Five things to watch this weekend – 6-8 September

Polar opposite examples of how to start a movie are included in this weekend’s viewing recommendations.

Samuel Wigley

Amazing Grace (2018)

Where’s it on? BFI Player

Here’s a slice of musical history that’s been tangled in legal cobwebs for decades: the previously unseen footage of Aretha Franklin recording her 1972 live gospel album Amazing Grace in front of an enraptured LA congregation. Future Oscar-winning director Sydney Pollack was tasked by Warner Bros in filming the event, with the results scheduled to be released in a double bill with Super Fly. But problems with the sound sync meant it never saw the light of day, until the Franklin estate consented to its release following her death. Comprising wall-to-wall music, as the soul star belts out roof-raising renditions of church favourites, Pollack’s grainy, vital document belatedly slots right alongside the likes of Monterey Pop (1968) and Wattstax (1973) as one of the essential concert films of its era.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)

Where’s it on? Talking Pictures TV,  Sunday 02:35

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969) poster

By happy coincidence, Talking Pictures TV are airing the film that made Pollack’s name and probably got him the Aretha gig in the first place. Released as New Hollywood was heating up with moment-defining films like Midnight Cowboy and The Wild Bunch, this 1969 adaptation of Horace McCoy’s 1930s novel emerged as one of the most breathtakingly bleak American films of the lot. For two hours, we are thrust into the bygone world of ‘dance marathons’ – exhausting jamborees in which couples compete for hours, days and weeks to claim a cash prize as the last dancers on the dancefloor. Jane Fonda, Bruce Dern, Susannah York and Michael Sarrazin are among the hopefuls in this whirling metaphor for the American dream, a vision of a craven entertainment industry that looks like nothing so much as The X Factor in Depression-era duds.

Once upon a Time in the West (1968)

Where’s it on? Blu-ray

Once upon a Time in the West (1968)

While 1969 found Jane Fonda reaching new levels of acclaim and Academy recognition in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, her father Henry could be seen on screen plumbing unforeseen levels of sadism and villainy in Sergio Leone’s Once upon a Time in the West, the artistic apex of the spaghetti western. Overturning the veteran actor’s reputation for nobility was just one of the film’s interventions in the history of the western, with Leone’s plot (co-written with Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci) riffing on classics from The Iron Horse (1924) to Johnny Guitar (1954) while amping their iconography to operatic levels via extreme close-ups, drawn-out set-pieces and electrifying musical motifs. It’s out on Blu-ray in a special edition to mark the 50th anniversary of its release in the English-speaking world (Italians saw it a year earlier).

The Naked Kiss (1964)

Where’s it on? Criterion Blu-ray

The Naked Kiss (1964)

If Leone’s classic famously begins quietly with a masterclass in agonisingly stretched out tension-building, at the complete opposite end of the scale is the beginning of another of this week’s home video releases. The staccato opening shots of Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss have the camera too close for comfort as a wigged woman frantically beats an assailant with her handbag. You don’t need 3D to feel this defense, as the bag swings unnervingly towards us and the camera staggers to keep the action in frame. The tawdry tale of a prostitute relocating in an attempt to turn respectable, only to find small-town America harbours dark secrets of its own, this is one of two Fuller films getting the Criterion treatment this week. Like the psychiatric hospital-set Shock Corridor, it provides a perfect entry point into Fuller’s world of confrontational pulp. These are visions of the American underbelly that his camera serves up in headline typeface.

The Levelling (2016)

Where’s it on? BBC2, Friday 23.45

Seen by far fewer people in cinemas than God’s Own Country (2017), Hope Dickson Leach’s 2016 film The Levelling remains one of the undoubted peaks of the rural turn in recent British cinema, so it’s good to see it getting a late Friday night outing on BBC2. Dickson Leach’s debut feature, it’s the story of a woman who, having finished her training as a vet, returns to her family’s farm in Somerset in the wake of her brother’s suicide. There she finds a community struggling to find its feet again after flooding on the Somerset Levels, where the truth about her brother’s death begins to unravel. Done in a terse and extraordinarily powerful 83 minutes, this affecting drama can’t help but get you excited to see what this director does next.

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