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Monday, 13 June 2016

Sydney Film Festival (5) - Barrie Pattison on two films by Barbara Kopple HOT TYPE and MISS SHARON JONES.

Barbara Kopple
Barbara Kopple is a star in the documentary world with two Oscars, (Harlan County USA
& Wild man Blues)
 and thirty productions behind her. 

She got two films into the current event.

Miss Sharon Jones (USA, 2015, 94 minutes) covers a performer called a female James Brown, who was told she was “too fat, too black, too short and too ugly” to be a singing star, but managed to run up a thirty year headliner career.

We start off  with Jones holding a handful of her own hair as her head is shaved in
preparation for the treatment for pancreatic cancer that may save her life, with the  question of her recovery for the demanding world tour that has been booked for the  following February looming. “I’m responsible for everybody’s pay roll.”  

Intercut with performance and interview footage, we see her receiving chemotherapy and
home care. The film weaves back through her life, starting in a district where the store
had a parrot trained to scream “nigger stealer” when a black customer came in. After
entry level jobs (including a run as prison guard) she managed to work up star status. She
gets a float in Macy’s parade and her dream of dancing on the show with Ellen is realised
(with minimal coverage.)

The people around her seem devoted and there is no hint of resentment when one of her
musicians gets a regular spot in the Jimmy Fallon show’s band. Jones performance energy is extraordinary.

A handsomely mounted film, to a soul music fan this one would be a treat.

Screens once more today Tuesday 14 June at 8.20 pm at Dendy Opera Quays.

Also on show is Hot Type:150 Years of The Nation (USA,2015, 94 minutes), Kopple's three year filmed coverage of Nation Magazine, which has been stating the anti establishment case in the US since 1865, a subject with a built in following among her potential audience. Foreground are the magazine’s current editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, and her predecessor and mentor Hamilton Fish.  Hovel describes her experience of guidance from Fish as Talmudic ”You’d leave the office more confused than when you went in.”

The film emphasises the internship program (apparently everyone there started as an
intern) and shows them following the advice that they were given about not having a
professor write about Venezuela instead of sending a reporter to Venezuela, showing their
journalist (and Kopple’s crew) on the ground in Haiti, (three hundred thousand still
homeless after the earthquake) Wisconsin and North Carolina where the Civil Rights
campaign is struggling to hold the ground won in the sixties - protestes with duct tape over their mouths.

This comes with a historical sketch showing that the magazine began as the voice of the Republican party speaking for the dispossessed after the civil war, shifting to its present
stance in WW1 and getting up steam about “(Senator) McCarthy’s disloyalty to the

As revealing as their treatment of the Big Issues, are marginal touches like the complaint
that editorial passed copy with the question mark, that should have been inside the quotation marks, outside them or the writer who wants to do Breaking Bad saying cultural criticism is  relevant too.

The film is amusing and holds attention. The craft aspects, cutting, recording, graphics and 
narration by Susan Sarandon and Sam Waterston impress. It makes its subjects seem smart and appealing. You’ve got to feel recruited when you see one of their ten year olds leading protest chants on a bull horn. They double this up by closing with the clip of vanden Heuvel leaving the normally super articulate John Stewart at a loss for words when she lists the shifts in attitudes the magazine has seen.

As much as her skill as a film maker, you’ve got to admire Kopple’s ability to get her work out to an audience.

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