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Rock operas sink, while PopMatters swims—in documentaries, that is. From the new Joy Division doc to a spoof of Super Size Me to a journey into the high-stakes gantlet of high school student government elections, we’ve got coverage of the latest docs from the SXSW Film Festival right here.


 
Super High Me Directed by Michael Blieden


Marijuana gives me the giggles. So does the one joke about it: you know, the one with all the variations about potheads or munchies or dorm conversations that begins with silence, moves into restrained laughter, and then ends with a quick-breathed, “dude, I am so fucking high right now!” There should be an Aristocrats for stoners: how many ways can you tell a reefer joke and keep them laughing?


Comedian Doug Benson’s pot talk could keep a crowd of slackers and college kids cracking up long after the bong rips wear off. He’s a funny, funny man. In the documentary Super High Me, his riff on Morgan Spurlock’s descent into junk food hell, Benson spends thirty days in torturous deprivation of what appears to be his only real interest in life, THC. He then follows up this magnificent act of willpower with a gluttonous, month-long binge of morning, day, and night California kind bud. Along the way, he takes a series of medical examinations, sees a shrink, tests his psychic abilities, and gives marijuana activists the soapbox they always seem to be looking to find.


Fortunately, for audiences who don’t consider waking and baking an integral part of their morning ritual, Benson’s quick observations and I’m-gonna-act-stupid-but-make-really-smart-jokes routine extend the laughs well beyond the realm of the Dark Side of the Rainbow crowd. It’s evident that Bender, on or off the grass, gets most high when he’s toking from the energy of live audiences. In fact, his in-your-face stand-up act drives the film so much, he might have been better off making a full-length comedy concert flick. At times, the behind-the-scenes smoke bender gimmick feels a little like the weed’s wearing off, man.


While the majority of the film is a light-headed buzz of vaporizing and bud humor, a slightly off-kilter sub-plot does add a chilling component to the whole weed issue. Profiling the rise of medicinal marijuana shops in California, what starts as a humorous report informing the rest of the country that the West coast has legal drug dealers all over the place, turns into a surprisingly dark portrayal of federal law enforcement. Even if the legalize-marijuana movement rarely finds much of a serious backing beyond burn-out NORML activists, the depiction of DEA storm troopers raiding state-approved cannabis shops does raise some larger issues about the U.S. government’s seeming need to control every damn thing in the country with unreasonable force.   


While movies like this are always a contribution to the Great Media Middle Finger Jab at the comical stupidity of our current marijuana prohibition, this one’s really just a funny movie about getting stoned. And that seems to be all that Doug Benson is interested in doing, anyway. Luckily for us, he’s pretty darn good at it.


Justin Follin


 
Joy Division Directed by Grant Gee


Joy Division. You might have heard of them. Quintessential post-punkers from Manchester. Gave birth to New Order, the greatest English-singing band of all time. Lead singer Ian Curtis hanged himself in 1980 on the eve of their first US tour. Subject of last year’s Anton Corbijn project, Control.


This year’s Joy Division is the documentary version of their story. Unfortunately, as with so many documentaries about fascinating individuals, the director allows the subject to overwhelm the filmmaking.


For sure, the parade of talking heads (which, apart from the remaining band members, include Factory Records’ Tony Wilson, designer Peter Saville, girlfriend Annik Honoré, critic Paul Morley) offers some insightful analyses of Joy Division’s music and legacy. One commentator avers that the band transformed punk’s “Fuck you!” into post-punk’s “I’m fucked.” Another does a terrific job of explaining how Curtis’ lyrics were “digital.” And, very occasionally, director Grant Gee (whose credits include 1998’s Radiohead: Meeting People Is Easy) will add a touch to maximize the impact of the interviews, as when he frames the band more tightly during their discussion of Curtis’ suicide.


But most of the film suffers from Gee’s unimaginative attempts to escape an over-reliance on talking heads, the typical rock doc fate. At one point, guitarist Bernard Sumner mentions that he heard the phone ring, and we see…a phone! Words and phrases like “But” and “This is possibly heresy” are printed out as an interviewee says them, but to what end? Producer Martin Hannett’s voice is visualized for no discernible reason.


