Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision

Having enjoyed Chico and Rita (reviewed here yesterday), I had high expectation of this 1994 documentary because it won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. I was greatly disappointed.

Maya Lin was only 20 years old, and an unknown, when she designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D. C. in 1981, her first creation. This documentary combines interviews and archival footage to chronicle Lin’s story. She continues to create other monuments like the Civil Rights Fountain Memorial in Alabama and the Museum of African Art in New York City.

Like Lin’s single-minded devotion to what she believes in, the one message that comes across is that one could and should stand up to personal and artistic attacks with clarity and grace.


The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years



I was very excited when I read the review of The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years in The Straits Times yesterday. It got 4 out of 5 stars from this very strict reviewer, and it was mentioned that it would likely float the audience out of the cinema on a cloud of rock ‘n’ roll euphoria and that it has a playlist that would make any fan weep with joy.

The documentary shows the four lads from the beginning of Beatlemania, in 1962. They sounded different and were different and natural; in the beginning it all seemed really simple but at the end it became quite complicated. They were the top band in Liverpool, and the film opens with footage of the band playing at the ABC Cinema in Manchester on 20 Nov 1963 to hoards of screaming, yelling and adoring fans, with many young girls sobbing or bursting into tears, something that Paul McCartney gets emotional recalling in an interview. The boys just wanted to play because playing was the most important thing; but where were they going? To the top! Although they did not at that time realise what was to come. There was great comaraderie between the four friends and they were described as fearless (John Lennon), cute (Paul McCartney), cheeky & sexy  (Ringo Starr) and irresistible (George Harrison).

The film followed the incredible sensation through their performances at the Olympia (in Paris), the Ed Sullivan Show, the Cavern Club in Liverpool, the Coliseum at Washington D.C., Roundup Scottish TV, Anfield Football Ground, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Beirut, Hong Kong, Manila, Tokyo, Hamburg, Adelaide, Melbourne, Wellington, Sweden, Cincinnati Garden, Canada, Milan, Madrid, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, Cleveland, Memphis, St Louis, Toronto, Canada, the Bahamas, New York City and Hollywood Bowl. They were also honoured and decorated by the Queen of England.

The Beatles were fresh and honest, and they had a special sort of stage presence that drove the fans wild with ridiculous antics (eg mayhem wherever they go, adoration and hysteria in equal amount, mobs smashing windows, 4,000 fans waiting outside their hotel room, 7000 kids rushing to the stage with 240 ending up in hospital, 50,500 people outside the hall with 5,000 seats).

Among the famous fans interviewed for this film are Whoppi Goldberg, Sigourney Weaver, Elvis Costello, Dr Kitty Oliver (historian), Larry Kane (journalist), Howard Goodall (composer), George Martin, Peter Sellers, Eddie Izzard (comedian), Jon Savage (author) and Brian Epstein (their manager). The sheer output (both in terms of quantity and quality) of these boys were compared to that of Schubert  (1797-1828) and Mozart (1756-1791)!

What was surprising to me was that classical music (namely the theme from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21 and Largo from Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto The Seasons) were appropritely used in the background during the narration in sections of the film !

Among the approximately 52  songs in the footages are I Saw Her Standing There, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Can’t Buy Me Love, A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, Rubber Soul, Yesterday and Today, Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart, Twist and Shout, I Feel Fine, Dizzy Miss Lizzy and Ticket To Ride.

The four members of The Beatles were very close to each other and always stuck to each other. Once, when asked what they would do if the bubble burst, they said they’d just laugh. Indeed, there came a time when they were merely going through the motions, found no enjoyment in what they were doing and all agreed it was enough as musicians they felt the only reason in life was to make music. They had gone on tour when they were supposed to be growing up. They each decided to be someone else, to have a new way of being, new everything, to become fresh again. They performed together for the last time on the rooftop of their office building in London in 1969.

I hope there is another film made about what became of them thereafter – how each achieved success and the impact they made on generations of fans.


Glen Campbell : I’ll Be Me


I was immediately attracted to this 2014 DVD when I spotted it a distance away from the library shelves because Glen Campbell is one of my all-time fvourites. I of course did not want to miss this film. The legendary Glen Campbell, who has sold 15 million records worldwide, was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s deisease. He set out on an unprecedented tour across America in 2011. It was supposed to be for five weeks, but it went for 151 spectacular sold out shows over a triumphant year and a half. This film documents the amazing journey that Glen and his family navigates the wildly umpredictable nature of the progressive disease using love, laughter and music as their medicine of choice.

