Music documentaries have long been popular at film festivals, but they’ve rarely been in the kind of spotlight they are at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Not only has the Aretha Franklin doc “Amazing Grace” grabbed headlines for having its TIFF screenings pulled, but among the non-fiction films that have screened are docs about Keith Richards, Janis Joplin, Arcade Fire, Yo-Yo Ma and others.
On Thursday, Richards came to Toronto, the city where he was arrested for drug possession in 1977, for the premiere of his film, which will debut on Netflix a day later. It’s only one of two music docs at the festival from Morgan Neville, who also directed classical-meets-world-music exploration “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble.”
“Music is an amazing tool to have as a filmmaker,” said Neville, who won an Oscar for his backup-singer documentary “20 Feet From Stardom.” “It brings with it emotion and familiarity and maybe nostalgia.
“But I also think the best music docs use music as a Trojan horse. Music is a great way to bring in an audience — and once you have them there, you can make the film about whatever you want. The best music documentaries work because they’re about things far beyond music: they’re about life or politics or gender or race.”
Even before Toronto, 2015 was going to be a heavy year for high-profile non-fiction music films. Well-received docs about Kurt Cobain (“Montage of Heck”) and Amy Winehouse (“Amy”) are already on the circuit, and Broad Green just picked up the stirring Tribeca title “Song of Lahore.”
There’s no telling how many of those films will end up competing for Academy Awards, but it’s worth noting that music films have won the documentary-feature Oscar in two of the last three years — “Searching for Sugar Man” in 2013, “20 Feet From Stardom” in 2014.
TheWrap caught up with a number of the music-themed docs at TIFF, as well as one that delves into music and dance. Here’s a guide to the fest’s rock, pop, classical, world and dance docs.
We opted to leave out musical biopics on Hank Williams (“I Saw the Light”) and Chet Baker (“Born to be Blue”) and the musicals “London Road” and “Office.” That’s another story.
“Keith Richards: Under the Influence”
Richards’ presence is so overpowering that just getting him on camera to talk (and cackle) about music makes Neville’s “Keith Richards: Under the Influence” a real treat. Despite the title, there’s not much discussion of Richards’ legendary drug intake in the Netflix Original film, which instead shows the iconic guitarist under the influence of the American roots music — particularly blues, country and early rock ‘n’ roll — out of which the Rolling Stones formed their sound.
Richards accepts the mantle of rock’s elder statesman readily, but wears it loosely. He’s just a bloke with a lotta guitars, a passion for music that hasn’t quite gone away (though he admits that he did consider retirement) and the disposable income to do whatever the hell he pleases.
The film takes us inside recording sessions for Richards’ solo album, to which it is conveniently timed, and glories in the wheezy whine of Richards’ voice and the ragged virtuosity of his guitar licks. Aside from a glimpse or two of home life with his wife Patti Hansen, it’s not an intimate look inside the guy — no soul-searching confessionals for Keef.
But who needs confessionals? This is a guy who wears all the mileage in the lines on his face, the crack in his voice and the twinkle in his eye. Nobody who cares a lick about rock ‘n’ roll would turn down the opportunity to hang with him for 90 minutes or so.
“Janis: Little Girl Blue”
Amy Berg may be better known for hard-hitting issue docs like “West of Memphis” and the Oscar-nominated “Deliver Us From Evil,” but she told TheWrap that she’s been trying to get a film about the protean rock and blues singer Janis Joplin off the ground for a decade. It’s easy to see why — and why a string of narrative filmmakers has been vying to put Joplin’s story onscreen for decades, since the lead character in “The Rose” was turned from Joplin to a fictional Joplinesque figure 35 years ago.
Janis was a raw singer of astonishing power, with the capacity for more heart and nuance in her raspy vocals than she probably even realized. But for her short, glorious career, she carried the hurt from the ridicule she’d suffered at the hands of schoolmates in Port Arthur, Texas. It led her into drug and alcohol abuse — until Oct. 1970, when on the heels of recording her best album, she suffered a heroin relapse and died in a Los Angeles motel room.
Berg’s look at Janis’ life is an authorized one, made with the cooperation of the singer’s family. That means it has access to materials denied other filmmakers, including letters from Janis to her family, and it means “Little Girl Blue” focuses on the music without delving too deeply into the excesses.
But that approach fits Joplin, whose performances were so electrifying that a filmmaker would be a fool not to use them for all they’re worth. And Janis made no secret of the loneliness and hurt that drove her to find solace in drugs and drink; there’s no smoking gun here, no affixing blame for a tragically early demise. “Little Girl Blue” is a generous portrait of a gifted and troubled artist, and Berg helps Janis tell her own story the best way she can, in every note of songs like “A Woman Left Lonely,” “Ball and Chain,” “Me and Bobby McGee” and the title track.
“The Reflektor Tapes”
Are you a fan of Arcade Fire? A big fan of Arcade Fire?
And more to the point, are you a big fan of “Reflektor,” the 2014 album on which the Canadian band experimented with dance rhythms and sonic textures to create a sprawling, messy epic that thrilled some fans and left others dismayed?
If you answered yes to all those questions, you might be the right audience for “The Reflektor Tapes,” Kahlil Joseph’s impressionistic portrait of a band at a crossroads.
TIFF is no stranger to docs about hit musicians making key albums; the last five years have seen “The Promise” and “From the Sky Down,” films about the creation of Bruce Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and U2’s “Achtung Baby,” respectively.
Both of those films included lots of interview footage, along with attempts to place the works in context. But Arcade Fire, who have been compared to both Springsteen and U2 over the years, are after something else entirely.
