An extension of the 10th anniversary of the music industry festival indieWEEK, this year marks the first foray of those involved into embracing music related filmmaking. The inaugural Reel Indie Film Festival (kicking off this Wednesday, October 16th and running through Sunday, October 20th at The Royal in Toronto), brings together docs and narratives from around the world with an eye and ear towards the indie music spectrum.
In a nice touch that opens up the breadth of filmmaking available to the festival programmers, each feature length film will open with a short and a music video to get audiences into the groove. Here now is a look at six of the festival’s features, save for a couple of To Be Determined titles that were unavailable at press time.
For more information and a full line up of films and events, please check out the Reel Indie website.
Los Wild Ones
Reel Indie kicks off in appropriately rocking fashion with this sensitive and surprisingly poignant look at the personalities that make up LA Rockabilly label Wild Records. It’s not specifically a history of the label, but the acts who pop up in Elise Salomon’s documentary have largely been around since the beginning of it all. It’s more like watching an extended family history, making it just as vibrant and vital as the tunes being pumped out.
Signing predominantly Mexican artists, label impresario Reb Kennedy runs a largely one man show. He records, masters, and sells the music, but he also manages the artists, does their PR, and designs their albums. He’s staunchly against iTunes and CDs, making most of his bank of a rabid, devoted vinyl loving fan base. But now in the digital age, he’s having trouble keeping up and staying competitive. Ditto the recording artists who consider him family, many of whom are either losing jobs, starting risky new endeavours, or have kids and families they need to think of first.
More than just a tale of a scrappy label in a niche market, Los Wild Ones is also a great tale of personal growth. It has one of the best moments of a director inserting themselves into the film, when an off camera Salomon delivers Reb a simple statement he doesn’t really want to hear, but he’s resigned to admitting is true. It’s a moment in a film full of small moments of self-actualization that underlines the poignancy, and indeed the love, that goes into such a labour of musical love. (Andrew Parker)
Wednesday, October 16th, 7:00pm
While I would unashamedly call myself a fan of the music of indie emo pop rocker Marco Novelli, his film (co-directed by Matthew Dorman) documenting the 17 day creation of his full length album It’s Not an Excuse, It’s a Reason is at best a sub-par DVD documentary product designed to be packaged with the CD. It’s earnest and probably unknowingly egotistical to a fault, marring and obscuring the music that should have mattered in the first place. It’s aimed squarely at the least discerning fans and pretty much no one else, but even they deserve a little bit more than what they’re getting.
It’s cool to see Novelli getting a chance to work with his dream production team of Jim Wirt (Incubus, Fiona Apple, Something Corporate – a perfect producer choice for the young artist’s brand of ballads and confessionals) and engineer Nick Blagona (Deep Purple, The Police), and these two pros have some interesting insights along the way. But there’s precious little drama, and what little there is happens in the first ten minutes of the film when their session drummer bails. The rest devolves into inside jokes only funny to the parties involved and plenty of thrilled amazement about how they are able to stay on track and how everyone generally got along famously. But it’s Novelli’s grating iPhone shot selfie videos that keep popping up that sour things here. These moments are far too many and feel like forced attempts at conveying a calculated image rather than a real person. There’s no doubt about Novelli’s overall sincerity, but he comes across as more than a little full of himself.
Still, I would recommend the album to interested parties, since it’s solid work all around for those interested in said style of music. Indeed the CD does come with a DVD of the film. It should be skipped there as much as it is here unless one has a crush on the married young troubadour. (Andrew Parker)
Thursday, October 17th, 7:00pm
Musicwood examines the environmental impact that producing acoustic guitars has (focusing mainly on the State of Alaska, since it produces most of the sought after ‘Sitka Spruce’), and the attempt to merge concerned parties like Greenpeace and top guitar makers in the world to preserve those trees. The film follows along as world-famous guitar-makers travel into a primordial rain forest to negotiate with Native American loggers before it’s too late for acoustic guitars.
It’s a methodical examination the story of the Musicwood Coalition from multiple angles. While the attempt to unite all concerned parties under one entity is ideal in concept, actually achieving the ideal is much harder. While the film manages to convey this point effectively, it also includes other issues that occur along the way, like the rosewood from Madagascar that one guitar company is busted buying illegally, that can muddle the story instead of adding to it. While these excursions are brief, they do take its toll on the overall impact of message.
