30 for 30: Elway to Marino (Film Review)

30 for 30: Elway to Marino (Film Review)

One thing that has been consistent with sports television over the past while is that ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series is always good. Almost regardless of the topic, they have come up with interesting stories, and turned them into full documentary films, all of which have proven to be interesting, and at times, incredibly well done.

30Another entry into the lexicon of the series is Elway to Marino, the story of the fabled 1983 NFL draft, that produced a crazily high number of legendary players, and featured six quarterbacks being taken. Three of those six would end up as legends, and in the Hall of Fame in Canton.

The story here really shows us as viewers the behind-the-scenes dealings during the draft. Elway had made it no secret that he didn’t want to play for the terrible Baltimore Colts, and their dodgy owner. Regardless, the Colts drafted Elway with the first overall pick, and the intrigue began.

It was really interesting to hear about all of the deals that had been proposed, and failed, during the first round picks. There were several teams that were interested in Elway, and several of them made some very serious offers. The intrigue comes from how many times he was almost traded, but different things got in the way: the owner nixed the deal, the league interfered, a star quarterback caved to pressure and resigned, the offers were confused, the offers were never quite enough. If Elway had ended up on any of the teams that had tried to get him, it would have reshaped the league for quite some time. Elway as a Raider? Or Charger? Or Bear? Or would Elway, the California golden boy, just pout his way out of the league and end up playing baseball for the New York Yankees? The backroom dealings provide some of the most interesting parts of the documentary.

With the other quarterbacks, there was also some cool stories. We always think of Jim Kelly being a hero in Buffalo, the place where he spent his entire career and led the Bills to four straight Super Bowl appearances. But hearing him discuss how crushed he was to be drafted by them created another layer to his story.

303As for Marino, one of the all-time great quarterbacks, who left behind him a list of league records upon his retirement, he experienced a tremendous fall during his senior year at Pitt. Having a poor season, he fell all the way to the Miami Dolphins, who were able to grab him near the end of the first round. Stories of potential (and never proven) drug use, as well as his poor season, scuttled Marino’s reputation, and left him as the last QB standing in the draft. Of course, mistakes were made, such as the NY Jets taking Ken O’Brien (out of a Division II school!) ahead of Marino. But it is such stories in which legends are made.

The documentary succeeds in revealing the stories that took place over the phone, and behind closed doors, drawing us into the amazing draft, and the fallout that followed it. Interviews with the people involved, some GMs, some owners, and the players themselves, does what 30 for 30 always does: lets us, the casual sports fan, behind-the-scenes of something amazing, just to see just how much more amazing it really was.

Elway to Marino is another winning documentary from ESPN, and for those who are fans of the series, it definitely is one not to miss.

Mile…Mile & a Half (Film Review)

Mile…Mile & a Half (Film Review)

This adventure documentary, which can be found on Netflix, is about a group of friends, artists, photographers, filmmakers, and sound technicians, who set out to hike the John Muir Trail (JMT) in California. The hike is over 200 miles, crosses snow and desert and mountain passes and rivers that are bigger than they might seem. It will take the group 25 days to cross the entire trail, and show us their adventures along the way. 

Mile…Mile & a Half works for two simple reasons: 1. the scenery is absolutely incredible. Having talented people on the hike means that there are beautiful panoramic views of waterfalls and mountains throughout the film. It is incredible to see the untouched nature that lies in California, a place we often imagine with only beaches, surf, and bustling cities. But there remains a massive part of the state that is open to those who want to see it, and the JMT is a great example of that. The second reason this film works so well is because of the people. They are fun, and enjoyable to watch throughout the film. These are not jacked-up adrenaline junkies, doing crazy things that normal people could never pull off doing. They are regular folks, who love the outdoors. This is not a life-testing hike, and despite a couple of dangerous spots, we know that they are going to come out alive on the other side. There is nothing terribly extreme about the JMT, just a ton of natural beauty, enjoyed by some pretty fun people, that by the end of the film, we totally wouldn’t mind meeting along the way on a hike. 

mile2Perhaps the best part of the documentary is the other people that the group encounters along the trail. They aren’t making a film selfishly, about themselves, and about overcoming the obstacles of nature. They are making a film about being in it, and loving it. And a part of that is the lives of the other people that they meet along the way. They give them screen time, and we get to know their stories as well. The teachers from Colorado who join up with their group. The young painters, who hike every day with heavy loads of canvas and paints on their backs so they can get some incredible views in the early morning light. The musicians, who they meet near the end of their journey. And the Japanese woman, who is doing the trail alone, but in the end realizes that she really wants to share in her success, and wants the camaraderie.

While the film is about nature, it is about people too. And that is what makes it such a fun watch. While they challenge themselves, they remain real people, and they like to have fun. They get goofy, give each other nicknames, make bets, and play games along the way. 

For those who love nature, and perhaps have never seen the incredible, pristine beauty that California has to offer, Mile…Mile & a Half is a worthy film for you to watch. 

