The Roseland Review

“Roseland: The Ballad of Bob Levine” has been in the works since 2020 at least. I remember when film director Parker Sargent called me about it only weeks before COVID-19 made its dreary landfall in New York. Plans had to be delayed of course, much like the rest of our lives, and the show did not go on for the Cherry Grove Archives Collection Film Festival (CGACFF) that year. As a result, since the film festival is traditionally a biennial event, there has been no CGACFF since 2018, and the audience was bursting for some lights, camera and action once more.

“Roseland” is the namesake of Bob’s fabled Cherry Grove House by the bay of course, and Levine is a veteran columnist of this publication, among other accolades to his credit. Sargent has produced other documentaries about longtime Grove residents and is quite comfortable with the genre. She knows her subjects as well as her audience, and the 89-year-old Levine makes an ideal subject.

“Becoming Chavela” filmmaker Joyce Callo at the CGACFF VIP Mixer.

However, the evening was not just about Levine. Friday, July 15 was the premiere evening of the festival, held at the landmarked Cherry Grove Community House Theatre, and several short films were also making their debut.

“Lipstick of the Brave” was an animated short by Bill Plymton; “The Album” by Raymond Rea, featuring vintage Cherry Grove images was also featured; “Becoming Chavela,” a short documentary about Mexican singer Chavela Vargas, directed by Joyce Callo; and “Gay History Tour,” by Adam Enright. I had the pleasure of chatting briefly with Plymton and Callo and it was clear both filmmakers were brought to this festival with very compelling personal journeys of their own.

But make no mistake, this was Levine’s night, and most of the attendees at the VIP mixer cocktail party were there to cheer him on. After a very humorous introductory short produced by Sargent to usher in the evening, the much-anticipated documentary soon came on screen.

Bob on the big screen.

What can be said about this documentary? In some ways it is hard to be impartial because many of these stories about Levine’s life I knew by the many conversations Bob and I had both as colleagues and friends over the years. The tour of “Roseland” in the film? Bob gave me that tour back in 2016, where I first met his partner Michael Fitzgerald, assistant Jay Robinson and dog Mr. Burberry. Yet the artful splicing of copious vintage footage of Levine over the decades compared to the man I know now gave a new dimension to the information I already had.

Rose Levine was not always the stage diva we are all now familiar with today. She was a hot starlet back in the 1970s as she boarded that water taxi on what would become the maiden voyage of the tradition of the Invasion of Fire Island Pines. And Robert Levine was a news columnist who took risks, actually coining the phrase “invasion” unaware it would stick and become part of Fire Island’s legacy.

The story of Bob and Michael was also a touching aspect to the film that anyone who has been in a long-term loving relationship can connect to. I especially enjoyed the footage of the two of them together in the 1990s when they first met, both young and handsome.

Parker has a gift of timing when the touching moments should be, as well as the comedic ones – such as when Michael is sitting by Bob’s side trying to discuss something serious, but Mr. Burberry is intent on licking his face instead. The audience roared with laughter in instances like this. Their reaction was part of the evening’s experience as well.

There were places where I found myself wanting more from the film however. For instance, Levine had another longtime partner that he lost tragically during the height of the AIDS epidemic, and I was saddened by this omission as the story of this loss and finding love again is in my opinion essential to Bob’s ballad as well as the history of Cherry Grove and Fire Island itself.

I also felt the documentary could have benefited from being tightened up a little bit, but then again, I am the editor, and what is my relationship with Bob Levine but the two of us squabbling about such matters every two weeks all summer long? No columnist is as fierce a defendant of their work as Bob Levine, and that is to his credit. Our bond would not be the same otherwise.

On one last personal note, when Fire Island News was mentioned by name towards the end of the film the audience cheered, and it pleased me to hear it.