Long Strange Trip is a documentary about the Grateful Dead that feels just like being at one of the band’s concerts. It is a sprawling, swirling psychedelic affair that lives up to its name as it celebrates a band that has notched up over 50 years in the music business as the reigning kings of the counter-culture movement. This documentary occasionally feels like a hagiography but it’s a fun and justified one because it’s ultimately a free-spirited love letter to one crazy, joyful psychedelic band.

This film was a labour of love that was around 15 years in the making for director and self-confessed Deadhead (the name rampant Grateful Dead fans wear as a badge of honour) Amir Bar-Lev. Martin Scorsese – who is no stranger to rock ‘n’ roll documentaries (see Shine A Light, The Last Waltz, etc.) – also serves as executive producer. The Long Strange Trip is broken down into a series of different acts in a loosely-based chronology to tell the story of the group and its fans while also giving some historic context.

A lot of time is naturally devoted to the band’s messianic front man, Jerry Garcia. It talks about his anti-authoritarian stance and his love of things like: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, drugs and beat poetry, especially Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. It also shows how the trappings of fame and stardom (something the group never actively courted as they are the most unlikely celebrities out there) were what contributed to Garcia’s premature death at the age of 53 in 1995.

The story of the Dead is traced back to the early days in the hippie movement and their natural habitat in Haight-Ashbury. It also covers the long recording sessions where the group were hyped up on nitrous oxide and the aborted film project, which was due to the group lacing the film crew’s cups with LSD. It also looks at their resurgence in the eighties and how they became like a travelling circus because when crazed Deadheads who “Needed a miracle” (to borrow from the band’s lyrics) as they had lucked out on tickets to Grateful Dead shows decided to simply set up street parties outside of the band’s concerts instead. Party time, excellent!

This film naturally includes a fabulous soundtrack that showcases the band’s music. These songs are complex ones where you can hear the influence of each member’s love of different musical genres like: bluegrass, folk, classical, avant-garde and the blues, as these styles permeate almost every note. This music attracted scores of different fans. There were deafheads, wharf rats, acid heads, coke fiends, spinners (people who spun around dancing ad nauseam), tapers (fans who rabidly bootlegged the band’s shows with the group’s blessing) as well as those who worshiped at the altar of Garcia.

The surviving members of the Grateful Dead are interviewed here while Garcia appears via old videos. Even the group’s elusive lyricist, Robert Hunter appears here though his contributions are as mysterious as his lyrics. Sam Cutler the former tour manager of The Rolling Stones and the Dead is also interviewed and he is a funny and fantastic talent who isn’t afraid to tell it like it is. One distinct difference with this documentary is the absence of industry types that tend to be given too much airtime in music documentaries.

Long Strange Trip expertly threads together interviews plus rare archive footage including photographs and films. At around four hours it covers a lot of ground. But it’s also staggering to think that there were still topics that this documentary failed to address like: Woodstock, the individual band member’s solo projects and the individual band member’s childhoods (only Garcia’s is briefly touched on.)

Long Strange Trip is about the magic, myth and madness that was the Grateful Dead. This epic four hour rock documentary is a freewheeling journey through one experimental group’s bizarre world. The film is essential viewing for Deadheads and assorted other freaks who consider themselves Deadheads-in-the-making. This film ultimately proves that once you start loving this band of weirdoes there is a point of no return from this long, strange trip.

Originally published on 20 March 2017 at the following website:

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David Stratton is the doyen of Australian cinema. He is a respected film critic who has watched in excess of 25,000 films, peed on Fellini and entertained Australians for decades through his movie reviews with sparring partner Margaret Pomeranz. David Stratton: A Cinematic Life is a documentary about his life and brilliant career and is not unlike the Roger Ebert documentary, Life Itself in that they’re both personal and engaging looks at two influential men with an infectious passion for the silver screen.

This documentary is directed by Sally Aitken (Getting Frank Gehry, Streets of Your Town) and is a companion piece to a longer mini-series about Australian cinema, which will air on television later this year. Perhaps as a result of this, A Cinematic Life proves to be an ambitious undertaking, as it attempts to tell a number of different stories. It’s about Australia’s best known film critic as well as a brief history of Australian cinema and both of these stories are enough to fill several films or books.

A Cinematic Life focuses on some key facets of Stratton’s history and personality. There was his childhood spent in Britain where he wrote his first review as a boy (he has these and the ones he penned for Variety and The Australian on file in a card system that is reminiscent of libraries prior to the advent of computers.) He cultivated a love for cinema and immigrated to Australia in 1963. Stratton is candid in talking about his estrangement from his father and the feeling that he was the black sheep in his family (he likens this feeling to Muriel Heslop’s character in Muriel’s Wedding). Stratton’s brother, Roger appears here and says he’d die happy if he never watched another film and their father was furious when David failed to return to England to help head the grocery business, which had been in the family for generations.

