Piano Van

DANGEROUS MINDS: ‘Indie, Punk, Motown, Brill Building and Velvets’: Meet the street karaoke maestro of Los Angeles

A guest post by Jeff Feuerzeig, director of the very marvelous documentary films The Devil and Daniel Johnston and Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King, about Piano Van his new Super 8mm music video project with musician and author Chris Stroffolino.

FEBRUARY 2013, LOS ANGELES: It’s 5pm on a lazy Sunday afternoon and I’m riding my bike home through Silver Lake Junction when I hear someone singing his heart out and playing piano. I think to myself, “This sounds eerily like Daniel Johnston from the early Stress cassettes.” The music fades as I pedal onward. “Hmm… is this as great as I think it is?” I spin my bike around and follow the music to see where it’s coming from. Lo and behold, I turn to my left and parked on the street in front of the 99¢ Only Store is a dilapidated 1980’s Ford Econoline van, the side door open revealing a very dapper, charismatic guy inside singing “49 Bye Byes” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young on a beaten-up upright piano. The piano fits so perfectly within the van, it’s as if it were an accessory purchased from the dealer, its side cleverly painted with school-green chalkboard paint bearing the words “Tips Appreciated” punctuated by the upturned mouth of a smiley-face.

I immediately start rolling Super 8mm on my iPhone 5. “Do you know any Daniel Johnston songs?” I ask. “No. I love the guy and I’ve actually been called ‘the Daniel Johnston of Piano’… in the van, but I do know a lot of indie rock. I played in a pretty famous indie rock band. You ever hear of Silver Jews?” I reply, “Yes. David Berman.” He then launches into an amazing heartfelt rendition of “We Are Real” from their landmark LP American Water and proudly tells me “I’m on this record.”

I quickly learn that his name is Chris Stroffolino and he is not only a Silver Jew, but also a Ph.D. holding Shakespearean scholar and published author of no less than eight books of poetry. For reasons that are still fuzzy to me, he is disabled from a bicycle accident, walks with a cane, has recently fled San Francisco (and a relationship with a woman) and landed homeless on the streets of Los Angeles, living in this crazy van with a rescued piano that he’s ingeniously bolted to the chassis. As I listen to his patter and the music pouring out of the van it becomes clear that he is blessed and cursed with the same affliction as the subject of my documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston.

Flash forward to a week of spontaneous piano-driven street karaoke outside his van door: “Mony Mony” by Tommy James, “Red Rubber Ball” by The Cyrcle, “Baby It’s You” by Burt Bacharach via The Shirelles, “Lisa Says” by The Velvet Underground – the Live 1969 long version with all the cool parts, Richard Hell’s “Time,” “Stand” and “Everybody’s A Star” by Sly and The Family Stone, The Animals, Metal Circus era Hüsker Dü, obscure Lou Reed-style David Bowie on “Queen Bitch,” and Roxy Music. And my beloved early Kinks — killer Kinks covers! – all performed in the Vons Supermarket parking lot on Sunset (a fave spot of his for tips it seems). The proto-punk gem “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” “Everybody’s Gonna Be Happy” and “Dead End Street,” the lyrics all delivered with a poignancy that Ray Davies could never have imagined. Truly heart-breaking and optimistic at the same time.

Another chilly night, Chris lights off an 80’s nostalgia bomb with a set of early Replacements tunes (he’s wearing a Let It Be T-shirt under his jacket and scarf) from their first Twin/Tone LP Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash. “Hangin’ Downtown” is re-imagined as a rollicking honky-tonk ditty and the Paul Westerberg down-and-out classic “Here Comes a Regular” literally brings tears to my eyes. I had a friend with me and we agreed that singing along to these songs with Chris, while standing outside his magic van under the halogen lights, is about as much spontaneous fun as you can have in Los Angeles. I’ve always loved experiencing music outside of the traditional club venue and Chris’s street karaoke takes the performance intimacy quotient to a whole new level.

I soon discover that Chris’s talent goes beyond covers. Over the course of five evenings, I take Chris and his Piano Van up to the parking lot behind the old carousel in Griffith Park. It’s there, under the stars, in the cold, among the trees and the occasional car of teenagers looking for privacy, that I record (in the spirit of Alan Lomax’s field recordings) thirteen of his original compositions of unrequited love – songs I’ve come to adore and sing along with as much as the covers that he and I grew up listening to. “Break Up Make Up,” “Make It Rain, and “I’m Not Going Astray” sound like they’ve always been a part of my life and I credit that to our shared love of what Chris has chalked upon his van door – “Indie, Punk, Motown, Brill Building, and Velvets.”

