DownStream: Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll

Welcome to the newest feature of “I Actually Paid to See This,” which I call, “DownStream!” I’ve been thinking about doing this for a while. From about the midway point of last year, the majority of my “Back Row Thoughts” columns ended up being devoted to miniature reviews of documentaries and streaming films, which was never my intention for that feature. Initially, I thought that mini-reviews would work within the grander context of the column, a bit of supplementary content within the larger framework of general film industry commentary.

That didn’t really work out, and so to save BRTs as its own feature, I’ve decided to split off these occasional blocks of several small reviews into its own category, called “DownStream.” The name has two inspirations. First, and most obviously, is that we’re dealing with movies that you can Download and/or Stream, as opposed to common theatrical releases, which warrant full reviews as I see them one at a time. The second comes from the Beatles, as I was thinking of the opening line to “Tomorrow Never Knows” as I was coming up with this:

Turn off your mind, relax, and float down stream

So, going forward, every so often, when I have a group of movies that I’ve seen through various streaming TV services (or are chiefly available through them), I’ll group them together under this new banner, and reserve BRTs for other types of commentary as those ideas spring up into my head. I’ll also go back through the archives and re-tag older columns so they can be searchable under the DS link.

So with that, here are the first official DownStream entries!

Leaving Neverland – HBO

Directed by Dan Reed, the devastating four-hour documentary Leaving Neverland is a heartbreaking bit of endurance for any viewer with a degree of empathy, and a tremendous test on our willingness to accept hard truths. Focusing entirely on the lives of two men – Wade Robson and James Safechuck – Reed assembles a truly harrowing account of their lives as alleged victims of sexual abuse at the hands of pop music icon Michael Jackson. The men tell their stories in graphic detail, from their starstruck initial meetings with Jackson, to the alleged abuse, to their own public lies defending Jackson during his civil and criminal trials, to the psychological effects years down the road on themselves and their families (parents, siblings, spouses, and children), to eventually coming to terms with their past and attempting – through this film – to reconcile and tell their personal truth at long last.

It was amazing to me watching this at how much gentle care Reed employed throughout. Everyone has their own angle to the story, and many of them – particularly Robson and Safechuck’s mothers – feel an immense degree of shame for not pressing harder or recognizing the signs, even when obviously odd behaviors like sleepovers at Jackson’s various homes were right in front of their faces. Even the King of Pop himself is treated with an amazing degree of sympathy, as the case is made that his own messed up childhood helped to inform these monstrous acts. He is in no way exonerated, nor are these facts used to justify what he did, but there is an effort to paint a complete, tragic picture of Jackson while his alleged victims and their families literally go through the five stages of grief right there on camera.

The whole affair is gut-wrenching to watch, because it’s clear that Robson and Safechuck still have lingering affection for Michael, as do their families, and of course, as do millions of fans worldwide, many of whom dismiss the film and look for any inconsistencies as a way to invalidate the entire exercise as a hatchet job to get money from Jackson’s estate. More than any other celebrity scandal, it’s hard for the true believers to reconcile the facts with their idealized image. There was a similar problem during the O.J. Simpson trial, but this is on a much larger scale.

Also, because I’m a snarky bastard, I have to point out one unintended effect of all of this. Wade Robson, inspired to a life of dance by Jackson, has become a world-renowned choreographer, especially in pop music and videos. At the turn of the century, he was the main choreographer for Britney Spears and NSYNC. To me, this is Jackson’s highest crime of all! If he never did what he did, we could have been spared 20 years of terrible music, the death of MTV, and the slow, creeping, rotting of rock and roll’s corpse! CURSE YOU, MICHAEL JACKSON!

Grade: A-

The Dirt – Netflix

It’s a good time for music biopics, with the Queen film Bohemian Rhapsody winning several Academy Awards, and the upcoming Rocket Man looking to be a fascinating take on the life of Elton John. In between all that, we have The Dirt, based on the memoir of the rise and fall (and subsequent rises and falls) of Mötley Crüe. Leaning heavily on the 80s excesses of the band, the movie at times feels thrilling and disgusting in all the right ways, but at about the halfway mark, things take a narrative turn that nearly tanks the proceedings entirely.

The film pulls no punches when it comes to displaying the hard partying and destructive tendencies of the Crüe’s antics, beginning with a long tracking shot through an apartment building where each member alternately fucks, drinks, snorts cocaine, or pulls some combination of the three, ending with Tommy Lee (Colson Baker, aka rapper Machine Gun Kelly) making a woman have a high-arcing squirting orgasm via cunnilingus. That tone-setting moment is just the tip of the iceberg in Jeff Tremaine’s profile of the group, peppering scenes of debauchery throughout the band’s formation and rise to fame, throwing as much booze, drugs, and tits at the screen as humanly possible (seriously, with a bigger budget it could have almost rivaled The Wolf of Wall Street) while still keeping the story focused on the interpersonal dynamics of Lee, Nikki Sixx (Douglas Booth of Noah and Jupiter Ascending), Mick Mars (Iwan Rheon, aka Ramsay Bolton from Game of Thrones), and Vince Neil (Daniel Webber from 11.22.63). By the time the film hits its climax (or nadir depending on your sensibilities), where Ozzy Osbourne (Tony Cavalero) snorts a line of live ants and drinks his own pee, you’ve been bombarded by so many images of the hard rock lifestyle (still a fantasy for millions in this world) that basically nothing can shock you anymore, which is in its own way the absolute perfect note.

