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Armchair Cinephile

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Movies worth humming about

Gospel According to Al Green, Black Wax (WinStar)
Space Is the Place, Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns (Plexifilm)
Amandia! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony (Artisan)
The Kids Are Alright (Pioneer)
Naqoyqatsi, Chicago (Miramax)
All That Jazz (Fox)
Cover Girl (Columbia/TriStar)

Not long ago, this column summed up the so-so state of the home video music scene. As if to show me up, the intervening weeks have brought nearly a dozen really worthwhile new releases, and I couldn't be happier to eat my words.

Just in time for the soul legend's new all-secular album, 1984's Gospel According to Al Green (WinStar) shows how the good Reverend has spent his time in God's service. Taking the cameras to church, director Robert Mugge shows what those of us who sleep in on Sundays have missed; Green is a fount of ecstasy at the pulpit, whether he is preaching, soloing, or leading the choir. Even better, Mugge sits down one-on-one with the star, who rambles endearingly about his former life, breaking into spontaneous song once or twice in moments that are by themselves worth the disc's price.

Mugge does something similar for a less famous songwriter, Gil Scott-Heron, in Black Wax (WinStar), letting the proto-rapper stage his own boom-box tour of Washington, D.C. As always, Scott-Heron's poetry is political and his demons are funky. In between the staged travelogue, Mugge captures a performance with the singer leading a full band, well after his coffeehouse jazz phase had mutated into larger funk/soul/Afrodelic territory.

Scott-Heron's turf never quite extended to Saturn, so he was no threat to Sun Ra, the jazz bandleader whose musical invention was more than matched by his eccentricity. Space Is the Place (Plexifilm), a decidedly low-budget meeting of music, science fiction, and blaxploitation, envisions Mr. Ra as a mysterious crusader for intergalactic racial justice. It was already a cult classic in the '90s, when fans could only see a butchered version of the hard-to-follow narrative; here it is restored to the original 82-minute running time and joined by home movies of the spaceman and his Arkestra.

Readers who doubt that music can save the universe are wrong, and Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony (Artisan) is here to prove it. A genuinely inspiring, joyous, and involving documentary, it interviews black survivors of South Africa's apartheid system to tell the story of "freedom music," chants and songs that not only lifted the spirits of the downtrodden, but served as a focal point for their resistance. The scene birthed international stars like Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, who are featured here, but its most enduring achievements spill off the pop charts and into the history books.

Maybe they never overturned a government, but The Who did okay for themselves, and The Kids Are Alright (Pioneer) is one of the best loved rock documentaries made to date. Put together with concert footage, interviews, and pre-MTV "videos," it focuses on the group's early- to mid-career, and was released shortly after the death of high-living drummer Keith Moon, who at least gets his share of attention here.

A less incendiary doc befits a more modest band: Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns, a love letter to They Might Be Giants, is about to hit DVD courtesy of Plexifilm. It's a fans-only affair, but considering the breadth of the TMBG cult, that's no insult. The high points by far are the occasional cutaways to famous fans reading their favorite song lyrics. In addition to the film itself, the package contains plenty of rare performance footage and some of the boys' coolest videos.

The music-video form has its high points to be sure, but can hardly compete with the achievement of Godfrey Reggio's and Philip Glass' Qatsi trilogy. The final installment, Naqoyqatsi (Miramax), finally made its way to DVD last month, and it's a breathtaking work. Nearly 20 years after the first film's debut, Reggio's sensory-wash approach is no longer startling, and has even bored some contemporary critics, but it is still able to trigger meaningful connections in the mind of a receptive viewer. This is a cinematic meditation on technology, militarism, nationalism, morality, and the limits of human ability; but even viewers who aren't transported into Epiphanyville must admit that there are images and music of impressive beauty rushing by them.

Nothing so weighty as philosophy finds its way into Chicago (Miramax). Some naysayers pointed out that the story's themes of fleeting celebrity and flexible morality were old hat, but they were digging for coal at a cotton-candy factory - the movie's about flash and panache, not crime and punishment. What it does, it does well, with wit and ice-cold charm. Catherine Zeta-Jones makes up for a year's worth of cell-phone ads, John C. Reilly plays John C. Reilly, and a couple of inventive song-and-dance routines get long-forgotten juices flowing.

Of course, it's all tinsel and cardboard compared to the work of the man who inspired it. Bob Fosse is still on another plane, and the evidence is in All That Jazz (Fox), a masterwork that achieves the very difficult feat of transforming Broadway-musical razzle-dazzle into meaningful art that communicates something of its creator's soul. Funny, sad, and technically impressive, it's a peek into the mind and heart of the man behind Cabaret and Lenny.

Before Fosse, few folks even tried to do that. A fine example of the old-school musical is Cover Girl (Columbia/TriStar), a lightweight tale of a small-time gal who is tempted to leave her very good life for bright lights and high living. With one exception, the songs aren't immortal. But Rita Heyworth's beauty is, as is Gene Kelly's charm. Throw in Phil Silvers' comic stylings and Eve Arden's sass, and you've got a tune worth humming. •


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