(USA, 95 min.)
Dir: Chris Wilcha
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)
How many people pursue their dreams? We all know the truth. Few have ambitions beyond the mundane and those who are gifted often don’t work hard enough at what they might accomplish. Most people lead lives of quiet desperation, as Thoreau once put it, and those who don’t often fool themselves that their achievements far outstrip what has actually been realized.
Gloomy thoughts, indeed, for a documentary that is filled with joyful images of record albums, brilliant photographs, and choice bits of jazz and Boomer music and culture. It’s not that Flipside, Chris Wilcha’s autobiographical account of his dream of being a filmmaker doesn’t embrace the beauties of pop culture since the Sixties. Whether it’s punk or New Wave or soul or psychedelia, Wilcha extols it, which makes perfect sense given that he spent the better time of his late adolescence working in a second-hand record store in New Jersey called, of course, Flipside.
He returns to Flipside, miraculously extant and still run by Dan, his mentor, but that’s only part of his tale and that of the film. Wilcha’s progress has been an odd one: a great first act, a problematic second one, followed by, well, the making of Flipside, when the filmmaker decided to rediscover himself.
After leaving the store, Wilcha worked for Columbia House Records, a populist bottom-of-the-barrel music merchandiser, which made way too much money selling mainstream albums directly to the public. Quality wasn’t the point; quantity—and plenty of it—was what it was about. Wilcha caught it all in his first film The Target Shoots First, a satirical look at rampant capitalism in the music business—and the doc was a hit on the indie festival circuit. He followed that success up with the TV version of This American Life, Ira Glass’s NPR radio hit, which recounted quirky but true human tales to ever increasing audiences. Sadly, after a couple of years, Glass decided to end the show and stick with radio despite great ratings and reviews.
At that point, Judd Apatow asked Wilcha to document the making of his film Funny People, which encouraged the Jersey boy to move with his family to California. Since 2009, Wilcha has found his career transition to a maker of commercials. Of course, there’s a lot of creativity in making a fine commercial and it’s apparent that Wilcha is very good at it. But over the last decade and a half, he hasn’t been completing indie docs. He has shot several, the most impressive being one on Herman Leonard, the legendary jazz photographer who shot brilliant images of Dexter Gordon, Billie Holiday, and so many others. Wilcha also went back to Jersey more than a decade ago to make a film about Dan’s struggles maintaining Flipside but that project, like Leonard’s, wasn’t finished.
Dreams die hard, they say, especially if you truly care about them. When Chris Wilcha was young, he wanted to be a director. He may be middle-aged-crazy, but Wilcha still believes in his dream. Flipside is that rarity, a film made with personal passion. It’s certainly not about the money. Judd Apatow is in it and so is the great writer David Milch, the auteur of the noir-western series Deadwood, who lost it all to Alzheimer’s but not before inspiring Wilcha to include his spiritual mentor Herman Leonard in the film. Dan from Flipside is there, crankier than ever, still keeping his dream alive despite the nearly total disappearance of his clientele.
Flipside is, to my mind, one of the finest docs of the year but I admit that his story strikes a chord with me. Let me emulate the Wizard of Oz and emerge from behind the curtain. I met Herman Leonard when my friend Tom Fulton interviewed him for CJRT-FM, an extraordinary radio station, which emulated CBC as an arts channel but on a much lower budget. Herman and Tom and I talked for over an hour about jazz and photography and how the notion of authenticity was diminishing in the modern age. It was a great experience and I’m the only one alive to remember it: giants are no longer in our midst.
Some of you may know that I ran an independent bookshop in Toronto for decades called Pages, which like Flipside, meant more to its loyal customers than simply being a place to buy good books or records. Like Dan in Jersey, I know what it’s like to create something that has meaning to a community. It’s a wonderful feeling.
Maybe my positive reaction to Flipside is too personal. I’d like to think that my recommendation that you see it is based on Wilcha’s honest account of coming to terms with his own mortality and artistic aspirations. In any case, I’m happy to have seen it. And think you’ll enjoy it, too.