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Tribeca fest yields must-see queer documentaries

Compelling films on Leonard Bernstein, Marin Alsop among top fare

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Angelo Madsen Minax director of ‘North By Current.’ (Photo courtesy Tribeca Film Festival)

If you’re a film fanatic, chances are pretty good you are already aware that the Tribeca Film Festival took place this month.

One of the most prestigious events on the festival circuit, this New York City cinematic staple was founded in 2002 by Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, and Craig Hatkoff, as a means of revitalizing the economic and cultural landscape of lower Manhattan in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It’s become a mainstay of the city’s annual calendar, providing a high-profile platform that has brought visibility to hundreds of independent and international films – as well as to the artists who made them – across the 20 years since its inception.

Although Tribeca is not an LGBTQ+ film festival, it’s always been inclusive of LGBTQ+ films – after all, it is held in the middle of Pride month. The 20th anniversary edition, which was held June 9-20 and featured both virtual and in-person screenings, offered a particularly impressive crop, especially among the documentary lineup. That means fans of queer docs will surely be keeping an eye out for them as they make their way into general release over the next few months.

Not to worry, the Blade has you covered. Here’s a sampling of some of the titles included among the LGBTQ+ themed documentary features that premiered during the festival. There are no official release dates yet – but with the Tribeca pedigree behind them, these enticing gems are sure to be heading to your screens very soon.

“BERNSTEIN’S WALL”

Leonard Bernstein was one of the greatest classical music figures of the 20th century, the child of a Russian Jewish immigrant who rose to become not only conductor of the New York Philharmonic but a respected composer in his own right, a kind of musical ambassador who became a household name by educating millions of viewers about symphonic music on TV. He was also a gay man. In this documentary from filmmaker Douglas Tirola, we are given a comprehensive look at a life lived both in and out of the concert hall and intertwined with key historical moments. Illuminated by a rich trove of interviews, television appearances, home movie footage, photos, and letters, the film covers musical triumphs like “West Side Story” but also documents Bernstein’s pushing-the-edge activism, such as his protesting of the Vietnam War and his support of the Black Panthers. It also delves into the complexities of his personal life, exploring his fraught relationship with his father, his marriage and family life, and his struggles to find peace with his sexuality. The result is an enlightening portrait of a beloved American icon as both an accomplished musical artist and an important public figure during one of the most tumultuous eras in American culture.

BUILDING A BRIDGE”

Prompted by the apparent apathy of his peers in the wake of 2016’s horrific Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, New York-based priest, author, and journalist Father James Martin wrote a book. After it was published, “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity” led to appearances on outlets from Colbert to Fox News, and he became something of a celebrity – but though he may have been lauded by many for the acceptance espoused in his views, he was also denounced as a heretic by many others. This documentary, directed by Evan Mascagni and Shannon Post (and executive-produced by notable Catholic Martin Scorsese) follows the “outspoken but good-humored” priest as he speaks before packed houses, faces protesters, consoles queer youth and their struggling parents, and makes a journey to Rome. After this year’s March 15 Vatican statement barring priests from blessing same-sex unions, this one seems particularly timely.

“THE CONDUCTOR”

Internationally renowned conductor Marin Alsop has smashed a lot of glass ceilings. She was the first woman to serve as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, rising to the top of a profession that had always been dominated by men. Director Bernadette Wegenstein charts that rise in this “exhilarating” documentary, filmed with “unprecedented access” to its subject and a “backstage pass” to her world, by telling the openly lesbian Alsop’s story through a combination of interviews and shared moments, encounters with musical “cognoscenti,” previously unseen archival footage with her mentor Leonard Bernstein (yes, him again), and scenes of her teaching a next wave of young conductors who, like her, were being excluded from the classical music canon. The articulate Alsop is a charismatic protagonist, and her story makes for an inspiring and triumphant film about overcoming discrimination – and about pursuing your talent, against all odds.

