In recent years, filmmakers worldwide have been testing the technological limits of the traditional art-focused documentary. Attempting to emulate a similar spirit to the artists that they desperately want to pay homage towards, the rise of gimmicks and other innovative trends have transpired upon these recent productions. Some films such as Wim Wenders’ Pina is a perfect example of a great film that transports the audience into the work of Pina Bausch with immersive 3D visuals and simplistic direction. Some other films from this trend are far less favourable however. The film Cunningham is a documentary that strived for far too many different subjects and topics in one film, while presenting its information with an overwhelming 3D filter. 

Sometimes, filmmakers just need to tone down the flare and instead deliver an effective portrait of the artist themselves over any sort of revolutionary technical appeal. For those starving for a simplistic and effective historical portrait of a renowned choreographer, Jamila Wignot’s passionate tribute to the life and work of Alvin Ailey perfectly meets this criteria. Alvin’s contributions to the art world since his passing has left an ever growing impact on our current culture. Wignot’s film examines the cultural influence and drawbacks of Ailey’s own personal life, and the various troublesome and harrowing experiences he encountered along the way. In order to represent Alvin and his prosperous influence, Wignot divided her film into two intertwining halves. 

The first half is a standard interview and archival based narrative. Wignot collected rare voice clippings, unrestored reelers, still photographs, and personally conducted interviews with Alvin’s own peers and colleagues to create an unbiased look at his momentous career. From childhood experiences during The Great Depression, to the creation of many renowned masterpieces including Revelations (1960) and Love Songs (1972) the film tackles the aforementioned subject matter with immaculately crafted presentation. 

In particular, this specific portion of the film features expertly executed match cutting and an appropriation selection of informative talking head footage. Where most films tend to ignore the smaller details that help build a bigger picture in the mind of the viewer — editor Annukka Lija compiles different forms of archival footage to create a unique perspective into the mind of Alvin Ailey. For example, the frenetic editing in the Memoria scene is hypnotic in how Lija rapidly cuts to various shots that provoke a feeling of anger, grief, and sorrow. The editing in itself featured throughout Ailey is a cinematic dance that bends reality. 

The second half of the film is far less traditional where the film follows Puremovement choreographer Rennie Harris, as he choreographs an homage dance piece for an anniversary celebration in honour of the life and legacy of Alvin Ailey. Where the footage presented in this section projects an optimistic and hopeful look at what Ailey’s career influenced post-mortem there simply should have been more screen time for this specific area of the film at the end of the day. Where legacy is a key theme presented throughout the documentary, the absence of the people who are essentially our future in the world of dance seem oddly absent from the bigger picture.

A beautiful portrait of art, passion, and the power of self-expression, Wignot and her crew of talented editors, mixers, and researchers compiled an effective and universal film from the ground up. Especially when hearing the artist through his own words it’s a harrowing and deeply personal experience to understand the life and struggle of an impressionable and influential person such as Alvin Ailey. But most of the time, this is the very reason why film exists in the first place. To provide a fresh new perspective on the past, present, and future.

Dir: Jamila Wignot

DOP: Naiti Gámez

Country: USA

Year: 2021

Runtime: 82 minutes

Ailey premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival as part of the US Documentary Competition category. The film will screen again virtually on February 1st. PBS American Masters will release Ailey in coming months.

By David Cuevas

David Cuevas is a writer, reporter, and the official festivals editor (US/Canada) for FilmHounds Magazine. In his spare time, you can find him watching a bunch of movies while contemplating on his own existence.

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