The Foo Fighters’ Road to Musical Discovery, Sonic Highways

What would a multiple-Grammy award-winning, multi-platinum record-selling band do to mark its 20th year in the music business? Well, put out a new album of course.

But if that band is the Foo Fighters, the concept was to create it in an entirely different way. Yes, it involved taking a road trip–not to tour in front of sellout crowds, but to discover the heart and soul of America’s musical identity by exploring eight cities across the country, each with a unique cultural environment, social and musical history and artistic legacy.

Those elements, in turn, inspire songs for the band’s eighth studio album that are written and recorded in each of the cities at recording studios that have been integral to each place’s musical identity and character, past and present.

The journey is documented in an eight-part HBO series, “Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways,” directed by the band’s frontman, Dave Grohl, on the heels of his acclaimed feature film documentary “Sound City.”

As the band hits the road in the opening scenes, Grohl narrates in a voiceover. “We’ve been all over the world, but never in one place long enough to really see it. For our 20th anniversary we wanted to make the creative process new, to do something we’ve never done before. We wanted to find out what inspires studio owners, musicians and producers. This is a musical map of America.”

First stop: Chicago, midway philosophically between the coasts and a mecca for music going back decades to the heyday of Muddy Waters, the blues musician who was a magnet attracting and inspiring other talented musicians.

That eclectic list of artists who got their start or made their home in Chicago includes Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, the group Chicago, Wilco, Cheap Trick, Naked Raygun, Smashing Pumpkins, Herbie Hancock and Kanye West.

Guy, the legendary blues guitarist and singer, is interviewed extensively about the city’s musical history. “I was looking for a dime, I found a quarter,” he said about moving there from the South in 1957. Those lines are later incorporated into the lyrics of a new Foo Fighters song, “Something from Nothing,” which is performed at the end of the episode.

Guy reminisces about making instruments from buttons and strings in his early days of abject poverty. Then, footage is shown of him receiving an award at the Kennedy Center Honors two years ago, one of multiple honors, including six Grammy Awards that he has received in a career that stretches more than 50 years.

“We’ve all made something from nothing,” Grohl remarks in the documentary. “The inspiration for the first song is coming from all these people.”

It’s thrilling to watch the creative journey fueled by the stories of other musicians as Grohl and bandmates Taylor Hawkins, Nate Mendel, Chris Shiflett and Pat Smear along with longtime Foo Fighters (and Nirvana) producer Butch Vig set up shop at the Windy City’s legendary Electrical Audio studio. The studio’s owner, producer Steve Albini is also there, and a key part of the Chicago story.

Grohl has close ties to him, and bittersweet memories. Albini produced Nirvana’s third and final studio album, “In Utero,” released in 1993. The episode features clips from several Nirvana music videos, with Grohl on drums, bassist Krist Novoselic and the late Kurt Cobain front and center.

As with 2013’s “Sound City,” Grohl’s passion for music and the inspiration for its creation fuels honest and trusting exchanges amongst the people in the studio, where local legends become part of the creative process and some of whom participate in the recordings.

The journey continues with upcoming stops along the sonic highway in Austin, Los Angeles, Nashville, New Orleans, New York, Seattle and Washington, D.C.

(“Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways” premieres on HBO Friday, October 17 at 11 p.m. PT/ET with 7 additional episodes slated for subsequent Fridays in the same time slot. The “Sonic Highways” album drops November 10 on RCA Records.)

 –Hillary Atkin

Makers: Women in Hollywood Traces 100 Years of Film & TV History

Fifteen women. One hundred years. That’s the terrain covered in 52 minutes in “Makers: Women in Hollywood,” a new documentary produced by Rory Kennedy and co-produced and directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton, airing on PBS and available in an extended version on AOL.

The film, second in the “Makers” series, is narrated by Julia Roberts and showcases showbiz women from the earliest pioneers of the silent film era to today’s power players in television and film like Kathryn Bigelow, Shonda Rhimes and Lena Dunham.

Kennedy and Knowlton interviewed a group of women whose talents lie both in front of and behind the camera including Jane Fonda, Glenn Close, Geena Davis, Sherry Lansing, Sarah Jessica Parker, Marti Noxon, Alfre Woodard, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Callie Khouri, Ava DuVernay and Linda Woolverton.

Viewers will also see some of women who played groundbreaking roles on television in the 1960s and 70s, including Marlo Thomas, Diahann Carroll and Valerie Harper.

Through them, a history of their impact on the industry emerges as does a landscape where women are still vastly underrepresented as directors and writers, the creators who shape not only the business but lasting images of American life and culture that are exported around the world.

AOL, which provides the major funding for “Makers,” sponsored a preview screening Monday night at the AMC theaters in Century City, followed by a panel moderated by critic Anne Thompson with key participants in the documentary.

“It was interesting to look back on history and to find that women were instrumental in the silent film era but were basically thrown out when talkies came in and huge amounts of money followed,” Kennedy said.

In the 1920s and into the 1940s, there literally was only one female director in the movie business—Dorothy Arzner, for whom the organization Women in Film gives out a directing award annually. The film shows that she dressed like a man and smoked cigars, a trailblazer who stood alone during the era known as the Golden Age of Hollywood’s studio system.

One of the threads that runs through the documentary is that women have more opportunities when less money is at stake, which is why there are infinitely more complex female characters on television and in low-budget films than there are in blockbuster motion pictures with $250 million budgets.

