By Peter Knegt | Indiewire April 24, 2009 at 6:07AM
When a bartender approaches you and says "Y'all want a wet (rhymes with wussy)?" with a sly grin on her face, it's a pretty good bet that's a bar you wanna spend some time in. Turns out it was a shot, but myself and fellow Nashville Film Festival attendees still viewed it as an indication that we were going to have a good time at the fest and a good time we had! It turns out that in the increasingly crowded landscape of Spring fests (see my previous piece on the Florida Film Festival) event organizers are learning to showcase their locations as well as their films. What Nashville lacks in the beaches of Sarasota, the culinary superstars of Florida and the big city attractions of New York, Boston or Atlanta, it more than makes up for in local flavor and friendly staff. To put it bluntly, the 40th Nashville Film Festival kicked ass.
Unfortunately I arrived too late to see the opening night film but Marc Webb's "500 Days of Summer" received very positive post-screening buzz. The Fox Searchlight film is released on July 17th and stars Joseph-Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, neither of whom were in attendance. After the screening was a modest reception in the fest's poorly-named VIP tent (memo to NFF folks: People hate "VIP" rooms. Call it a hospitality tent and be done with it. But I digress....) with some good eats courtesy of the local Whole Foods and some great booze. After said party (it was only 11 o'clock, of course) festival publicist Joe Pagetta and Toby Leonard, the programmer of local arthouse the Belcourt Theater bundled a bunch of us into cars and we headed downtown to go honky tonkin'! Local bar Robert's was one of the best times I've ever had experiencing the local culture at a festival. Fine bands (including the grandson of legendary country banjo player Earl Scruggs) and a great audience, including Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler. I was honored to be able to tell the composer of my favorite movie ("Local Hero") what his music meant to me.
Turns out a lot of celebs live in Nashville. Al Gore, Ben Folds, Ashley Judd and Nicole Kidman are only a few of the local luminaries. Kidman and hubby Keith Urban even attended several screenings at the NFF. Oh, right. Films! World premiering at the festival this year was Pat Buckley's "William Shatner's Gonzo Ballet," a documentary about the creation and performance of a ballet created by legendary Tony Award-winning choreographer Margo Sappington ("Where's Charley?", "Oh! Calcutta!") called "Common People," based on William Shatner's 2004 album, "Has Been," which he co-wrote with the above mentioned Folds. To say that folks unfamiliar with the album were surprised by the film goes without saying. Honestly, I don't know what they were expecting, but by the lights went up, there were cheers. Shatner comes across as a true original. A thoughtful man with a head on his shoulders, a sense of humor and a warm heart. Sappington proves to be no less vital in her (mostly successful) attempt to modernize dance and is a lively and creative force. Complete song footage of the ballet (performed by the Milwaukee Ballet) is interspersed with interviews with Shatner, his wife Elizabeth, Folds, Sappington, and collaborator Henry Rollins. It's a wonderful way to spend an hour!
As is the case with many fests, filmmakers tended to hang out together in Nashville, seeing each other's movies talking about films and of course, drinking. Craig Johnson was in town with his debut feature, True Adolescents. The film stars writer/director/actor/producer Mark Duplass and showcases his talents as an actor. As Sam, a mid-30s musician with questionable talents and even less of a work ethic, Duplass manages to tread that line between lovable scamp and complete asshole, when he is asked by his Aunt (the always great Melissa Leo) to take her son Oliver and his friend Jake camping in the Pacific Northwest. Along the way Sam manages to be funny, irresponsible, responsible, irritating and even show flashes of maturity. The scene where he magnificently cock-blocks the teenaged Oliver and Jake is both hysterical and painful to anyone who's ever been a teenaged boy on the verge of "getting some," only to have it ruined by an adult (who in this case is behaving like a peer). Despite a rather heroic turn on the camping trip, the film ends with a pleasingly questionable shot, as we're still not sure if Sam has finally pulled his head out of his ass, or not.
Other films that have garnered attention on the fest circuit this year are the excellent and multiple award-winning "Prince of Broadway," Kimberly Reed's acclaimed "Prodigal Sons," Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, "Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love" which picked up the NFF's Impact of Music Award, Nina Paley's "Sita Sings the Blues," Dia Sokol's "Sorry, Thanks" and Rafael Monserrate's "Poundcake."
Whether it be the fantastic William Morris party at Arrington Vineyards, a night out two-steppin' at Robert's, ham and biscuits at the Loveless Cafe, a ride on the Gibson Guitar Bus or a Wet.... you know what at local Mexican joint La Paz, you'll be sure to find things to do in Nashville after a day of screenings and the local staff and friends will be glad to give you pointers. While I think the desk clerk and little old lady some of us wandered past while returning to our hotel at 6 am might question our sanity, Sam Elliot's memorable line from Road House was mantra: "I'll get all the sleep I need when I'm dead." At least for a few days in Nashville, anyway.