In addition to the sexy spreads in his Playboy Magazine, the late Hugh Heffner had a side of him that led to articles in Playboy by major writers about important subjects and a dedication to fighting for liberal causes. Hefner at specially interesting moments was on display in his television shows “Playboy Penthouse” (season 1959-1960) and “Playboy After Dark” (seasons 1968-1970). Now, thanks to the entertaining new documentary: “Hugh Hefner’s After Dark: Speaking Out in America,” you can get to see amazing clips from those shows involving top performers of the time.
The film, directed by Canadian director-producer Brigitte Berman (she is originally from Germany) from a script she wrote with her co-producer, her late husband Victor Solnicki, is being shown in New York, as part of the annual series that Telefilm Canada is presenting at the IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue, to reflect the independent spirit of Canadian cinema. (Berman’s film can be seen on Friday March 8, at 7 p.m.) Berman has made more than 100 documentaries during her career.
Hefner’s informal living-room style programs featured “drop-in” guests on a racially well-integrated basis that was unique in TV at the time. Some southern stations wouldn’t carry the shows. You can have the pleasure of viewing clips from performances by such stars as Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, Pete Seeger, Josh White, James Brown, Joan Baez, The Byrds, Sammy Davis, Jr., Moms Mabley, Linda Ronstadt, Steppenwolf, Tony Bennett and various others. What’s fascinating is you get to see what they were like way back then.
Some of those still alive are interviewed for comments. There are also contemporary comments by Bill Maher and Whoopi Goldberg, for example. There is a narration by Tom Wilson.
While the special pleasure lies in seeing those clips, one finds that Berman has much more on her mind than excavation. She sees the Hefner shows as tied in with the need to spotlight important issues of today. Hefner’s desire to speak out is catapulted into today’s urgencies, some of which, such as battles for racial equality, still are pertinent and make headlines.
The political points scored in the latter part of the film can at times get somewhat repetitious, but they are certainly central to the film’s main thesis, as reflected in the title.
The greatest pleasures come from seeing all of the entertainers turning up to chat with Hefner and give examples of their talent. It is as if we are watching parts of a variety show. An excellent job was done finding the clips and putting them together. Berman previously directed “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel” (See Search for review) when Hefner was alive. He made an appearance at the Toronto International Film Festival, where I first saw that film (Hefner died in 2017). Berman’s valuable latest opens a fresh window on the television contributions he made as part of his legacy. At IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue. Reviewed March 4, 2019.