Producer Judd Apatow, the only man interviewed in the documentary, talks about how it’s easier to blow things up and make stupid– and expensive – movies than it is to come up with original ideas.

For Woolverton, a screenwriter who re-imagined the traditional Disney princess by making Belle in 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast” a self-possessed, strong-willed young woman, it’s all about the original ideas and focusing on the story.

“I want to write the best story possible,” she told the audience in the packed theater. “I want to show all sides. We can be bitches and horrible things can happen and you can still come back from that.”

Noxon, who rose to acclaim for her work on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and has worked with Rhimes on “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice,” said that TV is better because of women. “In cable there is tolerance for flawed feminine characters that is greater than in broadcast,” she said, while saluting broadcast shows like “Scandal” and “The Good Wife” for their complex female characters.

“Our mothers may have paved the way, but they couldn’t have the careers their daughters did,” she said about the increased number of female executives in television and film. “There was this idea that we had to surrender our femininity, like Arzner, who dressed like a dude.”

“There’s a corporate mentality in Hollywood, more so than being creative and taking risks,” Kennedy said. “Yet I haven’t experienced sexism in documentary, because it’s low-budget.”

(“Makers: Women in Hollywood” airs Tuesday, October 7 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on PBS stations. Check local listings.)

–Hillary Atkin

 

Gracepoint: Moody Murder Mystery Premieres on Fox

Devotees of the acclaimed British crime procedural “Broadchurch” will want to get used to a different version of the way English is spoken when ”Gracepoint” takes to the airwaves on Fox for a 10-part murder mystery series.

It’s not unusual that a successful international format is remade for American television, but the distinct throughline between “Broadchurch” and ”Gracepoint” is not only its creator, writer and executive producer Chris Chibnall, but its lead actor, David Tennant.

In “Gracepoint,” Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver, a seemingly take-no-prisoners kind of guy who has just arrived in a small, idyllic Northern California coastal town to join its police force–when a 12-year-old boy is found dead on the beach.

The tragedy quickly becomes a high profile murder investigation and touches off a media frenzy and turns neighbor against neighbor as Carver leads the charge to find the killer, while navigating a rocky relationship with fellow detective Ellie Miller.

Miller, a lifelong resident of the town and a cop who was promised the job that went to Carver, is played by Anna Gunn her first leading role coming off of her vaunted performance in “Breaking Bad.”

The supporting cast includes the boy’s parents and sister, the local priest, a small town newspaper reporter and his editor, an aggressive big city reporter, an old fisherman who rents kayaks (Nick Nolte) and a haunted-looking woman who lives in a trailer, played by Jacki Weaver.

Without revealing much else about the storyline, the tagline, “Small town. Big secrets,” says a lot, as does a promoted hashtag, #SuspectEveryone.

Fox and Shine America in conjunction with Film Independent and the New York Times premiered the first two episodes to a full house at LACMA’s Bing Theater Tuesday night.

The screening was followed with a panel led by Film Independent curator Elvis Mitchell, who discussed the drama with Chibnall and all of the major cast members who took the stage after the final credits rolled.

With the obvious exception of Tennant, most of the cast had not seen “Broadchurch,” which is set on the Dorset coast of England and aired in the U.S. on BBC America beginning in August 2013 after an original run in the U.K. earlier that year.

“From the very first page of the script, my imagination was gripped. It was great writing, story and the characters were rich,” said Gunn, who recently won her second Emmy Award for playing Walter White’s wife, Skyler. “I was looking for a character with color, facets and duality. She’s strong and forthright but vulnerable and insecure and I loved having that duality.”

Tennant is duality personified, not only with his character—who has a mysterious past with one of the reporters–but the fact that he’s going back to playing Detective Alec Hardy in Season 2 of “Broadchurch,” with production starting the same day as “Gracepoint’s” American broadcast premiere.

The characters have different names and obviously different accents, yet playing both detectives back-to-back is a challenge that Tennant has obviously thought through.

“The danger is setting out to be outrightly different,” he told the crowd. “The thing is to try to react to the things in front of you. We have the Rolls Royce of casts here and you must be in the moment. They are different worlds, on different continents and the stories take you on a different journey– but I wouldn’t want to do both at the exact same time.”

Weaver, who has been nominated for two supporting actress Oscars in the past few years, and called herself “a theater animal,” pointed out the many different versions of plays like “Uncle Vanya,” “Death of a Salesman” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

“There are many quality versions of these productions and you bring your own thing to it,” she said, referring to “Gracepoint.” “Only one percent of all Americans saw ‘Broadchurch.’ The others deserve to see it.”

All of the actors eventually watched “Broadchurch” to prep for their roles, some taking character cues from their British cousins.

“Jodie Whittaker’s work was revelatory,” said Virginia Kull of the actor who plays the boy’s mother in the U.K. “But we are all unique, even if I had copied her. I’m grateful for her example but happy to bring my own version of the character.”

“The opportunity for ambiguity as an actor is rare,” said Kevin Zegers, who portrays the small town newspaper reporter. “Usually characters are so defined. We are all detestable at some point. It’s good to have the other side. I like that – even in the course of one episode. You think you know a character–and then you don’t.”

After noting that guilt seemingly informs everyone’s character, as does the variance between their public and private selves, Mitchell asked Chibnall about his original inspiration for the story.