When Stratton arrived in Australia in the sixties the local film industry was virtually non-existent but people like Stratton helped to build it up. He served as the director of the Sydney Film Festival for 17 years, championed local films and was vocal in his opposition against draconian film censorship rules. This outspokenness did not go unnoticed; during the Cold War, Stratton was under surveillance by ASIO when all he was doing was obtaining visas to attend the Moscow International Film Festival.

This documentary weaves together scenes from important Australian films (from the 1906 The Story of the Kelly Gang to recent hit, The Dressmaker and many in between) and it also has Stratton visit some important settings like Hanging Rock and the site of the house from The Castle. A veritable who’s who of Australian entertainment are interviewed, including actors: Nicole Kidman, Geoffrey Rush, Eric Bana, Sam Neill, Judy Davis, Jacki Weaver, Russell Crowe and Hugo Weaving as well as directors: Gillian Armstrong, George Miller, Peter Weir and Bruce Beresford, among others.

David Stratton: A Cinematic Life can be a little disjointed as it crams in as much as possible into its 110 minute runtime. But it remains a personal and fascinating documentary and a celebration of both Stratton’s legacy and Australian cinema as a whole. For people like David, cinema isn’t just celluloid it’s a way of life and it’s something that should be part of your day-to-day (Stratton tries to see at least one film every day.) A Cinematic Life is quite simply a love letter to our home-grown talent and one that will make you want to sit down and watch all of the films included here plus so many more. And with Stratton as the narrator and guide, we know that we are in for one hell of a time at the movies.

Originally published on 3 March 2017 at the following website:

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Winter at Westbeth is a film that’s all about “the art.” And celebrating it at every age. This documentary looks at three young at heart, elderly, American artists who live in a vibrant, housing complex called Westbeth Artists Housing in New York. It is ultimately a film that is like a love letter to the power of creativity and pursuing your passion.

The three subjects of this film are all aged 75 years and older. There is Edith Stephen, a former danced turned filmmaker, Ilsa Gilbert, an author of vivid poetry and the late Dudley Williams, a man who performed modern dance with Martha Graham. The three show no signs of retiring or slowing down, they still doggedly pursue their creative endeavours and the things that make them happy. It’s an uplifting message and something that we can all take a little something away from.

The film does have its light moments, like when Stephen applies her green eyeshadow on camera but it also doesn’t shy away from showing some more complex and even dark emotions. Williams describes caring for his late partner and these scenes are both heart-breaking and profound. It’s a testament to filmmaker and cinematographer, Rohan Spong that he has forged a highly personal connection with his subjects and that he brings out the best from his on-screen talent in their talking head interviews. It’s also commendable that he invites the audience into a world where these artists are still vital and relevant and worthy of our respect and admiration.

Winter at Westbeth is a fine, fly-on-the-wall documentary that will inspire us all to leave behind the daily grind and go and live in a creative hotspot like Greenwich Village because it’s a place where artists are supported by the community and a place where they can offer so much more in return. This is one beautifully-realised film that showcases three unique souls and artists and one that manages to capture their essence in a truly joyful and life-affirming way. Utterly charming!

Originally published on 6 February 2017 at the following website:

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A lot of people would be familiar with Johnny Cash’s life and music thanks to the biopic, Walk the Line. But I Am Johnny Cash is a documentary about the late man in black that manages to be a great watch and offers us some more information about this iconic singer-songwriter. I Am Johnny Cash is not a comprehensive or definitive film but it is an entertaining look at his life and legacy as his family, friends and famous fans gather together to look back and describe Cash’s life in an honest and frank way.

Derik Murray and Jordan Tappis direct this documentary and frame the story around a number of Cash’s famous songs including “Cry Cry Cry,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk The Line” and “San Quentin.” It begins by describing how Cash’s mother would sing gospel songs in order to escape the drudgery of working in the cotton fields. It also talks about Cash’s fractured relationship with his father and it was one that suffered a terrible blow when Cash’s brother Jack passed away following an accident at the age of 15. This death was something that left an indelible scar on Johnny.

