Days before the hordes of tattooed, pierced, and weirdly bearded hipsters descended on Austin for the music portion of SXSW 2012, some of us were already getting our rock on, thanks to the usual eclectic assortment of music documentaries presented under SXSW Film’s 24 Beats Per Second banner. In past years, this program has given filmgoers an early look at such now-classic rock docs as Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt, The Pixies’ loudQUIETloud and Anvil! The Story of Anvil. Here’s a look at some of the standouts from this year’s lineup, coming soon to a theater or Netflix queue near you.
Eight years ago at SXSW, George Hickenlooper’s documentary on legendary L.A. rock scenester Rodney Bingenheimer, The Mayor of the Sunset Strip, captured the seedy majesty of the titular street during its ‘60s and ‘70s heyday. This new doc from director Hans Fjellestad (Moog) takes a broader view of the subject, tracing the history of the strip from its origins as a dirt trail on the outskirts of town through the glamour days of the Trocadero and the Garden of Allah, the decadence of the Chateau Marmont and the Whisky-a-Go-Go, and finally its current state as a haven for hair-metal refugees from the ‘80s. Chock full of interviews with denizens of Sunset past and present, including Peter Fonda, Mickey Rourke, Kim Fowley, and the entire Ozzy Osbourne family, Sunset Strip is an evocative trip through time featuring perhaps the most unsettling assortment of tour guides ever assembled.
Shut Up and Play the Hits
Rare is the band that decides to call it quits long before they’ve worn out their welcome, but at least until the inevitable reunion tour in 2020, that’s what LCD Soundsystem did last year with their farewell performance at Madison Square Garden. Co-directors Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern had seemingly total access to LCD leader James Murphy, not only during the run-up to the final concert, but on the hazy morning after, as Murphy (accompanied by his loyal French bulldog Petunia) contemplates the first day of the rest of his life. Framed by an interview with Chuck Klosterman in which Murphy provides context for his decision, Shut Up and Play the Hits is not a pure concert film, but it does devote roughly half its running time to the Madison Square Garden gig. Despite the title, there’s room to quibble about the omission of some hits (no “Drunk Girls” or “Daft Punk is Playing at My House”), but by the time the band brings down the house with one more chorus of “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down,” all is forgiven.
Under African Skies
Having finally put the Paradise Lost series to rest with the release of the West Memphis Three, documentarian Joe Berlinger lightens up considerably with this rousing tribute to Paul Simon’s classic 1986 album Graceland. Of course, Under African Skies is not entirely free of controversy, as it delves into the political firestorm that erupted when Simon traveled to South Africa to record with local musicians, in defiance of the cultural boycott supported by the UN and the African National Congress. In the doc, Simon sits down with Artists Against Apartheid founder Dali Tambo for a sometimes contentious chat about the controversy, but for the most part, Berlinger’s film is a celebration. Mixing archival footage of the original recording sessions with new interviews and video of Simon’s recent reunion shows with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the other musicians who collaborated with him on his signature solo work, Under African Skies revels in the pure joy of music-making, untouched by political considerations.
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
This documentary about the late Alex Chilton’s influential rock band, much loved and revered now but virtually unknown in its heyday, was presented as a work-in-progress, accompanied by stern admonishments that it not be reviewed. Sometimes “work-in-progress” is a code phrase used by publicists to discourage reviews for a movie that’s essentially done, but in this case, it’s evident that Nothing Can Hurt Me is unfinished, so it would be unfair to say much about it at this point. The concert that followed the SXSW screening, an all-star tribute to the band’s final album Third featuring Peter Buck, Tommy Stinson, and Peter Case, among others, was a somewhat ramshackle affair that nevertheless yielded moments of beauty, such as this rendition of “Kizza Me.”
Paul Williams Still Alive – It’s a funny thing about ‘70s nostalgia: Big Star, a band that barely made a dent in the public consciousness when it was active, now looms large as one of the signature acts of the era, while Paul Williams, the elfin entertainer who practically embodied the ‘70s at the time, is all but forgotten. That should change with the release of this entertaining and surprisingly moving documentary by Stephen Kessler (The Independent). Growing up in the Me Decade, Kessler was a big fan of Williams, who was not only the songwriter behind some of the biggest AM radio hits of the day (“Rainy Days and Mondays,” “Evergreen”), but a ubiquitous presence on television, making frequent guest appearances on The Tonight Show, Hollywood Squares, and The Gong Show, as well as primetime hits like Police Woman, Baretta, and The Love Boat. Williams then disappeared so completely, Kessler assumed he was dead, but as it turned out, Williams was on the road to recovery after battling addiction for many years. As Kessler catches up with Williams on the road, a friendship gradually develops – a process that unfolds with remarkable candor and transparency in the documentary, which is as much about itself as its subject. Kessler’s film is compassionate, uncondescending, and ultimately exhilarating as it reclaims Williams from the scrap heap of pop culture punchlines.