What do a documentary spotlighting the failures of the criminal justice system, a biopic on one of hip-hop’s forgotten trailblazers and a feature named for the Japanese word for “bullshit” have in common? All three projects are part of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival (running Jan. 19-29), and all, when the credits roll, will feature some of the music world’s biggest names.
Music plays a huge part in the annual Park City, Utah, festival, now in its 39th year, both as fuel for its star-studded parties and inspiration for its trendsetting independent cinema. In recent years especially, some of the festival’s most talked-about films have been by, about or featured pop artists. Take 20 Feet From Stardom, the 2013 documentary about unsung backup vocalists that won an Academy Award after premiering at Sundance. In 2014, long before La La Land was a critical and commercial smash, director Damien Chazelle debuted his jazz-obsessed, Oscar-winning Whiplash in Park City.
This year is no exception. When the festival begins, roughly 15 percent of its 100-plus feature selections will have some sort of musical tie-in, whether onscreen, behind the camera or in the production team. Bundle up and grab some popcorn to see how A-list musicians -- a select few of whom are highlighted below -- are planning to wow the tastemaking Sundance crowds. For our interview with St. Vincent about her directorial debut as part of the horror film anthology XX, head here.
FROM BILLBOARD CHARTS TO THE BIG SCREEN
Mudbound (Director: Dee Rees)
Mary J. Blige stars in this period drama based on Hillary Jordan’s acclaimed 2008 novel of the same name, which tells a story of two families -- one white, one black -- confronting social pressures in 1946 Mississippi. “There is so much truth and tenderness in it,” says director Rees of Blige’s performance. “Mary’s got this raging inner life.”
The drama, which co-stars Carey Mulligan and Garrett Hedlund, is Rees second period piece, after her 2015 HBO biopic Bessie, about the blues legend Bessie Smith. But she says it was the material in Jordan's novel that appealed to her. “I think it’s a period, like so many, where America contradicts itself,” Rees explains. “During the war we’re fighting overseas for an ideal, yet that ideal is not something that’s lived at home.”
Fun Mom Dinner (Director: Althea Jones)
Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine, who often has appeared as himself in movies (Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, Begin Again), stars as a bar owner who winds up with a pivotal role when four moms’ night out on the town takes a surprising turn. Molly Shannon, Bridget Everett, Toni Collette and Katie Aselton co-star.
Shots Fired (Directors: Gina Prince-Bythewood, Jonathan Demme)
An actor and Grammy-nominated R&B artist, Mack Wilds gets gritty as a corrupt policeman in a Southern town riled by racial tension after two shootings. The festival will screen two episodes from the upcoming 10-part Fox series.
MUSICIANS BUT THEY REALLY WANT TO PRODUCE (OR DIRECT)
Time: The Kalief Browder Story (Director: Jenner Furst)
Jay Z executive-produced this documentary, which takes on the tragic case of a 16-year-old jailed for three years starting in 2010 -- two in solitary confinement -- on New York’s Rikers Island without a conviction. His alleged crime? Stealing a backpack. Browder, whose story was reported in-depth by The New Yorker, later committed suicide. The project, backed by the Weinstein Company, airs in March as a six-part series on Spike TV. *Billboard Pick
Dolores (Director: Peter Bratt)
Cesar Chavez is celebrated as a legend in the American labor movement, but he didn’t do it alone. This documentary brings to light the efforts of Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the nation’s first farm workers union. Carlos Santana is an executive producer, joining his daughter, Angelica, an associate producer.
Kuso (Director: Steven Ellison)
Former film student Stephen Ellison, aka Flying Lotus, returns to his first love to direct his feature debut, which evolved from a 5-minute animation into a live-action project that sounds both fantastical and enigmatic. “It’s very experimental in one sense,” Ellison says. “My intention was to pursue all the things that make me afraid, and make me cringe, and make me go, ‘Oh, God!’” And I feel like I have a high threshhold.” The performer took some inspiration from filmmakers with whom he has worked as a composer, including Kahlil Joseph (“Until the Quiet Comes”) and Alma Har’el (“LoveTrue”). He could also channel his inner imp. “I wanted to work on something where I would have fun the whole time.”
Assisting in that coal is a cast that include professional comedians Hannibal Buress and Tim Heidecker. “Hannibal’s my man, so working with him is real natural,” Eliison says. “I was surprised he even did it because he’s a big star now. I wouldn’t want this movie to hurt his career.” Ellison also was surprised to swing Heidecker for a role added at the last-minute. “I needed this character, a kind of creepy, pervy guy, and I had a feeling Tim could channel it.”