“I live in a small community,” he said “I wanted to write about community and grief with a prime narrative to get into each of the characters in an ensemble. That’s the fun of the genre.”

(“Gracepoint” premieres on Fox Thursday night at 9 p.m. PT/ET, 8 p.m. Central)

–Hillary Atkin

 

Dangerous, Dirty & Dysfunctional: The Ed Koch NYC Years on PBS

Those who lived in New York City during the Ed Koch years will have a visceral reaction to a new documentary about the man once called America’s Mayor in a Time magazine cover story.

For everyone else, the feature-length “Koch” will give a fascinating look back at a time in American history when crime ran rampant in its largest city – which had teetered on bankruptcy – minorities struggled to have their voices heard and their concerns addressed, graffiti and filth marred its subway system and gay activists launched protests to combat the sweeping AIDS epidemic.

More than that, the film, part of PBS’s POV series and directed by Neil Barsky, gives viewers a warts-and-all look at the man who ran the Big Apple during what the first-time director called dangerous, dirty, dysfunctional but magical days from 1978-1989.

Like many things about New York during his three terms, people either loved or hated Koch, emblematic as he was of the city’s brashness, bluntness, combativeness and shrewdness — but most heartily approved. In 1981, he was reelected with a staggering 75% of the vote; in the second reelection, the margin rose to 78%.

In a signature tactic which became almost cliché, he would stand on street corners and asked passersby, “How am I doing?”

So we asked Barsky, who had unprecedented access to the still-active former mayor for a year and a half until shortly before he died in February 2013 at the age of 88, about Koch’s legacy— just how did he do. Overall, he credits Koch with planting the seeds of New York’s recovery, leading it to become the overwhelmingly safe and prosperous metropolis it is today.

“He did a phenomenal job of restoring the city’s fiscal condition as well as injecting New York with a much needed boost of adrenaline and morale building,” said Barsky, who lived in NYC during the Koch years as a student and then a newspaper reporter, although he did not cover City Hall. “His greatest achievement was a $5.5 billion dollar program to rehabilitate and build housing for low to moderate income people, which reshaped the city. However, he was thrown out of office because of his inability to relate to many communities who turned on him.”

Throughout his public life, Koch was dogged by questions about his personal life, specifically his sexual orientation. It was widely thought that he was closeted gay. But when asked about it in the 1980s, he said he was heterosexual and late in his life when questioned by Barsky, he said, “It’s none of your fucking business.”

In the 1977 Democratic mayoral primary that had pitted Koch—who made appearances with former Miss America Bess Myerson at his side– against incumbent Abe Beame, Bella Abzug and Mario Cuomo, signs were posted that said, “Vote for Cuomo, not the homo.” They were disavowed by the Cuomo campaign and quickly taken down, but the damage was done.

“It was a very potent accusation. At the time, you could be gay or mayor but you couldn’t be both,” Barsky said. “There was an ugliness to it, and it was the root of his anger toward Cuomo– even though towards the end of his life, he endorsed Mario’s son Andrew for governor of New York.”

Despite the fact that Koch pushed through an ordinance prohibiting discrimination against gays and lesbians in 1986– revolutionary at the time – the LGBT community held him responsible for not doing enough to fight AIDS.

“The backlash to his reaction to the AIDS crisis obscured and overwhelmed his achievements on the civil rights front,” said Barsky. “I think it goes to empathy.  All he had to say was, ‘This is a tragedy of epic proportion.’ He did eventually. He didn’t show the leadership. If you interview members of the AIDS activist community, he is reviled. Larry Kramer, author of ‘The Normal Heart,’ was very tough on Koch. Eventually the city caught up, but it took too long.”

The black community also turned against Koch after several incidents that created large street protests– the closing of Sydenham Hospital in Harlem and the 1989 murder of a young black man, Yusef Hawkins, by a group of white teenagers.

“He could’ve said it was a travesty and tragedy and mourned with the family, and he would’ve been reelected,” Barsky said. “Instead he said not to march through the neighborhood where it happened. Each of these times, he was not able to relate to people on a human level.”

Also in his third term, a municipal corruption scandal, including the suicide of one of the accused, Queens borough president Donald Manes, rocked the administration– although Koch himself was clean.

When Koch ran for a fourth term in 1989, he was defeated by David Dinkins, who went on to top Rudy Giuliani in the general election and to become New York’s first black mayor.

But as viewers will see in the film, which was released theatrically last year on what turned out to be the day he died, Koch did not ride off quietly into the sunset after he was denied a fourth term.

The lifelong Democrat who had served in the Army during World War II remained politically active, endorsing candidates– including Republicans Rudy Giuliani and later Michael Bloomberg for mayor of New York — appearing as a commentator on talk shows, lecturing and writing books.

“Once we started shooting the film, it became clear just how personally compelling Koch—then 87—still was,” said Barsky. “He tirelessly hopped from campaign stop to campaign stop, from speaking engagement to speaking engagement. He bared his teeth at anyone who challenged him in a public forum; he still shined brightly when he was the center of attention. And he could not walk down a New York City street without being approached by an admirer.”

The energetic Koch, who apparently planned never to retire, was a partner in a law firm, an adjunct professor at NYU and a visiting professor at Brandeis University, served as the judge on “The People’s Court” from 1997-1999, hosted a highly-rated radio program and an online movie review show called “Mayor at the Movies.”