The film opens with an interview between Glen and his doctor at the Mayo Clinic where he was asked to recall four words (apple, Mr Johnson, charity, tunnel), which he couldn’t because “I don’t care for such things”. The camera moves on to interview his wife and daughter Ashley and his publicist, Bobby Gale. At The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, he sang with three of his children but it would be hard to do a tour.

The first stop on The Tour was at Club Nokia with his family including his sons who said they want to celebrate their father’s life “while he’s still around, and enjoying it together is actually very nice”. There are also interviews with musicians like Jimmy Webb (Glen’s longtime collaborator), Vince Gill, Brad Paisley and the Edge (from U2).

On the road, the couple in charge of transportation and security, Clancy and Jill Fraser, with their son Aaron (the chief morale officer) are like Glen’s tour family. Plagued by Alzheimer’s, Glen obssesses over every little thing, but acknowledges that “I have cried, and I have laughed”. During a performance, he forgot the lyrics to Gentle On My Mind and the band helped him to re-start. But he could still play a mean guitar while performing the song Try A Little Kindness. There were no lapse in his rendition of Whichita Lineman or Duelling Banjo, a duet with Ashley (on banjo). Those who witnessed the performance were touched; Larry Gatlin, a musician, said, ” I saw it last night. I laughed. And I cried.” Other comments from fans include, “He amazed me”, “Incredible” and ” This man is just so strong and happy and big. It’s heart-breaking, knowing that he’s going to shrink.” For Glen, however, every second was a challenge to him but he understands that “it’s just something in your system”. He became disoriented in the middle of the night, for eg peeing in the corner of the bedroom or in the trash can. However, he had a good time on stage. He was bright, alert, and interacted and communicated well and surprised everyone how able he was to perform. That was because he was doing the stuff he loved to do. Working seemed to stimulate his mind and he seemed to enjoy it, especially when he got the adrenaline from the audience.

“Musicians like Glen – it’s magical,” declared Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. For Keith Urba, Glen’s music is “memories”. He said of By The Time I Get To Phoenix – “His crying voice just totally affected me”. Musicians like Brad Paisley grew up listening to Glen, and Willie Nelson thought musicians think Glen is extraordinary, diversely talented and humbling.

When told that he would be given the Grammy Award for Life Time Achievement, Glen’s reaction was, “What for? Life time? I haven’t done that.” But for Blake Shelton, “It’s a big deal to sing for him and with him”. When Glen sang Rhinstone Cowboy, I teared. Paul McCartney went back stage just to tell Glen that “I love you”.

Glen was entering the stage where his memory was getting worse yet he was still able to pull it off and entertain the public because he really loved singing. He said, “With Alzheimer’s, that’s probably one of the worst things for people to have. It will be an incredible lesson if we can get people to understand people who have Alzheimer’s.”

Glen has inspired people with Alzheimer’s. The more the public is aware, the better and healthier the people will be. When his daughter Ashley talked about her realization that someday her dad would look at her and she means absolutely nothing to him, I teared again.

Alzheimer’s affect people differently: memory loss, emotive skills, conversation and behaviour. It is very upsetting for his wife to see Glen an invalid and degenerating. (Here, there is a video footage showing Glen in a wheelchair.)

The family reunion with his brother (Gerald), sisters (Jane, Sandy and Barbara) and older daughters  (Kelli and Debby) in Arkansas is just beautiful.

In Oct 2012, Glen performed at the Carneige Hall in New York; then he went to Chicago to do a dinner show when he found it hard to do anything. Every day was a challenge for his wife who had to fight depression as she was intensely sad to see someone she loved struggle. She was his safety blanket and he wanted her around all the time. He became paranoid; thinking that people were stealing his golf clubs. It hurt for her to see him so frustrated.

The frequency of shows increased till Nov 2012 as she wanted to protect what Glen wanted. He didn’t know it was going to be his last show. Everybody was afraid everything was going to fall apart. Nov 30 was a different day: stressful – that night was really hard. The audience was completely with him even though he had many lapses. It’s something Glen wanted to do and his family thought it was healthy for him. The fans had been so supportive and they loved him and didn’t care if he messed up so the family decided to do the shows for as long as they could. Like his son said, all they could do was to cherish every moment; his daughter said she would never forget it as it was the best time of her life.

