Being as equally obsessive about music as we are about film, the Reel Music Festival is one of the things we look forward to most each year. The NW Film Center does a fantastic job curating a wide array of fiction and non-fiction movies that take on an impressively diverse bunch of genres.
The 32nd edition of this annual celebration of music on film looks to be no exception with some fine looking features on singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, jazz phenom Rashaan Roland Kirk, a revival of the peerless concert documentary Stop Making Sense and more.
Before you run off to snap up your tickets for this year’s Reel Music Fest, we thought we’d offer up our $0.02 about a few of the films being shown during the first week of this event. We’ll do a second roundup next Friday, as well. This post is also the introduction of a new voice to the team here at Biocarbon Amalgamate: Jay Clarke. Happy to have him on board. Check out our work after the jump.
Review by Jay Clarke
“The life or the art?”
That’s the question at the center of William Saunders’ Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound, a compelling if somewhat soft-edged portrayal of the classic country singer and pedal steel player of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Though little known now outside of niche circles, Mize is widely considered to be one of the creators of the “Bakersfield sound,” that rough and ready, Okie-rich yin to the smooth, safe “countrypolitan” yang of early Nashville. Despite acclaim and high regard among contemporaries and music historians, Mize remains a footnote in the genre’s history of the genre while other names on the scene—namely Buck Owens and Merle Haggard—have gone on to country canonization.
The doc begins with modern-day Mize in speech therapy to counteract the effects of a massive stroke suffered 20 years prior. He’s barely spoken in those two decades, let alone sang a note. Through flashback and interviews with friends and historians, Saunders deftly traces the life of the amiable, handsome farm boy who dreams of singing like Tommy Duncan. Local stardom follows, a marriage to a vivacious Martha Mize, children. As his opportunities grow, Mize turns down the lure of the touring life in order to help raise his family and subsequently digs his feet into the country life of Bakersfield and the just then burgeoning TV scene in Los Angeles.
The pervading sense of Mize throughout the doc is of a decent, family-oriented man who happened to be a singer in possession of that rare triple-threat: good looks, great songwriting ability, and the talent to perform. Most can’t pinpoint exactly why he’s not better known: What was he missing? What did those guys have that he didn’t?
The film settles on his choice to be a father and not merely a ghost in the life of his children as his greatest success, if not the cause of his lost chances. Mize misses the self-promotion that touring provides and, though he works tirelessly in the local scene, he never quite breaks through. Because he chose family over fame, it is especially painful to see the dissolution of his marriage and the accidental death of their two young sons in a span of three years. Mize turns to alcohol, fades from Martha and his two remaining children, and perhaps most tellingly, throws himself into his music. When Mize suffers the stroke at the age of 59, even his life’s work is taken.
What keeps this film firmly good and not great seems to be the same missing trait that has kept Mize from being famous—there’s a lack of mystery there, a willingness to touch the darkness in the heart of a man that inevitably draws listeners (and viewers) close. We learn at the end credits that Saunders is Mize’s grandson and I think he’s achieved what he set out to do–shine a light on a man and a music scene that has received too little attention.
Still, while I suspect any of us would be proud to call Mize a father, given a choice, most would seek instead the shadow that clings close to nearly all of Haggard’s best tunes.
Review by Robert Ham
The restoration of Tosca’s Kiss comes along at a time when musicians here in the States are barely scraping by, when orchestras around the country are in financial disarray, and classical music is heading towards its lowest profile in the eyes of the populace. How would it look to the residents of Casa di Riposo per Musicisti (or Casa Verdi, as it is more commonly known) to see the music that they hold so dear tossed aside in our disposable culture?
Casa Verdi was a home built by composer Guiseppe Verdi as a place for singers and musicians from the Italian opera to go and live out the final years of their lives. But it’s also a place for these talents to still surround themselves with the music and spirit that compelled them to reach creative heights in their respective heydays. It’s a rather amazing place and Swiss director Daniel Schmid made a brilliant move by filming a documentary about the home (which at the time included masterful singers Sara Scuderi and Giuseppe Manacchini as residents).
What comes alive in this languid, poignant film is how much the music and memories of making it are so intertwined with everything these lovely elders do. Throughout the film, they break into impromptu arias, noodle lovingly on the piano, and reminisce to the camera and one another about performances and evenings long gone. They aren’t melancholy, though. In fact, if it weren’t for their frail frames, likely every one of them could have taken the stage at La Scala and given their antecedents a run for their money.
