Philadelphia Freedom. Movies reviewed: Jingle Bell Rocks, Let the Fire Burn

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies forculturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

I was in the US for American Thanksgiving. Had a wonderful visit to family and friends, beautiful places, lots to see and do. But you wouldn’t know it if you watched TV news on Black Friday. It’s an orgiastic  frenzy of consumer excess slapped onto an otherwise sedate family weekend. All you could see on TV was the repeated image of two women at a Philadelphia Walmart tasing each other to get at a discount i-Pad. Just crazy.

But they segue nicely into my themes this week: Philadelphia and holiday excess. I’m looking at Canadian documentary about Christmas music. And an American doc about a firebomb dropped on a radical commune in Philadelphia.

mitch_hat_vigJingle Bell Rocks

Dir: Mitchel Kezin

Mitchel is obsessed with Christmas songs., Not the traditional carols or sing-alongs — Silent Night, Jingle Bells —  but the many, possibly countless, record albums released over the past 60-70 years. He believes that, among all the treacle and dross they play constantly for a month and a half every year, there are gems to be discovered. So he goes to every flea market, ducks into every used record store he sees, on the off chance there’s an indie treasure waiting to be rediscovered.

It all started with a Nat King Cole song about a little kid pining for his absentee dad, who won’t be home for Chistmas. His own dad was never there and eventually his parents were divorced. Now he feels driven to recreate the sad feelings john_waters_pic2he remembers from a melancholy tune.

And he’s not alone. There’s a hip-hop producer, a radio DJ, and a rock star, each with their obsessive horde of old Xmas vinyl.

The movie spans decades, including everything from be-bop jazz (that’s Bob Dorough singing with the Miles Davis Quintet in the background) to soul – there’s a risqué song about a Backdoor Santa – to Vietnam protest songs, ordinary pop, bill_adler&rev-run_prod2counter-culture kitsch and hip hop, all the way to the nineties and beyond.

Stars include Flaming Lips, Run DMC, and John Waters, with the movie culminating in an amazing recording session with calypso legend Mighty Sparrow.

Not bad for a documentary. Jingle Bell Rocks is 90-minute look at an ordinary – if oddball – guy with a hording obsession. I can sympathize with the narrator’s plight, but never feel his drive. Anyway, it’s a light subject, not intrinsically exciting. But it’s saved by the music: great tunes.

let the fire burn poster_largeLet the Fire Burn

Dir: Jason Osder

In the mid 1980s, Philadelphia — a city I love — experienced a terrifying event. A home was bombed, and many people were killed. You might think: terrorists? But the bomb was dropped on a row house from a helicopter… by the police! And as the fire grew, the fireman stood by to letthefireburn.photo03watch the flames engulf a city block.

How could this have happened? Some background.

Half a century after the civil rights movement, Philadelphia is still a de facto segregated city. It experienced decades of unrest and white flight to the exurbs. Much of this was related to the combative stance letthefireburn.photo05of the police force and City Hall, led, in the 1970s by Frank Rizzo.

A former police commissioner, Rizzo fought a personal battle against radical groups like the Black Panthers, displaying, at times, seemed more loyalty to his fellow police than toward the people of the city. He was known for his harsh treatment of black people, in general. Well, right in the middle of this was a small, black-to-nature group known as MOVE, headed by the self-named John Africa. They believed in such “radical” concepts as a vegan diet, the raw food movement, animal rights — a new religion that was anti-pesticide letthefireburn.photo02and anti-technology. The kids walked around naked and everyone shared the same last name. They also proselytized loudly in public, using a megaphone, not endearing themselves to their neighbours.

The police accused them of being an armed terrorist group and raided their home. In the melee a cop was killed, but it was never determined where the shot came from. (The police were caught on video brutally attacking an unarmed Delbert Africa.) Nine members of MOVE were convicted of third-degree murder and jailed.

Seven years later, in an apparent act of revenge for the  policeman’s death, they dropped two fire bombs – supplied by the FBI — on the urban commune and stood by, as 11 people, including five small children, letthefireburn.photo01died. Afterwards, the city’s Mayor, W. Wilson Goode, called for an investigation.

This excellent movie tells the story in an unusual way. The documentary is composed entirely of  period news footage, TV interviews, and, most of all, the recorded testimony of the inquiry. There’s no narrator, only voices from that time, preserved on tape. Police and survivors of the bombing all testify why they did what they did and bring light to what was happening that tragic day. (Some police were appalled by what happened and did what they could to rescue people, while others clearly supported it.) Especially poignant is the testimony of a little boy, Birdie Africa, who clears up many of the false claims and misconceptions about what went on. This is a stunning movie and an excellent oral history.

Jingle Bell Rocks (Hot Docs) and Let the Fire Burn (TIFF Bell Lightbox) both open today in Toronto: check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website culturalmining.com .

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