“New York loves to see itself the center of the world, even if it’s not,” said Barsky. “But to us New Yorkers, it’s the world capital, and it tends to attract larger-than-life characters. Ed Koch’s story is in many ways the story of the city. To this day, I cannot think of a New Yorker as popular or as polarizing.”

(“Koch” airs Monday, September 22 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on PBS stations. Check local listings.)

–Hillary Atkin

Crime, Corruption and Cockiness: The Whitey Bulger Story

His name was once second on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, right after that of Osama bin Laden. But even with notorious gangster Whitey Bulger captured, convicted and behind bars for the rest of his life in a federal penitentiary, the families of those he mercilessly killed are not convinced that justice was done.

Every aspect of Bulger’s life is over-the-top dramatic, from his beginnings as a young thug in South Boston, to a stint at Alcatraz for bank robbery, to his decades-long reign of murder, extortion, racketeering and drug dealing as leader of Boston’s infamous Winter Hill Gang, to his capture by the FBI after living an apparently ordinary life in Santa Monica, Calif. with his decades-younger girlfriend, Catherine Greig.

Inside the rent-controlled apartment, where the couple had lived under the names Charlie and Carol Gasko, authorities found $822,000 in cash and 30 weapons hidden in the walls.

Bulger had been on the lam for more than 16 years, fleeing Boston on the eve of an indictment after being tipped off by an FBI agent he had apparently bought off.

The circumstances were so dramatic that Bulger’s 30 years as an organized crime kingpin were the inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s character in the 2006 Oscar-winning film “The Departed.” In another star turn, Bulger will be portrayed by Johnny Depp in a Warner Bros. film called “Black Mass” scheduled for release next September. Boston natives Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are also reportedly developing a feature film.

But it is the real-life drama of what transpired after Bulger’s takedown in June 2011 that runs through the new documentary, “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger,” from CNN Films, directed by Joe Berlinger and produced by Berlinger and Caroline Suh.

It chronicles the sensational 2013 trial in Boston federal court in which Bulger stood accused of 19 murders and 32 counts of racketeering, money laundering, extortion, narcotics distribution and weapons charges.

Berlinger was in the courtroom for what promised to be the most explosive Boston trial since the Sacco-Vanzetti armed robbery murder case in 1920.

“It was an amazing experience, 30 years of history converging,” Berlinger said in a phone interview. “A lot of observers were disappointed that there was not a deeper inquiry into what made Bulger possible. It was a foregone conclusion on guilt, but my overwhelming feeling was that to go through the trouble and expense of trying an 83- year old, there should have been a fuller, deeper probe into corruption. The families deserve to know why he wasn’t taken off streets earlier.  It made me realize not to do a bio of him, but to raise questions of corruption in law enforcement that enabled him.”

As the film opens, we hear a Boston liquor store owner describe the violent extortion Bulger visited upon him and his family, coming to his door and threatening to take control of his business and kill his children.

Bulger operated in Boston’s criminal underworld for three decades without encountering even a single indictment or misdemeanor prosecution, a crime lord who until his arrest and transfer back to his hometown had not seen the inside of a prison cell since 1956.

“Bulgerʼs story represented to me a nexus of the two major thematic threads that have dominated my documentary filmmaking endeavors – true crime and institutional corruption,” Berlinger said. “As a storyteller, I was also fascinated by the uniquely mythic status that Bulger has obtained in the public consciousness. Despite being accused of pathological brutality, he was also celebrated by many as a folk hero – a ‘good’ bad-guy. A Robin Hood of sorts, helping the poor and elderly and keeping his Boston neighborhood of Southie clean of drugs –myths that would later be debunked in the trial that is the subject of this film.”

One of the most remarked upon elements of the film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was released theatrically earlier this year, is that the audience gets to hear Bulger’s voice for the first time.

It happens in a phone call to his defense attorney, who allowed Berlinger’s crew to tape the conversation, the notorious gangster’s first-ever media interview. In the time between the verdict and his sentencing, Bulger discusses his relationship with investigators, his negotiations with prosecutors and his proposal to plead guilty in exchange for absolving his girlfriend of any charges—and he professes his love for her.

“The goal of including Bulger in the film was not to take sides or to diminish his crimes. Generally, we have never heard his point of view. Now that he’s in the custody of the federal government, no one will have access to him,” said Berlinger. “Bulger is a brutal killer and deserves to be behind bars. However, the families of the victims deserve to hear why Bulger was allowed to kill with impunity.”

The general consensus was that Bulger was an informant for the FBI, instrumental in helping the G-men take down leaders of the Italian Mafia in Boston, all the while being allowed to freely operate his criminal enterprises and murder at will. Yet Bulger claims he was never an informant and that law enforcement– Massachusetts State police, Boston police, the ATF and the FBI gave him information in exchange for money.

“I took care of everyone, in cash, $25-$50,000,” he said in the taped interview, and claimed he had a deal of immunity with the U.S. Attorney’s office because he protected a key official from Mafia retribution.

That viewpoint was never allowed to be presented in court – the judge nixed it before the trial began, thus Berlinger said, cheating the citizens of Massachusetts out of an opportunity to hear the whole truth fully aired.

The documentary raises questions that are not definitively answered, like how Bulger could be an informant if he never got paid, and if he was, why was he allowed to kill instead of being targeted and prosecuted?

Part of the answer seems to lie in the law enforcement fixation on the Italian Mob while looking the other way at the Irish gangsters.

