It’s Pride Month, and we’re coming up to July 4th and Independence Day, so HelenHighly discusses three new documentaries whose hearts beat the drums of freedom, passion and change, and how in each film, art is the catalyst that brings those concepts to life. Helen Highly Recommends A Night at Switch n’ Play, Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes, and Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation.
Dear Beloved Readers: Helen Highly Encourages you to read this article in full, rather than skim to find my critique about any one film. I wrote this to be a commentary essay more than a set of film reviews, and it is not structured as three separate reviews, so it disappoints me when I learn that people are missing my larger point (and the larger message in each of these films) and deciding, in advance of reading, which film interests them and which does not. One of my key messages is that each film is about something more than its central subject. And I happen to think that “something more” is worth at least reading about, even if you don’t watch all three films. Feel free to leave a comment if you have a response.
The live Switch n’ Play show has got underway – a neo-burlesque alt-drag “happening” at a small saloon in Brooklyn. After the weirdly sexy and comical introductions and instructions, there is the first act by Pearl Harbor (pronouns: they/them), to which…. truly, words cannot do justice, although I will merely mention that the act includes pulling a string of pearls from inside the body of a cooked chicken, and no nudity whatsoever, but soulful lip-syncing to an aching love song by Radiohead, after which I – viewing this via the documentary film, A Night at Switch n’ Play, feel the impulse to cry and laugh and cheer at the same time, but am too awestruck to make a sound. And then “Femmecee” Miss Malice returns to the stage and asks the audience:
“Have you said goodbye to your former selves yet? Have you come to accept that you will be changed by this show?”
She’s not kidding. This show and this film are all about transformation – for the performers and for the audience. And that’s art, y’all. In case anyone has forgotten, these young switch-n-players are here to remind us: Art Is Transformation. Art began with taking a stick to a prehistoric cave wall and transforming it into an imagined world of people and animals. And today art continues to transform materials into new objects and people into new personas that in turn stimulate transformation in their viewers. That’s what it’s all about.
I don’t care if it hurts; I want to have control; I want a perfect body; I want a perfect soul… I wish I was special.” – lyrics from “Queer” by Radiohead
Click to listen.
In this show, we see men dressing as women, women dressing as men, people bending gender roles to the point where we are not sure who is dressing as what, someone dressing as a Twinkie, someone doing striptease, someone doing horror, all body types, all ethnicities.* It’s wildly entertaining, and it’s much more than just weird. These performers are keenly aware of who they are and what they are doing. Whether they are on stage twirling tassels or tossing raw meat, this is some heady frivolity going on.
* The correct terminology, btw, is “trans, non-binary, and femme performers doing drag and burlesque.” My apologies for misstating, but I am leaving my error as evidence of Helen’s Highly Clueless “outsider” amazement. My point is that even if you are as clueless and straight as I am, this movie is for you. (And yeah, it’s time for all of us to get it right, me included, which I will, from here on out.)
A Night at Switch n’ Play is seductive and invigorating. The show manages to connect with our vital organs and the film takes the audience beyond the “play,” as we join its revelatory, thrilling, and emotional journey. At this seemingly ordinary neighborhood bar, the natural interaction between performer and audience is taken to the highest level; it’s a psychic collaboration, and even as the distant film audience, you will feel profoundly engaged.
In fact, the film audience has an advantage over the live audience because in addition to watching generous sections of the show, we are also privy to backstage interviews, which provide some of the best “talking head” material that you’ll see in a documentary. Their recorded interviews are candid and personal as well as knowledgeable and thoughtful.
Q: Do you feel sexy when you perform?
A: (thinks) I feel powerful. I feel a bit dangerous. I feel that I deserve and am demanding attention. That’s a good feeling. Is that sexy?
Q: How would you define what you are doing?
A: It’s maybe burlesque, maybe drag; it’s something in between. I always try to land in a grey area (laughs) on stage and in life.
One performer marvels that at Switch n’ Play, they were able to express their non-binary feelings and contemplate the possibility that there could be “a drag persona that isn’t gendered.” It’s not impersonation; it isn’t about how you look. It’s about feeling good about who you are and expressing yourself as vividly as possible.
In the interviews, it is repeatedly reinforced that the unusual freedom and support at the Switch n’ Play Collective is what has enabled all these performers to develop as artists. One performer speaks about her South American Muslim background and how this experience has empowered her to accept her body and reclaim her sexual and individual identity. But this is not self-indulgence or group therapy; what we are watching could not occur without a disciplined process of creative exploration. These are some ambitious artists and some highly skilled performances. This is performance art.
