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

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by John Anderson
May 29, 2013 12:19 PM
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"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.

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