Tag Archives: The Criterion Collection

Black Directors Feature #3 – Touki Bouki (1973)

Touki_Bouki_coverTouki Bouki (1973)
Directed by: Djibril Diop Mambéty
Written by: Djibril Diop Mambéty
Starring: Magaye Niang, Aminata Fall, Ousseynou Diop, Mareme Niang

The next two films in our marathon will very much contrast from our first two American journeys into early blaxploitation.  Instead of the gritty streets of New York City, with undercover police officers, pimps, and drug pushers, we move to the French and Wolof-speaking country of the Republic of Senegal.  Our themes with both Touki Bouki and Xala (the next film in our marathon) are much more political in tone, and the films less action-packed and in-your-face, but just as stylistic and game-changing in their own right.  Our first look at Senegalese cinema comes with Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki, released in 1973.  Though Mambéty may not have been as prolific or even as acclaimed as his contemporary Ousmane Sembene, the influence of Touki Bouki on other black cinema and even Senegalese cinema in general in undeniable, and the film has found a great deal of appreciate in the United States and the rest of the world.  Director Martin Scorsese and his World Cinema Foundation restored the film to its former glory back in 2007, and it has since found its way into the Criterion Collection, a rare feat for a Senegalese (or African in general) film.  The Foundation’s aim is to restore films from areas of the world where cinema has been neglected, in order to raise awareness, appreciation, and understanding for these under-seen masterworks from around the world.  Films from Russia, Mexico, Hong Kong, Brazil, Romania, Turkey, and the Philippines joins Senegal’s Touki Bouki in having the honor of being restored and re-purposed by a loving group of artists at the top of their industry, and thank goodness for them.  Mambéty’s Touki Bouki was initially screened at the prestigious Cannes film festival in 1973, and won the festival’s International Critics Prize from the FIPRESCI (Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique).  On top of being celebrated upon its original release, the film has gone on to become labeled as something of a lost classic.  Director Djibril Diop Mambéty would go on to make a number of films in his home country, but unfortunately would never go on to see the level of success that he saw with the release of Touki Bouki.  He passed away in 1998 at the far too young age of 53, and his films would be mostly ignored by the general public until the World Cinema Foundation stepped in and helped Touki Bouki once again find an international audience.


Magaye Niang as Mory in Djibril Diop Mambety’s classic Touki Bouki.

Touki Bouki’s story is told in an almost dream-like, not quite linear way. While there is absolutely an overarching story-line throughout the film, the story isn’t exactly the best thing about the film.  Throughout the film, we see Mory (Magaye Niang) and Anta (Mareme Niang) as they meet and talk about ways they can escape to Paris together.  Mory works as a cowherd, and drives a motorcycle with a horned skull proudly displayed between its handlebars.  Both Mory and Anta have been alienated by their lives in Senegal, and no reason but to abandon their responsibilities in their home country and make a break for a relaxed life across the ocean.  With their plans set, both idealistic young people start looking for ways to make money for their voyage.  Eventually, Mory plots to steal the money from a wealthy gay man, and the two young Senegalese idealists are one step closer to freedom.  Unfortunately for both of them, leaving the country proves to be more difficult than expected, both on a physical and mental level.  Will young Mory and Anta throw caution to the wind in order to start new lives abroad, or will the familiarity and comfort of their lives at home in Senegal prove to be too much to leave?  Find out in Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1973 classic, Touki Bouki.

As a young film-goer growing up in an incredible period of time for our access to media of all nations, ages, and content, I’m incredibly thankful to have people like Martin Scorsese and company at the World Cinema Foundation.  The fact that Touki Bouki has seen moderate success in North America decades after its disappearance is incredibly comforting to me, and I hope that organizations such as the WCF will learn from it in the future.  Though Touki Bouki may not be the greatest film I’ve ever seen, nor can I relate with it on more than a base human level, I’m incredibly happy to have seen it.  The film is a beautiful display of the idealistic nature of young people worldwide, and an interesting look at loneliness and a yearning for more.  It features bright and vivid cinematography, and shows off the work of a director who I wish (for slightly selfish reasons) had become more successful throughout his short career.  It may be deliberately paced and something of a drag in its lingering moments, but it more than makes up for it with its odd set-pieces of Mory and Anta driving by motorcycle (and later a very nice car) through the city and countryside, and the nature of its contrasting themes of young life, death, and the desire to take part in something bigger and better.  We see animals people slaughtered by villagers contrasted with the dull everyday city life of young Mory, and while it may be visceral and disturbing at times, it’s undoubtedly compelling and interesting.  The film’s soundtrack is very effective in its sparing use, and the repetition of Josephine Baker’s classic “Paris…Paris” repeated over and over throughout the runtime is both joyful and welcoming, while also being frustrating and grating on the viewer.  It’s clear that the director took a great deal of influence from the French New Wave movement in 1960’s France, and he does his best to make the frantic style his own through the film’s more daring moments.  It’s difficult to write about Touki Bouki on more than a surface level, because the nature of Mambéty’s film is so incredibly personal.  I can’t say I’m an expert on Senegal’s political scene in the 1970’s, nor can I completely relate to the wants and needs of young Senegalese people of the time, but I still managed to get a lot of the film’s central idea and the plot which conveys those ideas.  You can feel the frustration and longing for more throughout the whole film, which is something that most everybody can relate to.


