Tonight SOUND UNSEEN returns to Minneapolis-St. Paul. One of the premiere niche festivals in the country, Sound Unseen celebrates two things any responsible adult loves, films and music. The festival, now in its 15th year, brings together music documentaries, narrative films about music and musicians, and live music events. Austin’s own Jim Brunzell III (I say Austin’s because he is also the film program director of the Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival) has put together a fantastic program of films to rival any other music-focused festival around. I wish SXSW would take more advantage of the convergence of film and music that the festival comprises, but in the absence of that, Sound Unseen delivers a veritable wish list of music-focused film. Plus, with the weather in Minnesota doubtful to peek over freezing all week, what better way to keep the energy up than with just about every musical genre out there.
Here are my can’t miss picks for this year’s Sound Unseen:
THE BALLAD OF SHOVELS & ROPE – A few years ago I came across Cary Ann Hearst’s Hells Bells, a gritty slice of balls to the wall Americana with so much power I was shocked to see the tiny southern wallflower it came out of. A year later the song found its way onto the credits of True Blood (yes, I admit I used to watch it too), and I felt like someone had discovered my secret prize. I guess the cat is completely out of the bag now as Hearst and her husband Michael Trent have joined forces and become Shovels and Rope, taking home a bevy of Americana Music Awards, recording for Jack White’s Third Man Records, and landing an album in the billboard top 20. This documentary is a fly-on-the-wall take on the recording of the breakthrough sophomore album O’ Be Joyful, from the writing of the songs to the making of the deal that would land them on a label. While its short on ‘facts’ or even narrative drive, it’s big on heart, like the duo’s music and offers and insider’s view to the trials and tribulations of being an independent recording artist in the modern musical landscape.
ETERNITY: THE MOVIE In some alternate universe there is no Hall & Oates. In this bizarro-reality, the radio airwaves were once dominated by Eternity, the most ambiguously gay r&b duo to ever drag itself out of a nightclub and make the girls want to dance. For the film’s running time, it can be 1985 all over again (close your eyes and just remember, or remember what your parents told you spry ones). Todd and BJ (who works at BJ Maxx’s and is a self-professed lover of BJs) discover the smooth white-boy soul they can make together as ‘Eternity,’ a hopelessly awkward but amazingly tuneful duo that looks strangely like Hall & Oates. The music (such as “Make Love, Not Just Sex” is fantastic, you’ll wish you had the LP or the cassette to play on your Sony walkman after. And of course the playful ‘are-they/aren’t-they’ banter that runs through the whole bromance is amusing and sharp. This movie plays like a musical Napoleon Dynamite (and even has Jon Gries in it). Writer/Director Ian Thorpe proves he is one to watch with his first feature. Even better, Sound Unseen closes out the night with a power ballad sing along and live band karaoke.
FLOOD TIDE – Another special event, Sound Unseen presents a screening of Todd Chandler’s art film about a group of artists, shaken by the death of their friend, who build boats out of junk and set out on the open water. As they drift past empty condo developments, explore crumbling castles, and swim in iridescent quarries, their lost friend narrates a parallel story about a strange and meandering river that flows both ways. Based on the Swimming Cities of Switchback Sea, a project dreamt up by the artist Swoon on the Hudson River in 2008, Flood Tide interweaves recognition of that journey with layers of fiction, mythology, and oral history to create a film that both documents and reimagines the real-life project. The film features an all-original score by the band Dark Dark Dark, including several onscreen performances by the band. Prior to Flood Tide, Sound Unseen will present a program of shorts by director Chandler accompanied by a live score by Chandler and Marshall LaCount, both of Dark Dark Dark.
