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‘Whirlybird’ Offers Intensely Personal Look at L.A. History (Review)

It’s difficult now to imagine a time before the 24-hour news cycle. Breaking news and remote coverage are part of our everyday lives, whether we like it or not.

There was a married couple in Los Angeles who were at the forefront of the shift in news coverage starting in the mid-80s. Robert Tur and his then-wife Marika Gerrard launched Los Angeles News Service as stringers.

They would literally chase police scanners and drive around the city looking to be the first video crew on the scene to film footage to sell to local news stations. Frustrated with how hard it was to cover the city by automobile, they bought a helicopter and really upped their game.

By flying over the city, they were able to more quickly capture news as it happened and proved to be so indispensable that they were hired by a local station to exclusively work for them.

Before long, Robert and Marika had broadcast the first police chase live on TV and it would certainly not be their last. From their blistering coverage of the L.A. riots in 1992 to being the first eyes in the sky while O.J. Simpson was being chased down the freeway in 1994, their work captured the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of the city.

Director Matt Yoka makes his feature debut with this incisive documentary that not only looks at their history as reporters, but also chronicles the slow dissolution of a 23-year marriage and a long-hidden disclosure.

Ten years after their divorce, Robert came out as transgender in 2013 and was fully living life as Zoey by the end of 2014. She pulls no punches in the documentary, noting that her unhappiness and gender dysphoria made her a bad partner. We witness countless arguments and cruel behavior from Robert towards Marika in previously unseen footage, remastered from their massive tape archive.

Their children, Katy and James, are given time to speak on their memories as well. Katy, who shockingly accompanied them as a child on many early car chases, has followed in the footsteps of her parents. She started her career in local news and spent time at the Weather Channel before becoming a host at MSNBC.

Yoka had an overwhelming amount of material to work with and he’s edited down a striking picture that fascinatingly intertwines these big moments in Los Angeles history along with their interpersonal issues. Indie rock artist Ty Segall quite surprisingly ties it all up with an impressive score.

“Whirlybird” opens in select cities including Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle starting Friday, August 6. It will simultaneously be available nationwide on VOD from all cable and digital providers.

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