Rita Moreno turns 90 on Dec. 11. If the party is anything like the one she threw when she turned 87, you’ll want to be there. That celebration briefly figures in “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It.” The documentary is itself a celebration. The subtitle comes from a T-shirt Moreno saw when she was in Boston in 2018 to perform at the Pops July Fourth concert. She loved it, she bought it: Those words were her life story.
Depending on how old you are, Moreno is best known for the film version of “West Side Story” (1961); the ‘70s PBS educational series “The Electric Company”; the HBO prison series “Oz”; or the recent revival of the sitcom “One Day at a Time.”
Moreno has won an Oscar (supporting actress) for “West Side Story.” She’s also won a Grammy, a Tony, and two Emmys. That’s one measure of how varied a career she’s had. In “West Side Story” she plays the fiery Anita; in “Oz” she plays a nun (fiery in a different way). She’s eighth-billed in “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), which was one of eight credits she had that year. Others included “Cattle Town” and “Ma and Pa Kettle on Vacation.”
Much of Moreno’s early career consisted of “all those ‘dusky character’ roles,” as she puts it. Some of the clips from those films are pretty jaw-dropping, and that extends to something as prestigious as “The King and I” (1956), where Moreno’s character is Thai.
Besides many clips, the documentary includes interviews with such friends and colleagues as Morgan Freeman (they were on “The Electric Company” together), Lin-Manuel Miranda, Norman Lear, and George Chakiris, from “West Side Story” (Moreno will have a cameo in the Steven Spielberg remake, scheduled for December release). A good deal of the film consists of Moreno simply looking into the camera and talking: Here she is, here is what she has to say. It’s the best thing about the documentary.
Some of what Moreno says is startling, especially about her long-running affair with Marlon Brando (which led to her having an abortion and attempting suicide). The darker chapters can be a bit jarring. “Just a Girl” was made as part of PBS’s “American Masters” series, so for the most part it’s even more laudatory than one might expect. But that’s OK, since there’s a lot to laud.
“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” opens June 18 at the Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, Boston Common, and suburban theaters. Go to www.ritamorenodoc.com.
Lost in the wild
In 1959, 10 hikers set out on an extended journey in the Ural Mountains. It was wintertime, but the hikers were experienced and young, most of them college students. One had to return for medical reasons. He is heard from in Liam Le Guillou’s very interesting, if often overdone, documentary, “An Unknown Compelling Force.” To this day, the hiker is filled with remorse. Or not remorse, survivor’s guilt: The other nine all perished, and under baffling circumstances. What happened became known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident.
The hikers’ bodies were found preserved in the snow. (The autopsy photos are not for the faint of heart.) The deceased had suffered various traumas — from falling or being attacked? The bodies were found some distance from camp. They were without coats — in some cases without socks and shoes. Clearly, they had fled suddenly. Why? The official explanation, an avalanche, made little sense. Over the past 60 years speculation has extended to the KGB, UFOs, yetis, secret weapons tests (some of the bodies had a high level of radiation), US spies, and local Indigenous peoples.
Le Guillou travels to the Urals to investigate the scene. As guide and presenter, he is engagingly artless. “Incredibly,” “amazingly,” “desperately,” and other such words pepper his narration. His fascination with the mystery is contagious. Perhaps unfairly, a viewer keeps wondering what Werner Herzog — at once more measured and obsessive — might have made of this material. It’s easy to understand why the story grips Le Guillou. If it gripped him a little less “An Unknown Compelling Force” might be even more compelling.
“An Unknown Compelling Force” starts streaming on Amazon Prime and Apple TV June 15.
Get on the good foot
George T. Nierenberg has had a long documentary career. His first film, “The Hollow,” came out in 1975. He’s done extensive television work. He really hit his sweet spot — and the spot was truly sweet — with the three films that make up what the Criterion Channel is calling “The Singing, Dancing Documentaries of George T. Nierenberg.”
Streaming June 14, it’s a triple feature that consists of “No Maps on My Taps” (1979), “Say Amen, Somebody” (1982), and “About Tap” (1985). Ostensibly, the first and third are about tap dancing, and the second about gospel music. What they’re really about is joy: the joy of the dancers and singers we see onscreen, and the joy felt by the viewer experiencing their joy.
The stars of “Maps” are Bunny Briggs, Chuck Green, and, maybe first among marvelous equals, Howard “Sandman” Sims. Briggs has immense, little kid eyes. He’s in his late 50s, but you can see the 6-year-old who Bill “Bojangles” Robinson wanted to take on the road with him. Mention is made of Green having been institutionalized for a dozen years or more, and when he’s offstage there’s an unsteady quality to him that’s heartbreaking. As for Sims, his trademark dancing on sand is pure elegance afoot.
Green is also in “About.” His linebacker shoulders make the delicacy of his steps all the more striking. The film begins with Gregory Hines standing in a lot next to the Apollo Theater talking about how he grew up in tap: learning (and stealing) steps from his elders. One of the most glorious things about both films is how deeply appreciative the dancers are of each other. Also on hand are Steve Kondos, the most percussive of the dancers, and Jimmy Slyde, whose style lives up to his name. “It looks so easy everyone feels as though they can do it,” he says with a grin. All of the dancers have million-dollar feet. Slyde has a million-dollar smile.
At the center of “Say Amen” is the gospel singer Willie Mae Ford Smith. “It’s just a feeling within,” she says of her music. “It goes between the marrow and the bones. . . . I feel like I can fly away. I forget I’m in the world sometimes. I just want to take off.” That’s the experience of watching all three of these movies, too.
“The Singing, Dancing Documentaries of George T. Nierenberg” will stream on the Criterion Channel June 14. Go to www.criterionchannel.com.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.