The Yellow Ticket in Vancouver with Alicia Svigals performing. Photo by Chris Randle.“When I see the interiors of the film, I smell the apartment of my great-grandmother [who emigrated from Odessa]... It’s a magic, rare, strange, mysterious, fascinating little item. It’s like photos of my great-grandparents come to life. 
— Alicia Svigals

Alicia Svigals. Photo by Tina Chaden BeskurenSvigals, the renowned klezmer violinist/vocalist/composer is referring to The Yellow Ticket, a silent film made 100 years ago which will be screened at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines on February 7. But this is no mere revival of a rare artifact. “The Yellow Ticket” is a multimedia event featuring a fascinating 1918 silent film, The Yellow Ticket (aka The Devil’s Pawn). Svigals’ original score breathes new life into the film as it is performed live by the violinist along with virtuoso Toronto pianist, Marilyn Lerner.

Considered by many to be the world’s foremost klezmer fiddler, Svigals is a founder of the Klezmatics and a driving force behind the klezmer music revival. The film, directed by Victor Janson and Eugen Illès, was a very early production of the legendary German film company UFA-Pagu, and made near the end of WWI on the eve of the Russian Revolution. Starring a young Pola Negri (later to become a femme fatale of the silent era in Hollywood), The Yellow Ticket tells the story of a young Jewish woman from a Polish shtetl who is constrained by antisemitic restrictions to lead a double life in a brothel while attempting to study medicine in Tsarist Russia. The first film to explore antisemitism in Tsarist Russia, The Yellow Ticket (which was restored in 2013), includes precious footage of the former Jewish quarter of Warsaw and the people who once lived there.

Remarkable for its time, The Yellow Ticket addresses ethnic and religious discrimination, human trafficking and poverty in startlingly progressive terms. Its clear-eyed denunciation of antisemitism caused the Nazis to condemn Negri in the years to come.

According to Michal Oleszczyk of rogerebert.com, Pola Negri (née Apolonia Chałupiec), the only Polish actress ever to become a major Hollywood star, lived a life as exciting as the movies she graced with her presence. Born in the small Polish town of Lipno in 1894 (while the country was still under a triple occupation by its neighbours), she climbed her way up: first to the theatre stages of Warsaw and then to the budding movie business. After a successful crossover to the much more sophisticated German film industry – and a happy pairing with its finest director, Ernst Lubitsch – she starred in the international smash-hit, Madame Dubarry (1919). It was Lubitsch’s ticket to Hollywood – as well as Negri’s.

“I believe this accompaniment to The Yellow Ticket is one of the most powerful I have heard. It evokes not only a sense of the contemporary context of the culture in which the film took place, but our awareness of what was done to it afterwards. The sound of piano, violin and the human voice evoke passion, energy and a profound sense of mourning, bridging the historical distance between us and this film as eloquently as does Pola Negri’s extraordinary face.”
-
University of Chicago film scholar Tom Gunning

FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre is only one stop along a whirlwind tour of Southern Ontario. Svigals and Lerner will also be accompanying the film in Burlington on February 8 and in Oakville, February 16. In between, on February 9, the “queen of klezmer” gives a recital at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts in Kingston.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Maria Callas. Photo credit: mk2 Mile-End.More than 40 years after her death, documentarian Tom Volf has given us Maria Callas as we’ve seldom seen her. Maria by Callas is a singular act of super fandom, a riveting experience that contains no talking heads, no academic analysis and no eyewitness accounts of the soprano by other musicians or participants in the operatic world she dominated as La Divina. Anchored by an extensive interview between Callas and the celebrated British broadcaster David Frost from 1970, Volf allows the singer to tell her story in her own words. And when those words are in the form of letters or an unpublished autobiography, they are spoken by American soprano Joyce DiDonato. The result is an intimate portrait of a legendary artist, an unabashed piece of adulation on Volf’s part that nonetheless adds to our understanding of the construct and consequences of greatness.

