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Spike Lee: Bad 25 (2012)

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In celebration of the 25th anniversary of Michael Jackson's album Bad, and as a sudden memorial service, Spike Lee directs a behind-the-scenes look at the crafting of Bad and how it reflected the singer's growing insecurity of living in public.

Concealing myselfWe've completed a lot of projects together at this point, and we're almost caught up with Spike Lee. Looking over the dozens of movies we've written about, how often can either of us say we've been having fun? I mean it both in the sense of writing about these movies, or watching them. Maybe the Akira Kurosawa Yojimbo / Sanjuro movies, or early in Spike's career with School Daze. But overall our writings have been instructive, sometimes illuminating, always fulfilling, but very rarely fun.

Bad 25 is something of a welcome and much appreciated break in this regard. Yes, there's still Spike's exhaustive approach to documentary film making. He gets a plethora of interview subjects to come and discuss topics ranging from Michael Jackson's note-specific octave skills to the sheer mania surrounding his tremendous popularity. But there's also just a sense of fun and creation since we're watching a man at the height of his creative powers making tunes which he honestly hoped were going to change the world.

It's an experience where I am happy to examine it for what it is, and not what I wish it could have been. Spike uses considerable restraint in avoiding the more complicated aspects of Jackson's life, and I suppose how you feel about this decision will vary depending on how much weight you give the allegations. I never believed he abused or molested anyone, but he was basically a unicorn in pop music, too beautiful and pure to stay unsullied for long. Keeping that in mind, I like that Spike didn't feed into the tabloid longing for more weird stories, and divorced from the sheer volume of their production when Jackson was alive it's easier to see some of them for the racist attacks they were.

We've been on something of a break from Spike these last few weeks, and there are issues raised in Bad 25 which fit the rest of his career well, but this is still a slight, if glowing, film. How did you feel coming back into the world of Spike and the music of Jackson?The handshake“Slight” is probably most in line with what I felt. I've never been a huge fan of Michael Jackson, and the moments in Bad 25 that skimmed the surface of his mass appeal—and hinted at not only how significant a figure he was to fans at the time, but also why—were the most interesting. This is a movie that makes me want to understand more about the deeper fan psychology and social factors of Jackson's success.

Lee and most of his interview subjects are coming from a point where Jackson's genius as a pop megastar is never questioned, and their conversations have the bittersweet joy of a group of friends reminiscing over someone they lost. The depth of feeling is there, and is mostly what Lee seems concerned with—even if Jackson the person is often still playing second string to Jackson the musician. This isn't always the case, of course, and some of the strongest moments involve stories that peek past the commonly accepted persona: a friend recalls one night in a hotel where, the TV playing footage of his legion of fans, Jackson turned and declared “I love this.” Another tells about a time Michael answered the phone in his “normal voice,” before speculating about the various ways Jackson tried to remain a perpetual child.

These scenes show an interesting and personal look at what seemed to be two competing impulses that led to the formation of Jackson's pop persona: the embrace of (and maybe fear of losing) childlike innocence and wonder, and the genuine joy he got from making his fans happy. This is such a different, and refreshing, look at celebrity—one in which the constructed public persona is at the service of a deeper need to entertain and satisfy others (and not simply masking the more cynical, self-serving celebrity cliché we're used to seeing). I wish we got more of it—and maybe Spike isn't interested in exploring these deeper aspects of Jackson's persona too much further because they'd demystify the musical legend—but as it stands these sequences stand out in an otherwise equally joyful documentary.


Spike Lee: Red Hook Summer (2012)

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Flik is annoyed he has to spend the summer with his grandfather, Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse, in Red Hook.  But Flik is about to learn some lessons about what lies a virtuous exterior can hide, and how the best of people may not be enough to overcome the past.  Spike Lee directs from a script cowritten by James McBride and stars Clarke Peters and Jules Brown.

Harsh truthRed Hook Summer is going to be an odd film to talk about, at least for me, because a plot development in the third act shifts the focus of the narrative is such a jarring and irreversible way that a lot of what I would have chosen to talk about becomes a distraction. I'll try to do that anyway here, but I'm curious both what you think the role of that late narrative twist is, as well as how it impacts the rest of the movie.

In the initial scenes here we get a kind of updating of Crooklyn with notes of some of Spike Lee's other “neighborhood films.” There's a sense of nostalgia, but not necessarily located in the central character of Flik—who functions as a reverse of many of Spike's typical New Yorkers, coming to the Red Hook housing project from Atlanta, wielding an iPad and toting his own vegan food for the summer. This is telegraphed as a coming-of-age tale in which Flik will reconnect with roots he didn't know he had in the form of his grandfather, Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse of the Lil' Piece of Heaven Baptist Church.

Two notes: First, we saw the Lil' Piece of Heaven church for a few brief moments in Da Sweet Blood of Jesus—hooray for intertextuality. Second, it's interesting that Flik does form an attachment to Red Hook, but that ultimately his grandfather isn't the reason. We learn that he moved to New York late in his life, and the city ends up functioning more as an incidental site of Flik's first childhood romance as opposed to a kind of essential site of cultural connection the way it so often does in Spike's films.

