Transfixed: 5 Movies That Stared into the Darkness—and Light—of Obsession

By Dorri Olds 06/10/19

Any one of these summer picks will provide a solid cinematic escape, especially if you're in the mood to dig a little deeper into the human psyche.

Image of 5 movie posters together, movies about obsession and dedication
Taking a movie break can provide liftoff—far away from the news into another place and time. PC: author

Summer isn’t known as the best season for movies—but this year has some fine offerings. Perhaps film studios understand our chronic need to chill after each long day of WTF news. If you’re feeling stressed, you are not alone. Taking a movie break can provide liftoff—far away from the news into another place and time. These recent movies will take us time-traveling to focus on human frailties and quirks of the mind.

Some pictures on this list are somber in parts. We see persistent inequalities and what seem like insurmountable obstacles. Yet, each film also shows how people rise above their circumstances, inspiring me to keep on keeping on. Despite nagging obsessions that may try to suck you into a leviathan hole, you can triumph and channel your compulsions into positives.

Puppies remain the best antidepressants but movies are a close second. And air-conditioned theaters, ahhhh.

1. Rocketman

“You’ve gotta kill the person you were born to be to become the person you want to be.”

It was a given I’d be dazzled by Rocketman because I’m an Elton John fan. But I had no idea how Oscar-worthy this flick is nor how deeply it would affect me. I mean, everyone knows the formula of a rockumentary: Our hero sets off on a dream then hits a soul-stomping struggle. Nail-biting, we witness their crushing despair (while feeling half-jealous of their unwavering determination). Ultimately, their refusal to quit becomes an unhealthy obsession. We’re worried. That is, until the adrenaline rush that comes with their meteoric success.

Favorite offerings in music biopics (Bohemian Rhapsody, Amy, Ray) levitate us to fantastical heights. And even though we know what’s coming, our hearts inevitably crack open when the star’s fame bubble bursts. From gig to gig, loneliness ensues. Our beloved musician plunges into addiction. Some survive. Many don’t.

John has been open about his war with chemicals, yet he’s still standing stronger than he ever did, lookin’ like a true survivor, feeling like a little kid. He’s been sober for nearly three decades—that’s why he lived to watch his odyssey on screen vs. the typical post-mortem tribute.

Last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody earned four Oscars including Best Actor for Rami Malek who became Queen’s Freddie Mercury. This year’s rock feature is even better, perhaps because Dexter Fletcher directed Rocketman from start to finish instead of rescuing the Queen biopic after original director Bryan Singer was fired. Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) wrote Rocketman’s winning screenplay. Lead actor Taron Egerton, who sings throughout, morphed into John. Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) is superb as John’s career-long lyrics writer and closest friend, Bernie Taupin.

The high-budget cinematography by George Richmond is mesmerizing, as are the glorious replicas of John’s eye-popping costumes by Julian Day. The cast includes Bryce Dallas Howard as John’s jaded mother, Steven Mackintosh as his distant father, and Richard Madden as salacious and smarmy manager John Reid. Scene stealer Tate Donovan plays Doug Weston, owner of L.A.’s star-making nightclub the Troubadour. Despite some sad subject matter, you will be levitated. I’ll stop here. No spoiler for the best scene in this outstanding film.

2. Burning Cane

Burning Cane
Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

This powerful indie brings you into an African American, god-fearing community in rural Louisiana. Helen Wayne (Karen Kaia Livers) lumbers across a yard toward an aging dog, trying to treat the poor pooch who is riddled with mange. Her strained movements and brow full of sweat communicate a hard life under the scorching Southern heat. Years of disappointment have settled into her features.

Wayne is determined to help the animal out of discomfort but despite her repeated efforts and pleas to god for help, nothing is working. With the poor dog’s rash worsening, she heads to church for strength. Her faith is strong but it can’t soothe her daily feelings of helplessness. The dog isn’t the only loved one she is pained over. She bears witness while two men descend into alcoholism.

