"Ballads, Blues and Bluegrass," "Searching for Sugar Man" and "Neil Young Journeys" are among the fascinating musical films at the Los Angeles Film Festival
In a year in which the Los Angeles Film Festival has been heavy on music-related films, the spotlight this week turned to music lost, music found and music that's been in front of us all along.
Neil Young and Jonathan Demme supplied some of that last category with the concert film "Neil Young Journeys," the third of Demme's fascinating (and occasionally frustrating) chronicles of live shows from the mercurial rock 'n' roll veteran. But the lost and found category was more intriguing, courtesy of an arresting documentary and a revelatory document.
The document is a 38-minute film, "Ballads, Blues and Bluegrass," that debuted at LAFF a full 51 years after it was filmed.
The film was shot in 1961 in the Greenwich Village apartment of Alan Lomax (left), a musicologist whose field recordings of folk and blues musicians brought many obscure giants to light and helped fuel the folk boom of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
One night, he invited a group of musicians to his apartment and filmed the resulting session, capturing live performances from the likes of the New Lost City Ramblers, Roscoe Holcomb, Ernie Marrs, Clarence Ashley, Doc Watson, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Willie Dixon and Memphis Slim, Jean Ritchie and Peter LaFarge.
The names may not be familiar to today's moviegoers (or today's listeners), but the music is an indelible chronicle of the folk, country, blues and bluegrass scene that bred talents like Bob Dylan. And though the footage is rough and the cuts sometimes jarring, it is a remarkable glimpse at performers who are still around (Elliott), recently deceased (Watson) or long gone (Ashley, Holcomb, Dixon … ).
In one of the most amazing scenes, the 66-year-old Ashley sings the eerie old ballad "The Coo Coo Bird," surrounded by hipsters who hang on every syllable and lean in close to be a part of the moment. (Ashley's 1929 performance of the song had been included on "The Anthology of American Folk Music," a six-LP document from 1952 that was revered as the Rosetta Stone of the folk movement.)
Watson turns in a great performance of "The Banks of the Ohio," Holcomb offers a lesson in the high lonesome vocal sound of mountain music, Dixon and Memphis Slim kick things up with a couple of blues songs, and LaFarge offers a ludicrously melodramatic version of "Ira Hayes," which proves that Johnny Cash (whose version of the song was a hit) was a better ambassador for the ill-fated LaFarge's music than its composer.
Lomax's daughter, Anna Lomax Wood, who was in attendance, said the film was patched together from all the footage shot on that night. "It was planned about two hours before it happened," she said of the film, which was edited together a few years later but drew no interest and has been sitting in storage ever since.
Afterward, on a stage set up to look something like a living room (photo above), a handful of current musicians did their own version of the film, trading songs and talking about their music. The group was unusual, and most were not exactly inheritors of the Lomax tradition: Curt Smith from the '80s new wave band Tears for Fears, Asdru Sierra from the Mexican-American band Ozomatli, Father John Misty (a.k.a. Joshua Tillman, formerly from Fleet Foxes) and Sara Watkins from the bluegrass band Nickel Creek. (Smith and Sierra brought along one sideman each.)
When Smith started things off with one of his own songs, the connection to Lomax seemed tenuous at best. But a couple of the participants artfully mined the acoustic exploration of roots music in a way that made sense, Sierra with a gentle version of Alvaro Carrillo's Mexican ballad "Un Poco Mas," Watkins with a delightful sing-along on John Hartford's "Long Hot Summer Days."
(In fact, any installment of the Watkins Family Hour, a loose and wonderful collective fronted by Watkins and her brother that plays the Largo every so often, would probably have been a more fitting tribute to the style and spirit of Lomax.)
The highlights came from MVP Watkins (who added fiddle lines to some of the others' songs) and also from Sierra and Father John, uncooperative to emcee Chris Douridas but terrific on the wicked religion-themed ballad "Everyman Needs a Companion."
By the time all involved ended with a low-key version of the 19th Century blues/folk song "Make Me Down a Pallet on Your Floor," they'd done justice to Lomax's vision of folk and blues as the center of the musical universe.
While that concert was taking place on Tuesday night at the Grammy Museum, the nearby Regal Cinemas were hosting the LAFF premiere of "Searching for Sugar Man," another of the best music-themed films at the festival.
