Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Hot Docs - We Cause Scenes [2013, Dir. Matt Adams, USA]

We Cause Scenes
  We Cause Scenes

All the documentaries I'd got to see this year for Hot Docs were music documentaries and also online screeners which I was able to watch from the luxury of my iPad. On the other hand, there were times when I'd have preferred to watch a film with an audience -I think that really is an important part of any film festival experience. On the last weekend of Hot Docs I managed to catch one documentary entitled We Cause Scenes: The Rise Of Improv Everywhere, directed by Matt Adams, which was screening at Hart House Theatre on the University of Toronto campus. 

The documentary tracks  the history of the New York City based public performance improv group called Improv Everywhere started by Charlie Todd, an actor and comedian, in 2001, who'd been frustrated by the lack of available work at the time. I think I vaguely recall the group's name on the internet a few years back Aand until I saw this documentary I hadn't knownn that they had had such a far-reaching scope. Torontonians have probably heard of the annual No-Pants Subway Ride or perhaps you may have participated or heard of The MP3 Experiment that was staged during the 2008 edition of the Luminato Festival - both events were spawned from Improv Everywhere in New York City where such 'scenes' had first been staged. It is such 'scenes' as this that the group have conceived, organized, and staged over the last decade or so, in an attempt to bring joy and happiness, smiles and laughs to the public as well as to its participants. The documentary tracks the evolution of the NYC-based group from it's early beginnings to their growing recognition over the years due to the internet [the group posted their videos online on their own site and then later on their own YouTube Channel] and the media [publicity which was both good and bad] and shows the group's colourful history that takes it from its grassroots organization to the brink of a television deal and back again. Obviously, the segments most appreciated by the audience were the video footage of the numerous pranks staged by the group. I don't think I've ever laughed as much during a documentary as I did during that one. There was also a wealth of behind-the-scenes footage as well as media footage, and interviews with Charlie Todd, and other members of the improv group that rounded out their story very well. I remember near the end being almost overcome with emotion. There is something quite eloquent in Todd's pursuit and spreading of happiness [yes there's a commerce side to his pursuit, and yes the documentary does act as promotion tool for his website, but for the moment let's just focus on the purity of his original intentions].In the end, We Cause Scenes shows that growing up and becoming an adult doesn't mean we need to stop playing and having fun. 

In keeping line that this is a music blog, one of the funnier pranks shown in the documentary was when musician / songwriter Ben Folds went in on a prank with Improv Everywhere's Charlie Todd (who resembles Folds) and had Todd impersonate him at the beginning of a Ben Folds Five show in NYC back in 2006. Read the full story here and check out the video below:

  Ben Folds Fake [Improv Everywhere]

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Hot Docs - Finding The Funk [2013, Dir. Nelson George, USA]

  Finding The Funk

Directed by Nelson George (better known perhaps for his 2007 directorial debut entitled Life Support starring Queen Latifah for which she won a Golden Globe for), Finding The Funk is a fine effort overall. Neither complete nor comprehensive in its scope, it's somewhat like an introductory college course serving to give a general understanding of the evolution of funk and to touch on some of the major progenitors of the genre. Dutifully narrated by The Roots' drummer ?uestlove, the documentary explores the evolution of funk from it's jazz and rhythm and blues roots pre-1960 primarily from New Orleans, to the funk movement in the 80's that developed out of the basements in of all places Dayton, Ohio and to funk's unexpected revitalization in the hip hop genre.  The documentary also puts great focus on the influence of major players like James Brown, Sly and The Family Stone, Parliament / Funkadelic, Earth Wind and Fire and Ohio Players. ?uestlove's narration is augmented by an array of talking heads segments from some of funk's major figures like James Brown, George Clinton, and Sly Stone themselves, as well as various other participants like neo-soul vocalist D'Angelo and Mike D of Beastie Boys, the latter who provides some of the most insightful thoughts on funk's far-reaching influence, most notably later on in hip-hop(eg. sampling, 'the funky drummer' rhythm).  Other elements utilized during the documentary were pop-up style text information tidbits dubbed "funk chunks" giving additional information to the viewer as well as narrator ?uestlove's drum-school type demonstrations of the variety of funk rhythms that developed over the years.  What Finding The Funk succeeds in is that it was informative without being overly academic yet on another level it seemed to be a straight-laced, overly-serious exploration, lacking a sense of fun. I think also the film would have benefited from archival video footage but that's just my opinion. Those criticisms aside, Finding The Funk is essential viewing most definitely for the funk newbie who'd like to learn the basics but I suspect you'll have more fun listening to Sly and The Family Stone's "There's A Riot Goin' On".

