Jews in the News: Lynn Novick, Sarah Botstein and Brett Morgen

Two Very Different, But Important Documentaries

The ”big Jewish TV event” of this month is “U.S. and the Holocaust”, a three-episode PBS documentary that will air over three nights (Sept. 18-20, 8PM-10PM). Here is the PBS description: “Inspired in part by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's ‘Americans and the Holocaust’ exhibition and supported by its historical resources, the film examines the rise of Hitler and Nazism in Germany in the context of global antisemitism and racism, the eugenics movement in the United States and race laws in the American south. The series, written by Geoffrey Ward, sheds light on what the U.S. government and American people knew and did as the catastrophe unfolded in Europe.”

The documentary was co-directed by Ken Burns, LYNN NOVICK, 60. and SARAH BOTSTEIN, 46. The latter two have long collaborated with Burns, who is the most famous American documentary maker. The Holocaust was more than “just mentioned” in previous Burns films about WWII. He also made “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War” (2016), about an American Unitarian minister who rescued, with his wife, hundreds of European Jewish refugees. Footnotes: Burns’ wife is Jewish and Sarah Botstein is the daughter of LEON BOTSTEIN, 76, a famous, still active music conductor who has been the president of Bard College since 1975.

BRETT MORGEN, 53, isn’t a household name, but since 1996, he has directed, or co-directed. a number of very good documentaries and his newest work, “Moonage Daydream”, may attract the biggest audiences of its career. The film, a “sort of” biography of David Bowie (1947-2016), opens in theaters on the 16th.

I recently saw a film at a big AMC theater with many screening rooms. In the hallway, there was a giant poster, advertising “Moonage”, and proclaiming that it would be shown on the theater’s IMAX screen. I thought, then, this will be a “biggie”.

The “official” description does a pretty good job in describing the film. Here it is: “’Moonage Daydream’ illuminates the life and genius of David Bowie, one of the most prolific and influential artists of our time. Told through sublime, kaleidoscopic, never-before-seen footage, performances and music, Brett Morgen's (‘The Kid Stays in the Picture’, ‘Cobain: Montage of Heck’, ‘Jane’) feature length experiential cinematic odyssey explores David Bowie's creative, musical and spiritual journey. The film is guided by David Bowie's own narration and is the first officially sanctioned film on the artist.”

Not noted in this description, but important: Morgen first met Bowie in 2007 and became close to him and close to many persons who worked with Bowie. This explains how he gained such incredible access to the material Bowie saved—and Bowie, Morgen says, “saved everything”.

Morgen has helmed documentaries in widely differing categories. “The Kid/Picture” was about the late ROBERT EVANS, the head of Paramount when “The Godfather” and many other great Paramount films were made. “Kid’ was co-directed by Morgen and NANETTE BURSTEIN, now 52. She also co-directed (with Morgen) “On the Ropes” (1999) an Oscar-nominated film about boxing.

“Jane”, about the famous chimpanzee scientist Jane Goodall, was nominated for many Emmys. Morgen won the best director Emmy for “Jane”. “Jane” was produced by DEBORAH EISENSTADT, 53, as was the “Cobain” film. Eisenstadt, a respected filmmaker in her own right, has long been married to Morgen and the couple are the parents of three children.

“Moonage” got great reviews following its opening at the most recent Cannes festival. It has a 93% Rotten Tomatoes rating and the list of top critics who praised the film almost “to the sky” is astonishing.

There’s even a dramatic back-story. Six years ago, while working on the Bowie film, Morgen had a massive heart attack. He “flatlined” for two minutes and was in a coma for a week. He says that just before his heart attack, “my life was out of balance”.

Morgen seems to have got that balance now. He says that Bowie’s “philosophies” talked to him—especially Bowie’s advice on how to be grounded. Bowie, he remarks, got wiser and wiser as he aged.

I long thought Morgen was Jewish, and he confirmed it in a May interview with What he said isn’t exactly flattering to Judaism, but its Morgen’s honest position. He said, “I wasn’t raised in a religious house, but I try to instill a sense of tradition and religion with my children. Bowie spoke to me in a way that Judaism never had… Bowie is a guide for better living. He’s telling us how to do it.”

By the way, the “word" is that the film will stream on HBO next Spring. 


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