David Frost and Maria Callas. Photo credit: mk2 Mile-End.Volf’s materials include exceptional archival footage from rare interviews, as well as footage long considered lost. We witness personal moments captured on Super 8 aboard Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis’ yacht; Callas hobnobbing with the likes of Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco; we’re even privy to film and opera director Franco Zeffirelli’s home movies of Callas’ last Florida vacation just months before her death.

There are other recently discovered Super 8 films, secretly shot by fans, of her Farewell Tour and other concerts and performances, including Norma from 1965. We get a rare glimpse of her father and her together from a rediscovered BBC snippet. In an NBC nugget, she talks about her film ambitions with her friend Pier Paolo Pasolini, who directed her in his film Medea.

Rare audio recordings from a host of concerts and operas buttress Callas’ testimony. Unpublished letters to her husband Giovanni Meneghini show the depth of her love in the early days of their relationship. Letters to her singing teacher Elvira de Hidalgo reveal the extent of her sacrifice and ambition in pursuit of an operatic career. She reveals the fateful meeting with Onassis on a beach in 1957; her feelings for him still burning strongly in 1968; the shocking surprise of his marriage to Jackie Kennedy; and the way she took him back after he admitted his “mistake.” As she put it: “My affair with Onassis was a failure but my friendship with him is a great success.”

Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas.The biographical details are often revelatory. She discloses how her mother pushed her into becoming a singer and how meeting de Hidalgo in Greece changed her life. Not only did she learn the art of bel canto but her teacher became the mother figure she had been missing in her formative years. Moving to Italy in the late 1940s after a return to her birthplace of New York went nowhere, her career took off. Her friend and mentor, film director Luchino Visconti suggested she lose weight, which changed her life artistically with La Scala and personally with her marriage. Visconti also taught her to move less onstage – advice which allowed her to engage more fully with the characters she portrayed. She made her debut with the Met in 1956 – we see her interviewed between acts of Lucia di Lammermoor – and sang a memorable Tosca.

She gives her side of the story of her cancellations and missed performances. She calls the first – January 2, 1958 in Rome – “the saddest evening of my career,” when her voice, hanging by a thread from bronchitis, forced her to cancel after 40 minutes. Her credo: “I have to feel what I do; I do things instinctively. No two performances of mine are the same.” And her mantra: “The public made me.”

So many close-ups, so much expressiveness; so much passion, so much emotion. Ultimately it’s Callas the musician, Callas the performer, who is so affecting.

The film Maria by Callas opens October 26 at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Ryuichi Sakamoto.“I’m fascinated by the notion of a perpetual sound,” Ryuichi Sakamoto says. “One that won’t dissipate over time.“ He’s seated at the piano listening to the sound he’s just made melt into thin air. But as Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, Stephen Nomura Schible’s meticulous documentary on the now 66-year-old composer-performer indicates, Sakamoto’s own music is likely to outlast him.

Sakamoto with bow and cymbal.The film, shot over a five-year period, begins with footage of Sakamoto playing a piano that survived the 2011 tsunami. We follow his anti-nuclear activism triggered by Fukushima and then enter with him into his one-year sabbatical from music while he fights throat cancer. Once he’s able, his musical career resumes with the scoring of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant and working on his first solo album in eight years, async. We see him assiduously creating soundscapes on his computer (while sitting on an exercise ball), using natural forest sounds, for example, or delighting in the imposing result of a violin bow stroked over a cymbal that becomes fodder for The Revenant’s main theme. He imagines that his new album will be like composing for an Andrei Tarkovsky film that doesn’t exist.

Coda is that rare document that captures a composer’s creative process. There are no talking heads, no mention of Sakamoto’s personal life, marriages, children and the like. Instead we see his fascination with the great Russian filmmaker Tarkovsky’s use of Bach chorales. Sakamoto is consumed by the melancholy of Bach’s music.

Schible uses 1979 footage of Sakamoto from his synth-based heyday with the influential Yellow Magic Orchestra as a stepping stone to an overview of his film career. When Nagisa Oshima asked him to act in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence opposite David Bowie, Sakamoto refused unless he could also write the score. The result was arguably the most iconic and recognizable of his entire musical output, a simple repetitive tune that is as beautiful 35 years later as it was when the film was released in 1983. That led to his Academy Award-winning contribution to Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic Oscar winner, The Last Emperor (1986), and his echt romantic score for Bertolucci’s gorgeous follow-up, The Sheltering Sky (1990). We watch Sakamoto conducting an orchestra for the soundtrack in studio while the matching footage for both movies is shown onscreen.