I AM A KNIFE WITH LEGS – I have never laughed as hard in my life as I laughed at an 8 am(!) screening of the this musical comedy at Fantastic Fest this year. Narrating the story of his own exile, international Europop star Bené (played by writer/director/producer/composer Bennett Jones) bemoans the death of his ex-girlfriend (victim of a suicide bomb), the fatwa placed upon him through an internet site, and that his éclair is looking ‘weird.’ He has to get out… if only after he puts down this great new song idea. This is perhaps the lowest budget film I have ever seen, but that’s part of its ridiculous charm. A surefire cult legend in the making, this is a film that really should be enjoyed in a packed theatre with similarly likeminded (i.e. certifiably insane) individuals. Packed with pretty darn awful animation, long sequences that go absolutely no where (but you love it), and a t-shirt with a hole cut in it to show off Bene’s abs, I Am A Knife With Legs has a little something to please everyone, as long as everyone lives in a surreal closet in Terry Gilliam’s cousin’s house.
HEAVEN ADORES YOU – Elliott Smith is a songwriter’s songwriter, someone who always seemed just on the brink of superstardom but never really wanted it. His bizarre suicide (in which he stabbed himself in the heart with a knife) with a post-it suicide note placed him in the public consciousness at a level he never reached through his music. Nickolas Rossi’s Heaven Adores You celebrates the unknowable artist through his music, with plenty of archival interviews with Smith himself, as well as new conversations with his collaborators, peers, producers, and friends. The film also features more than a dozen previously unreleased songs by the late singer-songwriter. Rossi says the film is “a really beautiful, kind of simple story about a guy who just wanted to make music, and it touched millions of people across the world.” I must admit, I’ve never dived too deep into Smith’s output, but this film works for both fans and casual-listeners alike. There is enough music and video footage to satisfy anyone, but the journey of the man through the music industry from his roots in Dallas to mainstream success is a great story, both a unique and universal portrait of a man who never really wanted everyone to recognize him, only his songs. A reception follows with solo acoustic sets by artists Dan Mariska and Cobi Mike at the beautiful and historic lobby of the Hotel 340/St. Paul Athletic’s Club.
HOMEMAKERS – Colin Healey’s film about an Austin musician who bails on her band just as they are about to fire her and ends up fixing up her great-grandfather’s crumbling house in Pittsburgh will be a little divisive. The lead character Irene McCabey is a spoiled child drunk who you may spend the first third of the movie wanting to slam into a wall. But this is a film about rebirth, and what Irene finds (as played perfectly by Rachel McKeon) away from her own self-created madness is family, something she had either lost or forced herself into exile. The film is hot off it’s homestate Texas premiere at the Lone Star Film Festival where it won best narrative feature (how has this not played Austin yet?) and features a fantastic score, as well as a few performance’s by Irene’s ill-fated band (wish there were a few more, they sound amazing). Narrative is not the film’s strong suit, but instead, Homemakers delivers a fractured tale of an enigmatic character struggling through life who eventually finds her solace. A very uplifting tale, if even it somewhat only takes you part of the way there.
LOOKING FOR JOHNNY – Johnny Thunders, often called the first guitarist of punk, arrived (along with David Johansen aka Buster Poindexter) as a sort of counter-Keith Richards in the proto-punk bank New York Dolls and then onto the legendary Heartbreakers. Less focused on the music than the sprawling mess that was Thunders’ life, Looking for Johnny follows the underappreciated guitarist through a series of bands, solo shows, film projects, and addictions. This is a man that by all virtue probably should have died in the late seventies (considering the amount of drugs he took), it is almost depressing how he toiled away for the next decade unable to really gain any momentum. Still, Thunders’ work has influenced so many bands over time, it is almost criminal that non-punk-aficionados have no idea who he is. The documentary seeks to redress that issue and really delivers all the facts one could want, with interviews from almost everyone connected to him, personal and musical. Sylvain Sylvain, Lenny Kaye, Richard Lloyd, and even Malcom McLaren chime in with their thoughts on Johnny and his place in musical history.