It makes me feel old to say it, but these are kids – still talking about graduating from Sarah Lawrence college and such. And it’s inspiring to see these youngsters doing such great work: it’s innovative; it’s radical; it’s subversive; it’s delightful; it’s horrifying; it’s fantastically fun; it’s courageous; it’s freeing and it’s life-affirming. If you think we have lost our humanity in America, watch this movie.
And though the artists don’t say it directly, I will add that it is sadly apparent that they are all speaking as part of an oppressed community – the “queer” community (as they call it in the film), which has suffered and continues to suffer from social and political abuse and injustice. It is worth remembering that 2019 is the 50-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which saw members of the LGBTQ community clash with police in New York’s Greenwich Village in what is widely seen as the catalyst for the modern gay rights movement. What is happening nearby at Switch n’ Play, and at other venues around the country, is art born of adversity; it is the soulful song of struggle – with some strong similarities to jazz and to hip-hop, which brings me to the next part of this combo film review.
Side Note: Do you know origin of the term “drag”? It dates back to Shakespearean times, when the actors were all male because it was considered improper for women to take part in public spectacle or religious ritual. When the men had to wear the long skirts of female characters, which dragged on the floor, they referred to it is as playing drag. Drag was not associated with homosexuality until much later.
Cross-dressing was a pervasive part of American vaudeville acts from the turn of the century until the late 1930s and considered an innocuous comic routine. It is there that it became entwined with burlesque and striptease. The modern iteration of drag queens developed at underground clubs during Prohibition (when all bars had to go underground), and they were “supported” by the Mafia, who agreed to sell bootleg booze to gay clubs and provide protection from police raids. Jump forward to Stonewall, and Tim Curry in Rocky Horror Picture Show, then Boy George, consider the stylings of David Bowie, and then leap ahead to RuPaul and that still leaves you in the dust of the ferocious freshness that is happening now in Brooklyn.
Hey, just for fun, I am adding in this recent event. Click for Variety news story: Taylor Swift Gives Surprise Performance at LGBT Landmark Stonewall Inn (GLAAD I Could Make it.) Look at the end of this article for video of the performance. AND also, for fair perspective, I am linking to the Esquire criticism of Taylor Swift’s new, pro-GLAAD song, “You Need to Calm Down,” which she released just 24 hours before her Stonewall appearance: “No Shade, But There’s a Wrong Way to Make a Gay Anthem.” If nothing else, that article, plus another at Esquire about Swift’s new activism, illustrates how raw and uneasy this social issue remains, and how history very much informs our understanding of current events (which makes the next two movies in this article all the more important).
A Night at Switch n’ Play, directed by Cody Stickels, premiered recently at Toronto’s Inside Out Film Festival. It’s film festival season, so I happen to have just recently seen two other documentaries that Switch n’ Play brings to mind, and it’s not due to subject as much as spirit – the spirit of change and of freedom.
Speaking of spirit, if you were to research the etymology of the word “jazz,” you would find that it’s based on an obsolete slang term from the 1800s – “jasm,” which meant spirit, energy and vigor. Jasm is derived from an earlier term – “jism,” which was defined as spirit, energy, or spunk, and “spunk” could also be interpreted to mean semen or sperm, making jism a taboo word. So, Helen Highly Suggests that calling the queer things happening at Switch n’ Play “jazz drag” might be worth considering.
Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes is a documentary by Sophie Huber about the history of the most important record label in the history of jazz – and by extension, that of American music. (See film trailer below.) Founded in New York in 1939 by German Jewish refugees Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, the story of Blue Note Records (Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, etc.) goes beyond the landmark recordings and encompasses the pursuit of musical freedom and the idea of music as a revolutionary and transformative force for African Americans and their audiences. The themes of this film are almost shockingly consistent with the themes in A Night at Switch n’ Play.
And it’s also worth noting that the term “blue note” is another connection. In jazz or blues music, a blue note is one that, for expressive purposes, is sung or played at a slightly different pitch than standard. This practice is also commonly referred to as “bending” a note. Again, Helen Highly Suggests that the gender-bending expressiveness in A Night at Switch n’ Play might also be aptly called “blue drag.” And the Switch n’ Play idea of performing in “the grey area” is also a key element of jazz. This documentary emphasizes that jazz thrives on musical diversity, experimentation, improvisation, and emotional passion, and it requires a high level of skill. Plus, the music is always layered with life experience; it’s personal. And so that makes the Blue Note film an ideal companion piece for the Switch n’ Play film.
The focus of the Blue Note documentary is conversations with jazz icons as well as today’s groundbreaking Blue Note musicians. It is through this testimony that the film reveals the vital and enduring mission of the Blue Note company and directly connects jazz to hip-hop. The notion of handing the torch to a younger generation of artists who are addressing a modernized version of the same-old racial struggle, using newly inventive and resourceful methods while building on their heritage, is what makes this documentary more than just a tribute film.
