Many film festivals (particularly those in autumn and winter) tilt toward the serious, offering heaps of titles about family dysfunction, war, poverty, and death--you have to guard against getting worn down by all that celluloid suffering. When the lights came up after Richard Linklater's The School of Rock screened in 2003 at the Toronto International Film Festival, a critic in the audience piped up, "OK, back to work. He sounded just like my high school homeroom teacher, but I knew how he felt.
I was reminded of that moment a few weeks ago at the 33rd edition of TIFF, when I took a break from movies about incest, prostitution, torture, and ethnic cleansing to catch a modest indie set in Chicago. Who Do You Love, directed by multiple Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks, tells the story of the legendary Chess Records label and its founders, Leonard and Phil Chess (played, respectively, by Alessandro Nivola and Jon Abrahams). Right from the top, where Robert Randolph rips across the stage as Bo Diddley, this clearly was the festival's cure-all. Who Do You Love doesn't reach far beyond the generic conventions of the musical biopic, but it does feature some excellent covers of Chess hits. Rising British actor David Oyelowo is sexy and charismatic as Muddy Waters, while Keb'Mo' supplies vocals and guitar on four of the Waters songs on the movie's soundtrack and plays Waters sideman Jimmy Rogers on screen. A welcome addition at this year's TIFF was the free Festival Showcase at the busy downtown intersection of Yonge and Dundas: Toronto municipal authorities cordoned off street areas for huge block parties where Keb' Mo' and others performed live in concert.
Another uplifting festival film was the documentary It Might Get Loud, directed by Oscar winner Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth). Producer Thomas Tull (executive producer of The Dark Knight and the upcoming Watchmen) persuaded Jimmy Page, the Edge, and Jack White to expound on their favorite electric guitars, revisit locales significant to their careers, and, in the film's best section, jam together. (The project could have used a tad less chat and a smidgen more music, but really, It Might Get Loud gives you far more to like than not.) The guys seem to get along well, although it's pretty funny watching the Edge choose his words carefully as he defers to Page as a living legend. For me, the best scenes belong to White, who already has appeared in titles as diverse as Cold Mountain, Coffee and Cigarettes, and Walk Hard! The Dewey Cox Story, and knows how to play to the camera. Early in the movie, he builds a diddley bow (a crude guitar made from a block of wood, some nails and wire), then announces he's going to steal as many moves as he can from his costars. By the end of the film, he's stolen quite a few.
Who Do You Love and It Might Get Loud both arrived at Toronto looking for buyers, but TIFF has also long been prized as a launch pad for movies prescheduled on Hollywood's fall slates. A charming romantic comedy with wall-to-wall music, Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist bowed at the festival to pick up some buzz prior to its commercial opening this weekend. Directed by Peter Sollett (Raising Victor Vargas), its quirky tale of a whirlwind romance between two worlds-apart high school seniors is not blindingly original but rings true because of its appealing stars, Michael Cera (Juno) and Kat Dennings, and because the experience of falling in love with someone who loves the same tunes as you is timeless. Artists on the soundtrack include Devendra Banhart, Army Navy, Billy Joel, and Dusty Springfield--an eclectic mix, just like the best playlists.