“Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead” (2015, Magnolia Home Video) Douglas Tirola’s documentary on National Lampoon makes a solid case for the infamous humor magazine and brand as a major influence on post-1970s comedy in nearly all media. New interviews with staff and contributors (including Tony Hendra and P.J. O’Rourke) define the Lampoon’s tone – a chemically charged mix of savage Swiftian parody and sophomoric gags – while archival footage detail its forays into theater (the Off-Broadway revue “Lemmings,” with John Belushi, Christopher Guest and Chevy Chase), films (“Animal House”) and television (most of the original “Not Ready from Prime Time Players” were former Lampoon players, while staffers Michael O’Donoghue and Anne Beatts were among “SNL’s” first writers). Less amusing sides of the Lampoon’s history – the magazine’s decline due to editorial takeovers and the death of major figures, including co-founder Doug Kenney– are also showcased, but tributes by new figures carrying on in the Lampoon tradition (Judd Apatow) underscore the film’s primary focus on the Lampoon’s long run of cracked brilliance, as well as its remarkable tastemaking qualities.
“Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker” (2013, Virgil Films) Lily Keber’s long-gestating bio of the late New Orleans pianist is a fascinating look at a musical talent who struggled to balance his gifts with a array of personal issues that proved his undoing. A remarkable performer who folded elements of classical and Latin into his jazz/R&B material, Booker had boundless ability but also a seemingly limitless capacity to ruin his own chances; he was gay and addicted to drugs in a time period with little sympathy for either scenario, and his penchant for self-mythologizing (he claimed, at various times, that either drug dealers or Ringo Starr were responsible for the loss of his eye) eventually devolved into paranoia and mental illness, all of which contributed to a lonely death in a charity hospital at the age of 44. Keber corrals interviews with admirers and collaborators, including Harry Connick Jr. (who breaks down Booker’s complex style), Allen Toussaint, Dr. John and Irma Thomas, and unearths a trove of concert footage (including a show-stopping television appearance with Dr. John in the early ‘70s) that go far to provide a compassionate portrait of this genius, gone too long and too soon, and long overdue for reappraisal.
“They Came from the Swamp: The Films of William Grefe” (2015, Ballyhoo Motion Pictures) Thoroughly entertaining look at the wild and wooly film career of Florida-based director William Grefe, who brought a bayou vibe to his low-budget genre films: hence the sun-baked settings for “The Hooked Generation” and “The Wild Racers,” the undead Seminole Indian in “Death Curse of Tartu,” the avenging snakes in “Stanley,” and lots and lots of sharks (“Mako: Jaws of Death”). Director Daniel Griffith, whose Ballyhoo Motion Pictures shingle has produced documentary featurettes for numerous cult/exploitation DVD releases, takes the long-form approach to examine not only Grefe’s long career – all the better to hear outrageous stories from Grefe’s career, from working with William Shatner and Harold “Oddjob” Sakata on the hard-to-believe thriller “Impulse” to directing the shark sequences in “Live and Let Die” to corralling Mickey Rooney to appear in a bizarre gangster comedy called “The Godmothers.” Interviews with peers and pals like Shatner and exploitation pioneers David Friedman and Herschell Gordon Lewis, underscore the notion that Grefe had a lot of fun making movies with no money and a lot of ingenuity. Ballyhoo’s two-disc set includes an entire extra film – “Whiskey Mountain,” Grefe’s last feature to date, which pits Christopher George against crazed hillbillies – as well as a documentary on Crown International Pictures, which distributed many of his films, short promotional films Grefe made for Bacardi and some high-octane trailers for many of his films.
Also: “Killing Them Safely” (2015, IFC) looks at the Taser corporation and its attempt to create an alternative to handguns for law enforcement, which ultimately proves to be a deadly weapon unto itself. The array of talking heads, including company founders Rick and Tom Smith, get wearisome as they argue their sides, but the dashboard and surveillance footage of taser-related injuries and deaths are potent. “The Color of Noise” (2015, Robel Films/MVD) is an energetic look at the history of Amphetamine Reptile Records, its roster of no-holds-barred bands (Helmet, Cows, Supernova, Unsane) and its equally filter-free founder, Tom Hazelmyer (aka Haze XXL). Lots of good war stories about the alternative/noise rock landscape of the ’90s, and a very welcome segment on print artists like Frank Kozik and Coop who provided album covers, posters, and more for the label. MVD also has two fine music docs from Robert Mugge (“Deep Blues”): “Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise” (1980) follows the Afrofuturist jazz legend and his Arkestra in performances across the U.S. (including in front of the White House) and includes extended audio versions of songs from the original release, “Black Wax” (1982) is a collaboration with Britain’s Channel 4 on Gil-Scott Heron, who delivers searing takes on his best known songs at the now-closed Wax Museum Club, and on a rueful walking tour of Washington D.C.’s monuments and neighborhoods.