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DOC COLUMN | Music Documentaries Take Center Stage

DOC COLUMN | Music Documentaries Take Center Stage

When the movie started to roll, the image was only a quarter the size of the screen. I’m wondering if I’m in the right place — the IMAX Theater at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin — just as black and white images of Martin Scorsese begin to flash across the screen. He directed the movie I’m about to watch so I’m convinced I’m in the right spot, but won’t it cover whole screen? Why show it at IMAX? I’m not sure of the exact moment, but suddenly the movie is filling the screen and like a roller coaster ride, we are at the top just waiting for the big drop that is The Rolling Stones as they take the stage of the Beacon Theater in New York City for a legendary performance.

The movie is “Shine a Light” and the screening is part of this month’s South by Southwest Film Festival. It is an apropos venue for the North American premiere of one of the newest additions to the concert film pantheon, as SXSW is most certainly a music festival first, with its fantastic but much smaller film festival serving as a pre-party to music. It is brought home in the outtake-like narrative of “Shine a Light” that the audience is watching great showmen at work. Mick Jagger and his fellow band mates have survived decades at the top of music charts because they know how to entertain, and Scorsese knows where to point a camera to keep viewers riveted. Seeing the film in that spot was a heart-stopping, once-in-a-lifetime festival event.

But SXSW isn’t a one-hit wonder. There were scads of music docs and docs using music in intriguing ways. “I do believe that our screenings tend to feel like rock concerts sometimes, so it only makes sense that a film on the fun side or the performance side would have a great experience at the festival,” says festival programmer and producer Matt Dentler. “And, as a result, we try to constantly pepper the programming with those kinds of films.”

If The Rolling Stones are the pinnacle of rock and roll in our era, for their success, longevity and pervasiveness, perhaps the opposite is Andre Williams. His story is told in “Agile, Mobile, Hostile: A Year With Andre Williams” by Tricia Todd and Eric Matthies. Williams’ brand of sex, drugs and gritty, soulful rock certainly ranks up there with the hardest rollers who somehow manage to live into their 70s, yet he still has to scrape together change to pay his rent at Motel 6.

“Agile, Mobile, Hostile” goes beyond the concert film to show the life that inspires the performance. Said Todd of telling Andre’s sad story in this honest way, “The structure of his life informs his music, and we didn’t want to make a ‘greatest hits’ movie. He is incredibly intelligent, and his music is his way of seeing the world.” Matthies noted that on The Rolling Stones Artist’s Choice album from Starbucks, Keith Richards names Williams as one of his inspirations, a testament to his importance as a musician.

Dennis Lambert might also have gone down in the history books as one-time hit-maker had his son Jody not encouraged him to go on the road when he was offered a chance to tour in the Philippines. “Of All the Things” is the name of the film and also the song that is most popular with his scores of Filipino fans. Lambert was the songwriter to the stars, with hits like “Nightshift,” “We Built This City,” “Rhinestone Cowboy,” and “Baby Come Back,” among many others, but he left the music business to raise his family and selling real estate became his full-time gig.

Jody notes that Austin rolled out the red carpet for Dennis, performing at an after-party for the film and on local radio station KGSR, which broadcast live from a downtown hotel during the festival. “The movie and attention he has gotten has reinvigorated him. He’s more jazzed about music than he has been in a long time,” said Lambert. Like the Williams film, “Of All the Things” shows glimpses of life outside the music — their father/son relationship, the hardship of touring, especially if it isn’t your full-time job — and it is inspiring to watch Dennis recapture something he loved and might have lost had it not been for this opportunity.

Touring and travel is a common theme in docs about music. “Throw Down Your Heart” by Sascha Paladino follows banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck as he travels to Africa, the original home of the banjo. Fleck hopes to learn new music and to re-introduce the banjo to musicians in several countries on the continent. Superb recording of Fleck’s musical encounters along with top-notch cinematography by Kirsten Johnson, put the audience right in the middle of unique aural experiences as musical styles blend and new songs are made.

“[An] amazing thing that happened during our premiere was that after some of the musical performances within the film, the audience burst into applause. It was really exciting, like everyone was at a live concert,” said director Paladino. “I don’t think that would have happened at another festival… We’re thrilled that we premiered at SXSW.” The film took home the 24 Beats Per Second Audience Award at the fest.

A scene from Caroline Suh’s “FrontRunners.”

Even where music wasn’t the topic, there were gems to be found. “FrontRunners” by Caroline Suh is a fun romp through the student body presidential elections at New York City’s top public high school, Stuyvesant. It’s a competitive race and the candidates take it seriously, but the soundtrack invites the audience to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Said Suh of her inspiration for the soundtrack, “We wanted to use indie bands; we wanted the music to be fresh… If we were really using music of our characters’ generation we would have had a lot of hip hop music, but we didn’t want that feel for the film.” With a helping hand from filmmaker Michael Tully as music consultant, the film has songs from Mogwai, Elf Power, The M’s and The Oranges Band to name only a few.

Doc director Ellen Spiro calls Austin home so it was no surprise to see her newest with co-director Phil Donahue, “Body of War” on the slate. The film is about a young man who was critically injured in Iraq after only a week of service. The tragic story contains original music from Eddie Vedder, and after the screening, there was an all-star concert at Stubb’s BBQ with Ben Harper, Billy Bragg, Tom Morello and Kimya Dawson.

Other music doc premieres at SXSW included the entertaining “Nerdcore Rising” by Negin Farsad, “Lou Reed’s Berlin” by Julian Schnabel, “Joy Division” by Grant Gee and fresh from Sundance, “Young@ Heart” by Stephen Walker. “Joy Division” and “Young@Heart” will be screening in Los Angeles at the upcoming AFI Fest Music Documentary Series, running at the Arclight Cinema from April 2 to May 7. Notes AFI Fest Associate Director Shaz Bennett, “Seven years ago we started the Music Documentary Series mostly because the programmers are music lovers and documentary lovers, so it seemed to be an awesome way to put those two together.”

A glance back at the Sundance program reminds us of some other music docs that will arrive our way in the coming year, “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” “CSNY Deja vu,” and “U2 3D.” Other new music docs included in the AFI series include “Red Hot Chili Peppers,” “Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts,” and “Cachao: Uno Mas.” As Bennett puts it, “This series rocks! And I can’t wait for people to check out the new and relive the old!” Maybe 2008 will be the year of the music doc.

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