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Our guide to the Chicago International Movies & Music Fest 2014

More than 70 music movies screen Thursday through Sunday at Logan Theater and Society for Arts

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See our sidebar for a rundown of the bands playing the Chicago International Movies & Music Fest.

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, the old saying goes. But the organizers of the Chicago International Movies & Music Fest have never been too concerned with those sort of distinctions: along with music documentaries and dramas about musical subjects, the sixth annual festival offers concerts, DJ performances, dance videos, panel discussions, and silent classics with live accompaniment (Mary Shelley scores Battleship Potemkin; Wrekmeister Harmonies scores Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages). The films alone cover a wide range of genres, from rock to folk to jazz to experimental; the only thing linking it all together over four days is a healthy appreciation for the power of sound to define people's lives. J.R. Jones

Bayou Maharajah screens on Fri 5/2.
  • Bayou Maharajah screens on Fri 5/2.

[Recommended] Bayou Maharajah One of many fascinating moments in this 2013 profile of New Orleans piano man James Booker—the self-proclaimed "Black Liberace"—occurs early on, when an admiring Harry Connick Jr., perched in front of the keys, visually breaks down Booker's complex, confluent style. Connick describes it as a "French kind of sound with a swing feel to it," but it was mostly indescribable and impossible to pigeonhole—as evidenced by the wide scope of big-name players Booker backed. A number of New Orleans natives—Dr. John and Allen Toussaint among them—appear on camera to fawn over Booker's virtuosic playing and remember his personal demons, which revealed themselves in his drug and alcohol abuse and rampant paranoia. Booker sparkles in the archival performance clips, and director Lily Keber wisely homes in on his live solo performances, bringing out his character and talent. Kevin Warwick 98 min. Fri 5/2, 7 PM, Society for Arts

Be Here to Love Me screens Sat 5/3.
  • Be Here to Love Me screens Sat 5/3.

[Recommended] Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt "I think my life will run out before my work does," singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt predicts in the voice-over that opens this 2004 documentary portrait. "I've designed it that way." He wasn't kidding. When he died of a heart attack in 1997 he'd spent 30 years boozing and courting death (he once jumped off a fourth-floor balcony out of curiosity), yet his profoundly lyrical guitar ballads are revered by Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, and Emmylou Harris. Son of a wealthy Fort Worth family, Van Zandt was subjected to insulin-shock treatment as a boy, which wiped out portions of his memory; in like fashion, filmmaker Margaret Brown leaves much of his personal life wreathed in the smoke of his romantic self-destruction, ceding the narrative to his eloquently hopeless songs. This may not be a solid biography, but it feels true—as Van Zandt sings in "Pancho and Lefty," his biggest hit, "Nobody heard his dying words, ah but that's the way it goes." J.R. Jones 99 min. Producer and South by Southwest cofounder Lewis Black introduces the screening. Sat 5/3, 12:30 PM, Logan

Boyce & Hart: The Guys Who Wrote 'Em screens Thu 5/1.
  • Boyce & Hart: The Guys Who Wrote 'Em screens Thu 5/1.

Boyce & Hart: The Guys Who Wrote 'Em Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart penned some of the Monkees' biggest tunes—"Last Train to Clarksville," "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone," the TV show's "hey-hey" theme song—and later scored a few hits as a performing duo themselves ("I Wonder What She's Doing Tonight") before shuffling off to Vegas for an act with Zsa Zsa Gabor and finally calling it quits in the early 70s. The exuberant Boyce died by his own hand in 1994, leaving his more reserved partner to supply the affable (if none-too-revealing) voice-over narration for this colorful survey of their creative collaboration. A few more witnesses contribute their own voice-over reminiscences to the treasure trove of performance clips, including Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, and Michael Nesmith; the documentary is most interesting for its insider's view of the various producers and songwriters who fought for a piece of the Monkees pie. Rachel Lichtman directed. J.R. Jones 81 min. A 6:15 PM live set by Boyce & Hart tribute band the Candy Store Prophets precedes the screening in the Logan Theatre Lounge; Hart and Lichtman take questions after the documentary. Thu 5/1, 6:45 PM, Logan

The Case of the Three Sided Dream screens Sun 5/4.
  • The Case of the Three Sided Dream screens Sun 5/4.

