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Bad Flashbacks

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Did you know that 5-year-old Elian Gonzalez was on the verge of being devoured by a shark in the stormy waters off the coast of Florida, when a school of dolphins magically appeared, did battle with the shark and chased it away?

And, then, miracle of miracles, the dolphins lined up on one side of the inner tube in which little Elian was clinging to life and pushed him all the way to shore - kind of like football players pushing a blocking sled.

And, as they pushed, the night sky magically lightened and sweet, soft music filled the air. The only things missing were three wise men riding swordfish and a chorus of mackerel singing "Silent Night."

There's nothing quite as awful as a bad made-for-television movie biography, unless it is a bad made-for-television movie biography that's been ripped from the headlines. We have one of each airing tomorrow night - The Elian Gonzalez Story" on the Fox Family Channel, and "Hendrix," the story of the legendary 1960s guitar player Jimi Hendrix, airing on Showtime.

Each is awful in its own way. But each is also culturally fascinating in the strange ways they attempt to explain our history and/or help us make sense of recent political events. When you think about 10 or 15 million of us getting what the cable channels try to make us believe is the untold story on the lives of public figures like Gonzalez and Hendrix from these crackpot films, you start to wonder why we're not even more confused than we are about our past and world events.

"The Elian Gonzalez Story" is by far the worse of the two, as it purports to tell the story of the Cuban child rescued Nov. 25, 1999, off the coast of Florida after his mother and 10 other refugees were drowned in a storm as they attempted to sail in their makeshift boat to the United States.

After being rescued by a fisherman, Elian was placed in the temporary custody of his great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez, where he became the focus of a political tug of war with the Cuban-American community on one side and Elian's father, the Cuban government and the United States Justice Department on the other. The battle came to a head April 22 when U.S. marshals staged a pre-dawn raid on the home of Lazaro Gonzalez and took Elian away. The picture of one of the marshals in full battle gear and gas mask pointing his rifle at Elian and the man who was holding the boy ran on the front page of virtually every newspaper in the United States the next day.

"The Elian Gonzalez Story" is not so much an actual story as it is the re-enactment of a series of scenes made familiar from news accounts strung together to look like a movie. There is absolutely no narrative arc. If you are foolish enough to stay with it all the way, when it ends with Elian back on the streets of Cuba playing soccer under his father's eye, you are going to be left staring at the screen waiting for something that feels like a real ending to unfold.

The lack of any emotional payoff for viewers is not just the fault of Dennis Turner's script. There's this tiny problem with the acting: the actors in the lead role can't act, and the actors in the supporting roles who can act are given such limited characters to work with all they can do is stand around looking stoic, pained or angry.

The emotional center of the film is supposed to be Elian and Marisleysis Gonzalez, Lazaro's 21-year-old daughter, who "forms a special bond with Elian," in the language of the Fox press release. Actually, it's a little more than a special bond.

Right after we see the screwball Disney-does-Bethlehem dolphin rescue re-enactment, we cut to Marisleysis tucking Elian into bed. With tears in her eyes, she says, "God brought you to us. It was the hand of God that led you here. Holy Mary, mother of God, let us be worthy of this child."

And, then, as she takes a gold crucifix on a chain from around her neck and puts it on Elian, she says, "Nothing will ever hurt you again, Elian. And no one, no one, will ever take you away from me."

Knowing what we know about the outcome, we are, of course, supposed to be weeping buckets here.

The problem is the two actors in the scene, Alec Roberts as Elian and Laura Elena Haring as Marisleysis, combined have less experience or talent than either one (take your pick) of the Olsen twins. Six-year-old Roberts has been in two regional commercials, and Haring's resume runs from roles on the soap operas "Sunset Beach" and ""General Hospital" to guest appearances on shows like "Baywatch."

Haring's job here is mainly to smile a madonna-like smile every time she holds Elian and to get hysterical when they take him away. Hysteria is well beyond her range. Roberts spends the whole film trying to look wide-eyed. He almost gets it right.

I could pound away all day on this film, but I'll limit myself to what makes me most angry. Fox Family Channel promotes itself to parents as programming the whole family can watch. Indeed, the film starts at 8 p.m. tomorrow, a time when many families try to watch together.