On one level, you certainly can’t blame Gee for trying to air out the film in this manner, since very little footage of Joy Division exists. But often he’ll paint over or manipulate shots from a live performance more out of resignation than in an attempt to recontextualize or even enhance the footage. And the pointless visual costuming reaches its nadir when Gee includes a small insert of what interviewee Genesis P-Orridge looked like in the 1970s to show that the current gender-bent Genesis used to be a guy.


Still, there’s beautiful, beautiful Ian. He was one of the few artists whose music hit much deeper when you saw him perform it, and the film is at its captivating best when it simply lets him do so. Upon seeing him live (or the filmic approximation thereof), you discern how not so much geeky or even gawky he came across as workaday and mundane, which rendered his persona all the more unfathomable. It’s undeniably hypnotic stuff. But New Order’s entire subsequent career has already been a critique of what it means to even look at someone in a public setting. I wish there was a similar awareness of the politics of vision in Gee’s film.


Kevin John


 
Lou Reed’s Berlin Directed by Julian Schnabel


Of course his band called themselves the Velvet Underground. They were just naming the place he’d spend the extent of his career: somewhere between Greek-like rock idolatry and invisible. I mean, yeah, we all know who Lou Reed is, but do you know what he looks like? I’ll admit I couldn’t have picked him out of a line-up. He’s an enigmatic mix of drug myths, no-show rumors, and mystery, but it’s a given that juke-box audiences from scenester ATX venues to redneck bars in Colorado would all raise their beers to the sky and sing along when the girls go doot-da-doot-da-doot-doot-da-doot on “Walk on the Wild Side”.


From a place in the midst of this silky mainstream camouflage appeared Berlin, “Lou’s” operatic, 1970s opus, an extravagant concept album most of us never heard about. Twenty years later, the man revisits his lost work with a big “Here I Am, World” in this live concert performance film helmed by Basquiat director Julian Schnabel, another artist whose work falls somewhere between pushing the envelope and licking the glue of the one already established.


It’s a complex work, this Berlin, but at the same time, very simple. I guess you could say that about Reed’s entire repertoire. It’s Lou Reed, looking kind of like my uncle wearing square-framed glasses heading to a day at the factory, speak-singing songs about jealousy and miscommunication. It’s also Lou Reed surrounded by cherubic young choral girls, a small orchestra and its conductor, back-up singers, unbelievably tight session players, and a giant projection screen. “It’s two guitars, bass, and drums on steroids,” he called it in the after-screening Q&A.


Shot over five days in a series of live New York City concerts, Berlin tells the loose story of a character named Caroline’s crumbling relationship(s). The film weaves between live footage and scenes of Caroline walking around or dancing or making out. Though artfully done, this effect sometimes looks unfortunately like video from a sushi karaoke bar with Japanese subtitles at the bottom.


But the film is the music. Lush builds and distorted, playful guitar solos tell the story better than any of the lyrics do. An unbelievable breakdown of the choir from joyous majors into a cacophony of off-key minors captures the horror of a life and relationship falling apart with an almost magical eeriness. A couple of unscripted, rhythmically locked-in jams recall the coolest parts of the Underground’s work and let the cameras get a little more playful as they roam around the stage like awe-stricken, dilated pupils.


Sometimes, though, Reed’s reserved, off-beat vocal stylings feel a little overwhelmed by all the glamour—despite the swelling sounds around him, his voice isn’t on steroids. A dramatic solo performance by the golden-voiced, transgender crooner Antony almost made me wish it was Antony’s show. Still, the film hits enough right notes to confirm that, though the album might have been overlooked, that doesn’t mean it’s not pure Velvet.   


