Credit: Cold Iron Pictures/Tribeca Film Festival
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

Tribeca Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 3: Jazzy, Desire: The Carl Craig Story, Bikechess

June 19, 2024


Early in Jazzy, Morissa Maltz’s follow-up to her feature narrative debut The Unknown Country, a pair of best friends sit in the sunken center of a trampoline, considering their impending adulthood and lamenting the endless griefs that come with age. After Jasmine, AKA Jazzy, fires off a list of these grievances with the speed of an auctioneer, Syriah responds frankly: “Growing up sounds ugly.” It’s a notably on-the-nose observation that feels mined from a place of adulthood reflection and clumsily shoehorned into an expression of childhood anxiety. Luckily, the director foregoes any of the miserablism that one might anticipate coming in the wake of such a setup, and, in fact, delivers a film unapologetically attuned to this perspective: Jazzy is very much a film hewn from the vantage of maturity, one that looks back with fondness the halcyon days of late youth, that gauzy liminal space where freedom has not yet met consequence and the limited scope of childhood first glimpses and begins to give way to life’s forthcoming expanse. In this way, Syriah’s observation functions something like a thesis for Maltz’s sophomore effort, in that the film seeks to empathetically document and preserve what comes before adulthood’s ugliness.

Fittingly, then, the film’s narrative arrives impressionistically, more a series of waves than any tightly constructed or linear work of storytelling, but it overarchingly concerns Jazzy and Syriah’s friendship, particularly emphasizing its early development — in scenes of wonderfully recognizable interactions, conversations ranging from how many other friends each one has to which stuffed animal is the favorite — and the way Jazzy moves through its absence after her friend’s family relocates. The film’s marketing speak describes it as “a poignant and authentic portrait of childhood friendship,” but while there’s no denying the chemistry and rich authenticity of Jazzy’s child actors, this is misleading. In execution, the film functions more as a sandbox for Maltz to capture a certain aesthetic and spiritual experience of childhood, and the director especially excels at establishing and reveling in the romantic textures of small-town life, the ways that quotidian incident holds potential for the poetic, particularly as it exists in memory. (In its wistful evocations, it’s easy to read Jazzy as cousin to David Robert Mitchell’s The Myth of the American Sleepover.) Maltz and DP Andrew Hajek smartly employ intimate camerawork, sticking largely to close-ups and medium-close images that prioritize an experiential quality, capturing the immediacy of youth’s bubble as well as its permeability as adulthood presses down on it. The film’s sound design — few moments in Jazzy remain unscored — likewise reflects the emotional and psychological ebbs of this period of life, moving across the film’s runtime between droning, dreamlike ambient noise and more heavily percussive, upbeat music.

Suitably charming in its own right, Jazzy is also enhanced by literacy with The Unknown Country. The headline of IndieWire’s 4.5-star review of that film read “A Stunning Spiritual Companion to Terrence Malick and ‘Nomadland,’” but the problem with what is ultimately a modest, gentle film is precisely the lack of an established authorial voice that such a headline inadvertently implies. A wending toward Malickian spirituality and artistry is certainly felt in The Unknown Country, but the final product feels more like a copy of a copy, a pure mood piece growing toward something existential but finding only an intimation of depth that is never sufficiently architected. Jazzy, then, reflects a step forward for Maltz as an image-maker. There’s thankfully less overt influence here, with certain visual motifs working to clarify the director’s artistic voice: a series of close-up dolly pushes through fields of flowers and a bevy of low-angle shots of faces set against dusk’s darkening colors are hardly novel compositions and there’s certainly a fair charge to be made unnecessary affectation, but it’s still nice to see Maltz working through reference points toward a personal style, and the mostly handsome results indicate a clear thoughtfulness with regard to form. And when the director manages to marry this to both mood and material, the effect is pure nostalgia catnip; a scene where a young boy details to his friends the rules to Ghost in the Graveyard, their shapes partially lost in the gloaming, is especially memorable.