Never has it been made clearer to this viewer that the music and culture of hip-hop is an act of reverence for the pioneers and heroes who came before them and a solemn acceptance of the burden that is being handed down. Of course, jazz expresses a wide range of human emotions, including supreme joy. It is delicate and it is boisterous. It manages to push the conventional boundaries at every angle. And this film captures that broadness of spirit and the powerful pleasure of free expression.
There is not a lot of music in this film, however. It is more of a think-piece. But jazz-lovers will feast on it, I imagine. And even I, who am not a jazz aficionado, found Blue Note to be fascinating and emotionally compelling. It is an insightful and at times startling history lesson and also an intimate window into the creative process. It’s full of gorgeous black and white photos and artfully designed album covers, but be prepared for lots of still shots and not much movement. Nonetheless, especially if you think jazz is dead, you should watch this film; it is aggressively political and relevant. And even though I wrote that this is more than a tribute film, it is in large part a tribute, and it’s a loving, satisfying, and thoughtful tribute to the one true form of American music and to the daring people who made it possible. If you think American democracy and freedom are dead (or dying), then you should watch both these films.
Speaking of art as it relates to freedom (and 50th anniversaries): There is Woodstock: Three Days That Changed a Generation, which premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. It celebrates the 50th anniversary of the iconic music festival that has become a symbol for the power of youthful passion and vision when it comes together in the pursuit of freedom. More than 400,000 young people gathered on a farm in upstate New York, where there was not adequate space or supplies to accommodate them all. They came from far and wide with the unyielding determination of a crusade, and instead of creating an enormous disaster/riot that the press was predicting with near hysteria, they showed the world that the power of love and the spirit of peace, with the addition of music (art), can make glorious and unexpected history.
Repeatedly throughout this film, via archival footage, we hear those young folks remark on how inspiring it is to find so many others who share their values and hopes and their sense of misfit-identity that in many cases had not been defined beyond a feeling, but that would be defined and empowered by the time that weekend was over. It was a transformative experience, by all accounts.
And in Switch n’ Play, we also hear again and again, in the performer interviews, that sense of wonder and relief at discovering a community of others who made them feel understood and accepted. One artist says specifically that in this collective group, whoever you are or want to be, “there is space for it.”
In contrast to previous Woodstock films, Director Barak Goodman specifically focuses his documentary on the audience and organizers and their process of discovering and then claiming their part in democracy – how the Woodstock music festival and the phenomenon it became intersected with national politics at the time and to some extent how it suggests possibilities for present-day politics. In his review, Ron Simon writes, “Goodman sees the sixties era ‘forged in crisis,’ much like today’s generation, with different threats, notably climate change and disillusionment with institutions. He wants his version of the festival to inspire, emphasizing how Woodstock tried to be ‘a new city.’” Goodman sees his film and that event as a testament to the power of young people to use their passion to achieve great things. (But again, the film includes more commentary than music.)
We learn in this documentary that Richie Havens’ famous song “Freedom” (clip below) was created spontaneously on stage at Woodstock; he improvised based on an old spiritual, “Motherless Child” (not unlike jazz), and that song became an anthem for a generation. Later, Havens explained, “I think the word ‘freedom’ came out of my mouth because I saw it in front of me. I saw the freedom that we were looking for. And every person sharing it, and so that word came out…The establishment was foolish enough to give us all this freedom and we used it in every way we could.”
These three films seem to speak in concert, with the same underlying melody — young people wanting to claim their power, exercise their freedom, advocate for love and harmony. All three films celebrate the ways that youthful passion has reshaped the world. All three films depict despair transformed into optimism, isolation into solidarity, with art as the catalyst. All three stories come from a substantial heritage and yet are relevant right now. Happy Birthday America, and Happy Pride Month. Let’s all try to come together and make the most of it. #FreedomOf Expression
Watch the trailer for the Blue Notes Records film below:
News: Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation is now available online FOR FREE! Click here to watch.
Watch that iconic Richie Havens “Freedom” performance below:
Want an American music documentary that is just plain full of great music and rare footage and not too much talking? Try Clive Davis: Soundtrack of Our Lives.
News: Less than 24 hours after she dropped her new single “You Need to Calm Down,” which includes shout-outs to GLAAD and the LGBT community, she made a surprise appearance before about 100 people at the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village, helping to commemorate the 50th year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Watch Taylor Swift sing “Shake it Off” at the Stonewall Inn, below. (Is something wrong with this picture? Esquire can explain what seems off.)