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From Jump Rope to Jazz, the Docs Are In

One of the jump rope powerhouses of Stephanie Johnes' Doubletime

By Michelle Orange

I seem to have tapped into a documentary-rich vein three days into my Tribeca tunneling, and three of them have a distinctly New York angle. A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory , joins the ever-increasing canon of Warholia, but only tangentially; director Esther Robinson has attempted to eke out the story around the 1966 disappearance (and apparent suicide) of her uncle Danny, a one-time Factory denizen.

Robinson gets access to a host of Factory personalities, some of whom may be remembered from their last (albeit fictional) appearance in February’s Edie Sedgwick bio-hazard, Factory Girl. The problem is that no one seems to recall the young man from Massachusetts, further proof of the solipsistic, craven opportunism fueling Warhol’s so-called family. What people like Brigid Berlin recall in detail is the emotional politics raging within Warhol’s inner circle, and the disaffection that led most people to seek out entry. The jewel in Robinson’s documentary is a cache of previously unseen films shot by Williams, a budding filmmaker at the time, and editor of the first Maysles brothers film. Williams is shown to have a luminous, idiosyncratic eye, and in reeling through them, along with poking into her family’s omerta on the subject, Robinson crafts a fittingly oblique tribute to her uncle.

Another disappeared personality is the subject of The True Legend of Tony Vilar, first time director Giuseppe Gagliardi’s sweet, sometimes enervating, bizarro documentary about the vanishing of a young Calabrian crooner. Tony Vilar left Italy in 1952 for Argentina, where he wound up becoming a famous singer before suddenly falling into obscurity. Italian musician Peppe Voltarelli plays a distant cousin of Vilar’s who is determined to track him down. Beginning in Buenos Aires in 2005, Peppe, with his outré wardrobe and shady sideburns, fits right in with the colorful locals; Gagliardi combines a series of obviously staged happenstance with archival footage of Vilar to form a sort of emigration picaresque.

Peppe finds a vibrant Italian community in Argentina, and when his search takes him to New York City, he is surprised by the staunch Italians populating the Bronx, Brooklyn and New Jersey. Most of the scenes of Peppe interacting with the locals are played for laughs, and the rambling re-enactments begin to bleed into actual musical numbers, with Peppe extolling the strange benefits of this globally extended Italian family. The journey and the destination lose sight of each other early on, but the film’s winking look at Italian stereotypes and the proud heritage of third and fourth generation Italian Americans develops a stand-alone charm.

While male American singers like Ray Charles and Johnny Cash are regularly feted with hagiographic biopics, female legends of the same period seem to have make due with capable and comprehensive documentaries. Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer is a pocket treasure of O’Day performance footage spanning over 60 years, almost up until her death last November. Co-directors Ian McCrudden and Robbie Cavolina have assembled a retrospective of the lauded jazz singer’s career, skimming along with her private life, including two husbands, a stint in jail and a 15-year heroin habit, all of which she reflects on with a canny wit. A girl singer who liked to dress like one of the dudes, extended clips of O’Day’s early performances bring her remarkable improvisation skills and exquisite phrasing to the fore. Clearly a personality of force and fortitude (who outlives a long heroin detour?), O’Day is often noted as the only white woman whose name is uttered in the same breath as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. But killing at the Apollo was no big deal for Chicago’s “jezebel of jazz.” That’s the kind of broad I’d love to see get the silver screen treatment, but McCrudden and Cavolina’s tribute is better than fine for now.

Harlem’s Apollo theatre is also the site of the climactic heart of Doubletime, Stephanie Johnes’ rope-jumping documentary. Nicely shot and brimming with the all-American elbow grease ethic epitomized by the much-imitated Spellbound, Doubletime looks at the evolution of double dutch and rope skipping as competitive sports. The interesting dynamic here is that of the mostly white kids from North Carolina, who have been invited to the international competition held at the Apollo each year for the first time. Double dutch is said to have originated in Harlem, a street activity for kids (mostly young black girls) born of a lack of recreation centers in the impoverished inner city. The fact that white kids from the burbs are now getting in on it as well is a source of worry for said white kids, but as they discover upon hitting New York for the competition, the ability of the Japanese to co-opt American culture and then serve it back to us better than we can do it ourselves will overshadow them almost completely. Johnes does a nice job of building the competitive tension (there are some really neat skipping tricks out there), and weaves in the deeply felt motivations of the coaches and surprisingly positive side effects of what most of us know as a schoolyard pastime.

Sports seem to be the repository for myriad sublimations in both Sons of Sakhnin, United and Unstrung, films about an Arab-Israeli soccer team and the American junior tennis circuit, respectively. Bnei Sakhnin is the only soccer team for the minority population of Arabs living in Israel, and when they won Israel’s State Cup, it seemed to be a breakthrough for the residents of the small town, though when the team attempts to keep its premier league status, competing against strictly Jewish teams from Nazareth and Tel Aviv, tensions inevitably break through. Director Christopher Browne seems to find the obvious focal point in Arab team captain (and Israeli national team member Abbas Suan, who bears the brunt of impassioned locals on both sides, but the film strays from him and the narrative’s powerful throughline (the potential of sports to heal and divide) is diluted.

Unstrung is a fairly straightforward “championship” doc along the lines of Doubletime, where several competitors are followed on their way to big cook off. Here teenaged boys with hopes of tennis stardom (and equally, it seems, Nike contracts) tweak and thwack their way to Kalamazoo 2006, and tennis stars like Andre Agassi, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras and Andy Roddick pop up with their takes on the state of tennis today and the (very small) likelihood that any of these kids will turn pro. That seems to be born out by the late appearance of Sam Querrey, a laid back string bean who, unlike the boys we have seen, doesn’t seem to be under crushing pressure from his parents, and is now the only one of the bunch with a top 100 seeding.

Discuss these and other Tribeca titles at Spout:

A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory
The True Legend of Tony Vilar
Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer
Doubletime
Sons of Sakhnin, United
Unstrung

Posted at April 29, 2007 7:49 AM

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