This documentary is forthright in describing the good and bad times in Cash’s career and saves the viewer from having to watch a hagiography. There’s Cash’s first marriage to Vivian Liberto and the births of his daughters as well as his long absences away from home after he began having success in music. There was also his amphetamine addiction and the career downfall he suffered in his twilight years. There is also lots of footage with Cash and his second wife, June Carter Cash. It was a marriage that lasted the long haul because the pair were like soul mates, so much so that even Cash’s daughter Rosanne admits that she could understand the reason why things worked out between her father and step-mother.

The film includes a number of black and white photographs as well as archive footage, including videos from Cash’s television series, The Johnny Cash Show. The latter sees Cash interviewing famous celebrities like Bob Dylan (the pair would record a duet together) as well as Joni Mitchell and Ray Charles. This documentary also includes a number of talking head interviews with Cash’s contemporaries, collaborators and famous fans including: Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow, John Mellencamp and Eric Church, to name a few.

I Am Johnny Cash is a celebration of one complex and mysterious artist. This film manages to describe some key elements from his life but there was also some room for further discussion and exploration. The film features lots of Cash’s music and it is an honest portrayal of an anti-authoritarian, political songwriter and a charming, larger-than-life character who really was an all-American hero.

Originally published on 7 January 2017 at the following website:

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For years Amanda Webster had an idealistic view of the past. The smart, sixth-Generation Australian, who has published books about autism and whose father and grandfather were respected doctors, had assumed that everyone – including her Indigenous school friends – had enjoyed a comfortable upbringing that was similar to the her own.

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John Lennon once sang that life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. This idea rings true for Australia’s National Living Treasure and Lennon’s friend, Ian “Molly” Meldrum. The music journalist, talent coordinator, TV host, DJ and record producer has had a brilliant career spanning multiple decades. Ah Well, Nobody’s Perfect is a celebration of all of this, because it sees Meldrum spinning many yarns and anecdotes along with the help of fellow music journalist, Jeff Jenkins and a cast of famous friends and confidantes.

Molly Meldrum has already been the subject of a biography with 2014’s The Never, Um, Ever Ending Story: Life, Countdown and Everything in Between. His first memoir focused predominantly on his time working on ABC TV’s Countdown (a youth culture show). In the latest instalment of Meldrum’s biography, he includes anecdotes from this period (and dedicates the book to Countdown’s creator, the late Michael Shrimpton) as well as describing his work on Hey Hey It’s Saturday and Sunday Night. Meldrum has interests outside of music and this book also includes his love for the Australian cricket team, AFL’s Saint Kilda Saints and the NRL’s Melbourne Storm. The memoir is also named after a line from Meldrum’s favourite film, Some Like It Hot.

Meldrum’s early life is briefly covered in this second book. We learn that he was a country boy from Quambatook Victoria and about his first jobs. This information is interesting, but you get the sense that Molly is a private individual and that we are barely scratching the surface here. Instead, most of this volume is about Molly’s encounters with famous musicians and individuals from the music and TV industries. In some respects, Meldrum’s life shares things in common with photographer, Tony Mott in that both have met and worked with famous celebrities and they both have a swag bag full of great stories to tell. Both Meldrum and Mott would make excellent dinner party guests – you know that there’d never be a dull moment!

The book is a mixture of different anecdotes and stories. It bounces around describing different subjects, something that is very much like Molly’s spirited interview technique. It’s a haphazard approach where different tangents are explored and time is not a linear concept. This means that one chapter you can be reading the questions and answers from Molly’s appearance on Who Wants to be a Millionaire (where he won $500,000 for charity) to moving on to recollections from Michael Gudinski and other important individuals, and then on to travel tips from Molly, that are very much inspired by real experiences. The stories are rich and vivid and they deal with the notorious parties, heated fights, amazing days and unmitigated disasters from Molly’s life. This man in a hat comes across as a lovely, enthusiastic music fan and self-deprecating character who is a practical joker at heart but also not precious about when people are laughing at his expense.

Ah Well, Nobody’s Perfect is a fun and entertaining book by a true music fan and a natural storyteller. It is easy to get lost in these entertaining yarns. The story is from a larger-than-life character who delivers his observations and opinions on the madness, mirth and most of all, the music. All that’s left to say is that any self-respecting music fan should do themselves a favour and immerse themselves in Molly’s Melodrama!

Originally published on 31 October 2016 at the following website:

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Most people were introduced to James “Jim” Foley when he appeared in a bright orange jumpsuit and reports (and video) confirmed that he had been the first American citizen to be murdered by ISIS. It was a moment where the Islamic State had stripped away his humanity and reduced Foley to a casualty. In the film, Jim: The James Foley Story, those closest to him set about reclaiming Foley’s story and offering us a glimpse into his complex and good-natured character.

