Springsteen Up Close and Personal

HBO knows how to ‘do’ their music documentaries. Earlier this year, they gave us the packed story of Kurt Cobain in ‘Montage of Heck’, which included every kind of footage you can think of, from private home videos to animated sequences. ‘The Ties That Bind’ couldn’t be more different, if not a total opposite. The outcome is the same, though. A very interesting dissection of important music history; the making of the double LP ‘The River’ by Bruce Springsteen.


Own Personal Documentary Man
Bruce and his guitar. When has that ever not been enough? Precisely what director Thom Zimny must’ve thought. No one better to make that call, too, given Zimny’s track record. He’s Springsteen’s own personal documentary man. ‘The Ties That Bind’ surely isn’t his first step into Boss Territory. He’s pieced together the making of ‘Born to Run’, ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’, a few more Springsteen related features and I’m sure this reconstruction of the ‘The River’ sessions won’t be his last; there are many more classic albums to sink his teeth into.

Getting It Right
Sitting in his backyard, sitting indoors, there’s always a guitar in Bruce’s hand. He explains what it was like, almost 4 decades ago. An extensive recording process it was. It sounds like musicians back then were allowed lots of time to ‘get it right’. I wonder, but I’m assuming that’s no longer the case in this age. Could it be because of the time restraints and the huge influence of just a couple of producers, that makes today’s music all sound so similar? As Bruce describes, they used to produce their records all by themselves. They didn’t know what they were doing; they learnt as they went along. There was just one goal: getting it right. When would one reach that? No one knew. You’d just have to feel it, and in the case of ‘The River’, the band didn’t feel it for a long time.

They tried different things, wanting to capture the energy of their live performances. And Bruce was writing a lot. So much, in fact, that a double album wasn’t even enough. He had to kill darlings due to balancing out the record. One of my favorite Springsteen songs, ‘Loose Ends’, was cut, but was eventually released on the 1998 collection ‘Tracks’.

‘The Ties That Bind’ – named after the opening track – shows less is more. Bruce, looking better than ever – how’s that possible at 66? – shares his thought process, not just about the production itself, but also about where he was coming from and was headed. He’d turned 30; a crucial age. It’s when you realize you’re operating in the grownup world. You’re no longer an observer. ’The River’ would be an album about Bruce’s roots, politics and about figuring out how to get his message across. He discovered sometimes it’s easier to sing something in the third person. It allowed him to be autobiographical, funny and a storyteller at the same time.

No Nonsense
It’s very refreshing to see one of the biggest rock stars since rock music recall what it was like to create one of the biggest rock records. Plainly, straight and nuanced. What it does is reinforce his image even more as the working man’s singing man of the people. You can’t get any more no nonsense than this.
The documentary is just one part of the celebration. Next week, the 35th anniversary of ‘The River’ will be on sale. ‘The Ties That Bind: The River Collection’ will feature everything ‘previously unreleased’ from this classic record.

Back to the Documentary

It’s been Back to the Future Week this week, with the space-time continuum finally catching up to the future of Back to the Future II, on October 21, 2015. The trilogy became a huge hit yet again, on the first film’s 30th anniversary. Toyota brought Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd back together in a diner, and the real Marty McFly and Doc Brown party crashed Jimmy Kimmel Live. For anyone who can’t get enough: I recommend the newest nostalgia documentary, Back in Time.


During the eighties, Robert Zemeckis knew serious predictions would almost certainly miss the mark by a landslide, so he decided to make the future of Marty McFly, above all else, fun. And got a lot of things right, as it turns out. Fingerprint technology, drones, and even hoverboards are theoretically possible. The question is whether they’re ever going to be mass-produced. The only thing that hasn’t been invented yet is the most important of all: time travel, obviously.

Drawer Time
The documentary Back in Time focuses not so much on 2015 (neither the real nor made up one), but mostly the first movie and how it all came about. In fact, it almost didn’t. Studios were reluctant to touch it. Most of all Disney, whose suits were appalled by that time travel (something audiences weren’t interested in, as was the common consensus) script about incest. So it disappeared into a drawer, until Zemeckis and the people who wrote and/or loved it had made a name for themselves in Hollywood and dusted it off.