The album will be titled The Piano Van Sessions and a few tracks are currently available on Bandcamp as well as a selection of single-take Super 8mm videos I directed which are posted on YouTube. I hope this will cause Chris’s @Piano_Van daily tweets (of his roving Pied Piper-like location) to ignite a street karaoke phenomenon.

In addition, my friend and former manager of Daniel Johnston, Jeff Tartakov, will manage Chris (the first artist he’s agreed to work with since Daniel Johnston) with the goal of getting him a proper publishing deal, a record label, and hopefully enough success so that he no longer has to live in his van.

—Jeff Feuerzeig
Director, The Devil and Daniel Johnston

Google+ Pride


Stories in black and white.
Leading up to Pride Parades in Toronto and San Francisco, agency Entrinsic and Pride Toronto launched a series of films directed by Jeff Feuerzeig of ‘The Devil and Daniel Johnston’ fame that highlights members of Toronto’s LGBT community.

Shot in beautiful black and white, the films focus on a variety of people, from an elderly couple, to a pre-op transgendered person, to a 17-year-old who just came out. Here you can see the highlights from each film, and you can watch them in their entirety on YouTube.

Google partnered with Pride Toronto, so the series will also be housed on a special Google community page.

Pride Toronto, Google+ Create 'Together,' Series Of Short Films For Pride Week 2012

Huffington Post: Pride Toronto, Google+ Create ‘Together,’ Series Of Short Films For Pride Week 2012

Pride Toronto and Google+ have teamed up with renowned documentary maker Jeff Feurzeig (the Devil and Daniel Johnston) to create a series of documentaries for this year’s Pride Week.

Together: Stories by Pride & Google+ profiles a diverse cross-section of Toronto’s LGBT community. Everyone from Hugh & Gerald, a couple who marched in Toronto’s first Pride Parade in 1972, to drag queen, Jonathan.

Our favourite might be Connor’s story. An interview with a 17-year-old teen who came out just days before Feurzeig met up with him. And if you’re wondering why that voice at the end of each video sounds familiar? That’s Magnetic Fields frontman Stephin Merritt lending his warbling to the series.

That video and the rest of the Together series are below. You can also get the latest from the Pride Toronto organizers on their site or their Google+ page. The organizers have also put together a list of Canada’s top LGBT voices on the social network.

Laura Albert

Hollywood Reporter: Brett Ratner, Vice Media Partner for JT LeRoy Documentary (Exclusive)

Laura Albert

The story of what many have labeled the first literary hoax of the 21st century is getting the documentary treatment.

A&E IndieFilms and Brett Ratner’s RatPac Documentary Films are teaming up with youth media company Vice to produce a documentary telling the story of author Laura Albert and her infamous persona JT LeRoy.

Jeff Feuerzeig, who made the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, wrote the script and is directing the feature, which is currently in production.

LeRoy burst onto the literary scene in the mid-to-late 1990s and had his first novel, Sarah, published in 1999 when he was only 19 years old. That same year also saw the release of his novel The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things.

With a dark backstory that included being a transgender prostitute, he quickly gained a following and celebrity status. Lou Reed and Garbage frontlady Shirley Manson were supporters, as was Gus Van Sant, who had LeRoy pen an early draft of his movie Elephant.

The literary and media community were stunned, however, when in the mid-2000s it was revealed that LeRoy was actually Albert, a middle-aged musician and former phone sex worker. Albert wrote the works and had her husband’s half-sister act as LeRoy for public appearances. Lawsuits were filed and Albert was shunned by those close to her.

Feuerzeig has unique access to Albert’s extensive archives and is looking at the subject’s own history, posing the question of whether LeRoy is a fraud, a postmodern masterpiece or something else?

“The story of J.T. Leroy is so wild, fascinating, and thought-provoking that it’s a classic example of something you couldn’t have made up,” said Ratner. “We are certain that people will be discussing and debating the movie for a very long time.”

Vice’s chief creative office Eddy Moretti said the company has been following LeRoy’s story.

