Monday, April 16, 2012

Greenwich Village and '7 Years Underground'

Greenwich Village or what native New Yorkers call “the Village” is well-known for being the artistic hub of Lower Manhattan going back to the 1930s, and invigorated by the “Beat Movement” of the 1950s-1960s. To this day, from fashion to art to music, many current celebrities have gotten their start there.
I can remember in the mid-‘90s going to Café Wha? on Macdougal Street one night and seeing a comedian perform.  My friends and I never heard of him, but he was pretty funny.  When the film “Half Baked” came out in 1998, I realized that comedian was Dave Chappelle.  Years later as grad student at New York University, located in the Village, I would often sit in Washington Square Park and was inspired by music of a guitar player or an artist painting. Or, I’d be sitting on a bench next to someone practicing their lines and later find out they're a Broadway actor. Lots of interesting encounters. 
So when I perused the website of the 2012 Palm Beach International Film Festival, April 12-19, the feature film “7 Years Underground: A 60’s Tale” (2011) immediately interested me.  I caught a showing April 14 at the Muvico Parisian 20 theatre at CityPlace in West Palm Beach.  It’s a documentary by Jason M. Solomon about his parents Howard and Elly Solomon, who opened Café Au Go Go in 1964 at 152 Bleeker St., Greenwich Village -- a cabaret-style venue, not licensed to serve liquor. 
Through Solomon’s interviews with his mother, Elly, who definitely would win “The Coolest Mom Award” if one existed, and previously recorded interviews of his father, Howard, now deceased; the film offers that from 1964 to 1969 Café Au Go Go was the place where careers of musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, and comedians including George Carlin and Richard Pryor, were launched. The nightclub was also the site where then popular comedian Lenny Bruce performed and was later arrested and booked for obscenity charges, resulting in a landmark case. Though, competition from other up and coming nightclubs, which did sell liquor, eventually caused Café Au Go Go to close its doors. 
I really enjoyed looking at a slice of music history through the eyes of club owners that mingled with great performers who were then disenfranchised performers.  It was the 1960s when segregation was law in many parts of the country, yet watching the film it seemed like race wasn’t an issue in the community, which showcased performers from all different backgrounds in an underground place of creative solace.  There’s a part in the film where Elly Solomon addresses drug use, as drugs were abused rampantly by musicians during that time.  She discussed how she never allowed drugs into her club.  If the performers were using, it wasn’t under her watch, and would throw out anyone ever caught using.  A poignant story is when Solomon recalled being with Janis Joplin in her dressing room.  When Joplin changed her clothes, Solomon could see the track marks from intravenous drug use on Joplin’s arms.  Solomon lamented that performers like Joplin and Hendrix had tremendous talent, but had a deep struggle between their talent and the drugs. There are so many interesting anecdotes in this film, like the Solomon’s daughter recalling being babysat by Frank Zappa. Yeah, imagine that. Through photos and audio, you also take a look inside of the Solomon family life.  
I think anyone from a former “hippie” to someone like me who didn’t grow up in the era, would enjoy learning about those who have become icons in popular American culture. If you're in the area, there’s another showing of “7 Years Underground” at 8:30 p.m. April 17 at the Cobb Downtown theatre at the Gardens in Palm Beach Gardens.
Check out the trailer:

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