The moving ‘If I Leave Here Tomorrow’ chronicles Lynyrd Skynyrd

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“Musicians are a rare breed — once it gets in their blood, they have to go after it” — Judy Van Zant, widow of Ronnie Van Zant

Are you in the market for an incredibly well-made, super professional, smartly-edited, fully licensed and extremely unlikely to be controversial documentary about an interesting musician or group?

Then, brother, Stephen Kijak is your man.

Starting with his outstanding “Scott Walker: 30 Century Man” (2006), Kijak has made excellent docs on the Backstreet Boys, Jaco Pastorius, the Rolling Stones and X Japan. He works his slick magic again with the moving “If I Leave Here Tomorrow,” bankrolled by CMT and likely airing on the network later this year.

Rising out of a Jacksonville, Fla., garage band called One Percent, Lynyrd Skynyrd took their name from both the name “Leonard Skinner” from “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” and a high school coach who happened to have the same name.

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The band honed its chops the old-fashioned way, rehearsing and writing morning, noon and night at “Hell House,” a cabin in the middle of nowhere where the band could work out music. It was also close enough to water than Ronnie could go fishing while writing lyrics in his head, Biggie Smalls-style. These were the salad days — as one member puts it, “Hell House was the reward.”

Al Kooper, who helmed the first two albums, was floored by the band’s airtight prowess on even the guitar solos. Those records cut like butter, while the rest of their output was sometimes marred by writing-in-the-studio and, um, lifestyle choices.

Kijak talks to folks who are around and gets tremendous archival footage (and stunning bell bottoms) of those who are not. There’s guitarist Gary Rossington and Ronnie’s brother Johnny Van Zant, who lets us see the Jacksonville neighborhood where the band was born.

There’s the fascinating Artimus Pyle, the “left wing liberal hippie” who replaced original drummer Bob Burns (who all but had a nervous breakdown due to, well, the hazards of being in Skynyrd).

PHOTOS: “If I Leave Here Tomorrow” red carpet

“I think they felt (the band was) supposed to smoke every cigarette and drink everything provided and eat whatever they wanted and throw the rest against the wall,’ Pyle says. “That was our road manager’s duty – to carry a briefcase with probably $250,000 in cash to bail people out of jail and placate hotel owners.”

There’s Ed King, the California kid who hailed from the Strawberry Alarm Clock, co-wrote “Sweet Home Alabama,” and filled out the three guitar lineup until he bounced in ’75 after Van Zant’s temper got to be a bit much.

Kijak also cuts between band history and an inevitable look at the October 1977 plane crash that killed Ronnie Van Zant, King’s replacement Steve Gaines and Steve’s sister Cassie (as well as assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray), effectively ending the band for a decade. Surviving members recount the horror of crashing in the middle of nowhere in the farmland of Gillsburg, Mississippi (“like hearing 10,000 baseball bats on the side of the fuselage” as they started to hit the trees).

“The one thing I want the world to know about my band is how bravely my band met their death,” Pyle says in the documentary. “Everyone knew it was gonna end badly. There was no panic, no chaos; everybody was in prayer, in deep thought.”

“If I Leave Here Tomorrow” plays again at 1:45 p.m. March 17 at Alamo Ritz 1. Grade: A-

Sex tapes, press freedom and our possible slide toward authoritarian rule in ‘Nobody Speak’

 

Hulk Hogan and Gawker. Probably not two names that rush to mind when you think about the health of America’s democracy. But, as Brian Knappenberger’s “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press” shows us, the collision of the two sensational brands could serve as a crucial point in terms of a free press.

The documentary uses the case of Hogan suing Gawker and publisher Nick Denton and former editor A.J. Daulerio over the release of a sex tape as a jumping-off point for a case study of the threat faced by a free press.

As with many conversations today, “Nobody Speak” starts with footage of Donald Trump, as the then-candidate threatens to “open up those libel laws on the press” during a campaign speech. But we’ll get back to him.

Just because many see Hogan and Gawker as sleazy, as First Amendment rights lawyer Floyd Abrams states early in the film, doesn’t mean the case isn’t hugely important. The question isn’t whether Gawker is worth saving; it’s simply a protection of First Amendment rights.

Interviews with Denton and Daulerio, as well as with several journalists and lawyers both inside and outside the case, set up the backstory on entertainer Hogan and his suit against Gawker. The film follows the blow-by-blow of what turned out to be a pretty clear-cut case in the eyes of the judge and jury. Motivations are examined, and both sides’ cases are presented, but before the story gets bogged down in the minutiae, the movie gets around to its main interest: the man who was funding Hogan.

Silicon Valley investor and entrepreneur Peter Thiel admitted to backing Hogan in his case against Gawker in hopes of financially destroying the company and Denton, which he effectively did. Was Thiel motivated by Gawker’s story years earlier outing him as homosexual? Was he being vindictive for Gawker taking aim at the Teflon kings of Silicon Valley? Was Thiel simply striking the first blow in a concerted effort to undermine independent journalism, something the presidential candidate he supported (Trump) has made part of his modus operandi? Likely all of the above, according to the film.

The movie reveals Thiel to be both personally vindictive and a serious threat to a free press. The ugly precedent established, the film then turns on its heel and addresses another case of a billionaire causing problems for the press. While a common observer may have ambivalent feelings about Hogan v. Gawker, anyone who cares about a free press would certainly feel sympathetic to the plight of the hard-working journalists at the Las Vegas Review-Journal. They were left in the dark when their paper was sold, so they got to work doing what they do best: reporting. They discovered that Republican political kingmaker and Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson was behind the move.

