And so it was straight from the Chicago International Movies and Music Festival (list of winners here) to Austin the following weekend for the 24th edition of South by Southwest, which wrapped up this past Saturday on a day when the weather was more suited to the Windy City at this time of year, and thus a perfect day for being inside watching movies. (Chloe Sevigny, pictured above, had two films in competition: Barry Munday and Mr. Nice).
As with the CIMM Fest, the films in this year’s festival saw a noticeable increase in attendance (in the case of SXSW, with enough people being turned away that there was as much festival buzz about films people couldn’t get into as there was about the films people managed to see. Festival Producer Janet Pierson surveyed the crowds regarding this issue and promised to rectify the situation next year).
The festival got off to a rocking start right out of the gate with the U.S. premiere of The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights a few days in advance of the DVD release (a myriad of upcoming public and private screenings all over North America can be found here, including tonight at the University of Buffalo and at “Ed’s Mother’s Living Room” here in Chicago)!
The film chronicles Jack and Meg White’s cross-Canada tour in the summer of 2007, with the film largely focusing on the more far-flung places on the itinerary, from Whitehorse to Yellowknife and Iqaulit before climaxing with a 10th anniversary concert in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. Performances from large-scale concerts are mixed with footage from spontaneous daytime shows ranging anywhere from a Winnipeg city bus to a bowling alley in Saskatoon to a YMCA day camp in Toronto. These impromptu shows, along with behind-the-scenes footage provided a good many of the film’s considerable highlights. The intimate glimpses into the band’s time away from the glare of the spotlight testify to the strong bond between the Whites, never more so than in the film’s closing scene, a sequence more emotionally compelling than most Hollywood screenwriters could ever dare to dream.
While Under Great White Northern Lights is one of those rare rock docs where interview and behind-the-scenes footage does not bog down the proceedings, the David Byrne concert doc Ride, Rise, Roar is one that may have done best to stick with the music (drawn from his recent Songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno tour). Byrne and his musicians team up with choreographers and dancers to present a fresh and exciting visual counterpoint to the music, the bulk of which is comprised of early-mid period Talking Heads classics. The performances are often so exhilarating, from the ever-familiar opening burst of “Once In a Lifetime” onward, that the momentum tends to dip during the interviews―which, as interesting as they may be (even Brian Eno has a memorable turn alongside Byrne) might be better suited for bonus material on the DVD.
Interestingly, the film I saw immediately afterward in the same theater, American: The Bill Hicks Story, seemed to generate even more whoops and hollers than the concert film. Then again, Austin has always been a Bill Hicks town (a native of Houston, Hicks’s performances in Austin, including those featured on the Sane Man DVD, helped to cement his legend as a countercultural comedy legend on par with Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor before his tragically early death from pancreatic cancer at age 32). American uses interviews with those who knew him best―family, friends, fellow comics―along with archival footage of Hicks to paint a fully well-rounded portrait of a thoroughly complex man who could often be as privately sweet as his public persona was often confrontational. By the same token, the film makes it clear that despite this seeming contradiction, Hicks was a man whose pursuit of artistic, personal, and political truth was so deeply felt that there was a very fine line between the man on stage and the one off of it. (Another legendary performer also no longer with us who walked that same fine line was Spalding Gray, who’s life was chronicled elsewhere in the festival in Steven Soderbergh’s And Everything Is Going Fine. Unfortunately I was not able to gain access into the screenings, but I look forward to seeing it when it comes to Chicago. In the meantime the Hicks film remains a fine consolation).
I had better luck gaining admittance into This Movie Is Broken, the latest film from Canadian maestro Bruce Macdonald, who stormed onto the independent scene over 20 years ago with Roadkill and then the breakthrough Highway 61 before going on to make the punk-meets-Spinal Tap of Hard Core Logo up to more recent cult favorites such as Pontypool. (My luck getting into the screening was no doubt helped by it being on St. Patrick’s Day while most of the local population was two streets down on 6th mainlining Guinness). This Movie is Broken is―yep, you guessed it―another concert film (what can I say, I like the genre)! But like Northern Lights and Rise Ride Roar there is a twist, this time in the form of a narrative in which a trio of young adults find themselves on their way to a Broken Social Scene concert, with unexpected results afterwards (I certainly didn’t see the end coming). My main surprise in regard to the narrative was in the style and overall content, which was written by longtime Macdonald collaborator Don McKellar (who often appears as a prototypical laid-back Canadian slacker type. Hell, his character’s name in Highway 61 was Pokey Jones)! Before the festival I had stumbled upon a website for the film asking for those who wished to chronicle “a portrait from a hot July day in Toronto” to send in submissions to be included into the film; as such, I went in expecting a narrative made up of different stories and different styles comprised from outside submissions, but somewhere along the line Bruce said the plans changed and the end result is a single, seamless narrative which does in fact do a fine job in capturing a hot July day in T.O. (naturally, interspersed with joyous performances from Broken Social Scene. As the band’s popularity continues to rise, this can only be a good thing for Macdonald, McKellar, and everyone involved).
You can find the list of festival winners here.