The documentary, which debuted at Sundance, is the remarkable story of the Detroit-based Mexican-American singer-songwriter Rodriguez (Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, left), who made two albums in the early '70s, then disappeared from sight, rumored to have committed suicide onstage after his career fizzled out.
In the U.S., nobody much cared – but in South Africa, the mysterious musician had become a star and a legend, selling an estimated 500,000 albums and inspiring a generation of political rock 'n' rollers who found power in his anti-establishment urban laments.
Although he skips a late-70s/early-'80s comeback in Australia that might have complicated his storyline, director Malik Bendjelloul does a fine job of telling a story that largely happened years before he began filming: the history of Rodriguez's short career, the growth of his legend in South Africa, the detective work that led to the discovery that he was alive and well and working as a manual laborer in Detroit, the triumphant comeback tour in South Africa.
One intriguing sidelight: in the early '70s, when Rodriguez's two albums didn't sell and a third was never released, the record industry was desperate to find and anoint a "new Dylan." They tried to lay that mantle on talents as disparate as Bruce Springsteen, Elliott Murphy, Loudon Wainwright III and John Prine, and it never really fit any of them — while Rodriguez, though his music also bore clear traces of soul music and the British invasion, might well have made the best new Dylan of all, if only the industry had noticed.
Above all, "Searching for Sugar Man" makes a strong case for renewed interest in Rodriguez's music, a striking amalgam of Dylanesque wordplay, an inner-city worldview and the clear influence of soul music, psychedelia and the British Invasion.
That music was also showcased in a rare Rodriguez performance that took place Thursday night at the Grammy Museum. After sets by Jayhawks guitarist/singer Gary Louris and Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard, both of whom included a Rodriguez song with their own material, the guest of honor took the stage for three songs of his own.
At 69, Rodriguez is visibly frail; he had to be helped to the stage, and his voice is softer and slighter than on his original recordings. But he's also a fascinating, often mesmerizing performer.
When he was joined by Louris and Gibbard for a rough, fragile, wounded version of the pop standard "I Only Have Eyes for You," he brought a forlorn beauty to the song vaguely reminiscent (in effect, not sound) of what Chet Baker used to do to songs like "My Funny Valentine."
Sony Classics will release "Sugar Man" on July 27, three days after the release of a soundtrack album. A month before that, the company will release "Neil Young Journeys," the third of Demme's Young concert movies.
The Demme/Young films began in 2006 with the largely acoustic "Neil Young: Heart of Gold," and continued with the raw, electric (and at times wearying) "Neil Young Trunk Show" three years later.
"Journeys' is in some ways a mixture of the two — it documents a solo Young concert at Toronto's Massey Hall that mixed both acoustic and electric performances. Touring in support of an album, "Le Noise," in which Young's music was set against dense soundscapes from producer Daniel Lanois, Young recreated the unsettling mood of the album, if not its exact musical approach.
The result is heavily weighted toward songs from 2010 and 2011, which will be a problem for many viewers: Of the newer songs included, only a couple — most notably "Love and War" — can stand beside earlier classics like "Down by the River," "My, My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue)" and "Ohio."
(Even better, in my book, is a chilling, echoey version of the more obscure early song "I Believe in You.")
The film is defiant and fascinating, with more extreme close-ups than you'll ever see in a movie that points its camera at a grizzled old guy in his 60s, and one that clearly had a makeup budget of $0.
One particularly startling POV comes from a camera that is attached to Young's microphone, giving us a tight close-up of the singer's mouth for long stretches. The fact that a good portion of one of the songs shot by that camera prominently features a drop of Young's spittle on the lens is somehow gloriously fitting for a movie about this inspiring and infuriating artist.
The handful of LAFF walkouts might not agree, but "Neil Young Journeys" is an apt tribute to Young's idiosyncratic, confounding genius.
As part of LAFF director Stephanie Allain's continued push to highlight music, a "Music in Film" panel and concert with Goapele and Brenda Russell will take place on Friday, the same night as an encore screening of "Searching for Sugar Man," while screenings of the music-themed films "Big Easy Express" and "The Last Elvis" remain on the festival's schedule.