The state's recent boom of film and television production has given Atlanta the star treatment. The rise of "ATLwood" injects cash into the Georgia economy, provides work for local screen professionals, and generally lends the city a little glamour.
The high-profile movies and shows filmed in Atlanta have shown little insights about Atlanta, however. Many local productions don't take place here, so our hometown served as a stand-in for Memphis with The Blind Side, the interiors of Rio de Janeiro in Fast Five, and more. It's always fun to play find-the-local-landmark, like seeing Johnny's Hideaway in Hall Pass or downtown Atlanta as an apocalyptic hellscape — even more than usual — on that zombie show. Collectively, the productions imply that Atlanta has such a generic appearance, it can pass for places all over the world.
This year's Atlanta Film Festival presents movies that reveal the city's personality. In its 36th year, the festival has programmed more than 50 films with Georgia connections and introduced the Atlanta Gem series, which exhibits a locally filmed movie at a treasured venue like the Plaza Theatre. In particular, some of the Atlanta Film Festival's documentaries turn the spotlight on the city's supporting cast of true originals.
Maybe nowhere in Atlanta can you find more raw, unvarnished character than at the legendary titty bar the Clermont Lounge, as revealed in AKA Blondie (March 25, 9 p.m., Plaza Theatre). "At the Clermont, there's room for pudge," remarks a dancer (not Blondie) whose age and body type would bar her from the swanky clubs that made Atlanta the strip club capital of the South. Jon Watts' documentary focuses primarily on the Clermont's all-around diva Blondie, aka Anita Rae Strange, famed as a dancer, poet, and local legend.
Thanks to the peculiar nature of her notoriety, Blondie has hobnobbed with celebrities ranging from Willie Nelson to Marilyn Manson and even fought aliens as a comic book character. In on-camera interviews she speaks candidly about her bisexuality, cocaine use, and experiences with prostitution, plus offers a lesson in her signature move, how she crushes beer cans between her breasts without injury.
Watts employs well-crafted, home-movie-style footage of a young woman as Blondie mentions her childhood in predominantly white schools and the ballet lessons that helped shape her "Tina Turner legs." Unfortunately, the film doesn't have family members or old friends to fill in the blanks or otherwise confirm her life story, so we're left with hints of big conflicts, including that Blondie and her late brother dated the same guy, and that her mother's an evangelist. A friend who describes himself as Blondie's "gay husband for two weeks" says she over-romanticizes her childhood and gets worn down trying to live up to the Blondie persona. AKA Blondie doesn't offer a strong narrative, but it does give audiences a chance to get to know the dancer without crossing the Clermont's doorstep.
Like AKA Blondie, The Booker (March 28, 7:15 p.m., Landmark Midtown Art Cinema) centers around a compelling and voluble individual, in this case Stephen "Platinum" Scarborough, the booker and driving force behind Platinum Championship Wrestling. A former wrestler who grappled as an evil lawyer, "The Lethal Litigator," Scarborough spends years trying to turn his professional wrestling venture to a viable alternative to the WWE.
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The AFF's documentaries convey Atlanta's love-hate attitude to its below-the-radar entrepreneurs and underground performers who love the city but struggle to get ahead. Striving to build regular wrestling bouts and then a weekly TV series, Scarborough faces multiple setbacks dealing with venues from the Relapse Theatre to Sam Stone Studios. At first, Scarborough makes for a forthright and enthusiastic film subject, and his passion for wrestling can make you reconsider it as an art form. But as PCW faces false starts over the years, Scarborough seems more prone to tantrums and angry speeches to his wrestlers. At one point he mentions the Academy Theatre, where PCW still performs, and speaks dismissively of plays and fine arts as pastimes.
The Booker offers too much talk and not enough information — it would benefit from more context about the structure of pro wrestling as a sport and franchise. Plus, the film's black-and-white cinematography, while occasionally rich with shadows, can be muddy and make colorful people literally monochromatic. The Booker features some terrific side characters, including a licensed personal banker who turns into a brute inside the ring, as well as Tara "Pandora" Young, a mother who admits that she likes to wrestle as a substitute for actual fighting. The film confirms that not all Cinderella stories end with happily ever after.
Perhaps the greatest quantity of Atlanta artists hustling to get ahead populates the city's vibrant music scene. The ATL Short Cuts Film Contest winner "UNDEREXPOSED: Indie Hip-Hop in Atlanta" presents seemingly every hip-hop professional in the city in a stirring show of solidarity. Justin Malone's Hurry Up and Wait: A Film About Gringo Star (March 25, 6:45 p.m., Plaza Theatre) follows a local rock band famed for its inexhaustible work ethic on its first tour of mainland Europe. Perhaps the film's most memorable sequence — and certainly a defining moment for struggling musicians — finds the members of Gringo Star waking up in their car, using side-mirrors to put in their contact lenses, brushing their teeth over bushes, and generally living like refugees between shows.
Tour rockumentaries tend to evoke memories of This is Spinal Tap or Anvil! The Story of Anvil, and Hurry Up and Wait features some requisite letdowns. When the band arrives in Leicester, England, one exclaims "We're going to be treated like kings tonight!" Cut to Gringo Star performing at a deserted venue. Gringo Star's lineup makes a dramatic change by the end of the movie, but the film features no big disaster, just jet lag, sleep deprivation, and the band building a bigger audience gig by gig.
The musicians prove to be a generally likeable, soft-spoken group, and of brothers Nicholas and Pete Furgiuele, Nicholas seems like the moody one, and Pete the open one. Their interviews don't reveal much insight into the creative process, but Malone takes the band's work ethic to heart and edits what appears to be a staggering quantity of footage into a fast-forward travelogue of European locations and high-energy concerts. A televised performance of the song "No Man," with its jazzy, jam-session keyboards, can make even skeptical audiences into Gringo Star converts.
Most of the documentaries follow Atlanta bohemians at street level, but John Portman: A Life of Building (March 26, 7 p.m., Woodruff Arts Center) looks at the city from a more lofty vantage point. Director Ben Loeterman offers a hagiographic portrait of the famed architect-developer who remade Atlanta's skyline. Born in Atlanta and a graduate of Georgia Tech, Portman could be the quintessential example of a local businessman turned international superstar.
John Portman features a slick corporate sheen and bland music, but doesn't stint on interesting details. The atria that became a signature style of Portman's hotels originated with a public housing project for the elderly. To foster a sense of community while making up for the lack of air conditioning, Portman designed the apartments to face a central atrium. As former Mayor Andrew Young puts it, "He put the porches on the inside."
The film acknowledges that Portman's Marriott hotel in Times Square failed to meet his creative expectations and that in 1989, the combination of the San Francisco earthquake and the Savings & Loan crisis threatened his business. John Portman conveys little real drama, however, and the architect comes across as charmingly eccentric rather than ruthlessly ambitious. At one point his grown children recall that their father would give weekly lectures on topics like "self-reliance" while standing in front of a sculpture with a repeating pattern of ears.
Portman may have helped build the city, but the Atlanta Film Festival's other local documentaries capture the dreams and struggles of the idiosyncratic people who give the city its flavor. Without the likes of them, Atlanta would be little different than a movie set, with no life of its own despite the quality of its craftsmanship.