One is the Reverend Pastor Joseph Tillman (Wendell Pierce). The other is her only surviving child, Daniel (Dominque McClellan). Recently out of work, her son has become a reluctant stay-at-home parent to his young son, Jeremiah (Braelyn Kelly). The boy seems checked-out, so removed that he seems dissociated; half-alive. His mom works long hours and Jeremiah is left with his hard-drinking, self-pitying dad who throws him a half-hearted tidbit of childrearing now and then. Despite its tough topics, the film is deeply engaging with Livers as a heroic woman trying to keep everything from falling apart.

Burning Cane took home three awards after premiering at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival (TFF). It’s mind-popping that Phillip Youmans, the youngest filmmaker accepted into the festival, won its top prize: Best Narrative Feature. Youmans seems an old soul. He wrote, directed, shot, and edited the feature film during his final years of high school and took home the award for Best Cinematography. And Wendell Pierce’s portrayal of the alcoholic preacher earned the Best Actor honor. Now, age 19, Youmans said, “The church is regarded as a beacon of hope and guidance, but it is also used by some to manipulate and control voices within the community. Making this film was therapeutic because it allowed me to work through my own personal conflicts.”

In an interview with BlackFilm, Youmans said, “The biggest inspiration behind Burning Cane was my upbringing in the Baptist church. I had a lot of questions that I never really got any answers to in terms of my ideological differences with the church. That’s where the emotional root of it is, but in a more literal sense, the film is about me humanizing the sorts of people I grew up with [who] surrounded me in that southern black ethos.”

Not only is he the youngest filmmaker ever to enter and to win at TFF, he is also the first African American to win their highest award.

3. The Quiet One

The Quiet One wowed audiences last month at TFF and was quickly scooped up for distribution. It hits theaters June 21. This is filmmaker Oliver Murray’s debut documentary.

The doc begins with an intriguing visual perspective of its subject, Bill Wyman, a founding member of the Rolling Stones and their bass player for 30 years. The opening shot is as if you’re staring at the faraway end of a long road. Not only a clever metaphor, it’s the “A-frame” device used in alluring masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance. That artistic aid grabs and directs the viewer’s eye to the subject. On each side of the “A” we see what appear to be endless cabinets, shelves, VHS tapes, notebooks, film reels, books, mysterious shapes, and unknown objects.

Murray takes us through Wyman’s museum-like collection of photos, videos, and memorabilia, with voiceovers predominantly by Wyman but with additional narration sprinkled throughout from Eric Clapton and Bob Geldoff. With the discipline required by a musician to master an instrument, Wyman also diligently kept a diary to record his 82 years on the planet.

I’d assumed that all of the Stones indulged in the hard-partying lifestyle of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards due to their access to boatloads of money, the superpower of fame, a gazillion groupies, and cling-on fans who would’ve done anything just to be near them. But Wyman never fell into that typical rock ’n roll trap of addiction, though he did struggle with his own demons. We see indications of Wyman’s obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) in his meticulously archived life.

Oliver Murray, the doc’s writer and director, granted The Fix an exclusive interview, candidly revealing something about himself:

“Coming from a music background myself, I’d seen friends go that way. It never happens overnight from what I’ve seen. It’s when you look back and see such brilliant potential went to waste. I think the sadness for Bill [Wyman] is especially around the early death of Brian Jones. It is still an open wound for him. He goes back into his archives every day. So he comes across figures like Brian.”

Twenty years have gone by since Wyman left the band searching for a less fraught life. Meanwhile, the Stones are still going. Murray said that from Wyman’s viewpoint, “Brian should have had a long, healthy life. That’s the bit he has to live with but also keep his own life going forward. You can only analyze by going backward. I think Bill gets equal amounts of nourishment from the archive as he does sadness because with his compulsion to go back, to study his life, trying to understand it, he relives it.”

Murray acknowledged Wyman’s severe OCD and described the bass player as a completionist.

“The way Bill lived in the Stones was not suited to someone with OCD,” said Murray. “Like in the film, he said, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to do this.’ But it became a wild beast. Being in the Stones was like living in a goldfish bowl.”

