The Winding Stream is a charming and informative look into the lives and careers of The Carter Family, from their humble origins to the great influence that they continue to have in the world of folk and country music. Their influence is made clear from the number of musicians interviewed for this doc, with the likes of Joe Ely, Jim Lauderdale, Murray Hammond, Mike Seeger, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Jeff Hanna of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band all offering up some words on the band’s history and significance. As Ely puts it, “People should know who they are just like they should know who the first president of the United States is.”
While the full title of the film is The Winding Stream: The Carters, The Cashes and the Course of Country Music, the film focuses mostly on the Carters. Not that the Cash family doesn’t play an important part – Roseanne and John Carter Cash as well as Johnny himself are featured in interviews throughout and one of the more memorable moments was watching Johnny speak sweetly about the first time he met and fell for June Carter – but this is largely the Carter Family’s story. And it is quite the story. Through interviews and some archival footage, their story unfolds – their first recording sessions, their rise to fame, and the effect it had on their lives (A.P. and Sara Carter eventually divorced). The film also touches on A.P. Carter’s savvy and somewhat opportunistic idea to travel around collecting old songs, which he would then pass off as his own for the sake of collecting royalties. Looking back at it now, it seems a little shady, though as Roseanne Cash points out, these songs would have faded into obscurity had he not done so.
The Winding Stream is a compelling look at one of the most important, influential groups in the history of country music and well worth watching for both the novice and the hardcore Carter Family fans.
The Winding Stream will be showing at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema until April 14.
Have you lied today? This month? This year? Why did you do it? Does this make you a bad person? These questions—and many others—are at the heart of (Dis)Honesty—The Truth About Lies, an enjoyable feature-length documentary directed by Yael Melamede and produced as part of The (Dis)Honesty Project, a partnership between Salty Features and best-selling author Dan Ariely. Ariely, the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioural Economics at Duke University and head of Duke’s Center for Advanced Hindsight, specializes in researching human behaviour and challenging the notion that people almost always behave in a perfectly rational way; here, he sets his sights on trying to understand the motivations for lying, cheating (in sports and relationships) and other dishonest actions that go against conventional moral codes (including insider trading and other financial wrongdoings) in order to curb such behaviours.
Melamede gives Ariely and his collaborators plenty of space to discuss their research, experiments and findings as well as to explain key concepts, such as what Ariely calls the “fudge factor”—the ability to rationalize bad behaviour or lies. Ariely is a compelling and often humorous speaker, both when he talks about his personal journey (including how a childhood accident inspired his interest in irrationality) and in extensive excerpts from a presentation on the topic of dishonesty. The movie alternates between these excerpts, footage of experiments and several confessional talking-head interviews that are occasionally enhanced by surprisingly whimsical animations. It is in these interviews that we meet individuals who form a body of anecdotal evidence that, as Ariely puts it, lying “is not about being bad—it’s about being human”: Joe Papp, a professional cyclist who was caught doping; the creator of a deceitful guerrilla marketing campaign for I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell; Marilee Jones, the former Dean of Admissions at M.I.T. who had to resign for lying about her academic credentials; Kelley Williams-Bolar, a mother of two who lied about where she lived to enrol her children in a better school; Garrett Bauer, who is serving a 9-year sentence for insider trading; Tim Donaghy, the disgraced NBA referee who eventually went to prison for his role in an organized crime gambling circle; and many others.
At times, the long presentation clips and emphasis on anecdotal evidence make (Dis)Honesty feel a bit like an extended TED Talk (Ariely is a prolific TED Speaker whose TED Talks have accrued over 11 million views) or a visually enhanced episode of This American Life. Nevertheless, the movie is never less than thoroughly engaging, thanks to a fascinating subject matter and a breezy 90-minute running time. While (Dis)Honesty only skims the surface of the vast field of behavioural economics, itoffers a window into Ariely and the Centre for Advanced Hindsight’s captivating research and astute insight into the human mind—plenty enough to compel filmgoers wishing to dig deeper to pick up one of Ariely’s many books on the subject, and perhaps to think twice that next time they find themselves on the cusp of telling a little white lie.
A few minutes into A Life in the Death of Joe Meek, a new feature-length documentary about legendary British producer and sonic innovator Joe Meek from American producers/directors Howard S. Berger and Susan Stahman (its title a reference to the 1960s play A Day in the Death of Joe Egg), Keith Strickland of the B-52s compares Meek to Brian Eno and Kraftwerk. While the comparison may seem far-fetched at first, the numbers (Meek produced more than 250 singles between 1960 and 1967, including the first Billboard no. 1 by a British group, the Tornados’ “Telstar”) are simply staggering, and the influence of his pioneering use of overdubs, echo and—more generally—the studio as a musical instrument in itself can be heard in countless recordings by everyone from Wreckless Eric to Mr. Bungle to Atlas Sound. This year, the NME even named Joe Meek the greatest producer ever, topping a list that included such notables as Phil Spector, Quincy Jones, Rick Rubin, Dr. Dre and George Martin—a testament to the importance of his legacy. To put it mildly, and although he made his share of poor musical judgments (including advising Brian Epstein not to sign the Beatles, passing on David Bowie, and convincing the Moontrekkers to get rid of their teenage singer, one Roderick Stewart), Joe Meek was—and his accomplishments remain—a big deal.
If all Meek had ever done was to engineer and produce dozens of groundbreaking hit singles and revolutionize the way music was recorded in Britain, that alone would surely provide enough fodder for a fascinating music documentary. That his life was also marked by several professional falling-outs, paranoia, a fascination with the occult, stories of tantrums and the challenges of being a homosexual man in Britain at a time when that was enough to get arrested means that there is plenty of material for a film twice as long as A Life in the Death of Joe Meek.
