‘Hey Bartender’: somewhere Studs Terkel is smiling

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bartenderThe new documentary from director Douglas Tirola and producer Susan Bedusa, “Hey Bartender,” has a straightforward question powering it — Who are those people who spend their nights serving us drinks, and a lot of personality, when we visit a bar?

A movie like this one reminds us that filmmakers rarely take the time to show us what is really involved in anyone’s working life. Instead we get Hollywood toy jobs that are just the framework for thrillers or romances or action epics.

To see someone really working in a movie is so rare that you never forget sequences such as the photographer making those enlargements in “Blow Up” or Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman wearing down the reluctant interview subject played by Jane Alexander in “All the President’s Men.”

“Hey Bartender” operates in the same realm that made the Studs Terkel book “Working” so bartender1unique and so fascinating — people talking about what they do to make a living and why they do it.

Tirola and his crew visited all sorts of bars across the country from very fashionable joints in New York City — Employees Only and Rao’s, among them — to a “Cheers”-like establishment in Westport — Dunville’s — where the company of regulars is as important as the cocktails being served.

“Hey Bartender” deftly fills us in on the history of public drinking since Prohibition ended 80 years ago and the various drinking fads of the past century, but it spends most of its time zeroing in on people like Steve Schneider (an apprentice at Employees Only) and Stephen Carpentieri (operator of Dunville’s) to show us what makes them tick.

Schneider is a young veteran who had to recover from serious bar fight injuries to land his job in New York City — we watch him edge his way to a full-fledged bartender job. In the meantime, we also meet Dushan Zaric, Steve’s boss, who has become a Manhattan nightlife legend through the business he created for himself after escaping the political troubles in Eastern Europe in the 1990s.

Carpentieri is shown struggling to keep his Westport bar happening in a scene getting more crowded with much slicker places serving up the latest cocktail fads. We watch Carpentieri handling a difficult customer and hear other people talk about Dunville’s being an important part of their lives for many years.

“Hey Bartender” moves from character to character and city to city in a nice rhythm and our travels are made much more enjoyable by the beautiful camerawork supervised by Charles Poekel. There is so much good stuff assembled here that it is easy to imagine a multi-part TV series using the same material.

(“Hey Bartender” will be screened tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Avon Theatre in Stamford. The filmmakers will do a Q&A after the movie along with Schneider and Carpentieri, with yours truly moderating the discussion.)

Joe Meyers

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