Alicia Keys has something to preach. During a surprise event held by the Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday night at New York City’s Highline Ballroom, Keys debuted a pair of brand new short films set to her music, loosely arranged as “The Gospel.” Invited guests were told little about the event before they arrived beyond hints that it would include both a special screening and a performance. That the Highline Ballroom is not a venue that typically plays home to film screenings was a nice bit of misdirection, but the event was as much about cinematic creativity as it was about musical inspiration, and Keys and the festival utilized the space for both.
Paula Weinstein, the EVP of Tribeca Enterprises, was on hand to introduce Keys and the surprise program, promising that the event would see the presentation of art “that represents what [Keys is] thinking and feeling as an artist and an activist.” Keys, clearly energized by the audience and the secretive nature of the event, told the crowd, “I promise you, this night is likely not going to happen again in this way.” As had been vaguely promised, “The Gospel” played out as a combination of visual offerings (including new shorts from rising star A.V. Rockwell and Jonathan Olinger, the founder of the New York-based media company HUMAN) that tap into both Keys’ music and her involvement with a multitude of charitable organizations.
The event took its name from Keys’ new track “The Gospel,” previously described by Vibe as a “soundscape that talks about the family dynamic of those living in underprivileged communities.” (The song is expected to appear on her forthcoming new album, which still does not yet have an official title or release date, though Keys’ upcoming performance on the May 7 episode of “Saturday Night Live” indicates that might be changing soon.) That spirit especially ran through Rockwell’s series of vignettes, also presented as “The Gospel,” which Keys explained featured original music that she views as “the prequel to my first record.”
For Keys, Rockwell’s “Gospel” “really represents the New York that I grew up in, and the New York that I saw.” A four-chapter series of “vignettes of stories about coming of age in New York City,” the film follows a loosely connected group of young people growing up in New York City (Keys also appears in the short), taking them through a series of events billed under titles like “All God’s Children” and “Young Love.” Told in artfully rendered black and white, Rockwell’s high energy offering was the highlight of the evening, a very auspicious start for the young filmmaker, who is still in school at NYU.
Keys discovered Rockwell though mutual friends, and told the audience that, after seeing Rockwell’s series of shorts “Open City Mixtape,” she “knew this was the person that I had to collaborate with.” For Rockwell, the experience wasn’t just professionally exciting, but personally satisfying as well. “It’s not very often that [as] a filmmaker, when somebody asks you to come on board for something that they envisioned, it can be something that’s personal for you as well,” Rockwell said. “I feel so lucky that was this moment.”
Rockwell’s own “Gospel” was followed by an offering from Olinger, a filmmaker who channels his charitable leanings into both his work with HUMAN and his film projects, entitled “Let Me In.” Partially set to Keys’ song “Hallelujah,” the ten-minute short also stars Keys, and aims to imagine the refugee crisis through the eyes of American citizens who have never been directly impacted by such concerns (it’s set in a world where Southern California is besieged by violence, forcing citizens to flee to Mexico). Following the debut of both shorts, Keys took to the stage for that promised performance.
Despite the mostly jovial nature of the event, Keys made a point to note the passing of Prince earlier in the day. “We have lost one of the most prolific artists of our time. I know he means something special to each and every one of us, a soundtrack to our lives in many ways,” she said. “To me, he was one of my greatest, greatest inspirations. He showed me what it is to be an artist, and to put art first.” Now that’s something to preach.
“The Gospel” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.
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For more from Keys’ cinematic career, check out the trailer for “Jem and the Holograms,” in which she played herself, below: