- All images courtesy of CIMMfest
- A still from It Must Make Peace, a documentary on traditional Malian music
The annual Chicago International Movies & Music Festival has moved from April to November for its ninth iteration—though this week's big event shares a calendar year with an abbreviated April program called "CIMMFest Spring Fling Thing." CIMMFest proper opens Thursday, November 9, and closes Sunday, November 12, and in those four days will screen almost three dozen feature films (plus a generous selection of music videos and shorts), including a wide-ranging retrospective devoted to director Penelope Spheeris. She'll appear Saturday morning at Gideon Welles as part of the festival's CIMMcon convention, whose panels include filmmakers, musicians, and critics; she'll also participate in a Q&A that afternoon at the Davis Theater after a screening of We Sold Our Souls for Rock 'n' Roll. CIMMfest also includes live music, of course, though at press time little of that lineup had been settled.
My Reader colleagues and I have reviewed 13 movies we either thought sounded interesting or already knew were worthwhile. You won't see anything about 2350 Last Call: The Neo Story (a documentary about the beloved alternative dance club, which premieres Sunday at GMan Tavern) or David Bowie: The Last Five Years (which screens Sunday at Comfort Station), but that's only because we couldn't watch either in advance. Unless otherwise noted, screenings are at the Davis Theater, 4614 N. Lincoln. Further details, including information about festival passes, can be found at cimmfest.org. —Leor Galil
Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape
The compact cassette played a key role in the 1979 Iranian revolution, but you wouldn't know that from watching Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape. Zack Taylor and Georg Petzold's meandering tribute leaves out many such important facts, largely dispensing with historical context (it doesn't even mention tape trading in the early metal scene) in favor of poetic reminiscences about the outmoded format and artful shots of cassette hardware and innards. Cassette basically rehashes every 2010s think piece on the resurgence of tapes, and most of the musicians who appear are white men—the film's brief interludes about hip-hop aren't enough to address the bias. If you're familiar with this kind of retro-obsessed music documentary, you're likely tired of hearing from, say, Henry Rollins; if you don't already know why Taylor and Petzold think you should find Rollins's opinion worthwhile, though, good luck figuring it out, because they don't bother explaining. The highlight is Dutch engineer Lou Ottens, now 91, who invented the compact cassette; the directors give him the space to show us his everyday life instead of simply having him repeat platitudes about his work. In English and subtitled Dutch. —Leor Galil 92 minutes. Sat 11/11, 12 PM, $12, $10 in advance. Screening with the short documentary Bill's Records.
The Decline of Western Civilization
Eugene, the bitter little skinhead whose interview opens this still potent 1981 documentary about Los Angeles punk rock, declares that he likes the music because "there's no rock stars." Director Penelope Spheeris doesn't seem to agree—she shoots the fan interviews in black and white, while the bands and music people (including Slash Records founder Robert Biggs) comment and perform in color. LA punk lacked the politics of its British and the brains of its New York predecessors, and its proximity to the epicenter of celebrity culture fueled a violent strain of Carter-era nihilism. The live sets by X, Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, the Germs, and Fear, recorded between December 1979 and May 1980, still thunder after all these years; unfortunately so do the scene's racism, queer baiting, and utter despair. —J.R. Jones 100 min. Thu 11/9, 7:15 PM, $12, $10 in advance. Screening with the Penelope Spheeris short Synthesis.
The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years
This 1988 sequel to the classic 1981 LA punk documentary focuses on the kind of extravagance that the kids in the first film were rebelling against, at least insofar as it manifested itself in stadium-ready rock 'n' roll and its brand-new baby brother, hair metal. In between the unforgettably ridiculous interviews—Ozzy discussing the mundanity of sobriety while cooking breakfast, Steven Tyler bragging about putting millions of dollars up his nose, Chris Holmes of W.A.S.P. chugging messily from a bottle of vodka in his pool while his mom looks on—we get to meet the fans and scene regulars, who cake on makeup, tease their hair into towering styles, and quit their jobs because they're so sure their dreams of rock stardom will come true. —Luca Cimarusti 93 min. Thu 11/9, 9:30 PM, $12, $10 in advance. Screening with the unfinished Penelope Spheeris short Shit.
The Decline of Western Civilization Part III
The third installment of Penelope Spheeris's documentary series on subversive musical movements, released in 1998, is by far the darkest—it looks into the lives of nihilistic Los Angeles gutter punks in the 90s. They're Spheeris's most tragic subjects: misunderstood, rejected by society, and often fleeing from abuse, the punks in this chapter of Decline can't stand living in the world but have at least managed to find one another. For these kids, surviving on the street usually involves self-medicating with drugs and alcohol—and many of them seem to realize that they won't make it to 30 this way. The bands Spheeris films appear to lead equally bleak existences, but they use their musical platforms to preach open-mindedness and acceptance. —Luca Cimarusti 86 min. Fri 11/10, 7:30 PM, $12, $10 in advance. Screening with the Penelope Spheeris short The National Rehabilitation Center.
Horn From the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story
A native of Hyde Park, Paul Butterfield graduated from the University of Chicago Lab School in the late 50s but got his musical education at blues clubs on the south and west sides, where as a white teen he had the nerve to jam on harmonica with the likes of Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. Poaching two of Wolf's sidemen, Butterfield formed his own interracial group in the mid-60s, just as electrified blues was feeding into the rock revolution, and the Butterfield Blues Band cut six albums for Elektra before splitting up in 1971. Documentary maker John Anderson divides Butterfield's life into three chapters, tracking his apprenticeship in the first and his rock stardom in the second; the third recounts a painfully familiar slide into obscurity, addiction, and death (from an accidental overdose, in 1987). Butterfield comes off as a white, middle-class musician who mastered all the licks but couldn't persuade himself he was a real bluesman until he'd made himself miserable. —J.R. Jones 96 min. Sun 11/12, 7:30 PM, $12, $10 in advance. Includes a Q&A with director John Anderson, producer Sandra Warren, and special guests.
How They Got Over
This lively, no-frills 2017 documentary explores the evolution of black gospel quartet music and its contributions to the emergence of rock 'n' roll, starting with the ensemble-oriented harmony singing of the jubilee style in the 1930s and leading into the harder sound of the '40s, when charismatic lead singers turned in passionate, virtuoso performances with call-and-response patterns and plush backing vocals. Veteran performers and historians explain the hardships visited upon the musicians by racism, their struggles to stay on the road when gigs offered only bare subsistence, and the way evolving public tastes lured some of the greatest voices, such as Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls, to switch to secular music. Director Robert Clem generously incorporates uninterrupted vintage performance footage by the likes of the Fairfield Four, the Highway QCs, and the Blind Boys of Alabama. —Peter Margasak 87 min. Sat 11/11, 11:30 AM, $12, $10 in advance.
It Must Make Peace
Paul R. Chandler made this 2016 documentary about traditional Malian music over the course of three years, examining how Western-style rap and fundamentalist Islam have encroached upon or even extinguished its ancient practices. Copious performance footage, much of it staged specifically for the filmmakers, serves as the background for commentary by musicians such as Afel Bocoum and Toumani Diabate that provides cultural context for various modes of music making. The music is lovely and the footage is beautifully shot, but Chandler can't seem to decide if he wants his film to be an ethnographic document or an investigation into the effects of modernity on oral culture, and this absence of unifying vision leaves the work adrift. —Peter Margasak 82 min. Sun 11/12, 2:15 PM, $12, $10 in advance. Screening with the music video for Tiffany Ayalik's "Hila."
Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together
This 1982 documentary begins with an auspicious proposal: assembling legendary New Orleans pianists Isidore "Tuts" Washington, Henry "Professor Longhair" Byrd, and Allen Toussaint for a joint performance, the first time all three would've ever appeared onstage together. Yet the story turned unexpectedly poignant when Byrd died during filming. Director Stevenson J. Palfi shot everything on videotape, and 35 years later this choice gives the movie a raw immediacy. He got incredible footage of Byrd's funeral, with the people of New Orleans crowding the streets. The highlight, though, is watching the musicians at work as their hands dance and cascade along the keyboards. What Palfi captured isn't just a unique moment in time but also the historical continuity of New Orleans music—it passes through generations of entertainers, supported along the way by local audiences, and reverberates through concert halls, bars, parades, and radios. —Tal Rosenberg 76 min. Sun 11/12, 12 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, $12, $10 in advance.
The Public Image Is Rotten
John Lydon relives his journey from public enemy to commercial pitchman in this 2017 documentary by Tabbert Fiiller. As usual with Lydon, you're never quite sure whether what you're hearing is candor or a masterful imitation of it—the swindle continues!—but he gives a disarming account of his chaotic post-Sex Pistols career with Public Image Ltd, whose original run lasted from 1978 till 1992 (the band re-formed in 2009). The founding lineup—including guitarist Keith Levene, bassist Jah Wobble, and drummer Jim Walker, all of whom are interviewed—crafted a weird mix of punk, dub, and Krautrock, but as the players left one by one, frustrated with Lydon's ego and the band's precarious finances, the resulting revolving-door lineup settled into conventional dance rock. Archival footage of Lydon in the bracing hostility of his youth contrasts dramatically with present-day interviews showing him domesticated, compromised, and happy in the wisdom that most of us learn to accept as compensation. —J.R. Jones 105 min. Thu 11/9, 9:15 PM, $12, $10 in advance. Includes a Q&A with director Tabbert Fiiller and former PiL drummer Martin Atkins.
Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution
Chicago native Yony Leyser attempts to capture three decades of queer punk history in this compact but lopsided 2017 documentary. Queercore excels during the community's beginnings in the 80s, when Toronto directors and artists Bruce LaBruce and G.B. Jones, who rejected mainstream gay culture and heteronormative punk culture alike, provided a point around which a queer punk scene could coalesce. In their short-lived zine J.D.s they coined the term "homocore," which punk misfits Tom Jennings and Deke Nihilson used as the title for another zine in late-80s San Francisco. The scene continued to snowball into the 90s, when it influenced the riot grrrl movement. Leyser seems to take the side of homocore's 80s originators, some of whom reacted to the growth and diversification of queer punk in the 90s—which included an uptick in macho fare—by dismissing it and declaring the scene dead. Leyser condenses the late 90s and early 2000s (an active period in queer punk) into a brief montage narrated by voice-over, and treats new developments since then almost as hastily. But the film's tilt toward the scene's early days speaks to the endurance of LaBruce and Jones's original concept: they built it, and the punks haven't stopped coming. —Leor Galil 83 min. Fri 11/10, 9:30 PM, $12, $10 in advance.
Scream for Me Sarajevo
If you didn't know this 2016 film was a documentary, it'd be easy to read its synopsis and come away expecting a satire like M*A*S*H or Spinal Tap. In December 1994, Iron Maiden front man Bruce Dickinson and the backing band for his solo project performed in Sarajevo, which was largely cut off from the outside world by the Bosnian Serb military—their siege of the city would ultimately last 1,425 days and cause tens of thousands of casualties. Dickinson and his band came knowing that Sarajevo was in peril, but it wasn't till they arrived that they really grasped the severity of the situation—or that rock-star status wouldn't protect them from snipers. Though the concert (and the musicians' life-altering journey to play it) provided the catalyst for the film, it provides a portal into a broader and even more compelling story—about the fans who endured the siege, and who'd cultivated a thriving underground arts community in Sarajevo despite constant danger, grief, and loss. —Jamie Ludwig 94 min. Sat 11/11, 2 PM, $12, $10 in advance.
Tom Rush: No Regrets
Folk singer-songwriter Tom Rush is most famous for his 1968 album The Circle Game, which was many people's first introduction to Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, and James Taylor, all of whom provided material for the LP. This 2013 documentary tries to make the case that Rush deserves to be recognized alongside the artists he helped to launch, but directors Rob Stegman and Todd Kwait aren't very convincing. At times their movie unfortunately recalls Christopher Guest's 2003 folk-music mockumentary A Mighty Wind—it's hard to reconcile their framing of Rush's significance with his actual contributions to popular music. Stegman and Kwait spend too much time exploring uninteresting particulars of Rush's life—his high school experience, his brief tenure as a farmer, his love for New England—all of which lead to dull digressions and tangents. This material merely distracts from the failures and successes of Rush's musical career, a far more interesting subject. —Tal Rosenberg 85 min. Sun 11/12, 2 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, $12, $10 in advance. Includes a Q&A with Tom Rush, who plays a separately ticketed show at 7 PM.
We Sold Our Souls for Rock 'n' Roll
Director Penelope Spheeris (Wayne's World, The Decline of Western Civilization) hits the road with Ozzfest, the touring heavy-metal festival organized by Black Sabbath vocalist Ozzy Osbourne and his wife, Sharon. Spheeris's documentary followed the traveling extravaganza for its 1999 run, when it covered 26 cities and featured 16 acts (including Primus, Rob Zombie, Fear Factory, Slayer, and Sabbath, the forefathers of the genre, who closed the show). Her take is both wry and affectionate, and her backstage footage proves that there's no need for Spinal Tap when you've got the real thing: Ozzy, age 50, reads his lyrics off two huge teleprompters and hobbles offstage between numbers to suck down herbal power shakes and take hits from an oxygen tank, while Sabbath's drummer, Bill Ward, discusses the scars he's collected from the band's various attempts to set him on fire. Far more depressing are the legion of drunken fans, who seem as clueless to the music's self-parody as the religious protesters shadowing the tour. At least the eighth-graders who encounter the masked members of Slipknot on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial seem to get it. —Reece Pendleton 90 min. Sat 11/11, 4 PM, free. Includes a Q&A with director Penelope Spheeris. v