Jazzy also benefits from its child cast — not a common line of praise. Both Malz’s latest and The Unknown Country heavily (nearly exclusively) utilize a cast of non-professionals, but children’s lack of vanity and self-consciousness help imbue Jazzy with an authenticity that felt too manufactured in the previous effort; few cinematic moments feel truer to life than this early exchange between burgeoning friends: “What do you watch?” “Netflix. Squid Game.” “Did you finish it?” “No.” Occasionally, there’s the disruptive sense of a capital-S script creeping into the proceedings, and there’s a failure of subtlety to the lack of adults in the film (with the exception of Lily Gladstone’s Tana, playing the same character she did in The Unknown Country’s shared universe), executed well early on but becoming more conspicuous as the film begins to cut heads out of frame or hide faces behind bodies and objects in the foreground. But these ruptures are mercifully few, and far more often, in the film’s best scenes, the boundary between performance and genuine interaction blurs entirely. Jazzy can ultimately then be seen as the inevitable, superior second half of a diptych work alongside The Unknown Country. There, we saw a woman moving toward an undefined something, one of that film’s largest failures being its reliance on the lazily preconceived romantic notions of an existential wanderer. With Jazzy, the future is likewise undefined, but Maltz here understands the intuitive ways we know childhood to belong to a before that all we endeavor to preserve, and mostly thrives at communicating that essential romance. LUKE GORHAM

Credit: Black Box/Tribeca Film Festival

Desire: The Carl Craig Story

To the uninitiated, techno music might feel forbiddingly sterile, lacking the warmth of familiar analog instruments or the collaborative dynamic of bandmates, songwriters, and producers. What’s more, the lone figure of the DJ, sequestered above and away from the dance floor, can seem both intimidatingly aloof and annoyingly self-aggrandizing. However, diehard and casual ravers alike know that the dance floor isn’t where egos are displayed, but where they melt away. In Desire: The Carl Craig Story, director Jean-Cosme Delaloye, who was born in Switzerland and based in Brooklyn, takes the legendary producer and DJ out of the booth, splicing interviews with him, his family, and other electronic music luminaries to chart his pivotal role in creating and expanding the genre known as Detroit techno. 

Born in 1969, Craig came of age as part of the city’s Black middle class with music-loving parents who encouraged his creative outlets. Though Detroit was at the time relatively stable, he was mentored by musicians who experienced their hometown’s tumultuous history firsthand as the once-mighty automobile industry collapsed in the face of economic recession, automation, racial conflict, and white flight to the suburbs. The most famous of these DJs — Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May — were friends, neighbors, collaborators, and kindred spirits. These soon-to-be legends were willing to mentor a newcomer like Craig, who was inspired to make electronic music partly by his day job: a copy shop where industrial printers churned out asynchronous polyrhythms nonstop.

This deep appreciation for all forms and combinations of sound and texture is central to Craig’s artistic ethos. He and his peers were cultural sponges, inhaling and synthesizing everything from Vangelis’ hugely influential Blade Runner soundtrack to Britain’s New Romantic bands to punishing industrial performance artists like Throbbing Gristle. At the same time, the popularity of the Blaxploitation genre, with films like Shaft entering the mainstream, dovetailed with the Black-led Detroit techno scene as it became an established genre in its own right, separate from the house music pumped out by nearby Chicago. This cultural moment fed into visual art as well, and artwork from Craig’s Planet E music label was often steeped with mystical sci-fi and afro-futurist imagery. 

Craig became known for dance music that was more subdued than house or standard techno, but funky and somehow otherworldly; the song for which the film is named, “Desire,” is described by more than one interview subject as exemplary of his ability to “make machines cry.” In this sense, his work easily slots into a lineage that includes artists like John Carpenter and Tangerine Dream. But as his career progressed, Craig wholeheartedly embraced new ideas and thoughtfully integrated existing musical landscapes into his distinct point of view. Jazz became a major touchstone because its freewheeling, improvisational spirit was a way to inject warmth into a genre dominated by synthesizers and drum machines. And in fact, the two genres weren’t so different: Sun Ra Arkestra percussionist and Max Roach disciple Francisco Mora traces jazz and techno fusion back to Sun Ra’s use of the electric piano as early as the 1950s. In 1992, he and Craig collaborated on the 12” Bug in the Bass Bin, showcasing Craig’s ability to blend these complementary genres while successfully pushing their individual limits. The record’s syncopated beats could be played at both 45 and 33 RPM, prompting peers to call him the Miles Davis of techno producers while heavily influencing the genres drum’n’bass and jungle. 