METALHEAD – I love Scandinavia. The region’s connection to darkness and evil plays against its’ squeaky-clean socialist cities and beautiful people. I discovered black metal through a series of news articles about burning churches and decided I loved it before I ever heard a note. Into this cold setting comes Ragnar Bragason’s film about a young Icelandic girl who watches her metalhead brother die from a tragic tractor accident. She adopts his music and style, even donning the archetypical corpse-painting and acts out the way any good black metal fan does, burning a church. The lead actress (who is just jaw-droppingly fantastic) actually spent a year and half prior to the filming learning to play guitar. This is one of my favorite films of the year (I gave it a shout out six months ago when it played Atlanta). Also, the soundtrack is just amazing, featuring Riot, Teaze, Savatage, Lizzy Borden, and Megadeth. The film swept the 2014 Icelandic Film Awards.
WELL NOW YOU’RE HERE, THERE’S NO WAY BACK – I bought my first 45 when I was eight years old, “Cum on Feel the Noize” b/w “Run for Cover” by Quiet Riot. The album from which it was pulled, Metal Health, which featured Bang Your Head, gave metal its first US #1 and opened hair metal to the masses through the medium of MTV. Yes, Motley Crue, Poison, Warrant, Cinderella and many others owe a debt of gratitude to this LA band that toiled for years (even once featuring Randy Rhodes on guitar) before finally breaking New Wave and R&B’s stranglehold on the charts. The album even knocked Thriller off the top slot. But that’s only half of the story. Unable to repeat their earlier successes, the band went through a revolving door of members until lead singer (and only founding member left) Kevin DuBrow died of a drug overdose in 2007. Unable to deal with the loss and the resentment toward DuBrow at essentially abandoning their career, drummer Frankie Banali (who joined QR in 1982) decided in 2010 to soldier on with a new singer. Part Behind the Music part Rock Star: INXS, this documentary, made by Banali’s now-wife, follows their struggle to regain some of their former clout.
WHEN MY SORROW DIED: THE LEGEND OF ARMEN RA & THE THEREMIN – The Theremin is one of the most evocative instruments ever created, giving the player absolute control over pitch and volume and vibratro in a way unlike any other. And Armen Ra, a Persian-Armenian American, who has toured with Nick Cave’s Grinderman, collaborated with Marc Almond, and shared the stage with Antony & The Johnsons, is the preeminent performer of this electronic instrument today. He is glamorous and eccentric and decided he would be a Theremin Virtuoso before he ever played one, using it to escape the NYC drag scene of the 1980’s. Incredibly candid, the film offers a rare chance to get to know an artist before he has really been exposed, although having played The United Nations, the Disney Concert Hall and the Gershwin Hotel, Armen Ra is hardly undiscovered. The music is absolutely phenomenal, ranging from old television SciFi themes to Opera Arias, and the interviews are intimate. This is one not to be missed.
SOUND UNSEEN All Access badges are available for $75 here.
Bears Fonté is the Founder and Executive Director of Other Worlds Austin, a new festival in Texas’ capital focused on SciFi. Prior to that, Bears served as Director of Programming for Austin Film Festival from 2012-14, overseeing some 200 films selected to screen at eight venues over eight days. The 2013 Festival saw 28 world premiere features and 7 films picked up at the festival or the week after. His most recent short film, THE SECRET KEEPER, has been selected by over 35 US Film Festivals since September of 2012. His feature thriller iCRIME, which he wrote and directed, was released on DVD, VOD and streaming by Vicious Circle Films in 2011. Bears also self-produced two web-series which have been seen by a combined ten million viewers.
Prior to arriving in Austin, Bears wrote coverage for independent producers and coverage services in LA and placed in nearly every single screenwriting contest out there including Screenwriter’s Expo, Final Draft Big Break, Page International, Story Pros and Austin Film Festival.
Bears received his BA from Carleton College in British Studies and Theatre Studies and a MFA in Directing from Indiana University and has directed over forty plays, including the Austin Critics Table nominee Corpus Christi, and the Austin Shakespeare Festival’s Complete Works of Shakspeare Abridged. He studied writing with noted playwrights Jeff Hatcher and Denis Reardon, and directed the first-ever professional productions by Princess Grace Award-winning and Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Don Zolidis and up-and-coming playwright Itamar Moses. He is currently working on a new five minute short to submit to festivals in 2015.