Only the lucky and well-connected can gain access to the big-buzz shows at SXSW (such as this year’s midnight Prince showcase at La Zona Rosa), but anyone with a film pass can get up close and personal with favorite rockers via the magic of movies. Here are five picks to click from the 2013 SxSW Film Festival that may soon make their way to your local theater or instant viewing queue.
All the Labor
The Gourds have been rocking Austin with their rootsy brand of Americana for nearly two decades, but their only sniff at national fame came via an unlikely cover of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice,” which went viral in the days before most of us knew what that meant outside of its medical context. Unfortunately, their Internet hit was generally credited to Phish in those outlaw Napster days, so The Gourds remain a below-the-radar success story. Doug Hawes-Davis’ rockumentary may change that, assuming it gets seen beyond its SXSW premiere. Following the band on the road and in the studio as they navigate the perilous waters of the modern music business, All the Labor is a treat for longtime fans, as well as a great introduction to the raucous alt-country jams and surreal folk anthems of the band’s principle creative forces, Kevin Russell and Jimmy Smith.
Speaking of Napster, the Wild West days of file-sharing and music-swapping are vividly brought back to life in this documentary directed by Alex Winter (yes, Bill S. Preston, Esq. of the Bill and Ted movies). Through archival footage and new interviews with Napster founders Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, Winter traces the evolution of file-sharing technology from the early days of dial-up and barely-moving progress bars to a global phenomenon spearheaded by two Boston teenagers in backwards baseball caps to a legal quagmire that brought the full force of the music industry (as embodied by Metallica) down on their own customers. Through it all, Downloaded maintains an empathetic perspective on Fanning and Parker (who aren’t necessarily the most likable, charismatic protagonists of all time), while giving all sides of the issues raised by the Napster revolution their due.
Finding the Funk
Finding the Funk proves to be an apt title for this documentary by longtime critic Nelson George, as it’s sometimes hard to find the music itself in this otherwise engaging overview of the funk genre. George has assembled an impressive array of interviews with the giants of funk music, including George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Questlove (who also serves as the narrator), and even the long missing-in-action Sly Stone (who is still capable of the occasional sharp observation despite looking quite a bit worse for wear). There’s even an archival (and occasionally intelligible) appearance by funk forefather James Brown. But although these interviews are lively and informative, and some of the subjects give demonstrations on their instruments, it’s a bit frustrating to hear discussion of some of the great funk songs without ever hearing (or in some case, barely hearing) the songs themselves. Still, George’s film is billed as a work-in-progress, so it’s possible this defect will be cleared up by the time Finding the Funk reaches a theater near you.
Not a documentary, but a comedic drama based on true events, this film co-directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn tells the story of Terri Hooley, a one-eyed, hard-drinking, Motown-loving record shop owner who discovered and helped spread the power of punk music in 1970s Belfast. Richard Dormer (who joins the cast of Game of Thrones in its third season) gives a warm, spirited performance as Hooley, who never lets business sense get in the way of his love for the music. D’Sa and Leyburn create an evocative sense of time and place in their depiction of Troubles-era Belfast; the bleakness of the setting makes the moments of triumph (like the epochal recording session for the Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks”) all the more special. (psst – for Undertones tour dates click here – Ed)
Twenty Feet from Stardom
The spotlight rarely shines on the background singers of rock and pop, but this documentary directed by Morgan Neville (Johnny Cash’s America) is a notable exception. Neville focuses on a handful of the great singers in American music who have, for one reason or another, mostly remained in the shadows. Darlene Love may be the best-known, as the (often uncredited) voice of many Phil Spector productions, including the timeless “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home),” but the best story belongs to Merry Clayton, who showed up at a late-night Rolling Stones session with her hair in curlers and blew everyone away with her apocalyptic turn on “Gimme Shelter.” When any of the film’s talented subjects (which also include Lisa Fischer and the Waters Family Singers) open their mouths to sing, the capricious nature of the music business has never been more apparent.