Tag Archives: Reel Music Festival

Reel Music Review: The Ballad of Shovels and Rope (2014, dir. Jace Freeman)

promo-poster_1024x1024Review by Jay Clarke

There are good music documentaries that act as the summation of a career (see Peter Bogdanovich’s Tom Petty doc Runnin’ Down A Dream), documentaries that shine a light on a lesser known talent (Searching For Sugar Man, The Devil and Daniel Johnston), docs that catch a star at shocking heights (Madonna: Truth or Dare), docs that capture the intricate and fascinating inner workings of a creative unit (Some Kind of Monster). What to make of The Ballad of Shovels and Rope, a movie about a band that has been together for three years?

In the film we follow Shovels and Rope, married couple Michael and Cary Ann, as they traverse the nasty world of the independent musician. There’s the travel, the bad weather, the drunk girls beating on your van as you pull out of a bad show, the label execs who say all the right things but maybe don’t have your best interests at heart, the management that wants to give advice but doesn’t want to make a mistake. We see the band write songs, record, get studio fright, fight (not that much actually for a creative married couple), hug, laugh a lot and generally act like two people who love each other. As a finale, there’s the meteoric rise to network TV, industry awards, bigger stages, bigger hair.

The movie stumbles because there’s simply not enough there there. And that’s not Shovels and Ropes’ fault. The couple is talented, motivated, likeable and easy to watch (especially big-hearted Hearst who comes across like a Bette Midler/Tammy Wynette hybrid). But apart from the terrible odds of “making it,” and because we already know that they in fact do “make it,” there’s very little friction in the movie. Who are these people after they get their heart’s desire? What are they like at their worst? Without some tension the film plays like an entertaining profile, another piece of a puzzle designed to make Shovels and Rope a part of your consciousness.

I’m sure the existing fan will find the movie to be more of what they’ve come to appreciate about the band in the first place. There’s plenty to like about them. For the uninitiated, it’s a whirlwind trip from the woods of South Carolina to the Grand Ole Opry. And that’s about it. In the end, The Ballad of Shovels and Rope is not unlike that song that comes on the radio, the one with the high level of hokum, the references to old dogs, drunk loves, hard work, the sunlight on a can of beer— despite yourself, and maybe you don’t tell your friends, but that damn song makes you tear up every time. You just don’t want to listen to it everyday.

[The Ballad of Shovels and Rope screens tonight at 7pm at Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave.; click here for tickets]


Reel Music Review: Razing The Bar: A Documentary About the Funhouse (2014, dir. Ryan Worsley)

I just want to know how he keeps his hat on.

Review by William Ham

Punk nearly died in Seattle; it only seems appropriate that it should be saved there, too. Ryan Worsley’s Razing the Bar: A Documentary About the Funhouse, a labor of love about a labor of love, ends in tragedy as love stories tend to do; in the end, the Seattle dive bar/punk club that serves as its subject gets cut down in its prime, the victim of forces beyond its control.  But ultimately, its death is far less significant than its life, as unlikely as its demise was foreordained. In the end, it may be the most uplifting film you’ll see all year, even when it’s  throwing up its hands and crying out, “What good will it profit a city, if it shall gain a seven-story condo complex, and lose its own soul?”

With a high-energy mixture of concert footage, photo montage and interviews with its performers, patrons and employees, Worsley whips up a filmic action painting of the rude, raucous but celebratory spirit that bubbled and spattered all over a heretofore nondescript aluminum cuboid at 260 5th Avenue North, noteworthy only in that it stood its funky, low-rent ground there since 1930 while the expensive expanse of Seattle Center sprung up and gradually closed in around it. From 2003 until 2012, the Funhouse managed to do what no one – including its owner, Bobby Kuckelberg – thought possible: gather up the dissipated energies and enthusiasms of punk, or more specifically the regional variant thereof known for the ill-hidden dose of warmth within its typical crudity and noisiness  before accidentally catching on and shriveling under the spotlight, and give it a venue to strengthen and thrive again. Re-branding the Space Needle and expecting the ’62 World’s Fair to break out again would seem more likely.

And yet it happened, thanks in no small part to two additions quickly established its personality and gave it its heart and soul. One was the creepy clown head hoisted to the roof “to scare off the people that shouldn’t be there and to entice people that wanted to be there,” in his words. The other, painted in such glowing terms by nearly every interviewee you half-expect him to walk to work across Puget Sound, was house booker and eventual co-owner Brian Foss.

