“Say Amen, Somebody” (1982, Kino Lorber) Sharp-looking transfer of director George T. Nierenberg‘s documentary on gospel music, which focuses two of its most celebrated performers (at least, within its own circles): singers Thomas A. Dorsey and Willie Mae Ford Smith. Through interviews and especially plentiful performances, Nierenberg gets to the heart of why gospel has such broad appeal outside of evangelical circles (there was a reason people flocked to the House of Blues’ gospel brunch, and it wasn’t the food): the raw intensity of the singing and the deep vein of sincere faith that runs through it and stands opposite to the spectacle of mainstream evangelical worship. Kino’s Blu-ray includes commentary by Nierenberg and many outtakes.
“Deep Blues” (1991, Film Movement) British documentary conceived by an eclectic music-oriented trio – the documentarian Robert Mugge, writer Robert Palmer, and Dave Stewart of the Eurhythmics – and detailing the then-current state of blues music in its Delta birthplace. The performers are naturally the primary focus, and include both R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough before their embrace by the alt-rock scene, as well as foundational figures like Jack Owens and Jessie Mae Hemphill; what sets “Deep Blues” apart from other showcases is the setting (New Orleans and Mississippi), in which the blues is a well-loved part of the fabric of everyday life and not a museum piece or music-nerd fetish. Film Movement’s Blu-ray includes commentary by Mugge and a behind-the-scenes featurerette.
“Analog Love” (2021, Passion River Films) Affectionate documentary look at the mixtape that scores points by focusing less on culture and history than on the emotions evoked by creating one, especially to express your feelings for someone. Testimony to the joys of mixtapes from, among others, Henry Rollins, the late Kim Shattuck, Jennifer Finch (L7), and Money Mark illustrate the satisfaction with (and degree of obsession) over making tapes, though the sweetest element of director Robert V. Galluzzo’s film is its connective element involving a young girl making her first tape for her father. The argument for analog tape as a “better” format than digital or MP3 is (to me, at least) as much of a trainspotter’s exercise as the vinyl vs. CD debate, and while “Analog Love” offers evidence to both sides of the argument, it’s more engaging when it focuses on the feelings wrapped around mixtape manufacture: the fine-tuning and agonizing over song choices, the pleasures of connecting to another person via their love for certain songs. Passsion River’s Blu-ray includes extended interviews with Rollins and Finch, music videos, and a deleted scene.
“Women Composers” (2018, Film Movement) Noting that the music she performs has been predominately written by men, classical pianist/director Kyra Steckeweh sets out to compositions by female composers. Her research brings to light a quartet of talented women – Melaine/Mel Bonis and Lili Boulanger from France, and Germany’s Fanny Hensel and Emilie Mayer – who wrote numerous orchestral works, yet remain largely unknown outside of scholarly circles. Steckeweh and co-director Tim Van Beveren’s research and interviews with historians provide a wealth of details about the foursome, as well as the challenges they faced during the late 19th and early 20th centuries (in short: it was unseemly for women to exercise creativity), but the most stirring material comes in Steckeweh’s performance of their works (which she highlighted on two albums). Film Movement’s DVD includes a Q&A with the filmmakers and Steckeweh performing Bonis’s “Ophelie.”