The rise and rapid fall of Morton Downey, Jr.
Loves: Good documentaries
Likes: Chris Elliott
Dislikes: Most talk shows
Hates: Reality TV, trash TV, conservative talk shows
If you weren't aware of popular culture in the late ‘80s, there's a good chance you've never even heard of the late Morton Downey, Jr., who died of lung cancer in 2001, after making a name for himself with a cigarette as his permanent accessory. Few television icons have made such an impact in such a meager span of time as he did while his show aired from 1987 to 1989, not even making it a full two years from debuting as a local show in the NY metropolitan area to nationwide syndication to cancellation. Along the way, he gained notoriety for the way he viciously attacked his guests and put himself in the spotlight for his involvement in the Tawana Brawley rape hoax (teaming up with Al Sharpton to ride the scandal to skyrocketing popularity.) Unfortunately for Downey, Jr., his schtick wasn't maintainable, as it was hard to get guests like Ron Paul to return to the show after getting insulted and howled at, and the show devolved into the usual freak-show parade, until it left the air in shame, but not before establishing a template for the next generation of blowhard talk shows, as delivered by the FOX News brigade.
The interviews and clips provide a 360-degree view of Downey, Jr., and helps paint the story of what drove him, including his issues with his famous singer father, and what influenced him. The most fascinating part is the revelation that Downey, Jr. was a published poet (and basically a liberal) at one point, and the film has its famous participants read his poetry as a way to indict him for his hypocrisy. The film also uses impressively stylish animation from Murray John to illustrate moments for which no footage exists, making for some of the most memorable segments of the film, such as when Downey, Jr. transforms into a raging dragon in the midst of a domestic dispute.
The filmmakers wisely expanded the story beyond the scope of the man, the myth and legend that was Downey, Jr., spending some time with "the beast," as his seething audience was known, catching up with some of them today, and exploring Downey, Jr.'s legacy in today's Tea Party movement, through footage of chats with Herman Cain and Michelle Bachmann, as well as other conservative radio hosts. Considering how long the Tea Party has hung around, there's less of a direct parallel here, but the idea of giving the angry, teen-boy mentality of the mob exactly what they are looking for emotionally, bereft of fact, certainly rings quite true.
For someone who, based on all the viewpoints and evidence presented, was basically irredeemable, somehow the movie manages to create some sympathy for the devil, as his career and life spiral down, culminating in the embarrassing hoax skinhead attack he concocted and his sadly predictable battle with cancer. Call it Stockholm Syndrome, but after spending so much time getting to know him, it's easy to feel a little bad for him, but at the same time, it's a neat bow on Downey, Jr.'s story; an end to his negative behavior and the negative effect he had on so many in his time.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is focused mainly on the center channel, where the highly legible dialogue lives. The surrounds get to do some very minor music enhancement and a spot or two of sound effects, but mostly, this movie is about the voices right down the middle.
"Memorable Moments" (6:09) is a mix of interesting clips from the tapes the directors gained access to, including famous people getting abused by Downey, Jr., like Abbie Hoffman, Timothy Leary, Ace Frehley, Joey Ramone, Chris Rock, Mr. T and Captain Lou Albano, along with examples of the disregard for personal space displayed on the show. Though there's plenty of footage from the show in the movie, a bit more is appreciated.
For anyone curious about how the animation was created, "Behind the Animation with Murray John" (4:29) shows how the artist developed the look of the scenes, via sketched, test footage and discussion of his influences. There are also some deleted scenes that had to be cut for being too risque, so obviously this is a must-see.
The last featurette is the 1:56 "An Evening with Mort's Guest Kellie Everts," which follows the aging, buxom stripper as she hits the bars looking for young guys to have sex with. Under two minutes is probably all we need from this spitfire.
Wrapping things up are the film's trailer and a handful of other Magnolia Pictures trailers..
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