Skip to content

CIFF 2016 – Strike A Pose & Two Trains Runnin’

October 23, 2016


Two documentaries related to aspects of two totally different types of music played at the Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF) recently – both of them look at unsung talents from their own respective eras and both seek to educate viewers as to who they are and what became of them. “Strike a Pose” premiered earlier this year at the Berlin International Film Festival and looks at Madonna’s backup singers from the early 90s, while “Two Trains Runnin'” looks at what transpired back in 1964 when a two different groups of white men drove down to Mississippi in search of two blues legends. Both documentaries deal with talent that has been all but forgotten and they both seek to use their subject material to inform and educate those who were aware of these talents as well as those who had no prior knowledge whatsoever. 




If you’re of a certain age or at least are aware of the history of pop music, you know where the phrase “Strike a Pose” comes from. If not, I’ll help you out – it’s a line from Madonna’s 1990 hit song “Vogue” a single to promote and accompany her then-boyfriend Warren Beatty’s 1990 movie “Dick Tracy”, appearing on the soundtrack “I’m Breathless” (she was in the movie as Breathless Mahoney, get it?) and played prominently on her hugely successful “Blond Ambition Tour” to support her hit-album “Like a Prayer” from the year before.

Fittingly, “Strike a Pose” is the name of a documentary that focuses on the young, predominately gay men who toured with Madonna as her back-up singers and dancers. They were featured prominently in “Truth or Dare” the controversial 1991 documentary which covered the tour, but twenty-five years later, “Strike a Pose” asked what became of the these seven dancers after their lives were forever changed by Madonna and the spotlight that follows her. Some went on to act in film, TV and stage, but nowadays only a couple are still involved in dance, mostly in a teaching capacity. The six who appear in the film are Kevin Stea, Carlton Wilborn, Luis Xtravaganza Camacho, Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza, Salim “Slam” Gauwloos and Oliver S Crumes III. One of the original seven, Gabriel Trupin, died from complications due to AIDS in 1995 and is represented in the film by his mother, Sue Trupin. All of these men had to deal with coming out (some of them really weren’t ready, but close proximity to Madonna led to even closer coverage), dealing with HIV diagnoses (some privately struggled) and their own addictions, during the sexual freedom that surrounded Madonna at that time in the early 90s.

The Belgian-Dutch documentary film is distributed by CTM Docs and co-directed by Ester Gould
and Reijer Zwaan, using both archival and current footage and emotional testimonies, crafting a compelling look at a job we often overlook when we think of music or performance careers. “Strike a Pose” reminded me of the struggles during that time for gay performers and how important these dancers often are to such a successful tour.


Wednesday, October 19th at 12:30pm, Saturday, October 22nd at 2:15pm & Sunday, Oct 23rd at 6:15pm – subject Carlton Wilborn is scheduled to attend all screenings.




This informative and revealing feature-length documentary is directed by acclaimed filmmaker Sam Pollard (producer of HBO documentaries “Four Little Girls” and “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts”) and pays tribute to two specific pioneering Mississippi blues musicians from the past, while inevitably eluding to where we’re at right now in race relations in America.

In doing so, Pollard takes us back to June of 1964, when hundreds of mostly white college students, eager to join the civil rights movement, traveled to Mississippi, starting what would be known as Freedom Summer, two road trips were being planned to that state from two different directions. Made up of white musicians, college students and record collectors – one traveled from the west coast (in that group was musician John Hurt) searching for singer/guitarist Skip James and another drove from New York City looking for Son House. They relied on references and word-of-mouth information from anyone who knew something about these two blues musicians, who had gone unheard of for about thirty years. Ironically, neither group was aware of the other, but each had the same goal. Unfortunately, finding them would not be easy due to the intense and volatile climate of Mississippi that summer, where many policemen where proud members of the Ku Klux Klan. Many blacks wouldn’t even talk to white strangers asking about these artists – “to go into Mississippi as a white person in the summer of 1964,” one person says, “you had to be very braved, very stupid or very uninformed” –  and it wasn’t even clear if they were still alive. In a time when churches were bombed and both black and white activists were reported as missing and/or murdered, these two pilgrimages had a slim chance of finding who they were looking for.

But they do find them and the uncanny story Pollard tells is quite fascinating for a blues lover like me and I believe for anyone with a curiosity for the untold stories of the segregated Mississippi of 1964. The documentary revisits an important moment when America’s cultural and political institutions were dramatically transformed. Sadly and importantly, “Two Trains Runnin'” is all the more poignant and relevant today, in this era of police brutality and Black Lives Matter.

Pollard includes many of those “searchers” in the documentary, such as Phil Spiro, David Evans and Dick Waterman as well as Ed Denson (Skip James’ manager), author Amanda Petrusich, historian John Hale, author and musician Greg Tate and blues researcher, Gayle Dean Wardlow and many more. Along with those talking heads, the story is told with creative animation re-enactments over voice-over recollections and narrated by Common, featuring the music of Guy Clark Jr., Buddy Guy, Luther Dickinson, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Valerie June and Chris Thomas King, Jimbo Mathis, North Mississippi All-Stars, Rev. John Wilkins (son of Rev. Robert Wilkins) and Lucinda Williams, with additional score composed and performed by Christopher North.


Friday, October 21st at 8:00pm & Saturday, October 22nd at 11:45am – director Sam Pollard is scheduled to attend both screenings.





No comments yet

Leave a Reply