This film is immersive, allusive and deliberately chaotic. Concert sequences jump from one venue to another mid-song, or strip everything but the vocals out of the sound mix, or cut abruptly to street scenes of Carnaval in Haiti. Voiceovers occasionally offer a bit of insight — the album title was inspired by Kierkegaard; the musical goal was to move the band out of its comfort zone rhythmically — but more often offer sound collage rather than explanation.
This is one of the most adventurous of the TIFF music docs — and for all but the Arcade Fire diehards, one of the most challenging and perhaps off-putting. But if you don’t miss the old, earnest Arcade Fire and want to immerse yourself in the world of a restless band trying to batter their way to something new, “The Reflektor Tapes” could fit the bill.
“The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble”
Morgan Neville‘s Oscar-winning “20 Feet From Stardom” tried to weave together a number of dramatically different stories of background singers. But that film was a model of concision and focus compared to “The Music of Strangers,” which is quite literally — and quite gloriously — all over the map.
The story of cellist Ma’s international group, the film jumps from the U.S. to China to Iran to Syria to the Galicia region in Spain, telling the stories of many of the international virtuosos who since 2010 have been looking to build cultural bridges and let the music of different traditions influence and enrich each other.
Where “20 Feet” occasionally felt too scattered as a piece of storytelling, the diffuse nature of “The Music of Strangers” turns out to be a real strength. Restless, searching and sometimes struggling to make connections, Ma and his musicians find a beautiful spirit amid the chaos, and the movie turns into a messy but alive and moving chronicle of the ability of art to transcend political and geographical boundaries.
Many of the musicians are from troubled regions, but they come together in a real celebration of cultural differences. Political and social strife may be reflected in their music, but the culture transcends politics: As one musician comments, “Nobody remembers who was king when Beethoven lived.”
And the best musical moments are close to transcendent: Ma’s performance of Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” written while the French composer was imprisoned by the Nazis in World War II; Kayhan Kahlor’s “Layers of Loneliness,” which comes across as a moving elegy to the dead and displaced in Syria; a moment in which Wu Tong sings “Longing for the Spring Breeze,” a song based on a Taiwanese folk melody, while Ma plays one of the cornerstones of the classical cello repertoire, Bach’s Suite No. 1; and a performance of Saint-Saens’ “The Swan” accompanied by Memphis dancer Lil Buck.
Ma is a genial, committed and often funny bandleader; he’s a master musician who can sit in a room full of international virtuosos and say, “It should sound like a great big horse fart.” Make that a great big beautiful horse fart.
“Miss Sharon Jones!”
Barbara Kopple’s classic doc “Harlan County, USA” was part of this year’s TIFF Cinematheque program of revival screenings, but the director came to the festival with a new film as well. “Miss Sharon Jones!” is infused by the music of the soul and R&B singer who fronts the band Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, but its real story is Jones’ fight with pancreatic cancer, which sidelined the group’s activities in 2013.
A fiery singer whose retro sound has given her and her band a growing cult over their 13 years and six albums, Jones not only suffered a personal setback when she was diagnosed with cancer. Her grueling treatment was also a blow to the musicians in her band, who were struggling to make a living in the music industry at a time when that’s harder to do than ever before. “Miss Sharon Jones!” lays bare the frustrations that beset Jones and her band, but the vibrant music and Jones’ drive to continue make it triumphant.
That triumph was muted after its first public screening in Toronto, though. Jones told the audience that her cancer had returned, and that she would start another round of chemotherapy this week. In the meantime, the film can serve as a powerful reminder of why she’s needed back.
“Thru You Princess”
One of the most intriguing music documentaries is Ido Haar’s remarkable tale of the unknowing collaboration between an Israeli musician and a New Orleans caregiver. Kutiman (Ophir Kutiel), the Israeli, specializes in creating music videos out of random snippets he finds on YouTube: He’ll take a young girl’s piano recital, an online guitar lesson and an amateur singer, and craft vibrant musical and visual collages for his audience of millions. (Everything is posted free of charge.)
For his “Thru You” project, Kutiman based the song “Get On It” on an acapella performance by Samantha Montgomery, an amateur New Orleans singer who goes by the name Princess Shaw. The product of an abusive childhood who works in a home for the elderly and battles to make ends meet, she had no idea that an Internet star halfway around the world was using her music — until she began finding herself getting millions of views and being written about in the New York Times.
The filmmakers follow both subjects as the video takes shape, including footage of Princess Shaw the first time she views the “collaboration” on her phone. Since Haar’s cameras are following Montgomery before she even knows Kutiman is using her work, you can’t help but wonder how much is legitimate and how much is re-enacted. But the filmmakers say they told Montgomery they were making a film about people who post on YouTube, knowing that she was about to be part of the Kutiman video and her life might be about to change — and what they get is a weird, compelling and inspiring chronicle of the strangeness of fame circa 2015.
Nick Read’s HBO documentary is billed as the first time Western cameras have been allowed behind the scenes at Moscow’s famed ballet and opera company, and on that level it delivers. “Bolshoi Babylon” takes viewers to rehearsals, meetings and backstage during the season when the ballet’s artistic director, Sergei Filin, was returning to the job after nearly losing his eyesight in an acid attack orchestrated by a jealous former dancer.
But what do those backstage glimpses show us? This was a season when Filin was criticized by dancers and undercut by management, when the legendary Bolshoi’s reputation had taken a serious hit. But for the most part, Read relies on talking heads to tell us about the intrigue and infighting; we see glimpses of rehearsals and performance that are riveting as art but less helpful as journalism.
Apart from a meeting in which Filin is publicly kick dressed-down by a superior in front of the corps du ballet, “Bolshoi Babylon” is lacking the kind of footage to live up to its overheated title. But the company’s art endures, and footage from Bolshoi performances alone are enough to make this an intriguing and valuable document for ballet lovers.