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The Pleasures of Being Out of Step

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The Pleasures of Being Out of Step

David L. Lewis's feature-length tribute/profile of longtime Village Voice First Amendment defender Nat Hentoff, that brilliant and combative journalist, critic, and screed writer, not only covers Hentoff's own triple-stuffed life but also thumbnail histories of jazz, the civil rights movement, the alternative press, and the multitude of characters knocking about those worlds. What other doc is obliged to show us vintage footage of Charles Mingus and William F. Buckley, glimpsed here amid dazzling improvisations -- Mingus on bass and Buckley (seen in a TV debate) on bullshit?

Lewis packs in as much as a movie can hold. A "lowercase-L libertarian," Hentoff wrote for the Voice for more than 50 years, in his youth helping establish the paper's feisty tone and in his later years often taking on the left itself, arguing against the right of women to have an abortion.

The doc soaks a bit in the music and personalities of Mingus, Miles, and other stars of jazz's high-water mark, a mark Hentoff was among the first to note. We hear a snatch of Hentoff's interview with a young Bob Dylan for Playboy, see a clip of Billie Holiday singing on a TV show Hentoff briefly ran, and get anecdotes about Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, and more. Also fascinating: a rapid tour through the First Amendment controversies Hentoff stirred in his column; always principled, he argued for the free-speech rights of American Nazis.

The film isn't the final word on Hentoff, of course. He has thousands left in him. But it is a fine and lively précis, a celebration of a life well lived (and well fought).

Alan Scherstuhl

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