Reviewing a documentary is really different from reviewing a film. I can’t take you through it point by point, and I can’t sum up the story. Especially the kind of documentary that explores some weird niche of society. And I am a total junkie for that kind of doc. Professional Scrabble tournament? I’m in. The personal drama of LARPers? Absolutely. World record high score for Donkey Kong? Oh, it’s ON.
So it pleases me to no end that there are currently three documentaries about the Hollywood Boulevard characters. They’re a great group for this kind of film, so play a little Green Day to get yourself in the mood as we go deep into the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. There were many failed attempts prior to these (and it wouldn’t surprise me if there are more to come). Hell, when I started out as Fiona, I was planning to use some of the money I made to finance one myself. However, the Crazy Train prevented that from happening, and ultimately I chose to not participate in any of the documentaries because I was afraid it would draw more attention to me and the CTC. There’s a couple of shots of me in two of the three I’m reviewing today and I wish that I’d been a part of them. But such is life, and really, there’s enough evidence of my temporary insanity available already.
Documentary #1: Confessions of a Superhero, directed by Matt Ogens.
This is definitely the most professional of the three films. It’s stylish and well-filmed, with lots of creative shots and high-quality footage. It also was the most generous to the performers. It focuses almost exclusively on only four of the characters: Superman (Chris Dennis), Batman (Maxwell Allen), The Hulk (Joe McQueen) and Wonder Woman (Jenny Wenger), but it goes far more in-depth with them, showing their homes, their lives, their spouses, even their histories.
It tries to show the characters in a more “professional” light, which is a nice change from the other two documentaries, which definitely go more for the “freakshow” angle. Each of the four has their past examined, their families or spouses interviewed. This is a very important angle that the other documentaries lack, particularly when those pasts are a little…colorful.
A visit with Wonder Woman’s parents in her home town, footage from her impulsive wedding in Vegas and scenes of her working with her agent and auditioning make her the most professional and sympathetic of the group. The Hulk is also very sympathetic, particularly when he talks about being laughed at in an audition, or when we visit the (now fenced off) alley where he used to sleep.
And then there are Batman and Superman. It’s not surprising that they walk off with the bulk of the screen time. Anyone who has lived or worked on Hollywood Boulevard would expect as much. Superman in particular gets a lot of media attention outside of these documentaries. He seems like a professional, reasonable man at first, but the deeper this documentary goes, the more you realize that there’s something off about him. Maybe it’s the apartment completely packed with Superman memorabilia. Maybe it’s the odd, secretive way he talks about his past, and his alleged mother, actress Sandy Dennis. They also interview Sandy Dennis’s family, which provides a lovely bombshell for anyone who believed Superman’s backstory.
And then there’s Batman. Batman, or BatMax, as he’s generally known on the boulevard, pretty much comes off the worst in the film. His lifted-from-gangster-movies backstory, his public fighting, his arrests (which drew national attention even prior to his being featured on Tosh.0)…It’s hard to know what to even say about BatMax, but the scene where he talks to a psychiatrist while in the bat-suit alone would be worth watching the entire documentary.
All in all, this is a great, pretty picture of the Hollywood Boulevard characters, which hints at (but ultimately glosses over) the seamier side of the job. Confessions of a Superhero is now streaming on both Netflix and Hulu, or you can purchase a copy here.
Documentary #2 The Reinactors (directed by David Markey)
This is the grittiest of the three. Unlike Confessions, many more characters are involved. There are three performers that receive the most focus in this film: Superman (again), Freddy Krueger (Gerard Zacher) and Jack Sparrow (Michael Luce, better known as Kayote). Many, many others are profiled and interviewed as well.
There’s not a whole lot more about Superman that wasn’t covered in Confessions. Except for his drug use. I was well aware of his habit, but I was not prepared to see Superman on the big screen smoking weed and announcing, “I don’t use black people’s drugs. I use the white man’s drug. And that’s pot.” He was defending himself against Chewbacca’s assertions that Superman was “on crack.” I don’t know what to say beyond that quote.