Eric Stoltz
They wanted Michael J. Fox, but Family Ties didn’t want to let him go, even for a short while. So they cast Eric Stoltz. After a few weeks of shooting, against better judgment but with a deadline of the studio breathing down his neck, Zemeckis made the tough call to fire him. They weren’t getting the laughs. It just wasn’t working.
For about six weeks, Stoltz had been playing Marty, but my guess is Zemeckis was mostly busy softening up the people over at Family Ties during that time, because young and coming Michael J. Fox wasn’t on top of his list, he was the list. And then he got the go-ahead. Fox would still be obligated to do his sitcom during business hours, but was allowed to do the movie in his spare time. In other words, for a number of weeks he was acting around the clock.

Nightmare McFly
We all know the story, but the Stoltz footage still hasn’t been released. That wouldn’t just be the absolute ‘definitive’ DVD/Bluray collection, it would also be very confusing. Like a deja vu gone horribly wrong. Nightmare-ish. In Back in Time, there are a few new bread crumbs. We see Stoltz in action, but we don’t hear him speak. The images seem to be recorded from a deteriorating VHS tape as well, but it sure is better than nothing. Someday, his take on the McFly saga will be for the whole world to see, but I guess that’s something for the 40- or 50-year old anniversary of Back to the Future. There always has to be something left to milk.

Flux Capacitors
The documentary takes a lot of side steps, too. The movies are so rich – especially the first two – that it’d take twice the length of the Lord of the Rings trilogy to address everything, have everybody reflect on every single detail. It definitely would be worth it, though, but I understand the time limits of movies and documentaries in particular. Back in Time has most key players (no Crispin Glover, Mary Steenburgen, Thomas F. Wilson or Elisabeth Shue, though, but o my, does anybody really care when you’ve got Claudia Wells, who still looks amazing), but it’s as much about the movies themselves as it is about the influence they’ve had on popular culture. There are many people driving DeLoreans, for instance. Including flux capacitors. There’s a park, modelled after the set of Hill Valley, where people reenact famous scenes. There’s even a tribute band. And exclusive Back to the Future midget golf tournaments. And much, much more lunacy, but as Michael J. Fox put it, good lunacy.

The Yes Men in an Existential Stunt Crisis

They’re the nails in the coffins of ‘corporate greed’, politicians, big oil and climate change deniers. They’re back with their third movie The Yes Men are Revolting, in which they hit a psychological wall; after everything they’ve done, has their work had any effect at all?


The movie – documentary, actually – starts off straight away with a Yes Men stunt, involving their infamous SurvivaBalls. For anyone new to the program, it’s a little getting used to, to say the least. Who are these guys? What are the doing? Where are they coming from? What are they trying to achieve? And what in the name of good taste is the deal with these people in big, brown-greyish ball-suits?

Like most of the Yes Men’s ludic actions, it’s over when it’s over. They’re either exposed or they call it a day on their own accord. The Yes Men don’t do epilogues.
So who are these mysterious Yes Men? Well, firstly they’re not quite that mysterious. It’s just two guys, Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos, who like to cause a little bit of anarchistic rebellion, to get their message across. That message often has something to do with corporate entities and all the bad things they represent; making money ruthlessly, without any consideration for ordinary people and/or the environment.

So should you watch their previous work – The Yes Men and The Yes Men Fix the World – before Revolt? No. Would it be helpful? Yes. ‘The Yes Men’ is an ongoing story, with the friendship between Servin and Vamos that holds everything together. In their third documentary, there are more cracks in that friendship than ever before, which makes the movie their most personal yet.

Polar Bear
It seems their activistic stunts are still the main course, but they do get a bit repetitive. Servin tries to pull off another case of identity theft, but we’ve seen him do better – and funnier. The team slips into a slight rut, especially when Vamos moves away to the other end of the Earth, or so it feels (Scotland). Their plan to go sailing through the canals of Amsterdam, with a hidden(!) fake polar bear, proves something’s not right.

Existential Stunt Crisis
While Vamos is off making another baby, Servin sinks into an existential stunt crisis. He starts to question whether what they do makes a difference or not. They’ve raised awareness, maybe put a few things on the agenda, but it all doesn’t feel like an accomplishment. Nothing seems to have fundamentally changed and that’s what they’ve been going for; fundamental change. The craziest idea they came up with – to show the ridiculousness of the corporate world – was met with genuine interest. What should’ve been a mirror for the money hungry men in suits, turned out to be a clever investment opportunity; the SurvivaBalls.

