The Toronto trend: movies about music

[8 October 2007]

By Terry Lawson

Detroit Free Press (MCT)

TORONTO—Along with its announced purpose of bringing the best of contemporary international cinema to North America, and its unofficial standing as the launching pad for films that the studios and independent producers expect to be Oscar-nominated, the Toronto International Film Festival serves as a telescope to film’s immediate future. Even a cursory perusal of its offerings—300-plus features annually—offers a heads-up to the trends and themes that will dominate the next 12 months of moviegoing.

At this year’s festival, films about music and musicians—which included a musical whose story was driven by the music of the Beatles; a biography about the late 1970s British band Joy Division; Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There,” an exploration of the many and elusive personas of Bob Dylan; and documentaries about the Who, Lou Reed, and Joy Division (again)—were second in number only to movies about the War on Terrorism and Iraq.

This was despite the fact that for every music-themed film that attracts a wide audience—like the 2005 Toronto-launched Ray Charles bio-pic “Ray,” which earned an Oscar for star Jamie Foxx, or last year’s “Walk the Line,” which saw Reese Witherspoon receive an Academy Aw ard for her portrayal of June Carter, wife of country legend Johnny Cash—there are many more that fail to strike a chord with moviegoers.

Director Julie Taymor’s musical “Across the Universe,” built on songs recorded and written by the Beatles, opened in a few U.S. markets last week to a thud, which greatly threatens the plan to expand to other markets.

Documentaries about music have traditionally been a hard sell; their appeal only rarely extends beyond the fans of the featured musicians or musical styles. But the increasing popularity of high definition TV and surround home theater audio systems has made music documentaries a far safer bet when released on DVD.

That bodes well for the Toronto-screened “Amazing Journey,” a new documentary about the turbulent, four-decade career of British rockers The Who, which will be released on disc Nov. 6, as well as two well-made docs.

“Pete Seeger: A Life in Song,” a well-made look at the long-life lasting impact of the folk singer, will open for limited theatrical run Friday before being released on DVD next year, while “Twenty to Life,” about the radical activist, poet, jazz critic and MC5 manager John Sinclair, will have a one-time screening Saturday in Detroit, before home-video release.

Often, the makers of music-themed dramas try to avoid the categorization: “Ray” and “Walk the Line” were marketed as portraits of troubled American icons. Acclaimed photographer and video-maker Anton Corbijn, whose “Control,” a dramatic take on the life of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, was one of the Toronto festival’s most admired premieres, says that the fact that many Americans are unfamiliar with Joy Division—the band that later mutated into hit-makers New Order—could be a benefit.

“This movie is not about the rise and fall—or often rise, fall and triumphant return—of a rock band, but about a very specific, charismatic artist and the emotional and personal issues he endured. The fact that he was a singer in a rock band is really secondary to the story I was telling about one truly unique individual and his demons,” Corbijn says.

Nevertheless, the Toronto response to “Control” led to Grant Gee’s documentary “Joy Division”—whose story played a role in Michael Winterbottom’s “24 Hour Party People,” a fictionalized account of the music scene in Manchester, England, and its biggest booster, the late TV personality Tony Wilson—being scooped up for theatrical distribution.

“I think that’s terrific,” said Corbijn. “I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard it’s very well-done. There’s very little film of the band, and there are no filmed interviews with Ian, so it had to be a difficult thing to put together.”

Other upcoming music documentaries include “Lou Reed’s Berlin,” directed by artist (and Reed friend) Julian Schnabel, and documenting Reed’s Brooklyn concert staging last year of his 1973 concept album, which sold miserably when issued, but now is recognized as a classic of decadent misery.

“I didn’t expect it to be any big box-office success, but I thought it was something that really should be documented for those who realized what it represented, how bold Lou was in the writing and recording of it,” said the music-loving Schnabel.

“Music and movies, they remain the great popular, universal conveyors of feeling, far more than contemporary art as practiced by gallery artists. But a lot of people who go to movies just want the music to be present, to trigger an emotion without giving the game away, without being made fully aware of it. It diminishes the movies and the music when used that way, but some people prefer things watered down, don’t they?

“To me, a great movie, a great concert or performance, a great painting—they’re not on some sliding scale of what constitutes a fluid word like `art.’”

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