[Recommended] The Case of the Three Sided Dream Jazz player Rahsaan Roland Kirk spent his life defying and exceeding physical limitations: born blind, he grew into a prolific artist (releasing nearly 30 studio albums under his own name in 20 years) and a supernatural musical talent. He incorporated everything from kazoos to cuckoo clocks, and he often appeared onstage playing nearly a dozen instruments—at times he would play three saxophones simultaneously. Toward the end of his life Kirk was mostly paralyzed by a stroke, yet he managed to learn how to play the saxophone one-handed before dying at 39 of a second stroke. Documentary maker Adam Kahan has dug up a ton of archival footage (including numerous performances and home videos) for this sensitive and compelling documentary (2013); the animated interludes are distracting, but by emphasizing live performance and audio recordings over interviews, Kahan lets Kirk's talent speak for itself. Tal Rosenberg 87 min. Sun 5/4, 7:15 PM, Society for Arts

Death Metal Angola screens on Sat 5/3.
  • Death Metal Angola screens on Sat 5/3.

Death Metal Angola Angola's 27-year civil war ended in 2002, but the subjects of this 2012 documentary still struggle with having seen the bodies of family and friends decompose in the street. Director Jeremy Xido focuses on a young couple, Sonia Ferreira and Wilker Flores, who find solace in death metal (and black metal to a lesser extent), considered by a small collective of Angolan musicians the most effective way to exorcise the horrors of war. Ferreira and Flores attempt to organize the country's first rock festival in their hometown, Huambo—no small feat as the scene is still young and struggling to assert itself—and an orphanage run by Ferreira serves as their de facto headquarters. I've seen more than enough documentaries about extreme metal that mythologize violent, antisocial behavior; this one shows people using harsh, aggressive music to build a positive community. In Portuguese with subtitles. Leor Galil 84 min. Sat 5/3, 10:45 PM, Logan

Every Everything: The Music, Life & Times of Grant Hart  screens Sat 5/3.
  • Every Everything: The Music, Life & Times of Grant Hart screens Sat 5/3.

Every Everything: The Music, Life & Times of Grant Hart Following the publication of Bob Mould's 2011 memoir See a Little Light, Grant Hart gives his side of the Husker Du story, but even die-hard fans of the iconic 80s punk band might have trouble sitting through this shapeless documentary by Gorman Bechard. Hart and Mould divided the songwriting duties for Husker Du 50-50, though Mould quickly pulled ahead as an artist; according to Hart, the shit hit the fan after the band signed to Warner Bros. and the label picked Hart's songs for the first two singles. Following the band's acrimonious breakup in 1987, Mould scored hit records with Sugar while Hart returned to the Minneapolis underground that had birthed them. Interviewed by Bechard, he paces around an empty backyard in his trench coat and pointy red shoes, pantomiming a tour of the home that he recently lost to a fire; he's a poignant figure, still pining for Mould as a collaborator, and though he's had some interesting adventures in the last quarter century, Bechard keeps circling back around to the band that made him famous, heightening the sad sense of a man yoked to his past. J.R. Jones 93 min. Producer Jan Radder takes questions after the screening. Sat 5/3, 4:45 PM, Logan

Honeydripper screens Sat 5/3.
  • Honeydripper screens Sat 5/3.

[Recommended] Honeydripper This 2007 drama is supposed to be set in 1950 in Alabama (where it was filmed), but the true location is some Never-Never Land in John Sayles's imagination, sparked by research, a sharp ear for dialogue, and diverse fancies about the birth of rock 'n' roll. Yet as in the 1943 musical Stormy Weather, the wonderful cast, mainly black, carries it all with ease, even sailing past occasional false moments, such as a tacky flashback toward the end. Danny Glover, as hard-rock reliable as Spencer Tracy in his prime, plays onetime pianist Tyrone "Pine Top" Purvis, trying to save his title juke joint from economic disaster by pretending that a young drifter with a guitar (Gary Clark Jr.) is blues star Guitar Sam. He juggles and somehow resolves diverse problems with competition, electricity, cash, his wife, his daughter, and the local sheriff (Stacy Keach), spearheading an overall progress toward communal joy that for me yields the most enjoyable Sayles movie since 1984's The Brother From Another Planet. Jonathan Rosenbaum PG-13, 123 min. South by Southwest cofounder Louis Black introduces the screening. Sat 5/3, 9:45 PM, Society for Arts

Imagine the Sound screens Sat 5/3.
  • Imagine the Sound screens Sat 5/3.