Downloaded (Film Review)

Downloaded (Film Review)

Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker changed the world. There is no way to even argue that. With the development of their Napster software in the late 1990’s, they managed to change the way we listened to music, and in turn, they completely changed the music industry, the effects of which are still being felt today.

With the concept of peer-to-peer sharing, users were able to access the hard drives of all Napster users, and download music from them. For free. This allowed people to build up massive collections of mp3s that they would have never been able to afford had they been forced to go out and buy all of that music.

The advent of Napster also created a massive war in the music industry, as some were in favor of people being able to “share” music, while others were completely against it, as it was a form of stealing and piracy. Basically, at its core, Napster was copyright infringement.

down2Downloaded is a documentary that tells the story of Shawn and Sean, and their meteoric rise to the top of the music world. It is fascinating, how people with no training came up with an idea, then worked endlessly to get it to work, to the point where it had millions of users worldwide. The movie provides us with tons of interviews, both then and now, of the main players in Napster, and the controversy it sparked.

The interviews are insightful, and we get a complete picture of the story of Napster. From its beginnings, to the rise and height of its fame, to the massive fallout when it was shut down by the courts. There are legal ramifications, as well as financial ones, to the point where the music industry began suing thousands of users of the service, usually winning the cases, and collecting an average of $4,000 from users.

I liked that this documentary described what the guys were doing in detail. It doesn’t shy too much away from the technical aspects of it, allowing us to understand how Napster worked. It also uses a lot of archival footage from the time, especially the court battles, which adds more realism to the story telling. This not only allows us to hear people reflect on the impact of Napster, but to see the circus it had created at the time, and how it was, in fact, changing things.

It is also very interesting to learn a few things about the service, such as that the founders never made any money off of it. Creating something that millions of people use usually means somebody is getting rich, but in the case of Napster, it really was only the lawyers fighting for and against it that made any money. The post-Napster ventures of Shawn and Sean are also quite interesting. We know that Sean Parker made his millions from his involvement in Facebook (his involvement is chronicled by Justin Timberlake in The Social Network), and in the end, Fanning was able to make his money as well, in a video game venture. Agree or not with what the two did, and regardless of the validity of the service that Napster provided, it was an ingenious idea, and it was kind of satisfying to see these guys get their money, even if it was for something different. They are very good thinkers.

Downloaded provides a pretty good, unobscured view of Napster. They present both sides of the argument, and even Shawn and Sean are able to see both sides of the argument. They wanted a place where a network of people could share music, and learn about new music, and love new music. They had never planned on it being so massive, and the legal issues quickly caught up with them. It is up to us to decide if we believe that Napster was a good thing, since we got a free product, or a bad thing, because it was essentially stealing from musicians. There could have been more about the artists who openly spoke out against Napster, and those who fought tooth and nail against it. Metallica, Dr. Dre, and Trent Reznor, all have snippets in the film coming out against Napster, but no current interviews were conducted. They all appear in archival footage, which is great (specifically when Reznor is trashing Fred Durst for being an idiot), but it would have been really cool to see their reflections now on the Napster issue, if their views had changed, if they regret anything, and how it all changed because of it. These artists won the war, but they all surely faced fallout in what was perceived as actions against their own fans (I personally don’t believe what these artists did was wrong, they only wanted the credit for what was their hard work).

Now that CDs are pretty much dead, and we get the majority of our music from the Internet, at more legal places such as iTunes, the impact of Napster is plainly visible in our daily lives. Downloaded does a great job at telling the story fairly. By the end, we like the reflective nature of Fanning and Parker, having them realize what they truly had done, and how they overcame the obstacles of doing it in the first place.

As far as documentaries go, Downloaded is great at describing something that is not yet ancient history, but had a dramatic effect on the way the world works now when it comes to music and the Internet. very interesting, and very informative.

20 Feet From Stardom (Film Review)

20 Feet From Stardom (Film Review)

The best documentary of the past year, according to the Oscars, is 20 Feet From Stardom, the story of the men and women behind the greatest musical artists of our time: the backup singers.

Living in relative obscurity, these (primarily) women are the voices that we all know and love from our favorite records, but know nothing about them, and too often, never give them a second thought. The most poignant and true line of the film is when someone states that the backup singers are so important, to the point that when people hear their songs on the radio, it is the backing vocals they often sing along with, not the lead singer. And this couldn’t be more true. The backup singers sing the hooks, the parts of the song that we love and remember better than anything.

201In 20 Feet From Stardom, we are given the stories of some of the most famous singers of all time, if we only knew who they were. It is absolutely incredible to see and hear the lists of songs that these women sang on, and helped to make great. The film does an incredible job of letting us know how important they were to the great days of soul, R&B, and rock n’ roll music, and giving us their resumes of what they have accomplished over the years. It is also incredible to find out how only a small handful of people were the same ones on hit after hit, songs that we have sung along with on the radio for years.

