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SHOW BUSINESS DOCUMENTARIES OF 2019/2020 YOU MAY HAVE MISSED


MY DARLING VIVIAN

All most people know about Johnny Cash’s first wife is what they saw in the 2005 biopic Walk the Line, where she was played by Ginnifer Goodwin. Essentially, Vivian Liberto stood in the way of the singer marrying the love of his life, June Carter. This compelling, deeply moving documentary gives a voice to the woman who first fell in love with Cash and raised their four daughters before being reduced to a footnote in his life story.

The saga is told through a treasure trove of home movies and the first-hand recollections of all four daughters: Rosanne (the oldest, and the only one to pursue a show business career), Kathy, Cindy and Tara. The film’s director, Matt Riddlehoover, is married to the grandson of Johnny Cash and his first wife. This is clearly a passion project for all concerned.

How this connected couple came apart—like a frayed rope, one strand at a time—is recounted in the memories of the now-grown girls. Experiencing this narrative from a child’s-eye view is fascinating and ultimately very sad. Their mother never stopped loving their father, but she was a private person and had no desire to go public with her side of the story until the end of her life. This heartfelt film is her legacy. You can watch it now on Vudu, Google Play, and Amazon Prime, among many platforms.





KAYE BALLARD: THE SHOW GOES ON

Here is another passion project that not only celebrates a much-loved musical and comedy performer but a bygone era of show business, including cabarets, nightclubs, revues, and live television. I grew up watching Kaye Ballard on TV and while I was too young to go to the clubs where she entertained I have a happy memory of seeing her in Carnival on Broadway. I never missed the Perry Como show when she was a regular. I even have the record album she made where she reads Peanuts comic strips with her friend, composer Arthur Siegel.

Indeed, Ballard’s resumé reads like a history of 20th century entertainment, and filmmaker Dan Wingate brings much of it back to life through film and video clips, kinescopes, and the recollections of his star, who passed away one year ago at the age of 93. We also hear from some longtime friends and contemporaries, including Carol Burnett, Michael Feinstein, Carol Channing, and even Woody Allen.

Wingate saves some of the most personal moments for the last part of the narrative, which makes them all the more touching. And just when you think you’ve seen all he has to show, he opens his trunk one more time and gives us another piece of performance footage. Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On made me very happy indeed. You can stream it on YouTube, Google Play and Amazon Prime.



LADDIE: THE MAN BEHIND THE MOVIES

Amanda Ladd wanted to pay proper tribute to her father, the unsung hero behind Star Wars, Young Frankenstein, and countless other enduring movies. Unfortunately, her highly personal documentary was preceded by another one that stole the spotlight. This is the one worth watching. The self-effacing executive opens up to his daughter as he wouldn’t for any other interviewer, talking about growing up the son of a movie star and the battles he fought to make films he truly believed in.

Not surprisingly, Mel Brooks’ remarks are worth the price of admission alone, but he is just one of numerous moviemakers who sing Laddie’s praises and explain why he wasn’t just a studio “suit.” George Lucas, Ron Howard, Richard Donner, Dean Elizabeth M. Daley of USC and the late Paul Mazursky are among the others who appear on camera. Laddie is catnip for any true film buff and is available on YouTube, Vudu, Amazon Prime and other sources.



INMATE #1: THE RISE OF DANNY TREJO


Director Brett Harvey invites us to experience the unique career of Danny Trejo, which wouldn’t seem possible if it weren’t true. At the age of 71, this mean-looking macho man can look back on the mistakes he made—and the price he paid for them, including hard time in prison—from the perspective of a self-made success. His unlikely career as an actor is just part of his ever-growing entrepreneurial empire. (Have you tried his donuts?)

Inmate #1 may not be a memorable documentary in itself but Trejo’s saga is unforgettable—just like his presence on-screen. You’ll find this entertaining and eye-opening film on Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime, among other outlets.



THE GHOST OF PETER SELLERS

Most film-related documentaries tell success stories; not this one. In The Ghost of Peter Sellers, Hungarian-born filmmaker Peter Medak travels back 47 years to explore what went wrong with a seemingly sure-fire project proposed by Sellers. He and his Goon Show comrade Spike Milligan wrote a pirate comedy called Ghost in the Noonday Sun but the filming was an absolute disaster.

Why would a man who has worked successfully in film and television all these years (with some great ones like The Ruling Class to his credit) choose to revisit the greatest nightmare of his career? The film answers this question, but it boils down to this: Ghost created a wound in Medak that has never healed. In spite of all the trouble Sellers caused, Medak still loves and admires him and wanted to tell this story. This fascinating feature documentary is something like an autopsy. The movie was never released, and what we see of it offers the definite impression that it would have been dead on arrival.

As Medak talks to fellow survivors of this disaster we bear witness to what might have been if the stars hadn’t so completely misaligned. For dyed-in-the-wool film buffs this is a valuable document.

To screen the film at home, click HERE.  

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