Music Films in Music City; The 35th Nashville Film Festival
by Wendy Mitchell
Nashville is a rare breed of film festival; it's a regional festival that can offer varied films so there's something for everyone in the local community, but it also has enough focus - as a showcase for music films - so that it isn't just another generic stop along the festival circuit.
In the four days I spent in Music City for the 35th Nashville Film Festival (April 26-May 2), I heard nothing but universal praise for artistic director Brian Gordon ... from filmmakers, jurors, and community members alike. In his fourth year at the Nashville festival, Gordon (with his team) programmed more than 200 features, docs, and shorts, and the selections were quite eclectic, including everything from feel-good films for star-struck locals (Patrick Swayze in "One Last Dance" and Rick Schroder's directorial debut "Black Cloud") to plenty of challenging domestic and international films without distribution deals ("Take Out," "Piggie," "Salt," "Hair High," "Screaming Men") to sneaks of the hottest indie titles that may hit arthouses in Tennessee in coming months ("Saved!," "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster," "The Saddest Music in the World," "Control Room," "Paper Clips," "Since Otar Left"). The festival certainly has expanded since its debut in 1969 as the Sinking Creek Film Celebration.
Stars like Swayze and Schroder helped the festival expand its audience, Gordon told indieWIRE after the event ended. "Having celebrities here brought a lot of people to the festival who may have not been aware of us. Maybe next year when they come back, they'll be open to seeing a Romanian film. We're cultivating and developing an audience -- films like 'Sunset Story' and 'Born Into Brothels' played really well and had great buzz. Also, I wasn't sure how a film like 'The Saddest Music in the World' was going to play in Nashville, but we had a full house. Nashville is not a New York or a San Francisco or a Chicago, but we're getting there."
The wealth of music-related features and documentaries proved quite popular with locals and visitors, starting with opening-night selection "Festival Express," directed by Bob Smeaton (out soon from ThinkFilm), about a legendary Canadian train trip and concert series with Janis Joplin, The Band, The Grateful Dead, and the Flying Burrito Brothers. The closing-night selection was "Grand Theft Parsons," which screened in Sundance's midnight section, about road manager Phil Kaufman's quest to honor his client and friend Gram Parsons' last wishes by snatching Parsons' body and cremating him in Joshua Tree National Park. This was definitely a perfect venue for the film -- the boisterous Kaufman was in attendance, along with Parsons' collaborator Emmylou Harris -- but I'd bet at least a few Parsons-loving members of the audience were offended by the film's tone. Putting a "Weekend at Bernie's" spin on the death of a great musician just didn't seem right to me. When the burning body of this man's supposed best friend sparked up and he made a joke about the corpse's alcohol content, I thought the film crossed the line of good taste. The tone was quite uneven (was it a serious lesson about staying true to friendship, a stoner road picture, or a silly battle of the sexes?) and I thought some of the writing and performances (hello Marley Shelton) were weak. Even the charismatic Johnny Knoxville couldn't save this one (although I will admit I did laugh at a few of the jokes).
In between, there were loads of other music-themed screenings. "Fallen Angel: Gram Parsons" was a feature-length doc about the legendary musician that we see only as a corpse and a ghost in "Grand Theft Parsons." It's hard to believe that nobody had ever made a doc about Parsons before because the subject matter is certainly rich: Parsons was a trust-fund kid from a broken home who dropped out of Harvard and became a pioneer of country-rock, with the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and with a solo career. He died young and beautiful at age 26 from a drug overdose, and that's when road manager Kaufman added to Parsons' legend by stealing his body. "Fallen Angel" was a by-the-books biographical doc that blended interviews with Parsons' friends and family (Kaufman, Keith Richards, Chris Hillman of the Byrds and the Burrito Brothers, Parsons' step-sister and wife) with archival footage. The doc didn't have any big faults, but still I found it slightly lacking in the soul and poetry that pervaded Parsons' music. (An almost clinical voiceover narration might be part of that problem.) Still, Nashville welcomed it with open arms at several sold-out screenings. The person behind me, in fact, was so attentive that he was heckling the screen -- turns out it was none other than Mr, Kaufman, who clearly doesn't get along with Parsons' widow. Manuel, the Nudie tailor who helped craft the Flying Burrito Brothers' glitzy stagewear, was sitting a few seats over. (And I saw the very suit showcased in the film on display at Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame the day after the screening).
Another music doc -- but one that certainly busted out of doc conventions and structure -- was Frederick Baker's "Imagine Imagine," which looks at the legacy of the ubiquitous John Lennon song. Using the concept of imagination as a jumping-off point, the film doesn't follow the typical linear patterns of having a bunch of talking heads examining the lasting influence of the song. Instead, it weaves together never-before-seen footage of John, Yoko, and Mick Jagger, Japanese schoolkids learning English through the story of John and Yoko, a monk talking about the song's Buddhist connotations (and a communist saying that Marx or Lenin could have written it), the Liverpool airport's corporate connotation of the lyrics, Yoko's remembrances of how imagination helped her and her brother through wartime Japan, a professor dissecting the placebo effect of the song, and a London deejay railing against "Imagine" as "all that's worst about pop music." The film, thankfully, raises more questions than answers -- looking at the fact that the song is about a lack of possessions and a disavowal of religion while some churches have embraced the song and while the lyrics are licensed to appear on baby clothes and wallpaper. After watching the film, you won't be able to listen to the song without thinking about it more carefully.
