Thursday, July 25, 2013

Rock and reel

One of the Melbourne International Film Festival's staples is the Backbeat program, an eclectic collection of films about music. This year's selection is the biggest the festival has had, MIFF programmer Al Cossar says. As well as 16 films, both local and international, there is a larger-than-usual contingent of festival guests.

There's a mix of musical styles, histories and contexts of movies from the fringes and documentaries that have received high-profile festival spots. Some will appeal to an existing fan base, to devotees of, for example, the Stone Roses, Cosmic Psychos or Kathleen Hanna. Some will introduce audiences to new voices and sounds: Bayou Maharajah highlights James Booker, an outcast figure of jazz and blues piano in the 1960s; A Band Called Death looks at a pioneering, overlooked African-American punk band; and Twenty Feet from Stardom is a celebration of the artistry of often-anonymous backing singers.

Some films explore acts of reclamation and the place of music in communities: This Ain't No Mouse Music! looks at 50 years' activity by an American label that captures roots music of the south, while Harana documents attempts to keep alive the tradition of the romantic serenade in the Philippines. And some documentaries ask questions about the fate of the recording industry: Downloaded is a decade-long chronicle of the activities of file-sharing technology Napster, while Artifact is Jared Leto's account of the disastrous fracturing of the relationship between his band, Thirty Seconds to Mars, and their record company.

Philippa Hawker, Craig Mathieson, Martin Boulton and Toby Creswell take a closer look at five of this year's Backbeat films and the people behind them.

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MISTAKEN FOR STRANGERS

For fans of the sombre, ecstatic sounds of the National and the soaring voice of its singer and songwriter, Matt Berninger, Mistaken for Strangers is a thoroughly satisfying account of the band on tour. But what makes it interesting is something unexpected - it's a poignant, funny, surprising film about family relationships and expectations, and the nature of the fraternal bond.

The director of the film is Berninger's brother Tom, nine years his junior, who was hired as a roadie for a world tour. There was never a plan for him to make a feature documentary, Tom says on the phone from Brooklyn. He was at a loose end, living with his parents and going on the tour with the National ''was my brother getting me out of my slump in Cincinnati. I thought I should bring my camera along and he thought it was a good idea.'' Tom imagined he would get some footage for his show reel - his filmmaking background was self-financed horror movies - and maybe a few web videos for the band.

Gradually, however, he realised ''that I had to make this about my experience. They're a band that's doing really well, and there was no drama. The only drama was me kind of getting in people's way, being lost, being a fish out of water.'' As a roadie, as an interviewer, as a presence, he brings something unpredictable and engaging to the tour and the film. And in the end, his relationship with his brother shifts and grows.

He decided to shoot the band members ''at their most vulnerable'' - asleep on the tour bus in little sleeping compartments. ''They look like coffins and it's a wonderful image in itself,'' he says. ''I thought, this will be creepy and spooky, and what the hell - if nothing else, I'll make a music video of it.'' PH

THE PUNK SINGER

Kathleen Hanna was a founding figure in the riot grrrl movement of the 1990s. With her band, Bikini Kill, she was a fierce, smart, exhilarating feminist presence, energetic, confronting and full of ideas.

Sini Anderson's documentary is an engaging portrait of Hanna and her musical development, taking in her work with Bikini Kill, Le Tigre and a solo project called the Julie Ruin. It's a film that also looks forward to the beginning of new work. And it explores something that has been little known: the illness in 2005 that forced Hanna to step back from making music.

The filming of the documentary started, Hanna says on the phone from New York, at a difficult time; it turned out she had Lyme disease, but this was undiagnosed for some time. She had also been going through a period of reflection. She had donated a lot of archival material to New York University: ''I wanted to make sure all my stuff was in a safe place.''

At that point, Anderson approached her about making a film. ''I don't think if it was at any other time I would have said yes. It's like when someone thinks they're dying and they max out their credit cards and then they go, 'Oh no'. I have to live with the fact that I kind of archived myself. And I'm still here and putting out a new record, and it's a little bit strange to be living with the ghost of me and the current me.''

Realising how much is necessarily omitted in the editing process, she says, ''made me think of all these other things - not necessarily about my life, but things I've been a part of, or have witnessed, that were interesting to me. And I realised that it didn't matter if it wasn't in the film, I could write an essay about them, or a short story.''

Hanna's new band, the Julie Ruin, has a new album and is starting to tour. She's looking forward to visiting Australia in January next year, she says. PH

TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM

In popular music, back-up singers have long been the fuel of hit songs. They provide powerful choruses, duplicate verses to provide a wall of sound and create the textures that make songs memorable. Whether in the studio or on stage, they do this with relative anonymity. There are brilliant backing vocalists, but no famous ones.