Mory (Magaye Niang) and Anta (Mareme Niang) riding the famous bull skull motorcycle in 1973’s Touki Bouki.

Touki Bouki is a joyous and incredibly fun example of just how exciting and different world cinema can be.  I’m incredibly thankful for those who saw worth in the movie’s messages and the way in which is gets them across to the viewer, and I hope young people everywhere discover it and appreciate it in their own way.  It’s a beautiful film both literally and thematically, uses subtle, but effective, comedy to push the idealistic story forward, and has a lot to say about both loneliness and the struggles that young people across the world face when trying to find themselves.  It’s bright and colorful, has a fun and catchy (if repetitive) soundtrack, and can be related with on a basic level whether you’re 15 or 75.  Touki Bouki is a film I’m incredibly glad to have seen, and one that I hope finds more and more success as historians analyse and re-appropriate its significance.  Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki is recommended for all.

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Doctober Feature #3: D.A. Pennebaker Rocks! Monterey Pop (1968), Jimi Plays Monterey (1986), Shake! Otis at Monterey (1987), and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973)

D.A. Pennebaker is a legend in the documentary film-making game, making history with his early rockumentaries, he helped shape and influence an entire generation of filmmakers.  This and the next Doctober feature will take a look at the man and his most highly regarded films, none of which I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in the past.  This first Doctober (#3) feature will take a look at his early concert films Monterey Pop, Jimi Plays Monterey, Shake! Otis at Monterey, and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.  The next feature (#4) will take a look at the highly acclaimed Dont Look Back, The War Room, and 101.

51lgm6vwcgLMonterey Pop (1968)

Directed by: D.A. Pennebaker

Starring: Otis Redding, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Simon & Garfunkel, the Mama’s & the Papa’s, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Ravi Shankar, The Animals, Canned Heat, Hugh Masekela

D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop has influenced the documentation of concerts and music festivals more than most people could ever imagine.  Coming just one short year after his incredibly successful and acclaimed Dont Look Back, which chronicled musician Bob Dylan (and will be covered in the next Doctober feature), Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop made an immediate and lasting impression on rock journalism and documentary filmmaking.  The film chronicles the Monterey Pop Festival, which was held in Monterey, California in June 1967, featuring some of rock music’s most successful and influential musicians including Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Simon & Garfunkel, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Otis Redding.  The film captures the magic of the festival, the performances, and the social environment of the late-1960’s.  Monterey Pop is a time capsule, and still holds up as an incredible piece of documentary film-making to this very day.

Highlights of Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop include a terrific performance of “The 59th Street Bridge Song” (or “Feelin’ Groovy”) by Simon & Garfunkel, an incredibly energetic and impressive performance by Jefferson Airplane, an awkward but lovable performance of The Who’s “My Generation”, the last major public performance by the soon to be deceased Otis Redding, whose performance will be chronicled a little later in the feature, as well as Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire and smashing it to pieces after his rendition of “Wild Thing”.  Hendrix’s performance will be elaborated on and covered more in depth in Pennebaker’s short film following Monterey Pop.  After the highlights of all these incredible bands playing, we are treated to a lengthy performance by the great Ravi Shankar (albeit maybe a little too lengthy), as Pennebaker’s camera floats around the festival grounds, showing people young and old alike enjoying themselves and taking in the sights and sounds.  Monterey Pop is an incredibly effective time capsule that still feels cool and relevant to this day, it features timeless rock and pop music, high-energy performances, iconic moments, and wonderful visuals.  If you’re a fan of classic rock, concert documentaries, or somebody interested in 1960’s counter-culture, this film comes highly recommended.

Jimi Plays Monterey (1986)Shake!_Otis_at_Monterey_FilmPoster

Directed by: D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus

Starring: Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell, Noel Redding

If there’s one thing Monterey Pop doesn’t do to satisfy viewers, it’s show more of the incredibly energetic performance by the Jimi Hendrix Experience.  Luckily, D.A. Pennebaker and partner Chris Hegedus managed to capture the performance in it’s entirety, and eventually released it with subsequent video releases of Monterey Pop.  Jimi Plays Monterey is only 48 minutes long, but manages to perfectly capture the spirit of the Monterey Pop Festival, and leaves you wanting even more incredible rock performances.  

