[EDITOR'S NOTE: The Nashville Film Festival closes Thursday, April 26 with a screening of Lorraine Senna's "Americanizing Shelley."]
Southern Goodness at the Nashville Film Festival, which runs through April 26 at a neighborhood multiplex just minutes from downtown, means a highway billboard promoting the flakiest biscuits in the Western Tennessee capital city. Goodness also sums up the lively, fascinating and frequently funny documentary "My Secret Record," about the creative battles between Matchbox Twenty front man Rob Thomas and his Atlantic Records bosses while recording his 2005 solo album "Something To Be." The film debuted Thursday night as the festival's opening program and the crowds of fanatical, mostly female fans screaming for Thomas offered the 38-year-old festival its best red carpet moment to date.
Even better, as far as the future of the regional festival is concerned, is the decision by Thomas and "Secret Record" director Gillian Grisman to attend and premiere the film in Nashville, far away from Atlantic Records' Manhattan offices and the label executives who may take issue with Grisman's honest, no-mercy footage. "My Secret Record" is a happy discovery, a strong artistic follow up to Grisman's documentary about the friendship and relationship between her father David Grisman and Jerry Garcia, "Grateful Dawg," and an audience pleaser with rock solid box office potential. If it sells for distribution, Nashville becomes the rare festival capable of breaking out a movie.
The first quarter of "My Secret Record" is mostly behind-the-scenes, recording studio footage bolstered by Thomas' likeability, charisma and well-known tunefulness. Goofy banter between Thomas and fellow musician John Mayer is especially funny but "My Secret Record" finds its stride when the story of Thomas aggressively fighting the star making machinery of the music business takes hold.
On the afternoon following their screening, just minutes after participating in a panel discussion about documentary films, Thomas and Grisman talk about the work ahead to ensure that "My Secret Record" reaches audiences via DVDs, TV and of course, showing it in theaters. Asked if he's worried what the record company will think of the film, the thirty-five-year-old Thomas gave the loudest laugh of the festival. "Well, yeah." Grisman, standing alongside her friend and subject, admits that Thomas and his manager are worried about the potential fallback once Atlantic execs see the completed film. But she also had other priorities.
"As a filmmaker, I wasn't thinking of the conflict," she said. "What was important to me was showing Rob as a person. I did not set an agenda for you. I wanted to empower the audience to come up with their own conclusions about his line regarding art and commerce and what he would and would not do for his career."
Music matters in Nashville. RCA Studio B, the small cement building where Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison recorded some of their biggest hits, sits close to the Music Square office building hosting the festival's opening-night party. It's a reminder how strong the bridge between music and film can be and how a strong emphasis on music can determine the future success of the film festival. The music and recording business means that Nashville is an entertainment industry town, different from New York and Los Angeles, but still, a player at the table.
Festival artistic director Brian Gordon, a Nashville transplant after years working at the San Francisco International Film Festival, displays his quirky version of Southern goodness by being a generous host to visiting filmmakers and making recommendations to locals unsure about what movie to watch. He's chatty, enthusiastic and a big believer in increasing the synergy between Nashville's musical community and the world of film. If more concert performances and music-oriented panels take place, there's no telling what Nashville's festival may become.
"The shining success this year is the building upon what makes the festival work," Gordon said. "It's the focus on music, the premiere of the Rob Thomas film, our ability to promote this festival as a big city film festival with southern hospitality." Like any festival, Nashville experiences its share of opening weekend setbacks, projection errors and a cancellation by filmmaker Steve Oedekirk who was to lead a panel discussion. Warm weather allows for post-screening chatter to spill out into the multiplex's lower lobby. But summer-like temperatures also means eating food at the outdoor hospitality tent comes at a risk and in fact "End of the Line" director Maurice Devereaux and a number of others came down with an opening weekend stomach virus.
Reinventing oneself at Nashville, a standard film festival theme, is former Los Angeles Raider Michael Attardi who previews his stylish animated short "Once Upon a Christmas Village" as a stepping-stone towards directing an animated feature film, and former Vice President Al Gore continues his leadership role as a watchdog for the environment by presenting a documentary award to director Jennifer Baichwal for "Manufactured Landscapes," her artful, mesmerizing look at photographer Edward Burtynsky and his work capturing China's many industrial wastelands.
Veteran producer Lawrence Bender is in town to accept a career recognition award and promote his environmental non-profit 18seconds.org. At the nearby Greenhouse Tavern, a watering hole popular with locals, Bender celebrated his own decision to balance his filmmaking career with charity work: "'An Inconvenient Truth' did take over my life in an amazing way and a good way. Now that the movie has been released I am addicted to making a difference in the world. It's like peeling back the curtains and the light comes in and you can't close it back anymore."
Taking advantage of the promotional possibilities is Devereaux, showing his fan-friendly horror thriller "End of the Line," about a maniacal gang of evangelicals terrorizing subway train passengers. "Hannah Takes the Stairs" collaborators Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig warm a Sunday evening crowd with their youthful tale of broken love affairs, improvisational shoestring filmmaking and the community of friends and fellow artists that lend them equipment and creative support. Adrian Belic charms audiences with charisma and enthusiasm for his rousing documentary "Beyond the Call," about a trio of men who travel to the world's most dangerous places in order to help people in need.
"A friend of mine sent me an e-mail telling me to 'kick Nashville in the teeth," which I think is the Southern version of break a leg," said actress and filmmaker Ry Russo-Young, in Nashville on behalf of her powerful women's drama "Orphans." Silence from a Sunday afternoon audience is a good thing with a challenging drama like "Orphans," a stark, solemn drama about two adult sisters still coming to terms with the death of their parents and the emotional baggage. It's strong drama of heartache with two lead performances that are honest, blemishes and all.
Russo-Young, a dark-haired woman with bright red lipstick, a polka dot top and a warm smile, is the artiest of West Village women. But she left New York years ago to attend Oberlin College in Ohio and since then has been committed to seeing America and break down the culture gap between New York artists and the rest of the country. "When I was in school in Ohio I felt like a peach that gained its fuzz. I felt fuzzier, meaning it brought back my sweet side. I think if I would have remained in New York I would have remained cynical and that's why I like traveling with my film. I want to connect with all types of people because I think we're more alike than different."
"Orphans" is a grand but bittersweet success for Russo-Young due to the recent unexpected death of lead actress Lily Wheelwright. "Orphans" is the start of a promising directing career for Russo-Young, a true discovery, much like Grisman's "My Secret Record." How aggressive film companies will be to acquire rights to these films is unclear. On Grisman's side is the famous face and well-known music of Rob Thomas, but she still has to win over people with storytelling. If Grisman and Thomas are successful in convincing film companies of the box office potential of their work, they will make an impact on this festival like no other films. Everybody wins in this case, other festival filmmakers, the Nashville fest itself, even the Atlantic Records bosses who come off in a bad light. After all, everyone, no matter who they are and what they do, want their stories to be told."