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Hot Docs - The Punk Singer [2013, Dir. Sini Anderson, USA]

  The Punk Singer

What was I doing in 1990? I'd just graduated high school and was entering my first year of university. I'd been a music fan (mostly the alternative British music scene of the 80's and John Hughes films) and hadn't really delved too much into the indie music scene. The next year, Nirvana's "Nevermind" would be released, grunge would go mainstream and well, the rest is history. Back then I never really gave it a second thought that the music scene had been much of a boys club. So when a band like Halifax's all-female Jale formed in 1992 and started to release seven-inches, I took notice of 1) a burgeoning indie music scene and that 2) there was a whole scene of females making music independently. My experience here in Canada I would imagine was one that was reflected by some in the U.S. Pacific Northwest with Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill who formed in 1990 and whose first release was an independently released cassette entitled Revolution Girl Style Now! released the following year. I kind of had my head in the clouds for the last few decades in ever getting acquainted with Kathleen Hanna until now, having read about her in passing numerous times in the music press and music books. Yes, I've heard of Riot grrrl, which I had understood as being both a feminist movement and musical descriptor, but never really made the effort to listen to much of it beyond the occasional snippet. So it was surprisingly refreshing to watch what turned out to be a truly terrific documentary on Kathleen Hanna's life entitled The Punk Singer directed by Sini Anderson.

Through a wealth of photos, video footage, as well as talking heads segments from the likes of her Bikini Kill bandmate Tobi Vail, her husband Beastie Boys Adam Horowitz, her Le Tigre bandmate Johanna Fateman, and a plethora of others as well as Kathleen herself, The Punk Singer is presented as the evolution of Kathleen Hanna as a person influenced by her own personal experiences and coming along at a politcal / cultural time when someone like her was needed,  her influence on the feminist movement and the music scene [from Bikini Kill, Julie Ruin, Le Tigre, and The Julie Ruin], and a what-ever-happened-to-her story after she abruptly abandoned performing live in 2005.  The documentary presents Kathleen as thoughtful, insightful and strong, but at the same time vulnerable and wounded at times. It was heartbreaking to see why she left the music scene in 2005 and I'm sure her story is already known to at least many of her truest fans but I'd rather not spoil it for those of you planning to watch the documentary and mention why [which the last act of the documentary focuses on]. It is a triumpant feeling however to see how Kathleen manages to rise above it, at least briefly, and to see those last few scenes of the documentary and how loved and appreciated Kathleen Hanna is. For someone who sought to be an agent for change, but never had seeked or imagined being a 'hero', she became one for many people and The Punk Singer deservedly shines a light on a story that needed to be told. Highly recommended.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Summer Festivals 2013 - Wolfe Island Music Festival

Wolfe Island Music Festival
  Wolfe Island Music Festival

Late post here, but another summer music festival you may want to mark on your calendar is the Wolfe Island Music Festival which takes place every year on Wolfe Island in Ontario [the largest of the Thousand Islands], a quick ferry ride away from Kingston. This year's edition of the festival takes place over the weekend of August 9 and 10 and the full lineup was announced recently, with this year's headliners being Joel Plaskett Emergency.  Early bird weekend passes (with camping) went onsale through for $75 on May 3 and early bird prices will end on June 15 after which the price jumps to $95.

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Hot Docs - Mistaken For Strangers [2013, Dir. Tom Berninger, USA]

  Mistaken For Strangers

When I'd read that The National's Matt Berninger's brother Tom Berninger directed this documentary of the band entitled Mistaken For Strangers, I had initially imagined it might be your standard tour documentary. Tom, whose film work prior to that, seemed to be relegated to low-budget, indie, horror movies (none of which I'd ever heard of), on his brother's request offered him a job as a roadie on their European / American tour, and also gave him permission to film them for a documentary.  The documentary is really only partially about The National on tour [which follows the band from locals such as Paris and Berlin, and then back to the U.S. for shows in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and their hometown of New York City] - life on the road, behind the scenes looks, interviewing the individual band members, clips of some of the more personal outbursts from Matt as well as the camera being directed towards Tom at times to speak . However what the underlying point of the documentary really is [and what is alluded to in the title of the documentary] is the peculiar relationship between Matt and Tom. What's apparent almost from the outset is how different the brothers are, - Tom the goof-ball, metal-head, younger brother and Matt the older, serious, indie-rock frontman and more successful one. And what may have seemed all sunny on the surface for Tom as he tries to film this documentary, balance his duties as a roadie and live the rock n' roll lifestyle soon reveals feelings of inadequacy that he has felt toward's his brother Matt for many years.  There are some poignant moments in the last act of the documentary as Tom bunks down in Matt and his wife's (Carin Besser, who appeared to have been one of the film's alternate camera persons, when Tom wasn't holding the camera) home in Brooklyn after the tour to piece together the documentary. It's in the editing of the documentary, which I imagined was kind of like therapy for Tom, that Tom Berninger has created a work of subtle beauty. In a rare moment at the end of the documentary, Matt picks up the camera and sneaks up on Tom while he is working on editing the film to check on his progress, and Tom responds with a sense of optimism and determination that really hits home, "I'm getting close. Just let me figure it out, ok."

