If you go by the title, which comes from the name of a New Jersey record store, and you look at the main photo, which pictures the outside of that store, you might think that you know what the documentary “Flipside” is.
But within the first 20 minutes of the film, which opened on Sunday at the Toronto International Film Festival, you will have heard about an aging jazz photographer, the Columbia Record Club, “This American Life” and Judd Apatow’s “Funny People.” And you’ll know that this is not the movie you thought it would be.
Instead, Chris Wilcha’s “Flipside” is a doc assembled out of loose ends and false starts, a jumble that can be maddening until suddenly it’s moving, thanks at least partly to David Bowie. It’s confounding and self-centered but damn it if it doesn’t work.
The opening stretches of the movie provide a quick survey of Wilcha’s career, which was launched by a 70-minute film called “The Target Shoots First” and has come to include lots of commercials and unfinished films. Trying to break out of his creative funk before he has to admit that he’s officially a commercial director, Wilcha looks back at the funky, messy and inspiring independent record store where he worked in high school, with the store and owner Dan Dondiego having fallen on hard times.
“What if I could help Dan out and get people into the store?” says Wilcha, who does a lot of talking in this movie. “If I’m going to shill, why not shill for something I love?”
“Flipside” halfheartedly pretends that it might turn into that movie, but Wilcha keeps interrupting the record-store chronicle to talk about other films he never finished, to the point where it feels as if he’s using this film to discuss other work he never completed as a way of failing to commit to this one, too.
We do learn that Flipside is a store in northern New Jersey that is unbelievably cluttered … that it smells of meat because it keeps its records in cardboard boxes it gets from the smoked meat joint down the street … that its owner comes from a family of hoarders and is so stuck in his ways that Flipside can’t participate in Record Store Day because it doesn’t have a real website … that it has a new competitor around the corner, which is also run by a guy named Dan … and wait, have you heard about Ira Glass’ stage show? And do you know about New Jersey’s own wacky TV star, Uncle Floyd?
“Flipside,” it turns out, is about a record store in the same way that “Moby Dick” is about a whale. (Well, not the same way, but you get the point.) It’s a cornucopia of detours and digressions, one that never goes more than about 10 minutes without changing the subject, unless the subject is Chris Wilcha’s various obsessions and passions. After a while, it threatens to become a documentary about Wilcha not making documentaries anymore, or maybe a midlife meditation that keeps losing its train of thought.
But you know what? A midlife meditation that keeps losing its train of thought is kind of perfect. That’s where David Bowie comes in, because his 2002 song “Slip Away” is a gentle tribute to things gone by – including, strangely enough, the repeated refrain “twinkle, twinkle Uncle Floyd.”
Suddenly, that relatively obscure song ties together the music, the ephemera, the photos – and in a few minutes, Bowie helps mesh all those digressions and asides into something oddly, beautifully coherent. There’s more after that – Wilcha isn’t satisfied until he’s changed the subject a couple more times – but the film’s fragments have coalesced into an elegy, a memoriam for all the things we leave behind along the way, and the things some of us refuse to leave.
I watched “Flipside” because I’ve got a few thousand LPs, a similar number of CDs and hundreds of 45s and cassette tapes cluttering up an old garage-turned-guesthouse-turned-storage-room behind my house. But by the end, the film moved me not because it’s about the music, but because it’s about the clutter.
“Flipside” is a sales title at TIFF.
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