Over the last few years, the Toronto Film Festival has had a tradition of attracting major musical talents: Bruce Springsteen hit the town for a documentary and conversation in 2010, and U2 opened the festival with their own doc the following year, to name two notable examples.
This year you might count Taylor Swift, who showed up for the party to celebrate the “August: Osage County” premiere — but the heaviest rockers were Metallica, members of whom were in town on behalf of “Metallica Through the Never,” part concert film and part apocalyptic flick about a band roadie who leaves the gig to run an errand, only to find himself in the middle of city-wide anarchy.
The concert film about the last December’s Hurricane Sandy benefit, “12-12-12,” also screened at TIFF, making it the rare work that could show at a film festival the same week it wins an Emmy. (It was simulcast on a number of stations in the U.S. and is up for variety-special directing at Saturday’s Creative Arts Emmys.)
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Ron Howard also had his own music-focused film, “Made in America,” about a Philadelphia music festival produced by Jay-Z.
One of the most ambitious music-related films is “All Is by My Side,” writer-director John Ridley‘s dark, jagged look at the year in which Jimi Hendrix went from playing backing guitar in small clubs to becoming the toast of London with the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Just as Hendrix himself was notoriously evasive and inarticulate when asked about his life and music, Ridley’s film is determinedly vague, telling its story in flashes and bursts that focus on Linda Keith, the girlfriend of Keith Richards, who was so impressed by Hendrix that she took him to manager Chas Chandler, and to Kathy Etchingham, who became his girlfriend when he went to London.
Ridley also wrote the festival’s most acclaimed film, “12 Years a Slave,” but this is a very different piece of history that glancingly touches on black experience but is more focused on the process of personal and artistic transformation.
Actor and rapper Andre Benjamin, of Outkast fame, makes a convincing Hendrix in look, speech and manner; the trickier part comes when he plays guitar, because Hendrix was so inimitable that every attempt to capture his sound and style is pretty much destined to fail. A group of veteran rock session musicians, including guitarist Waddy Wachtel, try valiantly, but Jimi is Jimi.
And because the Jimi Hendrix estate is fractured, difficult and notoriously resistant to any attempts to put the story on film, Ridley couldn’t use any of the music Hendrix wrote.
That gave him the unenviable task of charting an artistic progression only through soundalike versions of the cover songs Hendrix performed, which is essentially impossible.
Still, the personal stories are what connect in this bold and impressionistic work. And I even give Ridley a pass after he violates one of my pet movie-music peeves, which is when characters put a record on a turntable and we see the needle drop on the first track but hear a different song from the album.
That happens here with Bob Dylan‘s “Blonde on Blonde” album — but it goes with a scene where Hendrix first drops acid, so I completely forgive Ridley for skipping the real first track, the thuddingly obvious “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” (aka “Everybody Must Get Stoned”) in favor of the far cooler and weirder “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat.”
Hendrix also makes a couple of appearances in actor and comic Mike Myers‘ directorial debut, “Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon,” a playful chronicle of and affectionate tribute to the rock manager best known for his decades-long stewardship of Alice Cooper’s career.
“It’s as if Brian Epstein, Marshall McLuhan and Mr. Magoo had a baby,” explains Myers, not entirely helpfully, of the manager who came to known through Cooper’s carefully-calculated outrage and his own habit of wearing a t shirt with the indelible rock catchphrase “No head, no backstage pass.”
Gordon comes across not just as a schemer and a playboy (though he clearly is both of those) but also a good guy, a moral businessman and a would-be family man, though he’s had no children of his own. Myers is something of an ADD director accustomed to fast-paced comedy; he’s constitutionally incapable of letting a sentence (or sometimes even a phrase) go by without illustrating it with old footage, recreations and the jokey use of pretty much any video he can find.
The result is fast and funny and annoying, but the key to the film is that Gordon knows everybody and tells amazing stories, which range from hanging out at a Hollywood motel with Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison to taking joint custody of a cat with his next-door neighbor, Cary Grant.
One priceless moment comes when Gordon describes meeting a famous French chef at a party at the Cannes Film Festival; Gordon says the chef was sitting at a table with Pablo Picasso, whereupon an onscreen title explains that Picasso had actually died by then, and Gordon was probably too stoned to realize that he wasn’t partying with the artist.
Of course, the laughs in that scene also raise the nagging thought that maybe a few more of these fabulous yarns are a little embroidered. But the film’s title admits that this is the legend of Gordon — so it’s close enough for rock ‘n’ roll, and for comedy.