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SXSW: Crestone

A group of SoundCloud rappers live in isolation in the desert of Crestone, Colorado. The end of the world is nigh and this group of friends spend those final days making music, getting tattoos, eating the last of their food stores and smoking weed. In Crestone they reconnect with themselves and their music. Their seclusion sparks their creativity. However, they ignore the warning signs that they must flee their remote haven. In the midst of it all, a woman director is filming them for her documentary, capturing their spirited rebellion.

“Performing and being became indistinguishable.”

“What does music sound like if there is no one left to repost and share it?”

Directed and co-written by Marnie Ellen Hertzler, Crestone is a hybrid feature film/documentary putting real SoundCloud rappers (Huckleberry, Keem, Mijo Mehico, Benz Rowm, RyBundy, Sadboytrapps, Champloo Sloppy, and Phong Winna) in an imaginary pre-apocalyptic world. Crestone is Hertzler’s debut feature film and it’s quite an auspicious start. Hertzler mixes filmmaking styles, enhances visuals with added designs and creates an inherently contradictory cinematic world by placing internet musicians in a remote natural landscape. So many of us right now are living in seclusion as the coronavirus spreads across the globe. In a weird way, I felt a connection with this group of rappers whose lifestyle is so completely different from my own with the exception of that I too am stuck in isolation and working on my craft.

“I am drawn to this group of people as a filmmaker because of their ability to completely and confidently reinvent themselves over and over. Their transformation isn’t simply a wardrobe change or a new playlist; it is an entire upheaval of their previous lives.”

Marnie Ellen Hertzler

Crestone was set to have its world premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival. Visit the official website for more information about this movie.

Slamdance: Memphis ’69

“But the music prevailed…”

Directed by Joe LaMattina, Memphis ’69 is a new documentary that serves as a time capsule for the 1969 Memphis Birthday Blues Festival held on the 150th anniversary of the city’s founding. Made up almost entirely of archival footage from the three day festival, a few title cards at the beginning give the film some context. The festival ran from 1965 to 1969 during a time of much racial strife in the city. It was one year after the Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and the KKK held a rally in the city concurrent with the event.

The folk and blues revival of the 1960s helped launch new stars of the genre but also allowed for the rediscovery of older blues performers. A wide range of blues, folk, country and even gospel musicians performed on stage for a motley crew of attendees. The attendance fluctuated throughout the three days but it never put a damper on the spirits of the musicians who played their hearts out. 

Memphis ’69 takes viewers on a time travel trip to this one-of-a-kind blues festival. It lingers over many of the performances and also captures the spirit of the time. All of the performers featured in the documentary are long gone and this film now serves as a tribute to them.

Performers featured in Memphis ’69 include:

  • Rufus Thomas
  • Bukka White
  • Nathan Beauregard (106 year old, blind performer)
  • Sleepy John Estes
  • Yank Rachell
  • Jo Ann Kelly
  • “Backwards” Sam Firk
  • Son Thomas
  • Lum Guffin
  • Rev. Robert Wilkins & Family
  • John Fahey
  • Sid Selvidge
  • Molloch
  • John D. Loudermilk
  • Furry Lewis
  • Piano Red
  • Jefferson Street Jug Band
  • The Insect Trust
  • Johnny Winter
  • The Salem Harmonizers
  • Mississippi Fred McDowell

Memphis ’69 was screened at Slamdance 25 and is nominated for a Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary Feature.

Alright Now

“It’s over. It’s time to let go.”

Singer Joanne (Cobie Smulders) and her band are on a nostalgia tour in Dorset. Big in the 1990s, Joanne is struggling to hold on to the magic from two decades ago. When her bandmates quit and she discovers her boyfriend Larry (Noel Clarke) is cheating on her, Joanne is left to her own devices. She meets up with her best friend Sara (Jessica Hynes) and they drunkenly apply to a local college. The next morning they find out they’ve been accepted. Not willing to deal with the current state of their lives they become part of the college scene, going to parties, challenging each other to ridiculous competitions and making friends with their dorm mates. Joanne meets Pete (Richard Elis), a relatively shy and awkward guy who works as the college registrar. At first Pete is just a potential hook-up. But as she gets to know him she discovers something more meaningful in their encounters. Pete and Joanne are polar opposites and the positive aspects of their personalities start to rub off on each other. Can Joanne let go of her past and embrace a future full of unknowns?

