The frontman of rock bands Slipknot and Stone Sour, Corey Taylor, who appears in Dave Grohl’s documentary "Sound City," summed up the relationship of film and music as simply as he could.
"Music and film go together like chocolate and peanut butter," he said.
This year’s Sundance Film Festival will see a dramatic upsurge in music as both a thematic element and as a featured performer, as the film festival is becoming more and more not only a film festival, but also a music festival.
From films with music as the subject — notably "Sound City," "Narco Cultura," "Muscle Shoals," "Pussy Riot — A Punk Prayer," "History of the Eagles Part 1" and opening-night film "Twenty Feet From Stardom" — to panels and evenings of music that will include the biggest musical event in Sundance history, music geeks will have as much to savor as film geeks.
There has been a "recent surge in people making films about music, and we’ve been drawn to the films that examine the spirit of creativity in music," said Trevor Groth, director of programming. "It ties very naturally to independent film, which has a lot of the same impulses."
Groth continued: "I think there are more and more [music-related film] every year ... Robert Redford has always loved exploring the intersection of different art forms."
Music and film have long history
While Sundance films about music are nothing new, audiences’ appetite for them seem to be increasing. Exhibit one is last year’s "Searching for Sugarman," which chronicled the efforts of two Cape Town fans, Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom, to find out if the rumored death of American musician Rodriguez was true. It screened to rapturous applause on the opening night of the festival, and ended up winning the Special Jury Prize and the Audience Award for best international documentary at the festival.
Sundance programmers noticed.
"Music creates an atmosphere in which a film can be experienced and helps allow the audience get lost in the film," said Peter Golub, director of the Sundance Institute Film Music program. "Any music that is wed to a film alters the way that film is perceived."
Golub pointed to films that have soundtracks and songs that have forever seared themselves into filmmaker’s heads: "Patton." "To Kill a Mockingbird." "The Shawshank Redemption." "Doctor Zhivago." "Cinema Paradiso." "The Good the Bad and the Ugly." "E.T." "Schindler’s List."
That list doesn’t include the musicals from the Golden Age such as "Singin’ in the Rain." "West Side Story" and "An American in Paris," not to mention more recent musicals such as "Chicago," "Dream Girls," and "Les Miserables." And special mention should be given to Rolling Stone journalist and director Cameron Crowe, who has introduced grunge to much of America though "Singles" as well as one of the finest musical moments in all of film: Lloyd Dobler holding up a boombox playing Peter Gabriel’s "In Your Eyes" outside of Diane Court’s bedroom window in "Say Anything ..."
Enter Dave Grohl, Lynryd Skynyrd, The Eagles
One of the most highly anticipated films to open at Sundance this year is the directorial debut of former Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl. His "Sound City" film details the rise and fall of the famed Sound City music studio where classic albums such as Fleetwood Mac’s "Rumours" and Nirvana’s seminal "Nevermind" were recorded, in addition to a philosophical treatise that hails the independent spirit of people making music together in a live setting, rather than music made in front of a computer.
In an interview with Grohl — who was a member of Nirvana, one of the most influential bands in rock history, and who has sold more than 10 millions albums in the U.S. with Foo Fighters — the musician said the film "is the most important thing I’ve ever done." He added that "all along, our goal was Sundance, from day one. It seemed like the perfect place to be."
Along with the film’s premiere, on Jan. 18 the Park City music venue Park City Live will host a sold-out performance of what is being called Dave Grohl’s Sound City Players. This first incarnation will feature musicians featured in his film, including Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty, Rick Springfield, Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, Taylor, Lee Ving of Fear, Brad Wilk of Rage Against The Machine, Alain Johannes, Chris Goss and more joining Grohl and a cast of his current and former bandmates including Taylor Hawkins, Nate Mendel, Krist Novoselic, Chris Shiflett and Pat Smear. Smear and Novoselic, besides Grohl, are the only surviving members of Nirvana, which should reunite for a historic evening.
Moreover, Park City Live, at 427 Main St., will be "taken over" from Jan. 17 to Jan. 21 by Wynn Las Vegas, which is bringing world-famous deejays from around the world (including Dutch Afrojack, British Nero and French Cedric Gervais) to spin over the first weekend of the festival. Ronn Nicoli, director of strategic marketing for Wynn’s exclusive nightclubs XS and Tryst, told the Tribune that Park City Live will feature "the flavor and flair of Las Vegas" in Wynn’s first large-scale endeavor of its size outside of Las Vegas.
Another music-related film is "Muscle Shoals," a documentary from another first-time director Greg "Freddy" Camalier that explores the history of the small area in Alabama and its sizable impact on modern music. With interviews from the likes of Bono, Mick Jagger, Gregg Allman, Aretha Franklin, Alicia Keys and many others, the film focuses on the studios where songs such as "Brown Sugar," "When A Man Loves a Woman, "I’ll Take You There" were recorded. The locale was also immortalized by a lyric in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s classic song "Sweet Home Alabama."
Camalier said that the reason for making a film with music as a thematic thread was simple. "They don’t call it a universal language for nothing."
"Muscle Shoals" will also have an evening of music held during the festival. The annual BMI Snowball music showcase at the Sundance House on Wednesday, Jan. 23 will be celebrating the "Muscle Shoals" doc as well as the sounds of Muscle Shoals, with performers yet to be announced. This event is open to all credential holders as space permits.
