Presented by Music Box and WBEZ’s Sound Opinions, the Summer Music Film Festival runs Friday through Tuesday, June 28 through July 2, at Music Box. Following are reviews of selected films; for a full schedule see musicboxtheatre.com.
Ain't in It for My Health Documentary maker Jacob Hatley profiles Levon Helm, founder of the Band, as he records his last album prior to his death in 2012. 83 min. Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis of Sound Opinions host the Friday screening, which is preceded by a 6 PM reception. Fri 6/28, 7 PM; Sat 6/29, 6 PM; and Tue 7/2, 4:30 PM.
Approximately Nels Cline Experimental guitarist Nels Cline is best known as a member of Wilco, but he's enjoyed such a long and diverse career that just about any profile of him would have to be considered approximate. This short documentary shows him rehearsing a side project at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, and the talking-head segments reveal him to be a quiet, almost professorial figure, a former philosophy major who aims for a balance between structure and freedom in his music. "You're trying to get over with people who don't really understand what you're doing," he remarks at one point, betraying the isolation of a musician's musician. Yet inside the studio walls, collaborating with violinist Carla Kihlstedt, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, and keyboardist Yuka Honda, he's completely in his element. —J.R. Jones 27 min. Screens on a double bill with In Search of Blind Joe Death (see separate listing). Mon 7/1, 7:15 PM.
A Band Called Death See review. Fri 6/28, 4 PM; Sat 6/29, 8 PM; and Tue 7/2, 9:45 PM.
Downloaded This engrossing documentary traces the rise and fall of Napster, the free file-sharing service that revolutionized music consumption, ran afoul of the record industry, and became a test case in copyright law. Writer-director Alex Winter focuses on the partnership between Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, who founded Napster in 1999, and the excitement of discovery and entrepreneurship is almost as potent here as in The Social Network (in which Parker figured as a character). But Winter is thorough as well, collecting a variety of opinions from musicians, record industry executives, and legal experts when the story turns to the copyright infringement suits filed against Napster in 2000 by Metallica and the Recording Industry Association of America. When Napster filed for bankruptcy two years later it created what one company insider refers to as "a $500 million sinkhole," but it had opened up a national debate about what file sharing means for artists, listeners, and the businessmen who always manage to get between them. —J.R. Jones 107 min. Screens as part of a double bill with the 1989 comedy Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Sun 6/30, 7 PM, and Mon 7/1, 5 PM.
Downtown 81 Scripted by rock critic Glenn O'Brien and directed by photographer Edo Bertoglio, this kaleidoscopic tour of the NYC underground was shot in 1981 under the title New York Beat, then lost for many years before being released in 2000. Doomed painter Jean-Michel Basquiat stars as an existential innocent, just released from the hospital, who roams the Lower East Side, making art and encountering an assortment of musical hipsters (including DNA, the Plastics, and Kid Creole & the Coconuts). He's appealing in the role, which was modeled after him, and though the film digresses too much to cohere as a narrative, it works surprisingly well as a nostalgic document. —Ted Shen 72 min. Sat 6/29, 4 PM.
Festival Express In 1970 an assortment of rock and blues acts (including the Grateful Dead, the Band, Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy, and the Flying Burrito Brothers) traveled across Canada by rail on a three-date festival tour, accompanied by booze, drugs, groupies, and the requisite film crew. If this documentary is to be believed, the trip was a continuous jam session interrupted only by the occasional nap or performance. In interviews conducted recently, the survivors recall the tour in warmly elegiac tones, though there are few surprises aside from the fact that the artists sided with the cops when fans tried to get in for free. The concert footage is generally quite good, and Joplin is astonishing, but with so many hours of footage you'd think there would be more unexpected moments. Bob Smeaton (The Beatles Anthology) directed. —Hank Sartin 90 min. Fri 6/28, 9 PM, and Tue 7/2, 6:30 PM.
In Search of Blind Joe Death Steel-string guitar player John Fahey made his mark in the 60s with solo instrumentals—performed in a style now known as "American primitive guitar," a mixture of fingerpicking and strumming—that brilliantly evoked legendary bluesmen, the field recordings of Smithsonian Folkways, and early-20th-century classical music. By the 90s, however, he was badly alcoholic, living near the poverty line in a place that one interview subject in this documentary calls "the vaguest motel ever." Fahey's career picked up when a new generation of musicians (including Thurston Moore and Jim O'Rourke) championed him, and he worked steadily until his death in 2001. His story is rich material, but writer-director James Cullingham leaves it sketchy and underdeveloped. The most interesting revelation, that Fahey was sexually abused by his father, is mentioned once and barely revisited; the rest is mostly sycophancy. —Tal Rosenberg 57 min. Screens on a double bill with Approximately Nels Cline (see separate listing). Mon 7/1, 7:15 PM.
Tommy Ken Russell projects the religious frenzy of The Devils and the aesthetic paroxysms of The Music Lovers onto the Who's rock opera, and the results are somewhere between the apocalypse and Andy Warhol. This 1975 film's inventiveness begins to flag about halfway through, but by then it's a relief. If only Wagner could have lived to see this. With Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed, Elton John, and Eric Clapton. —Dave Kehr PG, 111 min. Fri-Sat 6/28-6/29, midnight.
Wild Style Charlie Ahearn's 1983 cult classic is a semidocumentary about the emergence of graffiti art and hip-hop, which have been inextricably linked from the start. Using subway artist Lee Quinones as the lead and the media's curiosity about him as a pretext, Ahearn's narrative meanders through the clubs and rail yards of the South Bronx. Quinones is ill at ease doing the romantic scenes and reading the hokey dialogue, but the street kids around him play themselves naturally. The pacing is slow—inexcusable in a film about music—except when hip-hop takes over, and Ahearn wisely gives plenty of screen time to the likes of Busy Bee, Rock Steady Crew, and Fab Five Freddy. —Ted Shen R, 82 min. Sat 6/29, 2 PM, and Mon 7/1, 9:15 PM.