Big Name Biographies and Musical Documentaries
by Kristin Battestella
These documentaries and specials celebrate our tormented singers, melancholy composers, and lovable neighbors are surprisingly tender viewing experiences.
The Beethoven Symphonies 1-9 – This 2001 seven hour concert series in Rome featuring the Berlin Philharmonic with Claudio Abbado conducting breaks down into nine episodes varying from a half hour or hour and change as each titular composition dictates. One is an effortlessly melodic and pleasant start sowing the seeds of Ludwig's intensity before the peppered and windswept No. Two in D Major. From the early romantic strings, forlorn measures, and epic tempo of the Eroica to Four's often overlooked sweet, almost jovial and happy go lucky complexity or the bombastically famous Fifth we all know and love – there's an adagio here for everyone. Be it conductor or double bass, it's also bemusing to see all the smiles, sweat at the temple, and serious head bopping from this animated orchestra. However, the talent and intensity of all involved also provides an emotional, can't look away awe as each note and every instrument come together with the audience's applause, standing ovations, and bowing musicians. Six's pleasing opening and enchanting notes are a Pastoral Symphony indeed; a happy allegro stroll antithesis to V's rumbling with an awesome music meets nature storm all its own before the feisty, boisterous power of No. Seven's Allegretto. Likewise, Eight's short, energetic, and voluminous spirit begats the quintessential Ode to Joy of Nine, complete with big voices, chorals, and mighty crescendos to match the rousing power of this epic finale supreme. These symphony performances ensured forever onscreen are the perfect encapsulation of the man behind the music who could not hear his works. Each stage of Beethoven's life can be paralleled through the measures' highs and lows –showcasing the angry, frenetic, morose, and complex undertones with the no less uplifting, even aloof and carefree yet spirited high notes. Though I personally prefer the odd numbered symphonies, all the segments herein remain perfect for either a musical classroom analysis or as a delightful background score for a sophisticated party or just as repeat ambient multimedia experience.
John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band – This 2008 Classic Albums hour features interviews with Ringo Starr and Yoko Ono as well as archive Lennon audio, home movies, and Beatles footage to recount the raw singing, childhood inspired songwriting, and intimately personal recording sessions of the ex-Beatle's first 1970 solo album. Retro photos and some great song clips detail Lennon's larger than life personality as earlier restrictions within The Beatles lead to a newfound freedom and catharsis in the studio. From the previous 1969 'Give Peace a Chance' release, Amsterdam bed-ins, and performance art to 'Cold Turkey' and 'Instant Karma,' the beginning of Lennon's relationship with Ono and the conception of the new band are touched upon within the music alongside experts and recollections from Klaus Voormann. Despite divorce scandals, the breakup of the Beatles, and largely absent session producer Phil Spector, Lennon made a conscious effort to openly express himself further in song without mass technical productions for the quickest turnaround possible. The dual sessions with Ono's matching album were inspired by Janov's The Primal Scream therapy, resulting in simple, focused songs such as 'Mother' that were able to communicate decades of Lennon's pent up torment. 'Hold On,' 'Isolation,' and 'I Found Out' are revisited with isolated vocals and bass cords while the influence of his relationship with Ono as well as continued work with Ringo are discussed inside 'Why' and 'Love.' Perhaps it is easy to forget John was only thirty years old during these sessions – he's a man ready to move on from the heights of Beatlemania thanks to the likes of 'Working Class Hero' and 'God.' Lennon fought against the studio trying to restrict his lyrics in order to keep his music as pure as possible consequences be damned. Whether you agree with some of his activism and messages or not, there is a certain amount of respect to his adamant vulnerability and the great music produced here. Of course, some of the conversations herein may be tough to understand – even the subtitles have a few 'inaudible' moments – and there is more language and brief nudity in the vintage footage. With its short time and narrow window, this will be quick and superficial to some die hard Beatle aficionados. However, this isn't a biography but rather a recounting of music as the mirror of the persona fitting for nostalgic older fans and a great starting point for new listeners.
Won't You Be My Neighbor? – Pleasing titular music, blazers to sweater comforts, puppets, and trolleys accent this acclaimed 2018 documentary on the beloved minister cum children's television presenter Fred Rogers and his charming PBS series Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Alongside crew recollections of the on the fly developments of live television, early behind the scenes photos, black and white videos, animations, and archive footage recount Rogers' philosophies on using television and mass media as a tool for education aiding children through life changes, wartime fears, and political unease. Rather than dumbing down his programs with silliness, Rogers remembered his own childhood illnesses and need for imagination – using relatable honesty, musical allegories, and friendly metaphors to speak to a child from his or her own poignant, frank level. In this safe onscreen community of lovable characters and make believe, Rogers expressed negatives, anxiety, and vulnerability in lessons youth nationwide could apply in the real world. Though initial received as 'square,' Mister Rogers' Neighborhood quickly became lauded television thanks to its lack of heavy handed sermons. Rogers valued the space between the individual and what he or she is watching as personal and filled it with positive faith and love thy neighbor communication that went against television's consumer nature. When Nixon attempted to cut public television funding, Rogers' congressional testimony on how television can help children understand self-realization, control, anger, and right versus wrong saved PBS. Mister Rogers' Neighborhood continued to assist youth of all cultures through Vietnam, the RFK assassination, and the Challenger disaster – unafraid to help young viewers grieve and understand loss with dignity. Rogers takes us to task for not placing the emotions of children above all else as his silence onscreen, slow pace, and direct approach encourage focus, patience, and the need to pay attention. Instead of in your face cartoons, viewers near and far were told to speak up and express themselves. The narrative here balances the serious moments with humorous anecdotes and bloopers, however it isn't all positive. Rogers had his doubts, and it was easier to share his own feelings through puppets rather than always be so perfect. His prime time attempt at a program for adults was uncomfortable for many – too deep to be taken seriously. Although he wasn't fond of the spoofs mocking him and disliked bullying reminders of his own hurtful adolescence, Rogers continued to tackle big issues for children such as death, divorce, even being lost. Life is tough enough without creating self-doubts, and Rogers disliked adults unaccepting of mistakes or disappointment pressuring kids to be something they aren't. Despite the risk of losing sponsors, Rogers also supported black and closeted staff where possible, and open our eyes to cancer, wheelchairs, racism, and a stronger sense of being. Even when it's coming over the television airwaves, what's most essential in life is actually invisible to the eye, for we don't need to be sensational to be special but can be accepted as we are and should in turn do the same. This feature is a very emotional viewing catharsis, an innocent, necessary nostalgia reminding us of all the feelings, tenderness, co-existence, inclusion, and love Mr. Rogers taught us. One wonders what he would think of our current climate, as we could sure use his gentle wisdom today.