Alfred Lion, Anton Yelchin, Beyond the Bolex, Blue Note Records, Casablanca, Curtiz, Francis Wolff, It Must Be Schwing - The Blue Note Story, Love Antosha, Michael Curtiz, Pauline Kael, San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, What She Saide: The Art of Pauline Kael
The 39th edition of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, July 18-Aug. 4, kicks off with Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, a documentary about Fiddler on the Roof, the musical that became a Broadway phenomenon and later a 1971 Oscar-winning film. That opener sets the stage for a festival rife with films about the business of show, its personalities, indelible moments in entertainment history, and even a documentary about a camera beloved by filmmakers and its inventor. Here is a report on five of the most notable, followed by a list of the remaining show biz titles. –Pam Grady
Beyond the Bolex
The world may be increasingly digital, but celluloid still exists, and the Bolex 16mm movie camera is still manufactured. The story of that camera and its inventor, Russian-born Jacques Bolsey, is the subject of this enchanting documentary. Made by Bolsey’s great-granddaughter Alyssa Bolsey, who had access to Jacques’ journals, schematics, cameras, and footage (generously employed throughout the documentary), Beyond the Bolex is both industrial history and the personal story of the Bolsey family. It is also, in a way, a fascinating detective story as Alyssa Bolsey unravels the enigma of a man she never knew but with whom she shares a deep love for the beauty of the analog image.
Director Michael Curtiz’s (Ferenc Lengyel) battles with studio and government interference over the production of his latest film, Casablanca, are only the start of the filmmaker’s troubles in this elegant, noirish Hungarian production. Supercilious government suit Johnson (Declan Hannigan) insists the movie should be wartime propaganda. Curtiz resists the reduction of his work to knee-jerk jingoism even as he wrestles with how to end the picture. Complicating matters is the appearance of his estranged daughter Kitty (Evelin Dobos), demanding attention he scarcely has time to give. Luminously shot in black and white (with the occasional red flourish to suggest shooting in progress) with an evocative score by Gábor Subicz, the drama does not gloss over the less savory aspects of Curtiz’s personality while also depicting him as a strong-willed artist unafraid of ruffling powerful feathers.
It Must Be Schwing – The Blue Note Story
Not to be confused with Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes, the other recent documentary about the legendary New York jazz label, this entertaining German import more tightly focuses on the label’s founders, Alfred Lion (1908-1987) and Francis Wolff (1907-1971). United in friendship by their love of jazz from the time they were teenagers and Jews forced to flee Hitler’s Germany, the two made their passion into their business in forming the label that would record such artists as Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Herbie Hancock, and so many more jazz giants. Eric Friedler’s delightful doc employs what one would expect from a film of this nature, a lot of archival footage, bursts of the music upon which Blue Note made its name, and interviews with music historians, Blue Note recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder, and plenty of musicians, including Quincy Jones, Sonny Rollins, and Hancock. But to fully tell Lion and Wolff’s story, Friedler turns to animation, a stroke of inspiration that brings the men and their fascinating story to vivid life.
The actor, Anton Yelchin, who died in 2016 at 27, has 68 credits on the IMDB, an astonishing number for someone so young and encompassing shorts, TV shows, and movies ranging from small indies to the latest Star Trek franchise. Garret Price’s moving documentary, produced by Yelchin’s Like Crazy director Drake Doremus, suggests the promise unfulfilled: the parts he had left to play, the directorial debut he was planning, his immersion into photography. More vitally, this heartfelt film—chockful of clips from Yelchin’s films, including his own boyhood efforts—reveals Anton as a bright, curious, and caring personality in stories told by his friends, coworkers, and his heartbroken parents, figure skaters Viktor and Irina Yelchin.
What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael
In time for Pauline Kael’s centennial birthday comes Rob Garver’s documentary that will appeal to Paulettes everywhere, a film that spins the story of one of the last of the truly influential film critics. A poultry farmer’s daughter from Petaluma, she got her start on the radio at KPFA in Berkeley before pulling up stakes and heading East where she eventually rose to prominence at The New Yorker. Sarah Jessica Parker voices Kael’s words in a film that combines archival footage of Kael and others, clips from many of the movies that she reviewed, and interviews with her daughter Gina James and writers and filmmakers, including Camille Paglia, James Wolcott, Carrie Rickey, Paul Schrader, Francis Ford Coppola, and John Boorman.
More SFJFF show business-themed films:
The Amazing Johnathan Documentary
Before You Know It
Shut Up and Play the Piano
Standing Up and Falling Down
Tel Aviv on Fire