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Review: Documentary 'Hey Bartender' Blends One Part Character Study, Two Parts Style

Photo of John Anderson By John Anderson | Thompson on Hollywood May 29, 2013 at 12:19PM

BOOZE! It may not be quite as good a come-on as SEX! but there’s also a double shot of sexiness in “Hey Bartender,” which despite its shot-and-beer title is about the fine art of mixology, a.k.a. the alchemical mixing of alcoholic beverages (with names like Weep No More, the Minnehaha and the always fashionable Bronx, which is, FYI, a perfect martini with orange juice). Is liquor cinematic?
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"Hey Bartender"
"Hey Bartender"

BOOZE! It may not be quite as good a come-on as SEX! but there’s also a double shot of sexiness in “Hey Bartender,” which despite its shot-and-beer title is about the fine art of mixology, a.k.a. the alchemical mixing of alcoholic beverages (with names like Weep No More, the Minnehaha and the always fashionable Bronx, which is, FYI, a perfect martini with orange juice). 

Is liquor cinematic? Hell, it can make anything cinematic, including the floor of your car, but writer/director Douglas Tirola aims considerably higher than that in a doc that blends one part character study, two parts high style, and a dash of history about the American cocktail.

The tragedy of Prohibition, we learn through Tirola’s film, is what caused a rather lofty pursuit to become a déclassé occupation, but that, of course, has changed. One of Tirola’s human assets is Dale DeGroff, a.k.a “King Cocktail,” a near-mythic figure among cocktailers who worked most famously at New York’s Rainbow Room, but who really got his start at LA’s Hotel Bel-Air. His rendering of a Whiskey Smash -- DeGroff, like a number of first-class mixologists, is shown making a complicated cocktail in tantalizing slo-mo -- is poetry in motion. Or potion.

Because of the history involved in the major-league-level cocktail mixing -- the drinks and techniques themselves often have a kind of Gilded-Age air about them -- there’s a lot of fashion in “Hey Bartender.” What’s probably good is that Tirola shows the other side of the bar biz -- Steve Carpentieri, who owns a joint in Westport, Conn., called Dunville’s, is struggling: Drinking is down, drunk-driving penalties are up, and his kind of local watering hole is an endangered species (there’s a great scene of Carpentieri quashing a bar-fight-to-be and imposing tough love on a couple of unruly regulars). So he starts exploring the idea of transforming his place into a more cocktail-oriented establishment, which of course enables Tirola (and us) to tag along.

In addition to DeGroff, “Hey Bartender” features such bar stars and their as Jim Meehan of PDT, Julie Reiner of the Clover Club and Flatiron Lounge,  Dushan Zaric of the award-winning Employees Only and Sasha Petraske of Milk & Honey -- all in New York, although the film does wander far and wide. (Heywood Gould, who wrote “Cocktail” is here; so is Frank Pellegrino, recognizable from “Goodfellas” and “The Sopranos” and who happens to be a co-owner of the legendary East Harlem restaurant Rao’s). Tirola gets a bit bogged down in the up-close-and personal stories of a couple of his characters, but mostly they’re all charming and accessible. They have to be. Look what they do for a living.

"Hey Bartender" has an iTunes and VOD release, as well as a limited theatrical release, on June 7. Check out PopChart Labs' "Cocktail Chart of Film and Literature" here.

This article is related to: Reviews, Documentary, Documentaries, Reviews


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.