That said, the first act of Red Hook Summer is some of the strongest film-making Spike's exhibited lately when it comes to painting a diverse, colorful picture of a neighborhood vibrating with life. From the moment of Flik's arrival we get a handful of long tracking shots that follow him and Bishop Enoch through Red Hook, and in addition to instantly evoking a community with deep ties and history, these sequences serve to establish the latter's role. Bishop Enoch commands admiration and familiarity from everyone he encounters, from a sort of teasing mutual respect with a Jehovah's Witness also gently proselytizing outside each day to a local drug dealer who, despite threatening violence almost immediately, seems to have some residual regard for the man from his own childhood.

There is more raw life and passion in the opening acts of Red Hook Summer than we've seen from Spike since Summer of Sam, and yet that plot development that comes to define much of the film doesn't sit quite right with me. I appreciate what Spike's trying to do and how it comes to redefine many of the scenes leading up to it—and Bishop Enoch's increasingly oppressive zealotry and condemnation of Flik's lifestyle telegraphs much of this well—but the way Lee handles the revelation and its aftermath seems surprisingly unfocused. It shifts our attention away from a character who at that point needs all eyes firmly on him. I realize I've written far more than I meant to in starting out—what did you make of this one a second time around?‏Spreading the wordMy second time around left me with greater appreciation, and apprehension, about Red Hook Summer (first review here).  The vibration of neighborhood life, especially one in the midst of such decay as the Red Hook projects are, is what keeps Spike's return community narratives wonderful for long stretches.  Watching Red Hook Summer again I was struck by how vibrant the colors of each of the characters are.  We have the deep reds of the neighborhood drug dealers, purples of Flik's mother and Bishop Enoch's preaching garment, and the crisp whites of the church parishioners - save one curiously silent man in the back who is in a light pink suit.  Spike makes Red Hook Summer look like two different ideas of a film from a pre-adolescents perspective by presenting all the neighborhood players in such vivid color, like a kid introduced to oil paintings for the first time, and the shaky framing and grainy digital look from Flik's iPad.

The intertextuality of Red Hook Summer with the rest of Spike's filmography is impressive as well, because Spike's been doing this for over two decades and keeps giving us subtle clues about the life of the neighborhood.  This is where focusing on the church, and the vibrancy of color, brings new evolution to his community films.  All vacillate around the church and it's important to note that of all the characters in Red Hook Summer only two are white - one of the cops and Jesus.  The cops are still pursuing the poor for the wrong reasons and turning a blind eye to Bishop Enoch's past, much like the church continues to shuttle Bishop Enoch around whenever his past sins catch up with him.  The vibrancy of community life is in the stories each of the people tell one another, which is why those colorful scenes of the players interacting are the best, not in the institutions they worship or work for.

Bringing these ideas ahead, maybe this is how we can work with the late-film molestation twist.  The always fantastic Colman Domingo and Clarke Peters give powerhouse performances when the truth is revealed, and Spike finds the perfect note of style to end on as the Bishop looks up toward Heaven with crosses burned into his eyes as he preaches almost incoherently for reason.  I agree with you that it's jarring, but not because of the sudden reveal or most of the execution, rather because of one crucial style shift during Bishop Enoch's confession.  The grainy digital stock of Flik's iPad is capturing the historical truth, not the colorful emotional one, and that was the perfect choice to film the Bishop as he dances around what he did.  But switching back to the colorful and crisp style for the act itself is hitting emotional truth, but also the historical truth, and ends up feeling like it's making light of what the Bishop did.  If Spike had kept the grainy digital look while incorporating the vibrant color then the revelation would have stuck out a bit less and incorporated both thematic styles.  Instead, it comes across as a cartoon about molestation, and we end up back at that territory where Spike is really trying to shed a light on corrupt institutions but ends up using trauma in a disempowering way.‏


If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise (2010)

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Returning to New Orleans years after the levees broke, Spike Lee revisits familiar faces and introduces new facts as he focuses on the reconstruction efforts in If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise.

Still not helping usIt's not unusual for an artist to pick back up with their creations and see where they would be in their lives.  Directors do this too, usually to diminishing results.  I think of Godfather 3, a gorgeous if not altogether worthy sequel to the previous two installments, or of The Barbarian Invasions, which shared the structure and characters of The Decline of the American Empire if not necessarily the same spirit.  Rarely do the follow-up efforts match the originals, even Prometheus, which I feel is just as worth as Alien, will inspire intense debate on whether it is or isn't worthy.

Spike Lee's follow-up to When the Levees Broke, If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise, is not only a worthy follow-up, I think it was absolutely essential.  I wish he would be able to return to New Orleans every few years and catch up with the people he focused on in the first film, because the two movies combined have become an essential sociological and economic document of the United States.  More history is introduced which is crucial to understanding how the resident's of New Orleans were in the prime position to get screwed, and this history goes right back to the darker consequences of the progressive legislation of F.D.R.'s New Deal.  Spike even goes right up to criticizing Obama's cautious approach to domestic issues where race is a factor, with many of the talking heads discussing how his efforts and statements were certainly appreciated, but need to be stronger.