With the integrity of their paper in question and their ability to perform their jobs constrained, a mass exodus occurred at the Review-Journal, in another striking example of what happens when the rich and powerful decide to limit the ability of the press to do its job.

The film moves into its third and final stage with a quick and disturbing rundown of some of Trump’s many attacks on the media, and a film that at times feels disjointed starts to congeal around the ugly truth. In the paraphrased words of Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University: Billionaires are proclaiming they are not vulnerable to the truth but more powerful than it.

“It’s possible we are sliding toward authoritarian rule,” Rosen says.  

Amid the litany of Trump’s outlandish attacks on the media, which terrify anew even though many are only weeks old, a chorus of voices emerges backed by a triumphant score. David Folkenflik of NPR declares the present as a “moment of real definition for the press,” and Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post warns that if we lose a free press, “We’ve lost what America is and what it stands for.”

It is heartening to see shots of American citizens speaking truth to power at town hall meetings, joining in the role the press has always had, a role that has always been protected under law. But as the Gawker case proves, the powerful can often quash anyone with less power or money. So, it is important that the citizenry and the press not lower their voices in the face of a threat from their own leaders, but, rather embolden themselves to push even harder to shine the light on truth and justice.

“Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press” screens at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday at Alamo South Lamar and 7 p.m. Friday at Alamo Ritz.

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SXSW: ‘Stranger Fruit’ offers new theory about Ferguson shooting

“Stranger Fruit” looks at what happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Contributed

“Hands up, don’t shoot” — the tragic protest slogan echoed around the globe after Michael Brown was shot by a police officer on Aug. 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. These four words hold even more gravitas as Jason Pollock’s feature length documentary, “Stranger Fruit,” mines a crucial piece of video evidence suggesting that Brown did not rob that convenience store for two boxes of Swisher Sweet Cigarillos.

The film’s premiere at South by Southwest coincided with a front page story in the New York Times outlining a previously unreported surveillance video from earlier on the day of Brown’s death — a video “Stranger Fruit” suggests is proof of a barter type transaction that took place, a small bag of marijuana for boxes of the cigars, after which Brown decided to leave the cigars behind the counter for safekeeping before returning later that morning to retrieve them, an act that may or may not have contributed to his death. (A lawyer for the store and its employees has told the Times that no such transaction took place).

“Stranger Fruit” is an intricately detailed documentary concerning the forensic evidence of an incredibly troubling case as well as at least a half dozen eyewitness accounts of what every witness described as an execution.

Is it activism or documentary filmmaking? Does Pollock have an agenda? What is clear is the pain felt by Brown’s father, uncle, mother and the rest of those close to the slain teen.

RELATED: New video shows Michael Brown at convenience store

The deaths of unarmed minority people at the hands of police have led to protests, the Black Lives Matter movement and calls for justice. Austin, do we remember Daniel Rocha, Larry Jackson Jr., Byron Carter Jr., David Joseph and Kevin Brown?

Institutional racism, cronyism, the killings of predominately young men at the hands of law enforcement — these are the issues at the heart of “Stranger Fruit.”

The final showing of “Stranger Fruit” at SXSW will be at 1:30 p.m. March 15 at Zach Theatre. The filmmakers and family members of Brown will be speaking at a panel at 2 p.m. March 13.

Famed photographer Rose Hartman is introduced to Austin

Rose Hartman, the fashion and celebrity photographer who captured some of the most iconic moments of the famed New York club Studio 54 in the late 1970s, dropped by the American-Statesman offices this morning to talk about the new documentary, “The Incomparable Rose Hartman.”

Rose Hartman
Rose Hartman

 

Jerry Hall, in a Rose Hartman photograph.
Jerry Hall, in a Rose Hartman photograph.
Bianca Jagger atop a birthday party horse at Studio 54. Taken by Rose Hartman.
Bianca Jagger atop a birthday party horse at Studio 54. Taken by Rose Hartman.

Directed by Otis Mass, the film details how the New Yorker became friends with Studio 54 co-owner Steve Rubell and gained access to the VIP area at the club, before the dividing curtain was lifted at 11 p.m. and the dancing and partying began.

Probably her most iconic photograph is of Bianca Jagger atop a white horse during her birthday party at the club. But she was also one of the early chroniclers of model Jerry Hall, the Texas native who recently married Fox News mogul Rupert Murdoch.

Before showing up at the Statesman offices, Hartman had an interview on “Good Morning Austin,” a program on Austin’s Fox affiliate. She was asked about Hall’s recent marriage to Murdoch, and she said, in her typically blunt way, that she regarded it as “beauty and the beast” to the somewhat surprised co-anchors.

Hartman was also mystified that the next guest on the show was a cat. Yes, it was Grumpy Cat. And Hartman couldn’t figure out why a cat would be on an interview show. Welcome to Austin, Rose.

At any rate, the documentary is a hoot, and so is Hartman.

It premieres at 6:15 p.m. Saturday at the Alamo South, followed by screenings at 11:30 a.m. Monday at Alamo Slaughter, 8:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Alamo South and at 3 p.m. March 19 at the Alamo South.

She’ll also be signing books of her photography at the Austin Convention Center at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday. The two books are “Incomparable Women of Style” and “Incomparable Couples of Style.”