If the South by Southwest Film Festival was burdened by anything this year, it was an abundance of quality documentaries. It seemed that, while the narrative side of things was surprisingly sparse (where was the “21 Jump Street” or “The Raid” of this year?), the documentary selection was stronger than ever – there were more buzzed-about entries than we had time for, quite frankly (sorry “Medora!”), and almost everything we saw impressed us to one degree or another. Here is a quick rundown of a handful of key SXSW documentaries – “Lunarcy!,” about people obsessed with the moon; “Downloaded,” which aims to be the definitive documentary about file sharing program Napster; “Twenty Feet from Stardom,” which charts the history of pop music from the backup singers’ point of view; “Reincarnated,” about Snoop Dogg‘s transformation into reggae titan Snoop Lion; and “I Am Divine,” about director John Waters’ corpulent muse, cross-dressing sensation Divine.
“Lunarcy!” (Simon Ennis)
This lively documentary, which will air later this year on the Epix satellite channel, focuses on a handful of Americans deeply obsessed with the moon including: a strange, autistic man with a genius-level intellect and a wonderful collection of paisley vests, who wants to be the first person to leave the Earth and never return; a Milwaukee retiree who devotes almost all of his free time to a moon-centric newsletter that contemplates what it’s like to, say, garden up there (he also designs subterranean habitats for the moon-dwellers); and a man who claims to be the owner of the moon, selling off parcels of land to those interested in lunar development. There’s even a former astronaut who paints moon-centered landscapes, using moon dust from his space suit and impressions from his moon boots to give the paintings texture.
Ennis is careful to accentuate these peoples’ eccentricities without ever explicitly making fun of them, using text and graphics to keep things moving. Nothing is ever heightened or exaggerated, just comically goosed, and at a certain point, their love of the moon becomes contagious. What initially sounded absurd becomes romantic, and the movie takes on the kind of optimistic, utopian glow that used to be a part of really great science fiction and the bright-and-shiny futurism of Walt Disney. As strange as it is (and trust us, it gets plenty strange – the guy who wants to leave Earth apparently has no sense of irony, especially considering how close his proposed colony Lunar City, sounds like lunacy), there’s something deeply emotional and hopeful about “Lunarcy!,” made all the more powerful by how offhanded its delivery is. Odd and oddly touching, “Lunarcy!” is a movie about people on the fringes of society who just might have the right idea. Before space travel becomes uncomfortably privatized, “Lunarcy” is kind of a must-see. [A]
“Downloaded” (Alex Winter)
It’s kind of amazing that no one has done a definitive feature-length documentary about Napster, the genie-unleashing program that allowed music lovers to swap songs with each other over the vast ocean of the Internet that forever changed the way we consume music. “Downloaded” still might not be that definitive documentary, but it’s still pretty fascinating nonetheless. “Downloaded” focuses mainly on the friendship between Shawn Fanning, a teenage genius who created what would become Napster (that was his online handle at the time), and Sean Parker, a friend and fellow hacker (who, as we all know from “The Social Network,” would also have a hand in that other culture-shaping online phenomenon, Facebook). The two rose together and took the fall together, with Parker taking it way harder due to his use of one word in one email – and that word was “pirate.”
If you were one of the initial adopters of Napster, then you know this story by heart – and while Winter has access to all the major players (including the small cluster of hackers who helped develop and refine the Napster software, and people opposing the site, like Lars Ulrich from Metallica) – there are some odd omissions. For instance, while Winter utilizes tons of footage from MTV and other news outlets, he oddly enough chooses not to chronicle the moment when, sometime in 2000, MTV had a countdown to when Napster was being shut down (hosted by Kurt Loder and other personalities), which was a bizarre and profound moment in the culture. MTV, a giant corporate entity, not only was covering this little backwoods website, but it seemed to be bemoaning its death.
Elsewhere, “Downloaded” feels a bit too familiar and safe, with lots of footage of rich white guys talking on couches. (Parker remains a somewhat insufferable, antsy kind of genius.) What remains so flabbergasting about the entire thing is how, even now, music executives that Winter interviewed, still seem like they were caught off guard. It’s hard to have any sympathy for an industry so fundamentally clueless. As a human drama, “Downloaded” excels, as a historical document, less so. [B]
“Twenty Feet from Stardom” (Morgan Neville)
One song that was being played, almost everywhere you went, all week long, during South by Southwest, was the new single by screechy pop band Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Sacrilege.” The song, in less than four minutes, crescendos to accompany a whole host of voices that are certainly not lead singer Karen O, and it’s hard to imagine the song having the same ear-worm-y power without these additional vocals, even if you don’t give much thought to them.