Yet, I can pretty much guarantee nightmares for any young child who sees this stupid film. A gratuitous scene showing Elian screaming for his mother not to leave as she's sucked under by giant waves is textbook in how to trigger separation anxiety.

And, then, we move to camera shots from shark's-eye-point-of-view of little Elian's legs underwater as we hear him screaming with fright. Try putting your kid in the bathtub after he gets this image burned into his brain.

You wonder how a network that markets itself as family could be this stupid, careless or crass, and then you remember that Fox Family is owned by Rupert Murdoch and Haim Saban, the man who got rich with "The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers."

The man, not the music

The most maddening aspect of "Hendrix," starring newcomer Wood Harris as musician Jimi Hendrix, is that it's so low-rent and done on the cheap.

The producers couldn't get rights to use Hendrix's original music, so they settled for footage of songs Hendrix didn't write but performed, like "Hey Joe" and "All Along the Watchtower."

The problem is that they use the two songs so often - to the exclusion of almost everything else - that the film leaves you thinking they are all he did or, in some way, represent the Hendrix oeuvre.

They do not. But, hey, it's what we could afford.

If you can't get the music right with a musician like Hendrix, you might think, "What's the point?" But here the idea seems to be, "Let's see how many things we can do cheaply and wrong, and still get paid."

The script from Art Harris, a writer whose credits include one forgettable made-for-TV movie and an unspecified number of episodes of the ABC action series "MacGyver," uses the most hackneyed of all biography formulas, a person at the end of his or her life being interviewed by a biographer in the film.

As the person remembers an event from the past, we flash back to that time with them.

Washington desperately wants to give us a Citizen Kane-like Rosebud to explain the psychology of Hendrix, but he fails to even give us the psychology, let alone the reasons for it. What we are left with are goofy cliches and troubling stereotypes.

Hendrix was super-sexed, we are told in this film. It has too many gratuitous scenes to count of Hendrix making out with an incredible number of almost naked women (this is premium cable remember).

But the women - almost all of whom are white - look like Playboy bunnies, and the lingerie they wear is color coordinated, silky, Victoria's Secret, cover girl stuff. I don't think even Joey Heatherton wore this kind of stuff in the 1960s, let alone concertgoers at the Monterrey Pop Festival.

The producers show absolutely no concern about the racial implications of depicting a black man as super-sexed. They are even more careless in the simplistic answer they offer to the death of Hendrix in 1970 in London.

According to this film, essentially what killed Hendrix was a greedy white promoter. That certainly did happen many, many times in the history of popular music - groundbreaking black artists were exploited and then led to an early grave by ruthless white managers, agents and promoters. I wrote that story about Eddie Kendrix, of The Temptations, for the Detroit Free Press once upon a time.

But here it is given a totally unsubstantiated political dimension with members of the Black Panthers warning Hendrix of Whitey's ways and other black friends repeatedly begging him to come home to his own in Harlem where he could prosper as an artist.

Hendrix is shown casually smoking pot, snorting coke and drinking wine in the film. But the producers inexplicably ignore the heroin that ultimately led to his drug overdose death.

Jimi Hendrix was not only a pioneer in rock music, but he was also a pioneer in speedballing - the lethal mixing of coke and heroin that took the life of John Belsuhi and so many major pop culture figures of the era. "Hendrix" could have said something important about the ecstasy and grave dangers connected to drug experimentation, music and art in the 1960s by dealing honestly with Hendrix's addictions, but that would have taken a more responsible team of filmmakers than the ones who made "Hendrix" on the cheap.

The catchphrase "drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll" has often been used as a shorthand way of describing the era and the milieu of the late 1960s that Hendrix so magically captured with his music.

"Hendrix," the film, has some of the drugs, way too much of the sex and almost none of the rock 'n' roll or the man who created it.

Weekend TV

What: "The Elian Gonzalez Story."

When: Tomorrow night 8 to 10.

Where: Fox Family Channel.

In brief: Elian Gonzalez as God's anointed one.

What: "Hendrix."

When: Tomorrow night 8 to 10.

Where: Showtime.

In brief: Hendrix without the music, minus the man.

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