However, in the second half, the whole thing falls apart, as the film devolves into “Afterschool Special” territory. Nikki becomes maudlin about his heroin addiction, leading to some fourth wall narration breaks that just seem like moaning. Tommy meets, marries, and cheats on Heather Locklear (Rebekah Graf). Mick has continual medical problems. The band briefly breaks up because of Vince’s alcoholism. We all know the band gets back together, so the whole thing is just played for cheap melodrama, especially with the involvement of record executive and overall sniveling weasel Tom Zutaut (Pete Davidson, aka Ariana Grande’s ex, aka Rami Malek without the talent or charisma). The entire affair bottoms out with the tragic death of Vince’s four-year-old daughter due to stomach cancer, which should have been a huge moment, but instead felt tossed off. We see Vince cry, and there’s one genuine scene of devastating pathos, but it feels wasted in the overall conceit of the film’s back half.

Still, this was a fun bit of escapism, and the willingness to throw every bit of caution to the wind with the rock and roll lifestyle is admirable. Also, the film’s soundtrack contains a slew of Crüe hits, as well as three new songs. The title track, which plays over the credits, is about the strongest Crüe song in at least the last 10 years. The band doesn’t tour anymore, but hopefully this is a signal of a new, more mature group of musicians benefiting from the wisdom of age.

Grade: B-

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley – HBO

After its debut at the Sundance Film Festival this year, Alex Gibney’s latest documentary (after acclaimed and award-winning outings like Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) sets its sights on Theranos, the medical laboratory company founded by Elizabeth Holmes. If you pay attention to financial news or corporate scandals, you’ll know that Theranos and Holmes were touted as the future of medical technology, to the point that her nascent company was quickly valued at billions of dollars before a swift collapse, leaving Holmes and other executives facing several charges of fraud and malfeasance (and arguably leaving finance journalists scrambling to find a new “Youngest Self-Made Billionaire,” ultimately settling on Kylie Jenner, who’s about as self-made as her dad’s vagina).

The film is a little disjointed compared to some of Gibney’s previous work, in that he presents a lot of poignant and profound ideas, but fails to truly connect the obvious dots into a fully cohesive narrative. For example, he goes to great lengths to present Holmes as an obsessive genius, a la Steve Jobs, whom she idolizes, to the point of wearing black turtlenecks every day. The Theranos company was even created off of an innovative idea on the level of Jobs to be able to give full medical screenings to people based on a finger stick’s worth of blood, rather than entire vials. As someone who gets regular blood testing, I can say it’s certainly an appealing idea.

These are interesting concepts, and again, Gibney crafts a very specific image of Holmes, from her Steve Jobs hero worship to her matter-of-fact speaking style and her piercing wide eyes (it’s noted several times from former staffers at all levels that Holmes hardly ever blinks) that in the wrong light would make her look like she’s about to murder you. There’s a manic desire to be a disrupting competitor to the bigger lab companies, which control 80% of the market and thus control the prices of the work.

Where the film falls short is that it doesn’t go that one extra step to show the real problem. Elizabeth Holmes is a smart woman, but she’s nowhere near Steve Jobs’ level of genius, because while he co-founded Apple and helped turn it into the world’s first trillion-dollar company (that valuation coming years after his death), he was also smart enough to understand technology and build it from the ground up, literally in a garage. Elizabeth Holmes is a big picture entrepreneuse, but she couldn’t engineer the basic elements of production, because she had absolutely no medical training or technical know-how to make sure her idea could actually work. And it turns out, it didn’t work. There were bugs and design flaws right from the off, it was nigh-impossible to build a working model, and when Theranos contracted with the CVS pharmacy chain to perform blood screening services, they ended up relying on the very corporate labs they were trying to take down, and on the full vial blood samples they were trying to do away with.

In the end, Holmes was more concerned with appearing to stand alongside the giants of tech and industry, when she was barely even able to stand on their shoulders. Perception mattered more than the actual viability and quality of the product. Sadly, Gibney leaves that interpretation up to us, rather than just flat out stating it, pulling back when he should rightfully go for the jugular. Similarly, there’s a grand point to be made about the American medical system which prizes profit over care, but again, he holds back. He seems more focused on getting testimonials from former friends, colleagues, and hoodwinked financial journalists than in stating a case for conviction. Maybe that’s because Holmes’ trial is still pending, but it feels like a lost opportunity.

Grade: B-

Join the conversation in the comments below! Do you like this new feature? What other streaming movies should I see and review? Did you say Bird Box? Cause that ain’t happening! Let me know!

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