Dallas VideoFest DocuFest33: ‘Miracle Fishing’, ‘Herb Alpert Is’, ‘Chuck Berry: King of Rock and Roll’

Embracing and adapting to the change of a world reeling with new social distance protocols, Dallas’ longest running film festival opened last night in a hybrid form, mixing selections that can still be enjoyed with a crowd (via https://www.facebook.com/thetinstartheater) with those that can be streamed in the comfort of one’s own home (through https://www.falconevents.com.) It’s a new frontier for cultural events around the globe, but one that’s proven successful so far.

And if the opening night film, Miles Hargrove’s Miracle Fishing, is any indication, this year’s slate of documentaries will be a dynamic and persuasive bunch. A true crime story completely filtered through the home videos of the family who experienced the terror, Miracle Fishing is a heart-pounding personal diary cultivated from over a year’s worth of footage.

What begins as a simple series of travelogue home movies captured by young Miles as his ex-patriot family lives in Colombia soon morphs into a life and death negotiation for the life of his father, Tom, after his kidnapping and extortion by guerilla army forces in 1994. For the next 10 months, the film charts the day-to-day of the family and their small nucleus of associates. Part spy-thriller and part ensemble family drama, Miracle Fishing (which is the term the terrorists use in pulling over and taking people for financial gain) is edited with sly precision and driven by pulsating rhythms of mounting tension as the negotiations ebb and flow. And it’s all right there on camera as it happens, detailing the exhaustive efforts of the family and outside assistants to procure the freedom of their father. We get to witness the radio conversations between the family and the hostage-takers. We cringe alongside them as ‘proof of life’ episodes disappoint. And we get to admire the way everyone balances the grim with the goofy as they struggle to maintain their composure as a family.

More than the high-wire tight walk of life and death, Miracle Fishing is most memorable for these fleeting moments weaved together by filmmaker Hargrove as the family, neighbors and negotiators bond as a resolute unit of people working towards a common goal. The large dinners…. the moments of lighthearted ribaldry…. and the precarious acts that stall Miles’ mother (Susan) from doing something quite dangerous….. all compound into a dynamic portrait of a clustered family holding it together in the most trying of times. It’s here that the film, and Miles’ extreme forethought to observe even the mundane things during a momentous time, really pulls the viewer into the stratosphere of a lived experience. Miracle Fishing is a film that reveals, especially in our own clustered times, that human resolution can shine through even when it seems darkest.

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As a record collector since my early teens, I must confess a bias. Go into any second-hand store and the easy listening/instrumental bin will assuredly hold several dozen copies of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. The whipped cream and other delights cover. The lonely bull cover. The other one with a lady in a very 60s yellow dress. I always sigh and pass right by them, aware only of his tinkering trumpet piercings that sound like the music behind the soundtrack of every television show produced in the 60s.

But mining beneath the populist surface, John Scheinfeld’s new documentary on the musician, entitled Herb Alpert Is, made me not only admire the man, but actually stirred a desire to dig deeper into his music… especially his very funky late 70s and early 80s output that even finds diverse talents such as Questlove pontificating on the trumpeter’s musical legacy today.

Following most of the beats of a standard talking-head film about its subject, what makes Herb Alpert Is so much more fascinating is Alpert himself, still alive and kicking at the ripe age of 83 and continuing to challenge himself daily via his passion of sculpting (!!?) and playing with longtime wife Lana. He gets alot of screen time to reflect on his blessed life, some of it good and some of it troubling, generating a full-bodied assessment of his life without pandering or sounding falsely humble. He comes across as a genuine musician, producer and benefactor of the arts. The film is also highly informative, charting his progress through the volatile musical landscape of California in the late 60s and early 70s as the founder of A&M records. As the film roundly makes clear, Alpert was an incisive musical guru and knew talent when he heard it.

One of the most fascinating parts of the industry is the alchemy of the scene in the way writers, session musicians and producers bounced their talents back and forth until they came up with a winning formula, such as the incredible story of how Alpert helped The Carpenters score big, and Scheinfeld doesn’t gloss over this generosity. Herb Alpert Is is illuminating, moving, entertaining and, perhaps, it’ll even broaden your horizons to a strain of music once scoffed at. If that’s not the signpost of a good documentary, then I don’t know what is.

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Less illuminating is Jon Brewer’s Chuck Berry: King of Rock and Roll. Featuring portions from an even earlier documentary on the legendary guitarist (Chuck Berry, Hail Hail Rock and Roll from 1987), Brewer’s glimpse at the hard-driving musician feels inferior to that one, both in capturing Berry’s magnetic stage presence and the paths that led him there.

As the author of such paramount hits that have shaped the boundaries of rock and roll, Brewer staggers his way through Berry’s life with some snazzy visual recreations, however, the film never really pulses with the energy of his music. Some asides about the disastrous events at a large parcel of land he owned called Berry Farm are given inordinate amounts of time in the hopes of raising metaphorical comparisons to his life and career. There are plenty of well-hued rock stars on hand to throw rightful praise on him, but the film feels more in awe of Berry the musician rather than peeling back the layers of Berry the man. Introductory fans of the music may gain something from it, but anyone looking for a deeper exploration of his well documented flaws and social rowdiness in a turbulent time of race relations will need to look elsewhere.

Miracle Fishing kicked off the festival at the Tin Star Drive-In on October 1.

Herb Alpert Is will premiere virtually on Friday October 2, at 7 p.m.

Chuck Berry: King of Rock and Roll will premiere at the Tin Star Drive In on Friday, October 2, at 10 p.m.

Visit http://videofest.org/festivals/docufest/ for ordering and ticketing.

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