Foxy new features about Sharon Jones, Gary Numan, roadies, Austin City Limits and The Broken Spoke all make our cut for the best rockumentaries at SxSW!
Given its roots as a music festival, SXSW is always going to find a place for rock-based movies as part of its film lineup. (Indeed, the films that make up the “24 Beats per Second” section of the festival’s programming are the only ones open to both film and music badgeholders.) Over the years, however, the rock doc has become increasingly formulaic, and it gets more and more difficult for SXSW vets to find compelling stories told in a way we haven’t seen them before. How do this year’s contenders stack up to past favorites? I’m glad you asked!
Miss Sharon Jones!
If you’re looking to shake up the rock doc formula, you could certainly do worse than to start with Barbara Kopple, one of the great nonfiction filmmakers of our time. Best known for Harlan County U.S.A. and American Dream, both of which chronicled hard-fought labor union strikes, Kopple also directed 2006’s Shut Up and Sing, about the Dixie Chicks’ struggles with the country music industry following their controversial remarks post-9/11. Miss Sharon Jones! concerns a different sort of struggle entirely, as a singer who has already overcome a number of music business prejudices on the road to success is forced to put her career on hold to battle cancer. Granted seemingly unlimited access, Kopple achieves a startling degree of intimacy with her relentlessly upbeat subject. The result is a genuinely moving portrait that doesn’t sugarcoat the tensions that arise between a band eager to get back to work and a frontwoman dealing with real matters of life and death.
Three years ago, 20 Feet from Stardom was one of the standout rockumentaries at SXSW, giving unheralded backup singers a rare turn in the spotlight. Hired Gun does the same for the touring and studio musicians who are rarely full-fledged members of a band but often the best at what they do. Guitarists Rudy Sarzo (Ozzy Osbourne, Whitesnake) and Jason Hook (Alice Cooper, Hilary Duff), drummers Liberty DeVitto (Billy Joel) and Kenny Aronoff (John Mellencamp), and keyboardist-turned-producer David Foster are among those who weigh in on the uncertainty that comes with the rock ‘n roll life when there are no guarantees past your next gig or session. Some of the stories are familiar, but when the interview subjects have an axe to grind (either metaphorically or musically), the movie comes to life. If you’ve ever wanted to see Billy Joel roasted alive, this may be as close as you ever get.
Gary Numan: Android in La La Land
Synthesizers existed in rock music before Gary Numan released The Pleasure Principle in 1979, but it was Numan who ushered in the synth-pop sound of the ‘80s when “Cars” became a worldwide smash hit. A string of UK hits followed, but in the US he’s been generally considered a one-hit wonder for decades. This documentary tracks the now middle-aged Numan as he and his family make the move from England to Los Angeles in hopes of finishing off a comeback album and breaking into film scoring. While Numan’s struggles with Asperger’s and his touching relationship with wife Gemma and their daughters make for an intermittently engaging portrait, much of Android in La La Land feels overfamiliar. The riches-to-rags-and-hoping-for-riches-again arc might be more compelling if Numan weren’t living in a spectacular California mansion while bemoaning his financial woes.
A Song for You: The Austin City Limits Story
Over the course of more than four decades, Austin City Limits has grown from an experimental stab at regional public television programming to an empire encompassing one of the largest music festivals in the United States. This affectionate retrospective from director Keith Maitland traces the history of the show from its early focus on the Austin redneck/hippie hybrid music of the ‘70s (Willie Nelson, Doug Sahm, Townes Van Sant) to its 40th anniversary season featuring the likes of Beck, the Foo Fighters, and the Avett Brothers. Although a bit too reverential at times, the documentary packs enough vintage clips of legendary appearances episodes (with the curious omission of Tom Waits’ classic 1979 performance) to make you want to seek out the full original episodes.
Honky Tonk Heaven: The Legend of the Broken Spoke
The changing face of Austin is on display in Honky Tonk Heaven, a loving ode to one of the last of the old Texas dancehalls. When founder James White opened the Broken Spoke 50 years ago, it was surrounded by a giant dirt parking lot on the outskirts of Austin. Now it’s surrounded by luxury housing, hanging on only because the landowner insisted it remain as a condition of selling to developers. Once you’re inside its doors, however, the Spoke is the same as it’s always been, from its sizable dance floor to its cramped bandstand to the corner nook of mementos commemorating past performers like George Jones, Ernest Tubb, and the ubiquitous Willie Nelson. What elevates Honky Tonk Heaven above the routine is White himself, a genuine old Texas character whose colorful observations about the changing times are leavened with warmth and humor.