What there is precious little of is footage of Joe Meek at work in the studio or being interviewed. Berger and Stahman overcome this problem by drawing on several interviews with industry insiders, biographers, family members, Meek enthusiasts, and a lengthy list of musicians (including the aforementioned Strickland, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, Yes’s Steve Howe, Edwyn Collins, Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos and members of groups who recorded with Meek such as the Tornados, the Honeycombs and the Cryan’ Shames). While this means that A Life in the Death of Joe Meek has to rely largely on a collection of talking heads to tell Meek’s story, it nevertheless manages to cover all the bases, from his solitary youth in Newent as an electronics prodigy (he is said to have assembled the region’s first working television in his parents’ shed) to his first experiments with sound mixing as an engineer for the International Broadcasting Company, to his untimely death in the still-mysterious murder-suicide of his landlord at the age of 34. The meat of the documentary is devoted to Meek’s years at 304 Holloway Road (“It didn’t look like Abbey Road. It looked like your grandfather’s garden shed, you know, where your grandfather was experimenting”, says David John of David John and the Mood), but Berger and Stahman also find time to examine Meek’s struggles with the stodgy British music industry as an independent—and innovative—record producer, his obsession with Buddy Holly and his perceived rivalry with Spector, whom he believed was stealing all his ideas.
Where A Life in the Death of Joe Meek falters the slightest—perhaps out of necessity to keep the film’s running time under two hours—is in presenting the more technical aspects of Meek’s recordings. The producer’s sexuality and relationship with bassist Heinz Burt of the Tornados are discussed in lengthy and often uncomfortable segments (some suggest that Burt was gay “for money”), but those looking for a Classic Albums-style breakdown of the recording techniques used on Meek’s biggest hits for the most part will not find it here, though discussions of his work on the late Humphrey Littleton’s only hit, a jazz instrumental by the title of “Bad Penny Blues” (which Page calls “phenomenal”), and I Hear A New World, a concept LP only released in full long after his death, are both illuminating.
Ultimately, A Life in the Death of Joe Meek aims to paint a complete picture of Joe Meek as a studio genius, a gifted and inventive recording pioneer, as well as a flawed human being—and in that respect it is a resounding success. Those already familiar with Meek’s work will find in this documentary a detailed oral history of a fascinating period in British music that is too often overshadowed by the emergence of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. For everyone else, A Life in the Death of Joe Meek will serve as the perfect introduction to one of popular music’s most idiosyncratic character—and one of its most unique back catalogues.
To most North Americans, Edwyn Collins is little more than a 1990s one-hit wonder, a dashing Elvis-like figure in the video for a Top 40 single culled from the Empire Records soundtrack—and recently revived by the Black Keys—that brought him a brief moment of fame on these shores. In fact, Collins’s long career dates back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he and his bandmates in Scottish indie upstarts Orange Juice released a series of critically beloved singles and LPs that attempted (often wildlysuccessfully) to fuse wry, literate British songwriting and jittery, funky disco rhythms—imagine CHIC’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards raised on a steady diet of Kinks records—and that remain a towering influence on British indie pop groups from Belle and Sebastian to Franz Ferdinand. Following the demise of Orange Juice, Collins embarked on a solo adventure marked by severalexcellentsingles of idiosyncratic indie pop (and a great collaboration with Bernard Butler) that rarely—the Northern soul tribute “A Girl Like You” being the lone exception—found the wider audience they richly deserved.
When the news broke in early 2005 that Collins had suffered two major cerebral hemorrhages in less than a week, had lost the ability to walk, talk or play the guitar and would need a long period of rehabilitation, even his most loyal fans would have been forgiven for assuming that they would have to settle from now on for a trickle of archival releases, perhaps the occasional compilation of demos and b-sides. That the last seven years have seen Collins not only release Home Again the album he was recording at the time of his strokes, but also complete two excellent new LPs—both 2010’s Losing Sleep and 2013’s Understated are well worth anyone’s time and money—is nothing short of miraculous.
The Possibilities Are Endless, a new documentary named after one of the few sentences Collins said during his hospital stay following the two strokes (the others were “yes”, “no”, and “Grace Maxwell”—the name of his wife and manager) and directed by James Hall and Edward Lovelace (Werewolves Across America, Katy Perry: Part of Me), chronicles over several years Collins’s difficult recovery and return to music. Instead of giving us a conventionnal music film featuring talking heads and performances, Hall and Lovelace mostly eschews both to create a more impressionistic, disorienting and ultimately more powerful document that seems to seek—particularly in its first half—to place the audience inside the head of Collins as he deals struggles to express his thoughts, his choppy, halting diction contrasting with onscreen images of the singer in his youth, a wiry, magnetic bolt of energy and charisma. As the film progresses, we see Collins slowly regain some of his motor skills, his sense of humour (he quips, “Sharon Osbourne!” when Maxwell gives him some advice in the studio) and creative spark with the help of his wife—a particularly touching scene features Collins singing “Searching for the Truth”, from Losing Sleep, at a live session, with Maxwell strumming the guitar strings as his hands forms the chords on the neck.
There is refreshingly little sentimentality in The Possibilities Are Endless—a reflection, perhaps, of Edwyn Collins’s own perspective (“Looking back is not for me. Looking forward is the way”, he says before returning to the studio)—but its nuanced depiction of Collins and Maxwell’s complicity and strength in the face of enormous odds is powerful, beautiful and inspiring. A truly remarkable film, and one that deserves to find a wide audience—much like “A Girl Like You” did twenty years ago.