Posts Tagged ‘HBO Documentaries’

Six by Sondheim: More, Please—Documentary

December 15, 2013

Do you love Broadway musicals? Maybe you enjoy writing. Perhaps you just relish being around smart people. If you fall into any of these categories, “Six by Sondheim” should leap to the top of your viewing list.Six by Sondheim

This terrific new documentary from HBO Documentaries features extensive interviews with composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, as well as performances of his six of his songs. Directed by James Lapine, a collaborator on many Sondheim projects, with Autumn DeWilde and Todd Haynes as film segment directors, “Six by Sondheim” is itself a work of art.

Luckily for us Sondheim has given an endless number of interviews throughout the years with a variety of interviewers ranging from television host Mike Douglas to a young Diane Sawyer to Larry King and David Frost. Sondheim loves to talk about the craft of writing and what fascinating talk it is. He explains what makes a good song for him…how he works…how the rhythms of the song work with the actor. He provides information you probably never once thought about, but coming from him it’s like learning how  magic happens.  What makes this documentary so entertaining aside from the subject is how the interviews are put together. We see Sondheim discussing the same topics from decade to decade, interviews overlapping so seamlessly that it looks as if he is talking about “West Side Story” as a clean-shaven 25-year-old and then, in full-beard, continuing that same conversation 30 years later. The editing is simply masterful.

In a series of some very poignant interviews, Sondheim talks a great deal about his childhood and the influence of composer Oscar Hammerstein II in his life, both as father figure and mentor. He notes that it was Hammerstein who encouraged him to take the lyricist jobs that came his way early in his career as a way of getting his foot in the door and for the learning experience. And that is how the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy came to be. But in 1962, Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and never looked back. His days as a lyricist only were over

Although the HBO documentary provides a lot of Sondheim music, “Six by Sondheim” focuses on six songs which were written during different periods in his life: “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story; “Opening Doors” from Merrily We Roll Along; “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music; “I’m Still Here” from Follies; “Being Alive” from Company; and “Sunday”  from Sunday in the Park with George. Some songs are newly performed in full for the documentary such as “Clowns” by Audra McDonald and “I’m Still Here” by Jarvis Cocker. Others are clips from shows such as Sunday. We get a full-on new staging of “Opening Doors” performed by America Ferrara, Darren Criss and Jeremy Jordan, joined by Broadway veterans Jackie Hoffman and Laura Osnes with a cameo by Sondheim himself. We watch a very young Larry Kert belting out “Something’s Coming.” And what might be the most interesting performance shown is the documentary  film clip about the recording of the original Broadway cast album of Company with Dean Jones’ performance of “Being Alive.” Who knew this Disney star could sing like that?

At 83 Sondheim shows no signs of slowing down. He still has new projects. He still loves what he does and thankfully he still enjoys teaching and talking about his craft. “Six by Sondheim” reawakened my love for Sondheim music as well as the man.  I am more than ready to sign up for Sondheim University.

“Six by Sondheim” is available on HBO on Demand. Go to for more information.

4 nuggets out of 4

Gideon’s Army: Mounting a Righteous Charge—Movie/Television

June 25, 2013

You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have a right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.” How often have we heard these words on television and never given them a moment’s thought? Perhaps, like me, you believed, “Great…if I get into trouble and don’t have money for a lawyer, I’ll still be able to get one.”  As the sobering, but inspirational  documentary, “Gideon’s Army,” points out, if you are an indigent, you better hope that you run into trouble in DC and not in the South or other parts of the country, because not all public defender offices are created equally.Gideon's Army

“Gideon’s Army,” produced and directed by Dawn Porter, tells us that in 1963 the Supreme Court ruled in Gideon vs. Wainwright, that in felony cases people who could not afford a lawyer must be provided one.  As a result, public defender offices were created to defend poor people charged with serious crimes. Unfortunately, the conditions that many public defenders face on a daily basis have lessened the promise of that ruling. According to the film the DC culture expects the best from public defenders, whereas in other areas, the poor are just processed through the system.

Screened during the AFI Docs Film Festival, “Gideon’s Army” follows three public defenders practicing in three different offices in the South. Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander and June Hardwick represent most public defenders in that part of the country—practicing extremely long hours for very low pay.  The caseload for each is unbelievably high—as many as 180 clients at one time. Against this backdrop Gideon’s Promise, formerly known as the Southern Public Defender Training Center, was founded by Jonathan Rapping, to provide training and support for public defenders. We learn from Rapping and the other lawyers that every year hundreds of poor people are crammed through a justice system stretched to the max. In addition, many innocent people spend years in prison.

While the three featured lawyers and their respective clients each have compelling stories, I found Travis’ personal story to be the most gripping. Although he has a girlfriend, he seemingly has no life. He lives next door to his office. His office wall is filled with his acquittals. And the losses? The names are tattooed on his back, so that, in his words, “they are always with me.” Right now his back has five names. Because he does much of his own investigative work he believes that he “is more like Matlock than F. Lee Bailey.”  Even though Travis seems to take his life as a public defender in stride, an anticipated meeting with his biological father throws him for a loop and gives us better insight into what makes him tick.

We watch as just the emotional support of Gideon’s Promise can mean so much to lawyers dedicating their lives to represent the poor. As someone who has served on several DC juries, I have witnessed firsthand the terrific work of  public defenders. I assumed all jurisdictions provided the same remarkable service. I know now that my assumption was wrong. The hearts and commitments of the lawyers are equal, but the support from the jurisdictions is not. One can only hope that changes. By highlighting the work of Gideon’s Promise, “Gideon’s Army” is doing all it can to make change happen sooner, rather than later.

“Gideon’s Army” can be seen on HBO beginning July 1.

3 ½ nuggets out of 4

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