There has been considerable griping among buyers again at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, with industry-types maintaining that there simply are not enough quality films to warrant the size of the festival’s program. In the case of the event’s doc programming, though, insiders and audiences alike seemed to connect with a number of films this year. Michael Moore was spotted at a raucous screening of “Jesus Camp” in the East Village the other day, while Woody Allen made it to a showing of “Toots” yesterday at the festival. The latter, a doc about the legendary New York restaurant owner Toots Shor, directed by his granddaughter Kristi Jacobson, has been a hit with audiences all week, as have a number of other docs, including hip hop doc, “Rock The Bells.”
A self-described “saloonkeeper,” Toots regularly welcomed notables like Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Gleason, gangster Frank Costello, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, and numerous everyday folks, to his bar and restaurant at 51 W. 51 St. And along the way he became a celebrity in his own right. The 50s were quite good to Toots. As writer Gay Talese explains in the film, it was a time when people lived, “shorter, happier lives. But they were happier.”
Jacobson, director of the 2002 Sundance doc “American Standoff,” talks with anchor Walter Cronkite, football star Frank Gifford, writer Nick Pileggi, newsman Mike Wallace and many others about her grandfather and the era, from the days of prohibition to the fabulous 50s and beyond. She screened selections from “Toots” (competing in the NY, NY doc competition this year) at the IFP Market back in 2004 and shortly thereafter began to expand her film to incorporate not only the story of her grandfather, but the story of New York City back in that era. “We use Toots’ story to tell the story of New York during this very exciting time,” she told indieWIRE today, adding that producers Alicia Sams, Whitney Dow and consulting producer Tom Brokaw were among the people who helped her shape the film.
“Having the perspective of Tom, Alicia, and Whitney to constantly re-focus and keep me on track to what they knew I wanted to accomplish was incredibly helpful.” She also singled out a final wave of editing help from Lewis Erskine, who also edited Stanley Nelson’s popular TFF doc, “Jonestown.” Continuing she explained that the IFP Market gave her “a bit push into realizing that this story really had a lot of potential to reach a lot of people.”
The film drew large crowds at the Tribeca Film Festival, audiences ranging from folks like Woody Allen, or those in the film like Mike Wallace and Frank Gifford (who participated in a Q & A last night), and a number of younger crowds who jammed Wednesday’s afternoon showing at 34th St. “It was surprising and really exciting,” Jacobson said of the diverse audiences who came out for screenings. “What I’ve learned is that this story transcends the time and place that it is about, ultimately it is a human story and it is a story of New York City.”
“Rock The Bells”
Another showman in his own right, who also brought together a group of accomplished men, is hip hop concert promoter Chang Weisberg, creator of the “Rock the Bells” rap festival.
Denis Henry Hennelly and Casey Suchan‘s doc of the same name closely follows Weisberg (an executive producer of the film) as he tries to reunite the nine-member Wu-Tang Clan for their first live performance in ten years, back in July of 2004. Rap fans familiar with the names RZA, GZA, ODB, Method Man, Ghostface, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, Masta Killa, U God, and Cappadona know exactly how the day turned out, but whether viewers are familiar with the outcome or not, “Bells” offers an insightful behind the scenes look at the event, just four months before Ol’ Dirty Bastard died.
“Anything with Dirty makes me nervous,” Chang Weiberg tells a colleague while trying to orchestrate the impossible, referring to the rappers notorious history of missing performances. As the event unfolds, a hyped reunion that has jammed more than 10,000 fans into the San Bernardino Orange Show Pavilion in Southern California shows every sign of going awry as attendees overwhelm security and storm the venue, only to wait more than an hour-and-a-half, in 115 degree heat, in between sets leading up to the anticipated Wu-Tang performance. Meanwhile backstage, ODB is nowhere to be found.
“The hip-hop culture is inherently a dramtic one,” director Hennelly said during a Q & A session following a screening earlier this week, “It was chaotic and crazy, but that’s what you want when you are trying to find a story.” But, asked how he planned for a film in which his lead act may or may not appear on stage, the filmmaker added, “Whether they do or they don’t it will be interesting, another outcome would have been a different movie.”
The filmmakers had twenty cameras on show day, each following Weisberg and key performers and planners. At times the movie seems like it might go the way of Altamont, site of the legendary Rolling Stones concert captured in Al Maysles and David Maysels doc, “Gimme Shelter.” Chatting with indieWIRE after the screening, co-director Suchan said that she studied a number of music docs when planning to make “Rock The Bells”, singling out “I am Trying to Break Your Heart” about Wilco, and the recent Metallica doc, “Some Kind of Monster.”