Two months later, Glen co-wrote a new song. He understood music though his memory and soul and spirit were deteriorating. He joined members of the Wrecking Crew (Joe Osborne, Hal Blaine, Don Randi) to record the song I’m Not Gonna Miss You, which was nominated by the Academy Awards as the Best Original Song. (The Working Crew was considered the most successful group of studio musicians in music history.) Glen knew “I’ve been a lot better. It doesn’t bother me”.

Other than the numereous interviews, there are plenty of video footage of Glen’s family life and past performances, and the songs featured include his many collaborations with Jimmy Webb, like MacArthur Park, Wichita Lineman, by The Time I Get To Phoenix and The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, those written by Glen himself including A Better Place, and other hits such as I Remember You, Valley Of The Son, Hold On Hope, Any Trouble, It’s Your Amazing Grace, In My Arms, Lovesick Blues, Nothing But The Whole Wide World, Gentle On My Mind, Columbus Stockade Blues, Freeborn Man, Southern Nights, Finally Found, Remembering and Home Again, and his guitar solo of Classical Gas.

I wish this film was shown in a cinema here as it would been a better experience. It definitely deserves its two Grammy Awards!

He Named Me Malala


My estimation skill is not very good,but I guess the DVD collection at the Central Library to be only about 5 or 10% of that at the library@esplanade, so I was very pleased to find this 2015 documentary during my last visit.

Teenager Malala Yousafzai was shot on the left side of her forehead while travelling in a school bus. The attack was carried out by the Talibans because the girls had dared to go to school. Two of her friends were also injured, but Malala’s wounds were so bad that she had to be rushed to the intensive care unit: the bullet had shattered her skull and fragments of bones were driven into her brain,  destroying both her eardrums and the the tiny bones in the inner ear, resulting in her being unable to hear in the left ear now, even after having undergone three surgical procedures. Yet she has never been angry with her attackers because she thinks Islam talks about humanity, equality and forgiveness. Her father also agrees that it was not a person who shot Malala but an ideology. The Talibans were not about faith, they were about power. They were cruel people, inflicting injuries for fun and misusing the name of Islam.

When she was born (in a town called Swat in Pakistan), her father decided to name her Malala, after a brave girl who was killed after leading the army to great victory a long time ago in Afghanistan. In this film, we see the relationship between Malala and her father and the rest of the family. (She also has two younger brothers, and they relocated to Birmingham, England in 2013 with their mother.) Malala and her father are like one soul in two different bodies.

Malala spoke about how in Pakistan, girls couldn’t go to the market and were not allowed to go to school. That’s why she spoke, as she believed in equality between men and women; she even believed women are more powerful than men. Malala is tough and focused in her mission. She joined in the campaign to help release the girls (more than 200 of them) who were abducted by the Boko Haram even though “it’s so hard to get things done in this world. You try and it doesn’t work but you have to continue and you never give up”.

The average age of a Nobel Peace Prize winner is 62, but Malala was conferred this honour in 2013 when she was only16 for doing good work for the girls’ education. She’s like a role model to all girls – brave,  intelligent and inspiring. Malala has chosen this life and it is a sacred life, and she must continue. In her words: “We realise the importance of light when we see darkness. We realise the importance of our voice when we are silenced. We believe in the power and the strength of our words. Our books and our pens are out most precious weapons. They can change the world.”

This film was inspired by the book I Am Malala. Hers is not a lone voice; and our voices have grown louder and louder. When you educate a girl, it transforms the world, it transforms our world. Because it lifts the whole famiy, it creates opportunity; it changes the econony and a lot of other problems will be solved.

One important message conveyed here is that a girl’s courage can change human atrocities with passion and peace. Malala is utterly fearless, and her act of bravery is really inspiring. This is an emotional documentary with intimacy. It is not just about the political history of Pakistan or about terrorism. This movie conveys a breakthrough moment about education and the conflicts of war in the world.