As for the title, it may only seem mysterious if you don’t know Japanese. In that language, “Kuso” means “bullshit.” “I did it on purpose,” Ellison says. “It’s a big-ass fart joke, really, but there’s some very complex world-building going on.”
THE BIG PICTURE: FEATURES ABOUT MUSIC
Patti Cake$ (Director: Geremy Jasper)
Music video director Jasper (Florence & The Machine, Selena Gomez) wrote some 20 songs across multiple genres for his debut feature, about an unlikely aspiring rapper in the strip-mall wilds of suburban New Jersey. “I always like to think of Patti as in the lineage of all the great New Jersey underdog rockers and rappers,” said Jasper, who spent two years preparing Australian actress Danielle Macdonald for the title role. “There’s just something about Jersey where you have to battle through.” The idea for the film was inspired by Jasper’s own New Jersey youth. “It came about when I was in my early 20s and living in my parents’ basement and wanted to make music and didn’t know how and had to get out,” said the filmmaker, noting that many of the scenes were shot near his home turf, in the towns of Lodi, Elizabeth and Linden.
Macdonald, the film’s star and discovery, lacked the same reference point. But made a concentrated effort to transform herself into Patti, mentored by the Brooklyn rapper Skyzoo. “We started really simple, almost with nursery rhyme raps and by the end of it she was doing Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Control’ verse, which is one of the most complicated tongue-twisters,” Jasper recalls. “It was really amazing to hear the transformation.”
Roxanne Roxanne (Director: Michael Larnell)
Newcomer Chanté Adams takes the title role of real-life rapper Roxanne Shanté, who burst out of New York’s Queensbridge housing project in 1984 to become one of hip-hop’s first hit-making female MCs -- at just 14 years old. The biopic, which co-stars Nia Long and current Oscar hopeful Mahershala Ali (Moonlight), explores Shante’s life before and after fame. “The ’80s was a tough time period in New York,” says director Larnell (Cronies). “I wanted to show how she survived all that.” Shanté is an executive producer on the film, which Pharrell Williams also backed as a producer; RZA helmed the soundtrack. *Billboard Pick
Band Aid (Director: Zoe Lister-Jones)
Saturday Night Live veteran and onetime punk drummer Fred Armisen picks up the sticks again as the neighbor of a sparring couple (writer-director Lister-Jones, Adam Pally) who form a band in a desperate attempt to save their marriage after a miscarriage. Lister-Jones pens her group’s songs, with a soundtrack featuring the indie-pop act Lucius.
LIVE AND UNCUT: MUSIC DOCS
Give Me Future (Director: Austin Peters)
Major Lazer made history last March as the first major American act to perform in Cuba since diplomatic relations were restored. This concert documentary captures the moment when a half-million Cubans thronged downtown Havana to hear the “Lean On” act, led by DJ-producer Diplo.
Tokyo Idols (Director: Kyoko Miyake)
The adoration of young female pop idols is a national obsession in Japan. The film explores loaded issues of sexuality and power as seen through the experiences of aspiring idol Ri Ri and her legions of followers, known as “brothers.”
Long Strange Trip (Director: Amir Bar-Lev)
Filmmaker Bar-Lev (Happy Valley) became a Deadhead at age 13, and has spent the last 15 years chasing his dream project: an epic four-hour documentary about the legendary, psychedelic-era San Francisco band, which had long been resistant to such notions. “Many of people have come before me and tried to make this film but it was not something that ever really totally got off the ground,” Bar-Lev says. “One of my initial hurdles was trying to convince these guys that I was not seeking to define them away.”
The project, executive produced by Martin Scorsese, could never threaten to turn the band into a cultural relic. “One of the wonderful things about The Grateful Dead is they constantly evolve. It’s hard to talk about what the Grateful Dead phenomenon is,” says Bar-Lev, who promises to unlock a vault of rare archival sights and sounds which first captured his imagination as an adolescent. “I’m making the film for a 13-year-old today, who might not otherwise get a chance to experience the authenticity that The Grateful Dead have always represented. There’s a lot less of that in the culture today than when I was 13, a lot less integrity all around. It’s a film that seeks to remind people what rock’n’roll can be.”