Justin Follin


 
Throw Down Your Heart Directed by Sascha Paladino



For anyone familiar with summertime porch sitting in the genteel land south of the Mason-Dixon Line, a banjo-picking Dixie sounds as close to the regional heartbeat as an instrument can get. Banjo players strumming old-timey hymnals in the soft-spoken hills of the Appalachian Mountains, the in-bred farm boy dueling his five strings somewhere in the fictional Ozarks of Deliverance—such images have solidified the banjo as an inseparable staple of the American South.


But in Throw Down Your Heart, picking pioneer and absolute virtuoso Bela Fleck takes the banjo back home. It turns out that, just like the human race, the banjo got its start in a land of so many countries, cultures, tribes, and languages that we just lump them all together and call it Africa. And Fleck’s on a mission to show that the voice of the human spirit has so many sounds we can blend them all together and call it music.


Visiting cities and rural areas from East Africa to the musical jewels of Mali, Fleck takes his resonator along with director Sascha Paladino to see what happens when this twangy steel string instrument meets its wooden forefathers. The result is as magical as African mythology. From the almost immediate kindred bond he develops with a blind musical conduit to a spontaneous jam session with a group of guttural throat callers, Fleck isn’t just creating an instrumental family reunion but birthing trans-oceanic sounds that should make us all forget we’ve forgotten we’re a part of this world together. 


With a soundtrack that could fill four outstanding albums, Throw Down Your Heart is almost more live concert film than documentary. The personal interviews are poignant but minimal. It’s mostly just the music. Quick edits that jump from musician to musician like a call and response so enhance the experience of watching these guys and girls welcome the banjo back, it’s easy to forget it’s just a movie. In fact, the SXSW audience watching this film erupted in spontaneous applauses after each on-screen performance. They were that great.


While Fleck’s onscreen personality does not exactly magnetize, his finger-picking prowess communicates all he needs to throughout the film. His humble demeanor and reverence for his fellow players allows for the honey of the African sounds to seem that much sweeter. And the music, well, this review can’t do it justice. You’ll just have to hear it for yourself.


Justin Follin


 
Rainbow Around the Sun Directed by Kevin Ely and Beau J. Leland


Rainbow Around the Sun bills itself as a rock musical. But the film amounts to one more demonstration of how “rock” and “musical” go together like oil and water.


Directed by Kevin Ely and Beau J. Leland, Rainbow Around the Sun stars Matthew Alvin Brown as twentysomething Zachary Blasto, a slight variation on Brown himself, one might assume. Zach works a dead-end food industry job and plays bar-band-y, vaguely alt-country music on the side. He’s got the requisite girl problems and an inner life more vibrant than his day-to-day dealings with the people around him. In short, he’s indistinguishable from acres of beer-bellied dreamers half-heartedly striving towards survival in that creative class we keep hearing is on the rise.


This being a film, however, we get to see and hear that vibrant inner life, which usually takes the form of a splashy vaudeville extravaganza complete with sneering Rockettes, buckets of confetti, and a stentorian emcee sporting a waxy Pringles stache. Obviously representing Zach’s gargantuan ego (Brown plays him as well), the emcee kicks the story into gear and joins in on several songs. The film oscillates between these full-scale musical numbers and Zach’s grimier everyday life.


What gives Rainbow Around the Sun so much potential is that the everyday life scenes are musicalized as well. Zach sings while waking up in the morning. He sings while getting drunk and babbling to policemen in the evening. He even sings while yawning. Very little spoken dialogue breaks up the music. That’s because Rainbow Around the Sun is essentially a visualization of an album of the same name by Brown and his band the Fellowship Students. And because the story is more a realization of an emotional state than an actual narrative, Brown can tell it mostly through his songs.


Strictly on those terms, the film works. Decent though the music may be, no way would it have half as much impact without the often tantalizing visuals (which include a cute animation sequence). Would that all competent but ultimately forgettable alt albums came with such a fun movie attached.


As a musical, however, the film is weak-willed. Ely and Leland (and presumably Brown, too) were clearly terrified of diving into the incongruity at the heart of the genre. “Dramatic moments flow seamlessly into honky-tonk performances and animated Busby-Berkeley style hallucinations,” proclaims the press release proudly—because Elvis forbid one of those seams come unraveled by a mere musical number. But that’s the genre’s gift to the world—a jarring but frequently ecstatic shift from spoken word to song, from reality to…well, not quite fantasy but a musical comment on that reality. Within that shift comes new identities, if not new realities.


