Joshua Reviews Douglas Tirola’s Hey Bartender [SXSW 2013 Review]


In the world of customer service, very few jobs are as customer focused as that as the bartender. Seen, historically, as the working man’s lawyer/doctor/therapist/friend/parent all rolled into one flashy yet insightful booze-centric sensei, the bartender has gone from the elderly man in a bowtie talking about his customers problems to a drink slinging rockstar. With a cocktail bar on every corner now, it’s time that this world gets put into the spotlight with an insightful documentary, and thankfully, SXSW has given us just that.

Hey Bartender is a new documentary from Douglas Tirola, and in typical documentary fashion, this film plays as both a history lesson, and multiple character study.

Following the story of two different bartenders, the film offers up an extensive, if oddly paced, look at the cocktail industry. First, we meet a young man, who following an injury that ended his life as a Marine prior to him being sent off to war, becomes an apprentice at arguably the world’s foremost cocktail lounge. His opposite? The film also follows a man who finds bartending only to leave his white collar job to launch his own corner bar. However, issues arise, and we follow him as he attempts to do everything possible to keep his bar alive and kicking.

Structurally, the film is a tad odd. As with most topic documentaries like this, we are privy to these two characters and their stories, while also getting a broader history lesson about the craft of mixology from the foremost voices in the industry. However, it’s in these secondary discussions that the film falters. As opposed to most documentaries of this nature, the film spends large chunks of its narrative away from its two leads, discussing careers of men and women that we only see snippets of following, if ever again. Clocking in at just around 90 minutes, the film feels a tad too long, and it’s not due to the main story, it’s due to the oddly formed structure that these two men find their stories surrounded by.

That said, the film is definitely intriguing. The world of bartending and mixology is one that is slowly becoming as popular as any customer service world out there, and, as mentioned above, the rise of cocktail bars and lounges all across this country is exciting and proves the importance of this film. The two leads are Steve Schneider and Steve Carpentieri, and their stories themselves are also exciting. Schneider’s narrative truly drives the film, and his rise in the ranks of his bar team is truly exciting and adds the most emotional heft. Carpentieri’s story is equally intriguing, but intellectually more so because of his plight as a small business owner in today’s economy. There are moments of levity within his narrative (a moment in which he discusses how a trendy hat may change his luck is hilariously true and real), and the film thrives when it focuses upon these two storylines.

Aesthetically, Tirola brings quite a bit to this film. The photography from Charles Poekel is fantastic, and when the film leaves its leads to introduce us to new characters, it does so by, in slow motion, teaching us how to make a drink that seems to fit the personality of the new voice being introduced. It’s a wonderfully crafted document of a rising industry, and one that should not be missed during this year’s SXSW Film Festival, or for those lucky enough to check out the film when it arrives in theaters or on home video.

Hey Bartender screens again:

Monday, March 11 
4:15PM – 5:47PM

Venue: SXSatellite: Alamo Slaughter

Thursday, March 14 
9:30PM -11:02PM

Venue: Alamo Ritz 1

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.

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