Harlan Jacobson Reports on Sundance Film Festival 2024

Park City, Utah
January 28, 2024
By Harlan Jacobson

This year I parachuted into Sundance remotely from the greater NY-NJ metroplex to take the pulse of a festival that kicks off the acquisition year for American film companies scouting for films to bring to theaters and streamers.

40-year old Jesse Eisenberg, who first came to Sundance in 2005 as part of the troubled Berkman family in Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, returned this year with a film he wrote, directed and acted in, A Real Pain, a title which takes on double meanings to describe the Holocaust tour of his immigrant grandmother’s Poland that his character, David Kaplan, takes with his cousin, Benji Kaplan, played by Kieran Culkin. Just in case you doubted, the only difference between Culkin’s Benji Kaplan and his Roman Roy in Succession, is the money; he had a lot of it in one, none in this one.

The title, A Real Pain, does at least double duty describing the 20 th century legacy to world Jewry and the more vernacular assessment of Benji’s personality, as in he is one, and it’s the project of the film to relate the global and personal hurts. Benji has a propensity to get up in everybody’s grill, including the clueless English tour guide over the Disneyfication of the Holocaust. Lunch? Water? Umm...with gas? Or something like that, In Benji’s highly attuned eye for irony.

By now it’s clear Culkin doesn’t act, he just learned how to call a halt to everyone else’s forward motion apparently in the crib. You’d swear it was Roman Roy in that Bugs Bunny voice of his who insists in this film that the tour just take a beat to recognize the wickedness of the group taking a first-class train car to the Majdanek gas chamber in Lublin.

There may be no good way to do the Holocaust: there’s an old story that Walter Matthau told about getting in a fight with his wife, Carol, over her absolute, last minute sit-down refusal to leave the Cracow hotel room to go see Auschwitz, driving him to fume, “Okay, okay, Carol, you ruined Auschwitz for me now, you happy?” Benji is pretty sure first-class is not how their relatives got to the Majdanek camp on the itinerary. What’s deep about this film, that plays so lightly as it proceeds to a final stop in front of their grandmother’s old front door, is how differently Benji and David fit on the continuum where the offspring of Holocaust survivors live: functional and determined to live and be well like David, overwhelmed by ghosts and existentially paralyzed like Benji at the sad failure that he can’t shake of the world. I have known both.

Best doc I saw by far is Soundtrack to a Coup D’Etat, a dizzying two-and-a-half-hour array of newsreel and archival footage surrounding the rise and 1961 assassination of the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Patrice Lumumba, and the American civil rights, arts and jazz communities’ radicalized anger that followed.

The resulting outrage in the DR Congo (now Zaire) and America is the text of the film, by Belgian documentarian Johan Grimonprez, who has interwoven original documentary, TV news, witness interviews and memoir with concert and studio riffs by black jazz artists like Louis Armstrong, who was so outraged by the US government’s deployment of him on a goodwill jazz tour to distract from our backchannel operations that he threatened to renounce his US citizenship and move to Ghana.

The film is what would pass for an astonishing cavalcade at a big names jazz lollapalooza—Satchmo, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba, Quincy Jones, Miles Davis, Mingus, Ella, Monk, and Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach (with a riff from his The Drum Also Waltzes). But the film is not just about the murder of Lumumba barely into his first term as prime minister, but how it galvanized the lot of them, plus the world, against the naked assertion of Belgian colonialism and American foreign policy and military objectives in Africa, particularly the acquisition of weapons grade Uranium available in the Congo.

Lumumba’s murder further inflamed the already smoking civil rights rebellion in the US. The film repackages footage (a lot of it from fresh angles to me) of key 50’s Cold War names on the international front: Khrushchev and his shoe at the UN—making not a threat to bury the US, the film says, but to bury colonialism—Ike, UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, US Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, CIA chief Allen Dulles, Castro, Nehru, Nasser, Sukarno Zhou En Lai, Malcolm X, Kasa Vubu, Joseph Mobutu, Kwame Nkrumah, the whole parade of chicanery, politicians and protest.