"History of The Eagles Part 1" has one of the most impressive film-making pedigrees of the entire festival. Directed by Alison Elwood, the biopic is produced by Alex Gibney. His works as director include "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," nominated in 2005 for Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and "Taxi to the Dark Side," winner of the 2007 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. His other films include "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer" and "We S"Casino Jack and the United States of Money," as well as "We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks," one of the most buzzed-about docs at this year’s film festival.
Elwood said the documentary about he Eagles has a resonance because the band was many people’s soundtrack to the 1970s and beyond. "When people listen to Eagles songs, people didn’t just listen to The Eagles, the did things to The Eagles," she said. "People have memories of iconic musical things in their lives." For example, she remembered that the first time she ever ate sushi, "Hotel California" was playing on the radio in the sushi bar and the chefs were tapping their wooden mallets to Don Henley’s drumming.
Music and film are inextricably linked, Gibney said. "You want to feel music, not talk about it," he said. "That’s what cinema does at its best."
Shining spotlight where there was none
Another film that should bring nostalgic memories to Sundance fans is "Twenty Feet From Stardom," directed by Morgan Neville, whose "Troubadours" (about the 1970s singer-songwriter movement) debuted at Sundance several years ago. His new film shines the spotlight on musicians who rarely receive the spotlight: back-up singers, including Darlene Love, Merry Clayton (who famously sang "Rape, murder! It’s just a shot away" on The Rolling Stones’ greatest song ever, "Gimme Shelter," and suffered a miscarriage shortly after the session), Lisa Fischer, and Judith Hill, as well as many others who never wanted to be shot on camera, in poetic fashion.
"The singers featured in the film have made a huge contribution to the music of the last 30 years, but since they are by definition back-up singers the general audience doesn’t know who they are," Golub said. :We will be presenting some of the singers featured in the film [who] have worked with people such as Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Sting, and Chris Botti, who are in the film speaking with love and admiration about these marvelous musicians."
A Celebration of Music in Film, an annual event that will be held at the Sundance House on Sunday, Jan. 20 (open to all credential holders) will give the Festival audience a rare chance to hear these singers in their own spotlight, with performances scheduled by Love, Fischer and Clayton and more.
Films about more recent events in music will also be screened: "Pussy Riot — A Punk Prayer" and "Narco Cultura." The former features the prosecution of Russian punk band Pussy Riot, who protested Vladimir Putin’s rule inside one of Russia’s holiest sites, and were sentenced to two years in prison for their defiance. The latter is a look at how the War on Drugs has influenced popular culture in Mexico, with singer glorifying drug cartels just as Americans once glamorized the lives of Billy the Kid in the 19th century and drug-dealers in the 1990s.
Shaul Schwarz, director of "Narco Cultura," said music allowed him access to the dangerous people his film documents, and as any documentary filmmaker knows, access and trust is one of the hardest parts about documentaries. "Music was more of a ticket into the sub culture than anything else," he said. "The music is important because it shows the growth of ‘narco culture’ and how young people respond to it. It represents what millions live through each day. "
Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin directed "Pussy Riot — A Punk Prayer," and each was inspired to the film through different perspectives.
"What drew me to this story was my love of punk rock and I am always looking for a cultural or artistic way into any story." Lerner said. "Music is such an important part of filmmaking and audiences obviously enjoy using music to tell a story. t’s not often that music and politics come together in such an engaging tale as ‘Pussy Riot’ – but I hope the film shows how powerful music can be to engender social change."
Pozdorovkin, a contemporary of the women of Pussy Riot who grew up listening to same songs as Pussy Riot, agreed that music is a change agent that can be amplified by film’s power. "Both Mike and I are attracted to stories about the power of art to transform society," Pozdorovkin said. "Music and art have always served as alternative ways of engaging with larger social and political issues. Film does something similar, exploring global issues through the prism of individual characters and their experience. In this way, music and film pursue similar ends and therefore often work in tandem."
More, more, more music
Other events and aspects tied to music throughout the week include:
• A new concert series, Concerts at Sundance, will feature local and international artists’ performances to benefit the Huntsman Cancer Institute held at various clubs in Park City, as well as Park City’s Silver Star Café’s nightly performance schedule during the Sundance Film Festival. (Both are unaffiliated with the festival.)
• Sundance-sponsored panels and roundtables including Jan. 23’s "Music and Film, The Creative Process" discussion at the Sundance House and "Power and Story: Measure for Measure" at the Egyptian Theatre on Jan. 25, which will feature composers such as Terence Blanchard and Jan A. P. Kaczmarek talking about music’s effect on cinematic history.
• Quite a few films have powerful musical scores, according to Golub, including: "The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete," with music by Mark Isham"; "jOBS," John Debney); "Stoker," Clint Mansell; "The Necessary Death of Charlie," Christophe Beck; "Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes," Nathan Larson, "American Promise," Miriam Cutler; "Blackfish" and "When I Walk," Jeff Beal; and "Dirty Wars," David Harrington.
• Not least, the festival will also feature the Sundance ASCAP Music Cafe, which this year will be added by a nightly showcase curated by famed Los Angeles radio station KCRW-FM. The series is open to all credential holders, and among other notable performers, one performer in particular will bring a smile to the face of anyone who enjoyed the intersection of music and film in the 1980s. On Jan. 18, at 4:15 p.m. in the afternoon inside 750 Main St., the Blue Sky Riders will perform, and a member of the trio is none other than Kenny Loggins, the undisputed King of the Movie Soundtrack.
• Don’t we all remember "I’m Alright" from "Caddyshack," "Footloose" from the film of the same name, and "Danger Zone" and "Playing With the Boys" from "Top Gun"? It is truly fitting that Loggins is here, as music grabs more of the spotlight.
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