Gonzo Journalism – a style of journalism that is written without claims of objectivity, often including the reporter as part of the story via a first-person narrative.

I had first heard about Gonzo journalism when I watched the documentary ‘High There’ (reviewed here). It was this that led me to discover the works of Hunter S. Thompson, the man whose style of reporting spawned the term.

Hunter S. Thompson was a very talented, very unconventional, and certainly unusual writer, best known for works such as  Hell’s Angels, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, and The Rum Diary.

I was very keen to learn more about him and his life and first watched the wild and trippy Johnny Depp film ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ a dramatisation based on the book of the same name. Many of the scenes in the film were bizarre and only reinforced the desire to learn the real story about the man and I was lucky enough to find the documentary ‘Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.’

‘Gonzo’ tells the story of Hunter S. Thompson from his early days embedded with the Hells Angels, through the coverage of the McGovern presidential campaign, and into his later years as a supremely famous but drug and alcohol ‘infused’ writer.

Using actual footage from the period, interviews with his contemporaries, including narration by friend, Johnny Depp, as well as interviews with the man himself the film, paints a picture of a very clever writer striving to improve the world through his writing and political commentary. But at the same time one gets the feeling that he was a troubled man, one attempting to either dull or perhaps  even to enhance reality with his considerable alcohol and drug consumption, and eventually becoming a victim of his own fame and fabled excesses.

Gonzo’ is an interesting film, both from the point of view of learning about his life and career but also as a history lesson on the United States during the 60’s and 70’s. The music from that era makes for a great soundtrack but some of the scenes from that period are disturbing and it’s hard to believe that the America we know today has gone through the events portrayed in the film.

Hunter S. Thompson was a wild character and his capacity for alcohol and drug consumption was hard to believe although later scenes do seem to indicate signs of damage, with his slurring words and seeming lack of alertness, (or perhaps he was just “under the influence” while being filmed).

Whatever ones’ opinion on his lifestyle, there is no doubt that he was a supremely talented writer   but one has to wonder how much more could he have achieved and written had he lived a longer  and healthier life?

But then maybe he wouldn’t have been ‘Hunter S. Thompson’

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“Life teaches you how to live it, if you live long enough” – Tony Bennett

Most of you reading this will already know who Amy Winehouse is. A young singer/songwriter from England whose albums met with significant commercial and critical success worldwide and whose private life was the subject of countless column inches in the international press. Her struggles with alcohol and drug addiction were well known and her behaviour and appearance at public events was often the subject of ridicule. The world lost a great talent when she died at such a young age from after an alcohol and drug fuelled binge.

But how and why did all this happen?

Directed by Asif Kapadia, of ‘Senna‘ fame, ‘Amy’ the documentary, goes a significant way into helping us try and understand the public pressures and inner demons that drove Amy Winehouse into the lifestyle that eventually killed her. Using home video and often commentary from Amy herself we are given an intimate look into her career, her private life and her relationships with friends and family.
It is a tragic story and the behaviour of some of those close to her leaves a lot to be desired. It saddens me deeply when I see people driven by greed exploiting their so called “loved ones” for their own enrichment. The old saying: “you can choose your friends but you cant choose your relatives” certainly rings true in Amy Winehouse’s life. As a counterbalance though, to her family’s behaviour, the conduct of some of her close friends is to be admired as they stick with her through thick and thin, lending much needed support whenever it was needed

After watching ‘Amy’ I have a lot more respect for Amy Winehouse as a person and feel ashamed that I had previously formed a judgement of her based on press reports of her addictions. One never knows what is really going on in others’ lives and what drives them to do the things they do.

Whilst the subject matter is sad , ‘Amy’ is a great documentary with a fabulous soundtrack and one I highly recommend viewing.

Amy [DVD + Digital]
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Searching for Sugar Man

I had heard mention of this documentary a few years ago when it won an Oscar for Best Documentary at the 2013 Academy Awards  but  at that time didn’t pay much attention to it.

I wish I had seen it earlier. What an incredible and fascinating story!

I am always in a quandary when I write these reviews, as to how much can I tell you about the story. I want to talk about the film but at the same time am reluctant to spoil it for you by giving too much away. Hopefully I won’t give too much away here.

Searching for Sugar Man’ is the story of two South Africans who set out to discover what happened to their musical hero from the 1970’s.

The Sugar Man of the film is Sixto Rodriguez, a folk singer of Mexican descent who grew up in Detroit. In the early ‘70’s Music industry executives were convinced he would be a big star and they quickly signed him up for a couple of albums. However the albums didn’t sell and he was soon dropped by his record label. Giving up his dream of a musical career he turned to working in building and demolition jobs.   That, you would think, would be the end of the story. But wait, there’s more!

Unbeknownst to him his records started getting a lot of airplay in South Africa where he eventually became a big star. However despite his fame, no one knew anything about him.

All sorts of rumors surrounded this unknown singer, eventually culminating in stories of his death by suicide on stage. No-one really knew what the truth was though and it was down to two South Africans who decided to investigate and find out what actually happened to Rodriguez and how he died.