The documentary only suffers from its relative formlessness, something that befalls many a non-fiction film borne from European origins. And if you’re not familiar with the names of the people that breeze in during its running time, you might have a hard time wondering why this should matter to you. I’m here to tell you that if you care about music and the people that make it, Tosca’s Kiss is incredibly important to watch and to think about because before too long those artists you love are going to reach retirement age, and might not be able to keep creating like Leonard Cohen and Willie Nelson seem to. I’d much rather them be in a position like Scuderi and her fellow residents and look back on the past with fondness rather than frustration.
[Tosca’s Kiss screens at 7pm on Oct. 15th and 4:30pm on Oct. 18th at Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave.; click here for tickets]
Review by Jay Clarke
If good music documentaries are tough to pull off, then the jazz documentary is especially knotty. Jazz is a difficult language. Throw in a dense, global history with a cast of thousands and you’ve got a recipe for confusion or at the very least, a lot of exposition. Without the eccentric genius of a Thelonious Monk or a massive personality like Charles Mingus to carry the load, the average jazz doc can keep the casual viewer on the outside looking in and unfortunately, most jazz lovers are content to have the uninitiated stay right there.
Reto Caduff’s Charlie Haden: Rambling Boy works because it places Haden, the genius upright bass player who passed away this summer, as a man first and a musician second. The music in the film—and there is a lot of music—is a product of who he was, and luckily he was many things: educator, player, composer, political activist, friend, bandleader, innovator, father.
In the film, Haden is an affable, shambling guy who still can’t quite shake his beatnik past. He calls everyone “Man” and has a Middle American politeness to nearly everything he does. The doc traces Haden’s life from his early days singing in his family’s radio show to his groundbreaking work with the Ornette Coleman Quartet, the great American Quartet with Keith Jarrett, his many sideman gigs and his own long-standing groups, Liberation Music Orchestra and Quartet West. Interspersed are interviews with jazz luminaries who echo two basic sentiments—Haden is a genuine, honest man, and nobody’s bass sounds like his.
As the doc progresses we find a steel rod behind the sweet, wide-eyed persona, a hammer in Maynard G. Krebs’ hand. Haden has long been an active political force that fought for civil rights, nuclear disarmament, and the anti-war movement worldwide (his story of being thrown in a Portuguese jail for calling out the leadership’s roles in African colonial wars—from the stage no less—says it all). Haden’s ability to put so much soul into his music stems from the simple fact that he has wide interests, unlike so many musicians who must dedicate so much of their life to the craft. He plays with soul because there’s a soul there.
There are small quibbles to be had—no mention of Haden’s drug addiction which had to have effected his view on life and family, no revelations about the life of the musician away from the stage—but the film exists as more than a hagiographic sketch because it nicely balances Haden the man with Haden the musician. Pat Metheny, Haden’s best friend, perhaps says it best: “Charlie offered the best of who he was through his music without feeling like he needed to alter it.” We lost a titan when Haden died and probably won’t see the likes of him again any time soon.
[Charlie Haden: Rambling Boy screens at 4:30pm on October 11th at Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave.; click here for tickets]
Review by Robert Ham
There’s nothing about Slint’s story that presents itself as ideal fodder for a documentary. While the Louisville, Kentucky, band’s taut and scintillating 1991 album Spiderland nearly rivals the Velvet Underground’s first LP in terms of its musical influence since its release, the band died a quiet death. Slint broke up before their signature album was even released, with each member moving on to other projects, which, by and large, weren’t as groundbreaking. The band’s story seems better suited for a chapter in a retrospective book than a 90-minute nonfiction film.
In essence, then, director Lance Bangs’ Breadcrumb Trail is really for those folks who were lucky enough to catch Slint’s burst of brilliance as it happened. Bangs’ film also serves as an elegy for the pre-Nevermind underground rock world, when zines and word of mouth were the best ways to catch up with the new and exciting music being made.
Bangs keeps the film engaging by emphasizing Slint’s weird core: the band’s skewed sense of humor (when they arrived in Chicago to work on their first album, they sent their new bass player to producer Steve Albini’s front door… with a shotgun), and the strange, shared headspace that all four got into when spending the summer rehearsing the material that would become Spiderland.
While there’s a little intra-band drama, the crises of the band’s short history—such as the terrifying car accident that nearly killed singer/guitarist Brian McMahan—are quickly skimmed over. What seems more important to Bangs is hurrying along to charming anecdotes like drummer Britt Walford’s post-Slint period playing with aging blues artists and working as a baker of erotic cakes. That’s all fine, but it means that if you weren’t already on board with the band, there’s not much in Breadcrumb Trail to convince you of Slint’s greatness. By leaving out the voices of the critics and artists who were so influenced by Spiderland, Bangs avoids the typical rock-doc clichés—but also doesn’t give the non-fan a reason to pay attention.
[Breadcrumb Trail screens at 7pm on October 14th at Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave.; click here for tickets]