Music Docs, Performances, Showcases & Exhibits Feature at 2017 Toronto International Film Festival: Preview

Lady Gaga in the Netflix original documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two.
Courtesy of Netflix

Lady Gaga in the Netflix original documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two. 

Grace Jones, Lady Gaga, The Tragically Hip, Michael Jackson, Sammy Davis Jr. and Eric Clapton all have documentaries premiering at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, which kicks off on Thursday night (Sept. 7) and will dominate the downtown core for the next 10 days, drawing close to half-million people.  

First up is Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, directed by Sophie Fiennes (The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology), a look at the captivating singer, model, and fashion icon both on and off stage, filmed over the course of 10 years. In the trailer, we see her admitting, "Sometimes you have to be a high-flying bitch.” Fair to say it’s likely a very candid portrait.

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Then Midnight Madness opens with the Eminem-produced battle rap satire Bodied, directed by Joseph Kahn (Taylor Swift, Eminem, Katy Perry videos) and written by former King of the Dot champ Kid Twist, a.k.a. Alex Larsen. Eminem is said to not be coming to town for it, but the cast is -- including Calum Worthy, who plays Adam, the white grad student “who infiltrates a community of diverse battle rappers for the sake of an edgy thesis.”

Earlier in the evening, Kid Twist -- who won the first KOTD title match in 2009 -- will go head to head with Florida’s Madness at the Rap Battle Showdown right in the heart of “festival village,” where King Street’s theatre row is closed to traffic for the first four days of TIFF, to accommodate the fans who line the barricades for the red-carpet welcome of Hollywood’s biggest stars and up-and-comers.

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Friday, Lady Gaga: Five Foot Two doc is the hot ticket. The singer is in town for two back-to-back shows at the Air Canada Centre, yesterday and tonight, and will also perform an intimate show at the Princess of Wales theatre at 6 p.m. just before the film starts, then will join director Chris Moukarbel for a Q&A afterwards. The doc, available on Netflix Sept. 22, “offers a rare snapshot of the raucously public music icon Lady Gaga and the offstage woman that is Stefani Joanne Germanotta,” the press material says, including mixed reviews, controversies, the creative process and deadline demands.

Right now it is the one and only screening of the Gaga film, while the others have multiple screenings, some into next week, but the red carpet is rolled out for the premieres and the second plays attended by the talent.

On Sunday is the world premiere of Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars, and the guitar legend will be in town for it. Director Lili Fini Zanuck put together a portrait using archival footage of performances and home movies as well as audio interviews with Clapton and central figures in his life, such as his grandmother Rose Clapp, George Harrison, Ahmet Ertegun, Steve Winwood, and his former wife, Pattie Boyd. 

Monday, the latest American Masters doc Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me receives its debut screening.  Director Sam Pollard, who has worked closely with Spike Lee, scored interviews with Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal and the recently deceased Jerry Lewis to paint a picture of the complex life led by the late song and dance man who famously proclaimed “Talk about handicap: I’m a one-eyed negro Jew.”

Another late legend, Michael Jackson, dominates TIFF’s music lineup this year, the subject of two documentaries and one narrative feature. On Tuesday, Sept, 12, the digitally remastered version of Jerry Kramer’s 1983 44-minute doc Making of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, about Jackson’s epic video, will be followed by the 14-minute Michael Jackson’s Thriller 3D — both are North American premieres — which was directed by John Landis, who brought it “up to the highest standard of theatrical presentation.”

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One of the TIFF closers on Friday the 15th is Sheikh Jackson, by Egyptian director and writer Amr Salama and starring Ahmad Alfishawy. The story centers around “the sudden death of Michael Jackson [which] sends a former King of Pop devotee — now a young imam — into a tailspin, in this tender and comedic film.”

But for Canadians, next Wednesday, Long Time Running, about the country’s treasured 30-year-old rock band The Tragically Hip -- whose singer Gord Downie has terminal brain cancer -- will no doubt be an emotional one. It was emotional when the band announced its final tour in 2016, but co-directors Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier went along to capture the difficult and love-drenched shows on a tour that sold out instantly.

