Every year, themes emerge from my personal film festival schedule. Sometimes it is difficult to spot the through-line that connects my selections; in other instances, the lines intertwine almost by themselves, forming a thick knot for readers to firmly grab hold for the long haul. Is there a performer with multiple features calling for my attention? Is there a significant cultural or political element at play?
The 40th year of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), the festival of festivals, will forever be linked in my memories to music. I ended up with a unique sampler of features and documentaries focusing on the lives of challenging and tragic musical figures.
I Saw the Light – Marc Abraham
Although the film itself falls into the conventional 4/4 beats we’ve come to recognize in these tragic stories about music legends who lived hard and tended to die young, I Saw the Light used a weirdly curious casting choice — charismatic British actor Tom Hiddleston playing Country great Hank Williams — to goose audiences. But Abraham’s camera gets lost, staring at a bit too intently on the trademark hat Williams wore rather than cherishing the drama and spirit Williams infused into his songs. I wanted more of the magic I heard about from Casey Bond, who plays fiddler Jerry Rivers in the Williams band, The Drifting Cowboys. During an engaging interview, Bond shared stories about the fevered process of learning to proficiently play an instrument he had never touched before in a matter of weeks. Watching Hiddleston and the other actors learning and developing that kind of rapport — now, that would have been illuminating.
Keith Richards: Under the Influence – Morgan Neville
Having already gifted us with 20 Feet from Stardom, Academy Award-winning doc director Neville returns to the musical wellspring and taps into the deeper and richer roots of the popular form, thanks to the seemingly endless experiences of Keith Richards. The Rolling Stones guitarist, on the verge of releasing his first collection of new solo material in decades, heads off on an American walkabout with Neville and his trusty crew in tow, dropping sweet science and pearls of wisdom about the diverse sources of inspiration and his willingness to embrace the full spectrum of his passions en route to something far more meaningful than a career. Under the Influence is about a life lived with glorious and infinite genius.
Miss Sharon Jones! – Barbara Kopple
During the introduction and the follow-up Q&A after the public screening for Miss Sharon Jones!, the TIFF representative noted that Kopple bears the distinction of being one of a few directors with films at this year’s fest who also happened to have a film playing in the inaugural fest back in 1976. That film, Harlan County USA, presented an account of a violent miners’ strike in Harlan County, Ky. Kopple is not one to shy away from honesty in such moments, and here she takes us inside the struggles of Sharon Jones, the lead singer of the Soul revival band Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. In 2013, Jones was diagnosed with a form of pancreatic cancer and submitted to surgery and chemotherapy, just as the band found itself on the precipice of gaining a new level of stardom. Miss Sharon Jones! captures an unstoppable force, the heart and soul of a family of musicians and celebrates two truly special women — Kopple and Jones — who, together, will make your soul dance, sing, shout and cry.
Janis: Little Girl Blue – Amy Berg
With Deliver Us from Evil (Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Feature) and West of Memphis (BAFTA nominee for Best Documentary Film), Berg has explored the dark alleys of justice and social responsibility, but with Janis: Little Girl Blue, the director turns to a more intimate tale of tragedy, in the form of Janis Joplin. The raw, bluesy rock-and-roller who died too soon has been the center of attention recently for filmmakers and industry tastemakers eager to bring her story to the screen. And Berg shows, while weaving quite a tale thanks to archival footage of Joplin onstage and in interviews, why that is. The mesmerizing element, though, is Joplin’s own account of what was going on, in letters to lovers, friends and family, voiced by Cat Power (Chan Marshall), a contemporary bluesy Southern rocker who doesn’t act or mimic Joplin. What she and the film (and Berg) do is simply let Joplin speak for herself, and by the end, the salutation that starts each letter — “Dear Family” — feels like it was meant to directly address all of us.
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