The 9 Best Things We Saw at Sundance 2016
Billboard’s new home every January? The Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. What started as a must for film insiders has become a mecca for music as well, with lots of great concerts, parties, pop-star sightings, music documentaries and more.
After a whirlwind, insomniac week-and-a-half in the mountains, we looked back at our packed schedules and narrowed them down to this best of the best from Sundance.
Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off the Wall
Spike Lee’s documentary looks at a crucial, often overlooked period of the singer’s life, when he made the difficult transition from Jackson 5 boy bander to grown-up solo star. There’s forgotten footage of MJ interviews and performances (him tapdancing with the Nicolas Brothers is a particular treat) and revealing interviews from both past collaborators and present-day stars (The Weeknd, Questlove, ballerina Misty Copeland) who were influenced by him. It’s a delight for any music fan, and an absolute must for Jackson fanatics.
Nick Jonas in Goat
From boy bander to solo pop star to TV star, Nick Jonas isn’t done evolving: Goat, a gripping drama that spotlights fraternity hazing and male relationships, could be his breakout big-screen role. Jonas is convincing and subtle in his role as Brad, the older brother of a new fraternity pledge. The film has yet to announce a theatrical release or a buyer, but it definitely emerged as one of the most buzzed-about projects at Sundance.
Sting and J. Ralph at Sundance’s ASCAP Music Cafe
On a wintry Saturday evening at Sundance, an intimate industry gathering paid tribute to a tragic loss of journalist James Foley, who was murdered by ISIS in August 2014. Sting and J. Ralph appeared in support of documentary film, Jim: The James Foley Story, to which they contributed haunting song "The Empty Chair." Recognizing the members of Foley's family in attendance, English singer/songwriter hailed the movie as "the most important film you will see this year." Sting kept the mood light initially with well-received opener “Message in a Bottle,” and a cover of Johnny Cash’s “I Hung My Head,” quipping, “it’s difficult for an Englishman to sing a country song. It’s a question of authenticity.” But the show’s emotional apex soon came as J. Ralph joined Sting onstage for what The Police’s former frontman called “the main event” -- a heartbreaking performance of “The Empty Chair.”
Flying Lotus, Dan Deacon and Daddy at Base Camp
Sundance’s first-ever Base Camp music and film stage, co-curated by Franki Chan’s IHEARTCOMIX and Jarom Rowland from Sundance’s Film & Music Program, proved to be one of the festival’s unheralded highlights, with free admission, food trucks, an outdoor text right off main street, and most of all, great music. On Saturday, Flying Lotus took no prisoners in an animated hip-hop heavy set that culminated in a raucous rendition of Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” “Y’all are fun,” he interrupted his booming 808s to announce with a giant smile.
On Monday, multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Keefe – one-half of duo Daddy with James Franco – provided an infectious funk-infused soundtrack to the first-ever screening of their project’s new film Let Me Get What I Want. While the performance may not have gone according to plan with scheduled co-performer The Smiths’ Andy Rourke stranded in the East Coast blizzard, the dance floor proved undeterred.
Taking the stage to The Little Mermaid standard “Under the Sea,” Dan Deacon guided his engaged audience through madcap activities equal parts social experiment and summer camp icebreaker – all to the tune of the Baltimore native’s pummeling yet quirkily ebullient electronica.
Diplo at Samsung Late Night LEVEL Party
Samsung celebrated the launch of its LEVEL headphone line by bringing surprise guest Diplo to drop mostly hip-hop jams to the delight of a celebrity-studded cocktail party at O.P. Rockwell. Afterwards, Diplo took to the decks at TAO, the popular nightlife pop-up whose notoriously tough door had even the Mad Decent boss waiting outside for a bit.
Southside With You
Richard Tanne's Before Sunset-esque film about the Obamas' first date is emotional, enjoyable and inspiring. Leaving aside the politics, it’s a treat to watch these two people get to know each other, with just small hints of the big things that await them. The film also features a moving tune by John Legend that plays over the credits (Legend also co-produced the film).
Lena Dunham Chat
At a Times Talk Friday on Main Street Friday, Lena Dunham and Norman Lear had an engaging conversation about television, character creation, "political correctness” and Donald Trump (needless to say, neither are fans). The enlightening conversation was a treat to watch -- Dunham's obvious fondness for Lear, and his for her, was obvious.
Call it three women and a baby. Featuring knockout performances by Ellen Page, Allison Janney and Tammy Blanchard Tallulah tells the story of three very different ladies, and the way their lives connect after homeless teen Tallulah (Page) makes a rash decision to kidnap a toddler. Emotional and powerful, the film has already been picked up by Netflix, so fans all over will get a chance to check out in the coming months.
Hey, what can we say? Our second annual concert series at Sundance was pretty damn good, with Wiz Khalifa, Travis Scott, Cage the Elephant, Chainsmokers and Kygo performing raucous sets to a great mixed crowd of locals and festival-goers at Park City Live four nights in a row.
Birth of a Nation
Believe the hype. This film about slave Nate Turner and the rebellion he led not only shines a much-needed spotlight into a little-discussed historical benchmark, but it's remarkably shot and acted, at turns harrowing and beautiful.