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SIFF Review: ‘The Reagan Show’

All Hail, the Gipper!

We’ve heard plenty about how the media helped to construct Donald Trump. We see how another White House and the media interacted in, “The Reagan Show,” a new documentary by filmmakers Pacho Velez (Manakamana) and Sierra Pettengill (Town Hall). Pacho Velez was on hand this weekend for a Q&A after the film’s showing at the Seattle International Film Festival.

Ronald Reagan is as much icon as enigma. He managed a life and career treading upon the surface. In their documentary, Velez and Pettengill work mostly from archival footage, made up of official White House video and network news segments, to revisit a man who was at his best as a flickering image just beyond reach. The Reagan administration made the big switch from documenting the president in video instead of the traditional, costly, and confining 16mm film. Video allowed for continuous unencumbered recording. It became known as White House TV, perfect for a former Hollywood actor. The documentary perfectly mines all the irony attached to our first reality TV president. What we get is not so much bloopers, or even anything substantial behind the scenes, but a better sense of a president who was painfully too old and woefully disengaged.

Growing up in the ’80s, I don’t recall that era as particularly quaint but the footage in this doc proves otherwise. One such moment could have come right out of the Eisenhower White House. To illustrate how in command the president was, Chief of Staff Howard Baker recites what is supposed to be a decisive moment between Reagan and his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev. Just prior to a tough round of negotiation, Reagan asked Gorbachev if he would autograph his World Series baseball. This gesture supposedly disarmed Gorbachev and left Reagan with the advantage. It’s a nonsensical anecdote but it apparently disarmed the media just enough to look away and move on.

Pres. Ronald Reagan and Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev

There is plenty of obliging on the part of the media to be found here. Some hard-hitting questioning too, especially by ABC News White House correspondent Sam Donaldson. But the president’s charm is ever present. The only tarnish comes with the complex Iran Contra scandal. It is complex enough to allow Reagan something of a pass. For the most part, this doc focuses on the work between Reagan and Gorbachev. As Velez pointed out during the Q&A, Reagan is credited with ending the Cold War, whether or not that’s true. Overall, he achieved the status of an icon. In reality, as this doc makes clear, the Reagan administration did a lot of stumbling and had the unbelievably good luck of having Mikhail Gorbachev running the Kremlin.

Under certain circumstances, the press, and various other power brokers, will always look away. There will always be exceptional circumstances (FDR, for example, was never photographed in a wheelchair). But when a president so flagrantly abuses his power, then that gentleman’s agreement is forced off the table. Ronald Reagan remained a gentleman. And, for that, he was saved by the establishment. The media asked tough questions but they were always open to being charmed. And Ronald Reagan could be relied upon to charm with the best of them.

While this documentary has its share of irony and self-awareness (Reagan’s plea to “Make America Great Again” is included), it cannot help but get caught up in the murk of Reagan “charm.” As Velez stated in the Q&A, he aimed for this documentary to follow a narrative of success with a happy ending. Sure, Velez did not want to demonize Reagan. Fair enough. But to allow Reagan off the hook with a story that closes with him achieving a nuclear arms treaty with the Soviets is pretty generous. You may as well end a story about Nixon with him opening relations between the US and China. To Reagan’s credit, Velez pointed out in the Q&A, he always seemed sincere. In comparison to today, that does count for a lot.

You can follow “The Reagan Show” on its Facebook page right here. The documentary will air this Labor Day on CNN. You can still catch it at SIFF this Wednesday, June 7th. Go to SIFF for details right here.

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Filed under Documentaries, Movie Reviews, movies, politics, Ronald Reagan, Russia, Seattle, Seattle International Film Festival, SIFF, Soviet Union

SIFF Review: ‘The Fabulous Allan Carr’

“The Fabulous Allan Carr,” directed by Jeffrey Schwarz

Warren Beatty announcing the wrong winner at this year’s Oscars was a disaster but the all-time biggest disaster is so bad that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would rather not discuss it and there is nothing on Youtube to document it, except for a verbal description by comedy writer Bruce Vilanch. The story is about how legendary Hollywood producer Allan Carr ended up creating the strangest opening number ever for the Oscars. That infamous moment, truly mind-bending surreal camp, is the linchpin to a new documentary on a fascinating life and career, “The Fabulous Allan Carr,” directed by Jeffrey Schwarz.

If you were a kid growing up in the ’70s, as one snarky person interviewed in the doc says, there were two big movie events: for straights it was “Star Wars” and, for gays, it was “Grease.” Be that as it may, “Grease,” back in 1978, was a very big deal at my high school, whatever your sexual orientation. I was in the marching band and, as a last-minute prank, many of the boys decided to drop their pants and moon the crowds in the stadium. This was directly inspired by “Grease,” which was as far away from an Oscar opening number flop as you could get. “Grease” was a bonafide hit and it put the movie’s producer, Allan Carr, on the map.

Steve Rubell losing patience escorting Olivia Newton-John and Producer Alan Carr into the “Grease” Party at Studio 54.

How Allan Carr gained the confidence and sense of purpose to become a Hollywood legend is thoroughly explored here. We follow Carr from insecure boy to insecure man, finally losing his virginity in his 30s. Where he was on firm ground was his steadfast desire to put on a show. If you loved “La La Land,” you will relate to Carr’s great love for the grandeur of Old Hollywood, particularly the heyday of movie musicals. After Carr’s success with “Grease,” there would be various ups and downs. One undisputed high point was his producing the Oscar-winning “The Deer Hunter.” And Carr reached his greatest heights producing “La Cage aux Folles” on Broadway.

And then came that incredibly over-the-top opener for the 1989 Oscars. The clip below is not from the documentary but gives you an understanding of what all the fuss was about. This is Bruce Vilanch who, by the way, does provide some wonderful segments exclusively made for the documentary:

After “Grease” would come Carr’s first big misstep: 1980’s “Can’t Stop the Music,” the musical showcasing The Village People. Carr had hoped to bring abroad Olivia Newton-John for a lead role but, after reading the script, she rejected it. So did Cher and Raquel Welch. However, Carr was able to secure Valerie Perrine. Carr also enlisted a rising star, Steve Guttenberg. The whole affair was directed by veteran funny lady Nancy Walker who was not much of a director. In the end, this was a classic Carr flop: over-sexed camp too far out on a limb. And so he moved on to the next project, and the next.

In time, Carr would find himself. One key personal moment was when he discovered caftans. The spacious velvety robe allowed Carr’s undisciplined body to run free. With a caftan, he could relax and be more open about himself and his sexuality. The ups and downs of his projects would settle into perspective. There would be the undisputed triumphs. And, in the end, he could say he lived his life to the fullest.

The Fabulous Allan Carr,” directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, was a standout at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival. The documentary is based upon the book, “Party Animals: A Hollywood Tale of Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Starring the Fabulous Allan Carr” by Robert Hofler. As the story about a gay chubby insecure boy who grows up to live out his wildest dreams, it provides another compelling view of the hopes and dreams of La La Land.

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Filed under Gay, Hollywood, Movie Reviews, movies, Musicals, Seattle, Seattle International Film Festival, SIFF