By focusing on Craig’s musical and cultural affinity with American jazz and UK-based producers and DJs who, like Roni Size and Fabio, were also Black, Delaloye makes the bold decision to consciously de-center Berlin, the city that is arguably most synonymous with techno music. The only German musician Delaloye interviewed is Moritz Von Oswald, a composer who collaborated with Craig on a symphony piece rather than anything electronic. In showcasing Craig’s influence on a younger generation of Black and Latino DJs and musicians from around the world, Delaloye is both advocating for Detroit’s place on the cultural map and rewriting some of its past erasure. It’s also refreshing and sobering to hear interview subjects explicitly call out the lack of attention the Detroit scene received when compared to white UK artists like the Chemical Brothers, whose releases were met with far more critical attention and financial success.

The documentary’s third act shifts to one of Craig’s more recent productions, a sound installation mounted at Dia:Beacon and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. Known for its punishingly austere permanent collection featuring all-white canvases (Robert Ryman), giant crushed cars (John Chamberlain), and larger-than-life corten spirals (Richard Serra), the Dia:Beacon setting was an apt new direction for Craig’s long career. He was still creating music in a cavernous, concrete space, not all that different from the dingy warehouse raves where he got his start. And while this basement happened to be part of a blue-chip art museum, the building itself was a former Nabisco packaging plant. 

Unlike the lush, cinematic melodies of his most approachable work, this piece, titled Party/After-Party, throbs with jarring dissonance. It’s not so much music to dance to as noise to be endured; taken out of context, it’s not unlike an Atticus Ross/Trent Reznor composition. While the music he creates on the dance floor conjures hours of joy and euphoria, Party/After-Party is about loneliness and depletion, the solitude of a post-show hotel room, and a lifetime of tinnitus. Yet the punishing noise belies a certain vulnerability, which the film’s closing scenes bring to the fore. Like so many other Black musicians throughout American history, Craig got his start playing in church — in his case, a one-room shack that his grandmother, Mother Ward, built in her backyard. As a child, Craig would noodle on a dusty organ or guitar, playing to no one but the ancient pews and peeling paint. In a way, every club he’s ever played since, be it in the Swiss Alps or the Chihuahuan Desert, is an extension of that church. Alone in the DJ booth, playing for sold-out crowds at 2:00 AM or empty rooms at sound check, Carl Craig is our shepherd, guiding generations of music lovers toward transcendence. SELINA LEE


Bikechess is a strange name for Assel Aushakimova’s latest work. The scene that gives the Kazakh film its name comes in the beginning, with the television newswoman Dina (Saltanat Nauruz) reporting on the invention of an absurd new sport called “bikechess,” meant to combine the physical exertion required of cycling with the intellectual requirements of chess. Quite literally, the new game is simply the two activities smashed together: the two players ride exercise bikes with a chess board in between them. After this, Aushakimova never returns to the sport, and nor should she have. The English title instead speaks to the unique absurdities of life in modern Kazakhstan as observed by a jaded TV journalist and as the stories she reports on — the film’s main point of continuity — grow in their incredulity. From a scientist claiming life on Earth started in what’s now called Kazakhstan to a somewhat mystifying staged event involving rabbits, the world Aushakimova builds is so strange that if it weren’t for her employment of a social naturalism style, Bikechess almost wouldn’t make any sense.

The director borrows and translates quite a bit from the modern European social-drama school developed by filmmakers like the Dardenne brothers into the Kazakh context. The dialectic creates something familiar to both worlds, but new in itself. One way this can be seen is through the seamless addition of the deadpan and black comedy so common in contemporary Kazakh films to the close-quarters handheld cinematography and social issue subject matter regularly found in the European social drama. Dina’s lesbian sister (Assel Abdimavlenova), for example, is arrested for protesting with a blank poster (in a country where it would be generous to describe the freedom to assemble as threatened). The film’s most amusing joke might be when a woman snaps at the TV news crew to do something useful like “go and grow some potatoes” because people are starving. A recurring dry joke pokes fun at the renaming of the capital city from Nur-Sultan to Astana (the latter means “capital city” whereas the former is merely the first name of a former president). The director and her actors are well aware that the basic circumstances they are acting out here are, in fact, quite dumb. But life can be dumb. And therein lies the genius of this marrying of comedy and “festival drama,” as it may as well be called.

