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Documentaries dance to the beats of jazz, AfroReggae and organ music
By Thomas Crone - Photo courtesy of the Webster University Film Series
Posted On: 11/01/2005   


This month’s lineup of the 14th annual St. Louis International Film Festival brings together a diverse blend of narrative features, documentaries and quality shorts compiled by Cinema St. Louis’ executive director Chris Clark and his team.

And, as always, the SLIFF – held this year from Nov. 10 to 20 –
will have a few films with a decidedly musical bent. Clark, a savvy miner of pop culture gems, has found a few more interesting musical offerings this time out, including a handful of compelling documentaries.

The film that’ll certainly find the most receptive audience of that lot is “Stan Kann: The Happiest Man in World.” The title broadly hints at the fact that local legend Kann is a relentlessly upbeat individual, holding a long, admired career as the organist at the Fox Theatre, at a variety of long-gone St. Louis nightspots and at everything in between, from house gigs to restaurants to
roller rinks.

The Kann documentary is directed by an equally positive person, the gregarious Webster University Film Series boss Mike Steinberg. He doesn’t just stick to Kann’s life as one of America’s great silent-film accompanists – nor should he have in this breezy hour-long work. In fact, Kann’s major claim to national fame came during the 1960s and 1970s, when he was a staple guest of Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas and other talk show hosts; he was often booked on those programs to talk about his vast collection of vintage vacuum cleaners and other household gadgets.

Also a bit of a character actor and sketch comic, Kann moved to California for a good chunk of his life but returned to St. Louis five years ago and once again became a major draw at the Fox, where sellouts are likely whenever he performs. In fact, when “The Happiest Man in the World” debuted, it was at a full Fox Theatre, the documentary screened along with a performance by Kann.

Following Kann over time, Steinberg allows Kann to tell great stories about his own life while breathing life into the cultural changes that have affected St. Louis over the past five or six decades. It’s hard to imagine a more entertaining tour guide on that journey than Kann.

The Kann story is a worthwhile one to catch, especially for St. Louisans who may’ve missed the “golden” years of the Fox and those hundreds of Kann appearances on national television. Those who were already fans, meanwhile, will get a some fun inside looks, especially those from Kann’s basement where the man’s world-renowned vacuum collection sits at the ready.

A far different personal documentary is “Music Is My Life, Politics Is My Mistress,” a nearly two-hour glimpse into the life and times of jazz great Oscar Brown Jr. Not just looking at the man’s decades-long career as a composer, vocalist, poet, lyricist, dancer and television personality, director Donnie L. Betts’ film highlights Brown’s colorful history as a union organizer and political agitator. In fact, one of the most amusing segments of the documentary comes with Brown at the computer as he reviews a political Web site calling him an American traitor.

The film delves deeply into Brown’s civic work, particularly in the early part of his life and career, and sketches his impact on jazz. Always a presence in that world, Brown worked with most of the heavy-hitters of his generation while working on projects that had questionable commercial potential but lots of unquestioned heart.

Director Betts obviously casts a loving gaze upon Brown for the bulk of the film, but he does look at the thornier sides of Brown’s personality, especially in regard to his, shall we say, eclectic home life and liberal views of drug usage. The approach proves a fascinating one and includes lots of performance footage.

A wholly different character is profiled in “dErailRoaDed,” an 86-minute look at the troubled times of street vocalist Larry “Wild Man” Fischer. Embraced in the late ’60s by countercultural icons such as Frank Zappa, Fischer flirted with fame, though his album sales have steadily declined since. With each record, Fischer befriended and offended a new set of collaborators and backers, but his schizophrenia inevitably became too much for even his staunchest supporters.

This multileveled film by production team the uBin Twinz is an interesting piece, but Fischer’s stunningly overbearing personality is only overwhelmed by his screeching, off-kilter vocals; they’re an acquired taste at best. That he’s singing, pontificating and generally dominating the screen for much of the film means that this one’s a must-see for fans of “outsider” or cult art but few others. At moments, it’s powerful, but it also dips into uncomfortable, exploitative waters.

Last we note “Favela Rising,” a film dedicated to the Brazilian cultural movement AfroReggae and one of its compelling leaders, Anderson Sa. The film’s unflinching look at the poverty and ills of Brazil’s shantytown slums (or favelas) is offset by the producers’ clear belief in the AfroReggae cause. These positive themes are needed hints of light in a film that could fall into darkness. Throughout, though, the morphing, genre-blending music of the Brazilian streets come across to an oft-powerful effect. This is an affecting film.

For full details on show times, consult www.cinemastlouis.org.

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