If it all unraveled, the government would lose all of its Mob convictions—upon which many careers were made– and be held liable.

“In Boston, the Mafia generally hired Bulger’s gang to do their assassinations. The defense maintained that Bulger made a deal in exchange for not being prosecuted,” Berlinger said.  “That’s exactly the issue, the government picking winners and losers. They shouldn’t be in that business if someone is a killer. The importance of the Bulger saga is how he was aided and abetted by the very same institutions that finally brought him to justice as an 83-year-old man who lived his life to the fullest.”

“What makes this trial extraordinary – and really crazy – is the defense is defending him from an assertion that he was in an informant, even though it is not a charge,” said David Boeri, senior reporter for Boston’s WBUR radio, one of many Beantown journos who have been on the Bulger beat for years. “It’s not about guilt or innocence in this trial. It’s about his legacy, of wanting to establish that he wasn’t a tout, a rat, an informant.”

It should be noted that two of the three prosecutors in the case (Brian T. Kelly and Fred M. Wyshak, Jr.)  worked for two decades to bring Bulger to justice, and Berlinger said they deserve tremendous credit for fighting against the institutional resistance that prevented this indictment from moving forward in the early years of Bulger’s reign.

“In many ways, they are heroes,” he said. “But the prosecution in this trial also seemed to be simultaneously turning a blind eye to the deeper and troubling questions that have yet to be answered about the nature and extent of the government corruption that may have surrounded this case.”

Bulger did not take the stand in his own defense and later called the entire trial a sham.

For Berlinger, the most searing memory of the trial was the fact that the victims’ families took the side of the defense and not the prosecution. “They were angry that the prosecution was limiting the scope of the trial and therefore rooting for the very guy who killed their loved ones.”

(“Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger,” premiered on CNN September 18 and will encore Saturday, September 20 at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m ET.)

–Hillary Atkin

 

 

Ken Burns Gets Intimate With the Roosevelts on PBS

Just as “The Civil War” and “The War” before it, master documentarian Ken Burns’ “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” is turning out to be a massive blockbuster for PBS.

The sprawling documentary chronicling the lives of Theodore, Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt began Sunday night with the first of its seven, two-hour episodes, which garnered a 5.8 rating and an average audience of 9.06 million viewers, according to Nielsen Fast National data, Live + SD.

Before the first chapter aired, more than 200,000 views of trailers for “The Roosevelts” foretold the strong demand for the series.

Burns, whose other recent documentaries include “Prohibition” (2011) and “The Dust Bowl” (2012), said that releasing a film is like having a conversation with your closest friends and family. If, of course, they number in the millions of people.

“I’m always struck by the thoughts and comments and how engaged the American people are,” he said. “The fact that such a large audience tuned in the first night is all the more rewarding. We hope more people have a chance to watch on all of the platforms PBS has set up to share the work.”

In addition to the broadcasts which run through September 20, the 14-hour series is streaming at pbs.org/theroosevelts, PBS stations’ digital platforms, Roku and Apple TV– and will be available through September 29.

“The Roosevelts,” written by Geoffrey C. Ward and narrated by Peter Coyote, spans more than 100 years, from Theodore’s birth in 1858 to Eleanor’s death in 1962, vividly bringing to life the history of two presidencies, multiple family tragedies, Prohibition, the Depression and two world wars.

With never-before seen photographs and vibrant but silent film, the first chapters chronicle the life of Teddy Roosevelt, born into a world of privilege, who became America’s 26th president in a term that began 113 years ago almost to the day, on Sept. 14, 1901, after President William McKinley was assassinated.

He was, at age 42, the youngest person to become president. Overcoming severe asthma as a youth, the ambitious Roosevelt had already made a name for himself as a New York City police commissioner, an assistant secretary of the Navy, governor of New York and vice president.

His cowboy persona, epitomized by forming the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War, and his large ego were legendary. His most famous slogan, “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” resonates to this day. Other catchphrases, indicative of his boundless energy, were “Bully!” and “Dee-lighted.”

Roosevelt ate a dozen eggs for breakfast every morning, drank coffee from a massive mug and dictated 150,000 letters in his lifetime, which the Theodore Roosevelt Center in Dickinson, ND is trying to get all online.

But as Burns does so well, and with Roosevelt brought to life in his own words by the voice of Paul Giamatti, viewers get a detailed, insightful, 360-degree version of Theodore—including his battles with depression, his tragic loss of both his first wife and his mother on the same day and an assassination attempt—which contribute to a greater understanding of one of the most prominent leaders in U.S. history.

As the docu-series moves on to the era of Franklin and Eleanor, Theodore’s distant cousin and his niece, viewers will hear them come to life, voiced by actors Edward Herrmann (who played FDR in the landmark 1976 miniseries “Eleanor and Franklin”) and Meryl Streep.

The stories of the more modern-era Roosevelts, well-chronicled as they have been for decades, are even more captivating on Burns’ canvas, with images and video so clear they feel almost contemporary.

(“The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” airs on PBS stations at 8 p.m. PT/ET, 7 p.m. C through September 20.)

–Hillary Atkin

Carnage and Courage in HBO’s ‘Terror at the Mall’

We have just commemorated the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, yet many people may not realize that September marks another such tragic milestone. It’s been one year since an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist group based in Somalia attacked a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, leaving 71 people dead and hundreds wounded.

