Sing Your Song (12A) ***
Woody Allen: A Documentary (E) ***

 

Harry Belafonte has lived his entire life in the public eye. At the same time he was becoming a worldwide star as a crooner with a lilting and seductive voice, Belafonte was fighting against injustice wherever he saw it. Susanne Rostock's engrossing documentary portrait shows how Belafonte took his cue from an earlier singer/activist Paul Robeson in using his celebrity as a political tool rather than as a means to money and fame. "Get them to sing your song and they'll what to know who you are," Robeson told him.

Belafonte had a tough childhood but he doesn't labour the point. He was born in Harlem, New York, but sent at an early age to live in Jamaica by his impoverished mother. She told him that he should never spend a single day in which he didn't do something to "undermine" injustice.

This is a fascinating but very lop-sided film that largely skims over its subject's private life. Maybe that's the point. Belafonte speaks fervently and in very great detail about his friendship with Martin Luther King, his relationship with JFK and Bobby Kennedy and his admiration for Mandela. When it comes to his own family, he is far more terse and evasive.

He mentions almost in passing that his marriage split up because he wouldn't abandon his social activism and his young bride couldn't help but listen to what his McCarthy-era critics were saying about his "un-American" activities.

If his relationships withered or he wasn't always there for his kids, that was the necessary fall-out. One of his most famous songs, "Scarlet Ribbons", he says as if in apology for ignoring them, was aimed at his children.

What the documentary doesn't even begin to tell us either is how Belafonte emerged as a performer. He describes how, when he was a janitor's assistant, he was inspired by the American Negro Theatre. As a young, would-be actor, Belafonte studied alongside Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau and Tony Curtis. Not that he wants to share any reminiscences about this period in his life or about how he became Broadway's "newest golden boy". As he puts it, he had "bigger concerns". Rostock's documentary fills us with admiration for Belafonte's courage and persistence as a political activist. At the same time, it also feels evasive.

If Belafonte lives entirely in the public eye, Woody Allen (the subject of an equally fascinating and equally frustrating documentary portrait) is an artist and film-maker who has spent half a century trying to keep himself out of public view.

The new feature about him by Robert B. Weide (of Curb Your Enthusiasm fame) is a shortened version of a much longer documentary made for the American Masters series on PBS. It does a very fair job of prising its subject into the light. Allen, who clearly trusts and respects Weide, talks about the discipline and working methods that have enabled him to rack up an astonishing 43 films in 43 years. He introduces us to the battered old Olympia typewriter on which he bangs out his scripts. We're taken on a magical mystery tour through the haunts of Allen's childhood and we see archive footage of his formidable mother, Nettie Konigsberg. (She frets that if she hadn't been so harsh with him when he was a kid, he might have been a warmer personality.)

What becomes very apparent is Allen's ruthlessness, his lack of sentimentality and his extraordinary ability to "compartmentalise". At the time his custody battle with Mia Farrow was raging and he was being hounded by the media, Allen was somehow able to keep on working as normal on his new feature, Bullets Over Broadway.

Farrow declined to appear in the film but did sign a release so that Weide could use footage from her films with Allen, which many see as among his best. Other collaborators and admirers of Allen queued up to be interviewed by Weide, among them Martin Scorsese, Allen's sister Letty Aronson and his old producers Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe, who look as if they've just stumbled out of a Damon Runyon story.

Weide traces Allen's emergence as a teenage gag writer; his first teetering steps as a stand-up comedian and his emergence as a film-maker. (He was so furious with the way his screenplay for What's New Pussycat was mangled that he was determined to retain artistic control over future projects.)

Weide underlines how frustrated Allen remains by his failure (in his own eyes) to make a masterpiece worthy of comparison with the work of the great auteurs he so admires.

However, just as in the Harry Belafonte documentary, the film-maker is fearful of intruding too far into his subject's private life. The telling throwaway details about Allen that Weide has given in interviews (for example, his claustrophobia, his chronic shyness and his phobia about touching toilet seats) don't make it into the documentary.

Concentrating on the work is Weide's excuse for not delving in unseemly fashion into his private life. The paradox, of course, is that this informs the work. It's not just tittle-tattle and gossip. Such material helps us understand the motivations of the artist.

Weide's documentary is an excellent guide to Allen's work, just as Rostock's doc does a thorough job in explaining Harry Belafonte's political preoccupations. However, in both films, the personalities of the subjects remain stubbornly out of reach.

Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

    Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

    Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
    Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

    Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

    The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers