A hit at its Sydney world preem, "The Cream Will Rise" starts as a fairly standard music docu but lurches off in an enthrallingly personal direction as long-forgotten secrets about singer-songwriter Sophie B. Hawkins' childhood are uncovered. For the most part, this is a bull's-eye first helming effort for Gigi Gaston, who sensitively captures moments of personal revelation, desperation and elation while playing more than 20 of Hawkins' songs. This unexpectedly compelling piece deserves legs beyond fests on music and other webs and, given some deft marketing, in theatrical dates.

A hit at its Sydney world preem, “The Cream Will Rise” starts as a fairly standard music docu but lurches off in an enthrallingly personal direction as long-forgotten secrets about singer-songwriter Sophie B. Hawkins’ childhood are uncovered. For the most part, this is a bull’s-eye first helming effort for Gigi Gaston, who sensitively captures moments of personal revelation, desperation and elation while playing more than 20 of Hawkins’ songs. This unexpectedly compelling piece deserves legs beyond fests on music and other webs and, given some deft marketing, in theatrical dates.

After watching rehearsals for the singer’s 30-city Moxy Tour in 1996, Gaston proposed a docu to Hawkins, whose 1992 debut album, “Tongues and Tails,” was at the center of a fierce bidding war by several record companies.

After some interviews with Hawkins’ friends and associates, pic follows singer’s visit to her hometown of New York, where we learn of her interest in tribal music and culture; she left home at 14 to live with a Nigerian drum artist while studying at Manhattan’s School of Music.

Before visiting her mother, Hawkins muses that there’s “something so mysterious” about her father. She recalls his saying that she’d never stick to drumming, while noting her parents exercised no discipline. This effectively lays the groundwork for a riveting exchange between Hawkins and her mother, which resulted in seven hours of footage and altered the singer’s life.

After much bantering between mother and daughter, the mother tells of Sophie’s anorexia, fear of sex and a series of unhappy relationships. While Sophie stresses the benefits of this chat and the importance of truth, her mother becomes agitated — and then suddenly blurts out that, beginning at age 10, Sophie’s childhood was wracked by sexual abuse. Gaston does a fine job of handling this accidental expose.

Obviously, it took immense courage on Hawkins’ part to continue with the docu once a coffin full of demons was unearthed. She speaks of how being “tangled” in Gaston’s “web of documentary” has forced her to overcome fear and guilt to face “a side of me I never wanted to know existed.”

For her part, Gaston had to overcome threats of legal action by Hawkins’ abuser, which nearly scuttled the project. This was achieved by putting sound effects (slamming doors, smashing windows) over each mention of the abuser’s name. But Gaston’s real triumph is avoiding being bogged down in harrowing details; helmer maintains a brisk pace even as she shows Hawkins confronting the buried emotional pain that turns out to be the secret of her art. Moments of revelation are peppered into pic’s chronicle of Hawkins’ frenetic public calendar, while the subconsciously personal nature of many of Hawkins’ lyrics becomes more apparent.

Hawkins’ mother, who we meet several more times, is a most interesting character. While she seems to love her daughter, and the pair banter easily, she often is flippant when put in emotionally difficult situations. She does finally accept her (unwitting) role in long-ago events, and admits that her “great sadness about Sophie is not being able to have an emotional intimacy or connection with her.”

With breathtaking honesty and bravery, more and more things come to light in the course of the docu, and the effect on Hawkins is profound as her family both frays and heals. This dark, surprisingly inspiring film shines as an example of the magic and force of cinema verite in the right hands.

The Cream Will Rise

Production

A First Fleet Prods. presentation. Produced by Brian Bantry, Collen Camp, Gigi Gaston, Oyst Rockafella. Co-producer, Wendy Miller. Directed by Gigi Gaston.

With

Camera (color), Gaston, William MacCollum, Shawn Owen, John Longenecker; editors, Jeff Sells, Bonnie Hoffenberg; online editor, Janet Gutyan; sound, Paul Marshall, Richard Mercado, Rick Spalla; sound editors, Tony Kanella, Jim Kee, Renee Sabath; associate producer, Macie Jastrow. Reviewed at Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Film Festival, Feb. 17, 1998. Running time: 90 MIN.
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