A new documentary airing on HBO and then on CNN, “Terror at the Mall,” takes a harrowing look inside the siege by Al-Shabaab militants at the upscale shopping center known as Westgate, which lasted for a staggering 49 hours before the situation was brought grimly under control.

Directed by Dan Reed, who also helmed HBO’s 2009 Emmy-nominated “Terror in Mumbai” and 2003’s BAFTA-nominated “Terror in Moscow,” the film recalls the horror of the attack and the courage of ordinary citizens who were caught in the middle of a murderous rampage of civilians–people who had been going about their daily lives on a typical weekend afternoon.

“Somehow, it really got to me. It’s a universal location meant for all of us, and this is a mall looks like any other in Europe or America,” Reed said in a phone interview. “It was a Saturday lunchtime, people doing what they’re doing, walking around with their kids, shopping. There was a generic significance that made it chilling.”

The London-based director started working on the film right after the attack and made five trips to Kenya, using footage from more than 100 security cameras, which recorded hours of surveillance video, along with extensive photographs taken during the siege. He tracked down and interviewed many of the survivors and some of the rescuers, who reflected on what took place, why it happened the way it did and how their lives have changed in the interim.

“We recorded 82 interviews but met 150 people involved,” Reed said. “My film tries to create an account of what it was like to experience the attack. It was designed to be a claustrophobic experience. These are important events for us to understand and that’s why I try to have material that gives you an incredible inside view and allows you to piece together a complex event that unfolds in a rapidly changing scenario.”

The terror began out of nowhere at 12:30 p.m. when a shopper passed through a security check to enter the mall, heard a loud explosion, which turned out to be a grenade, and then saw the guard who had been searching him fall to the ground. Witnesses recalled that gunfire quickly erupted and footage shows patrons in a restaurant diving for cover or being knocked to the ground.

As the security camera videos dispassionately reveal, chaos engulfed the mall, with frightened shoppers running for their lives, unsure of the origin of the attack. Many tried to find hiding places within the shopping center, including under display tables, while literally hundreds of terrified people fled into a giant two-story supermarket, Nakumatt.

There were four terrorists responsible for the rampage. Two of the gunmen made their way toward the supermarket while two others headed for the mall’s rooftop, where a children’s cooking competition was underway.

A 15-year-old girl who was shot in the stomach, thigh and foot clearly recalled one of the terrorist’s chilling battle cries. “The only thing he said was that we are here to kill. You killed our people in Somalia. We normally don’t kill women and children but you kill ours in Somalia and so we are here to take revenge.”

In October 2011, Kenya had marched into Somali to combat Islamist jihadists who had been kidnapping Westerners in its border region, but Reed said there was little evidence of Kenyan civil rights abuses of Somalis during the incursion.

Meanwhile, inside the supermarket, 20 people had hidden behind the meat counter when the terrorists started shooting them, letting some go who said they were Muslim. One woman who was protecting her young daughter and son was shot through the pelvis.

Outside the mall, 45 minutes after the shooting began, Kenyan security forces tried to decide how to proceed, as time ticked away for the wounded waiting to be rescued.

“We laid there for very long time,” recalled one woman who was trapped on the upper level. “You would expect to see a lot of armed soldiers coming up the ramp. Maybe that’s what we were expecting, but that didn’t happen.”

It’s painful to watch the injured struggling, but as the security forces dawdled, a handful of plainclothes police and civilians decided to act—seven in total—going into the mall and rescuing seriously wounded people who had been clinging to life amid the carnage.

The obvious question arises. Why were Kenyan forces so impotent in stopping the attack, preventing further carnage and rescuing the victims?

“It’s not that easy to compare the response to what the American or British response would be,” Reed said. “The institutions in Kenya, sadly, are very dysfunctional. The military and the police are not oriented toward saving lives. The long and short of it is the priority was not to save lives–people were basically covering their asses not wanting to take a risk,” he said of the security forces.

Some of the most graphic and gut-wrenching security camera footage shows one man being repeatedly shot at close range just inside the mall’s entrance, seemingly as he is about to escape. He had been a driver for an American charity. Reed interviewed the man’s daughter.

“He didn’t realize there were two pairs of gunmen. He thought the terrorists were behind him and mistook the two other armed men for cops before they casually shot him at point blank range,” said Reed.

Part of the process in producing the documentary involved much forensic work, analyzing imagery and investigating obscure elements that can lead to useful conclusions.

“As we’re confronted with these hugely impactful events, it’s important to understand the cruelty and brutality but also the astonishing courage and selflessness of people who worked together to survive,” Reed said.

He points with admiration to three women who were there with their children. “It gave them the ability to focus on survival that they wouldn’t have had if they had been there alone,” Reed said. “It supercharged their senses and really helped them to survive. That’s something that gives me hope, a redeeming side of the story. I find that a reason to be optimistic about the human race.”

This may also be a fitting conclusion to the horrifying story of terror at the mall. On September 1, Ahmed Godane, the leader of Al-Shabaab and the apparent mastermind of the Westgate attack, was killed in a targeted U.S. military airstrike in Somalia.

(“Terror at the Mall” premiered Sept. 15 on HBO and has a number of rebroadcast dates lined up on the pay-cable network, including Sept. 18, 21, 23 and 27, with additional screenings on tap on HBO2. The program will also run on CNN Sept. 26 at 9 and 11 p.m. ET.)

