"Beware of Mister Baker" won the Grand Jury Prize at the SXSW Film Festival earlier this year, perhaps because it was the best embodiment of a recent trend in the non-fiction realm.
"Shut Up and Play the Hits," which also screened at the Austin-based festival in March (and recently came out on DVD), follows LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy on the day after the band's final show at Madison Square Garden. Murphy's humble existence and self-deprecating demeanor compliment his unique stage presence, which dominates the portion of the movie shot during the finale concert. Like the band's energizing beats, Murphy is simultaneously effusive and sad, if never quite emo. By the time he sobs while viewing his equipment one last time, it's almost as if he's on his death bed and watching his life flash by. Once again, the movie makes the case for the musician's artistry stemming directly from his emotions.
If good things truly come in threes, then there's no doubting that 2012 was the year of the cinematic rock star. "Paul Williams: Still Alive," which also screened at SXSW in addition to several other festivals (and recently became available on iTunes) tracks the rise and fall -- and rise again -- of the iconic songwriter responsible for hits ranging from "Rainbow Connection" to "We've Only Just Begun" in the seventies before sinking into a drug-fueled haze. Now sober for over a decade, Williams initially resists the advances of director Stephen Kessler to track his legacy. Like Bulger, Kessler casts himself in the movie as a fan of his subject eager to share his story with the masses, and while Williams never breaks his adoring fan's nose, he does manage to wrestle control of the project. While we never get too many details about Williams darker years, his sense of regret over the time he spent mugging the spotlight in an incessantly hazy state gives added meaning to his music's melancholic dimensions -- particularly with the title song, a new composition that plays over the soundtrack.
In each of these movies, the central musicians take on solemn, frustrated dimensions seemingly at odds with the praise lavished on their work. At the same time, they fill a gap that typically exists between musicians and their fans: This truly physical art form not only stems directly from the personalities inspired to make it, but has the power to exhaust them.
"Beware of Mr. Baker": B+
"Paul Williams: Still Alive": B
"Shut Up and Play the Hits": B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? "Beware of Mr. Baker" opens Wednesday at New York's Film Forum, where it should garner solid business due to the singer's lingering popularity and positive buzz. Meanwhile, distributor SnagFilms (Indiewire's parent company) -- which is co-releasing the film with Insurgent Media -- may have a good shot at extending the film's popularity to fans around the country.