An incredible set of documentaries that move between various topics, but always retain their love of people, and of the world. This set opened my eyes to a wonderful filmmaker I previously knew nothing about.
The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins (1968)
The Blues are such a powerful, and malleable, artform. They represent a purely American music, bred out of real struggle, and a need to deal with the worst things in life. You sing the blues, not to dwell in your sadness, but rather to name it and therefore dispel it. It’s an art form that’s ultimately about hope and the idea that when you can’t cry anymore you can laugh your troubles away. It’s an absolutely beautiful music, and so well represented here. What a great initial introduction to the work of Les Blank. The film is so full of life and charm, and so different than the documentaries that I’m used to. There’s almost no interviews for one thing, and absolutely no context is provided as to who or what we’re dealing with. Instead, we just get Lightnin' Hopkins, as he was, and a feeling for the time and place he was living in.
The entire film is filled with his incredibly music. I hadn’t heard of him before and the power and emotion with which he played absolutely blew me away. He was so casual with his art, and yet it was so powerful at the same time. The film is also filled with incredibly nice shots of rural Texas as it was in the late 60s. There are so many great outfits to look at, and so many interesting people to meet. Lightin' is the star here though, the camera follows him with an intricate attention to detail, and I really felt like I got to know the man a bit. I love this sort of cinéma vérité style of presentation, it makes me feel as though I’m participating in what I’m watching, instead of just passively experiencing it. This was such a nice film.
God Respects Us When We Work, but Loves Us When We Dance (1968)
This film almost totally overwhelmed me with its loveliness. Like an avalanche of joy and feeling. The film follows Blank, and cameraman Skip Gerson, as they hang out at the first ever Los Angeles Love-In. They couldn’t afford sound equipment so they shot it silent and then recorded a soundtrack with Spontaneous Combustion after the fact. I have to say, for music which was added later, it does a remarkable job of matching up to all the events of the piece itself. We see people dancing, and laughing, and meditating. People are playing instruments, and painting, and sharing flowers. And the whole time the music provides an almost perfect counterpoint. This film was slight, with no commentary on what was happening, but it represents a fascinating look at a pivotal moment in the Summer of Love. Definitely worth checking out.
Spend It All (1971)
What an absolutely fascinating and charming film. Blank seems to have had a knack for being in interesting places at interesting times, and this is certainly no exception. Here we’re with the Cajun people of Southwest Louisiana, as Blank documents their carefree way of life. I love seeing a time and place that I otherwise would know nothing about, and this one is just great. I was shocked by how much of the cooking was done by the men of early 70s Cajun country, I’m not sure why but it was just totally unexpected and awesome. The people represented here are so full of life and spirit, especially one man who sums up the Cajun lifestyle by saying that you “Work like hell to make some money and you spend it all havin' a good time.” That’s a pretty damn decent way to live if you ask me.
A Well Spent Life (1971)
I’m starting to see that Les Blank films all seem to have music at their core. This one, which follows former sharecropper and blues revival musician Mance Lipscomb is no exception, and it’s absolutely fabulous. Near the end of the documentary Libscomb says “you’ll never find another Mance like me” and he’s undoubtedly correct. Lipscomb is amazing, full of wisdom about life, and love, and how to be a decent person. His songs are incredible, I can’t wait to track down some of his albums. They’re classic blues, with a wonderfully biting sense of humor and a real understanding of the absurd. Lipscomb’s commentary on love, which is especially heightened due to his 58 years of happy marriage, is especially inspiring. Everything he says is moving and true. This was a phenomenal film.
Dry Wood (1973)
This film, which is about the Creole people of Louisiana, and the music of Zydeco, feels a bit like a lesser companion work to Spend It All. Similar in theme and place, but focused on Creole culture instead of Cajun. It’s a perfectly lovely film, but it’s a bit more ramshackle and unfocused than Spend It All was. Still, it’s really nice to see what Mardi Gras is like in backwoods Louisiana, as well as to get a feeling for the vibe of Creole culture from this time period. It was especially interesting to see how integrated the towns he was in seemed to be, a shocking sight given that this film was made shortly after the Civil Rights Movement. It’s also fascinating to see yet another cultural representative bemoan the changing of the times, and the erosion of the culture due to generational shifts and lack of work. A minor but very satisfying film.
Hot Pepper (1973)
Another film about the Creole people of Louisiana, and the music of Zydeco, but this one is far more satisfying. Mostly that’s because Blank gets back to his style of following a specific musician as the center of his story. In this case it’s “King of Zydeco” Clifton Chenier, who is every bit as engaging a character as Lightin' Hopkins or Mance Lipscomb. The film focuses on the city of Lafayette, Louisiana and really gives a sense of what the Creole part of Louisiana is all about. Even more than in Dry Wood there is serious attention paid to the integration of the various populations of the city. There are a few fairly impassioned speeches about how the world has changed by 1973, and how integrated everything is. The latter part of the film falls apart a little bit, and it feels like it was stretched out a bit longer than necessary, but this was still a lovely documentary.
Always for Pleasure (1978)
This is an absolutely wonderful film, about a place I have real affection for, New Orleans. I have family there, and though I’ve only been once, I still fell completely in love with the city. I think both Blank and my love for it are pretty similar; it’s the musicality of everything. The city is just overflowing with amazing music and cultural celebrations. This documentary, which is basically a love letter to the music and parade tradition, shows the various forms of celebration in the city. We get lovely portraits of the preparations for Mardi Gras, as well as the festival itself. My favorite aspect of this documentary though, was its presentation of the funerals in New Orleans. It’s one of my absolute favorite traditions anywhere; when you die you get a band that follows your coffin solemnly to the burial site. After your funeral the same band plays its way back, but this time in joyous celebration with people dancing. It’s an absolutely perfect way to celebrate both the death of a loved one and the life that the rest of us must continue living.
