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Will Concert Pix, Dox Bring In B.O. Flocks?

Can Madonna best Eddie Murphy for boxoffice supremacy in the field of performance films? That’s the question to be answered this spring when Miramax releases the Material Girl’s own production, “Truth Or Dare,” which documents her “Blond Ambition” tour.

Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor are kings of the performance film, taking four of the five top slots on the VARIETY chart of the highest-grossing theatrical concert films of the past 25 years (see page 16). Only Michael Wadleigh’s documentary “Woodstock” is on the same plateau as the comics’ one-man shows.

Allen Funt’s X-rated 1971 United Artists release, “What Do You Say To A Naked Lady?” is champ of the non-performance documentary field, outdistancing the 1979 survey of off-road racing, “Dirt,” and Michael Moore’s 1989 WB hit, “Roger & Me.”

Other than “Roger & Me,” which ran well into 1990, last year was a low point at the boxoffice for these nonfiction features. Sandra Bernhard’s film of her one-woman show, “Without You I’m Nothing,” amassed $1.2 million domestically, a respectable gross but hardly in the same league with predecessor films by Bette Midler or the late Gilda Radner.

Three newcomers

Three new significant nonfiction films will try to reverse this trend. In addition to Madonna’s documentary, Chuck Workman’s “Superstar: The Life And Times Of Andy Warhol” debuted Feb. 22, on the anniversary of the artist’s death, and a spring release has been assigned to the film of Eric Bogosian’s one-man stage show “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll.”

Madonna’s docu won’t be in exactly the same category as Eddie Murphy’s “Raw,” since “Truth Or Dare” is more documentary film than concert feature. In fact, less than 40 minutes of the picture will consist of performance footage.

The bulk of the Alek Keshishian-helmed movie will be behind-the-scenes footage and biographical material. (HBO beat the documakers to the punch in terms of capturing Madonna in concert; last August, the cable service aired live from Nice the last show of her tour.)

“Pryor’s concert was an hour and a half of pure genius, presented uncut and uncensored,” recalls Jeffrey Chernov of Bill Sargent’s 1979 breakthrough production, “Richard Pryor Live In Concert.”

Chernov, who was associate producer of that film and co-producer of “Raw,” says of the Pryor film: “We shot two nights of concerts in Long Beach, Calif., featuring 90% the same material. Richard was really on the first night, but a separate feature was made anyway from the second night.

“Within several months the distributor released the second night, even though Richard didn’t think that was fair to his fans,” Chernov says.

“For Eddie’s film,” Chernov says, “many scripts were written and it was originally designed as a fiction film that went into a concert. Ultimately… the film was pure performance, taken from two concerts tacked on at the end of his tour.”

Bogosian’s film, shot last December for spring release by Avenue Pictures, is “a concert film made up of a series of one-act playlets,” says producer Fred Zollo. “We made it as a film rather than for tv because this material merits feature-length treatment for an audience to concentrate on Eric’s work. It’s not an evening of comedy or a series of jokes.”

For “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll,” director John McNaughton was recruited. It was only his third feature after the acclaimed “Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer” and the yet-to-be-released “The Borrower.” Cinematographer was Ernest Dickerson, who has lensed all of Spike Lee’s films. “Sex” was shot over a two-week period in Boston with real audiences and a big camera crew including cranes and Steadicam.

Another concert performer, Andrew Dice Clay, shot a one-man movie last year that Fox had scheduled to open in August 1990, following his Fox fiction feature, “The Adventures Of Ford Fairlane.” The distrib shelved the concert film during the height of the controversy surrounding the comic’s routine.

Lisa Day, film editor of the features “White Fang” and “Great Balls Of Fire,” has specialized in cutting concert films, including “Raw,” Hal Ashby’s Rolling Stones film, “Let’s Spend The Night Together,” Taylor Hackford’s “Hail! Hail! Rock & Roll,” Laurie Anderson’s “Home Of The Brave” and Jonathan Demme’s “Stop Making Sense.”

“Artists want a lot of exposure, but the excitement of a live show can’t be duplicated on film,” Day contends.

“Only a very special concert or performance deserves to become a feature film,” she maintains, noting that tv serves very well to present the typical live event or benefit performance.”

Chernov agrees with Day, stating, “I think HBO, Cinemax and Showtime are the main future for the recorded concert. The concert film needs a big star to carry it – I tried to talk Danny DeVito into doing a concert feature several years ago but he didn’t think of himself as a standup performer.”

He cites Robin Williams, Steve Martin and Billy Crystal as other artists who would be suited for performance features, but in recent years each has opted instead to do cable tv specials and fiction films.

Halcyon days

Chernov says the presence of MTV “has also cut down on the number of music films being made,” compared to the ’60s and ’70s when Iron Butterfly, Led Zeppelin, the Grateful Dead, Yes, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Rod Stewart & Faces and ABBA were among the many artists to release theatrical concert features.

For Chuck Workman’s “Superstar,” distributor Paul Cohen of Aries Film Releasing faces the challenge of escaping the theatrical ghetto that has plagued documentaries of late. “I’m not going to limit the film by following the conventional wisdom of going to a small venue and spending very little to release it,” Cohen says. “I prefer to position the film where it can get the most attention, so I’m booking it at big commercial theaters.”

Pic kicked off with benefit screenings on each coast: a Feb. 19 inauguration of the new Village East Cinemas in Greenwich Village to benefit the Collective For Living Cinema and a Feb. 21 screening at Laemmle’s Music Hall, proceeds going to Hollywood Policy Center’s Freedom of Expression Project.

Cohen terms the Marilyn Lewis production “a documentary and also a cinema collage in the manner of Chuck Workman’s short films.” Depending on the territory, he will be booking arthouses as well as the more mainstream sites, with 10 markets to be opened by March and probably 30 prints working.

Besides the filmmakers, numerous interviewees in “Superstar” are supporting its release in their communities, including Sylvia Miles, Henry Geldzahler, Fran Lebowitz, Ultra Violet, Roy Lichtenstein and Ivan Carp.

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