. But as losses pile up and fan boycotts leave the team playing in a nearly empty stadium, the businessman succumbs to the bottom line and ultimately sells the club. For the Beitar faithful, purity, with all its racial and ethnic connotations, is restored.

Sports movies are notoriously sappy. If “Forever Pure” had been a scripted Hollywood feature, Beitar would’ve gelled midseason, rallying together for an improbable championship run that wins over fans. A Chechnyan Muslim would score in overtime to end the title game, and Jews and Arabs would hug in the streets. Pie-in-the-sky to be sure, but there are brief flashes in “Forever Pure” that hint at such possibilities. You want it to happen. The reality that makes that scenario impossible is an overriding political narrative that relegates the players on the field, the coaches on the sideline and the wealthy owner in the luxury box as secondary figures to the irrational fanatics in the stands.

Talking to the enemy

The greatest challenge for a documentary film also happens to be its primary asset — its connection to real life.

Real life is complicated. It’s fuller and richer, if less theatrical, than any drama fictional cinema can typically produce. But it comes at the expense of easy answers and satisfying conclusions.

Documentaries constitute a sizable portion of my viewing habits, but I understand that their purpose tends to be informational first and entertaining second. I can accept that, as I see almost any artistic venture as an opportunity to learn and grow. Also, as a journalist, I don’t want facts sugarcoated. I don’t insist on happy endings to consider a film screening a worthwhile experience. But I admit there are times when the cold, sober truth gets to be too much. War. Hunger. Displacement. Racism. Alienation. Enough already. There must also be some uplifting elements to the real-life human experience.

Enter Daryl Davis. The subject of an Independent Lens film titled “Accidental Courtesy,” currently showing on PBS as part of Black History Month, Davis’ story is unique to say the least. An accomplished rock ‘n’ roll musician in his younger days, Davis has spent the last two decades reaching out to various leaders and foot soldiers of the American white separatist movement. Davis is black.

The premise seems quite ludicrous until you meet Davis and see how he operates. The son of a Foreign Service officer, Davis grew up all over the world, exposed to an assortment of racial, ethnic and religious environments, and consequently is at ease with people different from him. As an adult, Davis approaches those who would hate him — Ku Klux Klan members, American Nazis and other assorted white supremacists — with a simple proposition: “How you can hate me if you don’t even know me?” His worldly background informs his diplomatically oriented posture: If you want people to listen to you, you have to listen to them, no matter how objectionable you may find them to be.

It’s hard to judge how effective Davis’ quest has been. He boasts about two dozen KKK robes and hoods given to him by former members who left the organization as a result of their friendship with Davis. He maintains cordial relations with many others who remain active in the white power movement. Of one of them, he earnestly proclaims “I consider him my friend,” something that can be difficult to reconcile given the disturbing ideological tenets set forth in their conversations. But his method is one of gentle persuasion. Early on in the film, Davis offers the analogy of losing weight as a gradual and persistent process. He insists he’s not out to convert people; he simply engages them in a respectful and — most importantly — two-way dialogue, after which they may or may not decide to convert themselves. This measure of grace toward hatemongers no doubt raises eyebrows within the civil rights community, but Davis maintains a message of inclusion, that all Americans — even white racists — are countrymen and as such must find common ground.

The discussions are unexpectedly low-key and in some cases lighthearted — as much as they can be when they broach concerns over racial purity and the justification of violence. In one instance, Davis and a Klansman establish a bond through their love of rock ‘n’ roll music, even playfully disputing its original purveyor: Chuck Berry or Elvis Presley. That a claim so ridiculous can get caught up in a racially categorized worldview is distressing, if not comically so. Later, Davis secures another Klansman’s commitment to attend his wedding. The marriage would be an interracial one — blasphemy for white separatists — but the Klansman insists that if his “friend” wants him there, he’ll come.

Considering the volatile potential of Davis’ meetings with white racists, it’s surprising then that the most explosive exchange takes place in Baltimore, where several Black Lives Matter activists express their frustration with race relations in that city and offer a bitter reproach of Davis’ engagement tactics. After unleashing a scathing monologue — during which one of them questions the value of collecting two dozen KKK robes in over 20 years’ time — they deny Davis a chance to respond by storming out of the room, refusing even to shake his hand. It’s the only time in the film when his jovial charm fails him. He shrugs off the encounter with the observation that most people, black or white, reserve their bitterest vitriol not for the enemy but for members of their own group deemed to have sold out the cause.

