SXSW 2024: Diane Warren: Relentless, Thank You Goodnight: The Bon Jovi Story, Omar and Cedric: If This Ever Gets Weird, Preconceived


Diane Warren: Relentless” is a rare documentary on an influential musician that doesn’t feel as if it’s either been interfered with by the parties that hold the music rights or self-censored into mush by the filmmakers for fear of alienating the subject and their fans. At its best, it reminds me of the first wave of performance documentaries from the ’60s, when both filmmakers and subjects were less sophisticated (or ruthless) about co-opting nonfiction for publicity purposes, and you could watch a movie like “Dont Look Back,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Marjoe” or “American Dreamer” and feel like you were seeing something  closer to journalism than public relations.

I don’t know what went on behind the scenes to enable what looks like honesty. Warren could’ve gotten away with 90 minutes of image enhancement in exchange for access. She’s the powerhouse who wrote “Rhythm of the Night,” “Nothin’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” “If I Could Turn Back Time,” “Blame it On the Rain,” “Because You Loved Me,” “Unbreak My Heart” [the French narrator from “SpongeBob Squarepants” chimes in: “Four…hours…laterrrrrrrr….”] and 2023’s “The Fire Inside.” She’s one of the most commercially successful songwriters who ever lived, with a publishing company valued at $500 million. But the movie feels as if somebody just rang the front doorbell of her house or her publishing company headquarters, walked in and started filming. Editors Dava Whisenant and Jeffrey Elmont understand the concept of “performance editing” exemplified by great 1970s drama editors like Dede Allen (“Bonnie and Clyde,” “Dog Day Afternoon”), cutting in a way that emphasizes the specific rhythms of how Warren and other interviewees talk, walk, and interact with others, so that you start to appreciate them as you appreciate your friends.

The movie is filled with photos of Warren from her childhood in Los Angeles in the ’50s and ‘60s through the present. Whether she’s in the frame by herself or with colleagues and loved ones, it’s a certainty she’ll be giving the camera the middle finger and grinning. The image sums up “Relentless.” Warren doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her personally as long as she’s making music. Her house is a mess. She says she has Asperger’s syndrome, she’s clearly a hoarder, and her close friends say she does certain things the same way each time down to the tiniest detail out of superstition and a belief that her extremely idiosyncratic working methods are key to her success. There are signs all over her house warning people not to clean anything. She cuts her hair short so she doesn’t have to worry about it as much, dresses super-comfortably and, according to director Bess Kargman, keeps interviews short because, after answering questions for even a brief while, she’d start to feel anxiety over not working. She’s only had one boyfriend (a producer she was with for six years) and says she’s not interested in men because she’d rather write. Paul Stanley of Kiss speculates that maybe “it’s easier to write about heartbreak when you don’t have to live it (but) you fear it.” She adores pets, though. Her Siamese (named Mouse) is depicted as the great love of her life. 

Warren’s personal assistant is a woman she’s known since childhood, and the scenes of the two of them driving around LA are hilarious; sometimes Warren will be ranting about something and there’ll be a cut to her friend behind the wheel of her car wearing giant sunglasses, smacking her chewing gum, and nodding. Her closest friends are the ones who speak most frankly about her shortcomings. Cher, especially, seems to see into her soul. She treats Warren like a kid sister, busting her chops on the phone. Warren is, as they say, a character. She’s so profane that Martin Scorsese’s mother would have wagged a finger at her. She sits at the keyboard and works out melodies, and when she surprises herself, she’ll recoil in surprise and delight, blurting out, “Th’ f*ck was that?” She can’t help being who she is and never seems to have given a thought to what it would be like to be someone else. By the end, I felt as if I’d known her my whole life and would fight anyone who talked bad about her, even if what they were saying was 100% accurate.

“Relentless” could not be more different from the first episode of “Thank You, Goodnight: The Bon Jovi Story,” which was screened at South by Southwest in advance of its premiere on Hulu on April 26. Bon Jovi, now 62, is probably the second most famous musical emblem of New Jersey after Bruce Springsteen (who is interviewed here) and has been making hits and selling out stadiums with his band for over 40 years. Directed by Gotham Chopra, son of Deepak Chopra (who moderated the post-screening Q&A at South by Southwest, oddly), it’s a professionally assembled and often very entertaining introduction to the formation of the band. 