“NORTH BY CURRENT”

A complex, experimental-leaning documentary from filmmaker Angelo Madsen Minax, this meditation on “the relationships between mothers and children, truths and myths, losses and gains” began to take shape when Minax returned to his rural Michigan hometown in the wake of his young niece’s death to make a film about the family’s wrongful persecution. Before long, he found himself expanding his scope to explore a web of themes of generational addiction, fervent Christianity, and trans embodiment – all while participating in the evolving dynamic of a family trying to repair itself. Finally, the filmmaker turned the camera toward himself. The resulting film is a deeply personal meditation on identity, familial roles and responsibilities, and the challenges of learning to accept one another.

“NO STRAIGHT LINES: THE RISE OF QUEER COMICS”

Adapted from Justin Hall’s anthology of the same name, this fun documentary spotlights five LGBTQ+ comic book artists – Alison Bechdel (“Fun Home”), Jennifer Camper (“Rude Girls and Dangerous Women”), Howard Cruse (“Gay Comix”), Rupert Kinnard (“B.B. And The Diva”) and Mary Wings (“Come Out Comix”) while showcasing the evolution of the comic book side by side with the history of the LGBTQ+ rights movement. This celebratory film from director Vivian Kleiman blends art, comedy and politics to entertain while also schooling audiences about some important milestones of queer representation and the challenges faced by the community along the way.

“PRAY AWAY”

From director Kristine Stolakis comes this provocative documentary about Exodus International, an organization that was started in the 1970s by five men who were struggling with being gay in their Evangelical church. Organized as a Bible study group to help people “leave the homosexual lifestyle,” it grew to become the largest and most controversial conversion therapy organization in the world. In this frank exposé, Stolakis introduces us people like self-identified “ex-trans” Jeffrey, who says “I lived transgender, but I left it all to follow Jesus,” and Julie, who spent a decade going through intensive counseling to “become straight” – but also to former leaders in the conversion therapy movement who have now embraced their sexuality, coming out as LGBTQ themselves and disavowing the movement they helped to start. This one will be coming to Netflix in August. 

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Gender expression is fluid in captivating ‘Paul & Trisha’ doc

Exploring what’s possible when you allow yourself to become who you truly are

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Paul Whitehead and Trisha van Cleef in ‘Paul & Trisha.’ (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

Given the polarizing controversies surrounding the subject of gender in today’s world, it might feel as if challenges to the conventional “norms” around the way we understand it were a product of the modern age. They’re not, of course; artists have been exploring the boundaries of gender  – both its presentation and its perception – since long before the language we use to discuss the topic today was ever developed. After all, gender is a universal experience, and isn’t art, ultimately, meant to be about the sharing of universal experiences in a way that bypasses, or at least overcomes, the limitations of language?

We know, we know; debate about the “purpose” of art is almost as fraught with controversy as the one about gender identity, but it’s still undeniable that art has always been the place to find ideas that contradict or question conventional ways of viewing the world. Thanks to the heavy expectation of conformity to society’s comfortable “norms”  in our relationship with gender, it’s inevitable that artists might chafe at such restrictive assumptions enough to challenge them – and few have committed quite so completely to doing so as Paul Whitehead, the focus of “Paul & Trisha: The Art of Fluidity,” a new documentary from filmmaker Fia Perera which enjoyed a successful run on the festival circuit and is now available for pre-order on iTunes and Apple TV ahead of a VOD/streaming release on July 9.

Whitehead, who first gained attention and found success in London’s fertile art-and-fashion scene of the mid 1960s, might not be a household name, but he has worked closely with many people who are. A job as an in-house illustrator at a record company led to his hiring as the first art director for the UK Magazine Time Out, which opened the door for even more prominent commissions for album art – including a series of iconic covers for Genesis, Van der Graaf, Generator, and Peter Hammill, which helped to shape the visual aesthetic of the Progressive Rock movement with his bold, surrealistic pop aesthetic, and worked as an art director for John Lennon for a time. Moving to Los Angeles in 1973, his continuing work in the music industry expanded to encompass a wide variety of commercial art and landed him in the Guinness Book of World Records as painter of the largest indoor mural in the world inside the now-demolished Vegas World Casino in Las Vegas. As a founder of the Eyes and Ears Foundation, he conceived and organized the “Artboard Festival”, which turned a stretch of L.A. roadway into a “drive-through art gallery” with donated billboards painted by participating artists.