I can’t say much more without giving the story away, but what follows is a fascinating tale of Kismet, of human spirit, and one of humility

Interviews with his contemporaries in Detroit, with family members, and with musicians in South Africa are woven together into a tapestry of Rodriguez’ life and go some way to describing the effect he had on the youth at that time in South Africa. All this underpinned with the soundtrack of his music and Dylan-like voice make it a very interesting and compelling musical detective story.

It’s amazing to think that you could be carrying on your normal day to day life completely unaware that you have inspired millions of people on the other side of the world.

Searching for Sugar Man’ is a feel good story, and yet another film with a great soundtrack.

Searching for Sugar Man
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One Track Heart – The Story of Krishna Das

“Chanting is a way of getting in touch with yourself. It’s an opening of the heart and letting go of the mind and thoughts. It deepens the channel of grace, and it’s a way of being present in the moment.”

-Krishna Das

Last week I was able to attend a concert by Krishna Das, something I have wanted to do for years. It was fantastic! 2 ½ hours of great music and singing. The atmosphere in the concert hall was electric, with people dancing and singing along.

For those who don’t know who he is, Krishna Das is known as the rock star of Kirtan, a form of chanting originating from India where devotional songs are sung in a call and response method. The singer sings one line and the audience then repeats the same line. It’s a wonderful experience and this style of devotional singing has been practiced in India for centuries.

Born in America, his search for inner peace and happiness, after meeting the spiritual teacher Ram Dass, led him to India in the 1970’s, where he subsequently met his Guru and learn’t the art of singing Kirtans.

He has a great sense of humor and has a wealth of stories and anecdotes from the time he spent living in India. Millions of his records have been sold around the world, and chances are if you have ever entered a yoga studio somewhere in the world you may have heard one of his songs. Despite this he remains very humble and approachable.

I discovered that a documentary had been made about his life so I was very keen to watch it and learn more. I have to say, I loved it almost as much as his performance.

One Track Heart: The Story of Krishna Das is a compelling and intimate look at Krishna Das’s life and how he became an internationally known Kirtan singer. Through candid interviews with him and his contemporaries, we learn of his struggles with depression, with drug addiction, and how the love for his Guru, Neem Karoli Baba, and his practice of chanting saved him, gave him direction, and brought peace and happiness to his life.

It is incredible to see the profound effect that recounting his time with his Guru has on Krishna Das. His eyes often well up in tears and his voice chokes with emotion. To think that Neem Karoli Baba passed away over 40 years ago just goes to reinforce the intensity of the experience.

This to me is true spirituality. As one person says in the movie, ‘there is no method, there is no organization’. Krishna Das just gets up on stage and sings. It’s up to you whether you want to sing along with him.

Krishna Das says that he is not in the music business. He just sings every day. That is his spiritual practice and how he reconnects with his Guru. It is this practice that has helped him “clean out the dark corners of his heart”.

Watch this movie and see what you think. Even if it doesn’t strike a chord with you, and you don’t have any “dark corners of your heart’ that need cleaning, at the very least you will hear some great music.

One Track Heart: The Story of Krishna Das
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Finding Vivian Maier

In an age where we seek instant gratification and appreciation and tend to share play by play accounts of everything we do online, learning about the life and work of Vivian Maier gives us an interesting insight into how much the world has changed in a relatively short time.

But first some background.

In 2007, Photographer and Author John Maloof  buys a box of undeveloped negatives in a thrift auction in Chicago hoping that he will get some useable photos for a project he is working on. However, what he finds is much more than he expected, and sends him off on a life changing journey.

The negatives comprise a huge volume of work, eventually some 100,000 photographs from a hitherto unknown street photographer. After posting some photographs online they go viral and the feedback he gets prompts him to dig deeper and discover the person responsible for the work. Through extensive detective work and networking, what he discovers surprises us all.

The photographer, possibly one of the greatest street photographers of the 20th century, was a nanny called Vivian Maier, who roamed the streets with the children in her care, snapping away with her Rolleiflex camera. However she never exhibited or shared her work during her lifetime, preferring instead a life of anonymity.

I am an amateur photographer myself and whenever I take a photo that I think is good, I put it online straight away, hoping to get some positive feedback and boost my confidence. Here was someone who was content just to take photos and never had them published. Who knows, if she had, her life may have been completely different.

‘Finding Vivian Maier’, shown through a narrative by John Maloof and interviews with former employers and people she had looked after as children, gives us an interesting picture of Vivian Maier the person. She was obviously quite eccentric and seemed to also have a dark side to her. Some of her behavior hints at a turbulent, possibly traumatic experience in her past and she was obviously a very complex person. Different people she looked after often had contrasting memories of her and sometimes it is almost as if they are describing two different people.

What is constant though was her love for taking photos and hoarding things. But for these obsessions, John Maloof would never have been able to build up such a complete picture of her, and her photos would probably have gone unnoticed. It is almost as if some unseen hand was making her store everything so that we would have this fascinating documentary to watch after her death.

Released in 2013, ‘Finding Vivian Maier’ has already been nominated for, and won, several awards at film festivals around the world. It has now been nominated for Best Documentary at the 2015 Academy Awards.

