San Francisco International Film Festival’s chosen world cinema spotlight this year is “The Sounds of Cinema,” highlighting the enduring popularity of music in movies. For me, that raises a question: can “music” actually save your life? My own father has found solace throughout his seventy-plus years on this earth by not just hearing the music around him; he actually was listening to the lyrics, digesting instrumentations and feeling the textures in everything from blues and jazz to soul and psychedelic rock. He worked as a real radio DJ for over fifteen years, and he taught me to appreciate everything from the power of a song’s pulse to the importance of momentum when one song transitions to the next. It has recently made me ponder whether a profound (and even primal) connection to a melody might actually be the secret to one’s happiness? Which makes me further ask: if listening to music has the potential to be so enriching, what are the effects of actually making your own music?
Leading the pack in one of the most exciting SFIFF world cinema lineups in years is Liz Garbus’ What Happened, Miss Simone? (U.S.), which uses a stunning amount of found footage to expose Nina Simone’s difficulty with the political atmosphere of the 1960s, the record industry and her own psychiatric condition. Simone’s unique voice—combining immense strength with soul-crushing pain—is offered up in beautiful bulk in Garbus’ thoughtful and heartbreaking portrait. A perfect introduction to the artist for the unacquainted, it also delivers never-before-seen performances for the unquenchable devotee. Whether putting a new spin on Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” in 1965 or boldly paving social and political pathways during the Civil Rights era with a song like “Why? (The King of Love is Dead),” a devastating song she performed live at the Westbury Music Fair on April 7, 1968, three days after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., the classically-trained-pianist-turned-vocalist proves time and again the unique independence that was her legacy to the world. I can easily state that there has been no better documentary made about the legend.
In a similar fashion, the Beach Boys’ front man Brian Wilson’s lifelong battles with nervous breakdowns could be attributed to his experimentation on his musically misunderstood 1967 masterpiece, Smile, or the side effects of substance abuse or just plain exhaustion from mainstream success. Bill Pohlad’s directorial debut, Love & Mercy (U.S.), is a spectacular character study that deliberately immerses you into all of Wilson’s methodical, maniacal and melodic creations. Screenwriter Oren Moverman (who wrote and directed Time Out of Mind, also screening as part of the Peter J. Owens Award) has further sharpened his unusual narrative techniques, previously explored in Todd Haynes’ biopic about Bob Dylan, I’m Not There (2007). Both John Cusack and Paul Dano are stunning as Brian at different stages in his life, captured lovingly by Wes Anderson’s go-to cameraman Robert Yeoman.
Don Hardy’s Theory of Obscurity: a Film about the Residents (U.S.) stays true to the San Francisco band’s forty-plus-year philosophy: anonymity inspires greatness. While most artists are looking for their fifteen minutes of fame, the ultimate experimental art rock band is finally celebrated with extensive interviews, live performances and rare archival one-half-inch video footage. Again, this works as a perfect intro for the uninitiated and refresh for deep-rooted Resident fans. Hardy’s feature fleshes out what it can about the band with fans, critics and musicians (including Devo, Les Claypool and Dean Ween) whose lives were changed forever by the purposefully obscure musicians. Take great pleasure in knowing that even after all these years, the identities of the band remain completely unknown. This documentary is yet another chapter in their life-long revolutionary art project.
Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden (France) is an astounding ode to the 1990s House Music scene. Patiently structured into two-parts, this 131-minute odyssey not only mirrors the rise of pioneers Daft Punk (who even appear in the film!), it humorously parallels the movie’s protagonist, a French DJ who created the “French Touch” (scripted and based on Hansen-Løve’s own brother), but whose legacy—like many in every youth movement—fell short of success. While Eden has the built-in audience of EDM fans, who will be ecstatic to be educated on quite a number of these unsung heroes from 1990s (much less a wonderfully melancholic cameo by the Mother of Mumblecore, Greta Gerwig), non-EDM fans (Electronic Dance Music) may come to learn not only why ravers start throwing their hands up in the air at seemingly random (peaking) moments, but how creating dance music could be as difficult as holding onto the one true love of your life.
One of the festival’s secret gems is the Sudanese/South African documentary Beats of the Antonov, which won the People’s Choice Award for Best Documentary at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Director Hajooj Kuka frequently travelled between the Blue Niles and Nuba Mountains in Sudan, giving voice to the mountain tribes who have been (and continue to be) attacked by the central government, forcing an Arabic-Islamic identity onto the other fifty-six major ethnic groups of Sudan. The first-hand accounts of these survivors’ songs, especially after the daily bombings, are as immediate, harrowing and oddly upbeat as any musical expression you (or my father) may have experienced.
Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University and curates/hosts the MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS series at the Castro Movie Theatre, which showcases underrated, overlooked and dismissed films in a neo-sincere manner.