Perera’s film catches up with Whitehead in the relatively low-profile city of Ventura, Calif., where the globally renowned visual artist now operates from a combination studio and gallery in a strip mall storefront. Still prolific and producing striking artworks (many of them influenced and inspired by his self-described “closet Hinduism”), the film reveals a man who, far from coming off as elderly, seems ageless; possessed of a rare mix of spiritual insight and worldly wisdom, he is left by the filmmaker to tell his own story by himself, and he embraces the task with the effortless verve of a seasoned raconteur. For roughly the first half of the film, we are treated to the chronicle of his early career provided straight from the source, without “talking head” commentaries or interview footage culled from entertainment news archives, and laced with anecdotes and observations that reveal a clear-headedness, along with a remarkable sense of self-knowledge and an inspiring freedom of thought, that makes his observations feel like deep wisdom. He’s a fascinating host, taking us on a tour of the life he has lived so far, and it’s like spending time with the most interesting guy at the party.

It’s when “Art of Fluidity” introduces its second subject, however, that things really begin to get interesting, because as Whitehead was pushing boundaries as an in-demand artist, he was also pushing boundaries in other parts of his life. Experimenting with his gender identity through cross-dressing since the 1960s, what began tentatively as an “in the bedroom” fetish became a long-term process of self-discovery that resulted in the emergence of “converged artist” Trisha Van Cleef, a feminine manifestation of Whitehead’s persona who has been creating art of her own since 2004. Neither dissociated “alter ego” nor performative character, Trisha might be a conceptual construct, in some ways, but she’s also a very authentic expression of personal gender perception who exists just as definitively as Paul Whitehead. They are, like the seeming opposites of yin and yang, two sides of the same fundamental and united nature.

Naturally, the bold process of redefining one’s personal relationship with gender is not an easy one, and part of what makes Trisha so compelling is the challenge she represents to Paul – and, by extension, the audience – by co-existing with him in his own life. She pushes him to step beyond his fears – such as his concerns about the hostile attitude of the shopkeeper next door and the danger of bullying, brutality, and worse when Trisha goes out in public – and embrace both sides of his nature instead of trying to force himself to be one or the other alone. And while the film doesn’t shy away from addressing the brutal reality about the risk of violence against non-gender-conforming people in our culture, it also highlights what is possible when you choose to allow yourself to become who you truly are.

As a sort of disclaimer, it must be acknowledged that some viewers may take issue with some of Whitehead’s personal beliefs about gender identity, which might not quite mesh with prevailing ideas and could be perceived as “problematic” within certain perspectives. Similarly, the depth of his engagement with Hindu cosmology might be off-putting to audiences geared toward skepticism around any spiritually inspired outlook on the world. However, it’s clear within the larger context of the documentary that both Paul and Trisha speak only for themselves, expressing a personal truth that does not nullify or deny the personal truth of anyone else. Further, one of the facets that gives “Art of Fluidity” its mesmerizing, upbeat charm is the sense that we are watching an ongoing evolution, a work in progress in which an artist is still discovering the way forward. There’s no insinuation that any aspect of Paul or Trisha’s shared life is definitive, rather we come to see them as a united pair, in constant flux, moving through the world together, as one, and becoming more like themselves every step of the way.

That’s something toward which we all would be wise to aspire; the acceptance of all of our parts and the understanding that we are always in the process of becoming something else would certainly go a long way toward making a happier, friendlier world.

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New Cyndi Lauper doc brings overdue spotlight to queer ally

‘Let the Canary Sing’ captures a unique, era-defining star

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Cyndi Lauper’s remarkable career is revisited in ‘Let the Canary Sing.’ (Photo courtesy of Paramount Plus)

Every era in our cultural memory has given rise to popular artists that helped to define them, but few can be said to have made as definitive an impact as Cyndi Lauper in the early ‘80s. Splashing onto our airwaves and across our television screens (courtesy of the newly minted MTV) with a defiantly upbeat and colorful blast of society-shifting energy, her proclamation that “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” caught the world off guard with a feminist anthem disguised as a good-time party song, and her sense of quirky punk style became an iconic influence over the “look” of an entire decade. In some ways, you could almost say Cyndi Lauper was the ‘80s.

