Documentaries are a strange genre of movies. The presentation of facts and myth can often be twisted to suit an agenda, yet at the same time the barrage of imagery transports the viewer to another reality in a satisfying manner that narrative films can’t always match.
Two docs, both with musical spines, premiere in theaters in April and will be hard to beat for accurate glances into the heart of rock ’n roll.
Not related in any manner except that they’re new releases, two docs put Little Richard and John Lennon under the microscope of reevaluation so inherent in modern culture.
To say that Taylor Swift or Kanye West are the last word in popular music is to some extent not wrong. If you were born in the last generation that’s merely an example of the range of popularity in today’s musical space.
The average fan doesn’t think of the influence of Little Richard and John Lennon on contempo beats any more than ‘50s and ‘60s rockers thought about the impact of Richard Wagner or Rudy Vallée on their 45s.
Little Richard: I Am Everything
The story of Little Richard is succinctly told with a grand sense of his place in the formation of rock music in Little Richard: I Am Everything.
Archival clips along with Little Richard performances and interviews illustrate his career at the same time as shining a light on the milieu of the era it portrays.
Watching this film by Lisa Cortés, whose main credits involve producing movies about the cultural history of music and media icons, leaves no doubt that Little Richard (Richard Wayne Penniman, December 5, 1932 – May 9, 2020) was a core founder of rock ’n roll.
Cortés deftly mixes era-industrial footage with archival interviews, more than a few from long forgotten television hosts.
Pat Boone and Elvis Presley sold more copies of “Tutti Fruitti” than Little Richard yet he almost single-handedly invented modern rock and roll.
Little Richard sings the songs you loved that your parents hated.
Other musicians who contributed to the change in the mood and energy of pop music in the 1950s are mentioned, like Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Her weapon was her voice and guitar, equally wild in their delivery. For Little Richard it was total flamboyance and piano keys.
Little Richard is seen in multiple forgotten talk shows hosted by the likes of Mike Douglas or Merv Griffin frankly explaining his prowess, “I was only allowed to play for white teen girls because I wore makeup and was colorful.”
Richard would later renounce his lifestyle and devote years to the ministry. Plus, there’s no doubt Richard was bisexual as talking head testimony with former lovers attests.
One thing is certain, Little Richard played live music with a shocking authority to the day he died. Additional social commentary added by contemporary authors gives the film an academic bookend.
The Lost Weekend: A Love Story
A rock documentary from the point of view of May Pang, The Lost Weekend: A Love Story chronicles the early-1970s in general and John Lennon splitting from his wife of less than five years, Yoko Ono, and romancing their intern Pang in particular.
It was a time frame that included Lennon’s “Wall And Bridges” LP and Nixon resigning. Lennon and Ono had moved to New York after the breakup of The Beatles.
The majority of the interview clips are archival and cover participants and players. The contemporary talking heads are Pang and Julien Lennon. Their comments are candid and heartfelt.
Pang was a go-getter who in the early 1970s applied to the newly established Apple Records publicity department in New York City. Immediately hired – no doubt for her sincere smile – she soon became the intern for Yoko Ono and John Lennon.
The way May tells the story, John discontinued his marriage to Yoko who then ordered Pang to become his lover.
Lennon and Pang moved to Los Angeles where Lennon would enter what the press ascribed as the “lost weekend.” An article in Rolling Stone famously described in gossip fashion how Lennon had made an ass of himself by wearing a tampon on his head at the Troubadour during a performance by the Smothers Brothers.
Pang’s recollections are mostly told in television clips, some as obscure as the Alan Thicke interview program that was vogue for a heartbeat in the 1980s.
Pang was ten-years years junior in their relationship. It’s not hard to see the attraction between her and Lennon, she was a beautiful young woman and he was a randy rocker a mere ten years her senior.
The relationship thrived in Los Angeles during the time Lennon released “Walls and Bridges” and living his long lasting celebrity amongst the West Coast illuminate of coolness. Lennon broke bread daily with a group tagged the Hollywood Vampires that consisted of a diverse group of fellow profligates like Keith Moon, Alice Cooper, Mickey Dolenz, and assorted others. One now famous photo has them in a selfie with “I Never Promised You A Rose Garden” country chanteuse, Anne Murray.
Throw in Elton John (Lennon’s last live appearance was as a guest encore at a NYC Elton concert), Bowie (Lennon co-wrote “Fame”), and Harry Nilsson, and also Paul and Ringo for good measure.
Lennon produced Nilsson’s album, Pussy Cats in a rented coastal mansion that Marilyn Monroe once lived in and where she had trysts with the Kennedy Brothers.
Lennon just wanted to bang Pang in the same bed that the President had banged Marilyn.
There was a lot happening in this extended May-December romance. At some point you realize that Yoko is pulling the strings. She calls their home every day. Just as the married couple were split apart, they came together a few years later, much to Pang’s dismay.
Perhaps not oddly, this revelatory doc has three directors, Eve Brandstein, Richard Kaufman, and Stuart Samuels. Combined, they make this a story of love gained and love lost, all the time compelling and heartbreaking.
Along the way Beatles besties will learn a few details. At one point it’s noted that Lennon, while living in L.A., was dependent on a mere 3K retainer per month, as were the other Beatles, until the various lawsuits over the group were settled.
If you think you could survive on three-grand a month in 2023 in 1973 that was the equivalent of over $21,000.
In some ways The Lost Weekend is a “print the legend” recollection of events, yet nothing about it rings false.