Celebration December 22, 2020
On Mr. Soul! and Zappa
n 1967, a group called the Kerner Commission was formed by then-president Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the cause of the race riots that
had exploded one day and continued for four more in Detroit that summer. When the commission’s findings were made public in a nearly 430-page-long report, it predictably determined that it was impossible to pinpoint a single root. One cited problem of many was the white dominance of the media. "The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men's eyes and white perspective," the report stated. In large part because of federal urging, there soon afterward cropped up in public media several programs — notably including the news-driven Black Journal (1968-1977) and the talk show Positively Black (1970-present) — that sought to elevate Black voices and perspectives.
From 2018's Mr. Soul!.
Among the most successful of these programs was Soul!,
an innovative variety show and the subject of the wonderful (and recently re-released) documentary Mr. Soul! (2018). From 1968 to 1973, Soul!, which was created, produced, and hosted by former theater producer Ellis Haizlip, mastered an anything-is-possible format. “We give exposure to Black artists of all types, people whom you practically never see on white TV,” Haizlip once said. A given episode might include musical performances, poetry readings, performance art, interviews with public intellectuals. The ever-curious Haizlip, who was by nature a gifted curator unafraid of a forceful boundary push, was responsible for fostering numerous indelible TV moments: the first televised performance from the incipient girl group Labelle; a multi-hour conversation between preeminent thinkers Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin; an interview with the controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan; a furious live reading of the poem “Die N----r” by the Last Poets; and more. “I feel good about what we're doing,” Haizlip added.
Soul! was groundbreaking in other ways. Haizlip was openly gay; each episode was assembled by an almost-exclusively female team. When it was on, it was enormously popular — shortly after debuting, it was reported that 65 percent of African-American households in the U.S. watched each installment — but it was quashed shortly after the election of President Richard Nixon. (Public-media budgets he supported were being cut; Soul! was very intentionally targeted.) Haizlip didn’t fight back. After the show ended, he moved on — and until he died, in 1991, he found other ways to champion the Black arts just as he had done on Soul!.
Though nothing he ever did — and nothing again on television, really — achieved what his show had in just five years.
Mr. Soul!, which you can currently rent on the Alamo Drafthouse website, was directed by Haizlip’s niece, Melissa, and it’s an ebullient, suitably reverential movie — as much a celebration of the show’s landmark accomplishments as it is an insightful look at the underappreciated Haizlip himself. It’s 104 minutes long — a not-unusual length for a documentary — but when the movie ended it for a moment didn’t feel like enough. I could watch Melissa and the talking heads who help her sculpt the film’s narrative more deeply dissect even more of what the show did that was particularly notable for several episodes. But I could also simply watch some episodes of the show itself — several of them are available for viewing on Tubi. Mr. Soul! does what an overview-style documentary like it should. “Wanting more” shouldn’t suggest the work itself could have benefitted from some more fleshing out; instead, it effectively functions as a persuasive jumping-off point for further exploration — sort of like what Haizlip encouraged his audience to do when they were presented with something new.
n contrast, Zappa, another recent documentary newly available to stream (you can rent it on Amazon Prime), is an overview-style documentary that leaves us “wanting more” because it could have benefitted from some more
fleshing out. (And it already goes north of two hours.) Directed by Alex Winter, it surveys the life of the genre-averting, hyper-prolific musician Frank Zappa. It’s the first authorized documentary about the tireless provocateur;
Winter got the blessing of Zappa’s late wife, Gail, before she died in 2015. (He told her he would accentuate that Zappa was a composer in an almost classical sense, and give new prominence to his frequently ignored orchestral output.) The documentary makes good on both promises. Only a casual Zappa fan myself, I hadn’t thought of him as a creator in the Mozart tradition, but now I do — and the movie is generally an engaging and clearly loving examination.
Zappa mostly comprises archival footage (Winter tries as much as he can to ensure his subject is, through a carefully-picked-through lineup of archival footage and audio, narrating) though features a handful of illuminating interviews with former collaborators in the present. We hear often that Zappa was, in essence, a loner defined by his art; he treated fellow musicians more like machinery equipment only sometimes thanked for their contributions. (It didn’t seem to bother him that he didn’t have close friendships: in one old interview, Zappa admits that he doesn’t have any friends but that his family is good enough.) The movie so much underlines the idea of Zappa being impersonal and defined by his workaholism that we almost forget that his wicked sense of humor is among many reasons he remains a beloved figure. The documentary makes his music's funniness an afterthought — something that was almost incidental.
Zappa leaves mostly untouched or at best only quickly looked-at areas I was hoping it would more meaningfully probe: what its subject's obsessiveness might more specifically, aside from merely loving his art, stem from; his distractible-yet-singular artistry in general; his long association with the similarly capricious Don Van Vliet (a.k.a. Captain Beefheart); and his family dynamic, which, more thornily, leads to questions around the Zappa drama that has amassed since Gail’s apparently passive-aggressive appropriation of the family trust in her will. (Although the movie was OK’d by Gail, none of the kids, except for son and producer Ahmet, participated.)
Zappa has the hurriedness of a movie trying to cover as many bases as it can within the scope of a couple of hours. It rushes, though Zappa’s late-in-life transformation into an anti-censorship activist is given a comparatively comprehensive study. I’m not sure, after watching the documentary, that it’s possible to make an immersive feature-length movie about this man, though: there is almost a surfeit of material to cover. But since this is the first time a director has been able to make a movie about him with a blessing backing the effort, one can’t help but wish Zappa weren't overall a quick, conventional assessment — a slick, well-made clips compilation. Like its subject, you wonder what might happen if Zappa slowed down a little bit.
Mr. Soul!: B+