For many people who grew up or came of age during her rise from unknown girl singer to pop music phenomenon, that might be the extent of their knowledge of her life and career. Despite the success (and Grammy Award) she achieved with her first few hits, the ever-roving eye of public attention inevitably moved on to the next new superstar, and her later efforts – while not exactly ignored – never managed to garner as much attention.

That doesn’t mean she has been inactive, though, as her die-hard fans (and there are many) well know; this is especially true in the queer community, where she has long been recognized and celebrated as a staunch ally – which is why it seems apt that Pride month should coincide with the release of “Let the Canary Sing,” a new documentary profile of Lauper that premieres on Paramount Plus this week.

Directed by Emmy-winning documentarian Alison Ellwood, “Canary” takes its name from a comment made by the judge in a legal case that opened the door for Lauper’s stardom – no spoilers here, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out more. It undertakes the telling of a well-rounded and comprehensive life story to cast that stardom in a new light. Maintaining a comfortable sense of chronology, it begins with Lauper’s childhood, growing up in Brooklyn (and later, Queens) in a close-knit family as the middle child of three with a divorced single mother, and follows the trajectory of her life – rebellious, risk-taking teen to driven, passionate artist and activist – through her love of music, her rise to fame, her struggle to evolve in an industry that rewards predictable familiarity, her emergence as an LGBTQ advocate, and her expansion into a genre-leaping artist whose reach has extended beyond pop culture to earn her renown for her versatility. It also covers her accomplishment as the first woman to win a Tony Award as sole composer of the music and lyrics of “Kinky Boots,” the Harvey Fierstein-scripted drag-themed Broadway musical which made a star of Billy Porter – and nabbed her another Grammy (for its Original Cast Recording), to boot. Bolstered by extensive current interview footage with Lauper herself, as well as elder sister Elen, younger brother Fred, and other important figures from her personal and professional life, it finds an arc that reveals its subject as an authentic and uncompromising visionary dedicated to “lifting up” the entire human race.

That would sound hyperbolic – and probably more than a little disingenuous – if Lauper did not come across so palpably on camera. Whether it’s footage from a decades-old Letterman show or newly filmed commentary shot specifically for the film, her “true colors” come shining through (forgive us for that one, we couldn’t resist) to provide ample evidence that, even if she didn’t always know where she was going, she always knew it would be the direction of her own choosing. Indeed, as the movie makes clear, much of the reason behind Lauper’s fade from the pop spotlight was the result of her refusal to repeat herself, to compromise her own path by delivering pale copies of the formula that had made her an “overnight success” after 15 years of trying. Although the documentary doesn’t insinuate this, it’s impossible for us not to suspect that homophobic backlash following her public embrace and advocacy of the queer community – something surely intertwined with her close bond to sister Elen, an out lesbian who is positioned in Ellwood’s film as a key pillar of both emotional and artistic support in Lauper’s life – may have had something to do with the mainstream music industry’s ambivalence toward her as she pursued her artistic impulses beyond the flashy appeal of her debut album. 

In any case, “She’s So Unusual,” as a debut album title, proved to be an ironic foreshadowing of the very reasons she was unable to “stay in her own lane” well enough to remain in the good graces of a public (or, perhaps more truthfully, of record executives) that only wanted more of the same. Lauper has never been one to conform, and it’s made her vulnerable, like so many other unrelenting female voices both before and after her, to the mainstream insistence on reinforcement of the comfortable over the breaking down of boundaries.