In Rainbow Around the Sun, every number is either grounded in Zach’s reality as a musician or shunted off to the vaudeville stage in his Fantasyland. The filmmakers never allow him to sing a song through in a space not normally reserved for bursting into song. A number will either begin or end with him performing on stage; even the fantasy sequences include the band, transforming Fantasyland into a de facto bar with live music.


But that’s rock for ya. Flush with authenticity, it needs to be tied to realism. No matter how fanciful Rainbow Around the Sun becomes, its rock songs are merely the authentic expression of Zach/Brown, an ultimately conservative one-to-one correspondence. Maybe one day we’ll have non-musician characters bust into a rock song in their everyday lives so we can explore the new characters and stories that incongruity creates. Until then, the rock musical will remain an embarrassing no-no.


Kevin John


 
Explicit Ills Directed by Mark Webber



What’s up, America? What’s happening to your cities? What’s happening with your tired, your sick, your hungry? They still need food, they still need medicine, and there’s definitely no rest for the people without. What have we got, America, when the city that declared our independence with a sic semper tyrannus John Hancock on the bottom of the most razor-edged document in our history has turned from the City of Brotherly Love into a bottomed-out poverty zone dubbed “Killadelphia”?


These are the questions writer/director Mark Webber addresses in his narrative directorial debut, Explicit Ills, an East Coast, urban, Magnolia-style character panorama of four loosely connected stories all taking place in the neighborhoods of Philadelphia. Each story lets us peek into the collective worlds of the city’s impoverished ghettos, art lofts, and row houses, which are currently hosting a cultural renaissance of creativity and activism rising from the ashes of a town that’s seen better days. The film’s tales address the ills of our country’s problems while handing out a dose of hope like medicine in a world where “health care” isn’t just a corporate luxury package.


While so many films describe the plight of the poor as some chaos of unfathomable tragedies happening to a mysterious “them” somewhere in the middle of a bombed-out ghetto where babies learn to shoot guns before they walk, Webber’s approach humanizes his characters in a way that urges a huge range of people, from inner-city Philly and cookie-cut suburbs alike, to say, “Wow, they’re a lot like me.” His people are real. A powerful scene where a young mother (played by Rosario Dawson) can’t afford a prescription for her young son isn’t a grandiose display of down-and-out hopelessness. It’s just, like, fifty bucks—and a pharmaceutical system that doesn’t care if you don’t get paid until Friday. In a country where the distinctions of poverty are becoming so fuzzy that many in the middle class are one emergency away from the lower, the Explicit Ills of Philadelphia don’t seem so far from home.


A phenomenal score by Philadelphia producer Khari Mateen melts beats and haunting soundscapes into ear candy that lands the film’s dramatic inflections like well-placed drum breaks in a DJ set you tell all your friends about. In combination with the beautiful (though sometimes over-stylized) cinematography showcasing the city’s grit, and solid performances from the likes of the Roots’ Black Thought and the seven-year-old Francisco Burgos, these elements package Webber’s message like a tightly wrapped birthday present for the disenfranchised. Though the multiple story-line approach does lose some potential for character development, the overarching message of hope in the strength of family, community, and art brings it all together like two hands folding to pray. With his film’s inspiring finale, Webber shows us the power of the motion picture to uplift in the face of despair. It’s even inspired me to promote their cause. Check it out. That’s what’s up, America.


Justin Follin


 
FrontRunners Directed by Caroline Suh



It’s hard to write a review about a smart-kid documentary without using the words “cute” or “darling.” I really don’t want to; it’s just so soft. But really, could you watch a movie like Spellbound without developing at least a tiny spot of mushiness at the way the pre-adult genii walk like kids and act like kids but talk like your Poli Sci prof from Intro to World Politics? It’s just…I can’t stop myself…darling.