Undeterred, Davis continues his mission. It’s clear that he takes the long view of history, holding firm to the belief that all people, no matter how twisted and hateful their ideology, given time, patience and a friendly ear, have the capacity to change. Whether they do is up to them. While a cynic can look around this country in 2017 and point out the lack of progress, Davis’ faith in his fellow Americans — even the worst among them — is a sentiment that’s hard to dismiss. He has the robes to prove it.

Photo power

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes it speaks in a single scream.

Afghan photojournalist Massoud Hossaini shot just such a photo in the immediate aftermath of a suicide bombing during a religious festival in Kabul. Rarely have I seen an image so powerful that it immediately brought tears to my eyes, and the Pulitzer Prize Board agreed, awarding Hossaini the prize for breaking news photography.

Hossaini and several of his colleagues are featured in the 2015 documentary “Frame by Frame,” which looks at Afghanistan’s fledgling free press following the 2001 fall of the Taliban and its prohibition on photography of any kind. It’s not an easy job navigating a volatile political and social environment that is one of the most dangerous in the world. Insurgent attacks and government reprisals are common features of the daily news landscape. Female photographers carve themselves a niche in focusing their lenses on the nation’s women, taboo subject matter for their male counterparts, but that, too, comes with peril. When Farzana Wahidy brings her camera into a hospital burn ward to investigate the practice of self-immolation by women in the western city of Herat, officials balk at her presence, citing fears of Taliban violence.

The stories in “Frame by Frame” show a journalism community in its infancy, with its inherent optimism among the young crop of photographers determined to establish a free and vibrant Afghan press after decades of warfare and repression. True, much of that freedom relies on the dwindling U.S. presence in the region, without which the country could easily fall back under Taliban rule. But these photojournalists’ commitment to their homeland — as a Pulitzer winner, Hossaini could go easily leave the country for better, safer work — remains a beacon of hope that Afghanistan can reach its potential for a  peaceful, open society.

Tuning in

What can art teach us about politics? More than you’d think. Signals offered in creative expression can tell us a lot about the mood in the real world. But you have to be listening.

Clearly I wasn’t, and many of us weren’t, when Donald Trump pulled off his stunning victory in last month’s presidential election. Few pollsters, media analysts and pundits on the left or right saw it coming. Count me among them. Right up through the early evening of Nov. 8 there was no doubt in my mind that Hillary Clinton would be the next president of the United States.

Well, there was a small blip that, in retrospect, might have been a clue for me. That came in July, when rabble-rousing documentary filmmaker Michael Moore predicted a Trump win in what I dismissed as Moore’s typically outlandish political pessimism designed as a call to arms for complacent liberals. As an unapologetic partisan, Moore blurs the line between art and politics, but I’ve seen enough of his films to acknowledge his unique grasp of blue collar America. “Roger & Me” cataloged the human cost of Michigan’s disappearing industrial economy at a time when most of the media were focusing on the tech-driven economic revival of the 1990s. While terrorism and security dominated headlines in the early 2000s, “Sicko” called attention to what would become the defining policy debate of Barack Obama’s presidency — health-care reform. From the perspective of 2016 blue collar America, neither economic transformation nor crippling health care costs have been adequately addressed by leadership. Despite his annoying penchant for spinning the documentary form into screed, Moore has demonstrated an effective finger on the pulse of a disaffected constituency that was likely to buy into Trump’s vision and, as it turned out, was instrumental in delivering crucial swing states for the Republican.

In the aftermath of November’s election, Moore’s prophecy forced me to recalibrate my antennae for this constituency. It’s not an alien one, in fact quite familiar — generally (but not exclusively) white, lower educated, rural-based and highly vulnerable to the forces of globalization. It’s a group of people with whom I’m well acquainted through the music of John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen. Like Moore, both artists embrace liberal politics, and both have an uncanny understanding of the issues affecting this demographic. Listen to “Pink Houses” and you’ll hear the despair of people for whom America represents a failed promise. Given Mellencamp’s political leanings, I’d assumed his descriptions to be grounded in a liberal vision, but listening more closely, those lyrics outline a displaced class of people — high school educated industrial laborers and farmers — for whom a Trump presidency is a plausible alternative.

