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‘TVTV: Video Revolutionaries’: Film Review

Paul Goldsmith’s documentary recounts the brief history of the ’70s-era pioneering media collective.

The 1970s video collective TVTV may not have had the cultural impact for which its members obviously hoped, but it left behind a treasure trove of fascinating footage. Much of it is on display in TVTV: Video Revolutionaries, the documentary directed by former member Paul Goldsmith that sheds a valuable light on the largely forgotten but nonetheless pioneering group.

TVTV (an abbreviation for “Top Value Television) was born in the wake of Sony’s release of the first portable videocassette recorder/camera, commonly known as a”portapak.” The device was a media game-changer in an era dominated by only three major television networks whose reporters were forced to rely on large studio cameras.  

The San Francisco-based group, founded in 1972 by Allen Rucker, Michael Shamberg, Tom Weinberg, Hudson Marquez and Megan Williams, quickly carved out a unique niche for themselves. Devoted to social change and independent journalism, it established itself with a series of groundbreaking documentaries aired on public television, including one devoted to the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami. Footage from that special includes a broadcast network news correspondent disdainfully refusing to even speak to a TVTV reporter and Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic loudly protesting the war (the latter scene would be replicated in Oliver Stone’s film based on Kovic’s memoir Born on the Fourth of July).  

Featuring illuminating interviews with many former members of the group, the documentary recounts TVTV’s rise and fall. Some of the vintage clips prove priceless, including an interview with Hunter S. Thompson, who greets the reporters wearing only a towel and proceeds to cut open a grapefruit and pour vodka into it, and footage shot at White House parties and a social event for the Shah of Iran. “We had unbelievable access, because people weren’t accustomed to journalists running around with small cameras,” a TVTV reporter comments.

Other notable programs spotlighted include Lord of the Universe, an award-winning documentary about a controversial 15-year-old Indian guru; Super Bowl, a revealing, behind-the-scenes look at the Super Bowl X game between the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers; and an interview with activist Abbie Hoffman, who was then living in hiding. “That was our Woodward/Bernstein moment,” says a TVTV member of the documentary which was attacked by some members of the media as being “checkbook journalism.”

The group eventually became more oriented towards entertainment coverage, moving its base of operations to Los Angeles. Among the future luminaries who were members at one time or another are Christopher Guest, John Belushi, Harold Ramis and, most extensively, Bill Murray, seen in numerous amusing clips. The group covered the 1976 Academy Awards, but in its own iconoclastic fashion. They filmed Steven Spielberg watching the TV broadcast of the nominations and learning that he wasn’t nominated for Jaws. “I got beaten out by Fellini!” the director cries out in mock outrage. There’s also a hilarious moment featuring Goldie Hawn and Lee Grant in a limo, the latter practicing her gracious reactions if she were to lose.

TVTV had a significant success with a 1976 Bob Dylan concert special that was broadcast on NBC, but an attempt at a comedy pilot for the network was a bust. Bill Murray left the group to join Saturday Night Live in its second season, and it sputtered along for a few more years until disbanding in 1979. This affectionate but clear-eyed documentary goes a long way toward establishing its legacy.

Distributor: First Run Features
Directors/producers/directors of photography: Paul Goldsmith, TVTV
Editors: Bronwen Sennish, Jim Edwards, Wendy Apple, Susan Metzger, TVTV

Composer: Joel Goodman

82 min.

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