Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Flipside: A Documentary About Many Things, Including Herman Leonard

Chris Wilcha set out to make a documentary about the great jazz photographer Herman Leonard, but, sadly, he ran out of time. Technically, it was the ailing Leonard who ran out of time. Despite having some nice footage of the photographer, Wilcha never found a use for it, until he devised a way to wrap up a bunch of unfinished documentary business in an untidy package. Sort of at the center of it all is the grubby New Jersey record store where he worked as a teenager. His old boss is the same and so is the dingy carpet, but times have changed for Flipside Records & Tapes, as Wilcha discovers in Flipside, which opens Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

Leonard is a true giant of jazz in his own right, so frankly, it is a bit annoying Wilcha passively sat on this footage for so long. At one time, Wilcha looked poised for a career somewhat like that of the recently depart Morgan Spurlock. However, he now admits he is essentially a commercial director. While longtime associations with Ira Glass and Judd Apatow (who serves an executive producer) might have been personally rewarding, perhaps they distracted him.

It is not that he didn’t try to launch his own projects. In addition to the incomplete Leonard film, Wilcha also started documenting a persistently blocked writer struggling with her long-delayed manuscript. As of the time of the filming of
Flipside, both the book and documentary remain unfinished. Glass also hired Wilcha to film his unlikely dance tour, but then lost interest in the project. True-to-form, Wilcha was similarly excited to document Flipside Records, and hopefully revitalize owner Dan Dondiego’s business, only to be sidetracked by life, yet again. Consequently, when Wilcha finally resurfaces, Dondiego is understandably skeptical of his commitment.

Perhaps Wilcha was partly inspired by
Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, in which Errol Morris drew poetic parallels between an animal trainer, a topiary gardener, a mole-rat researcher, and a robotics engineer, who are otherwise unrelated. In the case of Flipside, Wilcha himself is the common link—and boy, is there ever a lot of him in this movie.

Yet, many of his scenes are weirdly resonant. Arguably, Leonard pursued his career with a passion similar to that of TV writer-producer David Milch, whom Wilcha starts filming at Apatow’s behest. There is some symmetry there, since it was Milch who hired him to document Leonard. Arguably, “Uncle Floyd” Vivino matched Milch’s workaholic drive, out of necessity, as a locally legendary late-night TV fixture, whose show Children’s television spoof predated Pee-wee Herman’s career by a decade. A regular customer at Flipside Records, Uncle Floyd and his show were immortalized in David Bowie’s song “Slip Away,” but he still must eke a living doing party and banquet gigs.

So, do these partial-connections and near-parallels really mean anything? Half the time, they feel like they must, which is at least something. Yet, there is no denying the fact Wilcha is not nearly as interesting as Leonard, Milch, or Vivino, but he has vastly more screentime.

Anyone who has spent anytime pawing through records bins will get nostalgic just looking at the cramped and chaotic Flipside Records—and then they will reach for some hand-sanitizer. For record collectors, there is something about
Flipside that will stay with us. However, as a work of documentary cinema, it needed more focus and refinement. Still, Wilcha did indeed finish this film, so cheers to that. Honestly, this is as messy as Dondiego’s store, but jazz record collectors who know and love Leonard’s work might get something out of Flipside when it opens Friday (5/31) at the IFC Center.