Film/VOD Review: HEY BARTENDER (directed by Douglas Tirola)

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by Ella Martin on July 13, 2013

in CD-DVD,Film


Douglas Tirola’s Hey Bartender is an ode to mixology in three parts: one part historical survey, one part character study, and one part massive, unquestioning endorsement.  Although it is generally well-put-together, and packed with information about a thriving socioeconomic subculture, this film does not venture far enough outside the realm of trivia to leave a lasting impression.

Did you know that there is a Museum of the American Cocktail?  Or an annual festival in New Orleans dedicated to cocktails and bar hospitality?  That Toby Cecchini invented the cosmopolitan?  Or that we are in the midst of a “cocktail revolution”?

“Who are these people?  They are awfully serious about arcane things.”  Yes, they are.  Tirola seems to assume, wrongly, that anyone who picks up this film will accept metropolitan bar culture’s importance at face value.

Ella Martin's Stage and Cinema film review of "Hey Bartender"

We see interview clips with famous bartenders from around the world; yet to a layman’s eyes, these “rock stars” are just faces on a screen.  Their neat sound bytes and quick appearances register as cinematic name-dropping rather than pieces of a thrilling secret.  Steve “Carpi” Carpintieri, the down-to-earth, no-frills bartender at Dunville’s in Westport, CT seems to be the only person in the film who needs to be convinced of the cocktail’s importance.

Tirola uses interviews to explain that mixology thrives on a precarious balance of mystery, listening, and unabashed sensuality.  As Steve Schneider, devoted and studly apprentice at Employees Only in Manhattan points out, a bartender is three characters rolled into one: mixologist, sage, and rockstar.  A film about mixologists should emulate that alchemical combination.  Unfortunately, this film feels representational, encyclopedic.  Considering the incredible variety of cocktail possibilities, the narrative is strangely limited in its perspective and vocabulary.  To hear Steve describe a bartender’s role in epic terms once is cool; to hear the same phrases, like “rock star” and “show business,” used repeatedly by a list of famous mixologists takes the edge off.

Ella Martin's Stage and Cinema film review of "Hey Bartender"

Jim Meehan of PDT NYC says, “to tend bar at the highest level is to serve people.”  This is a brilliant statement, yet the film fails to prove or even disprove in what ways bar patrons are actually served by their outings.  Aside from commercial-like shots of people hanging out or dancing in sexy, dark bars with trendy music playing, we don’t see any actual examples of people whose lives are improved by their outings.  This is not to say that those people do not exist, but rather that their absence in the film is noticeable.  Considering the film’s apparent acceptance of the mixologists’ credo, that bars serve a necessary public service, it is odd that there is no effort made to show exactly what in the outside world needs to be fixed — or how escaping into a dark bar will fix it.  Except as a threat to Carpi’s mainstay Dunville’s, the terrible state of the American economy goes unmentioned.

The film is most successful when it opens up the real lives of the bartenders.  Carpi is struggling to make things work in Westport, stuck with a failing bar and a possible foreclosure on his home.  He has to decide if bartending is still what he wants to do with his life, if he’s willing to change the way he tends bar, or if he would rather let the whole enterprise go.  For Steve, the Employees Only apprentice, his bar is also the focus of his existence.  After a bright career in the US Armed Forces is cut short by a tragic accident, he finds himself seeking a new place to truly, deeply belong.  He calls Employees Only his “new platoon,” and says that becoming a full bartender there is his “only goal.”

Ella Martin's Stage and Cinema film review of "Hey Bartender"

With livelihoods at stake, it’s impossible not to care about these bartenders’ stories.  Giving viewers an opportunity to get involved — to witness these bartenders’ real lives, in the way they, as bartenders, are normally accustomed to witnessing others’ — makes a great twist.

Still, Carpi and Steve are the exceptions; most of the featured bartenders’ lives are not explored with such specificity.  Perhaps those at the top of the mixology profession know how to give their customers exactly what they want, while still remaining at list a little enigmatic; Dushar Zaric, co-founder of Employees Only, definitely seems to have mastered this skill, as have most of the bartenders featured in this documentary.  With a totally unsupported core message that seems to be nothing more than “bar = happiness,” this film has not mastered the same skill.

Hey Bartender
4th Row Films
USA, 94min, No Rating
now available on VOD
to view film, visit Film Buff or iTunes

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