–Hillary Atkin

Big Men: A Story of Greed and Corruption Unfolds When Big Money is at Stake

One of the things that POV on PBS, now in its 27th season, does best is showcasing the work of the world’s finest independent documentary filmmakers, and the upcoming “Big Men” is a prime example.

Airing Monday, August 25 on PBS, the documentary is a nail-biting exposé of the global dealmaking and the dark underside of what happens when the US oil industry goes into Africa to drill. It becomes a contest for money and power that reshapes the landscape of underdeveloped countries like Ghana and Nigeria.

“Big Men” is directed by Rachel Boynton and executive produced by Brad Pitt. Filmed over a period of five years, Boynton explores what happens when a small Dallas company, Kosmos Energy, develops Ghana’s first commercial oilfield.

“The world of international oil deals is not an easy one to enter with the camera,” said Boynton, who was most often accompanied only by her cameraman. “And I knew no one in the oil business, or in Africa when I began this film. I wanted it to take you into exclusive and dangerous worlds, to put you into the room right as events are unfolding. The film does this in scene after scene – introducing you to presidents and gun toting militants and letting you eavesdrop on businessmen making multibillion-dollar deals.”

As she quickly found out, money motivated everything involved in a place where so many people have so little and many of them resort to illegal activities– like stealing oil– to survive. She also discovered a world filled with endemic corruption.

“A huge portion of public funds were siphoned off by officials trying to make money on the side or were wasted by contracts awarded to people with great connections and no capacity to actually accomplish the work. It was like a heightened version of a world I knew – an example of capitalism taken to an extreme, where rampant individualism takes root and larger connections between people fall apart.”

In Dallas and in New York, Boynton got unprecedented access to meetings and behind the scenes dealings of the Kosmos team, which was focused on investor risk and return.

But in Ghana, the events following the discovery of oil turned into a white knuckle roller coaster ride for Kosmos, with the 2008 financial crisis, wild fluctuations in the price of oil, and a new government demanding a new deal for its portion of the profits.

“For me, the safe card against divisive self-interest lies not in denying that we’re all looking out for ourselves, but in recognizing and valuing what connects us,” the director said. “”What does this very basic motivation – the pursuit of profit – do to the way we all behave? And when maximum individual profit is the ultimate good, isn’t it inevitable that a very few will have more while a great many will have infinitely and tragically less?”

The 82-minute documentary explores all these issues in a riveting tale that chronicles the little-seen machinations that are a byproduct of discovering, drilling and distributing oil.

Yet ultimately, “Big Men”– the title comes from individuals wanting to make themselves bigger– is as much about shared human nature as it is about oil.

– Hillary Atkin

 

Variety TV Summit: The Future of the Business on Multiple Platforms

Variety is known for putting on top-quality entertainment industry conferences and last week’s TV Summit was no exception.

The all-day series of seminars got started with a keynote address from Marc Juris, president and general manager of WeTV – a warm-up act, if you will, for a conversation between Conan O’Brien and Variety’s Cynthia Littleton.

For anyone who had not had enough morning coffee at that point, Conan’s humor and insights woke them right up.

O’Brien talked about transitioning from the old ways – when he used to check the overnight ratings for his late-night show – to the new, led by the impact of social media and particularly for him, Twitter. He said in the period between his failed Tonight Show outing and landing in his new home on TBS, he put out a tweet that ended up selling out an entire national comedy tour– and learning almost immediately about digital distribution. He now has an entire group, Team Coco, dedicated to digital content around the show that has been very successful.

“Now when people get excited about something, they make it their own. They grab it, they share it with their friends. It’s a much more intimate experience,” he said.

O’Brien also reflected on his career, which has had him on the air for 21 years now. When David Letterman steps down, he will be the longest running late night host, not counting that gap between gigs, of course.

“I came into this business at a high point, when people were put to bed by a talk show host,” he said, reflecting on watching Johnny Carson with his dad. “I had this idea that I wanted to be that guy. I adjusted my dream. There was a period when I thought my dream had been smashed. But I realized my job is to entertain people and make them laugh.”

Heavyweight topics like the future of the television business and the advancing frontier of multiplatform pay TV were all explored before lunchtime, along with a panel called “TV’s Reality Rainmakers,” featuring executives from Fox, Freemantle, MTV and the producers behind the ultra-successful reality skein “Pawn Stars.”

An outdoor buffet lunch under umbrellas at the Intercontinental Hotel in Century City was a chance for participants to network with each other and with panelists at the exclusive event.

After lunch, it was time to get down to brass tacks and ask people for their help in fighting runaway production from Los Angeles and California by expanding and enhancing the state’s tax credits to production companies. They were asked– and we will spread the word– to sign a petition hat can be found at www.filmworksca.com

“It’s very simple. This (Los Angeles) is where the most talented and best crews are,” said Scott Rosenbaum, executive producer of Fox’s “Gang Related.” “You want a great product? This is where you get it.”

A panel on social media and other digital offerings becoming destinations of choice for television audiences was moderated by Variety’s Andy Wallenstein and featured executives from Twitter, Facebook, NBC, YuMe, Gray Media and Generator.

The conversation turned to digital strategies around NBC’s hit “The Voice” and the implementation of having the audience vote through social media.

“Anything that gives a fan more is effective– they’re sharing it,” said Jared Goldsmith, VP of digital marketing for NBC Entertainment. “We are working on creative that’s customized and tailored.”

