South by Southwest in Austin, Texas began as a music festival and is now also one of the key film events on the late winter calendar. The Tribeca Film Festival, meanwhile, could be mistaken for a music event this year, judging by how many of its entries focus on singers and musicians. From its opening-night film, The Apollo, to its 35th-anniversary reunion of Spinal Tap, to its selection of documentary profiles, this is a fest for music lovers as well as movie fans.
It’s hard to think of a better way to open a New York film festival than with a documentary about the legendary Apollo Theatre…at the legendary Apollo Theatre. Roger Ross Williams (Oscar nominee for Life, Animated) has assembled a thrilling history of the Harlem institution where just about every iconic African-American performer you can think of has appeared. Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, Richard Pryor, Aretha Franklin—the footage of these giants alone is worth the price of admission. But, using the framing device of preparations for a performance of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ prize-winning book about being black in America, Between the World and Me, The Apollo also places its namesake within a political context. While other Harlem venues had black artists performing for exclusively white audiences, the Apollo welcomed everyone from the beginning (even if the artists were often woefully underpaid for as many as five shows a day). This was the theater where James Brown first sang, “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” and when riots broke out in the neighborhood, no one dared target the Apollo for destruction. And the famous Amateur Nights (where Ella Fitzgerald was discovered) offered a true equal opportunity for anyone to become a star, if they were brave enough to face a notoriously tough audience who didn’t hesitate to boo them off the stage. The 1,500-seat theater fell on hard times in the cruel 1970s and was forced to close, but it was eventually reborn as a nonprofit venture. Its contribution to American culture is incalculable.
On a rather more frivolous note, on Saturday night the Beacon Theatre played host to the 35-year anniversary reunion of the world’s dumbest rock band, Spinal Tap, subjects of Rob Reiner’s hilarious, improvised mockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap. Classic scenes from the movie were cheered like numbers at a rock concert, and it was fun to identify bit players like Paul Shaffer, Fran Drescher, Bruno Kirby, Billy Crystal, Fred Willard and Anjelica Huston. After the film, Reiner was joined onstage by the considerably grayer trio of Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer. Reiner marveled that his movie is now in the National Film Registry after bombing in test screenings with audiences who didn’t get the joke: “Why would you make a movie about a band that nobody ever heard of?” Guest remembered, “One of the cards asked: What did you like about it? And the person wrote, ‘It’s in color.’”
The DP, Peter Smokler, was a veteran cinematographer for actual rock documentaries, and Reiner recalled him wondering, “I don’t get what is funny about this. This is exactly what they do!”
Reiner noted that the film came out a week after Black Sabbath started touring with a Stonehedge theme, which became a disastrous concept for Spinal Tap. “They were furious,” he recalled. “You stole it! You stole it! It takes a little more than a week to make a film.”
The Q&A was followed by a generous half-hour acoustic concert by the trio, including a guest appearance by Elvis Costello on “Gimme Some Money.” Acoustic versions of “Big Bottom” and “Sex Farm”? Gimme some more, please.
Seventeen years before Spinal Tap, the world first heard the glorious voice of Linda Ronstadt on the hit Stone Poneys single “Different Drum.” Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice reminds you what a dynamic, versatile performer this Arizona native was: Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, she was also at home performing Gilbert & Sullivan light operetta (earning a Tony nomination for The Pirates of Penzance), old standards under the musical direction of Nelson Riddle, and mariachi songs reflecting her part-Mexican heritage. All those daring career moves were a result of her fierce independence, even though she was also a very insecure perfectionist. (In fact, unlike many hesitant artists, she immediately embarked on a solo career after “Different Drum.”) She became known for covers (“You’re No Good,” “Heat Wave,” “Blue Bayou,” “Tumbling Dice”), but always made them her own. As her good friend Dolly Parton declares, “Linda claims a song.”
Ronstadt also comes across in the documentary as very smart, philosophical, politically outspoken, and sometimes ruthlessly honest. Sadly, today the 72-year-old is fighting Parkinson’s disease, which has diminished both her singing voice and her ebullient energy. A closing scene in which she quietly performs a Mexican song with relatives will have you in tears. Here’s hoping this CNN production, like some other CNN films, stops at theaters before making its way to the cable network.
The music business seems to tally more tragedies than most, and yet another one is chronicled in Mystify: Michael Hutchence, director Richard Lowenstein’s impressionistic portrait of the extremely charismatic lead singer of the ’80s Australian rock band INXS. Lowenstein was director of many of the group’s music videos, plus the 1986 film Dogs in Space starring Hutchence, and he kept a trove of intimate footage of the star. Contemporary interviews are heard but not seen, with the sole visual focus on moments from Hutchence’s life. The sexy INXS front man comes across as sensitive and caring and serious about pursuing art, but everything changed after a little-known incident in which an irate cab driver shoved him, causing a traumatic brain injury that left him without the sense of smell and prone to extreme mood swings. Compounding that tragedy, he became caught up in an ugly, tabloid-bait custody battle when he began an affair with singer Bob Geldof’s celebrity wife, Paula Yates. Hutchence, then something of a showbiz has-been, hung himself in 1997. The magnetic footage of the pre-tragedy singer underlines what a sad, sad story this is.
A neighborhood’s loss is the focus of Other Music, a charming doc by Puloma Basu and Rob Hatch-Miller about an independent record store in New York’s East Village that became a haven for fans of truly alternative music from every part of the spectrum. Part of Tribeca’s “This Used to be New York” section, the film offers an endearingly intimate look at the store’s enterprising founders and its staff of obsessives with encyclopedic knowledge of the most obscure and arcane artists. Refreshingly, there seem to be as many women as men staffing this nerd paradise, distinguished by its overwhelming array of highly detailed handwritten recommendations. Sadly, after 21 years the store was forced to close in 2016 due to changing consumer habits and economics, and the filmmakers were there to document its poignant final weeks.
When I first saw the Tribeca listing for Barak Goodman’s Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation, I thought: “What is there to say? Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 Woodstock is the definitive filmed record of that historic music event.” But this PBS “American Experience” production, opening in New York on May 24, is less focused on the music (although there are classic excerpts from Santana, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, Joan Baez, Richie Havens and more) than on how this singular festival came together and somehow rescued itself from constant imminent chaos, affirming the best about human nature. The young entrepreneurs behind it lost a fortune, but even they acknowledged there was more to the experience than money when “the concert was liberated.” The most striking aspect of the movie is watching all those young, idealistic faces and reminding yourself that, yes, that was truly 50 years ago.
Tribeca 2019 also featured documentary profiles of The Rolling Stones’ Bill Wyman (The Quiet One), R&B star D’Angelo (Devil’s Pie), Phish leader Trey Anastasio (Between Me and My Mind), the late Blind Melon singer Shannon Hoon (All I Can Say), reggae group Inna De Yard (Inna De Yard: The Soul of Jamaica), California band Sublime, drag country musician Trixie Mattel (Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts), the intersection of hip-hop and fashion (The Remix: Hip Hop X Fashion), and the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus’s daring trip south in Gay Chorus Deep South. Almost something for everyone.