Credit the last two editions of the South By Southwest Film Festival with raising the bar on music documentaries, screening the Oscar winners “Searching for Sugar Man” and “20 Feet From Stardom” early in their film festival travels. But it also offered homes for “Sound City,” “Muscle Shoals,” “A Band Called Death” and “Paul Williams Still Alive,” films that, at their best, combined the historical and the personal.
This year’s slate made me feel like I was going to be pitched a product before the end credits rolled. Fortunately, that only occurred once.
Like the music festival portion of SXSW, nobody gets to see everything and an assessment of the overall quality of the films as a whole is naturally subjective. Even the descriptions of the films supplied in the program guides emphasized subjects with niche appeal — Miami soul music of the 1960s, a white mariachi singer, one man’s obsession with pygmy music from an African forest — while other documentaries tackled global issues such as food supplies and the spectacular boxer Manny Pacquiao.
Scheduling issues prevent any one individual from seeing every promising documentary — Mike Myers’ “Supermensch,” the rare SXSW film with a set release date (June 6), “Mateo” and “Song From the Forest” did not fit my schedule — but I was able to see 10 documentaries.
“The Possibilities are Endless” — My personal favorite of the 10, Edward Lovelace and James Hall follow Edwyn Collins (“A Girl Like You”) as he recovers from a stroke and returns to creating music. It’s arty in places, evocative of the haziness Collins lived in for more than a year, and tells its story with attention to detail, if not chronology. At its heart is a story of romance and perseverance.
“The 78 Project Movie” — Director-producer Alex Steyermark and producer Lavinia Jones Wright have revived the lost art of recording 78 RPM sides direct to disc on antique Presto recorders. Using the same technology Alan Lomax used in the 1930s and ’40 when he recorded Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly and Muddy Waters, the New York duo journeys to churches, bars and homes in Louisiana, California, Tennessee and New York to make recordings of public domain songs in a single take. The feature could use some tightening, but for fans of pure recording and its history, it’s compelling and informative.
“Johnny Winter: Down and Dirty” — The man who made Lemmy Kilmister a congenial character in “Lemmy,” Greg Olliver, hits the road with Johnny Winter as the blues guitarist is being weaned off Methadone. Winter is open and honest about racism, drugs, his parents and his music while fellow guitarists tout him as peerless. It has a “Behind the Music” story arc, but the viewers see the redemption unfold on the screen, a welcome twist to the oft-employed format.
“The Case of the Three Sided Dream” — Saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk was part of the Atlantic Records jazz roster of the 1960s and early ’70s that included John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus. His visual image — a big man with exotic clothing who played multiple reed instruments simultaneously — has superseded his music in the three-plus decades since his death. The illuminating “Thee Sided Dream,” which has multiple rights hurdles to clear prior to any release, reveals the depth of his musicality and his fight for greater recognition of musicians being passed over in popular culture.
“Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound” — Betty Wright (“Clean Up Woman”) is the most famous soul singer to emerge from the Miami scene of the 1960s led by the Deep City label, but she’s the one voice not heard in Dennis Scholl, Marlon Johnson and Chad Tingle’s expertly researched film. Credit the Numero Group’s reissues for reviving interest in obscure yet potent R&B scenes beyond Detroit, Memphis and Chicago and the rich detail exposed in “Deep City” puts the label’s founders Willie Clarke and Johnny Pearsall in the Motown/Stax neighborhood.
“Soul Boys of the Western World” — Director George Hencken sifted through more than 400 hours of footage of Spandau Ballet to create a collage that tells the story of five lads from working-class London who ushered in the New Romantics scene in the 1980s and ultimately saw their relationships burn in enmity. Told only in the band members’ voices and with archival footage, “Soul Boys” will be of more interest to European audiences who saw them as consistent hitmakers and not just the band behind “True.”
“The Winding Stream” — Perfect for PBS and museums looking for programs to detail the role the Carter and Cash families played in the evolution of country music, Beth Harrington’s film takes viewers from A.P. Carter’s life prior to the 1927 Bristol sessions up through Johnny Cash’s final days. Informative and provocative in terms of how Carter and publisher Ralph Peer created a country music industry, the film also contains a good number of contemporary artists interpreting Cash and Carter classics.
“Take Me to the River” — The story of Memphis music unfolds as legends from the heydays of Stax, Sun and Hi Records meet up with youngsters to create new versions of classics, often with rap elements added. North Mississippi All-Stars meet Mavis Staples in a glorious union that deserves an entire album; still potent Otis Clay shares verses with a grammar school rapper named Lil P-Nut with impressive timing and cadence. A celebratory mood pervades, but at times, “Take Me to the River” feels like a soundtrack in search of a film.
“Road to Austin” — It’s billed as a film that shows how Austin became the live music capital of the world, tracing its roots back to the Civil War era. That information is included, but the bulk of Gary Fortin’s film is an Austin concert led by the late Stephen Bruton and his friends — Kris Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt, Joe Ely, David Grissom, Delbert McClinton and others. It’s a concert film designed to raise awareness for the Artist Wellness Program, information supplied at the end of the film.
“Manny/No-No: A Dockumentary“ —Sports documentaries are starting to find legs, perhaps owing to ESPN’s excellent 30 for 30 series. “Manny” is the rags to riches story of Pacquiao, and “No No” uses Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis’ notoriety for throwing a no-hitter while tripping on LSD as a fulcrum to tell his story of recovery, race relations in sports in the 1970s and how sports has been slow to aid drug abusing athletes. Musically, the two films could not be more different. “No No” is awash in ’70s funk overseen by music supervisor Randall Poster and a blaxploitation score from the Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz. “Manny” features Lorne Balfe heroic orchestral moments, contemporary beat-driven tunes from Chad Hugo and segments when Pacquiao fools himself into thinking he can be a recording artist.