[Recommended] Imagine the Sound This 1981 first feature by Canadian filmmaker Ron Mann may still be the best documentary on free jazz that we have. Produced with Bill Smith, editor of Coda magazine, the film consists mainly of interviews with and performances by four key musicians: solo pianists Cecil Taylor and Paul Bley, trumpet player Bill Dixon (performing with a trio), and tenor saxophone player Archie Shepp (playing with a quartet); Taylor and Shepp also read some of their poetry. Mann is attentive to the visual impact of the music (Taylor's piano playing, for instance, virtually qualifies as a form of dancing) and its diverse biographical, musical, and ideological underpinnings (the musicians are all highly articulate). Essential viewing and listening for free-jazz devotees. Jonathan Rosenbaum 91 min. Mann takes questions after the screening. Sat 5/3, 7:30 PM, Society for Arts

Jingle Bell Rocks screens Sat 5/3.
  • Jingle Bell Rocks screens Sat 5/3.

Jingle Bell Rocks! Written and directed by Mitchell Kezin, this documentary about yuletide pop songs is propelled to some extent by a sentimental story line about his unresolved anguish over an absentee father—and the Nat Cole rendition of "The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot" that sparked his early love for schlocky Christmas music. John Waters, Rev. Run of Run-D.M.C., and Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips provide talking-head commentary, posed before fireplaces and clad in gaudy sweaters, but the documentary is better served when Kezin spotlights the crate diggers and vinyl hounds living on the margins of this marginal subgenre. His best illustration of the holiday music obsession may be the unassuming Andy Cirzan, a vice president at Jam Productions, who hunts for rare and bizarre Christmas vinyl in the dusty boxes beneath the dusty boxes; he never quite knows what he's looking for until he unwraps it and spins it on his portable phonograph. 93 min. Kevin Warwick 93 min. Kezin takes questions after the screening. Sat 5/3, 3 PM, Logan

Led Zeppelin Played Here screens Fri 5/2.
  • Led Zeppelin Played Here screens Fri 5/2.

Led Zeppelin Played Here This slapdash documentary by Jeff Krulik (Heavy Metal Parking Lot) looks at U.S. rock culture before the concert industry took off—a time when high-profile acts like James Brown and the Kinks regularly played town halls and high school gymnasiums. The title refers to a legend in the Washington, D.C., area that Led Zeppelin played their third-ever U.S. concert to a near-empty Maryland youth center in January 1969, and much of the movie consists of D.C.-area fans recounting favorite show-going experiences and displaying treasured memorabilia. Krulik grants ample speaking time to all his subjects, whether they have anything interesting to say or not; along with the amateurish video work, this gives his documentary the feel of a home movie. Ben Sachs 80 min. Krulik takes questions after the screening. Fri 5/2, 7:15 PM, Logan

Metalhead screens Fri 5/2
  • Metalhead screens Fri 5/2

[Recommended] Metalhead This moody Icelandic character study (2013) illustrates the subjective nature of grief and the self-destructive ways people handle loss. Set in the early 90s, the story centers on a teenage girl (Þorbjörg Helga Þorgilsdóttir) who sees her older brother die in a violent accident; devastated, she seeks solace in heavy metal and quickly adopts the lifestyle, hoping one day to leave her isolated farm town—an idyllic hillside village elegantly photographed by cinematographer August Jakobsson—and become a rock star. The metal milieu is unique and nicely drawn, but the film isn't solely concerned with the subculture; themes of self-loathing and guilt foreground the action more than drum solos and guitar riffs, though writer-director Ragnar Bragason wisely utilizes the music's dark tones and antireligious sentiment to contextualize his protagonist's aggressive outbursts. In Icelandic with subtitles. Drew Hunt 97 min. Fri 5/2, 9:10 PM, Logan

Koentopp screens Thu 5/1.
  • Koentopp screens Thu 5/1.

Musical Generations These four shorts focus on the role music plays in familial relationships—or doesn't, as is the case for a fourth-generation piano restorer who says he failed to teach his kids his craft. Mayeta Clark interviews him for The Final Note, about one of the few artisanal piano facilities left in the U.S. Dan Koentopp, the Chicagoan featured in Caleb Vinson and Paul Hamilton's Koentopp, excels at crafting guitars, but this 45-minute documentary could use a little more work. The two best shorts both involve men struggling with their fathers' pasts: in Grand Canal, Johnny Ma incorporates a Chinese ballad his father loved into a fictionalized account of the man's problems as captain of a shipping fleet, and in Battle of the Jazz Guitarist, Mark Columbus employs captions to describe his sometimes tense relationship with his dad, who was the most popular guitarist in Fiji before he moved to America and started a family. In English and subtitled Mandarin. Leor Galil 88 min. Thu 5/1, 9:15 PM, Society for Arts