The cops of Aushakimova’s Kazakhstan stand for either nothing good or nothing at all. For starters, they have the attention spans of gerbils. Each appearance of a police officer arrives with their eyes and fingers glued to their phones, a device symbolic of distraction and idleness, the latter of which offers up a major theme and even appears in the dialogue when Dina quips that her driver also “suffers” from idleness. But for the cops, they are at their best when they are distracted and useless. One of Dina’s many newscasts involves a staged conversation with a police officer that is so tedious it becomes intriguing as a failure of both a functioning state and media. At their worst, the cops (like anywhere else in the world) are abusive, misogynistic, and, at their ethical nadir, murderous.  

Elsewhere, the queer and feminist subject matter in the film functions as both secondary in terms of the plot’s concern and primary in terms of its emotional center. Other than Dina’s married cameraman that she sometimes fucks, her only personal anchor to the world is her rebellious younger sister Zhanna. She burns for change and will be damned if she doesn’t start it herself; her age and attitude toward change might hit a bit close to home for the film’s primary audience following the unrest in January of 2022. Her girlfriend (Sarsen Asyl) stays out of the crazy protests, but their love itself provides another thorn for the material. In a moment set so distantly in the frame that it’s easy to miss, Zhanna kisses and hugs her girlfriend goodbye before she hops in a cab, before slyly sneaking her phone out and snagging a picture of the license plate. She never says anything about it, nor does Dina ask (we see the entire thing from the latter’s perspective, spying from the upstairs window). In this world, in our world, the act of precaution speaks loudly enough. JOSHUA POLANSKI

Credit: Tribeca Film Festival

Bang Bang

Despite three decades of reliable character actor work and idiosyncratic supporting roles, it’s surprising to find that Tim Blake Nelson has seldom been granted the chance to shine as a leading man. Sure, the Coen brothers gifted him the eponymous role in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs after years of collaboration, but Nelson has rarely had the opportunity to carry a feature film all on his own. Enter director Vincent Grashaw, previously behind What Josiah Saw, who, with his latest film, Bang Bang, hands Nelson a shot in/at the title. And that’s both figurative and literal here, as Nelson stars as Bernard “Bang Bang” Rozyski, a former boxing champ turned irascible layabout, now facing a new lease on life. It’s an overly familiar tale of redemption for a man who’s been to hell and back, though Grashaw infuses plenty of grit into the proceedings, keeping the elements of this character study grounded while occasionally leaning on cliché for support. Of course, the real draw of Bang Bang is Nelson, handed one of the meatiest roles of his career, and hungrily sinking his teeth in.

The premise of Bang Bang reeks of the worst kind of film fest treacle: having hung up the gloves years ago, pugilist Bernard, known affectionately to all as “Bang,” resides in Detroit, subsisting on ketchup sandwiches and utilizing a wheelchair for transport, despite otherwise being able-bodied. Bang’s heyday was in the 1980s, when his greatest rival was Darnell Washington (an excellent Glenn Plummer), who put Bang’s glory days down for good after emerging victorious in a high-profile bout between the two. Rushing back into his life, his daughter Jen (Nina Arianda), who has an employment opportunity in Chicago, requests Bang to watch his estranged grandson, Justin (Andrew Liner). Though tense and standoffish, Bang accepts Justin into his home, eventually recognizing the troubled teen’s potential as a fighter. With the help of fellow trainer John (Kevin Corrigan), Bang raises Justin to be Detroit’s next boxing champ, all while maintaining a relationship with cancer survivor Sharon (Erica Gimpel), owner of Bang’s preferred local bar. With quick cash on the line, Bang puts his faith in Justin to dig them both out of the holes they’ve fallen into.

When we first meet Bang, he’s a broken man, his face a battered visage of bumps and bruises, forcing him to retreat into alcohol and loneliness. Darnell, who has gone on to make a name for himself selling George Foreman-esque kitchen wares, is now a mayoral candidate for the city. The washed-up Bang still bears a grudge, even contemplating drastic measures to find some peace of mind. The arrival of Justin shakes up Bang’s life further, forcing the boxer to form an uneasy bond with a kid who’s been sentenced to 200 hours of community service for fighting at school. Thankfully, Grashaw avoids an inspirational “I thought I was teaching him, but he was actually teaching me” narrative, offering no easy outs in this world of pain. The film is more of a glimpse into the psychology of a boxer’s destructive nature, interrogating why men choose to fight when they can’t do anything else. It’s a cycle of tragedy that’s raw and unflinching, sold well through Grashaw’s stark direction and some steely cinematography by Pat Aldinger.

