With reality seemingly at a premium of late, it might time to look at a recent spate of documentaries – and one mockumentary – as a palate cleanser to the current state of things. “All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records” (2015; FilmRise) is a bittersweet look at the titular music chain, a cultural touchstone for music fans in Los Angeles, which retained the flagship store on the Sunset Strip, and around the world. Tower’s appeal came from its democratic approach to music – all genres were celebrated with equal fervor, which made browsing the store aisles a communal pleasure for crate diggers and vinyl freaks to celebrity fans like Elton John, Bruce Springsteen and Dave Grohl, all of whom testify to the pleasures of locating LP treasures at Tower. Founder Russ Solomon is the film’s main virtue, providing a full and colorful history for his company from its launch in the back of his father’s drug store in 1960 to outlets across the globe in the 1980s. Commentary from former employees underscores the “family” vibe that Solomon sought to foster, and as with most families, Tower made good choices (the unwavering faith the company and its workers had in each other) and perhaps a few unwise ones, too (rapid expansion and a predilection for hard partying). Actor-turned-director Colin Hanks handles the downward spiral of Tower in the mid-2000s (high CD prices, mounting debt and stiff competition from big-box stores are the main culprits) with the right mix of nostalgia and honesty; as the enjoyment of music lost its importance to the industry, a store devoted to such a pursuit simply had no chance of survival. FilmRise’s DVD includes a slew of extended and deleted scenes and the theatrical trailer.
Also tracking a pop culture arc: “I Am Thor” (2016, Dark Sky Films), a hugely entertaining look at the bizarre career of Canadian rocker Jon Mikl-Thor. A love of superheroes set Thor on a path that began with bodybuilding (and a brief foray into male stripping) and led to his unique take on heavy metal, which incorporated studded armor and strongman feats – bending steel bars, inflating hot water bottles to the point of bursting with his breath, and the like. Though enormously appealing (at least from a visual standpoint), Thor’s Muscle Rock never caught on with listeners outside of England, and a string of label problems (as well as an alleged kidnapping) sent his nascent stardom into a tailspin; an attempt to refashion himself as a horror film star, resulting in the atrocious “Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare,” only made matters worse. Director Ryan Wise picks up the narrative in 2001, when Thor, now in his 60s and struggling with health issues, attempts to mount a comeback. As anyone who’s seen “Anvil!” or “This is Spinal Tap” can tell you, trying to recapture fame is nearly impossible for those without a back catalog of success, and much of “Thor” is devoted to the singer enduring a host of humbling events; what keeps him going, and in turn, makes the documentary compelling, is his unwavering belief in his own abilities, even in the face of six-person festival crowds and his faltering body. These elements, delivered with both humor and fondness, elevate “I Am Thor” beyond the star-in-the-dust documentary and into the realm of an underdog story worth rooting for.
“The Sheik” (2014, Dark Sky Films) applies a similar rise-fall-rise trajectory to its portrait of another fringe strongman who flirted with mainstream fame; here, the subject is Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri, an Olympic wrestler in his native Iran who briefly served as bodyguard to the Shah. In addition to his phenomenal strength and wrestling skills, Vaziri was also remarkably shrewd, as evidenced by his flight from Iran before the Revolution and later, by parlaying America’s white-hot fury towards his home country into his pro wrestling persona, the Iron Sheik. His angle as the Sheik – which hinged on a virulent (and entirely manufactured) hatred of America – earned the fury of World Wrestling Federation audiences (as well as the occasional stabbing) and elevated him to the top ranks of its“heel” (wrestling villain) corps in the ‘80s; battling the Sheik became a fight took on semi-mythic proportions for heroes like Hulk Hogan. At the height of his popularity, Vaziri was arrested for cocaine use and dismissed from the WWF, which began a headlong plunge into lower-ranking wrestling promotions and a crippling drug addiction; the documentary, directed by Igal Hecht, starts at the bottom, with Vaziri physically hobbled and hooked on crack cocaine, which results in some glum scenes and tearful commentary from his family. Enter two Iranian brothers from Canada who decide to revitalize his image as a sort of filter-free elderly uncle (albeit one built like Hercules and wearing a keffiyeh) through foul-mouthed interviews and rants on his popular Twitter account. The first half of the film, which details Vaziri’s exploits through vintage match footage and interviews with a host of wrestling stars, from Dwayne Johnson to Jake “The Snake” Roberts, is a fascinating look at how the sport crossed into mainstream consciousness in the ‘80s, and how Vaziri succeeded in that environment through a combination of intelligence, strength and very thick skin. The second half is less rewarding: Vaziri appears to have regained a degree of his faded glory, but how he gets there feels somewhat manufactured, and undermines the extraordinary strength (physical and otherwise) displayed by its subject.