“Twenty Feet from Stardom” sets out to right that wrong, as a kind of “history of pop music” documentary told from the point of view of the backup singer. And my god what a point of view it is. Director Morgan Neville highlights a small cluster of backup singers (among them the legendary Darlene Love, Merry Clatyon, Lisa Fischer, and Judith Hill) who have profoundly altered the pop music landscape by their mere presence. Uncannily, Neville interviews the big shots they often sing for – people like Bruce Springsteen, Sting, and Stevie Wonder, who are totally appreciative and just as in awe of these amazing performers as we are. (Sobs were audibly heard throughout our screening.)
In one incredibly powerful moment, Neville plays the raw audio track of Clayton singing the “Rape, murder” section of “Gimme Shelter,” both for Clayton and then, Mick Jagger. The vocals, raw and unencumbered by the rest of the song’s ornate sonic embellishments, is something close to transcendent, and it’s a hoot to see both Jagger and Clayton draw the same conclusion. They’re visibly moved and shaken, and so are we.
“Twenty Feet from Stardom” stumbles a little bit towards the end (a final sing along with a number of the backup singers should have been a rousing call to arms but it comes off as unnecessarily somber), but up until then, it’s a rollicking, totally engaging piece, one that explores all facets of life as a backup singer (including, tragically, why so few of them can crossover to a successful mainstream solo career). An unexpectedly moving, often joyous triumph, “Twenty Feet from Stardom” proves that history isn’t just made at the front of the stage. [A-]
“Reincarnated” (Andy Capper)
Yes! It’s the documentary we were all anxiously awaiting, one that chronicles fabled gangster rapper Snoop Dogg‘s transformation, via Rastafarianism and a small cargo-hold full of weed, into Snoop Lion, a peace-loving reggae traditionalist! And while this is pretty shoddy pretext for a feature-length documentary (one produced by Vice), it ends up being a fairly entertaining romp just the same.
Snoop’s spiritual transformation oftentimes feels like little more than an elaborate put-on, as he meets with Nyabinghi Rasta and other Jamaican legends in a supposed quest for enlightenment. This transition might have come from within, but it reeks of a intricate form of personal rebranding. It also just seems like an excuse for Snoop to smoke even more weed than normal, a notion once thought to be scientifically impossible. Far more interesting are the biographical and historical moments, when Snoop talks about his past as a gangbanger and his beginnings in the rap business. He speaks with unflinching honesty, takes on a kind of hushed, confessional tone. It’s pretty compelling stuff, too, full of violence, betrayal, questionable business dealings and strained friendships. We never thought we’d hear the words “Master P saved me” come out of someone’s mouth, but there is Snoop, saying it aloud.
Also of note is Snoop’s friendship and creative partnership with en vogue producer Diplo, who is helping load the Snoop Lion project with (it must be admitted) some pretty wicked beats. As the mastermind of the sonic side of the Snoop Lion endeavor, Diplo seems committed too, and if this whole thing is all a ruse and not a genuine quest for spiritual betterment, at least it’s a really cool-sounding ruse. [B-]
“I Am Divine” (Jeffrey Schwarz)
The mythos of John Waters seems to have been mined to death. There are the books that Waters has written, which sit alongside the commentary tracks he’s recorded, frequent interviews, and supplemental materials on the DVDs, adding to a wealth of information found in unofficial materials, like the great documentary about his early days “Divine Trash.” It might occur to you that another documentary about a Waters confederate, this time focused solely on Harris Glenn Mistead, aka drag performer Divine, would simply be overkill. And it kind of is. But that’s the point.
“I Am Divine” is just as garish, splashy, and loud as Divine himself – it’s all glittery eye make-up and off-color dick jokes and snazzy animated graphics. What’s so shocking is how kind of profound it is, with Divine coming across as a genuine trailblazer, one who challenged gender roles and notions of body image and traditional beauty, a person who lived an incredibly complex inner life and who worked really, really hard.
Of course that makes everything seem so serious, which, despite its melancholy ending (Divine died tragically at the age of 42, a day before he was supposed to start an extended stint on “Married… With Children“), “I Am Divine” most certainly is not. It is first and foremost a hoot, featuring a number of hilarious interviews with Waters and the various collaborators from back then (including Mink Stole, Tab Hunter and members of drag queen group The Cockettes) and lots of little seen footage of Divine’s stage shows, which seemed like a hilarious, totally gay assault.
This is the definitive biography of Divine, too, delving into his music career, his lovers, and his addictions (although only fleetingly – remember, this doc is all about pep and sparkle). For a subject that seems to have been overexposed, there are some new insights and footage that we have personally never seen before despite being keenly interested in the subject matter. Divine was a big guy with a big heart, and this documentary does him justice and then some. [A]