Foss is clearly the hero of this tale; his scrupulous ethics and boundless enthusiasm run so counter to the standard adversarial club owner-performer dynamic that even the most hardened scene veterans speak of him with a trace of childlike awe. (At one point, a musician waves $300 at the camera, almost stunned to have gotten her promised cut from the door.) And his belief in the long-lost core values of punk as a venue for creative expression, impervious to commerce or competition, over the black-leather-straitjacket orthodoxy that trudges joylessly under its name nowadays compelled him to give the stage to dancers, performance artists and genre-jumping combos unwelcome in other clubs, as well as some inspired to take to the stage for the first time, emboldened by his den mother/Zen master demeanor and his punk koan and accidental motto: “embrace failure.”

Which makes the Funhouse’s ultimate fate – closed for good nine years to the day of its birth and crushed by the prerogatives of gentrification – not quite the tragedy it might have been. A beloved venue is gone, true. But a venue is just a venue. The spirit that animated the funky little dive at the base of Queen Anne Hill remains at large, from the thriving cabaret, burlesque and roller derby scenes first exposed within those walls to a scrappy young documentarian who surmounted her limited resources and committed the short but triumphant life of her favorite club to film for a mere $8000, from whence it should continue to inspire for years to come. The creepy clown head will rise again.

[Razing the Bar screens at 7:00pm on Oct 16 at Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park; director Ryan Worsley will be in attendance. click here for tickets. Also available to rent or buy via Vimeo On Demand – https://vimeo.com/ondemand/razingthebar]

Reel Music Review: The 78 Project Movie (2014, dir. Alex Steyermark)

The-78-Project-presto-Thumbnail2-w-LFF-1024x576Review by William Ham

The 78 Project, the web series kicked off in 2011 by director Alex Steyermark and producer Lavinia Jones Wright and Kickstarted into feature-length form, is a nifty homage to Alan Lomax, the legendary folklorist and ethnomusicologist who sought to preserving the folk tales and folk songs indigenous to every region of America. Steyermark and Wright pay tribute to Lomax’s methods, lugging a set-up identical to what Lomax used to capture his subjects’ songs and stories – an authentic 1930s microphone, a 10-inch black lacquer disk, and a Presto direct-to-disc recorder, a remarkable early piece of purely portable recording equipment.They meet their subject—which include a range of musical luminaries from John Doe to Victoria Williams to John C. Reilly—let them choose the place they’d like to play, and favor us with a song that could have been played by one of Lomax’ artists, with very rigid strictures enforced by the Presto: they have a limit of three minutes (the standard capacity of a 78) and a single take to get the whole thing down—no do-overs possible because the Presto’s stylus is embedding the music directly onto the disc.

The songs are invariably lovely, the performances strong and true, and, in most cases, we get the chance to sit with the artist as they listen to the lacquer they’ve captured. In between songs, we get to see where all this came from with visits to the Library of Congress’ Archive room joined by Todd Harvey, the current curator of the Lomax Collection, who can shine the light on all corners of the original process.

There are times that you wonder whether The 78 Project Movie exists as a sort of stick with which Steyermark and Wright intend to beat down our current age of digital media in the name of “authenticity,” that music-snob canard that the Greenwich Village crowd of the early ’60s offered up as a smug riposte to rock ‘n’ roll. But, of course, this project only exists because of the easy accessibility of web-based media and compact portable cameras – the means by which an entire, beautiful-looking motion picture can be constructed by only two people.

Then you consider that these Prestos were state of the art in Lomax’s day, and you may start peeling away the layers of history at work here, layers that will continue to accrue to undertakings of this sort for as long as they exist. You may also begin to consider the impermanence of the digital media. Compare the scratched up five-year-old CD-R you’ve laid some irreplaceable piece of work onto that skips and sputters in your laptop with those 80-year-old acetates that remain perfectly playable today. Listen to the recordings being played back of the songs we’ve just heard in full, and note how the lower fidelity and the surface noise transforms them, presenting them at a remove that seems so much farther away than the few seconds separating recording and playback.

If you’re struck by the way that medium changes what we’ve experienced, consider if someone stumbles upon one of these discs some record fair with no idea who recorded it or when? What would they hear and what would they assume it tells them? Where does that leave our understanding, and what will happen when an artifact like this film turns up 80 years from now? What would they assume about our lost moment?

[The 78 Project Movie screens at 2:15pm on Oct 12 at Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park; click here for tickets]

Preview: 32nd Reel Music Festival @ NW Film Center

unnamedBeing 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.

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