That’s a good description for FrontRunners, a low-budget, mini-DV doc chronicling a student body election at Stuyvesant High School, New York City’s nationally ranked magnet school for superbrain teens. The profile of the battle for student body president among these hyper-achievers is an hour and a half observation of kids saying the darnedest things in ways that could send you running for a dictionary. It’s a hot race: the pro actress or the I-don’t-give-a-shit athlete; the stop-at-nothing amateur psychoanalyst or the good-looking popular ticket. And, of course, there’s the obligatory high school apathy for the race that pervades most of the school outside of the student government, even on this campus where some of the leaders might actually one day run the country. Keep in mind, they’re only sixteen.


The film is entertaining in its exposure of the self-imposed pressures that today’s high achievers begin implementing at such a young age. Particularly at a school where the college admissions process seems to define self-worth, it’s easy to see how a student government campaign could warp from extra-curricular activity into a slightly unhealthy obsession. But when a senior, in a locker-side interview, expresses disappointment with herself for only getting into a “number 36” ranked college, the film touches on a deeper issue that never gets quite enough air-time. What’s the deal with the out-of-touch assumption that those who don’t go to a U.S. News and World Report-approved top-tenner have somehow failed in their high school efforts? Where does the unrealistic expectation come from that achievement somehow takes precedence over normal teenage development?


FrontRunners does a great job of capturing the ins-and-outs of a small-scale, youth model of our general democratic system. The kids the film documents are likeable and fun to watch. This movie may not change the way anyone thinks about the nature of government, but it doesn’t really need to. It’s just so dang cute.


Justin Follin


 
Humboldt County Directed by Danny Jacobs and Darren Grodsky



Twenty-something disillusionment, that head-in-the-hands, tears-on-the-college-loan-bill mutter of “What the hell am I doing with my life?,” has become such a rite of passage for today’s college grads it’s been packaged up for Oprah and pathologized as the Quarterlife Crisis. Our New Economy is drenched with foggy-eyed young talent well aware that there has got to be something else out there that’s better than the day-in, day-out hamster wheel—but where do they go to find it?


In Humboldt County, med student Peter Hadley goes to Northern California with his crisis, starts smoking pot, and learns that the true meaning of success is more than just a medical residency and meeting Dad’s expectations. Played by newcomer Jeremy Strong like a cross between Dustin Hoffman’s characters in The Graduate and Rainman, Peter follows a one-night stand to her NoCal home and finds himself stranded in the lush forests of a Humboldt marijuana farm where federal agents pop up like land mines in paradise. It’s a punch-in-the-face culture shock: sweater vests and a digital watch meet perpetually stoned hippie family expatriated from the world of the straights into a hidden world of illegal agriculture.


Shot in 35 mm, the glorious cinematography, depicting the lands notorious among dread-locked counterculture for growing Humboldt Honeys, tells a story of falling in love with the Earth. The eccentric family members that warm up to Peter over the course of the film all dropped their day-to-day to live off the land, and the film does a spectacular job capturing the beauty of a part of the world where the landscape is the lifestyle. With its wide-angle dioramas of the ocean and the wet woods, the film itself feels fertile.


The tight screenplay follows the tried-and-true Screenwriting 101 methodology of maintaining focus on one main character throughout, recalling Hal Ashby character pieces from the ‘70s. It’s effective here, and allows the filmmakers the opportunity to tell a simple story while letting the superb acting make it real. Brad Dourif as a crotchety Physics professor-turned-stoner patriarch shines, and his onscreen wife—Six Feet Under‘s Frances Conroy—does spaced-out hippie mother with the tenderness of a nurturing soccer mom whose acid never wore off.


While the film’s title and promotional poster (featuring a giant joint) imply this is just another movie about weed, it’s actually an exploration of family, personal expectations, and a cultural breakdown where people who live in touch with the planet are derogated as slackers. There are moments of over-sentimentality and a slight moral righteousness that may put-off some viewers, but Humboldt County still entertains, tugs at the heart strings, and does all those good things that good movies can do.


Justin Follin


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