(The 2023 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) runs September 7-17 and HtN has tons of coverage coming your way! Check out Chris Reed’s movie review of Flipside. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)
A creative existence can be hard to sustain, the imperatives of life demanding that we also earn a salary to take care of ourselves and our loved ones. Such is the dilemma faced by filmmaker Chris Wilcha—and by anyone who has tried to follow their artistic passions, or just passions in general—which he discusses in his new film Flipside. Nominally about the titular record store in Pompton Lakes, NJ, near where Wilcha grew up, the documentary is even more a cinematic contemplation of the search for meaning. As such, it is deeply satisfying, both to the director and the viewer.
Wilcha came of age in the 1990s, part of Generation X (as is this reviewer). Determined never to sell out, he saw his post-college job working at Columbia House—which marketed those once-popular “8 CDs for a penny” promotions—as an opportunity to capture everything around him on his then-ubiquitous Hi-8 camera. The eventual result of his anti-establishment footage-gathering was the 2000 documentary The Target Shoots First. A hit at film fests, the movie opened up new avenues for Wilcha, bringing him into contact with Judd Apatow and, later, Ira Glass, for whom he directed the television version of the popular radio series This American Life.
Mostly, though, Wilcha found himself directing commercials, as they were a consistent source of income, much needed to help support his growing family. Along the way he started many a side project, most of which he never finished. And that’s where we begin here, with one such incomplete documentary, centered on the now-deceased jazz photographer Herman Leonard, whose interviews punctuate Flipside at regular intervals. There are additional clips from assorted other aborted movies, each one serving to tie the creative knot on that which Wilcha had thought forever abandoned.
At the center is Flipside Records, site of the director’s 1980s afterschool job. Owner Dan Dondiego initially gives Wilcha, camera and all, a hearty welcome back, though as the director’s planned promotional film for the ailing business falters in the same way as have his other personal films, he cools a bit. But then Wilcha returns, for real this time, determined to see things through, adding Flipside to the list of stories he plans to wrap up.
The store serves as apt metaphor for the very concerns that have haunted Wilcha his entire professional life. Dondiego refuses to adapt to the times, with no social-media presence and a densely packed showroom that is decidedly unwelcome to all but the most committed music collectors. But it’s his space, designed to suit his wants, commercial needs be damned. He may be out of time—in every sense of the word—but he is true to who he is. It’s the flipside of how Wilcha views his own career.
It’s an enjoyable journey, both discursive and direct, through recent history and the rapidly receding present, offering ideas to which most of us who struggle to make sense of our decisions can relate. Life is filled with a series of adventures big and small. Never be afraid to revisit yesterday and reconcile it with today. Resolution (of a sort) may be just around the corner.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)
2023 Toronto International Film Festival; James Erskine, Rachel Ramsay; Flipside documentary movie review