Last Call: The Shutdown of NYC Bars largely consists of interviews shot by documentarian Johnny Sweet and his team during spring 2020, when New York’s initial COVID-19 outbreak was still ongoing. The film focuses on the owners and bartenders of a couple of Queens bars who found themselves adrift after the city shut down all bars and restaurants to slow the spread of the virus. The abruptness of this unexpected new reality took everyone by surprise, and although the pain was (and still is) felt beyond New York, the horror of the city’s initial outbreak is hard to forget.
It’s not a stretch to say local bars are part of the lifeblood of any city, New York in particular. Sweet’s film opens with his participants discussing what their places of employment mean to them. The Sparrow Tavern and Diamond Dogs are two of the participating bars. The bartenders and owners describe how important being at the bar was for them when they arrived in the city, whether as transplants or simply as adults discovering the social tenor of the city in which they lived. Several describe themselves as creative people working to support their more soulful pursuits; although the bar work means less time for creative pursuits, it doesn’t matter because having the opportunity to be in that social space has its own rewards. The sudden loss of the bars takes a toll on all of them in countless professional, personal, and psychological ways.
Although the presence of social media was a boon to chronicling the COVID-19 pandemic throughout the year, Sweet’s decision to capture real-time reactions and ruminations of his participants makes for a compellingly edited, thoughtful contemplation of just what it meant to experience the start of the pandemic and how different people made the best of their sudden isolation. By not going much farther beyond the initial outbreak, Last Call is a time capsule to a terrifying moment in time for everyone involved. As the United States is a few months into moving forward past what happened in 2020, projects like this feel even more valuable.
Each interview was filmed using a socially distanced set-up similar to Errol Morris’ Interrotron. This means the subjects speak directly to the camera, which makes the interviews feel intimate. They discuss what their work meant to them and how they’re spending the time unable to leave their homes safely. Some of them turn to creative webseries (which have met some success, including Jena Ellenwood’s online cocktail show) and some to music (Willie McIntyre Jr. managed to produce two albums during lockdown). Owners declare their willingness to stay closed as long as it can keep people safe; of course, this is early in the pandemic, and the documentary does not provide much “where are they now” information beyond the late-2020 winter surge that resulted in much of New York’s nightlife once again shutting down.
By focusing on the human experiences in Last Call, Sweet marks his documentary’s territory in what will surely be a forthcoming field full of films about this time. He does a good job bringing in medical experts to talk about their experiences and contextualize the situation on the ground in March 2020 without diverting his focus to the bigger picture. The audience already understands the bigger picture . Unlike last year’s 76 Days, which often felt like a compilation of footage without a story, Last Call finds a lens through which to focus on those affected by the virus and its social ramifications. Unlike last year’s Totally Under Control, which chronicled the politics behind the Trump administration’s colossal fuck-up handling the virus, very little politics are discussed here.
Last Call captures a time and place and somehow already feels unthinkable, even though we experienced it together.
Last Call: The Shutdown of NYC Bars will be screening at Laemmle Virtual Cinema starting Friday, July 16th at 3:00am PST.