The documentary is directed and co-written by Foley’s childhood friend, Brian Oakes, who is making his directorial debut here. The story is like a labour of love for Jim, who is shown as a restless and principled guy. Foley was a disorganised man but he believed in the importance of his work in capturing the plight of those individuals who were displaced and affected by war and conflict zones, first in Iraq and Libya and ultimately in Syria.

This film is by no means a perfect one. It does gloss over and omit some things, like Foley’s relationship with British photo journalist, John Cantlie (who was captured with Jim and remains so) is not explored. There is also little airtime given to the work that was undertaken by governments in order to negotiate with the captors for the release of prisoners (several journalists from Continental Europe were released but how this was achieved is not explained here.) The addition of some of the key facts would have made for a more comprehensive and complete tale.

Jim: The James Foley Story does succeed in creating a good portrait of Jim. The film utilises some archive footage of Jim speaking at his alma mater as well as family photos and Foley’s work from the frontline. The latter contains harrowing images of deceased and injured Syrians. These images are graphic and hard to watch but it is what Foley wanted the world to see. The filmmaker of this documentary did make the right decision however, to show only a short excerpt of Foley’s video with ISIS and it thankfully left out the gruesome beheading.

This story also contains a series of re-enactments to give the audience an idea of the brutality Foley and others experienced while in captivity. The interviews with Foley’s fellow prisoners are particularly striking and illuminating. Like Foley’s friends, colleagues and family members, they describe Jim as a caring and self-less creature who put other’s needs before his own.

Jim: The James Foley Story is an important documentary that shines a light on the late conflict journalist, James Foley. It also make us stop and appreciate what journalists and civilians caught up in war and other conflicts have to deal with on a daily basis. This story is ultimately one that will make you pause as it tugs at your heartstrings and makes you want to cry over the darkness in the world. But if there is some hope to be had here it means that it will also make you want to reach out and embrace your loved ones.

Originally published on 11 October 2016 at the following website:

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The Hunting Ground is not an easy film to watch but it is an important one. The documentary looks at the epidemic of sexual assaults taking place on American university campuses. It also shows the victims that are silenced, ignored or discouraged to report the cases to the authorities. This film is ultimately a raw, frightening and probing one that will challenge your thinking.

This film is written and directed by Kirby Dick who was also responsible for The Invisible War about sexual violence in the military. The Hunting Ground includes lots of talking head interviews with clinical psychologists, academics, writers and victim advocates. But perhaps the most confronting interviews are with the rape survivors themselves. Often these are strong, young, eloquent women who had great dreams for their careers and studies as well as good grades.

The futures of these young women victims (and occasionally young men) are jeopardised by opportunistic thugs taking advantage of a broken system. This documentary proves that the institutions themselves are the most defective. Representatives at the intuitions often actively discourage victims from reporting the crimes and they also try to bury the true incidence rates of these assaults. They do so in order to ensure that they still get funding from private donors and to maintain an image that will result in an enthusiastic queue of new students lining up to study there.

This documentary also includes some re-enactments of the crimes and it begins with a group of students reacting to their college acceptance notices. It’s a jubilant moment that’s at odds with the information that is to come. This film also has a pop soundtrack featuring music by Ellie Goulding, Lady Gaga and Birdy. While it’s commendable that the filmmaker has supported a group of female artists, some of the music was a tad unnecessary.

The Hunting Ground does interview a rapist but that discussion is not the most enlightening because we do not get a sense of his true motivation. Apart from this one interview, the movie does tend to side with the individuals that claim the sexual assault. This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing as this group have had enough of the odds stacked against them on their campuses and in their communities. But it does mean this documentary is not a balanced one, especially as the heads of various universities also declined to be interviewed.

If there is one hopeful message to take away from this film it is that there are around 100 colleges under investigation by the US government for their treatment of sexual assault cases. This film also shows some amazing women like Andrea Pino and Annie Clark who work tirelessly to assist other rape survivors. The Hunting Ground is ultimately a nightmare that shows that one in five women will be sexually assaulted at university. This is frustrating stuff that will break your heart and make you mad, but it’s essential to watch in order to prevent it from being swept under the carpet any longer.

Originally published on 24 July 2016 at the following website:

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Some people may be fans of River Cottage Australia set in Central Tilba in NSW. But what they may not know is that the man behind this fabulous idea is English celebrity chef, food writer and activist, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. The latter has presented a number of different River Cottage specials in the UK. In Australia we are now lucky to have The River Cottage Collection 3 available on DVD. This draws together the specials, Three Go Mad, To The Core and Scandimania.