Alright Now was written and directed by Jamie Adams. It’s was shot over 5 days and the scenes are entirely improvised. This is quite a filmmaking feat and I would love to see a behind-the-scenes documentary discussing this aspect of the process. The story and the flow felt more organic, like I was watching a real story unfold rather than a scripted piece.

I really wanted to know more about Joanne’s career and the affects fame had on her. Instead the story focuses more on the love story between Joanne and Pete. At times I think there would be more to Joanne and Sara’s story but the movie would deviate away from them.

Alright Now is a charming indie movie that goes with the flow and lets the main character take her story where it will. Cobie Smulders is a natural fit to play the erratic yet fun loving rock star trying to make sense of her new life.

The movie is available on VOD from Gravitas Ventures.

Bohemian Rhapsody

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“Fortune favors the bold.”

Bohemian Rhapsody was the first song I ever tried to memorize. As a deeply misunderstood and lonely preteen, there was something about this six minute rock opera and other songs by Queen that spoke to my soul. What I didn’t know then was that Freddie Mercury was a champion for misfits like me. He had a self-assured persona, always holding his head up high and never apologizing for being himself. We won’t know the extent of his inner world but his outward confidence gave us license to be ourselves. If you’re a true misfit, you know the pain of being misunderstood and the intense loneliness that comes with being different from everybody else. But when you find another misfit who gets you… it makes all the difference in the world (source).

Freddie Mercury’s story needed to be told.

Bohemian Rhapsody stars Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury. We follow Freddie’s journey from his humble beginnings as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport to his meteoric rise as the lead singer of Queen culminating with their historic performance at Live Aid in 1985. Along with Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and John Deacon (Joseph Mazello), these four totally different personalities, each with their own brand of talent, come together to shake up the world of rock ‘n roll. On the road to success they must work with a team of record executives who either don’t believe in them, Ray Foster (Mike Myers), who see an opportunity to manipulate, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), or who stick with them, John Reid (Aiden Gillen) and Jim Beach (Tom Hollander). However the film’s focus remains solely on the biggest star, Freddie Mercury and how he navigates his music career, his relationships with his disapproving father, his supportive mother and sister, his first true love Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) and his partner Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), coming to terms, or not, with his sexuality and his eventual AIDS diagnosis.

Many have criticized Bohemian Rhapsody for softening some harsh truths about Freddie Mercury. Because this is a biopic and not a documentary, some changes were made for entertainment value. However because the story deals with a real life figures, filmmakers risk painting these characters in a harsher-than-necessary light in order to serve the movie’s plot. For example, Paul Prenter, based off the real life manager of Queen/Freddie Mercury, is the clear villain in the movie but his involvement with Mercury was conflated for the story’s benefit. Prenter died of AIDS related complications in 1991, the same year and circumstances that led to Mercury’s death, and can’t defend himself. Biopics have always bent the truth to some extent but should the filmmakers continue to do so? This is an evergreen debate that will always plague biopics.

If we can’t have the absolute truth, what will audiences get out of Bohemian Rhapsody? As close to the essence of Freddie Mercury without having Mercury himself in the picture. And that’s what Rami Malek’s outstanding performance gives us. Malek painstakingly acquired every single mannerism and made it his own. He got every move and every look spot on. Where Malek shines is in the musical performances and he channels Mercury’s unique and flamboyant on stage persona. Malek even perfects Mercury’s voice as it got more gravely as the AIDS began to take a toll on his body.