“As the celebs glommed on, and the stories got weirder and weirder, we were totally hooked. Then the whole thing imploded and in a flash the community withdrew their support and Laura Albert’s real story was buried,” said Moretti. “Jeff is going to tell a deep, twisting, twisted, tragic-comic human drama and along the way turn the mirror on the artist and media community as well.”

Feuerzeig is producing along with Danny Gabai and Jim Czarnecki for Vice. Ratner and James Packer are producing for RatPac Documentary Films. Molly Thompson, Bob DeBitetto and David McKillop are executive producing for A&E IndieFilms. Moretti and Shane Smith are the executive producers for Vice.

Read Article on Hollywood Reporter

JT Leroy Story

Rolling Stone – 25 Movies We Can’t Wait to See at Sundance 2016

JT Leroy Story

Remember when mysterious novelist, abuse survivor and rentboy JT Leroy was the It author of the moment, befriended by rock stars and the literary elite? And then do you remember when the whole thing was exposed as a grand hoax? Filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig — whose The Devil and Daniel Johnston is an extraordinary rock doc — sifts through the strange tale of how Laura Albert invented an imaginary alter ego and then watched her creation eclipse her several times over. DF

Read Article at Rolling Stone

Sundance.org Jeff Feuerzeig Uncovers The Untold Truth Behind JT LeRoy And The “Literary Hoax Of The Century”

JT Leroy Story


If you followed pop culture in the late ‘90s, the name JT LeRoy was inescapable and in many ways inscrutable. Thought to be a 15 year-old, drug-abusing transgender prostitute from rural West Virginia, LeRoy’s byline began to appear in magazines. Soon, two novels, Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, were published to great acclaim and even greater fanfare. LeRoy began hobnobbing with scene makers such as Courtney Love, Bono, and Gus Van Sant. There was no real LeRoy. He’d been the creation of Laura Albert, a talented, seductive middle-aged phone sex-operator from Brooklyn who used her androgynous friend Savannah Knoop to impersonate LeRoy, who she considered her “avatar,” in a floppy blond wig, dark glasses and a black hat. As people became more curious and, perhaps naturally, more suspicious of LeRoy, the truth was eventually uncovered by an investigative journalist in The New York Times in 2006 and the ruse was widely hailed as “the literary hoax of the century.”

Jeff Feuerzeig - Headshot

In 2005 Jeff Feuerzeig premiered The Devil and Daniel Johnston , a compelling chronicle of the fascinating cult musician and artist, at Sundance and took home the Directing Award in the Documentary Competition for his effort. Since then he’s helmed The Real Rocky, a look at boxer Chuck Wepner, believed to have inspired the Sylvester Stallone franchise; co-written (with pal Jerry Stahl) a screenplay titled The Bleeder, about Wepner’s 1975 match against heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali; and now returns to Sundance with Author: The JT LeRoy Story.

Feuerzeig recently spoke with Sundance about how he convinced Laura Albert to tell her side of the story, his love of subjective filmmaking, and how winning a Sundance directing award a decade ago affected his career.

What is it about JT LeRoy’s story that continues to keep us so spellbound?

When I got turned on to the story a few years ago by a friend who is a journalist — he knows how much I love unique stories — he thought I’d enjoy it. I’d heard of JT LeRoy but didn’t know anything about him. There are a lot of major publications [that] had weighed in on this story. The New York Times had covered it elaborately. Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair did a huge piece – so did Salon.com. I read all these pieces and everyone had something to say. The hook, of course, was this is the greatest literary hoax of our time. There was just one voice missing from all these elaborate think pieces and it was the person who wrote the books. She had never told her story. That was the story I wanted to hear. I sought out Laura Albert. She had been exposed by The New York Times. She had seen The Devil and Daniel Johnston and based on that she trusted me. I wanted to give her a forum to tell her story. It’s a very subjective film. I loved The Kid Stays in the Picture and Tyson and Jerry Stahl’s I, Fatty. I love first-person narration journeys. That’s the kind of storytelling I enjoy. I’m not interested in judging. I’m interested in going on an antihero’s journey.

In other hands, this could easily have become an indictment against Laura. How did you convince her to let you tell her story?

