Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, The Wrecking Crew

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
The Wrecking Crew

Capsule reviews of two of the week's new documentaries:

I'm giving Alex Gibney's "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief" (scheduled to air on HBO March 29) the mildest possible recommendation, and only because the subject is so important I wouldn't want to dissuade anyone who doesn't know about Scientology from seeing it. But from the Oscar-winning director of "Taxi to the Dark Side" (2008), whose "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" (2005) and "Casino Jack and the United States of Money" (2010) brilliantly exemplify the power of documentary film to entertain as well as inform, it's a deep disappointment. 

The subject really calls for a treatment more like the network's news-making series "The Jinx." In six one-hour episodes, Gibney could have covered the life of L. Ron Hubbard (a case study in demagoguery); the acronym-filled hierarchical and belief structure of Scientology; how it blackmails those seeking self-improvement into remaining ensnared its web; its use of celebrities and front organizations to obfuscate its true aim (the separation of its members from their money); the tortious and criminal acts undertaken at the behest of its Hitler-esque leader, David Miscavige; and the devastating effects of Scientology on individuals and families (including hundreds upon hundreds of suicides). 

Instead, Gibney - hampered, I think, by the decision to follow the outline of Lawrence Wright's eponymous book - gives us extended interviews with eight former members, including the director Paul Haggis and the ingratiatingly blunt actor Jason Beghe, as well as former executives and spokesmen for the "church," its onetime liaison to John Travolta, and a woman who - at enormous personal and financial expense - had climbed to the top of its Orwellian "Bridge to Total Freedom." The result is a movie that feels at once rushed and redundant, incomplete but overlong. Missing most acutely is a sense of anger - not on the part of Gibney, who properly adopts a purely journalistic approach, but for the victims of Scientology's mysterious deaths, suicides, psychoses, and families broken by forced "disconnection" (the Jehovah's Witnesses cult uses a similar tactic called "disfellowship"). You'll find out more about Scientology to enrage you in a two-hour Internet search than in the underwhelming "Going Clear."

The clear pick of the week is "The Wrecking Crew," Denny Tedesco's affectionate tribute to his father Tommy and the rest of the loosely defined cadre of L.A. session musicians who dominated the charts in the 1960's and 70's, working virtually around the clock for acts from Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass to the Beach Boys, the Ronettes to the Monkees, Frank and Nancy Sinatra to Sonny and Cher. (At one point they featured on six consecutive Records of the Year.) 

Here's the music documentary "20 Feet from Stardom" wanted (and failed) to be. After conducting insightful, deeply knowledgeable and often hilarious interviews with the musicians and the headliners they made look good, Tedesco let the footage sit on the shelf for several years while he organized a fundraising campaign that allowed him to acquire the necessary licensing rights to use all of that wonderful music in the film. That's what "20 Feet" lacked: the music we still love to sing along to, moving our feet in time. Haphazardly organized, "The Wrecking Crew" isn't a great film, but it is great fun. It completes a weeklong run at the Nuart tomorrow, then moves to the Landmark. No lover of American popular music should miss it.

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