“Determined to go out on his own terms, Downie convinces his bandmates to tour in support of their new record, Man Machine Poem,” the press description states. “Given Downie's weakened state following weeks of radiation and chemotherapy, no one really believed it would happen. But little by little, he and the boys marshall their forces to deliver the most exhilarating and celebratory shows of their lives.” The film opens in theatres nationwide the next day.

While music films represent a tiny percentage of the 256-feature-length films the world-renowned festival has programmed for this year, there are a number of music-related events also taking place, including showcases for music supervisors and filmmakers; gifting lounges open to musician celebs; and free live performances on an outdoor stage. As part of Canada on Screen, TIFF will also run music videos as part of its 150 essential moving-Image works.

Festival Music House (FMH), produced by Arts & Crafts on behalf of Radio Starmaker Fund, once again connects film and television creators with up-and-coming and established Canadian artists. Showcasing this year are West Coast collective Belle Game, Quebecois singer-songwriter Gabrielle Shonk, East Coast rocker and Juno-winner Matt Mays, Ontario indie rockers Hollerado, and DJ/producer Grandtheft.

“Entering its eighth year, Festival Music House is a unique opportunity for TIFF delegates, producers, directors, writers, actors and music supervisors to connect amid intimate performances from Canada’s best established and emerging musical talents,” Rock-It Promotions states.

Similarly, the City of Toronto’s xoTO Filmmakers Lounge — presented by the Canadian Music Publishers Association (CMPA), the Canadian Independent Music Association (CIMA), and the Ontario Media Development Corporation (OMDC) — hosts The Music Café (Sept. 11-12) with Keshia Chante, The Pack A.D., Fast Romantics, Geoffroy, Lido Pimienta, and more. Each artist will perform in front of key music supervisors and filmmakers. The invite-only industry event allows the music industry to network with the film world, which will hopefully lead to syncs in film, TV, video games and ads.

While that showcase is private, Slaight Music, founded by former radio executive Gary Slaight, a major patron of the arts, is sponsoring The Slaight Music Stage in festival village, featuring free sets from Ascot Royals, Jillea, Kayla Diamond, Tomi Swick, Jessica Mitchell, Liam Russell. The organization is also sponsoring the music (Sam Drysdale) at Academy Award-winning director Norman Jewison’s annual Canadian Film Centre garden party on Sunday afternoon.

Philanthropic-minded public relations firm NKPR, which puts on the annual Artists For Peace and Justice (APJ) gala during TIFF, presented by Bovet 1822, will honor Gary Slaight and Jackson Browne for their philanthropic work on Sunday night. The charity was created by writer/director Paul Haggis to benefit communities in Haiti, and the private affair brings out a who’s who of Hollywood in town for TIFF.  NKPR’s founder Natasha Koifman is a co-chair of the fundraising party alongside Zoomer magazine editor-in-chief Suzanne Boyd.

Browne is the first musician to receive the Peace and Justice Activism Award “celebrating his lifetime of activism and commitment to peace and social justice both in Haiti and around the world” (previous recipients include Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon). And Slaight will be recognized with the inaugural APJ Canadian Changemaker Award presented by Maison Birks “honouring his work as a leading Canadian philanthropist committed to integrity and impact.”

This year, House of Strombo music host George Stromboulopoulos, will open his home to the after-party, which no doubt will include some cool jam session.

Also music-related, NKPR’s IT House x Producers Ball, in collaboration with the Scott Brothers Entertainment, this year makes the two-storey building more experiential and includes U.K. DJs, a photo exhibit from rock ‘n’ roll-focused Analogue Gallery (with a portion of all sales going back to APJ), and a panel, Capturing Music with Banger Films (Iron Maiden, Alice Cooper, Hip Hop Evolution), with music documentarians Scot McFadyen and Sam Sunn and writer/produce Rodrigo Bascunan about the Tragically Hip doc.