Sakamoto playing the tsunami piano.The Sheltering Sky was based on a book by Paul Bowles, who had a cameo in the film. Sakamoto thought Bowles was the best thing about it and used Bowles’voiceover in async’s fullmoon, the album’s emotional centre. “Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well,” Bowles says. “How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps 20. And yet it all seems limitless.”

In choosing sounds for his new project, Sakamoto is also responding to the improvisatory nature of music and the way life itself has seemed to mirror it. Even the tsunami piano is returning to its natural state, he says. Schible’s lens captures it all for posterity.

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda plays on June 20 at 7pm as part of the 7th annual Japanese Film Festival in the Japanese Cultural Centre, Kobayashi Hall, 6 Garamond Court, Toronto.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

From the cover of The WholeNote vol. 6 no. 9 - June 2001WholeNote readers who remember with affection Jim Galloway’s 16 years as Jazz Notes columnist with The WholeNote will be interested to know that the James Cullingham/Tamarack Productions documentary, Jim Galloway: A Journey in Jazz, will receive its premiere (free) live screening at Church of the Redeemer (Bloor and Avenue Rd.) on Thursday, June 28 at 7pm. This will be its only live screening prior to its broadcast on TVO on Thursday July 5 at 10pm. The screening will be followed by a live performance by saxophonist Mike Murley and pianist Mark Eisenman.
Given Galloway’s 23-year relationship as founding artistic director of Toronto Downtown Jazz, it’s fitting that the June 28 screening is under the auspices of TD Toronto Jazz Festival – Church of the Redeemer being one of eight Yorkville area venues, indoor and out, that will be hosting performances during the festival.

The Ken Page Memorial Trust (one of Galloway’s passionate causes) and The WholeNote have been co-presenting twice- or thrice-yearly reunions of the Galloway Wee Big Band, with Martin Loomer at the helm, at the Garage here at 720 Bathurst St., Toronto (The WholeNote’s home base). The hundreds of Galloway fans and WholeNote followers will get a special kick out of the footage in the film from one of those events. But the film also traces a wide geographic arc (Dairy (Scotland), Glasgow, Kansas City, Vienna), as it depicts some of the things that made this remarkable jazz ambassador tick.

Anyone who attended the most recent of those 720 Bathurst events will be particularly pleased at the choice of Mike Murley for the live set that follows the film. Murley guested with the Wee Big Band for this year’s February 15 Garage reunion event, and laid down an evening of the kind of playful, punny, sweetly considerate lines that were a hallmark of Galloway’s own memorable melodic style.

Jim Galloway: A Journey in Jazz will receive its free premiere screening, featuring performances by saxophonist Mike Murley and pianist Mark Eisenman, at 7pm on Thursday, June 28, at Church of the Redeemer, Toronto.

David Perlman can be reached at publisher@thewholenote.com.

Gurrumul BannerThere are at least a dozen new films with a significant musical component in this year’s Hot Docs International Documentary Festival, which runs at various Toronto venues from April 26 to May 6 (hotdocs.ca). Many promising titles are tucked away among the 246 in the 2018 lineup, which celebrates the festival’s 25th anniversary. Among the ones I’ve seen, some are essential viewing and others are of more than passing interest.

Gurrumul at home during his father’s funeral.Gurrumul: April 28, 29, May 5. Paul Damien Williams’ definitive portrait of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, the blind-from-birth Indigenous singer from Echo Island in Arnhem Land, Australian Northern Territory, manages the difficult task of fusing the artistic and personal life of one of the most significant musicians Australia has ever produced. “I am my ancestors,” Gurrumul says of his songs, most of which are in the language of his Guratj community whose musical traditions go back thousands of years. With hours of performance and rehearsal footage to choose from, Williams chronicles Gurrumul’s musical ascendancy from when he was discovered by Mark Grose (who became his manager) and Michael Hohnen (who became his producer and “brother”). Hohnen accompanied him on the double bass on tour and recordings; their two-decades-long relationship ended with Gurrumul’s death in 2017 at the age of 46. Gurrumul’s soulful tenor voice was a powerful musical instrument; once you’ve heard it, it’s not easily forgotten. Neither is Williams’ film.

