Directed by Brigitte Berman
Written by Brigitte Berman & Victor Solnicki
Currently playing various cities in America and around the world:
Minneapolis International Film Festival, April 12 & April 13
Rochester, Minnesota, April 14 @ 7:00 pm, then in
London, England Soho Curzon theatre, April 26th (followed by a tour of the UK)
Washington, D.C. International Film Festival, Landmark’s E. Street Cinema, May 2 and May 4th
Jazz fans already know Brigitte Berman through two of the best-ever documentaries about this music. Bix: 'Ain't None of Them Play Like Him Yet' (1981) was a surprisingly detailed and moving account of the almost-mythic cornet legend of the jazz age and Artie Shaw: Time Is All You've Got (1985) was a portrait of the often crusty and not always lovable but undisputedly brilliant clarinetist and superstar big band leader. In 2009 she released the outstanding documentary, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, which took what many considered to be a controversial position: that the magazine publisher and founder of the Playboy empire, was, in his day, an underappreciated crusader for social justice and a pioneering advocate of both gender and racial equality.
Her latest effort returns to the subject of Hefner (who died in the middle of production in 2017), but this time focuses on a different aspect of his legacy – as a presenter of the arts on television. Here, there’s no contesting the notion that “Hef” did American music and culture a great service. Over the course of two distinct series, which ran for two seasons each, Playboy’s Penthouse (1951-1961) and Playboy After Dark (1968-1970), Hefner played host to dozens and dozens of music and comedy greats in virtually every genre. The first program had more of a jazz impetus and the second was more devoted to the latest, highly-colorful rock bands – but between the two they also featured artists from the worlds of Broadway, soul, R&B and blues, folk and country music, international, ethnic and world music, the Great American Songbook, and what has become known more recently as “cabaret.” (In fact, Hefner’s interest in presenting live music was actually sparked by the cabaret great Mabel Mercer.)
Although there are copious talking heads, this is much more of a performance film than a documentary – the whole point is the music, and virtually everyone who was anybody in both eras appeared on the Playboy shows. There are so many outstanding performances that it seems redundant to even try and list just the highlights – such as the TV debut of the soon-to-be legendary Nina Simone in 1959 and the earliest footage I’ve ever seen of Ray Charles (1960). Speaking Out is, quite literally, a smorgasbord, a Whitman sampler, and an overwhelming buffet of quintessential 20th century music from Count Basie to the Grateful Dead, and from Bobby Short to James Brown. (The distance between the two may be Short-er than it seems at first, after all, they both were formidable blues singers – Short’s homage to Bessie Smith, “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer,” from 1959, is every bit as soulful and moving as Brown’s “Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)" from 1968.)
Keeping with the notion from her previous film of Hefner as “activist and rebel,” Ms. Berman shows how, on both programs, Hefner pushed forward a conspicuously progressive liberal agenda. In 1959, it was considered radical just to present black and white people as equals. There was plenty of African American talent on the airwaves at the time (notably on both Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan, though Hef was an especially enthusiastic advocate of jazz) but, as comedian Dick Gregory says in the film, they could perform, but they were not allowed to talk. When Nat King Cole appeared on the first episode (October 24) and sat and interacted with Hefner and fellow guests Lenny Bruce and novelist Rona Jaffe, stations in the South refused to carry the program. (As a result of which, the show didn’t get the financial support it needed, and closed after only 32 glorious episodes.)
Ms. Berman shows how Hefner, in addition to presenting the most remarkable musical talent of two generations, also made his late-night program into an on-air salon for discussion of topics considered taboo by the prime time producers, such as civil rights and the Vietnam war. The program also served a corrective for the medium as a whole: Lenny Bruce tells a joke about a Jewish cemetery; it seems harmless today, but he was forbidden to tell it on the Steve Allen show in 1959. In 1968, Joan Baez caused a network tumult when she wanted to champion the anti-war movement (in the form of a dedication to her activist husband) but she was given her forum on After Dark – and again in Ms. Berman’s documentary.
Hugh Hefner’s After Dark: Speaking Out in America is absolutely essential viewing for anyone even vaguely interested in American music. Ms. Berman is mainly interested in what transpires on screen, and there’s not a lot of backstory, which means she doesn’t mention Victor Lownes, the man who motivated Hefner to become a presenter of live music to begin with (both on TV and in-person) and who was his partner and co-founder on the Playboy Clubs, which launched in 1960 (and who also lined up much of the musical talent for Playboy’s Penthouse). She concentrates almost exclusively on the rock bands in the After Dark show, but it should be noted there was also plenty of jazz: Cannonball Adderley, Buddy Rich, Joe Williams, Mel Torme, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan. These are not necessarily even minor caveats, since all the music excerpted here from both shows is so remarkable. The new film is also a startling reminder that in the 1950s and ‘60s, censorship came from the conservative right, where today it seems mainly a force from the PC left. Things do change – or do they?
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