There is a fair bit of use of animation, and it is effective in telling the story here in a profound way. It helps to convey the beauty of Malala’s childhood, which makes it more powerful when it’s being taken away. The animation is interacted with live action and the live action is real and it’s present, and the team comes up with some extraordinary animation that is poetic and impressionistic, making it very human, vey real. They capture and visually show the risks and the beauty more than the words to inspire the world. The way these are portrayed is realistic and powerful.

There are lots of dramatic construction through still photography, art,  archive footage, additional images and interviews. The music is not intrusive, and there are orchestral music and instrumental soloists in addition to songs like a traditional one called Happiness and another called I Am Many written by Alicia Keys and Thomas Newman.

The Choir : Unsung Town

I was drawn to this 2009 DVD set because I was once a choir teacher and according to the sleeve jacket, this BBC series is incredibly successful, winning a BAFTA, and RTS and a Broadcast award.

“Unsung Town” is the third series, and it contains four episodes, with each lasting an hour. I enjoyed viewing all of them, but especially the first.

Gareth Malone, who graduated from the Royal Academy of Music (London) with distinction in 2005, is Choirmaster of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) and believes that community spirit is a passion. The LSO community choir started with ten enthusiastic amateurs from the surrounding neighbourhood and in six years achieved resounding success. Gareth will replicated this in South Oxhey, a town where there is a lot of comaraderie, though it had been built to house homeless post-war Londoners. It was difficult for Gareth to recruit members because people were “not convinced” and they all didn’t want to “look like fools”. He even had to go for a round in the boxing ring to get a guy to join, hence he remarked: “the things I do for music!”

Gareth handed out over 1000 fliers and eventually 170 turned up at the first rehearsal. This was an encouraging turn-out! At the first practice session, Gareth gave some basic tips about singing:

  • The most important thing when you’re singing is that your feet are in the right position: both feet shoulders’ width apart (“imagine they’re like parellel train tracks”).
  • Think about the jaws, the “enemy” of singing (Go “Ahhhh”; reason is to loosen your jaws.)

Gareth was both massively exhilarated and utterly daunted by the whole thing because it’s an unexpected challenge, so he paid a visit to the conductor of Bach Choir for advice. He watched the rehearsal and found the sound of 250 people singing together really powerful and the “big choirs can thrill in a way no other choirs can”.

To boose their confidence, Gareth arranged for the South Oxhey Community Choir to perform at the town centre’s shopping precinct, reminding members that “If I look at you and smile, smile back. It really makes a difference to the sound. We have to show people that we love this.”

There were over 500 people in the usually deserted precinct by the time the choir was ready to sing. Comments from the audience were positive: “Brilliant”, “Absolutely brilliant”, Very good”, “I couldn’t believe it”, “Hair stood up on my back”, “I’m lost for words, and that’s unusual’, “I’ve never seen so people down on the precinct in my life and I’ve lived here all my life”, “It’s just an amazing performance”.

The choir members themselves throughly enjoyed it: “I loved every moment of it”, “Welcolming faces”, “Smiles”, “It’s nice, really nice”, “It was exciting”, “What an exciting crowd”. Gareth was so proud of his choir. He felt “they’re only going to get better and stronger. They have created a splash, and now I want this choir to reach for the stars.”


The second episode sees Gareth bringing the choir to sing at the Watford Colosseum, an internationally renown concert and recording venue as special guests of a Christmas Concert. The choir has done somethng they thought they couldn’t do.

Now Gareth wants to unite all the six primary schools in South Oxhey into one choir. His only requirements are that these children need to be committed and need to like singing a lot. Putting the kids together is going to be something powerful.

Ultimately, Gareth wants these children to sing side by side with the community choir. There are no quick fixes in building a choir. It’s hard work. But there are moments where you learn an awful lot in a vry short space of time. It’s about people; it’s about passion.

The choir’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and Eric Clapton’s Tears In Heaven brought me to tears; the audience was touched and gave them a standing ovation. Gareth remarked that he’s never had a standing ovation all his life! The choir has proven that they can come together and do these things; they can touch emotions.


Episode 3 sees the SOCC and the South Oxhey Children’s Choir performing Agus Dei (an Italian concert) in St Albans Cathedral with professional musicians, where the main performance is Verdi’s Requiem, by Hertshire Chorus and a professional orchestra. The combined choir really delivered and is again amazing and brilliant! It is unbelievable, great and exciting.


