Speaking at the Town Hall Hub in a panel for the Sydney Film Festival, veteran Australian director Bruce Beresford made the point that ‘one of the things film can do is capture the magic of a musical performance.’
This year’s festival programme underlines his point with the wide number of movies that showcase musical performers. To quote festival director Nashen Moodley, ‘Film often encompasses other art forms, and there are many striking examples of this in the 2012 selection. This fusion shows the breadth and possibility of cinema and, when successfully executed, encourages further collaborations.’
Australian filmmaker Lian Lunson has achieved many musical projects on film, including a documentary on Leonard Cohen and her latest festival entry Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You – A Concert for Kate McGarrigle. ‘The music films that I have made focus on one person through the gifts of a myriad of others. The others who lend their gifts in tribute normally have a great love and respect for the person we are honouring, so it turns into a joint collective of appreciation that is rewarding. The most challenging aspect is capturing the essence of that person, whether through their music or through the love and devotion of others. As a filmmaker you want to make sure that you can do the work, but step out of the way enough to let that love and devotion in, and not miss any of it. That is almost always my concern.’
Lunson’s tribute to Canadian singer-songwriter McGarrigle (who died in January 2010) was recorded at New York City’s Town Hall in May 2011 and features her famously musical family, including her children Rufus and Martha Wainwright. Lunson explains, ‘Rufus Wainwright and I got together over lunch so that I might give him some pointers and advice as to how you go about getting a film like this made. It was for his mother, it was so important to him that it be done right. He began to talk about beautiful Kate, he burst into tears, and then I did, and he looked at me and said ‘we have to make this film’ – so we did.’
A farewell of a different kind is the subject of concert movie Shut up and Play the Hits that goes to Madison Square Garden to capture James Murphy and LCD Soundsystem’s last concert. Directed by UK’s Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, the movie is shot with an intimate and immediate style to reflect the emotion of the occasion. ‘If it’s a funeral… Let’s have the best funeral ever,’ announces Murphy.
Only a documentary film could portray an occasion such as Paul Simon’s return to Africa on the 25th anniversary of recording his mega-hit Graceland. Under African Skies follows Simon as he reunites with musicians, including Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and confronts the critics who, back in 1986, slammed him for performing against the UN’s cultural boycott of the South African Apartheid regime, and for his appropriation of African music. This debate is the backdrop to fascinating documentary footage including the original recording sessions, interviews and concerts, all skilfully assembled by filmmaker Joe Berlinger (Metallica, and the Paradise Lost trilogy). Musicians who speak up in defence of Simon include Philip Glass, Quincy Jones and Harry Belafonte.
The Easybeats were Australia’s answer to The Beatles, and they made their journey to London in the Swinging 60s. With less politics and more pop, Easy Come, Easy Go is Peter Clifton’s 1967 documentary about the group, unseen since its first release. The film shares the bill with the Searching for Sugar Man, winner of the World Cinema Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The documentary, a Swedish/UK co-production directed by Malik Bendjelloul follows the improbable-but-true story of US soul dude Rodriguez. In early-70s Detroit, the singer-songwriter was touted as the next big thing. Former Motown boss Clarence Avant signed him and released two albums but, despite good reviews, Rodriguez failed to make the US charts. Further from home, his style struck a chord: in Apartheid-era South Africa he was ‘bigger than Elvis’, while Australian audiences kept him in the album charts for 55 straight weeks. Stories about the elusive singer abounded – he died onstage, he overdosed – but years later, in the Internet age, two dedicated fans decided to track him down and share their discoveries.
An artist who has never been overlooked is Tony Bennett. American director Unjoo Moon directs The Zen of Bennett, an impeccable and understated film, appropriate to Bennett’s enduring style. The narrative follows Bennett recording his Duets II album, a multiple Grammy winner which was released on his 85th birthday. Artists including Aretha Franklin, Norah Jones, Willie Nelson and John Mayer join Bennett in recording his signature tracks. The most memorable guests are the exuberant Lady Gaga described by Bennett as having a ‘fabulous voice’ as she joins him for ‘The Lady is a Tramp’, and a poignant appearance by a fragile and nervous Amy Winehouse for the track ‘Body and Soul’. Bennett expresses a wish that he could influence Winehouse away from her drug problem, describing her as an ‘angel’ who had the courage to be totally raw in front of an audience. Moon depicts Bennett as the still point in all these entrances and exits, continually working at his twin crafts of singing and painting and explaining his values of professionalism, constant learning and kindness. ‘Do everything with love,’ is his mantra.
Also in the musical mix at this year’s festival is Australian director Polly Watkins’ story of musicologist Dr. Ahmad Sarmast who returns to Kabul after 15 years in exile to reopen an old music school, closed down by Muslim extremists in 1992. His dream is to create the country’s first national institute of music and offer Kabul’s street kids and orphans the chance to study. Dr Samarst’s Music School offers the inspiring belief that music can help heal even the worst trauma.
Another film that showcases ‘music for the people’ is Safinez Bousbia ‘s El Gusto. Set in the Algerian Casbah, the documentary celebrates multiple faiths and demonstrates how music can encompass all ethnicities.
Last but not least among the festival’s musical offerings, perhaps the most well known revolutionary singer-songwriter who became a voice for freedom and diversity is Bob Marley. UK director Kevin Macdonald is best known for hard-hitting dramas including Last King of Scotland (2006) and Touching the Void (2003), but he turns in an excellent documentary with Marley. MacDonald begins with Bob’s impoverished childhood in Jamaica, follows him through the Wailers and his embracing of Rastafarianism, success and the gruelling tours, political infighting, love affairs and numerous children, to his early death at 36. The soundtrack is a celebration of Marley’s inspiring, timeless hits including ‘Exodus’, ‘No Woman No Cry’, ‘Get Up Stand Up’ and ‘Redemption Song’.