Georg Friedrich Haas and Mollena Williams-Haas at Museum of Sex, New York.The Artist & the Pervert (April 27, 29, May 4) is a no-holds-barred look at the personal and professional life of Georg Friedrich Haas, one of the major European composers of his generation. His best-known work, In Vain (2000), was written in response to the rise of the Austrian far-right Freedom Party. Simon Rattle, one of the film’s talking heads, calls it “a really astonishing work of art … that audiences can’t get enough of.”  As a child in Austria Haas was beaten by his Nazi parents. At 20 he resolved to rid himself of their “venomous ideas.” At 50 he had his first BDSM relationship, finally giving in to his urge to dominate. Three years ago the 60-ish Haas, by then a New Yorker, married his soulmate and muse, Mollena Williams-Haas, an African-American kink educator and bawdy storyteller with whom he has a loving 24/7 master/slave relationship. “I can now work much more intensively and more focused than before,” he says. An intimate examination of the process of making music itself, The Artist & the Pervert is an idiosyncratic introduction to Haas’ floating constellations of overtones and microtonal experimentation.

I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story: world premiere April 26, 27, May 4, 6. Three generations of women (two Australian and two American), 18 to 64, share their obsessions with The Beatles, Take That, the Backstreet Boys and One Direction. If you’ve ever wondered why teenage girls scream at concerts (“It was so cathartic”), you’ve come to the right place. Taking us inside the mindset of these obsessed boyband fangirls (“They’re just like Barbie Dolls; they’re so perfect; they’re all my boyfriends”), the film is seeded with retro footage and pop candy songs. Spoiler alert: there is no music by The Beatles in this film.

Bathtubs Over Broadway: May 1, 3, 5. Steve Young, a comedy writer for the Late Show with David Letterman, stumbled onto a few vintage record albums – bizarre cast recordings marked “internal use only” – that were full-throated Broadway-style musicals whose subjects were the products of corporate America: General Electric, McDonald’s, Ford, DuPont, Xerox – Everything’s Coming up Citgo, for example. Bathtubs over Broadway follows Young deeper down the rabbit hole of this most unusual musical genre. With David Letterman, Chita Rivera, Martin Short, Florence Henderson, Susan Stroman, Jello Biafra and more. Co-presented by the Musical Stage Company.

Barbara Rubin in 1964. Photo credit: Jonas Mekas.Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground: May 2, 4, 5. Barbara Rubin was a teenage experimental filmmaker, whose transgressive film Christmas on Earth caused a sensation when it screened in NYC in 1964. She hung out with Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg and (with Factory habitué Gerard Malanga) introduced Andy Warhol to the Velvet Underground. Rubin was a spoke in the avant-garde wheel for more than 15 minutes; Warhol shot her screen test in 1965. Yet within a few years she had become a Hasidic Jew and moved to a religious community in France, dying there at 35. Her lifelong friend, legendary experimental filmmaker and curator Jonas Mekas, saved all her correspondence. That and contemporaneous film footage were the fodder for Chuck Smith’s fascinating cultural touchstone; music by Sonic Youth’s Lee Renaldo.

Bachman: world premiere May 2, 3, 4. Randy Bachman’s American Woman was a chartbuster for the Guess Who and You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet also hit number one for Bachman-Turner Overdrive, but the Winnipeg native is at least as well known for Randy Bachman’s Vinyl Tap on CBC Radio One. Each week Bachman fills two hours of thematically unified airtime with music and anecdotes delivered matter-of-factly, intimately and authoritatively. John Barnard profiles the man and his craft.

