The showbiz expression “born in a trunk” could easily apply to the subject of Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back. Delivering an intimate portrait of the song-and-dance man whose career is now in its eighth decade, John Carluccio’s loving documentary sheds a long-overdue spotlight on a fabulous performer who’s never quite gotten the mainstream recognition he’s deserved. This deeply personal and poignant film, which recently won the Grand Jury Prize at the DOC NYC festival, should go a long way toward correcting that.
One of the reasons for Hines not becoming more of a star is that he was overshadowed by his younger brother, Gregory, who enjoyed a successful film and television career before his untimely death at age 57 in 2003. Maurice, on the other hand, has spent the majority of his career working in the theater, garnering acclaim as a performer, director and choreographer.
Digs much deeper than your usual showbiz doc.
The brothers started performing as a double act, playing the Apollo Theater as a tap-dancing duo when they were 10 and 8, respectively. They eventually joined up with their father, Maurice Sr., to become the trio Hines, Hines & Dad, achieving great success with live and television appearances. The act broke up in 1972 when Gregory moved to California and embarked on a solo career.
Not that the brothers stopped working together entirely. They co-starred in the 1979 Broadway musical Eubie! and Maurice later replaced his brother in the hit 1981 musical Sophisticated Ladies and assumed the starring role in the national tour of Jelly’s Last Jam, for which Gregory won a Tony Award. They also performed together in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1984 film The Cotton Club, playing roles that mirrored their personal and professional lives.
The brothers had a falling out and didn’t talk for 10 years, for reasons that Maurice refuses to discuss to this day. He provides no explanation in the film, but instead takes every opportunity to praise Gregory and say how much he loved him. Nonetheless, the lingering emotional pain of their rift is deeply evident in such moments as Maurice sadly remembering that they didn’t even speak to each at their mother’s wedding, to her great distress. The film includes footage of Gregory’s Tony Award acceptance speech, in which he pointedly thanks everyone in his family except his brother. He even takes pains, when mentioning his father, to add “Sr.” so nobody misunderstands.
The documentary dutifully chronicles the highlights of Hines’ career, including the disappointments of Uptown, It’s Hot! and Hot Feet, two Broadway musicals that he directed and choreographed that proved to be flops. But the film is far more engaging in its personal portrait of its subject, who shows no inclination to be anything other than honest and revealing about his life. He blames some of his professional travails on the fact that he’s always been openly gay and unafraid to speak his mind in often less-than-diplomatic fashion.
Still an incredibly vigorous and dynamic performer in his 70s, Maurice also doesn’t shy away from acknowledging his age. Shown performing a solo tap number at the film’s beginning, he jokingly tells the director, “Let me know when you stop rolling, I’m 73.” As he approaches his 75th birthday, he describes his increasing forgetfulness, loneliness and depression, announcing that he’s ready to die when the time comes. But his continued joy in performing is made abundantly clear, not only in the scenes from his recent live shows but also footage of him ebulliently teaching a group of adoring teenage dancers.
Fortunately, he and Gregory reconciled later in life (although, once again, it’s frustrating that we don’t know the circumstances of how it happened). We see Maurice speaking movingly of his brother at a ceremony announcing a postage stamp in Gregory’s honor, and, in one of the film’s more emotional moments, working with Gregory’s son Zach, with whom he has a close relationship, on dubbing for The Cotton Club Encore, an expanded version of the 1984 film.
The loving if troubled relationship between the two brothers gives Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back a poignancy and emotional resonance to which most showbiz documentaries can only aspire. It’s not for nothing that the list of participants in the opening credits ends with the phrase “and the spirit of Gregory Hines.”
Venue: DOC NYC
Director/director of photography/editor: John Carluccio
Screenwriter: Tracy E. Hopkins
Producers: John Carluccio, Tracy E. Hopkins
Executive producers: Debbie Allen, Charles Randolph-Wright