The data that is derived from digital is also being used to make strategic programming decisions and fostering loyal communities around shows.

During the next panel on programming, executive producer Betsy Beers (“Scandal,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “How to Get Away with Murder”) echoed some of those sentiments on how important digital strategies are becoming.

“Our guy who does ancillary – his work on social media went from 10% to 90% of his job,” she said. “The appetite seems to be endless. They want more.” She also noted that digital media keeps people engaged and brings in new eyeballs including those who are catching up with a show.

“It’s instant touching of content – they can touch the show,” said Audrey Morrissey, EP of “The Voice.”

“Comedy has taken the place of music and the fabric of social is curating and sharing,” said Kent Alterman, president of original programming at Comedy Central. “What matters most is point of view.”

Yet he noted that what’s missing from digital data is the energy that comes from seeing what a live audience responds to.

The day’s final panel, titled “TV’s Creative Trailblazers” brought together those from series drama, comedy and reality for an entertaining discussion moderated by Variety’s Jenelle Riley.

Featuring Anthony Anderson, EP and star of ABC’s upcoming comedy “Black-ish,” Erin Levy, supervising producer of “Mad Men,” EP and host of “Flipping Out,” Jeff Lewis, Elwood Reid, EP of “The Bridge,” Nicole Richie, EP of “Candidly Nicole” and Paul Scheer, EP of “Hot Wives of Orlando,” the conversation was injected with humor, particularly from Anderson and Scheer– also included weightier topics.

“I’m a refugee from broadcast,” Reid remarked in discussing the freedom in producing his drama on FX, to which Scheer agreed that the cabler’s chief exec John Landgraf “wants you to keep pushing it.”

“It’s about being authentic and truthful. Audiences can see through BS,” said Anderson.

Underscoring that, Lewis said, “Every time you see me acting like an asshole, I am.”

Regarding social media, Scheer said, “When it feels weird, social media is not doing its job. It’s not addressing the audience.”

“None of it matters if the scripts are shit,” said Reid, who also noted that when he’s asked for social media ideas he said he doesn’t have time to develop them– that he concentrates on the writing for his show.

–Hillary Atkin

 

 

Just in ‘The Knick,’ Steven Soderbergh Takes Viewers to a Forgotten NYC

Cinemax is going in an entirely new direction tonight with the premiere of the ten-part series “The Knick,” from director Steven Soderbergh and starring Clive Owen as a brilliant, renegade and opiate-addicted surgeon wielding a scalpel in turn of the 20th century New York City at a fictional hospital called the Knickerbocker.

It’s a show that could have easily been on sister network HBO, but Soderbergh and network executives thought it would stand out more on Cinemax, which has so much confidence in it that it has already renewed it for a second season of ten episodes.

“I kind of wanted to be a big kid at a small school,” Soderbergh said at the recent Television Critics Association panel for the show, which also included executive producers and writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, Owen and co-star Eve Hewson. “I’m glad it worked. It allowed for a smaller teacher-to-student ratio.”

Owen said it took him only about 40 minutes to decide to take the role. “It was clear that they done a phenomenal amount of research, and where they wanted to take it was incredible,” he said.

Get ready for graphic surgery scenes that may be offputting to some viewers, performed as they are without gloves and with electricity running through rudimentary equipment that sometimes burns the patients. There were no antibiotics in those days and the mortality rates from what are now considered typical ailments were sky-high.

Surgeries were performed in a theater with spectators and doctors like Owen’s John Thackery were the stars of the show, just as Owen—an actor known mainly for film roles–is the undisputed star of this television drama.

Dr. Thackery is a riveting character–a passionate man with deep ambitions to make medical history who unexpectedly loses his revered mentor to suicide and takes over his role as chief surgeon at the hospital. It’s located in lower Manhattan amid communities of immigrants and constantly struggles to attract wealthy clientele and maintain its reputation for quality care while often finding it difficult to literally keep the lights on.

“The hugely challenging thing is he’s a complex, difficult character, trying to forward medicine and save people’s lives,” Owen said about playing Thackery. “He’s a functioning addict. It’s not about being likable.”

And yes, viewers may cringe at the overt racism the character and his medical colleagues display when a black physician, Harvard graduate Algemon Edwards (Andre Holland) is thrust into the staff by the hospital’s wealthy benefactor, a shipping tycoon. It turns out Dr. Edwards is the son of one of their household staff and that the benefactor’s daughter, Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance) is hell-bent on making sure he is accepted as an equal.

Let’s just say Dr. Edwards finds a way to circumvent the discrimination that is showered upon him and to treat patients in a makeshift facility of his own devising where he also invents some medical techniques and new equipment.

The story takes us everywhere from the old money mansions of the Upper East Side to opium dens, whorehouses and tenements 50 blocks south in an age when horse-drawn carriages were the favored mode of transportation and the telephone was just coming into widespread use.

One of the subplots involves an Irish ambulance driver who looks to sell bodies to the highest bidder and a nun who makes money on the side by performing acts that would get her instantly excommunicated. Watch what happens when these two team up, as well as the other interesting and unexpected alliances that are formed between people of different classes and races.

“The Knick” is a fascinating look at a bygone era when cocaine use was widespread, syphilis was devastating and typhoid could be spread by homemade ice cream. Even if you look away during the bloodiest of the surgeries.

(“The Knick” airs on Cinemax at 10 p.m. PT/ET beginning August 8.)

–Hillary Atkin