As Bang, Nelson is terrific, credibly selling the part of a former boxer while remaining blunt and hilarious when interacting with others. (When asked how he got his nickname, his simple response: “Punching people.”). The screenplay by Will Janowitz finds too much comfort in rehashing familiar beats from similar stories, and trouble really arises with how Grashaw opts to end the feature, jettisoning multiple plot threads to spend quite some time ambling about toward a final note of profundity that few will be convinced the film actually earns. Like its title character, Bang Bang is rough and ungainly, but taken as a showcase for Nelson’s talents, one could do a whole lot worse. JAKE TROPILA

Linda Perry: Let It Die Here

Don Hardy’s career as a documentary filmmaker has spanned an eclectic range of themes that are bound, in some way, by an interest in mystery, particularly the mystery of trauma and tragedy, and how those caught by their concurrence organize their lives according to new terms. In his latest effort, Linda Perry: Let It Die Here, the director’s chosen subject is the eponymous, prolific songwriter-producer-scorer and former leader of 4 Non Blondes, perhaps best known for their massively popular single “What’s Up?And so begins Hardy’s documentary in derivative terms that seem to struggle to reconcile the film’s portraiture with the complexity of its subject. It operates according to a structure that, by this point in the lifecycle of Netflix-grade docudramas, feels relatively rote; there is the introductory montage with chopped-and-screwed media, giving the viewer a snapshot of Perry’s media notice; then, Hardy brings us down to earth, sat alongside Perry in her studio, telling us what she’s been up to all this time. 

“Linda knows what she would write for Madonna,” she says. “But what would she write for Linda? The object is not to edit yourself.” This early quote provides some meta-textual commentary on Hardy’s approach itself; inevitably, Perry is clearly editing herself, and if it weren’t for her own self-erasure, there would still remain the problem of Hardy’s gaze. “I bleed, I hurt, I just don’t tell you,” she says to the camera, creating an immediate paradox of self-reference, one rife with cliché at odds with the ingenuity of a distinctive musician who seems otherwise allergic to it. 

Perry, as we learn, is indeed a complicated figure. Her mother abused her as a child, leading her to a lifelong struggle with unhealthy coping mechanisms, including the abuse of drugs and self, as well as other control-oriented pathologies that are generally rewarded both socially and financially, namely, workaholism. When we meet Perry, she is producing for Dolly Parton and Kate Hudson, organizing a gender equity event for South by Southwest, and financially supporting her mother, now in hospice, who continues to attempt to manipulate her children, pitting them against one another. Perry’s main source of support and inspiration, outside of herself, appears to be her nine-year-old son, who giddily accompanies her to songwriting sessions and sweetly reminds her that nobody loves her more than him. 

To his credit, Hardy doesn’t blight the emotion of Perry’s struggle with cheap hagiography, or, at least, that isn’t how it seems. But in truth, the credit is owed to Perry, whose incessant drive and self-criticism prevent Hardy’s documentary from falling into the act of outright pedestalling. This is the fundamental tension at the heart of Hardy’s documentary. What differentiates a competent documentarian like Hardy from a prolific one like Albert Maysles or Frederick Wiseman is their prioritization of leading their inquiry with curiosity rather than spectacle. Hardy looks for rote spectacle, creating a superficial sheen that gets in the way of moving beyond an edited impression conveyed to the audience. In moments of climactic ardor — whether painful, during a breakdown, or triumphant, during a songwriting process — Hardy defers to hyperstylizations, whether sophisticated claymation or broken television static, that create an unnecessary and disillusioning distance between viewer and subject. In one particularly offensive misstep, Perry breaks down in a self-tape in a hotel room, and Hardy elects to insolently filter the video feed to appear like a livestream-threatening disconnect. 

The problems with Hardy’s documentary do not make it unworthy of its while; Perry’s charisma, discipline, and tendency toward autocritique remain plenty to consider. But what could have otherwise been a revelatory documentary, distinct from the hordes of others of its form that have hit streaming services in assembly-line fashion in recent years, is instead relegated to a satisfied mediocrity by a filmmaker whose ingenuity simply cannot match that of his subject.   CONOR TRUAX