A fascinating look into the pain of creating art
M. Burns | Columbus, Ohio | 10/26/2004
(4 out of 5 stars)
"There are some movies that fascinate you only by what's happening on-screen, and then there are movies like Baadasssss! (and Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives) that get you thinking just as much about what in the hell is going through the director's mind. I imagine a lot swam through director/star Mario Van Peebles' head as he portrayed his own father, Melvin Van Peebles, in this gritty tale about the making of the 1971 black cinema landmark, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. In Baadasssss!, Van Peebles portrays, thanks, skewers, criticizes, and analyzes his father all while a great true story unfolds before your eyes. This is interesting stuff.
By the time the '70's rolled around, it seemed that African Americans were out of the worst of it, but still had a long way to go when it came to the world of cinema. Baadasssss! opens like an assault on the senses, a wild musical score grooving in the background, Van Peebles narrating in a cool baritone, and images of offensively cliched blacks thrown onto the screen. Back in 1970, Melvin Van Peebles was the token black director, who had just penned a comedy called Watermelon Man, but this time wanted to do something different. Something radical. Something "serious as cancer," he says. A story about a badass rebel brotha' who grew up in a brothel and got laid at 12, grows up to brutally beat two white police officers who harass and assault another black man, and then goes on the run...well, you can imagine what the old fat white men at Van Peebles' production company would have said. But he doesn't care - Van Peebles wants this movie made, so he goes independent.
There's a great scene in the beginning of the film that reminded me of the opening hotel room sequence of Apocalypse Now. Mario (played with a sly bravado by director/son Melvin) has holed himself up in his room to write Sweet Sweetback's... and, through some of the best editing I've seen this year, he doesn't leave until every page is stuck on the wall and the vision is in his mind. I loved this scene for what it was when I saw it, but thinking about it later I realized it contained both the best and worst aspects of the film itself.
The good side: Baadasssss! is as fast-moving and passionate as the film it documents. Much like Girl With a Pearl Earring, the best scenes in the movie are when its characters are so wrapped up in the process of creating art you can feel it. And the back story is fascinating as well - being a mainly minority cast and crew, some members were unfairly arrested; being an independent production, Van Peebles flat-out ran out of cash a few times; and being an incredibly brave and risky movie, that notorious opening night had the possibility to sink or make its director.
The bad side: Mario Van Peebles still hasn't really come of age as a director, so the emotional and racial tensions of the film are really shaky. Case in point: the way white people are portrayed in the film. I was really disappointed that Van Peebles couldn't have at least elevated most, if not all, white people in the film above caricatures. It's almost hypocritical in a sense, since the film - after all - is about a people rising above the cinematic cliches to which they'd been subject for decades. Then again, maybe this was his intention, a little middle finger in the air to white power. Whatever.
I was with Baadasssss! the whole time, and for me, the make-it-break-it moment of the film is the make-it-break-it moment of the story itself. It takes place during the first public showing of the film, and I won't say much about it, but I will say this: it's the finest scene in the film, and Mario officially proves himself as a director and star in that brief moment in time.
Baadasssss! isn't a whole lot of a deeply human story until its final act, but it shows the exhausting ins-and-outs of independent filmmaking and personal ambition so well that it hardly puts a dent in the movie itself. It's a 'backstage' movie, but the real gut-wrenching comes from whether Van Peebles'll have enough film to do a scene, if the editor won't quit, and if Bill Cosby will loan out $50,000 just so post-production can happen. It seems a lot more real than most glossed-over tales of moviemaking, and it certainly helps that it's a son's labor of love in honor of a father's blood and sweat. Baadasssss! isn't badass all the time, but it does have a badass final shot - which I won't reveal here - that sent a chill right up my spine. Stay for the credits. B+
One of the Best Movies about Making Movies.
mirasreviews | McLean, VA USA | 09/24/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
""Baadasssss!" tells the story of making "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song", Melvin Van Peebles' 1971 independent film that created the "blaxploitation" genre and put independent cinema on the economic map. "Baadasssss!" is based on Melvin Van Peebles memoir and directed by his son, Mario Van Peebles, who acted in "Sweet Sweetback" as a 13-year-old and was present for the duration of that film's making. Whether "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" was a good film or a bad one is still a point of much contention. Melvin Van Peebles intended to make a movie that reflected the experiences and attitudes of real black Americans at a time when Hollywood was ignoring popular culture and counterculture altogether. Sweetback is no more an average Joe or realistic character than the later blaxploitation heroes would be. But the film's energy and message must have been true-to-life, as it became the biggest grossing independent film of 1971 and went on to make over $15,000,000.
"Baadasssss!" is an entertaining film with a terrific ensemble cast that not only tells the story of how the first blaxploitation film came to be, but also creates a terrific sense of the culture that spawned "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" and of the relationship between father and son that grew as "Sweet Sweetback" was made. This is one of the best films about filmmaking that I have seen and is sure to appeal to fans of movies about movies. Director Mario Van Peebles pays homage to his father and "Sweet Sweetback"s cast and crew by making a well-written, funny, interesting movie about them and by making "Baadasssss!" in much the same fashion that his subjects made history. "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" was filmed in 19 days on a shoestring budget by a barely qualified crew. "Baadasssss!" was filmed by a highly skilled cast and crew, but remarkably in only 18 days. It follows Melvin Van Peebles from the time he -probably foolishly- walked out on a 3-picture deal at Columbia Studios when he was one of only three black directors making studio films in Hollywood, through the writing, financing, casting, filming and promoting of "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song", until its surprising premiere in Detroit in 1971. Melvin Van Peebles isn't whitewashed. He was domineering and self-obsessed. But his single-mindedness got that film made.