This set is a rather eclectic one given that the three specials contain such different subjects. Scandimania is more of a travel program where Hugh visits Sweden, Denmark and Norway. Three Go Mad has very special guests from British television visiting the River Cottage farm in Dorset and cooking up a storm while To The Core is a cooking show that will challenge your thinking about fruit.

The Scandinavian special includes cooking as well as some history and stereotypes. In Sweden there is a rather indulgent section about Abba, a visit to the group’s museum, some dreadful karaoke and an interview with Björn Ulvaeus. The Denmark instalment has an interview with Noma’s René Redzepi plus segments about wind farming, European sperm banks and Danish pastries. The series concludes in Norway where Hugh interviews the Ylvis Brothers, visits a prison island and feasts on sea urchins.

Sometimes it’s the guests that make the UK River Cottage such a fascinating show. This is particularly the case in the set’s highlight, Three Go Mad. This particular one was divided into three parts, one with actors like Felicity Kendal (The Good Life) and Philip Glenister and Keeley Hawes (both of Ashes to Ashes fame.) The special on the comedians offers the most familiar faces with Robert Webb (Peep Show,) Lee Mack (Would I Lie To You?) and Ruby Wax. This program was all about getting celebrities as enthusiastic about working on the farm and cooking as Hugh and his team. This is particularly evident in the Christmas special where a scrooge-like Kathy Burke is won over by a salt crusted baked sea bass stuffed with fennel and bay leaves. Yum!

The final DVD is about all things fruit. In this series Hugh tries to change our way of thinking and get us to incorporate more fruit into our everyday cooking, including savoury dishes. While the thought of a sirloin steak with strawberries may not initially whet your appetite, the way the dish is finished makes it look scrumdiddlyumptious. This four-part set is designed for each of the seasons and offers some great tips and tricks. The only downside is that in some cases these fruits are native to the UK and are unlikely to be found in Australian supermarkets. But it’s still good to learn about different flavours and textures.

The River Cottage Collection 3 is another fine instalment about all things food and farming from the River Cottage crew. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is a warm, engaging and enthusiastic presenter. His love of food is really obvious and infectious. These programs are all interesting and they should get you thinking differently about food and to step back and appreciate it in all its finery.

Originally published on 14 July 2016 at the following website:

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Since winning MasterChef Australia in 2010, chef Adam Liaw has gone from strength-to-strength. The host of Destination Flavour, the show is a series that has seen interviews with famous chefs, cooks, providores and producers from Japan and Australia. The latest instalment sees Liaw visit Scandinavia or specifically the countries of Denmark, Sweden and Norway to learn about the history and culture of the region and see why the restaurants in these countries have more stars than a Hollywood A-list party.

This seven-part series is a beautifully shot one where Liaw learns new things and cooks some of his own dishes (while keeping with Nordic tradition and culture.) The first three episodes see Liaw in Denmark meeting Noma’s Claus Meyer, drinking Danish filtered coffee, interviewing Meik Wiking (CEO of the Happiness Research Institute) and talking to the only Michelin Starred chef with organic certification, Relae’s Christian Puglisi. Liaw also learns Viking survival and cooking skills before making his very own salmon on a plank in a replica of a ninth century Viking house.

Liaw is one enthusiastic and passionate presenter. He clearly relishes the visit and his warm personality is obvious. In Sweden Niklas Ekstedt demonstrates old Nordic cooking techniques (i.e. ones using no gas, electricity or coal) and Liaw samples different kinds of Swedish meatballs (including wild boar) and smoked reindeer. In Malmö, Titti Qvarnström – the first female chef of a Michelin-starred restaurant in Sweden – takes us through her restaurant, Bloom In The Park. It’s an establishment that has almost zero food waste thanks to its lack of menu and wine list.

In Norway Liaw eats a 200 year old clam, cooks brown crabs in beer with a brown butter mayonnaise and also gets to know the local indigenous people known as Sami. The series concludes with visits to the Global Seed Vault and Huset, a fine dining restaurant that is at the end of the earth (1000km from the North Pole.) The special features include extended interviews with Meyer, Wiking and Qvarnström as well as a tour of a Stockholm market and more in-depth footage about the Samis and Vikings.

Destination Flavour- Scandinavia is a fun romp through some refined, artistic and traditional Scandinavian cuisine. Liaw presents an informative cooking program and his natural charm and charisma really shine through. This series is an absolute pleasure to watch and will make you realise that there’s more to Scandinavia than Vikings, Abba and Princess Mary’s relatives.

Originally published on 20 June 2016 at the following website:

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