Among the Tennessee films playing, I sadly missed crowd favorite "The Royal Academy," a personal doc by transplanted Nashvillian Tony Cane-Honeysett about his 74-year-old English mum and her quest to get into London's Royal Academy of Art's annual summer exhibition. The one Tennessee feature I saw, "Blue Citrus Hearts," was an experimental tale about misfit highschoolers. I should have known I was in trouble when the credits noted the "story, direction, editing, and funding" were by the same person. Even though the filmmaker should be commended for trying to break out of the mold, I gave up on the film when bad high school poetry started being not only recited by the characters, but also written across the screen.
Another feature I caught was "Take Out" by Shih-Ching Tsou and Sean Baker, which follows a beleaguered Chinese immigrant on his food delivery route in New York City's gritty Lower East Side. The film was shot in a verite style with scenes in an actual Chinese take-out restaurant, the repitition of his daily drudgery was a poignant look at how difficult immigrant life can be in America.
Among the shorts I saw, I was most impressed with Prashant Bhargava's "Sangam," about newly arrived Indian immigrant Raj (Hesh Sarmalkar) who meets a disillusioned Indian American man, Vivek (Sanjay Chandani), on the New York subway. The film balanced a charged encounter with the two men with images of their memories of a place in India called Sangam, where three rivers meet. The film was beautifully shot on super 16, super 8, and still photography, and the entire short was quite poetic and affecting. It already premiered at Sundance 2004, and will play at the Asia Society in New York on May 13; expect more great things from these filmmakers and actors. Other standout shorts were "Pol Pot's Birthday," "The Anniversary," and "LSD A Go Go."
With such great films in town, it's unfortunate that a number of the conversations I had with filmmakers during the festival weren't about filmmaking or even Nashville sightseeing, but instead gripes about the transportation headaches at the festival. Gordon conceded that's one area that the festival "could work out some bugs." The sponsor hotel (while comfy) was in a not-too-convenient part of town, with the multiplex at another not-so-convenient part of town, and shuttles only running once an hour (if you were lucky, 'cause often times they weren't on schedule) meant that people were left waiting for the bus or killing time at a local mall instead of taking full advantage of Nashville's charms. Even if the shuttles remain a problem in this town (where you definitely need a car to get around), perhaps the festival could look into moving either the host hotel or the theaters to a more culturally exciting part of the city, like the downtown strip, so that festival visitors could be exposed to a bit more local flavor easily in between screenings.
Other logistical issues were handled deftly -- especially considering that attendance jumped 17 percent from last year. Passes were given out with lots of information, the program guide was well-written and helpful, the box office seemed well organized, and the Regal Green Hills was a great host. Even the big ticket films started on time, sound and projection quality was mostly good, and theaters were modern and comfy.
The festival offered plenty of workshops, panels, and social events to keep visitors busy, including record company lunches with musical performances and a William Morris party at BB King's Downtown (where the culinary "highlight" was fried pickles). The awards ceremony -- with plenty of awards for eager filmmakers, always a good thing -- was held at Nashville Public Television's studios, where visitors eagerly lapped a Southern feast that included fried chicken and meatloaf. The emcee for the evening, local actor and songwriter Mark Collie, offended some attendees with his jokes and ramblings, but I thought he just mostly added local color to the festivities.
Folks leaving the awards with not only full stomachs but also prizes included Zana Briski and Ross Kaufman, whose extremely moving doc "Born Into Brothels" won the jury and audience doc awards, Brian Dannelly's satirical Christian teen comedy "Saved!," which won the audience award for best feature even here in the Bible Belt, Rick Schroder's "Black Cloud," a Native American story that won the President's Award, and Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou's "Take Out," which won the jury feature prize (a.k.a. the Dreammaker Award), which comes not only with kudos, but more importantly, with a guarantee for a week-long theatrical screening at Regal Cinemas in Los Angeles. Asika Holloway's "African American" was named best short doc, "One Last Dance" won best use of music, Heddy Honigmann's "Give Me Your Hand" won the Gibson impact of music award, Tony Cane-Honeysett's "The Royal Academy" won the Tennessee independent spirit award, Trey Fanjoy's "100 Years" by Five for Fighting won the music video prizes, and shorts winners included Jonathan Nix's "Hello," Nicholas Provost's "Papillon D'Amour," and Gustavo Loza's "Deep Silence." Killer Films guru Christine Vachon finally made it to town to pick up the 2003 Freedom in Film award, and she was honored at the awards ceremony and with a special reception.
[For a full list of winners, visit http://www.nashvillefilmfestival.org/.]