This year’s Toronto International Film Festival features several standout music documentaries covering vastly different themes – from Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck‘s “Dixie Chicks – Shut Up and Sing” to Jerome Laperrousaz‘s “Made in Jamaica.” Among the most buzzed about music docs were AJ Schnack‘s “Kurt Cobain About a Son,” Paul Rachman‘s “American Hardcore,” and David Leaf and John Scheinfeld‘s “The U.S. vs. John Lennon” – three very different documentaries that explore music against a backdrop of American angst.
In “Kurt Cobain About a Son,” Director AJ Schnack takes a fresh approach to non-fiction storytelling, turning the idea of the traditional music doc on its head. “I guess it’s most unconventional by the fact that we don’t use any archival video or Nirvana music,” Schnack told indieWIRE. “Although there is music from bands that influence him, like Queen and The Melvins, David Bowie and R.E.M. and Iggy Pop, [there are] barely any photos of Kurt.” Instead, Schnack relies on his exclusive access to a box of audio interview tapes from author Michael Azerrad, which were originally used for Azerrad’s book Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana.
“I met Michael a few years ago when I interviewed him for my first film, ‘Gigantic‘, and I was talking to him about his Nirvana book and asking about that time period,” says Schnack. “He told me that he had this box of audio interview tapes that he hadn’t listened to since Kurt died and that he’d like to do something special with them. He apparently had said no to several people who wanted to use them in other film or TV projects. For me, just thinking about the tapes, knowing a bit about the content from reading Michael’s book, well that was something that I really wanted to hear – and I thought that a lot of other people would feel the same way.”
Schnack chose to take a unique visual approach for the film, shooting gorgeous imagery of three cities in Washington state that were important to Cobain – Aberdeen, Olympia and Seattle. “I was really inspired by Godfrey Reggio‘s ‘Qatsi‘ films, in terms of capturing both urban and natural environments as well as the process of how he made those films, which in some ways is the opposite of a traditional process,” says Schnack. “For this, we edited the audio tapes first and then storyboarded and scouted and took photographs to guide us during our 2 1/2 week shoot. We shot on 35mm and used different stocks in each city, for instance using Fuji in Aberdeen because it would enhance the natural greens in the color palette there. Mostly, I wanted the photography to be composed and classic, yet still modern.” The resulting stunning visuals juxtaposed with the gritty audio excerpts creates a haunting effect, and the ghost of Cobain could almost be felt in the theater.
Also inspired by a book, “American Hardcore” director Paul Rachman takes a more conventional approach to the music doc, although its subject is anything but conventional. Based on Steven Blush’s American Hardcore: A Tribal History, the film expertly chronicles the brief history of hardcore punk rock in America, from 1980 – 1986, weaving rare concert footage with interviews and other archival and current-day material. “American Hardcore… is not a music documentary but rather a piece of American subcultural history,” Rachman told indieWIRE. “This was a kids’ movement that spread throughout the suburbs of America at a time when Ronald Reagan was sweeping the country with conservatism. I think the film speaks about how kids back then raged their anger through music that not only was punk rock but was a message about their frustration to how America was changing.”
Rachman and Blush do a superb job stitching together the story of the movement, and the end result is a compelling narrative strong enough to engage even those who aren’t familiar with, or fans of, the hardcore punk scene. For those who are fans, the film makes one pine for the days when there was a real underground scene, and music could be found that reflected the idea of total freedom – freedom from corporate America, from the government, but mostly freedom from being required to become grown up. Like all movements, however, eventually the scene fades and the players actually do grow up, at least the ones that survive, and the film’s interviews with many of these people inadvertently provides a melancholy glimpse at faded dreams.
In “The U.S. vs. John Lennon“, directors David Leaf and John Scheinfeld follow Lennon’s emergence as an activist, and the rise of the forces that wanted to stamp out his message. The film contains interviews with those from both camps, and provides extensive rare footage and fresh insights, largely thanks to the participation of Yoko Ono Lennon. When Lennon and Ono got married in 1969, his activism grew, and at that time he was largely focused on ending the Vietnam War. The couple famously held “bed-ins”, and took out billboards in major cities around the world that read: “War Is Over! If You Want It.” This kind of behavior caused conservative Senator Strom Thurmond (and others) to call for their deportation, and led to a bizarre five-year ordeal that kept the couple under intense scrutiny and the constant threat of legal action.
Whether it’s about political oppression, anger at society, or deep personal pain, Toronto audiences seemed eager for the kind of documentary programming that provides a fresh look behind these very different musical stories. “As Canada played a significant role in John and Yoko’s campaign for peace,” co-director John Scheinfeld told indieWIRE, “We were especially thrilled that the screenings were greeted by involved, intelligent and boisterous audiences. Additionally, we were impressed and delighted with the excellent question and answer session each screening provoked.”
“It’s been so great to be here in Toronto,” agrees Schnack, “and to have such an incredible response, in part because it really confirms that people around the world still connect with Kurt and his story, and are looking for new insights.”
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