These women were blessed with some incredible vocal talents, and the innate ability to listen to a song, and figure out what their parts should be, and how to harmonize perfectly along with them. This has created some incredible music, as many of our favorite songs would be nothing without the backing vocals. It is very interesting to see why their careers were as backing singers, and it is for a number of reasons. Some prefer to remain in the background. Some tried to have solo careers, but were victims of timing, or the industry, or bad contracts. Some couldn’t dedicate the time or ego to being a solo artist. The reasons are all over the place, and it is kind of sad to know that some of the greatest talents of our time were stuck singing “Oooh”s behind some of our favorite artists.

One of the more interesting tales is that of the famous Rolling Stones song, “Gimme Shelter.” One of their better songs, it is so inspired due to the wailing female voice that delivers some of the more poignant lines in the song. The story of how it came to be is amazing, and simply gaining an understanding of how important the female voice is to that song is what makes the storytelling in this film so memorable. It does its best to put a name and a face to the voices we all really do know.

As expected, 20 Feet From Stardom is chock full of great music. From Motown, to David Bowie, the Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, it is all there.

This film is an excellent view into the lives of the backup singers. The hardships and the successes, the moments of glory on stage and the great tales of the recording studio. It is very humanizing, and makes us want to hear more from these great vocalists. It does a great job of letting us see behind the scenes in to the music industry, and why none of these women really “made it,” as we would typically describe making it. From the start, it is very interesting, and the movie never really lags in its story. We go from the origins of the backup vocals around the time of Motown hits, to the golden age of rock and roll, where they were given more freedom and leeway. We get to see their reactions to suddenly going from being singers, to being sexualized on stage, to forgotten and replaced by emerging recording technologies. It is a sad story, but one that allows us to see the strength and glory of these women and their accomplishments.

For fans of documentaries, and of music in general, 20 Feet From Stardom is a must-see. You may never listen to your favorite songs the same way again.

Ride the Divide (Film Review)

Ride the Divide (Film Review)

Scrolling through Netflix, I came across a documentary that labeled itself as a scenic journey for riders trying to complete a grueling bike journey from Banff, Alberta, to the US-Mexican border, through the Rocky Mountains. I liked the sounds of it, so I gave it a watch.

Ride the Divide is about an annual race that takes riders across the Great Divide in North America, through one province and five states. While they are trying to win the race, they are more trying to simply complete it, something that very few riders have managed to do. The journey is 2,700 miles, and the majority of the riding is done alone, causing the race to be more than a physical journey, but a psychological one as well.

ride2The film itself is an interesting premise, but they miss the mark on many of the things that could have made it incredible, and encompassing of the epic journey these riders undertook.

While we hear a lot of the harrowing trails they needed to ride along, the constant threat and sightings of bears, we don’t get to see any of it. The camera team is only in one truck, and we catch up to riders now and then, seeing very little of them actually riding the challenging trails. The use of a GoPro is only used for a brief moment, and it is perhaps the highlight of the film. Instead of hearing about the stories of the ride, we crave actually seeing them ride, something that the documentary filmmakers severely lacked in the production of this film.

Occasionally we will hear call-ins from the riders, and they tell us about their day. But still, we don’t see anything about it. We hear about their falls, and their emotional and physical trauma that they are suffering through just to make it to the end of another day. But we don’t see it. And this is the greatest failing of Ride the Divide. We hear the stories being told, but there are very few visuals to go along with it.

There is some incredibly beautiful scenery to be seen in the film, as the Rocky Mountains provide some of the most breathtaking sights on earth. Typically, this is with a rider stopped, on the phone, or talking to the crew. Rarely is it us watching the rider gallantly plodding onwards in their quest to complete the race.

The race begins with about 15 riders, and by the end the number dwindles down to about five remaining, the ones that actually complete the race. Yet we know very little about any of them, right from the beginning of the film. So we are essentially following around strangers that we know nothing about, and only get the smallest glimpses into their actual lives. When someone else drops out of the race, the viewer will ask themselves, “Who?”, as we are unclear on who is who, which one of them was the one to drop out. This is another shortcoming of the film. There is a very human story here about perseverance and dedication to something, but the filmmakers again fall flat in telling the story.

I wanted to love Ride the Divide. The idea of the race is incredible, but since we are shown so little of it, it becomes difficult to understand how difficult the race is. Most of the footage we see is of the riders along flat areas. Seems easy enough, right?

This film suffered from a shortage of cameras, and probably a shortage of funding to get it done. There could have been so much more to be done here, to be told. These people are driven by something that the normal person doesn’t understand, yet we get nothing about these stories that would help pull us into the story. I wanted so much more.

Ride the Divide doesn’t really appeal to many groups. If you are a mountain bike enthusiast, there probably isn’t enough about the bikes or the terrain to keep you interested. If you are into the human aspect of the story, there is very little of that as well. If you want to see beautiful scenery, there is some of that, but you could find that with a quick Google image search and save yourself an hour-and-a-half.

While the idea for this kind of film is definitely there, the follow through for the film isn’t, and what we get instead is tepid story telling and not nearly enough footage of what we are told is an extremely challenging course. Overall, this film is pretty disappointing, and could have been so much more.