The film struggles to gain ground but it hits its stride about half way through. There were too many scenes at the beginning that were just plain cheesy or pretentious. The second half had a lot more depth, diving into Mercury’s inner world and struggles and I felt more connected to the story then. I loved the little touches especially the Queen inspired rendition of the 20th Century Fox theme. Peppered through the movie were some humorous moments and some pop culture references. The most notable one is Mike Myers, whose Bohemian Rhapsody scene from Wayne’s World re-introduced the song to a whole new generation, makes the following remark, much to the delight of anyone who will get the reference:

We need a song teenagers can bang their heads to in a car. Bohemian Rhapsody is not that song.

Malek’s prosthetic teeth took some getting used to. They went for realism (Mercury had an overbite and four extra incisors) but it seemed more artificial. I was worried that there was too much to put me off until the film sent me on an emotional roller coaster I was not expecting. I spent the last 30 minutes of the film just sobbing. I was quite moved by Mercury’s story and was angered by how AIDS took him from us too soon. As a self-declared misfit, I found some truths about myself that I wasn’t quite ready to process.

Bohemian Rhapsody has its problems but Malek delivers an engaging performance that channels the true essence of Freddie Mercury. This one is sure to please fans. Rock on.

 

Django

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Stations: Biopic, WWII Drama
Time Travel Destination: 1940s Paris, WWII
Conductor: Etienne Comar

Django (2017)

Available on VOD and iTunes on February 6th. List of upcoming screenings can be found here.

“Since the Americans left Paris, I’m the King of Jazz.”

Based on a true story, Django follows the story of celebrated Romani jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt (Reda Kateb) as he tries to navigate the treacherous political climate of occupied France during WWII. Singled out for his incredible talent, Django and his Hot Club de France Quintet have been invited to go on tour in Hitler’s Germany. But the invitation isn’t voluntary and it comes with a rather strict protocol. Django doesn’t take it seriously until his lover and confidante Louise (Cécile de France) warns him of the possible ramifications of his actions. Django plans to flee Paris with his pregnant wife Naguine (Bea Palya), his mother Negros (Bimbam Merstein) and the fellow musicians who agree to go with him. The plan is to cross over into Switzerland but in German occupied territory that’s easier said than done.

Directed by Etienne Comar, Django (2017) is an atmospheric film that juxtaposes the beautiful music of a talented artist with the brutality of WWII. The film only explores a few months of Django Reinhardt’s but this is a crucial time  when he in grave danger but also at the apex of his career. Some have complained that we really don’t get to know Django but this film does tell quite a lot but in more subtle ways. For example, years before the story took place Django Reinhardt suffered burns to his hands and arms due to the flammable artificial flowers his first wife sold to feed the family. He had scars all over his hands and two of his fingers were paralyzed. Doctors told him he’d never play again. We get a glimpse about this part of his life through a scene when German doctors are examining him before his scheduled tour.

The cinematography in this film is stunning. There are some exquisite shots in this film. I was quite enamored with the first performance where we see Django and his quintet before in front of a glittery gold curtain. The camera pans around the musicians and the audience and often settles on Django’s hands as he performs his magic on the guitar.

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The persecution of gypsies during WWII is not often explored so I was glad that this film went into depth on that matter. Although Django is Romani Gypsy, his status as a talented musician makes him an exception to the Germans only if he’ll follow their rules. If he doesn’t, he becomes an easy target for their wrath. The film is very adept at exploring the different facets of his culture, his personality and his life. The disparity between the countryside and the city, the performance halls and the underground night clubs show how this character navigated between very different worlds. From the very outset we learn that he can be a difficult guy, perennially late and can be both tough and loving to those in his inner circle.

This movie has received mixed reviews and been rather polarizing among critics. The film meanders much in the same way a jazz song tends to take its time so the listener can savor and take it all in. As a jazz lover myself I was comfortable with this pace and let the story take me along for the ride. There has been a resurgence in interest in Django Reinhardt and jazz nuts especially will definitely want to see this.

Django is a beautiful and atmospheric film that is in no rush to tell its story of a jazz legend in a critical moment in his life.

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