Springsteen has long billed himself as the voice of the working man, and nowhere was that voice more authentic than on his landmark “Born in the U.S.A.” album. The songs document the symptoms, on a human scale, associated with the demise of the manufacturing sector that once fueled the Rust Belt. But what they’re really about is a loss of a way of life. Where do people who took a union job out of high school at the local factory fit into an economy that suddenly requires new skill sets or new education levels? The hard answer, of course, is they don’t. They must adapt, and it’s those who haven’t who are susceptible to the Trump message. You can argue that it’s beyond the power of any president to control or roll back economic transformation, but it’s not a matter of choice for the characters in “Born in the U.S.A.” The world changed, and they feel abandoned. The implicit social bargain of blue collar America has been broken. As Springsteen says in “My Hometown,” “Foreman says these jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back.”

It goes without saying the clues offered here could never tell the whole story of the 2016 presidential race. There are too many complex forces in play in any election to lazily point to a few movies or songs as definitive social barometers. But after an event that many of us swore we didn’t or couldn’t see coming, let me be the first to admit that I missed — or disregarded — signals hiding in plain sight within the pop culture. After all, I’d been hearing it for years. I just wasn’t listening.

Best Western?

Most people enjoy a good Western for the bygone values the genre represents — good honest men taking on bad guys, Indians, unruly horses and open terrain in a massively satisfying exercise of taming a wild but beautiful realm.

Anyone who has studied the settlement of the American West knows this to be an exaggeration, but it endures as a testament to a simpler, if more violent, society that, for some reason, some people long for. In today’s urbanized, industrialized, globalized world, a shootout at the O.K. Corral and the occasional tangle with Apaches seems oddly comforting. Differences are settled in honorable fashion (poker games, one-on-one fistfights and, of course, the duel on Main Street that commences on the first draw). Ladies are divided into two camps — the Eastern transplants of chaste Victorian purity, and the native Western whores. It’s all so wonderfully uncomplicated, and deliberately unmodern.

Modernity is an important concern when it comes to Westerns. The traditionalist approach would seem to dictate that it be ignored, or at least marginalized. But there are films that acknowledge the greater historical context within which the Western resides. Their stories tend to be more complicated, the conclusions more troubling. But that’s life. To pretend that a continuous undisturbed settlement of ranches and towns occurred in a vacuum may be a fantasy that many of us are willing to indulge, but artistically it’s disingenous.

“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” offers glimpses of modernity — in the form of the American Civil War — in an otherwise classically constructed Western. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” goes further, posing a plausible end game for a Western archetype — a gang of bank robbers — with irrefutable logic. Butch and Sundance have settled on a lifestyle of raiding and robbing, but how long can this really go on? At some point, the law can’t stand for it, and the two are chased across the West and into South America before meeting their deaths in classic Western fashion — with guns blazing. The message: Their era was over. Were they ever going to settle down and get normal jobs? Of course not. But their hijinks were little more than a futile attempt at stopping the world from changing.

Though set in the Middle Eastern desert during World War I, the 2014 Jordanian film “Theeb” has parallels to the American Western, the intrusion of modernity among them. Bedouin tribes live life on the move. Danger lurks on the trail, and, just like in the Old West, sidearms and rifles are standard equipment. Stranded in the desert together, a boy and the man who killed his brother must learn to cooperate in order to survive. But then comes the historical context. The killer formerly made his living as a guide, taking Muslim pilgrims through dangerous open country, before suddenly finding himself rendered obsolete by the railroad. Now, he gets by as a raider. That upheaval, along with the arrival of war via the Ottoman empire and other foreign interests, raises serious questions about the Bedouins’ ability continue their traditional lifestyle.

But these are questions traditional Western fans have little interest in considering. They expect the “good honest men” paradigm to define not only a place and time, but a state of mind, one that, like Dickensian London or Grimm’s fairy tales, defies the march of history. Fair enough. It can do one’s heart good to escape to a world we can believe in, even if, when we’re really honest with ourselves, reality tells us different.