Very simply. She watched The Devil and Daniel Johnston and that was enough. I find the intersection of art and madness infinitely fascinating. Daniel Johnston, like Laura Albert, [is] off the spectrum. At the time I had not yet read her books. I only knew her story and wanted to know if she’d be interested. It was really The Devil and Daniel Johnston . It didn’t hurt that we’d both come out of punk rock. That meant something to her. Then I read her books. It was very important for me to experience her art. I absolutely loved the books. It didn’t surprise me. Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things were international bestsellers. They were well-reviewed. These books were a zeitgeist moment in transgressive fiction. It’s not J.K. Rowling. This is tough material. It’s very rare to pack bookstores around the world like a rock concert. It’s tough to get 17 friends to come to a bookstore for a reading so how did this happen? [ Laughs] I’m a big Southern Gothic fan and I loved Flannery O’Conner’s writing in college. It was an aspect of literature I’d explored, along with Tennessee Williams. I was hooked by the story and I loved the art, but I wondered, ‘What’s the story behind the story? How did it happen and why did it happen?’ Those, of course, were unknowns. The one part of this puzzle that was missing is what this film will hopefully fill in. It doesn’t negate the other accounts of the story.

Laura described JT as her avatar, but she had other personas, including Speedie, a confidant of JT’s. It’s quite a tangled web. How would you describe her?

I can’t diagnose her. I’m not a psychologist or a psychiatrist. I didn’t diagnose Daniel Johnston, either. We learned he’s bipolar, but he has a lot of other things going on. When you’re on the spectrum of DSM-IV, and she’s on the spectrum… The point is she’s clearly super-intelligent. As an artist, she’s very, very talented. As far as where she is on the spectrum, it’s for people with bigger degrees than me to decide.

The structure you use is perfect for such a complex story. It’s as if you’re peeling back layers until the full truth is revealed.

The film is a tapestry. Her A-story is the anti-hero’s journey in three very careful acts I constructed because the structure of the film was very complicated to figure out because the story was so complicated. Of course, the other strand is her backstory and how it all comes together. It’s like Memento. The backstory is playing out in reverse and catches up to itself. That was by design. I give you information, you carry it with you then I give you more information. There’s hopefully satisfaction at the end when it all comes together.

She gave you access to a stunning amount of archival footage. The answering machine messages left by JT’s celeb friends defending him when the exposé was published is a highlight of the film.

Her archive was incredible. It’s all the photos, all the audio and almost all the video. It’s somebody who had an entire archive of her life, so it was an incredible gift for me. As a non-fiction filmmaker, my goal is to create the most immersive experience I can give you… I’m hoping that if you go along on this ride and I construct it carefully, you can forget it’s a documentary and it plays like a narrative film and I’ve done my job. That’s my goal.

How do you think her books would have been received if they’d been published under her real name?

It’s an unanswerable question. I’ve talked to a lot of other writers about this. If the film does anything, I hope, it takes you inside what it’s like to be the writer of fiction. What is fiction? I’m in the W.G.A. I write screenplays. Anybody who is a writer who writes characters is channeling those characters. You have to write voices. Writers write male and female voices. The characters ultimately live inside them and talk to them and they have to put it on the page. She’s hardly the first person on earth to use a pseudonym. We just now find out why she used a pseudonym.

You directed The Real Rocky about Chuck Wepner, and your script The Bleeder has been made into a feature with Liev Schrieber and Naomi Watts. What’s the commonality between this and JT LeRoy and The Devil and Daniel Johnston? You seem to be drawn to very complex, enigmatic characters?

They’re all different flavors. To me, story is king. When I go to the movies I want to see a well-told story with twists and turns that I can’t predict. It’s such a cliché to say this but obviously truth is stranger than fiction. I love true stories so I seek them out. I’m just trying to apply the new journalism that inspired me: Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Terry Southern, Hunter Thompson – those writers all blew my mind. They inspired me to try to apply that to my version of non-fiction filmmaking. I’m looking for a deeper truth.

You won the Directing Award at Sundance in 2005. How did that affect your career?

That put me on the map. I’ve been a commercial director my whole life, but that’s the reason The Real Rocky got made – and The Bleeder. I’m a working filmmaker because of that. I don’t write on spec. It’s the greatest thing that ever happened. It was my dream to just continue to make films and that directing prize put me on the map.

Read Article on www.sundance.org