“Let the Canary Sing” captures all of this succinctly, yet with layered and sophisticated nuance, as it pays its tribute to a pop icon whose seminal work has continued to resonate after more than 40 years. Unavoidably, perhaps, it sometimes feels like a “Behind the Music” episode or a “puff piece” for an artist about to launch a new project – indeed, Lauper announced a “farewell tour” of 23 cities, as well as a “companion piece” greatest hits album release, on the eve of the movie’s streaming debut – but it pushes past such irrelevant comparisons thanks to the palpable sincerity conveyed onscreen, not only from her, but from all the people in her orbit whose comments about her are included in the film.

Of course, it must be said that anyone who’s not a “Cyndi Lauper fan”, whether by virtue of generational gaps or personal tastes, will probably not be drawn to watch a filmic love letter to her, and that’s a shame. It (and she) has the power to make viewers into true believers not only in her talent, but in her message of acceptance, inclusion, and unconditional love. Part of that, hinges on Ellwood’s skill as a filmmaker and teller of real-life stories, but the lasting impact rests on the persona of the star herself, who exudes a genuine air of transcendence and makes us not only feel instantly comfortable, but completely “seen” and validated, no matter who we are or which spectrum we might be on.

It’s hard to fake the kind of sincerity that makes that possible, and nothing about “Canary” suggests that Cyndi Lauper has any interest in being fake, anyway.

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Lesbian, bi, trans stories dominate queer crop of summer movies

Comic book adaption, horror thrillers, and more on the way

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Megan Stalter stars in ‘Cora Bora. (Photo courtesy Brainstorm Media)

Summer is almost upon us, and that means it’s time to look ahead toward another season of movies – but for queer movie fans, the typical “popular” summer escapist fare might not have quite the right appeal. Not to worry: the Blade is here to offer up our usual list of titles to watch for.

Backspot (May 31, in theaters) Helmed by nonbinary Toronto filmmaker D.W. Waterson in their feature directorial debut, this Elliot Page-produced sports drama has been described as “Whiplash” for competitive cheerleaders. Focusing on ambitious cheerleader Riley (Devery Jacobs of “Reservation Dogs”), it’s a heavily queer-themed coming-of-age tale that weaves romance with hard-hitting “behind-the-scenes” as she and her girlfriend, selected for an all-star squad, square off against a hard-edged head coach (out queer “Westworld” star Evan Rachel Wood) who demands a drive toward perfection – forcing Riley to confront her own crippling anxiety to keep her dreams from crumbling into dust. Also starring Shannyn Sossamon (“A Knight’s Tale”), Kudakwashe Rutendo, Thomas Antony Olajide, and Wendy Crewson

Let the Canary Sing (June 4, Paramount Plus) Billed as “the story of music’s most authentic superstar,” this career-spanning profile of queer-adjacent pop icon Cyndi Lauper from award-winning documentarian Alison Ellwood delivers a chronicle of her ascent to stardom and an exploration of her impact and the legacy that she has bestowed through her beloved music, iconic style, unapologetic feminism and fearless advocacy. There’s not much we can say about this one except that it’s a perfect treat for fans – and an enticing invitation for future fans – to get a close-up look at a legend who has truly earned her status.

Queendom (June 14, in theaters/on demand) Filmmaker Agniia Galdanova is behind this award-winning SXSW documentary, which follows queer Russian performance artist Jenna Marvin as she takes to the streets of Moscow to stage theatrical protests against the country’s Putin-led authoritarian regime – all while working behind the scenes to escape her homeland and flee to a place where her queer identity isn’t a crime. Coming in the middle of Pride month, it’s a potent reminder that – in many parts of the world – queer people still live in fear of homophobic suppression, but it’s also an inspiring story about the risky business of speaking truth to power.

Summer Solstice (June 14, in theaters) It should go without saying that telling trans stories is important right now, and this film from Brooklyn-based director Noah Schamus is exactly the kind we need. Following trans man Leo (Bobbi Salvör Menuez) as he hustles his way through a life of auditions, acting classes, barista jobs, and “situationships,” it segues into a thoughtful exploration of interpersonal gender politics when an old friend – cisgender and straight Eleanor (Marianne Rendón), takes her on an impromptu weekend getaway in upstate New York. Dealing with the new dynamics (and old emotions) of relationships after transition, it’s a movie which goes a long way toward revealing both the commonalities and the unique complications that ultimately make any trans story, told authentically, into a human story.

