Music documentaries are often seen as films with built-in audiences. Fans of an artist are pretty likely to go see them perform on screen, after all. Amy Winehouse’s enormous popularity in life is certainly part of why Amy has been such a record-breaking success, alongside the fascination with her tragic death. Yet what pushes Asif Kapadia’s hit over the edge is that it’s also a remarkably constructed film. The best music documentaries can be loved by people who have never even heard the subject’s work before. 20,000 Days on Earth was certainly a treat for fans of Nick Cave, but it also pushes the boundaries of nonfiction cinema. Other recent examples are Heaven Adores You, about Elliott Smith, and Efterklang’s The Ghost of Piramida.
With that in mind, then, a festival of music documentaries should draw your eye to the films about the most unfamiliar artists. Sound + Vision has that in spades. The lineup is full of profiles of rare genres and under-appreciated musicians, either those who never quite made it or the lesser-known collaborators of those who did. Here are four of the festival’s best.
The first moments of Dominguinhos are vague, grainy archival images of a long ago rural existence. The setting is the Sertão, the semi-arid uplands of Northeastern Brazil, home to cowboys and baião music. Legendary singer, songwriter and accordionist Dominguinhos grew up in this part of the country, learning from the great Luiz Gonzaga before going on to play with the likes of Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa and Gilberto Gil. This documentary is an artful portrait of his joyful life, with particular emphasis on his primary instrument. The accordion moves as if alive, respirating. Its relaxed movement not only fascinates the directors but seems to have influenced their formal style as well. They are in no rush as they imitate the joyful and naturalistic style of their subject, who breathed easy along with his rhythms.
The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson
Julien Temple is getting a retrospective as part of this year’s program, featuring his work with such artists as The Clash, The Sex Pistols, and The Kinks. Yet perhaps the most intriguing offering is his newest feature, a portrait of guitarist Wilko Johnson. Diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2013, Johnson decided to forego chemotherapy and to spend his last few months on earth touring and enjoying himself. Temple followed him, collaborating on a valedictory compilation of a full career’s wealth of influences. There are clips of everything from Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates to Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, and the chess game from The Seventh Seal is re-staged on the coast of England with Johnson in the Max von Sydow role. All the while Johnson’s contemplates death and insists on the ecstasy of being alive, his words accompanying Temple’s panoply of singular images. Equal time is given to Johnson’s public farewell tour and his private recitations of Shakespeare and Milton. A riff on the 20,000 Days on Earth theme, it’s a beautiful meditation on the resilience of artistic spirit.
We Like It Like That
Back in the 1960s, New York City fell in love with Boogaloo. Joe Cuba’s “Bang Bang” was a massive hit, along with Pete Rodriguez’s “I Like It Like That” and Johnny Colón’s “Boogaloo Blues.” Then, almost as rapidly as it had arrived, the genre fell off the charts and was replaced by the more classically Latin sound of Salsa. Mathew Ramirez Warren’s investigation of the origins and destinies of this uniquely Nuyorican hybrid is remarkably economical, even if it doesn’t break the mold. Its highlights come in the demonstration of what Boogaloo actually is, its practitioners explaining how Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians took mambo and guajira and combined them with American R&B and Soul to create a hybrid art form that fit perfectly into country’s largest melting pot. It’s not often that a music documentary so effectively represents the technical elements of its subject, and it’s rarely this fun.
Despite the frustratingly vague title, Y/our Music is a refreshingly specific documentary. It’s also likely the most intriguing discovery of the lineup, a portrait of Thai musical genres mostly unknown to American listeners. The bulk of the film is about mor lam, a traditional song style from Northeast Thailand that remains unappreciated even in its home country. Yet rather than focusing entirely on the purity of this single form, directors Waraluck Hiransrettawat Every and David Reeve build Y/our Music around artistic hybridity. They spend a lot of time with artists who took part in the 1960s recording boom, including the first musician to invent an electric version of the mor lam guitar. Yet also step into other genres, seeking the intersections between classically Thai music and contemporary international influences. There is even an optician who makes bamboo saxophones in his spare time. Music is everywhere, from conventional concert spaces to art galleries and rural jam sessions, all of them united by a desire to innovate. The digital cinematography is also quite playful, taking advantage of the 21st century’s many screens to show a world connected by music and performance.
Sound + Vision runs from July 29th through August 7th at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City.