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The Sweetest Sound (2001)

  Directed by: Alan Berliner
Links: The Sweetest Sound on the IMDb, Official site, Buy on Video, Buy on DVD
Genre: Documentary

This movie gets: 7.00 (1 rating) Ranking: not yet ranked (awaiting 2 ratings)

"Impressively undull" - a review by mino

Sometimes, a documentary movie is clearly just a self-indulgent wank for the documentary maker. The maker has just taken a topic (or, indeed, an obsession) that's near to their own heart, and convinced someone to pay them to make a movie about this personal hobby-horse of theirs. They 'cheat' the whole thing by recycling a lot of stock footage, trying to spruce it up with amusing sound effects, and use a very gimmicky approach to the whole thing.

Yeah, sometimes that's all a documentary is. And sometimes, it works.

The Sweetest Sound details documentary maker Alan Berliner's obsession with names — as in, personal names. The idea of a single label defining someone's whole being is an almost creepy focus of Berliner's, and after some general discussion about the whole idea of names, he gets to his point: what is it like to share the same name as someone else? While the John Smiths of this world probably don't think much of it, it's a fair guess that it's not that common for someone called Alan Berliner to bump into a namesake down the shops. After an awful lot of discussion about his name (which could get tedious, but never really does, thanks in a large part to Alan's very gruff and highly entertaining dad, Oscar), Alan makes it his quest to find out exactly how many Alan Berliners there are in the world. With a bit of help from the Internet, and an awful lot of letters sent out based on the perusing of any number of White Pages, Berliner concludes that the world holds exactly twelve Alan Berliners (well… if you include the Allans, the Allens, and the Alain). So Alan does what any documentary maker would do: ring them up and fly them to New York for a dinner party. The second half of the film explores the different Alan Berliners: what's similar about them, and what the major differences are.

The aforementioned technique of using stock footage, which is sometimes tangentially-related (at best) to what's being discussed, complete with crazy sound-effects, is obviously used to cover for the parts where there's really nothing else to show, due to the rather verbal nature of the film. Other gimmicks, like the droning repetition of the name 'Alan Berliner', are also used and frankly seem a bit stupid. But, surprisingly, they actually work: the movie does actually hold the viewer's interest, which is a fairly impressive feat.

Berliner's family, including his mother and sister, also feature rather heavily, which makes sense when you think about where names come from. The Berliner clan do seem to look rather disdainfully on Alan's obsession, treating him like the family idiot (hmm…). But Berliner's family are used as a jumping-off point for some interesting side discussions on Judaism: all but one of the collected Alans are Jewish, with the holdout now a converted Christian. The discussion of Jewish naming traditions is one of the more interesting parts of the movie, though the Holocaust-related discussion frankly seems a bit heavy-handed.

The assembled Alans are a fascinating and varied bunch, and there are some interesting quirks, like the fact that virtually all of them share the same favourite colour (blue). Why is this? Well, who cares, really, but it's surprisingly interesting regardless. The Sweetest Sound doesn't exactly raise many issues of earth-shattering importance; but it is a highly entertaining documentary, even if you really are laughing at Alan rather than with him.

The Sweetest Sound is a fun movie: Berliner is a very talented documentary maker, even if his techniques are a little transparent. A good watch.

mino gives this movie 7 out of 10.
Review created on Sun 4 Aug 2002

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