In Episode 4, seven months after the choir was started, it has become a very personal experience for many of its members. Being able to sing together and do stuff together have brought relationships closer. Some shoir members think things will not be the same when Gareth is no longer the choirmaster and they will be very, very disappointed. 150 of them signed a petition for Gareth to stay, but Gareth was non-committal, saying that he had already committed to several projects. The immediate project was a Choral Festival where they will perform in front of a big crowd at the South Oxhey playing field. More than 6000 people gathered to hear the full choir, which had 250 members altogether. Gareth tells them, “This is a dream. This is the vision. Make this a day all will remember for the rest of their lives”. The grand finale really brought the house down. It was amazing, absolutely wonderful and brilliant. The audience completely loved it. It was very emotional. It was a really good thing for the whole community to get together.

Towards the end of this episode, Gareth reiterates: We need music. We need music in the communities. We need music in our lives because you need these moments together. It’s the whole point of putting humans together. It is that we get together and we enjoy each other, we enjoy each other’s company and choirs are the culmination of that and an experience of something that is deeply emotional and deeply human.

As the episode comes to an end, we find our that Gareth has decided to stay on as South Oxhey’s choir master.

Con Artist

The New York Times hails this 2010 documentary as “an entertaining portrait of one of the art world’s most outrageous provocaters”. The film is about Mark Kostabi, once a legitimate art star in the 1980s New York scene. Later he hires others to conceive and create paintings which he signs and sells as his own. Yet he’s an artist many willingly buy from and it makes him feel great.

Mark was a good Art student and his paintings were displayed at art galleries and sold well. Deciding that he had to continue to be competitive, he established the Kostabi World. He played up all aspects of his production; he made original forgeries. He didn’t like to give interviews, had the talent to be successful but thought it was funny to play with reality and truth. So he advertised for a stand-in to sign paintings, autographs and even cheques, give interviews and make public appearances.

Everything was a joke; everyone was a con, and he was the world’s greatest con artist. He travelled to sell his works and these fetched between US$ 12,000 and 50,000. There came a time when there were forgeries of his forgeries. When he became a bankrupt during the recession, he sought new ways to make a comeback, including a TV show called ‘Inside Kostabi’. Even then, the pursuit of fame remained his obsession. He believed that in the Art business, “you need to have a name to sell, and so to impress”. He wanted to be loved, and he wanted to control everything. He justified this by asking: “Is it insane to want to be loved?”

This film is indeed an eye opener!


Find Your Way: A Busker’s Documentary

This multi-award winning 2014 film explores themes of creativity and success through the lens of street music. Very early in the film, we learn that busking is known as the second oldest profession in the world because street music is like music prostitution! Buskers, both experienced (eg Gregory Paul, a full time banjo busker who plays old time blue grass, has been busking for 16 years), and the young ones (eg Sadie Frank, a 17-year-old aspiring singer/songwriter), write their slots on pieces of paper stuck on a lamp post at the place they perform, often near the Market Place.  For Whitney Monge, also an aspiring singer/songwriter, who has been playing street music for one-and-a-half years, busking is a way to pay for college. For Emery Carl, an ex-air force veteran (staff sergeant for ten years), it’s a need to do something different. More than a dozen buskers are filmed and many of them are interviewed.

Passers-by who are interviewed have good things to say about these street musicians: “I love them”, “they’re fun to watch”, “it’s amazing” etc, but most would not recognise if a master musician were playing. As an experiment, Joshua Bell (internationally renown violinist who sells out US$150 tickets for his concerts at the Carneige Hall) played at the concourse of the Library of Congress, and people just walked past, ignoring him.

Joshua Bell admits he is more nervous busking than playing before an audience because he’s not validated and is intruding on people’s lives. Similarly, probably nobody would have noticed if Yo Yo Ma is playing the cello at a subway.

The richly woven footage of Joshua Bell performing at the Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts also adds to the awareness how our own pre-conceptions of “what’s good” can prevent us from appreciating something’s natural beauty.

Interviews with Pulitzer Prize winner, author Gene Weingarten and 90’s rocker Chris Baller (lead singer of the band called The Presidents of the United States) reveal insights that will forever change the way we think about creativity in our culture.

I am so glad I found this DVD at the library, because when I read in the Straits Times about the experiment with Joshua Bell busking, I wondered when I would get to see the film! I shall look out for more films like this.