Foreword by Stan Lerner: before I embarked on the “Road To Nowhere” I left the trusty Alec Silverman to record for all of us the last half of the Downtown Los Angeles Film Festival. Upon my recent return to Los Angeles he proffered the following account.
Well, I got in on the tail-end at the periphery of the Downtown Film Festival Los Angeles, when Stan told me to go see Sarah Maxwell, who was taking care of Rock N’ Fish’s commitment to the festival as a sponsor… I’m glad to say I did. What I experienced was two screenings in The Grammy Museum theater. For the first time in its two-year history, the DFFLA had this venue for a series of music documentaries curated by a nice lady named Carolyn Shroeder. What would you expect to be good in the theater at The Grammy Museum? Sound, of course. The acoustically designed room with speakers everywhere would please an audiophile or any other sensitive listener. What I didn’t anticipate was the coziness. The spacious laminated wood and upholstered seats in the small theater are ultra-comfortable and pristine, but the real shocker is the room only seat’s 200. It’s sort of like the screening room at a major studio, where only the director, producers and a handful of executives preview their own film and decide if it’s finished.
There are two things I can report which are of potential importance to readers. The first is: legendary performers play live music in that little theater. Since they’ve opened, The Grammy Museum has presented a series of intimate evenings of conversation and interviews on their sound stage, followed by brief performances by famous musical artists. I’ve seen some top acts in small venues before, but never less than 500 seats. The theater has presented Smokey Robinson, Annie Lennox, Dionne Warwick, Terrence Blanchard, Mandy Moore, Herb Alpert, Allen Toussaint, The Boxmasters (featuring Billy Bob Thornton) and Dweezil Zappa, among others in this format. The roster of upcoming musical acts includes: George Benson ($35 on September 10th) and Ace Frehley, who will take audience questions and autograph CD’s, ($14.95 on September 14th).
Secondly, next year, I believe readers should keep an eye peeled for this too-low-key film festival. It has been, up until now, an unpretentious series of affordable (many were free) and worthwhile screenings in unique and charming venues that include after-parties with hosted food in nice restaurants. These eateries all seem to feature classy bars to boot. The attendees, of both the parties and the screenings ─ who include filmmakers, artists and collaborators of every stripe ─ make for scintillating company and create an unusual ephemeral culture. It seems predictable, as word gets out, that this quality of intimacy will disappear over the next few years. I know this is a real stretch, but it seems akin to the early days of Burning Man, if you know its history. I mean, it’s a small gathering of artists and their audience, relatively free of affectation, low levels of commerciality and somewhat experimental in its development of a temporary community (although completely urban).
There was interconnectivity between the six screening venues and the many restaurant sponsors who offered special pre-show dining, and provided quickly customized spaces and complimentary food for the after parties. Besides The Grammy Museum, there was another relatively small and pristine venue in the AT&T Center (500 seats), two classic downtown movie theaters (Los Angeles Theater and Downtown Independent), The Rowan Gallery (a staple of Art Walk) and a personal favorite, the massive outdoor screen at the Galleria at 7th and Fig. Among the free screenings there, was a double feature honoring Paul Newman: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Hud. Cloris Leachman, from the cast of the former film, spoke at the screening. According to eye-witness accounts the AT&T Center was amazing, from its basement luxury theater to its glass-penthouse bar and lounge, which featured short films. (Downtownsters will recall that this penthouse was the former Windows Restaurant, historically one of the supreme views of downtown from a space open to the public.) There was so much going on in terms of appearances by notable artists in the film industry and opportunities to hear them speak and respond to audience questions as well as events to honor “lifetime achievement”, how to live life in Los Angeles as a member of a sustainable, “green” community, how to make 3-D short films on the cheap, etc. The whole topography of the DFFLA was seven by ten blocks, from Main to Fig and from 3rd to 12th. If this festival hadn’t been so under the radar in terms of advertising and buzz, I would have caught a lot more of it. Seriously, if you knew there were all these free movies and great parties with interesting people, wouldn’t you go?
Anyway, it was my good fortune to see a film on both Thursday and Friday at The Grammy Museum and to socialize, however briefly, with the thoroughly charming Sarah Maxwell (Rock N’ Fish marketing director) and several people who were passionately involved in those events. There is little of any import I can tell readers about the films they missed as they are currently not being shown anywhere, but I can recommend them, briefly, as they are well worth seeking out to aficionados of the music these documentaries are about.
