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Review: Documentary ‘Hey Bartender’ Blends One Part Character Study, Two Parts Style

Review: Documentary 'Hey Bartender' Blends One Part Character Study, Two Parts Style

BOOZE! It may not be quite as good a come-on as SEX! but
there’s also a double shot of sexiness in “Hey Bartender,” which despite its
shot-and-beer title is about the fine art of mixology, a.k.a. the alchemical
mixing of alcoholic beverages (with names like Weep No More, the Minnehaha and
the always fashionable Bronx, which is, FYI, a perfect martini with orange

Is liquor cinematic? Hell, it can make anything cinematic, including
the floor of your car, but writer/director Douglas Tirola aims considerably
higher than that in a doc that blends one part character study, two parts high
style, and a dash of history about the American cocktail.

The tragedy of
Prohibition, we learn through Tirola’s film, is what caused a rather lofty
pursuit to become a déclassé occupation, but that, of course, has changed. One
of Tirola’s human assets is Dale DeGroff, a.k.a “King Cocktail,” a near-mythic
figure among cocktailers who worked most famously at New York’s Rainbow Room,
but who really got his start at LA’s Hotel Bel-Air. His rendering of a Whiskey
Smash — DeGroff, like a number of first-class mixologists, is shown making a
complicated cocktail in tantalizing slo-mo — is poetry in motion. Or potion.

Because of the
history involved in the major-league-level cocktail mixing — the drinks and
techniques themselves often have a kind of Gilded-Age air about them — there’s
a lot of fashion in “Hey Bartender.” What’s probably good is that Tirola shows the
other side of the bar biz — Steve Carpentieri, who owns a joint in Westport,
Conn., called Dunville’s, is struggling: Drinking is down, drunk-driving
penalties are up, and his kind of local watering hole is an endangered species
(there’s a great scene of Carpentieri quashing a bar-fight-to-be and imposing
tough love on a couple of unruly regulars). So he starts exploring the idea of
transforming his place into a more cocktail-oriented establishment, which of course
enables Tirola (and us) to tag along.

In addition to
DeGroff, “Hey Bartender” features such bar stars and their as Jim Meehan of
PDT, Julie Reiner of the Clover Club and Flatiron Lounge,  Dushan Zaric of the award-winning Employees
Only and Sasha Petraske of Milk & Honey — all in New York, although the
film does wander far and wide. (Heywood Gould, who wrote “Cocktail” is here; so
is Frank Pellegrino, recognizable from “Goodfellas” and “The Sopranos” and who
happens to be a co-owner of the legendary East Harlem restaurant Rao’s). Tirola
gets a bit bogged down in the up-close-and personal stories of a couple of his
characters, but mostly they’re all charming and accessible. They have to be.
Look what they do for a living.

“Hey Bartender” has an iTunes and VOD release, as well as a limited theatrical release, on June 7. Check out PopChart Labs’ “Cocktail Chart of Film and Literature” here.

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