Well worth watching and even if you don’t have an interest in photography you will enjoy seeing the scenes of Urban America in the 1950’s and 60’s.

What did I learn from ‘Finding Vivian Maier’? Probably the biggest thing I learnt from this documentary is to pursue my art for the love of the art itself, not for outside recognition, not for results. To do it for the pleasure that I get from the process. That is more fulfilling than wanting appreciation from my peers that may or may not come. Oh and to get rid of a lot of my junk!

A book of Vivian Maier’s photography can be found here: Vivian Maier: Street Photographer

Finding Vivian Maier
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When The Bell Rings

When The Bell Rings

Dino “Lethal Warrior” Wells strikes a pose with his son Desmond

Director Brad Bores was kind enough to share with me a pre-release copy of his documentary “When The Bell Rings” and I am glad he did. I loved it! Yes it’s a boxing documentary, but it’s much more than that.

“When The Bell Rings” is the story of Dino Wells a former amateur middleweight boxing champion and his attempt at a comeback at the age of forty after a fifteen year absence from the ring.

To use a clichéd expression, this film is a like a real life Rocky. However the emphasis is on the “real life’. If Hollywood was to get hold of the story they would gloss over a lot of the realities and bundle it all up into a feel good story of bunny rabbits and fluffy pillows. But life is not like that.

This is the story of a man who lost his way, who tasted success once only for it to slip away, only for life and bad decisions to get in the way of his dreams.

The film is not so much about whether or not he achieves his goal but what he discovers about himself on the way. How it gives him a new sense of purpose, a new reason for being, a new sense of self-respect.
How just being a good father is often tougher than being in the ring.

I think every man reaches a stage in his life when he becomes aware of his mortality and looking back on his life wonders where the years have gone, thinks how things could have been done better/differently, and I believe that this film will strike a chord with many viewers.

When you first see Dino you don’t think he has a snowball in hell’s chance of succeeding. He is overweight and slow, and in one of his first sparring sessions is rapidly KO’d.

I don’t want to give too much away but you will see how he deals with setback after setback as he works towards his goal.

The film examines his motivations, his attempts at reconciliation with his estranged family, and also looks at his past which included selling drugs and being wounded in the arm in a drive by shooting.

More importantly though it looks at what keeps him going and how the real victory is a victory over himself and the true prize is not found inside the ring but outside.

Some scenes in the film are shot with hand held cameras which gives a sometimes jerky footage and occasionally the character moves out of shot, but rather than detracting from the film it draws one in and feels intensely personal, giving the viewer a touching and intimate insight into the character’s life.

I am looking forward to seeing what Brad Bores comes up with next. This is his first full length documentary and based on this movie I think he has a bright future ahead.

‘When The Bell Rings’ has taught me a couple of things. Firstly, don’t be afraid to pursue/revisit your dreams no matter what stage of life you are at. You may not achieve what you set out to do, but by following the journey you will open up a whole new world of possibilities. Secondly, it is never to late to make amends or reconcile with those you have had differences with in the past. As someone much wiser than me once said “Forgiveness is not always easy. At times, it feels more painful than the wound we suffered, to forgive the one that inflicted it. And yet, there is no peace without forgiveness.”

The documentary won’t be released until 2015 but is currently making the rounds of the film festival circuit and has already won the Jury Award for best documentary feature at the New Orleans Film Festival. I predict great things for this movie. Make sure you see it too!

*UPDATE* 13/11/2015

‘When the Bell Rings’ is finally available for viewing on Vimeo on Demand. You can watch the trailer here:

 Useful Links

When The Bell Rings on Facebook

When The Bell Rings on Twitter

Dino Wells on Twitter

Marley – The Life and Music of Bob Marley

“What is to be, must be” – Bob Marley

When I was a kid I was scared of Bob Marley.

A dope smoking singer with crazy hair, his face adorning black t-shirts worn by “alternative” looking people. To my innocent immature and conservative mind he was everything a good little boy should stay away from.

As one gets older, one learns more about the world and I fell in love with reggae, (it makes me feel happy) and became a big fan of Bob Marley’s music.

However I knew very little about the man himself so when I found this documentary I was very keen to see it.

Marley affected me quite deeply. The story of his journey from a childhood in abject poverty to worldwide superstardom is compelling viewing. I learnt a lot of things that you can find on Wikipedia, where he grew up, his father an Englishman, and so on, but what came across more was how inspiring and spiritual Bob Marley was as a man. Having said that the film is very balanced, showing the great lengths he went to spread peace and unity as well as his extra-marital liaisons and distant parenting.

The archival footage of Bob interspersed with interviews with relatives and surviving contemporaries all comes together in a captivating portrayal of the life of, and people surrounding the man.
Some real characters populate the movie and the accents are delightful.

Bob Marley served, and still does serve, as an inspiration to millions of people around the world and to this day his music is loved by people everywhere, something beautifully demonstrated by the closing sequence.

‘Marley’ has really shown me that there is always much more to meet the eye than someone’s public persona, and that it is always wrong to form opinions about someone without getting a complete picture of them as a person.

A film well worth watching whether you are a fan of reggae or not.

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