I’m a big fan of the short documentary format. It provides the means to address the subject at hand very quickly. Why use thirty minutes time setting up the premise when only a few minutes at best is needed? Get right to the point and leave me wanting more. Two short docs I viewed recently did just that – Death Metal Grandma andWillcox, Arizona. The common thread that runs through both films is the power of music and how it helps an older generation cope with relevance in a world that increasingly has little regard for them.
The subject of Leah Galant’s documentary Death Metal Grandma is Inge Ginsberg, a 97-year-old who delivers her lyrics of anti-fascism and environmental concerns through the medium of death metal music. Ginsberg’s own words sum up her entire life better than anything else, “Naturally I always smiled. I smiled my way from poor to rich. I smiled my way out of the Holocaust. Because when you’re down and out, you’re down and everybody tramples on you”. As we learn from the film, Ginsberg was born in Austria and became a spy during WWII. She escaped the concentration camps by fleeing to Switzerland along with her husband Otto Kollman. After the war, the couple immigrated to America where they composed songs for some of the biggest entertainers of the day that included Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, and Doris Day. Ginsberg would later become disenchanted with the Hollywood life and moved on to other pursuits. Her top pursuit since the age of 93 is getting her poetry out in a way no written page can compete with. Gimmicky? You bet. But with her band, The TritoneKings, she is reaching audiences that she never could with a published book as if any publisher would deem a 97-year old’s thoughts on paper worth publishing. But even with this new-found fame, Ginsberg realizes that while the spirit might be willing, the flesh is weak. The film doesn’t try to hide her frailties. In fact, her audition for the television show America’s Got Talent,goes awry when she forgets the lyrics. Looking in the mirror to freshen up her makeup, she remarks that she doesn’t recognize the old woman staring back at her. But what the viewer is left to recognize is the tenacity to create and the ability to be heard by someone who refuses to exit the stage gracefully.
Country music plays the lead role in the Zack Wright and Ryan Maxey documentary Lonesome, Willcox. Willcox, Arizona is best known for being the home of famed cowboy singer and actor Rex Allen Sr. It is also the home to classic country music station KHIL. The station is run by one man who broadcast the music he grew up with travelling to the bars and honky tonks his abusive and dysfunctional parents frequented. The songs of love, loss, booze, hard luck, and hard labor left an indelible mark on his life. After an incident in which his drunken mom almost stabbed him to death, Mark Lucke ran away as far and as fast as he could…from the madness and the music. So Lucke’s unexpectant turn at being a DJ playing songs he loathed as a youth is a remarkable piece of filmmaking. The 13-minute documentary explores music as a communal and cathartic experience, not just for Lucke
but also for his aging listeners. It’s also a symbiotic relationship – he needs them, and they need him. One old timer laments that they’re all gone – friends, family and the illustrious stars who sang the songs. All that remains is the music. The photography accentuates the sparseness and wide-open spaces of Southeast Arizona which only adds to the pervasive solitude and loneliness. And it is palpable as we watch one loyal listener clutch her Miller Lite can hunkered down next to her radio.
Two documentaries, 25 minutes of your time. I think you’ll be well rewarded. The sights and sounds of loneliness.