I found the doc fascinating. Murray reveals a complex man you probably know little about. Even a hard-core Stones fan or semi-informed loyalist to the band will find new information here. I expected to hear more about Wyman’s huge scandal 35 years ago regarding the vast age difference between the rocker and his second wife. It was a predictably short marriage. This documentary shows Wyman’s world as it is, without judgment.

For me, the archive itself was the fascinating star.

4. 17 Blocks

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

Documentary 17 Blocks, which also premiered at TFF last month, introduced me to the treacherous D.C. neighborhood only 17 blocks from the U.S. Capital. Washington’s wealthy “suits” drive by on their way to six- and seven-figure jobs, earning tax breaks while the working class and poverty-stricken struggle to feed their children. The irony is sickening. A local shop prints the names of people who were killed by guns on T-shirts for grieving loved ones.

In this high-crime area, nine-year-old Emmanuel Sanford-Durant began filming his family in 1999. His passion to record rubbed off on family members and for two decades, the Sanford family documented their daily lives which included poverty, racism, oppression, devastating violence, and drug addiction. The footage is raw and breathtaking, as is their resilience.

Twenty years of intimate moments span four generations, beginning with Emmanuel, his older brother Smurf, sister Denice, and mother Cheryl. In between multiple hardships, we are treated to a family full of love, redemption, and hope.

After the premier screening, Filmmaker Davy Rothbart and members of his Sanford “family” took the stage. The packed crowd welcomed them with a deafening standing ovation. 17 blocks won TFF’s award for Best Editing in a Documentary Feature.

Rothbart described his strong connection with Cheryl to The Fix.

“She always says she ‘adopted’ me. I knew Smurf because we played basketball. I showed Emmanuel my video camera and showed him how to use it. Ten years later, in 2009, I’d grown close to the family and it was a thrill to see Emmanuel graduate high school, get engaged. He was excited talking about becoming a firefighter.”

A few months later, disaster struck. On New Year’s Eve, Smurf’s drug dealing led to an unthinkable tragedy. Rothbart rushed to be with the Sanfords as soon as he heard. Despite her anguished state, or perhaps because of it, Cheryl demanded Rothbart keep filming. Cheryl wanted him to show everything—the failures, struggles, and crime. During the editing process, she insisted Rothbart include Cheryl’s battles with addiction. Not for pity, but to show the underbelly—the institutional violence of high crime and poverty that creates trauma in entire communities.

Too many are living in chronic poverty with limited options and turn to drugs. Cheryl also wants to show that even in the face of harsh living conditions, recovery is possible. Smurf survived his feelings of guilt and loss by turning his life around. It’s inspiring to hear Cheryl talk about therapy, family love, and facing her demons.

5. Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

I’d never heard of Marion Stokes until I saw Matt Wolf’s documentary, Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project. In 1975, just as the 24/7 news cycle was taking hold, Stokes began recording television sporadically. Then in 1979 the Iranian Hostage Crisis triggered a sense of urgency. She set multiple VCRs to tape all day and night, every day. She kept that up for 33 years until her death in 2012. Stokes left behind an astounding 700,000 VHS tapes—all labeled. The doc explores her life before and after her obsession took over.

The public didn’t know that television stations had been throwing away their archives for decades. What Stokes saved is now being digitized. Many of her recordings are the only video evidence of what was going on during the three decades she taped.

Stokes owned multiple Apple Computers, approximately 50,000 books, and piles of furniture. While watching the movie at TFF, I wondered if she suffered from more than hoarding and OCD. Was she also prescient, predicting a future era of #FakeNews? Or maybe that’s just a titillating thought. She worked as a librarian and read constantly; she may have based her beliefs on the history of wealthy people manipulating information in order to oppress the less fortunate.

Stokes obsessively recorded programs on multiple televisions set to different channels. Her determination to preserve history is surprising because it wasn't generally known that broadcasters didn't save what they produced. Stations could dispose of programs and deny they ever existed. She saw the potential danger of people promoting “alternative facts.”

To some, she may have been labeled paranoid. We know better. Stokes knew that angles could shape information and influence audiences.

Marion Stokes died on the day of the Sandy Hook Massacre. Her VCRs continued to record, capturing the unfolding tragedy. 

Any movies you'd add to this list? Let us know in the comments!

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.