Festival coverage sponsored by IndiePix.
As a student and practitioner of the sub-genre known as the music documentary, I was very interested in two titles at this year's Sundance Film Festival - the competition doc PATTI SMITH DREAM OF LIFE and the Spectrum doc ANVIL: THE STORY OF ANVIL. What I didn't quite expect was that the two films would remind me of the themes and styles of my own films, so apologies in advance for a post that will be more self-referential than I normally allow.
There was good word-of-mouth coming into the festival for Sacha Gervasi’s ANVIL: THE STORY OF ANVIL, and the film did not disappoint, providing a welcome relief from some of the more serious nonfiction films at the festival.
Telling the tale of a Canadian heavy metal band that apparently rivaled Megadeth, Anthrax and Metallica in the burgeoning days of metal, the film is a hilarious and surprisingly touching story of how two musicians – friends since high school – have fought to keep making music even as they reach 50 and as they’ve watched their contemporaries reach stratospheric levels of fame and fortune.
Right off the bat, this story plays right to my personal preferences. GIGANTIC, after all, is also a story of two boyhood friends who are two decades into a career that has been filled with ups and downs, yet who are still looking for ways to make music. At the time of its making, They Might Be Giants had reached a kind of sweet spot in their careers - able to record and tour and still have a decent, comfortable (if not opulent) lifestyle. The two leaders of Anvil find themselves at 50 still searching for the audience they glimpsed in the metal '80s.
ANVIL: THE STORY OF ANVIL has frequently been referred to as “a real-life Spinal Tap” and, in fact, there are several deliberate references to the 1984 mockumentary classic (not the least of which is the fact that Anvil’s drummer is named Robb Reiner). A couple of these spot-on homages straddle the line between brilliant and contrived, such as a visit to the real Stonehenge, but the film is so fun that it seems petty to complain.
More unexpected are the emotional touches that come later in the film as Reiner and lead singer Steve “Lips” Kudlow nearly separate (for what the film leads us to believe may be the umpteenth time) after a nasty fight, only to reconcile in an impromptu therapy sessionthat rivals anything in METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER.
The music documentary sub-genre is a difficult field for filmmakers as distributors AND critics (and truth be told, some in the potential audience) often make pains to wonder how said film will play to fans or nonfans of the artist in question. Already we've seen writers bending over backwards to explain that they loved ANVIL: THE STORY OF ANVIL even though they aren't metal fans. I'm not sure that anything can be done to break that vicious cycle, but a committed distributor would do right to gamble on ANVIL. Three nights after we saw it, a group of us, walking up Main Street, were giddy upon seeing Robb and Lips heading our direction. And immediately upon arriving at our makeshift late night gathering, we rigged up the stereo so that we could listen to the band's "Metal on Metal".
Anvil may still be searching for its big break, but ANVIL: THE STORY OF ANVIL has already arrived in a very big way.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the music spectrum, we find the legendary Patti Smith, the subject of Steven Sebring's PATTI SMITH DREAM OF LIFE, an artistic and gorgeously shot portrait of the artist as sole survivor.
In DREAM OF LIFE, death hangs over the proceedings from the opening frames. As Smith herself recounts in voice over, she has lost lovers, collaborators and confidants, from the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and the poet Allen Ginsburg to her husband Robert "Sonic" Smith. After the death of her husband, Smith loses her brother and the film is explicitly about her own survival and her decision to return to music and touring.
But this summary makes the film sound more linear than it is. In fact, the film is meandering and non-chronological. Her return to touring (with Bob Dylan) which came in the mid-90s is seen in the film near a piece of fierce anti-Bush performance art. Her children, seen at various points throughout the film, are of undetermined and constantly changing age (often becoming younger than we last saw them). For most of the film, this plays to the film's strengths as a piece of art, a collage of memory, a dreamscape.
For those of you who've seen my second film, KURT COBAIN ABOUT A SON, you can understand why I'd be drawn to this approach. But whereas I viewed ABOUT A SON as both death poem and a film about absence, DREAM OF LIFE - a film about continuing in the face of absence- is almost its mirror image. Whereas in ABOUT A SON, the faces of nameless individuals on the streets of Washington state are those who remain, DREAM OF LIFE centers on the one who chooses to carry on. The comparisons reminded me of Smith's song "About a Boy", written for Cobain after his suicide, which appeared on her 1996 return to recording Gone Again. Smith famously told Rolling Stone about Cobain, "When you watch someone you care for fight so hard to hold onto their life, then see another person just throw their life away, I guess I had less patience for that."
While some have wished for more performance footage in DREAM OF LIFE, I found the balance between the offstage and onstage Patti Smith to be fairly deft. Of particular credit to the film is a visit to Smith's parents house, which reveals a side to Smith that one doesn't expect.
While the first hour of the film was a complete success for me, it felt to me as if the film goes off the rails in the third act. There are a series of quick and unexplained cameos by celebrities - look, there's Susan Sarandon, hey, there's Thom Yorke - that threaten to turn the proceedings into a high art TRUTH OR DARE (not entirely a bad thing, but not really in keeping with what we've seen thus far). There's also those extensive anti-Bush performance pieces that - while obviously an emotive part of Smith's stage show and emblematic of her well-known political activism - feel less special in the context of the film. (If you're gonna rage on Bush, it better be some grade A rage that we've never heard before).
Yet, despite some misgivings on my part, images and moments of DREAM OF LIFE continue to sear. Whether it's Patti Smith on the couch with her parents, strumming guitar with a weathered Sam Shepherd or raging onstage with "Gloria", DREAM OF LIFE offers an unusual, relective and up-close view of the legend as survivor.
Next: Three films from Sundance veterans - Nanette Burstein's AMERICAN TEEN, Patrick Creadon's I.O.U.S.A. and Stacy Peralta's MADE IN AMERICA.