Jimi Plays Monterey begins with an art performance by speed artist Denny Dent, painting a terrific portrait of Hendrix himself, setting the tone for the short film about to roll on.  The film then starts with some narration about Jimi Hendrix and about the Monterey Pop Festival, which is something new because Monterey Pop features no narration at all.  Jimi and his bandmates are all ridiculously cool on stage, even to today’s standards.  Jimi, rocking an incredible feather boa, plays excellent renditions of “Foxy Lady”, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”, B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby”, and my absolute favorite song in the set, “Hey Joe”.  After this incredible and eclectic set, Jimi treats us to the very memorable performance of “Wild Thing”, followed up by the star-making antics by Hendrix.  There’s an anecdote that says The Who’s Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix both refused to go on after one another, and The Who ended up performing first after a lucky coin toss.  Hendrix, not wanting to be topped by The Who’s own guitar-smashing antics, decided to one-up Townshend by lighting his guitar on fire and in the process created one of the most iconic rock moments in the history of the genre.  It’s pretty obvious who won in that regard, I think.  In order to get the most out of the Monterey Pop documentary, I absolutely suggest you seek out Jimi Plays Monterey.  It’s short, fun, and wild.  Highly recommended.


The talented Otis Redding performing at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.

BONUS: Shake! Otis at Monterey (1987)

Directed by: D.A. Pennebaker

Starring: Otis Redding

D.A. Pennebaker got lucky in a sense with his documenting of the Monterey Pop Festival: The festival would end up being Otis Redding’s final major performance before he was killed in a plane crash at the age of 26, leaving the music world stunned.  D.A. Pennebaker’s Shake! Otis at Monterey was released a year after Jimi Plays Monterey, and has also been included in subsequent releases of Monterey Pop.  The film is only 18 short minutes long, but manages to give an idea of just how charismatic and talented Otis Redding was as a musician and performer.  During the run-time of the short film, Otis plays an incredible rendition of his famous song “Respect”, a terrific cover of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, and ends with his song “Try a Little Tenderness” as the camera roams the festival grounds, showing loving couple, crying teenage girls, and people generally having the time of their lives at the Monterey Pop Festival.  Otis’ performance is incredibly energetic and had me wanting much, much more.  There’s no doubt in anybody’s mind that the world lost something truly special when Otis Redding was taken from us.  If you’re a fan of the legend, or want to get familiar with the music of Redding, then give Shake! Otis at Monterey a shot.  It’s short, sweet, and you’ll be humming his songs for the rest of your day.  Highly recommended.

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973)MPW-54772

Directed by: D.A. Pennebaker

Starring: David Bowie, Trevor Bolder, Mick Ronson, Mick Woodmansey, Angela Bowie

D.A. Pennebaker knows a special appearance when he sees one, which is exactly what Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars ended up being.  David Bowie (who I admittedly don’t know much about) had reportedly grown tired of his eccentric Ziggy Stardust character, and had decided that this outing would be his final public appearance as the character.  D.A. Pennebaker had something of a lucky streak for making documentary film history after his chronicling of Bob Dylan in the highly acclaimed Dont Look Back.  Alongside that film was Pennebaker’s hip look at one of the first ever rock music festivals, the final major performance of Otis Redding, and the star-making outing by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the documentary legend captured one of the first ever “retirement” performances in the history of the medium.  Little did most people know that David Bowie would quickly resurface as more of an established solo act and continue to make glam rock history.

Ziggy Stardust and the Spider from Mars features incredible performances of famous Bowie songs, including “Changes”, “Cracked Actor”, “Space Oddity”, Suffragette City”, “White Light”, and my absolute favorite “Moonage Daydream”.  The film features incredible lighting and atmosphere, as was standard for David Bowie performances of the time.  Bowie himself goes through multiple wardrobe changes throughout the performance, all of which are visually interesting and fit the highly eccentric Ziggy Stardust perfectly.  Between the song performances, we are occasionally treated to David Bowie and his band backstage, getting ready to perform and just generally hanging out.  A scene showing Angela Bowie, David’s equally interesting and eccentric wife, coming backstage to wish the band luck and interact with them is one of the film’s odd, but sweet, highlights.  Towards the end of the set, Bowie announces this is the “last show he’ll ever do”, to which the audience very loudly reacts with both joy and sorrow.  Ziggy and the Spiders from Mars come on for an encore after the announcement, playing “Rock N Roll Suicide” one last time, and the film soon fades to black.  For somebody who didn’t know much about David Bowie (apparently D.A. Pennebaker was in the same boat as me), Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars packs a huge punch.  The performances and visuals here are incredibly memorable, and I would go as far as saying I’m now a David Bowie fan.  If you’re interested in David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust, or the idea of the “retirement gig” as a whole, check out Ziggy Stardust and Spiders from Mars.  The fun, quick concert documentary comes recommended.

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