Doc Talk | Peter Keough

Documentary screenings highlight brothers in arms, and in dance

Chuck Green in a scene from George T. Nierenberg’s “No Maps on My Taps.”
Chuck Green in a scene from George T. Nierenberg’s “No Maps on My Taps.”

By the late 1970s, times were tough for tap dancers. Stars like Bernard “Bunny” Briggs, Howard “Sandman” (so named because of his trademark dance on a gritty sand surface) Sims, and Chuck Green had their heyday from the 1930s to the 1960s and now found that there were no audiences for their art. “It’s rock and roll,” agree the three performers in George T. Nierenberg’s classic documentary “No Maps on My Taps” (1979). The new music had supplanted the blues and jazz that tap had sprung from. 

The film opens as they are reminiscing about better times backstage in the dressing room, where they are getting ready for a reunion at Small’s Paradise, a famed Harlem venue. There they will perform a “challenge” show backed by Lionel Hampton’s band, a friendly competition to determine who is the best.

Nierenberg (who would similarly celebrate gospel music in 1982 in “Say Amen, Somebody”) intercuts the show with interviews with his subjects. Briggs has tears in his eyes as he listens to his uncle recall how, as a child dancing for change, Briggs brought home the money that supported the family. The plucky Sims teaches a local kid steps in the alley behind the Apollo Theater and asks the old dancers he bumps into on the street to show off some of their stuff. 


But it’s Green who is the most cryptic — and, after a shaky start, the best dancer. Institutionalized for 15 years for an unspecified mental illness, he doesn’t say much and is a little grumpy, but he shows his genius once he puts on his tap shoes and hits the stage, where he dances with the physics-defying grace of a special effect. He spins, slides, rattles his taps, leaps into the air, and clicks his heels. It’s magical — a sleight of foot — and a rhythmic expression of soul, joy, and the sad wisdom of a hard life. You can see in his dancing the seeds of some of Fred Astaire’s routines and Michael Jackson’s moon walk.

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He also utters the phrase that is the title of the film — as Nierenberg points out in an interview in the film’s press kit, it means “I can dance anywhere.” That sentiment proved true after the film screened at Telluride, making Briggs, Sims, and Green instant celebrities and giving them opportunities to appear in movies and perform on stages around the world. It ushered in a renaissance in tap in the 1980s, epitomized by the career of Gregory Hines.

“No Maps on My Taps” screens Friday at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre.

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Storied author

In 1976, Armistead Maupin helped inspire the gay rights movement with his popular column “Tales of the City,” first published in The San Francisco Chronicle. Later it evolved into a sequence of novels which were adapted into three TV miniseries.


Before he became an author and voice of gay activism, though, Maupin grew up in a conservative family in Raleigh, N.C., served in the Navy during the Vietnam War, and did not acknowledge being gay until he was nearly 30. Jennifer M. Kroot’s documentary “The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin covers this extraordinary life with some of the same puckish humor, candor, and insight of Maupin’s own writings. 

The film features interviews with Maupin’s friend and “City” cast member Ian McKellen as well as with Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis, who will be appearing in Netflix’s new installments of “Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City,” reprising their roles from the previous series.

“The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin” airs Monday at 10:30 p.m. on PBS “Independent Lens”. It will be available for live streaming on Tuesday.

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Band of brothers

War movies often feature a team of buddies with diverse backgrounds who bond when they face the perils and toll of combat.

Olivier Sarbil’s documentary “Frontline: Mosul” is no different. It focuses on four Iraqi soldiers fighting to expel ISIS from Mosul in what some have described as the most brutal urban combat since World War II. After nine months of house-to-house fighting, the Iraqis and their allies ended a two-year occupation notable for its oppression and atrocities. In addition to heavy combat losses, tens of thousands of civilians were killed, wounded, or missing, many more were displaced, and much of the city is in ruins. 


Embedded with the troops, Sarbil shares the experiences of a squad of soldiers. Anmar, their leader, is seeking revenge for his father, killed in a suicide attack. Hussein hopes to be a soccer player but for now he practices his skills as a sniper. Jamal, the jovial sergeant, is everyone’s friend. And Amjad is a young recruit who has an expectant wife waiting for him back home. Not all of them will make it out of Mosul alive.

This is a film that puts faces on a conflict most know about only from intermittent coverage in the media.

“Frontline: Mosul” is available on DVD ($24.99) and as a digital download.

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Peter Keough can be reached at