Now five years after and it's disappointingly clear Obama will not present that strength, and in this was If God Is Willing continues along the path of When the Levees Broke in how thoroughly the system fails its lower class people.  Part of what's so impressive as a follow-up is the way Spike continues to keep his approach balanced so they aren't "seen as whining".  I think of an ironic juxtaposition between the drum solo which sounded the arrival of a helpful General in When the Levees Broke being reused for the cowardly "I just want my life back" CEO of Tony Hayward.  I also like the symmetry of the celebration of life after the Saints won the Superbowl with their marches in this film and the citizens walking down the dead neighborhoods in the last.

Much like When the Levees Broke, I don't know if we'll be able to really scratch at everything If God Is Willing has to offer, but let's give it our level-best shot.‏


Spike Lee: Kobe Doin’ Work (2009)

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Kobe Bryant, partnering with Spike Lee, let cameras on the floor and in the gym to capture a day of leadership and basketball.  This is Kobe Doin' Work.

Planning the attackI'm not a big sports fan, so Kobe Doin' Work didn't hold any immediate appeal for me. I'd be curious to hear what someone who is really into basketball thinks, because what I found to be the most interesting parts are probably pretty obvious and self-evident to someone who knows how the game works at a professional level. This isn't really a documentary about Kobe Bryant so much as what it means to be a leading player on a professional basketball team—and not “what it means” in a sappy how-can-we-use-this-athlete-to-evoke-personal-myths-of-success sort of way (the way sports is typically made to function), but literally what that work looks like before, during, and after games.

That was pretty interesting to me—to see the type of constant strategy and communication that goes into this level of play.  Spike Lee gets dialogue and sound between the player on-court while the game is going, and this works to demystify the way sports (and great players) are often presented as just possessing great intuitive abilities. The point is obviously to show Bryant as not just a player of enormous talent, but also as a leader and decision maker on the court having just as much say and influence as coach Phil Jackson.

There are some other mildly interesting things going on here formally, but this is primarily Spike's attempt to deconstruct what makes a basketball player one of “the greats.” While his approach is an effective one, I'm always going to be a biased audience here. It's engaging for a time to learn what really goes into playing a game at a professional level, but more engaging would be a look at how those expectations of greatness form and translate off the court. We see a few representations of Bryant as a cultural and media symbol—and one quick scene of him seeing himself in that way on a TV broadcast before the game—but Spike isn't interested in following that idea any further. (And doing so would necessarily complicate the image of Bryant as simply “one of the most driven, passionate athletes playing today.”) On one hand, I can't fault Spike for not wanting to make a totally different movie, but on the other, the movie he chose to make tops out at a lower level.‏


Spike Lee: Passing Strange (2009)

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A young man journeys forward from the small church where he first tried pot in the youth group, to drug-fueled adventures in Europe.  All the while he hopes he can capture some bit of "the real," and become satisfied with his life.  Spike Lee directs Passing Strange written as a stage musical by Stew with musical contributions by Heidi Rodewald.

What's inside is just a liePassing Strange is the movie Spike Lee's been building his whole artistic career toward.  That's a brash statement, especially since we're talking about a legacy which includes Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Crooklyn, A Huey P. Newton Story, and When the Levees Broke.  But there's a crackle of energy and delight from the first frame on in Passing Strange which results from a spectacular alchemy which arose from Spike's collaboration with Stew.

Spike's love of musicals is well documented and he's incorporated many of their tropes from the delightful color sequence in She's Gotta Have It to the parades of When the Levees Broke.  But Passing Strange allowed Spike the rare opportunity to just direct since the show was well into production and had been mostly perfected by the time Spike saw the show and approached Stew with making Passing Strange into a film.  What resulted is unlike anything else we've seen from Spike, and could be considered a documentary as much as it is a concert film, as it documents the strong relationship between the crowd, Stew, and the songs.

To tip my hand early, I love everything about Passing Strange.  The first time I saw it I immediately flipped the DVD back to the first chapter and watched it again.  Then I watched it again.  And again.  I've, to date, refused to buy Passing Strange because I love renting it.  The action helps make each act of rewatching Passing Strange feel like an event, like I'm buying another ticket for a show I never want to be over.  One day I finally realized the old cliché about a lot of musical theater folks having an almost unhealthy love of Rent is how I feel about Passing Strange.  The songs are top-down perfect, and what I thought were middling numbers like "We Just Had Sex" took on new life when I realized they were still about Youth ultimately meaningless quest to forge an identity against other people.  But since Spike is free to do what he does best he uses the camera in a way which restages the relationship between Stew and the crowd into something almost confrontational, as there are moments he forgets the crowd in his self-disgust and turns solely to the camera.

As a mild confession, I kind of wanted to focus on Spike's films as a project so I would have an excuse to gush about Passing Strange for the site.  So, and I hope you don't break my heart here, how'd you like it?‏