This year’s DOC NYC festival featured bird-poaching, ivory-hunting, and wrongly jailed teenagers. And yet the saddest film I watched was Lucy Kostelanetz’s We Don’t Wanna Make You Dance, a look back, à la Anvil! The Story of Anvil, at a hardworking, self-effacing band that didn’t make it.
Like Michael Apted’s Up! series, the film showcases its tongue-in-cheek subject – Miller Miller Miller & Sloan, a band whose name, perhaps intentionally, resembles a law firm’s more than that of high-energy white funk musicians — at three different stages. In 1983, the three Miller brothers — stoic ringleader Dan, goofball Barney, and pretty boy Michael, then still in high school — and their motormouth, David Byrne-like pal Blake Sloan were a hot commodity on the New York City club circuit. Profiled by Kostelanetz again in 1988, they were awkwardly transitioning to electronic pop, with drummer/falsetto backup vocalist Michael now the silky-voiced frontman. By the 2008 segment — 15 years since the demise of the band — they had become (with one exception) suburban West Coast family men with jobs in software and video post-production.
It’s precisely the down-to-earth normalcy of Kostelanetz’s subjects that makes We Don’t Wanna Make You Dance so poignant. While Blake, Barney, and Dan have taken on resigned acceptance of their unglamorous careers, Michael is determined to stay in the music industry, but he still has the good sense to license his vocals to European DJs, rather than shoot for pop idol status. Unlike in Anvil!, there aren’t outbursts or delusions of grandeur here, just a melancholy assortment of pained laughs, pregnant pauses, and downcast eyes as the boys ponder how they could have made a dent.
The band’s downfall most likely stemmed from a profound lack of cohesion. It wasn’t simply that, by the late 1980s, MMM&S were sporting a hideous clash of looks and hairstyles — from crewcut to corporate ponytail to mullet. Their music repertoire was equally frenetic, ranging from the Chaka Khan-like funk of their heyday to slick synth pop like the Pet Shop Boys; the group even experimented with hip-hop. Distribution was a more expensive proposition back then, and it was nearly impossible for an act to prosper without a fixed sound. Because this was a somewhat avoidable dilemma, it registers somehow as more tragic than if the band were simply another overlooked by the music industry.
Happily, Kostelanetz’s gentle, intimate approach keeps the proceedings light and even peppy – she balances out the bleakness. She has documented several hilarious moments of the band’s self-mocking repartee (sometimes voiced in mafioso accents). There are heartwarming moments of fathers bonding with their kids through musical tomfoolery. And there’s a classic scene of Dan, in 1988, explaining the agonizing process of how to design an electronic bass via an Atari typewriter, with none of today’s tools at his disposal. This is a band that, to their eternal credit, always learned things the hard way.
Michael Kleiman’s fascinating global odyssey Web is, in its own shrewd way, a fable about American gluttony versus third-world starvation. Just as Americans’ access to heaping portions of food has led us to develop a unique spate of health problems, we have also become so enmeshed in our advanced social media that we are starting to contract the disease of disassociation. (Sites such as FourSquare and MeetUp are, as their founders proudly acknowledge, ironically using the Internet to get people away from the Internet).
But, via the One Laptop Per Child program, the technology we now take for granted is being slowly delivered to areas like Antuyo and Palestina, Peru, places without running water or electricity (and, in the latter case, without roads). The joy with which these Peruvian schoolchildren plow through Wikipedia and educational programs for the first time may remind American audiences of their own early reactions to the advent of the Internet itself. They are thrilled to connect to the outside world, even as their access is at best fleeting. Long, heartbreaking stretches of Web follow a 10-hour trek up the Amazon just to get a modem fixed, to no avail.
Though he clearly sees the benefits of One Laptop Per Child, Kleinman isn’t resorting to Internet hagiography here. If the web is eventually made accessible to every last inch of the planet, it is only a matter of time, the film seems to suggest, before third-world users grow as cynical as we are. The children Kleiman profiles in Web are now able to pull themselves away from their computers long enough to build kites, or wrestle with their brothers. But the film questions, through savvy interviews with authors Robert Wright and Sherry Turkle and “father of the Internet” Vint Cerf, how long that sense of connection with their world will last.
Despite its cautionary moments, Web is never preachy. It’s light on its feet, and hopeful that the negative impact of the Internet can gradually right itself. And Kleiman has truly put his young subjects at ease in front of the camera, yielding hilarious scenes of the children watching Kickboxer on spotty WiFi (“You broke it!” one girl keeps saying) and listening to their first dose of American pop (The Police’s “So Lonely”). Web is both a paean to and critique of burgeoning global media, and extremely entertaining.