Cora Bora (June 15) If you’re a fan of Max’s queer-friendly queer-favorite series “Hacks,” you’ll need no introduction to the comedic personality at the center of this “dramedy” from director Hannah Pearl Utt. Out bisexual comedian and actress Megan Stalter stars as a “failed girl musician” who sets out not just to revitalize her career prospects but to win back the affections of her ex-girlfriend – and forges a new life path for herself in the process. Stalter, known mostly for her endearingly painful, over-the-top comedic portrayals of deluded-but-inextinguishable confidence, gets an opportunity to show a much wider range of layers here than she’s been allowed to explore before – but don’t worry: she’s still hilarious! Jojo T. Gibbs, Manny Jacinto, Ayden Mayeri, Thomas Mann, Chelsea Peretti, and queer comedy icon Margaret Cho also star.

Fancy Dance (June 21, in theaters/AppleTV) This debut feature from filmmaker Erica Tremblay is also the eagerly awaited return to the big screen of Indigenous American actor Lily Gladstone, whose Oscar-nominated turn in last year’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” not only made history but made them into a star. Here, they play a queer hustler who becomes the guardian of her niece (Isabel DeRoy-Olson) when her sister disappears. Trying to stay one step ahead of a deadbeat dad (Shea Wigham, “White Lotus”) and an American justice system that is weighted against the rights of Indigenous women, they hit the road into the backcountry of their Oklahoma reservation on a quest to find the missing mother. The “buzz” is already predicting another Oscar nod for Gladstone, but whether or not that’s just Hollywood hyperbole, it’s sure to be one of the summer’s must-see picks.

Sing Sing (July 12, limited theaters/August 2, wide release) Speaking of last year’s Oscar nominees, powerhouse out-gay-thespian-of-color Colman Domingo is the lynchpin of this based-on-a-true-story prison drama about a wrongly convicted inmate at the notorious correctional facility who finds solace in a rehabilitation theater program, mounting productions with fellow prisoners and rising above the crushing isolation of incarcerated life. Intense and topical, yet also inspirational and uplifting, it debuted at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival alongside Domingo’s other starring vehicle, “Rustin” – and his performance in it was praised as superior, Oscar nod notwithstanding. Consider that alone a recommendation to add this Greg Kwedar-directed real-life tale to your watchlist.

Deadpool & Wolverine (July 26, in theaters) It’s rare for us to include a big-ticket comic book film in our list of upcoming queer titles, but we can’t ignore the appeal of this new Marvel entry in which the two title characters are thrown together for a mission that will rewrite the history of the “MCU” forever. Sure, it sounds like a convenient way to hit the “reset” button and take the blockbuster franchise in a new direction – but it’s also the irresistible culmination of a longstanding “man-crush” held by the “canonically pansexual” Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) for X-Man MVP Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), fueled enthusiastically by both stars since long before this clever concept vehicle ever got greenlit. Directed by Shawn Levy, and also starring nonbinary actor Emma Corrin in their first “villainous” role, it features Morena Baccarin, Rob Delaney, Leslie Uggams, Karan Soni, and Matthew Macfadyen, too – and while it may not be highbrow cinema, based on the irreverent, borderline absurdist tone of both the “Deadpool” comics and the previous film installments made from them, it’s likely to be a lot of fun.

Cuckoo (Aug. 9, in theaters) Last but not least, this German-American co-production – a “Shining”-esque horror tale about a family vacationing in the Alps that find themselves endangered after discovering the resort town in which they are staying harbors a web of disturbing secrets – will undoubtedly draw the attention of hardcore horror fans. But it also has strong, built-in queer appeal in the form of its transgender star, Hunter Schafer (“Euphoria”), who takes on her first starring film role as the movie’s “final girl.” Dan Stevens, Jessica Henwick, Jan Bluthardt, and Martin Csokas also star, with direction and screenplay both coming from Tilman Singer.

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