Toronto International Film Fest Preview: Lady Gaga's 'A Star Is Born,' Quincy Jones Doc, Drake-Produced Drama & More

Clay Enos/Warner Bros Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star is Born.

Of the 342 films shown over 10 days at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), there are two big music ones. One is fiction, one is not, but both are about star-makers: A Star Is Born and Quincy.

TIFF, which takes over the downtown core, starts Thursday night (Sept. 6), closing streets, rolling out red carpets, and accommodating thousands of star-gazers and autograph seekers who scream, wave and snap photos behind security-and-police-heavy barricades. It truly is madness, attracting 600,000 people in 2017, according to TIFF.

Lady Gaga, who was at TIFF last year to premiere her Five Foot Two Netflix doc and treat the audience to a short live performance on piano, returns to the city for the much-anticipated North American premiere of A Star Is Born. The third remake of the classic film about a booze-addled veteran musician who discovers and falls for a struggling artist co-stars Gaga and first-time director Bradley Cooper.

“Drawing deep on the pleasures audiences previously discovered in the 1937, 1954, and 1976 versions, Cooper brings the narrative right up to the present,” the description reads. "Both intimate and epic, this is a love story that hovers between the shadow of tragedy and the bright light of artists at their peak.” The film has back-to-back screenings Sunday night (Sept. 9).

Quincy — that’s Quincy Jones, for those who might need a last name — is described in a nutshell as “a fascinating and intimate look at the life, labors, and legacies of the legendary music producer.” Co-directed by his daughter, actor-writer-director-producer Rashida Jones and Alan Hicks (Keep On Keepin' On, about jazz legend Clark Terry), "This intimate portrait follows him over three years on the road as he prepares to stage a star-studded concert for the opening of the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, DC.” The doc has its world premiere on Sunday afternoon.

Even after the galas and premium showings — attended by the talent and directors and usually with Q&A portions — there are often multiple screenings during TIFF, just not as fancy. Check TIFF.net for the schedule and ticket info. There is also a rush line for the sold out shows, which are most of them.

Another notable music documentary this year, though more niche, is Carmine Street Guitars, directed by Canadian Ron Mann; written by Canadian Len Blum, and featuring a score by Canadian band The Sadies — however, the subject is not Canadian. It’s a look at Greenwich Village luthier Rick Kelly, who builds his custom-made instruments from repurposed wood scavenged from historic New York City buildings. In the film — which has its North American premiere on Sunday evening -- Mann also talks with store clientele such as Charlie Sexton, Bill Frisell and Jim Jarmusch.

Also of interest to music fans: the North American premiere of Maria By Callas by director Tom Volf, who uses recently rediscovered writings and interviews with the Greek-American soprano Maria Callas, who died in 1977 at age 53. The rare writings — voiced in the doc by American opera singer Joyce DiDonato — will soon be published in his third book about her, Maria Callas: Letters & Mémoires.

There appears to be just one biopic: the world premiere of Green Book, starring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, and directed by Peter Farrelly. It’s the true story of a working-class Italian-American bouncer named Tony "Lip" Vallelonga who is hired by African-American classical pianist Don Shirley to chauffer him across the still-segregated American South in the 1960s, using The Negro Motorist Green Book to guide them to safe hotels and restaurants.

In the past, TIFF has hosted biopics on Tim and Jeff Buckley, Jimi Hendrix, Chet Baker and premiered docs on music’s biggest acts — U2, Bruce Springsteen, the Dixie Chicks, Keith Richards, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Alice Cooper, Justin Timberlake, Thirty Seconds To Mars, Snoop Dogg, Michael Jackson, Roger Waters and more — but this year there are more narrative fictional films with musicians featured in the storyline.

Falls Around Her (world premiere) is about a “world-famous Anishinaabe musician who returns to the reserve to rest and recharge — only to discover that fame (and the outside world) are not easily left behind,” written and directed by Darlene Naponse.

Vox Lux (North American premiere), directed by Brady Corbet, stars Natalie Portman in this decade-spanning piece “in the life of a school-shooting survivor who ends up juggling a scandal-ridden music career, a teenage daughter (Raffey Cassidy), and an overbearing if doting manager (Jude Law).”

Her Smell (world premiere) is a drama written and directed by Alex Ross Perry, starring Elisabeth Moss as Becky Something, “a talented but self-destructive musician [for a '90s rock band called Something She] who seems determined to alienate everyone around her — even at the cost of her band’s success.”

Redemption (North American premiere) is a Hebrew film, subtitled, written by co-directors Boaz Yehonatan Yacov and Joseph Madmony with Erez Kavel about “a devout, middle-aged Hasid [who] must return to his younger rock star days in order to pay for his daughter’s expensive medical bills.”

Wild Rose (world premiere): TIFF 2017 Rising Star Jessie Buckley plays Rose-Lynn Harlan, a would-be country singer, convicted criminal and single mom of two, “who dreams of leaving her dreary, workaday Glasgow life for the bright lights of Nashville” in this film billed as a comedy drama.

Teen Spirit (world premiere) is a subtitled film about “a shy teenager [Elle Fanning] [who] dreams of pop stardom and enters an international singing competition as an escape from her small town and difficult family life, in actor Max Minghella’s (The Handmaid’s Tale) feature directorial debut.

Quién te Cantará (world premiere) by Spanish director Carlos Vermut is a tale about Lila Cassen (played by Najwa Nimri), a “fame-weary and amnesiac singer [who] forgets how to perform, [and] super-fan Violeta steps in to teach Lila how to be Lila once again.”

There is also the nine-minute short Veslemoy's Song, a North American premiere, about a young woman “inspired to delve into the lost history of a classical violinist and music teacher who never got her due. “

A massive event in The 6 wouldn’t be complete without the presence of Drake. Last year, he was all over The Carter Effect doc and showed up onstage at the premiere. This TIFF, he's involved via the police drama Monsters and Men (opening Thursday), a Sundance Special Jury Prize-winning film by writer/director Reinaldo Marcus Green. Drake is one of the executive producers; his scheduled in-person intro to the film was canceled last minute. The TIFF Bell Lightbox will also be “activated” after the screening, but no more details have been given about what that means.

As usual, while music films represent a tiny percentage of the TIFF programming, there are a number of music-related TIFF-affiliated happenings, as well non-official, including showcases for music supervisors and filmmakers; gifting lounges open to musician celebs; a music-and-film-focused panel discussion, free live performances on an outdoor stage, and invite-only parties with live bands and DJs.

In the heart of “festival village,” where King Street’s theatre row is closed to traffic for the first four days of TIFF (Sept. 6 to 9), Slaight Music, founded by former radio executive Gary Slaight, a major patron of the arts, is sponsoring The Slaight Music Stage featuring free sets from Theo Tams, Kayla Diamond, Ryan Langdon and Liam Russell. Tams, the final winner of Canadian Idol before the show was canceled in 2008, will also be performing on Sunday at the annual CFC Fundraiser BBQ, held on the garden grounds of Norman Jewison’s Canadian Film Centre in suburban Toronto.

On Saturday morning, following the public Share Her Journey Rally featuring a number of industry activists standing up for equality in the film industry, award-winning Canadian jazz singer Molly Johnson, the women behind the groundbreaking '90s AIDS benefit Kumbaya Festival, and Shakura S’’Aida, will perform at the wrap-up,   

The sponsor-plastered 10 days will also see the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) and its year old program RBCxMusic — bringing ticket access, music and other offers to its customers — at the RBC House, an invite-only hotspot for interviews, panels and parties. American sisters Haim are among the acts performing, along with Juno-winning producer/DJ Skratch Bastid and popular party band Dwayne Gretzky.

The 10th edition of the Canadian Music Café & Networking Party, curated and produced by Michael Perlmutter and his team at music supervision company Instinct Entertainment (TIFF 2018 selection Firecrackers, Mary Kills People, Degrassi, The Handmade’s Tale) will be held over two days (Sept. 10-11), giving artists a chance to perform in front of key music supervisors and filmmakers. Presented by the Canadian Music Publishers Association (CMPA) and the Canadian Independent Music Association (CIMA), the invite-only event allows the music and film world to connect, hopefully leading to syncs in film, TV, video games and ads. On the Monday: Lost Cousins, The Jerry Cans, Kayo, Foxtrott and Neon Dreams showcase, and on Tuesday, Carmanah, Kayla Diamond, Soran, Haviah Mighty, and a l l i e.

Philanthropic-minded public relations firm NKPR has several events going during TIFF, some with a music theme. On Thursday, their IT House x Producers Ball is holding a music & film panel, exploring the important role music plays in film storytelling. Panelists include director Jasmin Mozaffari (Firecrackers), producer Jennifer Shin (Mouthpiece), actress/singer Bahia Watson, director/musician Steven McCarthy, and Post Toronto partner/SVP Sim Jane Tattersall. It will take place at Live Nation’s new event space in Liberty Village, where NKPR will also hold its gifting lounge for a few days which has some rock ‘n’ roll backstage look activations, with Rolling Stone managing the celebrity portrait studio. The Producers Ball — an annual TIFF event hosted by Scott Brothers Entertainment (Brother vs. Brother, Property Brothers at Home) — will also utilize the built-in stage for local band Sole Power, who will perform hits and iconic soundtrack songs.

NKPR founder Natasha Koifman is also behind the annual and very exclusive Artists For Peace and Justice (APJ) gala presented by Bovet 1822, which has raised millions of dollars for the people of Haiti over the years. Harry Belafonte will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award via video feed for his philanthropy. The live auction, awards presentation and dinner is a private affair that brings out a who’s who of Hollywood for the festival — this year including new co-hosts Ben Stiller and Susan Sarandon, plus Jackson Browne (who was honored last year with the Peace and Justice Activism Award), Maxwell and Alan Cumming — who bid in the tens of thousands for cool and luxury one-of-a-kind experiences. Koifman is a co-chair alongside Zoomer magazine editor-in-chief Suzanne Boyd.

There are also heaps of parties. Refinery29 and TNT are behind a sunset cocktail party for Shatterbox Films celebrating emerging voices of female directors, and featuring tunes by DJ Chippy Nonstop.  Other bashes with musical guests are DIRECTV’s official film selections party Sunday night, presented by AT&T and featuring a DJ set from Chromeo at “DIRECTV House,” which is Momofuko; opening DJs are Them Jeans and Franki Chan. Wild Rose is also holding an after-party at which film’s star Jessie Buckley will be performing. And while Lady Gaga did play piano and sing before her doc screening last year, PR for A Star is Born won’t reveal if she and Bradley Cooper will treat guests to some songs at Sunday’s private premiere party co-presented by Links of London at the venerable one-time concert venue Masonic Temple.