9 Muses of Star Empire screens Sun 5/4.
  • 9 Muses of Star Empire screens Sun 5/4.

9 Muses of Star Empire The opening scenes promise a backstage look at the South Korean girl group 9 Muses, but this 2012 documentary is really about the culture industry's transformation of young women into marketable commodities. Director Hark-Joon Lee coolly observes as producers, managers, and record company executives determine every aspect of the young singers' lives, rehearse them past the point of exhaustion, and berate them about their lack of commitment. Over the course of the movie a few members suffer emotional breakdowns and quit the group—when they do, Lee cuts to scenes of the group's handlers vetting photos of similar-looking girls to replace them. In Korean with subtitles. Ben Sachs 82 min. Sun 5/4, 2:30 PM, Logan

Palestine Stereo screens Sun 5/4.
  • Palestine Stereo screens Sun 5/4.

Palestine Stereo Rashid Masharawi, writing and directing his first narrative feature since Laila's Birthday (2008), returns to the subject of ordinary Palestinians struggling to maintain normal lives amid chaos. Two brothers—a wedding singer and an electrical engineer—move in together after surviving an explosion that killed the singer's wife and left the engineer deaf. Though less comic and more sentimental than the earlier film, this 2013 drama is just as vivid in its depiction of secular Palestinian society. Mashawari elicits a sweet rapport between the two leads; their casual performances compensate for the more overstated aspects of the script. The warm, ochre-heavy cinematography is another asset, poetically evoking a state of constant dusk. In Arabic with subtitles. Ben Sachs 90 min. Sun 5/4, 7 PM, Logan

Pleased to Meet Me screens Fri 5/2.
  • Pleased to Meet Me screens Fri 5/2.

Pleased to Meet Me The chief pleasure of this unassuming indie drama (2013) comes from watching veteran musicians try their hand at acting; the cast includes John Doe, Aimee Mann, Loudon Wainwright, and Joe Henry. A former rock manager (Mann), attempting to reinvent herself as a radio journalist, sets up "an experiment in musical purity" with the aim of documenting the results. She brings together six nonprofessional musicians from various traditions, sets them up with a producer (Henry) and a bandleader (Doe), and asks them to record a song in one day. Archie Borders, directing a script he wrote with David Henry, understands the creative process and the particular tensions that exist between musicians, though there's little dramatic tension to make those observations feel especially urgent. Ben Sachs 80 min. Borders takes questions after the screening. Fri 5/2, 9:25 PM, Logan

20,000 Days Earth screens on Sat 5/3.
  • 20,000 Days Earth screens on Sat 5/3.

20,000 Days on Earth Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard's video about Australian musician, author, and screenwriter Nick Cave blends fictional and documentary footage to such an extent that you may have trouble telling what's real and what's not. A scene in which Cave digs through some of his keepsakes with archivists feels authentic (though the items he turns up seem to have been preselected), whereas interludes in which he drives around in his BMW with actor Ray Winstone and singer Kylie Minogue, respectively, are obvious dramatizations. The title refers to the fact that the day chronicled is ostensibly Cave's 20,000th alive, though the movie is so slowly paced that 20,000 days seems more like the running time. Tal Rosenberg 97 min. Sat 5/3, 9:30 PM, Logan

Twist screens Sat 5/3.
  • Twist screens Sat 5/3.

[Recommended] Twist An exemplary and entertaining history (1992) of a crucial decade in North American social dancing, from the time of Arthur Murray ballroom lessons and the lindy hop in Harlem around 1953 to freestyle dancing and the arrival of the Beatles in the U.S. in 1964. Ron Mann—whose earlier features investigated free jazz (Imagine the Sound), poetry (Poetry in Motion), and comic books (Comic Book Confidential)—combines a collector's zeal for exhaustive inventories (all the ephemeral dance steps are duly noted) with a sharp sense of social history, so along with the pleasure of watching all sorts of 50s and 60s clips and new interviews, one gets a sense of how dance styles developed and were merchandised. Among the highlights are a white couple explaining how, for their appearance on American Bandstand, they were coached to claim credit for the strand, a dance developed by blacks, and an interview with Marshall McLuhan, who expounds on the twist being "like conversation without words." Jonathan Rosenbaum 74 min. Mann takes questions after the screening. Sat 5/3, 2:50 PM, Logan

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