Matangi/Maya/M.I.A (May 3, 5, 6) follows Sri Lankan genre-bending music star M.I.A. Mathangi Arulpragasam. “This is not a normal pop documentary, because M.I.A. was not a normal pop star,” writes Spencer Kornhaber in The Atlantic. The Strange Sound of Happiness (April 30, May 2) tells the director’s own story of how his obsession with the marranzano (jaw harp) led him from Sicily to Yakutia in Siberia to study under the legendary master of the instrument. Could it have been Sergio Leone’s memorable use of the instrument in For a Few Dollars More that triggered director Diego Pascal Panarello’s dream?

My Father Is My Mother’s Brother.My Father Is My Mother’s Brother: May 2, 3. Tolik, an artist in the Ukrainian underground music scene, is raising his niece while her mother is in and out of a psychiatric hospital. “The film seems to float, like the melody of one of Tolik’s songs,” according to Céline Guénot of the Nyon, Switzerland documentary film festival. To Want, To Need, To Love: May 2, 4. Two actor/musicians and the director’s brother are part of a troupe of artists, travelling from Zurich to Belgrade to Pristina, who create musical performance pieces around the question “What do you believe in?” Music by Kosovo native Arbër Salihu, who also plays one of the principal roles.

Ellis Haizlip, producer and host of the PBS series SOUL!, surrounded by his team. Clockwise left to right: Sherry Santifer, Stan Lathan, Loretta Greene, Leslie Demus, Alonzo Brown and Anna Maria Horsford. Photo credit: Bill Whiting.Mr. SOUL!: April 27, 28, May 5. A who’s who of black musical legends of the 1960s appeared on the PBS variety show SOUL from 1968 to 1973. Rare archival footage of the era dovetails with an intimate portrait of Ellis Haizlip, the openly gay producer-turned-host who is the film’s eponymous subject. Sidney Poitier, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Muhammad Ali, among others, also lend their voices to this moment of American cultural history. United Skates: April 28, 30, May 4. The roller rink scene and the Black community go under the microscope through the eyes of three skaters from LA, Chicago and North Carolina, as what was once a little-known cultural phenomenon and incubator of such hip-hop stars as N.W.A. and Queen Latifah fights to survive racism and a new economic reality. Jongnic (JB) Bontemps’ score was recorded by the Macedonian Symphonic Orchestra just last month.

Believer (May 1, 3, 4) follows Imagine Dragons’ frontman Dan Reynolds and openly gay former Mormon Tyler Glenn, lead singer of Neon Trees, as they create LoveLoud, a music and spoken-word festival designed to spark dialogue between the Mormon church and members of the LGBTQ community. Love, Scott (April 28, 29, May 3) follows Scott Jones, a gay musician oparalyzed from the waist down by a homophobic stabbing attack, as he rebuilds his life, in part through working with choirs. Score by Sigur Rós!

Among the films by Hot Docs’ 2018 Outstanding Achievement Award recipient Barbara Kopple are The Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing (May 1), a fly-on-the-wall chronicle of how the popular alt-country band dealt with the fallout from lead singer Natalie Maines’ criticism of President George W. Bush and his Iraq war policy; and Miss Sharon Jones! (May 2), Kopple’s inspirational portrait of the legendary soul singer that celebrates her music-making, joyful spirit and determination to carry on despite the cancer diagnosis that would take her life. May 3, Kopple will introduce a surprise screening of My Generation (2000), which takes a star-studded musical trip across three Woodstock Festivals (1969, 1992 and 1999) to see just how things have changed (or not).

Included in the Redux program, ”a retrospective showcase of documentaries that deserve another outing on the big screen,” is A Drummer’s Dream (2010) on May 2, featuring Nasyr Abdul Al-Khabyyr, Dennis Chambers, Kenwood Dennard, Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Mike Mangini and Raul Rekow. Finally, Focus On John Walker – a retrospective of the Canadian filmmaker’s work – includes Men of the Deeps (2003) on May 5, about a world-renowned choir of working and retired coal miners who sing passionately about lives spent deep underground as the last coal mine in Cape Breton prepares to close.

Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival plays April 26 to May 6 in various locations throughout Toronto. See hotdocs.ca for further information.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

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