An Isolated Cell
As Servin’s looking for a way out of his depressing reasoning – also fuelled by his boyfriend who broke up with him -, something happens. Suddenly, the majority of people who’ve had enough organise in protest: Occupy is filling the streets of New York.
Servin blooms. These are his people. He realises The Yes Men is just a small, isolated cell inside a bigger movement of people who want to make the world a better place. He’s got his energy back, together with his motivation. More good news: Vamos and his family return to the States. The Yes Men isn’t over; they’ve only just begun.

A Closer Look
The Yes Men are Revolting is not just fun and games, but presents a closer look into the machinations of an artistic friendship, amidst the rumblings of the ‘silent majority’. Don’t be distracted by the stunts; it’s not about wearing silly wigs, impersonating spokespersons, making a room full of company people sing and dance anymore. Something tells me their fourth film is going to be more serious, more emotional and better than all that came before.

Montage of Heck, Anime and Home Videos

HBO has completely raised the bar when it comes to music documentaries and documentaries in general, with Montage of Heck, the story of rock n’ roll icon Kurt Cobain.


R-rated Pixar Short
Seen through the eyes of animators – a sort of R-rated Pixar short, woven through it – and gritty amateur footage; the home videos of Cobain and Courtney Love, the documentary depicts a detailed reconstruction of who this legendary musician was.
From his time post-Nevermind, there’s quite a lot filmmaker Brett Morgen could’ve used, but he’s chosen a lot of new material (animation), previously unreleased private footage (home videos, behind the scenes), and testimonials from all the key players in his life. That makes you experience Montage of Heck like a story you know but have never seen before.

Key Players
For the first time, everybody who was anybody during Cobain’s life is being interviewed. His mother, father, stepmother, girlfriend, sister, Krist Novoselic and Courtney Love. They’ve all been groomed exceptionally well. There were no expenses spared on professional makeup artists for their testimonials. The odd one out is Dave Grohl, who apparently has been interviewed as well, but for some reason didn’t make the cut – and as far as documentaries go, that cut is pretty extensive: Montage of Heck runs for over 2 hours.

Dark Turn
Morgen goes about Cobain’s life chronologically, which provides a happy beginning. As a child, Kurt’s an adorable young man, feeding cookies to stone turtles in the garden. However, 15 minutes in, it all takes a dark turn. He goes from cheerful boy to brooding, angry youngster with thoughts of suicide, almost overnight. Is it his parents’ divorce? School? Humiliation? Puberty? All of the above? One thing is clear: he’d like to kill himself, but not before he’s gotten laid.

Tough Pill
From there on out, it gets more depressing every minute. Cobain’s heading downhill from the get-go. You could say his success with Nirvana was a high point, but you could just easily argue it was the deepest hole he could’ve dug for himself to fall into. His mother knew. Kurt played her Nevermind and she said: ‘You’d better buckle up, because you’re not ready for this.’
He wasn’t a Paul Walker-type, who enjoyed his life and his career, who was suddenly stolen from life. Cobain was on a train riding towards a cliff and nothing could stop it. The knowledge of how the story will end, on top of a lot of music from Nirvana – which isn’t exactly the most uplifting music – makes it a tough pill to swallow. Two hours is quite long to witness the brutal inevitability, but you want to watch every second of it.

A Normal Life
All he wanted, was a normal life. The carefree life before his parents divorced. Courtney Love gave him a chance to build a family. He’d gone from happy child, to dysfunctional teen, rock star, junkie in love, to complete meltdown. Because he sensed Courtney was thinking of cheating on him? Because his perfect normal family was about to fail? We’ll never know.
Apparently Guns N’ Roses were pretty uncool in the early nineties, for some reason. Presumably because they stood for extravagance. Kurt wanted to be like common people, and do things common people do. He didn’t want to be famous, or hip. All he wanted was to write good music and have a steady homebase.

It ends with the MTV Unplugged session, and as rich as the documentary is, this is where something’s missing. Nirvana played their set, but quit after only a handful of songs, only to come back the next day to try again. That second day is the session we all know and love, but I would’ve liked to see footage of that first day when something obviously didn’t go as planned.

You can’t escape the feeling there was a lot more going on inside of him than he let out. His songs were just the tip of the iceberg of what he was feeling inside. He became a role model, a rock n’ roll icon, because he didn’t want to play by the rules of the game. He didn’t want to be branded, didn’t want to be cool. Didn’t let MTV dictate him what songs he should play on Unplugged. He didn’t wear designer clothes, didn’t like the lime light, despised interviews. One thing is abundantly clear: the music industry needs another Kurt Cobain to shake things up and make it about one thing and one thing only: the quality of music.