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Hot Docs - Good Ol' Freda [2013, Dir. Ryan White, UK]

Good Ol' Freda
  Good Ol' Freda

I was hoping to have gone out to a few Hot Docs screenings by this point but unfortunately due to other things [nephew's birthday over the weekend, picking up my new 'used' car a few nights ago] I wasn't able to. I was however able to view the screener for the documentary Good Ol' Freda yesterday evening and I very much enjoyed it. Produced and directed by Ryan White, it's a scrap-book look at the fandom of The Beatles from one insider who perhaps many people weren't familiar with. The Freda being referred to in the title of the documentary is Liverpudlian Freda Kelly who worked as both the band's secretary and fan club manager over the span of eleven years starting at the age of 17 years old, from the band's infancy playing The Cavern in Liverpool, through the band's international stardom, and eventually to the band's breakup in the early 1970's.

Interspersing old photos of Freda, the band, the band's families and other notable figures like Beatles manager Brian Epstein, with stock footage from the 60's, Freda, in her humble, modest, warm tone provides commentary throughout the documentary. It's a thoroughly fascinating year-by-year account of her eleven years with the band and how integral of a role she played in the machinery of Beatlemania. As the band's secretary she was especially important to the families of the individual Beatles, acting as a link for them to John, Paul, George, and Ringo, when The Beatles started to travel internationally. But it was through The Beatles Fan Club where Freda was it's manager where she perhaps made a stronger mark. Through the fan club, she worked with a small staff and devoted many hours to responding to thousands and thousands of letters from fans, as well as to writing the band's newsletter The Beatles Book. The time that she dedicated to the fan club was something she held important because as a fan herself of The Beatles, she genuinely related to how the fans felt. There's a point in the documentary when Freda climbed the ladder into her attic to dig through old Beatles' memorabilia and the collection she amassed for herself, including many of The Beatles Book, looked like a treasure trove. For someone who had had the ultimate job that any female Beatles fan would have died for, Freda was portrayed as a diligent, loyal, strong-willed, and hard-working employee. She admits to having crushes on each of the Beatles on any particular day but in the end she was there to do a job, one that she had loved.

The Beatles coming to an end was shown to be a bitter-sweet ending for Freda, the closing of The Beatles fan club and saying good-bye to a period of her life which she very much loved and would miss but which opened up another stage to live a 'normal life' and have a family. The documentary shows Freda's daughter Rachel describing her mother as a very private person who for most of her life had no interest to tell her stories about The Beatles. But the passing of her son Timothy later in life, plus her wanting to leave a legacy for her baby grandson [her daughter Rachel's son] to look back on seemed to have been at part of the catalyst that this documentary got made. It's such a poignant moment at the end of the documentary as Freda tears up thinking about many of the people during her eleven years with The Beatles who are no longer around now. But with this documentary, those people and her stories will live on.

* last chance to catch this documentary before Hot Docs closes is at Regent Theatre (551 Mt Pleasant Rd) on Saturday May 4 at 8:45 pm. You can buy tickets here.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Summer Festivals 2013 - Mad Decent Block Party 2013 Lineup Announcement

Do you like DJ's? Then you may want to mark July 26 on your calendar as the travelling Mad Decent Block Party (who this year have partnered with partnered with PUMA, Pepsi, Red Bull Music Academy, Serato, and The FADER) makes a stop in Toronto at Fort York Garrison Common. As per the Mad Decent blog, the artists announced so far for the Toronto show are Major Lazer, Zeds Dead, RiFF RAFF, Grandtheft, and Thugli with more to be announced.

A limited number of PRE-SALE tickets are available now through the Mad Decent Block Party site with pre-sale purchases including a Free month subscription to Mad Decent Premium on Tickets for the Toronto show will go on sale through Ticketmaster on Friday May 4 at 4:00 pm EST.

I passed by last year's edition of the show which was a free show with RSVP at Yonge Dundas Square and will say it was an obnoxious mess of a crowd and if I recall correctly, I think the police shut it down a little early. At least this year, the audience will be corralled, out of sight, out of mind which I think will be all for the best.

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