The importance of the story is undeniable. Musicwood manages to put a new spin and face to the cause of preserving our natural resources. It works, yet it could easily benefit from a little more focus. Acoustic musicians (Steve Earle, Kaki King, Yo La Tengo and many more) also provide insight from the musician’s standpoint and supply a moving soundtrack. The result is a complex and heartbreaking battle over natural resources, and a profound cultural conflict. (Kirk Haviland)
Thursday, October 17th, 9:30pm
In Search of Blind Joe Death-The Saga of John Fahey
In Search of Blind Joe Death-The Saga of John Fahey chronicles the astounding life and achievements of its titular guitarist, composer, author and provocateur (1939-2001). From his early years teaching himself the guitar and laying the ground work for what’s described as American Primitivism (referring to the self-taught nature of his art), through his later years venturning into everything from painting to plugging in with the likes of Sonic Youth, this is a portrait of a uniquely original musical icon.
A fascinating slice of Americana, this look at an eccentric musical genius shows how the influence of American Roots Music can be seen in so many different genres today. Director James Cullingham tracks his subject carefully while never allowing casual music fans to get bored. The film doesn’t paint its subject with too much reverence allowing for his idiosyncrasies to shine through, like his obscure vinyl record hoarding and painting with his bare ass. Fahey’s brilliant, but flawed life is told to us by the people who loved and admired him, obvious faults and all.
In Search of Blind Joe Death-The Saga of John Fahey reminds us that these amazing stories and talented artists are around us more then you’d think. (Dave Voigt)
Saturday, October 19th, 7:00pm
The Legend of Jimi Lazer
Anyone who took high school drama probably played that improv game where one student begins a story and then someone else has to take over mid-sentence, and like a relay race a disjointed story is pieced together by a class of kids who have no idea what the others have in mind for the tale. Watching The Legend of Jimi Lazer is kind of like watching a film adaptation of one these stories.
The film begins with Jimi Lazer making a deal with an undefined evil entity for a guitar that is supposed to make him “as famous as Jimi Hendrix.” For reasons unclear, he tries back to out of the deal, loses his soul but never gets his fame, just eternal youth. 27 years later (one of many heavy-handed references to the 27 club) he returns to get the band back together and reclaim his soul (I think).
The idea of Hard Core Logo meets Todd and the Book of Evil isn’t a bad one, but it takes the skills of someone like Robert Rodriguez to pull off. The filmmakers attempt to throw so many genres into the mix (fantasy, comedy, action, rock mockumentary) that it just ends up being an overedited, directionless mishmash of none of the above. It’s difficult to tell if it doesn’t know what it wants to be, or if it knows the ‘what’ but not the ‘how’. There’s an attempt to add some structure using chapter headings which add a comic book motif that feels like just another afterthought. Even if you’re able to look past all of its uncertainty, you’re still left with a guitar hero movie where the hero never plays guitar. (Noah Taylor)
Saturday, October 19th, 9:30pm
The self-titled “Black Liberace” gets his due in the documentary Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker, directed by Lily Keber. It’s a compelling tapestry woven by fellow musicians, other artists, historians, friends, archive footage and photos. This fascinating character study leaves one even more intrigued by a unique, yet emotionally disturbed, eye-patched musician, underappreciated and underrated in his very own country.
There are testimonials ranging from jazz poet Ron Cuccia and the ever-popular Harry Connick Jr., and some interesting animated sequences, but what makes this movie standout is the subject himself. Booker is a compelling, larger than life personality, and this resonates and is confirmed by all of Keber’s sources. She encourages the film to lose itself in the main subject by running full concert performances, rendering the audience spellbound with his keyboarding and his exceptional sound. She incorporates even the smallest memories of him in her development of this musical legend. One such tale deals with the events surrounding the loss of his left eye and why he wears a starred patch, and his musical awards are all well documented here.
Many feel that jazz is underappreciated in its homeland, but after viewing Keber’s documentary about one of its own legends, some may be tempted to dive deeper into the rich and magnetic style of James Booker. (Eric Marchen)
Sunday, October 20th, 7:00pm