In Morgan Neville's fascinating documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom, the careers of a handful of back-up singers put faces and stories to often familiar voices. The film might change the way you listen to music but it also has much to say about artistry and fame, race and creative satisfaction.

If it sounds like an unknown world, you're not alone. Even Neville, the 45-year-old Los Angeles-based filmmaker whose slew of previous music documentaries include works on Iggy Pop, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and Muddy Waters, had little to go on when the subject was first raised.

What Neville found was powerhouse singers such as Merry Clayton, who recalls being summoned to a Los Angeles studio in the middle of a 1969 night to sing the infamous line ''Rape, murder, it's just a shot away'' on the Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter while wearing pyjamas and a fur coat. For Clayton, like her colleagues, it was just another gig. You got the call, sang what was required and then you went home.

Twenty Feet from Stardom's youngest singer, 29-year-old Judith Hill, recently competed on the US singing competition The Voice, an acknowledgment that traditional opportunities for backing vocalists have dried up (as well as a clear tilt for stardom). The session work isn't there but with the film's release in the US, a tour with the main participants is in the offing. And they'll all have numerous turns singing lead. CM

COSMIC PSYCHOS: BLOKES YOU CAN TRUST

The closing scene of Matt Weston's Cosmic Psychos: Blokes You Can Trust has the anti-stars of this warts-and-all documentary playing a sold-out show in Collingwood, and prime mover, bass player and vocalist Ross Knight declaring that, 30 years after the band started, here he was, shirt off, back at the Tote.

Earlier in this globe-trotting, beer-swilling, behind-the-scenes look into Knight's life and loves, Butch Vig, who produced Nirvana's game-changing Nevermind album, touches on the Cosmic Psychos' unique, long and lasting reach. ''I know that Kurt and Nirvana were fans,'' Vig says. ''They played shows with Pearl Jam [and] even though the Cosmic Psychos never had the commercial impact or success that those bands had, they were still a major influence on them.''

From Knight's early days on his family farm, driving bulldozers, playing cricket and discovering the euphoria of punk music, Weston's film traces his extraordinary journey and the band mates he's shared his life with. Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, the Melvins, Steve Albini, L7 and a colourful bunch of close friends shine a well-deserved light on the band's impact, which happened against a backdrop of growing tensions, the death in 2006 of guitarist Robbie ''Rocket'' Watts, and Knight's own challenges, which threatened his way of life and livelihood on the farm.

And still the Psychos plough on, pumping out the ear-splitting yobbo rock that's coursed through Knight's veins for three decades. MB

THE SUNNYBOY

It's late afternoon on April 22, 2012, and Sydney's Enmore Theatre is packed. The air is thick with anticipation. The last time the Sunnyboys were on stage together, the band exited in a hail of beer cans and abuse. That was 1984.

They have barely seen each other since and have had only three rehearsals in 21 years. Nonetheless, as the guitars and military drum beat collide into the hit Happy Man, Jeremy Oxley catches his brother Peter's eye and a smile bursts across both their faces. It's as though they are transported to 1980 and the nightmare has never happened.

''At 17 it was clear how talented [Jeremy] was as a guitarist and a songwriter,'' says Tait Brady, a film producer who played with Jeremy in their teenage band the Strand in Kingscliff, near the NSW-Queensland border.

''He was boisterous, energetic, driven, wise-cracking, in some ways mature beyond his years. There was a tiny element of the idiot savant about him because he was so talented.''

In 20 months, they went from a standing start to a gold record and a string of hit singles - all penned and sung by Jeremy who was still only 20. The first Sunnyboys album still ranks high on critics' lists of classic Australian albums.

The second album, Individuals, was marred by a poor mix. This minor setback became a major issue and the pressure fell hardest on Jeremy as frontman. Relationships, especially between Peter and Jeremy, began to fray. By early 1983, Jeremy was drinking heavily. ''In the beginning of 1984 Jeremy said, 'I can't play any longer,' so I stopped it all,'' Peter says. ''I started to realise then that it was serious.''

After the Sunnyboys finished in the winter of 1984, Jeremy had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. As his illness progressively worsened, he self-medicated with alcohol binges and The Sunnyboy paints a detailed study of Jeremy's life, his struggles and the family trying to cope with his illness.

Five years ago, Jeremy's luck changed in the form of Mary Griffiths. The couple met through mutual friends, romance bloomed and they were married in November 2011. Griffiths, a nurse, worked with Jeremy and his doctors for nine months to find the right formula to control his health issues.

Filmed over the course of 18 months, Kaye Harrison's film is an unvarnished look at how much destruction and illness can cause to a family. But it's also the story of Jeremy Oxley's recovery from misery and isolation. TC

The festival runs until August 11. See miff.com.au.


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