The cast of "Baadasssss!" deserves a mention. Mario Van Peebles plays his father, Melvin, perfectly, and looks a good deal like him too. Khleo Thomas plays Mario as a teenager. The cast and crew of "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" was quite a conglomeration of characters, and the cast of "Baadasssss!" portray them vividly. Rainn Wilson is terrific as Bill Harris, hippy producer and close friend of Melvin's. David Alan Grier is unforgettable as Clyde Houston, a porn producer who became "Sweet Sweetback"s production manager. Nia Long plays Melvin's girlfriend Sandra. Joy Bryant is Priscilla, Melvin's dramatic and somewhat naive secretary. Adam West, of Batman fame, has a fantastic small role as a lecherous financier. "Baadasssss!" owes much of its success to the tremendous number of spot-on character portrayals, which are too many to mention here. Overall, a terrific film about film making, and all the more interesting because it is true.
The DVD: Bonus features include 3 featurettes, a poster gallery, and an audio commentary by director Mario Van Peebles and his father Melvin Van Peebles. "The Birth of Black Cinema" (22 minutes) features interviews with Mario Van Peebles, producer Michael Mann, and Bill Cosby, among others, and discusses the political climate in Hollywood in 1970, when black characters in movies typically imitated middle-class white Americans. "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" departed from that as the first Black Power film. There is also discussion of the genesis of "Baadasssss!" including interviews with the cast. "The Premiere" (11 minutes) features interviews with cast and crew taken from the film's premiere and intercut with clips from the film. "American Cinematheque: Questions & Answers with Melvin Van Peebles" (31 minutes) is an interview with Melvin Van Peebles in which he his talks about his career and both the "Baadasssss!" and "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" films. "Poster Explorations" is a slideshow of 23 posters for the film. The audio commentary by Mario and Melvin Van Peebles is both interesting and entertaining. Melvin goes into more depth and offers anecdotes on the events depicted in "Baadasssss!". Mario talks about his inspirations and decisions in making the film. Subtitles are available in French, Spanish, and Portuguese."
Dawn good film!
Nita | Chicago IL, USA | 01/04/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"I was very hestitant to pay $9.00 at the movie theatre to see this film after seeing the original movie " Sweet Sweetback Baadass Song" by Melvin Van Peebles. Though I am a hugh fan of African American Cinema of the 70's, that was one movie I just could not get into. Mostly throughout the film, all you see is the Elder Peebles(Melvin Van Peebles) running from the Po-Pos. I was lost entirely after watching that film because the film was to have supposed to be about him finally standing up to the white man, demanding respect and better treatment, not running from him.
Now the remake "Baadasss" by his son Mario Van Peebles was definately a much better film. Mario Van Peebles plays the Elder Peebles (His dad). This film shows how he and his son handled the setbacks in trying to complete and bring his first independent film to the big screen in which started the Blaxplotation Era . After watching the rental copy of "Baadasss" I was really impressed with this film. It was very well written, exciting, and it's definately worth adding to the movie collection."
A Son's love for his Father...
A. Gyurisin | Wet, Wild, Wonderful Virginia | 09/26/2004
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Ever wonder what it would be like to make your own film without a studio to support you and no money in the bank to fund it. Well, thankfully Mario Van Peebles' father forged ahead in the 70s with a dream and passion like no other. While Hollywood was content with making pictures that negatively depicted African Americans, Melvin Van Peebles decided to break this cultural norm and change the face of cinema.
With no budget, money from friends and drug dealers, and a non-union crew, Melvin created the impossible. He grabbed a hold of an idea and let nothing get in the way from accomplishing it. Melvin had a dream of making an African American the center of the film, one that took no sass from anyone and criticized the modern white Government. While big studios backed away from this project, Melvin jumped forward made Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. There were trial and tribulations to get it done, but thanks to a very surprising source the film became a success. It was the first independent film to become the number one film in America.
Similar to the passion seen in Melvin's eyes when he is making his low-budget film, Mario portrays that exact same involvement when making this low-budget film. What I loved about this film is that there is so much raw, unbridled emotion behind Mario's eyes that you can tell that he 1) loves his Dad and 2) wanted to show America the truth behind this innovator's life. This is Mario's past, and he superbly reenacts it on screen. He carries this film, showing us the many facets of his father. He shows the angry American, the independent talent, the powerful leader, and even the emotional parent. Through all of this Mario continues to keep this film focused and interesting. We cannot keep our eyes off his portrayal of his father. I would not be surprised if he is nominated for an Oscar this year.
Finally, this is a very powerful film that speaks about a side of Hollywood that is less known. It shows how the boundaries of racism can be broken with imagination and persistence. It shows that "all men are created equal" and that if you have a dream you should pursue it. If you are in the process of making your own film and need a movie that will inspire and motivate, this would be the film to watch. From the moment I put this film in my DVD player, I was glued. What a powerful story coupled with interesting actors (Adam West and Sally Struthers) and told with a very realistic voice.
I highly recommend this film.
Grade: **** out of *****"