Music and Comedy Change the World at SXSW 2012

From the Doc Talk archives, here is a look at some entertaining but also politically charged documentaries of the 2012 SXSW Film Festival.

We Are Legion SXSW 2012

This look at music and comedy documentaries from the 2012 SXSW Film Festival was originally published as a Doc Talk column at the now-defunct website on March 16, 2012.

In a list of the best documentaries of the 2000s, I named Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus’ Al Franken: And God Spoke as the greatest political doc of the decade. It’s a film that follows the humorist, then long away from becoming a US Senator, in the 2004 election year, and for me, it perfectly represents a problem for the left at the time of being too reliant or at least overshadowed by comedic liberal media and personalities, everything from The Daily Show to Michael Moore to SNL vets like Will Ferrell and Franken. But eight years later it seems the jokesters truly do matter, as argued and evidenced by Brian Knappenberger’s necessary new film, We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists.

No, it doesn’t make the case that the Republican candidates should be looking for clowns to help their campaigns this year (I’m sure some of you already think they’re clowns themselves), rather it chronicles the steady stream that has carried a new breed of political activism out from memetic Internet laughs all the way to global revolution. Who knew that the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement could be traced back in part to “Chocolate Rain” and LOLcats? That may sound ridiculous to consider, but Knappenberger profiles the evolution of the merry hacking pranksters collectively known as Anonymous with sincere study. Of course, it’s also another hilarious outlet for their gags, as well.

Comedy’s potential for change also comes into play with Caveh Zahedi’s controversial The Sheik and I, not only because it’s a pretty funny film (albeit uncomfortably so) but also regarding a stereotyping claim in the film that people don’t have a sense of humor in the Middle East. It’s hard for me to believe that (and I’ve never seen Albert Brooks’ Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World), but just imagine if that was the reason peace is so hard to attain over there. In the wonderful Beauty is Embarrassing, profiled artist Wayne White states something to the effect of humor being the most important thing humanity has. He says this having experienced disfavor from a community that prefers seriousness in artistic expression, as opposed to his brand of work, which involves a lot of profanity, satire, and silliness.

Directed by first-timer Neil Berkeley, Beauty is Embarrassing took a while to hook me. White is indeed a funny man and makes some funny art, but at first, I wasn’t sure why we should care about his life story any more than that of any other unknown funnyman artist. Part of his unfamiliarity is the point, though, as it’s shocking how much he’s done without garnering any name recognition whatsoever. Once the film starts showing behind-the-scenes footage of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, for which White was a character designer and puppeteer, there’s more of a point of interest. And it keeps going very well from there, often playing like a straight documentary kin to American Splendor (White’s wife, cartoonist, and Simpsons pilot scripter Mimi Pond, reminds me of Hope Davis’ portrayal of Joyce Brabner). I heard the film received some standing ovations early on, and I can understand why.

Of course, puppeteers are often crowd-pleasing subjects, and I expect with the success of Being Elmo last year we’ll continue to get more docs involving puppets. Aside from the Wayne White film here at SXSW, there’s also the Christopher Guest-produced Her Master’s Voice, a relatively first-person film — never mind that a ventriloquist puppet named Monkey does most of the interviewing — directed by and starring English performer Nina Conti, who makes a trek to Kentucky’s annual Vent Haven conVENTion (a place previously documented in Dumbstruck). Also funny, and kind of weird given the filmmaker’s borderline treatment of non-human puppets as her real traveling companions, this one may not address the potential for world peace, but it features small hints of how ventriloquism is a great form of social therapy, and the employment of puppets by some artists as a kind of scapegoat alter ego does relate to Anonymous in a way. For more on the film and how it links ventriloquism to first-person filmmaking, see my post at the DOC Channel Blog.

“One good thing about music, when it hits you you feel no pain.” Probably the most significant lyric in any Bob Marley song, for me, that opening to “Trenchtown Rock” has always helped me to understand the reggae icon’s popularity all over the world. While he certainly had his share of political songs, it’s the tracks about love and unity and dancing and having fun that I believe lifted Marley and the reggae genre in general to such international appeal. I would love for a doc to explore this idea, but Kevin Macdonald’s lengthy, laudatory biography, Marley, is not that film.

Even as a fan I found myself losing interest multiple times, probably because of its lack of insight in favor of uncritical tribute (contrasting with Beauty is Embarrassing, this is a doc trusting we all know Marley and find him to be important). Which is fine, but I’d have preferred more of the material presented during the final credits, a montage showing Marley’s influence and fanbase in different parts of the globe. It’s like a mini, reggae-centric compliment to Macdonald’s underrated Life in a Day, a work that will be seen by far fewer people than this one, but which is a hundred times more engrossing.

I had similar issues with Searching for Sugar Man, which I caught earlier at True/False, since it implies that obscure American ’70s rocker Rodriguez may have had an influence on white anti-apartheid musicians in South Africa, but then it doesn’t really address this intriguing notion. Connected to that notion is the idea that Paul Simon was seen as a problem for the Anti-Apartheid movement when he recorded the album Graceland, possibly my favorite record of all time since I was a boy. Of course, as a nine-year-old fan, I wasn’t aware of the controversy surrounding the production, which employed South African musicians against the orders of the U.N.’s cultural boycott at the time.

So I was enthralled by Joe Berlinger’s Under African Skies, which recalls the making of the classic album and its aftermath while also documenting a reunion between Simon and most of the artists appearing on Graceland. In spite of being a fan, I think I’d still be concerned with the basic underlying discussion of whether music must directly address or respond to politics and issues in certain contexts and circumstances or if it can be uplifting, feel-good pop that ultimately distracts and unifies. Interviewees in the film including Quincy Jones, Peter Gabriel, and many of the album’s South African collaborators affirm the idea that Simon in fact aided the region and people by exposing Africa as being more than starving children and civil war.

As a kid, Graceland certainly turned me on to both South African music and, maybe this was related to the controversy, to the Apartheid issue (Oprah Winfrey attests to a similar influence in the film). Sure, Simon was that mix of white tourist and savior that critics often have problems with in “racist” fictions like The Help and Macdonald’s The Last King of Scotland, but I’ve personally never faulted films with white audience identifiers as gateways when the film’s end result inspires hope and harmony. And the same goes for music, obviously, from early rock n roll to Eric Clapton covering Marley to Simon advancing Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Berlinger’s doc expertly captures the debate of the time and where it’s at now, 25 years later, yet while it definitely touches on the positive influence it doesn’t make any points on how that influence might have or could translate into real change for the world.

I guess for now, thanks to We Are Legion, comedy seems the more powerful harbinger of change. But I also say this as the music leg of SXSW kicks off and so some of the world’s worst human beings appear to be taking over the streets of Austin. Their association only hurts music’s reputation.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.