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Review: 'Yelling To The Sky' (Call It The Cinematic Equivalent Of Miles Davis' 'Bitches Brew')

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act December 14, 2012 at 4:40PM

Review: 'Yelling To The Sky' (Call It The Cinematic Equivalent Of Miles Davis' 'Bitches Brew')
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What I came to realize, hours after I first screened the film, was that, the initial unexplainable reaction I felt in watching it, was more akin to numbness - a numbness that was brought on by the assault on the senses and emotions that Yelling To The Sky is; but that’s actually a good thing, so stay with me here for a little bit.

It’s a rare occurrence that a film is able to create a world that’s so vivid and raw that I’m sucked in and totally immersed in it, experiencing every moment as if I really am right there with the characters - so immersed that when the film ended, it was only then that I realized how involved I was, which lead to the disorientation I felt.

And given the roller-coaster of emotions the 90-minute Yelling To The Sky is, from one extreme to another, the numbness I felt immediately after seeing the film made total sense! But that’s obviously a personal response than a universal one. I tend to “shut down” after experiencing something so intense – or as I already deemed it, an assault on the senses. Call it a defense mechanism. It's like you've been emotionally "exposed" by a piece of art, as it's able to force itself inside of you, and reach places that you'd normally keep shielded. And thus, the immediate reaction there is to create this wall that's meant to keep the "intruder" (the film) out. Hence, the numbness/shutting down.

Yelling To The Sky is all id. A visceral trip that hits you in the mouth from its opening frames, and grips onto you, unrelentingly until the cathartic close.

Seeped in realism, the naturalistic performances from the cast, including star Zoe Kravitz, are dynamic – vigorous and purposeful; active and changing. Nary a sequence is wasted.

Characters transform; those perceived to be weak, find strength; and the strong prove to be just as vulnerable. Lessons are learned often after extremes, and everyone isn’t exactly who they present themselves to be (or who we, the audience might instinctively classify them as).

In a scene that takes place inside the office of a teacher at the high school Zoe’s Sweetness O’Hara attends, a poster hanging on what may have been a wall (although that’s irrelevant) read something like, “Character is who you are…” and in smaller letters, “when nobody is watching.” Those may not have been the exact words, but close enough. The sentiment is the same and understood.

As an aside, I’ll add that it’s one of those films that would require a second viewing, because there are likely other similar sub textual visual cues that support the overall story.

But the point here is that central characters definitely aren’t 2-dimensional “coming of age” movie cut-outs. They are alive, fully realized human beings, all on personal journeys, trying to make sense of the world around them, and really just find some stability amidst the chaos – the non-fleeting kind; a need that I think is universal. The saying goes that we’re all alike, and when life throws daggers our way, we become interested in one thing and one thing only – our own survival, by any means necessary.

And it’s that same “unboxed” thinking that makes the film a challenge. Like the mercurial nature of its characters, it’s just not-so easily classified. Tonal shifts are sometimes jarring, and it may at first feel chaotic, but you’ll soon come to realize, as I did some time after the screening, it’s a controlled, contained chaos, if that makes sense. Although another way to think about it, is taking into consideration that the unpredictability and uncertainty you feel in watching the film is exactly how you should feel, because Victoria does a wonderful job creating the universe Zoe Kravitz’s Sweetness O’Hara lives in, both the physical and the psychological. Hers is indeed a volatile, chaotic world, so, the fact that I was able to genuinely empathize is a credit to the film and all the talents involved in its making.

And it’s this kind of “unboxed” approach to cinema that I find appealing. Fuck safety. Take some risks. I’d more readily applaud a film that challenges the expected order of things and fails (not that this one does, by the way, but just to make a point), than one that simply repeats formula mechanically. The phrasing I’ve heard used is “assembly line cinema.”

I’ve intentionally not revealed any of the film’s plot because I actually think it’s somewhat irrelevant in this case; if you haven’t figured it out by now, based on all I’ve already said, it’s not a film that’s interested in telling the expected linear narrative. There is a story there, don’t get me wrong – one that I could probably summarize in one sentence; but the film lives on another level.

On my subway ride home, almost immediately, I thought about Miles Davis, and the organic, experimental approach he used in creating some of his music – notably an album like Bitches Brew, which was recorded in just three days. The story goes... wiithout any notice, nor giving them any idea of what they were going to be working on, Davis summoned the musicians who contributed to the compilation, and, while in the recording studio, they were typically given very few instructions – mostly suggestions as to mood and tone, with his intent being to essentially force the musicians to pay very close attention to one another, to their own performances, and to Miles Davis' cues, all of which could change at any moment, without notice.

That’s almost exactly how I imagine this film was put together, which gives it, like Bitches Brew, its loose, improvisational, unconventional style. And it works!

Although, as Victoria and I discussed briefly after the screening, it’s those same reasons that make the film a challenge in the eyes of distributors, which is partly why the film went without distribution for longer than I expected, despite all the accolades it received, from its debut at the revered Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale) in February 2011, and its stateside premiere at the South By Southwest Film Festival in March.

It’ll immediately be classified as a “black film,” I'm sure, and, from a distributor’s POV, that automatically limits its reach; and even further, given that it seems "black films" are only allowed to exist within very limited, if extreme spaces, and the need to make comparisons to previous films the norm, in order to easily classify them, Yelling To The Sky was probably something of an anomaly to distributors. It’s not Precious, it’s not Larry Clark’s Kids, it’s not an Oprah Winfrey special either. They probably just didn’t really know what exactly to do with it - that is until MPI Media Group finally came along, and walked down the aisle with the film, as it opens in NYC, and is released on VOD and digital today.

And, as another aside, speaking of Precious, one noteworthy factoid; correcting what we all believed when it was made public that she had a role in the film, Gabourey Sidibe actually got the part in Yelling To The Sky before most of us even knew about Lee Daniels’ adaptation of Sapphire’s novel. We long believed that Gabourey’s participation in Yelling To The Sky was due in some part to her performance in Precious. Not quite the case.

In closing, as I already said, I think this is a film that demands a second viewing for a number of reasons. It ends in almost a similar fashion as it begins, still with an uncertainty of what will come of these characters, despite the cathartic moment that was the very last scene. In essence, I felt like I “interrupted” the lives of these people, spent about 90 minutes with them, although the film takes place over several months, immersed in this chaotic world they exist in, and then almost abruptly left in the same manner in which I entered it. They lived before I met them, and they will continue to live after I left them, however unstable that living might be.

As noted, Yelling To The Sky opens in a multi-platform release (theatrical, cable VOD, digital download - via MPI Media Group) today, Friday, December 14, 2012, to hopefully be followed by a major market roll out.

In terms of theatrical, it opens in New York today, playing at Cinema Village22 East 12th Street, in Manhattan. And for those uptown, ImageNation's RAW SPACE, at 2031 Adam Clayton Powell Blvd in Harlem, will also run the film for a week.

The rest of you can find it on other formats - like iTunes, Amazon Video, and also on certaint cable VOD channels. So you've got options, and you're encouraged to visit the film's website at this link HERE for what all those options are.

Watch the trailer below:

This article is related to: Yelling To The Sky, Victoria Mahoney, Zoë Kravitz


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