The deep access granted to everyone’s personal archives will make this a must-see for fans. There are photos and video clips in here that probably haven’t been seen since they were taken. It feels very “official,” though, even if nobody involved wanted it to feel that way. It’s a lovefest, like a party after a 40th high school reunion where all the folks who were part of a close-knit group are healthy and not holding any grudges. Everyone loves everyone else and is described by friends as a monster talent. If anybody associated with the band had anything really bad to say about anyone else at any point in time, we aren’t going to hear about it. I’m sure the rest of the series will be the same way. I’ll watch it.

“Omar and Cedric: If This Ever Gets Weird” is as dissatisfied and restless as the Bon Jovi project is settled and happy. The title comes from something that Omar Rodríguez-López said to his childhood friend Cedric Bixler-Zavala 24 years ago, right before their band At the Drive-In recorded their breakthrough post-hardcore album Relationship of Command: “If this ever gets weird, promise me we can just stop, as nothing is more important than loving you.” 

It did get weird, very quickly. 2000’s Relationship of Command was a surprise hit that got the band a gig on national talk shows and exponentially increased their fanbase, drawing people who had a shallower view of what the music was doing than its creators did. The band was known for its surprising instrumentation and complex wordplay. Neither musician ever considered themselves Limp Bizkit-adjacent, nor were they enthused by proclamations that At the Drive-In was going to be the next Nirvana. They got booed at the Big Day Out music festival in Australia after Bixler-Zavala chastised a crowd for ignoring rules about mosh pit safety and generally acting like lummoxes: “I think it’s a very, very sad day when the only way you can express yourself is through slam-dancing,” he said, also calling them robots and sheep and bleating at them. 

The band broke up soon after, then morphed into The Mars Volta, then Antemasque, then belatedly circled around to a second incarnation of At the Drive-In, then a third. There was drug abuse, Scientology, and ongoing philosophical arguments about what their partnership was about, and what their music was trying to do. Long before that, there was the cultural struggle that both men faced, being Latino in a still very racist country (Bixler-Zavala’s mother is Mexican, and Rodríguez-López was born in Puerto Rico). It’s an American story, and a boundaryless one. 

Formally, “Omar and Cedric: If This Ever Gets Weird” is unlike any music documentary I’ve seen. Directed by Nicolas Jack Davies, it’s composed almost entirely of Omar Rodríguez-López’s own videos, recorded on low-resolution cameras with flip-out monitors and chunky, wafer-shaped grain in the imagery. There are no on-camera interviews in the present, only voice-over, mainly of the two main subjects. Editors Gary Forrester and David Atkinson culled twenty years’ worth of footage to create the result: two hours of quick-cut yet flowing imagery that could be an approximation of what might feel like to be on your deathbed trying to remember your whole life before the body shuts down. There just isn’t enough time. 

Preconceived” is an important documentary about the erosion of bodily autonomy in Republican-controlled states following the repeal of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court. It could become the sort of work that could “fire up the base,” as political fundraisers say. It’s also a work of muckraking progressive reportage that will probably never be seen by anybody whose minds might be changed by it, considering the near-total polarization of the body politic in the social media age. Co-directed by Sabrine Kean and Kate Dumke, it follows two young women, Maleeha and Maria, who unexpectedly got pregnant and wanted to have an abortion but found themselves at facilities that gave the impression of being places where they could get them, but that were actually created to convince women not to have abortions. 

These places try to set up in the same complexes from, or across the street from, actual clinics that offer abortion services. They are alternately known as “pregnancy resource centers” (their phrase) and “fake clinics” (the opposition) and are funded by right-wing and evangelical Christian or conservative Catholic funding sources. Some of them offer other services, such as sonograms and pregnancy testing, while others are mainly about persuasion. They are rarely medically licensed and are notorious for giving women inaccurate information about condoms, sexually transmitted diseases, and the aftereffects of abortion on women’s health—the end-goal being to get the client to give birth, even though states that have outlawed abortion are more likely to have shredded what’s left of the social safety net.

The filmmakers aren’t trying to reinvent any wheels: the movie mostly feels like an extra-long TV newsmagazine segment and seems mainly intended more as an information delivery machine than any kind of artistic statement. It excels at providing a big picture look at what’s happened to women’s rights in the United States following former President Trump’s appointment of three right-wing justices to the Supreme Court, which resulted in the conservative majority that overturned Roe v. Wade. A map of the nation shows abortion clinics closing and PRCs opening up with such rapidity that there are now more of the latter than the former. This is a politically progressive film through-and-through, albeit one that gives plenty of screen time to the opposition, lets them speak at length, and even allows them to be charming onscreen. It adds up to a snapshot of a nation in political turmoil, so fragmented that traveling from one U.S. state to another can be like entering another country.

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