While Christopher Guest’s “A Mighty Wind” (2003, Warner Archives Collection) might lack the sheer amount of laughs-per-square-inch found in “Waiting for Guffman” or “Best in Show,” the mockumentary, about a concert reuniting popular folk performers and acts from the 1960s, benefits from the polished interplay of his repertory players – including co-writer Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, John Michael Higgins, Michael Hitchcock, typically mind-bending support from Fred Willard (“Wha’happen?”) and Jane Lynch, and a Spinal Tap reunion of sorts with Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer as the hopelessly square Folksmen. There’s also a surprising degree of warmth in the subplot involving Levy as an addled singer-songwriter and O’Hara as his long-suffering ex-wife and partner; their signature song, “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” (penned by McKean and his wife, actress Annette O’Toole), even earned an Oscar nomination. WAC’s Blu-ray is loaded with extras (the majority of which are ported over from the 2003 DVD release), including dryly humorous commentary by Guest and Levy, a slew of deleted and extended scenes, faux television appearances (including an ill-advised psychedelic turn by the Folksmen) and the complete concert featured in the film.
Guest would undoubtedly appreciate the gentle eccentrics featured in “Children of the Stars” (2012, Billingsgate Media), which details the history of the UFO-minded Unarius Academy of Science. The El Cajon-based organization, built on the tenet that humanity originated in outer space, baffled and amazed public access viewers in the 1980s with their crude but elaborate promotional films, many of which featured co-founder Ruth Norman (a.k.a. Archangel Uriel) in a variety of dazzling gowns and headdresses. San Diego-based filmmaker Bill Perrine attempts to unravel the Unarians’ labyrinthine belief system – all largely channeled by Norman’s late husband, Ernest, via alleged communication with extraterrestrials in the late ‘50s and ‘60s – through interviews with group members and some well-chosen clips from B science fiction films, while also delving into the turmoil that erupted within the group when Uriel was succeeded by her divisive follower, Louis Spiegel (a.k.a., “the fallen angel”). While the visual highlights of “Children” are undoubtedly the clips from Unarius’ film productions – outrageous historical epics and fantasies rife with low-fi animation, Lite Brite starfields and an alarming array of musclemen – it’s the sincerity of the remaining Unarians, as they discuss awaiting the return of their Space Brothers, and Perrine’s reluctance to depict them as addled cultists, that leave the most lasting impression on the viewer.
On a much darker note, “Night Will Fall” (2014, Warner Archives Collection) contains scenes that many viewers may find unbearable to watch: the documentary, about the completion of a long-lost British government film project about Nazi concentration camps, contains footage shot by Allied soldiers after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen that depict survivors and the deceased in the absolute depths of human misery – buried in mass graves, reduced to piles of artifacts. The footage (which was eventually used as evidence in the Nuremberg Trials) was later compiled by producer and future British media giant Sidney Bernstein as a feature documentary with the help of his friend, Alfred Hitchcock, who served as a production supervisor on the project; the completed film, “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey,” was intended as an educational film for British and German audiences to counter Holocaust denial, but was shelved by the British government, allegedly for political reasons. The film remained unfinished for 60 years (though clips were featured in several projects, including Billy Wilder’s harrowing U.S. government short “Death Mills,” which is included on the WAC disc.) until the Imperial War Museum completed restoration in 2010. Director Andre Singer (producer on “The Act of Killing” and Werner Herzog’s “Into the Abyss”) blends archival interviews (including a recording of Hitchcock) with new material featuring eyewitnesses to the atrocity – camp survivors and former soldiers, all of whom offer searing testimony to the horror seen in the footage. The WAC disc includes a Soviet propaganda film from the period about the liberation of Auschwitz, and an interview with historian Rainer Schulze on the British government’s film efforts during the liberation of Bergen-Belsen.
There are also monsters on display, albeit altogether more palatable ones, in “Chet Zar: I Like to Draw Monsters” (2016, First Run Features), a colorful biography of the former special effects designer (“The Ring,” “Hellboy”) and Tool collaborator who, on the advice of Clive Barker, left the film industry to pursue his long-standing interest in “dark art” on canvas. Zar is an engaging subject and his monster art is both alarming and quite beautiful, in its own way. The same might apply to “Walden/Lost Lost Lost” (1969/1976, Kino Lorber), a double feature of avant-garde film chronicler Jonas Mekas’ own experimental efforts. The former offers an unstructured but often striking glimpse at the New York avant-garde scene he chronicled in “Film Culture” and “The Village Voice,” with many notables from the period, including Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono and the Velvet Underground surfacing, ghost-like, in his lens between life in the city emerging from the deep chill of winter. “Lost Lost Lost” explores his own roots and path to filmmaking, including collaborations with his brother, Adolfas, and the development of his observational style. As with “Walden,” “Lost” is largely structure-free and clocks in at three hours in length, which may test casual viewers; for admirers of New American Cinema and Mekas’ invaluable contributions to its growth, the Blu-ray, which includes commentary by Mekas, several short films and a 1967 documentary, is invaluable.