Michael Luce (and his fiancée Tiena) get a lot of attention, and it is surprisingly not nearly as exploitative as the rest of the characters are treated. It’s hard to know what to say about their segments of the documentary. Tiena gets equal (even excessive) attention in the film, even though she was not actually a regular performer. Further, their tall tales come off as credible, while anyone else gets handled in the most unflattering way possible. It’s a little frustrating, especially because while Michael is entertaining and likable, he is also one of the least professional of all. Add to that Tiena’s bizarre claims (and lack of actual work on the boulevard) and it’s insulting.
Speaking of insulting, the focus on Gerard (predominately as Freddy Kreuger, but also including some of his other costumes), follows him through some difficult patches in his life, including being arrested for having “deadly weapons” as part of his costume. The way he’s treated in this documentary is really pretty disgusting. He is one of the most consistently professional characters on the street, with some of the highest quality costumes. I was really disappointed to see the filmmakers chose to exploit his struggles, making him look pitiable. Which is pretty unfair; there is plenty of interesting drama and tragedy without slandering one of the few sane, professional actors. Maybe that sounds biased, as I’m still friends with Gerard, but I’m also still friends with many of my “former coworkers” (including Chris and Michael!) and it is my opinion from the “inside” that Gerard was unfairly treated.
Overall, The Reinactors is worth watching, because it gets you right into the middle of life on that street. It is unforgiving and exploitative, but it is also entertaining as hell at times, and to an outsider, probably the whole time. It makes an interesting counterpoint to Confessions, although watching them back to back will definitely highlight the lack of quality in the second one. The Reinactors is currently streaming on Netflix, and is available for purchase here.
Documenatary #3 The Ambassadors Of Hollywood, directed by Archie Gips and Matthew Hunt
While not as slick and professional as Confessions, The Ambassadors of Hollywood also isn’t an unprofessional freakshow. It is my personal favorite because it showcases the widest (and most accurate) array of characters. Admittedly, this includes many, many people who are sad, scary, delusional or crazy, but that’s who works there. You can’t capture life on that odd little block without including the crazies and the hobos, even though they are hideously embarrassing to the more professional characters.
We finally hear more from characters that didn’t get attention in the other two docs (as well as more of Max, Chris and Michael). This is the only one that actually talks to Donn Carl Harper’s Elmo, who was arrested in quite a public spectacle. This arrest was mentioned in both other films, but for this one we get to go a lot more in-depth, which was long overdue.
This film doesn’t hold back on the crazy at all, but it’s honesty is less exploitative. For example, watching Chewbacca’s (Freddy Young) struggle with drug use (and subsequent relapse) is both touching and painful. He isn’t held up as a junkie-bad-example, he’s a sympathetic man who is clearly struggling with tremendous pain, who is troubled by his own weakness. Honestly, it’s one of the most hard-hitting moments of the entire film.
On the other end of the spectrum fall Jason Vorhees (Levi Shambaugh) and Michael Meyers (Derek Horton). These two honestly need their own reality TV show, except that it might just be the most offensive thing ever. Here’s the concept for you: A white, racist, sexist, antisemitic tattooed ex-con and a black, educated, soft-spoken, former Department of Justice employee share an apartment and a job as professional panhandlers dressed as serial killers. WHY HAS THIS SHOW NOT BEEN MADE?! I cannot say enough about how offensively hilarious their segments of the film are.
Another strong point in this documentary’s favor is that they interview Audrey Ruttan, the original Charlie Chaplain impersonator that kicked off this entire weird little job. She’s a dignified old gal, and I was delighted to see her handled so elegantly. I’m also glad to see she’s retired and doing well.
The movie pulls no punches. It’s funny and weird and sad and sympathetic ad scary and entertaining. It’s the closest you can get to what it’s really like behind all the makeup. I can’t do any justice to all the stories. Shrek getting pepper sprayed, Lucille Ball fighting Marylin Monroe, finally learning a little back-story on some of the people I didn’t get to know; all of these could be posts of their own. The only complaint I could make is how ominous the music gets when they say how many characters live in motels and hostels. It makes for a dramatic moment, but come on, it wasn’t that bad.
The Ambassadors of Hollywood is not currently streaming, but can be purchased here. It is well worth the price.
There are other, independent documentaries that are available online, and at some point I hope to review them as well. The boulevard is endlessly fascinating, and although I don’t want to go back to that life, I’m still proud and happy that I was a part of that carnival. So when you go to Hollywood, don’t forget to tip.