Sound Unseen has returned for its 16th season, screening over thirty films (documentaries, narratives and short films) at four locations in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The festival is already off to a brilliant start with opening night film MAVIS! about the legendary Staple Singer and her family and a beguiling documentary about someone far less famous, I AM THOR, whose story makes Anvil seem like stars.
Here are some of the can’t miss selections for the weekend. Do yourself a favor and get rocked by some of the best music movies out there.
Music reflects a culture more instinctively than any other art form, give sound to the non-verbal feelings, whether they are longing or revolution and simple happiness. It is always fascinating to discover a new region of music, Lauren Knapp’s film explores the small but vibrant rock scene in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar (also called ‘UB’). It blends the story of one band creating original Mongolian rock with interviews from experts and Mongolian rock legends. Yes there is such a thing. And the music is great. Life in Czechoslovakia, Rock was a catalyst in the democratic revolution of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Now, more than twenty years later, the first generation to grow up in this new society is making its own music. Director Lauren Knapp will be in attendance.
Laurie Anderson is one of the most undefinable talents working today. Her eclectic journey dances between music, drawing, storytelling, and performance, and more. This new feature film is much like a personal essay on film, about her beloved rat terrier Lolabelle, who passed away in 2011 during a succession of family deaths that also included Anderson’s mother, Mary Louise, and husband, Lou Reed. Anderson’s close bond with Lolabelle underlies the film’s stream of consciousness,which flows through subjects as diverse as family memories, surveillance, and Buddhist teachings. This is the kind of film that could just as easily play an art museum as a film festival, and satisfy your need for a bit of avant-garde.
A heartwarming story about the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura, a Paraguayan musical group that plays instruments made entirely out of garbage. Searching for a way to give the children of the village some form of hope, an enterprising teacher Favio Chavez stumbles into musical ingenuity. When their story goes viral, the orchestra is catapulted into the global spotlight including a performance with Megadeth. Now navigating a strange new world of arenas and sold-out concerts, the children are exposed to a world they never could have imagined when their journey began. Winner of the Audience Award at SXSW.
I had read a paragraph description of Unlocking the Truth before seeing them live at Fun Fun Fun fest a few years ago. Revolver claimed these 13-year-old African-American middle schoolers were the one of the tightest metal bands breaking onto the scene, as witnessed by their crowd-drawing live performances in Times Square. When I saw them, I had to close my eyes, because seeing them kept getting in the way of believing how fricking awesome they were, how much they destroyed the stage. BREAKING A MONSTER begins as the band members all in 7th grade, spending their weekends playing metal on street corners. With a 70-year-old industry vet as their manager, they soon find themselves with a $1.8M record deal with Sony Music. Anything feels possible, and the eyes of the whole world are upon them.
There are bands that you gradually grow out of, and there are bands that stick with you for your entire life. Sometimes, the bands that stick with you are the ones that you were only able to appreciate for a few years. For me Morphine is one of those pivotal groups where I can remember the first time I heard every single one of their albums, where I was, what I was doing, who I was with. I remember making mix tapes for friends, and loaning CDs to people who I had to call and hassle to get back. And I remember driving the hour up from Northfield Minnesota to Minneapolis to see them play at First Avenue, betting on which songs they would play. In MORPHINE: JOURNEY OF DREAMS, the group’s surviving members and associates tell their story intercut with passages from saxophonist Dana Colley’s vivid tour journals and stories about deceased front man bassist/vocalist/songwriter Mark Sandman. Director Mark Shuman will be in attendance. Read my interview with him from the film’s premiere.
Tomi Fujiyama was the world’s first female Japanese country music star. From playing the USO circuit throughout Asia to headlining in Las Vegas and recording 7 albums for Columbia records, Tomi’s career culminated in a 1964 performance at The Grand Ole Opry. Now, forty years later, Tomi and her husband set out on a journey through Japan and across the United States to fulfill a dream of performing at The Opry one more time. In this day and age where women still legitimately lash out at the male dominated music industry, Tomi’s story is both funny and poignant, a view into the life of a forgotten star who once performed after Johnny Cash and got the evening’s only standing ovation.
Two families sit at the heart of American roots music, The Carters and Cashes, connected by music and love. Starting with the Original Carter Family—A.P Sara and Maybelle—THE WINDING STREAM traces the trio’s early musical success, the transformation of the act into The Carter Sisters, June Carter’s marriage to legend Johnny Cash, and the efforts of the present-day Carter family to keep the music alive. Featuring a who’s who of Americana music including Johnny Cash, George Jones, Rosanne Cash, John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, Sheryl Crow, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Johnny Cash in one of his last interviews.
Albert Maysles was a pioneer of cinema, and according to the New York Times, ‘the dean of documentary filmmakers.’ This year, Sound Unseen has chosen to honor him with a retrospective with some of his great music films, including two that to me capture the birth and death of the sixties. According to the Sound Unseen programmer Adam Sekuler, Albert “and his brother David singlehandedly changed the shape of the cinema, creating what became know as the direct cinema movement; films made in an observational style, with portable technology that allowed them unfettered access to their subjects.” Fortunately for us, he also happened to love music. A gentle observer of human relationships, his several decades long career made him, as Martin Scorsese put it, “tuned to the most sensitive emotional vibrations.” His loss this past year marked the end of one of cinemas great careers.
December 6, 1969: the day the Sixties died. The ill-fated Rolling Stones free concert at Altamont Speedway serves as stark contrast to Woodstock, just four months earlier. Before an estimated crowd of 300,000 people, the Stones headlined a free concert featuring Tina Turner, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers and others with biker gang The Hell’s Angels on security detail. Amidst an atmosphere of fear and dread, leading ultimately to the stabbing death of a fan, what begin as a flower-power love-in degenerates into a near riot, heralding in the 70’s in a very disturbing way. Years later, this time capsule of the day looms like a shadow over the messages of the sixties with their joyful naivete.
Five years earlier, anything seems possible as The Beatles initiate the youth movement through music with their arrival on US shores for their landmark Ed Sullivan Show appearance. The Maysles spend 5 days with The Beatles, already stars but not yet bigger than god, in this humorous, freewheeling and candid account of The Beatles arrival in America in February 1964. From their iconic crazed JFK airport reception to unguarded moments inside the Plaza Hotel in preparation for prime time, to their equally frenzied homecoming, the filmmakers capture the hopes and dreams of stars on the rise. This film served as the inspiration Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night!