[Doc Watch] ‘RITA MORENO: JUST A GIRL WHO DECIDED TO GO FOR IT’ and ‘THE SPARKS BROTHERS’

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

RITA MORENO: JUST A GIRL WHO DECIDED TO GO FOR IT

Rated PG-13, 90 minutes.
Director: Miriem Pérez Riera
Featuring: Rita Moreno, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Whoopi Goldberg, Eva Longoria, Morgan Freeman, Hector Elizondo, George Chakiris, Norman Lear, and Chita Rivera

RITA MORENO: JUST A GIRL WHO DECIDED TO GO FOR IT explores the career of the first Hispanic to achieve EGOT status. Winning an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, or a Tony award is a major accomplishment. However, to win all four is rarified air. As of 2020, it has been accomplished by 16 individuals. Sixteen is also the number of years it took Moreno to win all four awards in competition. Not bad for a little Puerto Rican girl that was whisked away to New York with her mother. Director Miriem Pérez Riera frames Moreno front and center as the luminary recounts her legendary career and the struggles encountered, going as far as sharing intimate details pertaining to sexual abuse. 

Now when I think of Rita Moreno, I think of her as Anita in WEST SIDE STORY. Upon watching this documentary, I would discover her Oscar-winning role was a life-changing moment for Moreno as a person. Anita is the type of woman Moreno wanted to aspire to be but never could until then because there were no major Latina stars in Hollywood. The closest was Margarita Carmen Cansino, who is better known by her stage name Rita Hayworth.   

Anita allowed Rita Moreno to be her own woman, someone comfortable in her own skin, and no longer restrained from the sexism coursing through movie studios and inside Hollywood. As typical with celebrity profiles, Riera balances interviews with famous faces like Whoopi Goldberg – another EGOT winner – and Lin-Manuel Miranda with members of academia. The mix of contributing participants reaffirms points made by Moreno and her own experiences as a young Puerto Rican enchanted by movies. But Hollywood remains a male-dominated enterprise. Moreno’s passages on playing “native girls” – one-dimensional characters with little direction other than being a love interest or subservient – reinforces the second-class status of minorities in cinema. Even Eva Longoria professes as much with being asked to speak a certain way, or spice it up, or just stand silent and be sexy. 

Captivated by movies at an early age, then being discovered by a talent agent for Louis B. Mayer, where she got dolled up to look like Elizabeth Taylor with whom she idolized, Moreno’s story seems like a dream come true. The allure of Hollywood, however, can be nightmarish. Inferior roles were the least of her worries. Demeaning, yes, but not as dehumanizing as the sexual trauma she endured. 

Her opening up about her tumultuous relationship with Marlon Brando is shocking for those not familiar. I sure wasn’t. While Brando introduced Moreno to take up social causes like championing civil rights, she almost died from loving him. His chronic philandering, which included fathering children of other wives – yes, wives, plural – to the emotional abuse like arranging for Moreno to have an abortion, drove her to attempt suicide.   

The documentary doesn’t go in-depth to the sordid details. However, it hits the major points going as far as to highlight life imitating art as Moreno and Brando starred opposite one another years after their separation in THE NIGHT OF THE FOLLOWING DAY. 

The entire segment on Brando could have been its own documentary. Presented in Riera’s film, the pain inflicted resonates even stronger with the #MeToo movement and Moreno’s personal, trailblazing journey as a little girl who, just like the title, decided to go for it. 

Grade: B 

THE SPARK BROTHERS 

Rated R, 135 minutes.
Director: Edgar Wright
Featuring: Ron Mael, Russell Mael, Beck, Mike Myers, Fred Armisen, Giorgio Moroder, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, Flea, Neil Gaiman, Patton Oswalt, Jason Schwartzman, and the voices of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost

Enthusiasm and creativity are two great ways to breakthrough in the documentary arena. So, when Edgar Wright (SHAUN OF THE DEAD, BABY DRIVER) decided to make a piece of infotainment, I was intrigued. Intrigue turned to puzzlement of the subject: a pop band named Sparks. My reaction was not unlike Djimon Hounsou meeting Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.

Who?

Exactly. 

You might wonder why Edgar Wright would want to make a doc about a pair of music nobodies. Because he really loves their music and wanted to give them the Andy Warhol treatment – only stretching those 15 minutes of fame into a 135-minute tribute. To be fair, though, brothers Russell and Ron Mael aren’t nobodies. They’re music-somebodies you never heard of…yet. 

THE SPARK BROTHERS is a compilation taking us through the duo’s career. More than 25 albums and five decades making music, it’s a lot of ground to cover. Crazier still is to think I have never heard of these guys. Now, my music IQ isn’t great; personal playlists skew from Malt Shop Oldies, Motown, and Top 40, to pop songs recorded for soundtracks. As I sat back, hearing stories of the band’s love of movies, career highs and lows, missed opportunities, and strange collaborations, the moment finally arrived where the lightbulb turned on, and I knew, I knew Sparks. RAD!

A minor classic of my youth, the BMX racing flick was and still remains my jam. “Music That You Can Dance To,” a song used in the film, was taken from the duo’s 14th studio album of the same name. It was produced as a joke in defiance of music executives who found their style had strayed from dance-inspired disco-pop (“The Number One Song in Heaven”) to something unsuitable for radio.

Sparks are the musical equivalent to a Rubik Cube. Once you think you have them figured out, they stump you again. With each new album, they pushed music boundaries, influenced sound (i.e., predating ‘80s synthesizer pop), and challenged the idea of what constitutes a “band.” Wright captures it all with a documentary showing the chronology of Russell and Ron Mael through their albums. Wright’s trademark quick-cut editing and stylistic choices – claymation and stick figures for reenactments; on-camera interviews presented in black-and-white photography – are clever and well-fitting for a band like Sparks.  

THE SPARK BROTHERS is a labor of love, a love letter of a devotee showing his devotion for these two brothers from California, though you’d think they were British on account of their looks and how they sound. But, make no mistake, you wouldn’t confuse them with the Beach Boys. 

The doc includes a multitude of interviews with people who are part of the Sparks fan club. Beck, Mike Myers, Flea, and “Weird Al” Yankovic are among those who heap praise and credit Russell and Ron Mael and their musical contributions. 

While Wright doesn’t go too deep into their personal lives, or properly wraps up the documentary, what he does best is show how these two brothers never restricted their music for their own benefits. Sparks could have easily produced similar-sounding records and give music executives and listeners what they wanted. Instead, they were constantly evolving, seemingly reinventing themselves with each new album. An easy road to failure instead of success, but they stayed true to what makes Sparks spark – creativity. Their music is a testament to, until now, their limited popularity. It is also a great reminder that success is subject to interpretation.      

If Russell and Ron Mael are the epitomai of the enduring underdog, then THE SPARKS BROTHERS may be Edgar Wright’s ROCKY. And by the time it’s over, you’ll realize Sparks didn’t have to wait to do it “My Way.” They always did.

Grade: B+  

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