Garlic is as Good as 10 Mothers (1980)
This is the film I was most excited about as I started watching these, and it didn’t disappoint. Perhaps not quite as luminous as his very best work, it’s still an unbelievably entertaining and informative film. Actually the informative part was maybe the biggest surprise, mixed in with his usual style of verité following of random people there’s actually a ton of information about the subject matter. I learned more than I thought possible about the history, benefits, and cultural attachments to garlic. It was probably also helpful to my enjoyment of the film that I live in the Bay Area where the entire thing was set, I love seeing the places I know and love from thirty years ago. At any rate, this was an incredibly amusing and wonderful film; who else but Les Blank would have made a documentary about garlic? And who else could have possibly made that work? It’s a real achievement and one I think I’ll return to many more times.
Sprout Wings and Fly (1983)
So, Tommy Jarrell is officially my new favorite person. What a personality! He drinks whiskey, plays music at dances all night, and tells insane stories about people from his past. I would hang out with him all the time if I could. This might be my favorite documentary so far, just because of how amazing Tommy and his family are. The story his sister tells of his mothers insane tablecloth style, where every time she got a new one she just put it on top of the old one, going back to 1937! Tommy’s story about someone chiseling off their own toe was so ridiculous, and yet I 100% believe it was true. On top of all that, Tommy is one of the best fiddlers and banjo players I’ve ever heard, and the music in this one was just perfect. I absolutely loved this film.
In Heaven There Is No Beer? (1984)
I wasn’t sure what to expect with this one, as I know almost nothing about Polka. But what I got was way more enjoyable than I ever would have imagined. This film showcases the apparently burgeoning Polka scene of the mid 80s and it’s a riot to see all these people dancing about and talking seriously about a musical form that has been so maligned in American history. Also, and this shocked me a bit as well, some of the music was actually pretty damn good. Cheesy and sort of comical in nature perhaps, but definitely sharing some of the same bopiness of a Zydeco or Mariachi. It was a fascinating revelation. I can’t say I loved this film, I have too little interest in the subject matter for that. But, it was entertaining for sure, and it’s always fun to see 80s style and dress featured anywhere. Definitely a far more rewarding experience than I had any hope of it being.
Gap-Toothed Women (1987)
This one was almost a miss for me, mostly due to my having no feelings one way or another for the physical feature that’s its central premise. But, it ultimately won me over because it spends almost no time on its rather flimsy selling point, but rather showcases a bunch of really interesting women who just happen to have gap-teeth. The parts about the supposed awesomeness of the gap are fairly vapid and pointless to me, but the rest had me smiling and thinking. There were a bunch of really interesting ladies presented here, and the film did a great job of allowing them to have a forum to discuss their thinking on a bunch of topics, not just the film’s title. It’s a completely stupid topic, but it works very well as a jumping off point to a real message about beauty standards and sexism. So, while this one isn’t going to be one of my favorites, I’m still really glad it was here.
Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of Cajun and Creole Cooking (1990)
I was predisposed to enjoy this one because I absolutely love cooking shows. I can watch anyone who knows what they’re doing cook basically anything. It’s always so relaxing and interesting to me. Add to that a lovely reunion with Marc Savoy from Spend It All and this was a wonderful film. Full of Cajun and Creole cooking lessons, told by various musicians and people that Blank met making his Louisiana films. It feels like maybe this was made up of random footage he had shot while hanging out on previous projects, but it still comes together to form a very cohesive whole. In fact, the film came together in a way that some of the earlier ones did not, clearly Blank was a master of his craft by this point. And it was incredibly entertaining as well, definitely one I enjoyed watching.
The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists (1994)
A portrait of outsider artist, and sometimes body builder, Gerald “The Maestro” Gaxiola, this film absolutely blew me away. Gaxiola is just so unbelievably full of life and interest and excitement. He seems to move from project to project with an energy that I can barely comprehend. And he finishes everything he starts too, which is almost more impressive. Gaxiola famously refuses to sell his work, saying that art is a religion not a business, but he could definitely sell it, he’s an insanely talented guy. His cowboy clothing work alone is absurd but incredibly well done. It’s also amazing to me that an artist who refuses to sell his work hasn’t had a job in like 40 years, that alone is a fairly shocking story. In an interview with Gaxiola done recently it’s clear that he has very mixed feelings about his life, his work, and this film. That sadness me so much, because I just loved the unreal passionate and almost psychotically confident artist presented in the film. I hope that he finds closure with his life’s work at some point.
Sworn to the Drum: A Tribute to Francisco Aguabella (1995)
A fascinating look at an unbelievably talented Afro-Cuban drummer that I hadn’t previously been aware of. The people he played with during his lengthy career are unbelievably impressive, as is his attitude towards performance in general. The film also does a great job of connecting his drumming to his belief in santería, a mixture of Yoruba indigenous religion with the Christianity and native traditions it encountered as slaves were brought to the Americas. His discussion of his patron saint Barbara, who also represents one of the santería gods, was especially interesting to me. In general I’m not a huge fan of Afro-Cuban music, the percussion is a little bit on the happy side for my taste, but this man was a true master and it’s amazing to see him perform and speak. What a great film to end on.