Grimonprez’s visual interplay of jazz cuts and political narrative builds toward jazz singer Abbey Lincoln and drummer great Max Roach in the wake of Lumumba’s murder amassing 60 gallery tickets from the Cuban delegation to disrupt the UN General Assembly. The ambitious, accomplished Grimonprez weaves in footage of the We Insist on Freedom Suite, with Roach backstopping Lincoln’s harrowing cry to pull down the curtain. I didn’t see enough at Sundance 2024, but after Soundtrack to a Coup D’Etat, there was no air left to breathe anyway.

The US Sundance dramatic films have historically been “Sundance films,” which is industry shorthand for films that play as if they have been selected and then judged by moonlighting social workers. Not that I have anything against social workers, my daughter is a wonderful one. But the overall sense has been about lambs surrounded by mitten makers. This reflexive crouch is in the DNA of the place. Every screening begins with a crawl that “acknowledges the festival is held on the traditional lands of the Shoshone, Paiute, Goshute and Ute Tribal nations.” The films that come after this reminder of the complexities of the historical genocide that has made this pricey fountain of mea culpa films possible, start from the disadvantage of being positioned as sermons.

Sorry to say the first film I saw, In the Summers, does little to alleviate the Sundance film eye roll. A story that hits close to home of the director Alessandra Lacorazza Samudio, it’s a film peppered with detail about the childhood of two sisters out in some scrubby southwestern town who endure the inattentions of their clueless Mexican American dad, who retains just enough perspective on adult responsibility to know that, while he can share a certain amount of kid-like wonder at the natural world, he’s bad at life: not just parenting, which is what matters to his daughters here, but the whole shebang, all of it. The 95 minutes of this film felt like all of their hoped for 95 years. Of course, it won the Grand Jury Dramatic prize.

It's often the docs that take the cake at Sundance, and the easiest to slide into was Dawn Porter’s Luther: Never Too Much, an hour and 41 minutes of the smooth Luther Vandross, who for 30 some years specialized in swoon.

There’s certainly a biopic line of development in Porter’s telling, from his youth drinking in Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and Dionne Warwick, to going off to Kalamazoo College, where he lasted a year before deciding to go with what he had—a voice that sounded like a choirboy who slipped out the back in a tux to do a gig at the club with the blinking neon martini glass around the corner. He’s on the scene listening to Motown gives way to the Philly sound and emerges at the end of Disco to knock out commercials for Miller High Life and apparently unforgettably for Gino’s Pizza. He gets picked up by Bowie in Philly, who repackages Vandross’ "Funky Music" as a Bowie hit, Fascination, and in the process nudges Luther forward. Into, it turns out, a joyous but troubled bouncing ball life: weight up and down, fortunes up and down, but starting out with the ability to out sing everybody in backup for the likes of Bowie, Bette Midler and Roberta Flack, who urged him to go out front and center into the world.

There’s footage of Clive Davis, who notably pushed Luther across the de facto black-white audience barrier in radio and record stores. And of Luther coaxing Mariah Carey out onstage in Las Vegas into the biggest room she’d ever seen, next to probably the biggest man, to sing the knockout “Endless Love” in duet. “You’d eat a hamburger between two donuts—was that disgusting,” Katie Couric asks? “No that was gooood,” he shoots back just a touch offended. But the question of sugar was always with him, he was diabetic, he ate under stress. And he sang platinum.

Perhaps it’s timely that Luther joins the crush of pop stars and even pop conductors—Donna Summer, Whitney Houston, Leonard Bernstein—whose families or friends want to revive the canon to keep them alive for all the usual reasons. Dawn Porter has produced and directed her share of prominent social advocacy docs, from Trapped about abortion rights to John Lewis: Good Trouble and Gideon’s Army about legal aid lawyers, among others. She takes the space here to paint quieter: you’re on a first name basis with Luther. She catches his contradictions: his softness and generosity, his iron work ethic, his driving sense of sound and costume design. Seems true, by what the witnesses say. Luther, I failed to note who confides it in the film, chose to be alone rather than come out as gay, adding “He didn’t want to upset his mother and the world.” That’s as much as Porter disturbs Luther—born in 1951, died in 2005— in the hereafter. Jamie Foxx, who produced the film (with others), reaches back to his kid memory of Luther to provide something between what the young Vandross intuited as a business plan and a benediction: “If you wanted the girl to fall in love,” Foxx, recalls here, “you’d put the phone up to the radio and let Luther do the work for you.”