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First Louisiana International Film Festival Opens With ‘Twenty Feet From Stardom’ and Star Merry Clayton

First Louisiana International Film Festival Opens With 'Twenty Feet From Stardom' and Star Merry Clayton

I thought I was the canary in the coal mine, attending the First Louisiana International Film Festival, a first for Baton Rouge and for me: I’ve never before attended a film festival’s inaugural iteration. But it turned out to be a fabulous four days, with more movies, parties, and panel discussions than one girl could humanly attend. Not to mention crawfish. 

Scarcely a year before, the Festival was just a gleam in the eye of Chesley Heymsfield, a film business vet who moved to Louisiana in 2011. She decided to create an event to draw attention to
the state’s booming yet fragmented film industry.  Thanks to tax
incentives and state-of-the-art facilities (such as Baton Rouge’s Celtic
Media Centre
, home to such recent productions as “Twilight: Breaking Dawn” and “Oblivion”), Louisiana is the third-busiest state for film production. And last year’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” nominated for four Oscars and winner of numerous other awards, including two at Sundance and four prizes at Cannes, brought attention to Louisiana’s homegrown film community.

Heymsfield enlisted the help of famed multihatted movie guru Jeff Dowd, perhaps best known as the inspiration for the Dude in the Coen Brothers’ “The Big Lebowski,” but a familiar figure. Dowd brought in as co-artistic director Dan Ireland, the writer-director of such films as “The Whole Wide World,”  Renee Zellweger’s first starring role, and “Jolene,” starring Jessica Chastain in her film debut. Ireland co-created the Seattle International Film Festival in 1975, now the U.S.’s largest film festival.  As programming director, the team turned to Ian Birnie, longtime festival programmer for the Toronto, Bangkok, and Palm Springs festivals, among others, as well as curator and director emeritus of the Film Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

They put together a rather dazzling 60-film, four-day slate, more impressive than many I’ve seen this year from far more venerable festivals. Ian pointed out an emphasis — tailored for the region — on three themes: music films, Francophone movies (from Quebec, the Middle East, and Africa, as well as France), and films that deal with environmental issues, both because of Earth Day and because of Louisiana’s habitat issues.

But for me the program just spoke to general cinephilia: the high caliber of the films I’d already seen — “The Iceman,” (shot in Shreveport, Louisiana, which believably doubled for New York and New Jersey), “Blancanieves,” “West of Memphis,” “The Hunt,” “The Attack,” “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga,” “Renoir,” “Innocente,” “Hannah Arendt,” “Therese,” and “Room 237,” among others — gave me confidence in attending virtually anything else on the schedule,

And LIFF was especially blessed in its choice of opening and closing night films, a delicate problem that has bedeviled film festivals from time immemorial. The Festival opened at the Art Deco Joy Theater on Canal Street in downtown New Orleans, thereby justifying the Louisiana, as opposed to just Baton Rouge, in its name, with the irresistible, affecting, crowd-pleasing “Twenty Feet from Stardom,”  about largely anonymous and prodigiously talented backup singers, which premiered at Sundance in January, where it was nominated for both the Grand Jury Prize in documentary and the editing award, and was acquired by the Weinstein Company. (Clip below.)

On the red carpet, while waiting for the arrival of Merry Clayton, one of the singers prominently featured in the film (and a New Orleans native), Jonathan Batiste and his Stay Human group played lively second-line influenced jazz, inspiring many to dance along. You’re never very far from a party in New Orleans.

Director Morgan Neville introduced his film, mentioning that he’d been married in New Orleans, a city he loved and was happy to return to, and also introduced Merry Clayton and her friend, LIFF Director of Music Programming and venerable producer Alan Abrahams.

Earlier that day, over a plate of charcuterie and drinks at the excellent Cochon Butcher, Neville had told me that he had wanted to elope, but when his fiance balked at that idea, he said he then requested a destination wedding — “in Memphis, Havana, or New Orleans.”  His first film was 1995’s “Shotgun Freeway: Drives through Lost L.A.,” a particular favorite of mine, and shown by longtime supporter Birnie at LACMA  — hence LIFF’s fortunate snaring of “Twenty Feet from Stardom.”

Though Neville’s impressive filmography includes movies on subjects including John Steinbeck and Los Angeles’ modern art scene, he’s most known for his many music films, including  ones on the Brill Building, Leiber & Stoller, and Burt Bacharach, many produced through his Los Angeles-based  company Tremolo Productions.

“Twenty Feet from Stardom” features Clayton, Darlene Love, Julia Hill, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, and Claudia Linnear, all of whom aspired to solo careers and released albums, but somehow never achieved the kind of stardom of the singers they sang backup to, including Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, who also appear, singing the praises (pun intended) of their lesser-known but equally gifted colleagues. It’s moving both in its story-telling as well as the astonishing performances, shown in both vintage footage and scenes shot especially for the film.

Afterwards Merry Clayton (famed for her collaboration with Mick Jagger on the iconic “Gimme Shelter”) was presented with a framed New Orleans Certificate of Recognition on behalf of Mayor Mitch Landrieu.  She gave thanks to the late Gil Friesen, famed music executive who produced “Twenty Feet from Stardom” and died suddenly at the age of 75 a month before its premiere. She then sang “a song written and given to me by Leon Russell,” “A Song for You,” to a recorded backing track, and followed that with a moving a cappella performance of “You Are So Beautiful” by Joe Cocker, for which she brought her sister onstage to sing alongside her, dedicated to Alan Abrahams.

I was only sorry that I missed introducing Clayton to documentary film producer Jeff Kaufman, in Louisiana to present his jazz documentary “The Savoy King” at LIFF, because she co-starred with Kaufman’s cousin by marriage, Tyne Daly, for a year on “Cagney and Lacey,” and Daly provided one of the voices for “The Savoy King.”

A desperate attempt to find a restaurant open late resulted in Neville leading Birnie, Kaufman and his filmmaker son Daniel, and me to a raffish place called Port of Call, which specializes in rather wonderful huge greasy hamburgers (served with baked potatoes instead of fries) and fruity tiki-type cocktails. In the small world department, when Neville said he collected Los Angeles ephemera, I mentioned a Los Angeles bookstore I’d worked in, the late-lamented Other Times on Pico, it turned out that I’d sold many books to Morgan’s father, well-known Santa Barbara rare-book dealer Maurice Neville.

I hitched a ride to Baton Rouge alongside Birnie and Ireland, who drove us with aplomb through a striking display of thunder and lightning in pelting rain, to a witty iPod soundtrack.  Tomorrow the choices would become more difficult. But tonight had been just about perfect.

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