Thursday’s film was entitled Poncho at Montreux. Its subject is the incomparable Poncho Sanchez band at the eponymous jazz festival in Switzerland. Poncho, one of the few band leaders in jazz whose main instrument is conga drums, is mesmerizing. The three-piece wind section is great, with a flute player who is completely off the hook. He has that characteristically shrill penny whistle timbre associated with Afro-Cuban Jazz, but the cascades of remarkably rendered eighth and sixteenth notes, punctuated by a percussive attack, breathe incredible tension and vigor into the nine-piece ensemble’s sound.
But, it is the rhythm and time in this music that makes it so exciting. What is often called “groove” is treated with precision and reverence in Sanchez’s band. Every instrumentalist is in his place ─ right in-the-pocket through every phrase. The piano and guitar parts are punctuated in percussive, staccato style, growing organically out of the parental roots of the three-piece percussion section. This film has not yet been released, but I recommend catching Poncho Sanchez on YouTube, especially the “Baila Mi Gente (Live)” clip. Poncho spoke afterwards in a remarkably fluent manner, that is to say long, cogent narrative answers during the interview, completely free of pauses (“um, er, ah,” etc.), while keeping right at the heart of each question. The master conguero then performed a short set at the appropriately named Conga Room a few doors down.
Friday’s feature was called, Dirty: One Word Can Change the World. This film is a love letter of a documentary about Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the influential and enigmatic founding member of Wu Tang Clan, made by the late rapper’s brother Raison Allah. I cannot pose as a hip hop connoisseur, but I embraced this film and its subject. Comprised of a distillation of over 40 hours of video interviews with Wu Tang Clan members, family, friends and fans of Dirty (also known as ODB), and intercut with archival performance and interview footage, it is the portrait of a robustly-lived short life, way outside the box. The passion and inspiration his work still engenders to millions of fans is breathtaking. As a member of the audience, I felt like I was brought inside this cultural milieu in a more authentic way than in any other doc or docu-drama based on the lives of hip hop artists I’ve seen to date.
After the screening of this compelling film, a hip hop ensemble called Brooklyn Zoo performed two songs ─ live vocals to prerecorded music. Brooklyn Zoo consists of five emcees, a group in the Wu Tang Clan mold (WTC had nine). The members are led by the filmmaker and the rest are also related to Dirty. Their name is derived from a famous song by ODB and the songs they presented were both in his tribute. Afterwards, in the on-stage interview, each one in his turn testified to the importance of ODB’s work, stating with utter conviction things like: “The only reason we’re here is because of Dirty” and “You have to remember Dirty wasn’t just a rapper, he was a poet…he showed us how things really are…he gave us his wisdom…” Some rap lyricists write without regard to the commercial potential of their words. Brooklyn Zoo seems to be of their ilk.
The after-party at Rock N’ Fish was wonderful. All of the stools were removed to accommodate the standing-room-only revelers, waiters weaved through the crowd with hot appetizers and a buffet of less time sensitive hors d’oeuvres was set up in the back. Sarah Maxwell, who looked stunning with her thick blond hair pulled back and wearing a sleeveless ensemble with a black see-through jacket, bought my friend and me a drink. They were freshly squeezed limejuice Patron Margaritas, perfectly mixed. Erik Babajko, the manager, presided over the festivities with his usual gracious aplomb (I’ve seen Erik in action all four times I’ve been to the restaurant.) I met and congratulated Raison Allah and the other members of Brooklyn Zoo. At the bar I ran into Pablo Garces, who was in charge of security at The Grammy Museum on Thursday night. He was memorable because he went out of his way to assist me in arranging to have my friend’s ticket held at the box office, walking it over personally as my friend was late. I found out at Rock N’ Fish that Mr. Garces served in the U.S. Army for eight years, seeing combat as a tank driver in Kosovo. Thank you, Mr. Garces.
During the following week I ran into Ray Lee, owner of the Hygge Bakery, (who also was a sponsor) and he regaled me with an interesting DFFLA story; I also bumped into Rashid Bahati, one of DFFLA’s directors who curated two films on the African Diaspora and who was responsible for getting Poncho Sanchez to attend and perform. I felt a sense of gratitude and belonging to the community created by all the people who brought us the DFFLA.