24 Beats per Second—the festival’s music documentary sidebar—pays tribute to music legends ranging from Ronnie James Dio to Tanya Tucker.
Music-related documentaries have been on an upswing in recent years and thanks to the critical and commercial success of Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers, that trend doesn’t seem to be in danger of going away anytime soon. On the surface, making a film along those lines may seem easy enough—if nothing else, there is already a built-in audience from the existing fanbase of the subject at hand—but the trick is to make one that somehow manages to appeal to viewers who may not own the albums or have attended the concert tours of those being examined. The best of the films in the 24 Beats Per Second sidebar of this year’s South by Southwest—a section featuring a variety of films covering a wide variety of musical genres and acts ranging from legacy performers to cult favorites—managed to do just that in a way that did honor to a festival where music has always played an integral part of its makeup.
Perhaps the film most openly trying to follow in the footsteps of The Sparks Brothers was I Get Knocked Down, co-directed by Sophie Robinson and Dunstan Bruce, the latter you may know better as the frontman for Chumbawumba, the one-time British musical anarchist collective that unexpectedly stumbled into fame when their caustic anthem “Tubthumping” became a massive international hit. The success didn’t last of course—fueled at least in part by the group’s obvious ambivalence towards their stardom—and the group ended up as just another one-hit-wonder while Bruce, whose rebellious spirit has not dimmed a bit in the 30 years since, is left to confront the realization that, as he puts it, “It’s harder to be an angry old man.” The scenes in which he reunites with his fellow members and they look back at what they were and what they have become are fairly interesting and deal with issues that are easily relatable even to those who have somehow never heard the group’s earworm. However, the sections in which the film tries to literalize this by having Bruce being haunted by a doppelgänger sporting the giant fake head that was the central image on the group’s album cover are mostly silly and the film as a whole just seems a little too staid at times for its own good and could use a healthy shot of anarchy itself.
Music-related documentaries have been on an upswing in recent years and thanks to the critical and commercial success of Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers, that trend doesn’t seem to be in danger of going away anytime soon.
Two other films in 24 Beats examined the extensive careers of a pair of veteran acts to make their cases as integral parts of the rock music history that has sometimes overlooked them. Toby Amies’s In the Court of the Crimson King takes a look at the half-century-plus saga of prog-rock legends King Crimson through the eyes of imperious leader Robert Fripp as well as current and former band members (including Adrian Belew), virtually all of whom, we learn, have had one dust-up or another with their taskmaster lead guitarist over the decades. Some of the moments captured are undeniably interesting (my favorite being an interview with a superfan nun discussing the generally unheralded spiritual aspects of the group’s music) and I like how the film resists the urge to try to paint Fripp as some sort of misunderstood artist who is friendly and lovable deep down inside—at one point, he even complains to the filmmakers, whom he hired, that their questions (which he describes as “shite” on occasion) are cutting into his daily four-hour rehearsals. The main problem is that with so much history being crammed into a mere 86 minutes, anyone who isn’t as dedicated to the group and their music going into it as the aforementioned nun is likely to get overwhelmed by it all.
On the other hand, Dio: Dreamers Never Die explores the legacy of Ronnie James Dio, who, during a long career cut short by his passing from stomach cancer in 2010, found himself as one of the key players of the heavy metal movement during its cultural ascendancy in the Seventies and Eighties, first as the frontman for the groups Rainbow and Black Sabbath and later as the leader of his own group, Dio. Because he performed with so many groups over the years, his importance to the genre as a whole has been undervalued and this career-spanning work from co-directors Don Argott and Damien Fenton seeks to rectify that. One aspect that the film goes out of its way to stress is that he was never one to get caught in the kind of self-destructive excesses that many associate with metal—instead, it takes pains to underscore that Dio was someone who genuinely was all about the music. This approach is perhaps not that surprising—Dio’s widow, Wendy Dio, does serve as one of the film’s executive producers as well as one of the on-camera interview subjects—but it becomes a little frustrating when some element of tension or strife is briefly mentioned but never explored in any real depth. The result is a decent-enough introductory primer for newcomers and a warm nostalgia bath for more devoted fans.
Considering how cult musician Mojo Nixon, the raucous rocker behind such immortal titles as “Don Henley Must Die” and “Debbie Gibson is Pregnant with My Two-Headed Love Child,” has become a fixture on the musical end of SXSW over the years, it is hardly a surprise to find that Matt Eskey’s career-spanning documentary The Mojo Manifesto would have its premiere as part of 24 Beats. Actually, “career-spanning” might be overstating it just a bit because this recounting of his oddball career, which hit its commercial peak in the late 80s when he briefly became a fixture on MTV, demonstrates relatively little interest in his music, almost completely ignores several seemingly important details (anyone looking for an in-depth examination of his breakup with former partner Skid Roper will go away disappointed) and scrambles up its timeline in an attempt to disguise the fact that not much has been going on with him for the last couple of decades. The faithful fans will most likely dig it—I bet it went over like gangbusters at the in-person screenings—but others may find their tolerance level for the sight of a guy constantly bellowing in his outdoor voice about the days when he was the bomb to be sorely tested.
Way at the other end of the temperament spectrum is The Anonymous Club, Danny Cohen’s look at his longtime friend, Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett, shot over a three-year period, which covers the writing and recording of her Things Take Time, Take Time album, and narrated by voice memos that Barnett recorded by herself during that time. Onstage, as can be seen in the proliferation of performance footage on display, Barnett can be a mesmerizing performer, which is why it may come as a shock to those unfamiliar with her to discover just how intensely shy and retiring she can be when she is offstage and the juxtaposition between these two dynamics is essentially the heart of the film. Perhaps more so than any of the films under consideration here, this is the one where your ultimate reaction will depend most heavily on whether you are a fan of hers going in. Those who have adored her in the past will find it to be a touching and deeply personal work that allows them a rare chance to get into her mindset while others may find it to be almost too intimate for its own good—like listening into to a stranger’s therapy sessions in which they keep going over the same issues over and over. The music, however, is lovely throughout and if you do go into the film unaware of Barnett, it will no doubt inspire you to check out her discography as soon as it is over.
Amy Scott’s Sheryl offers up a soup-to-nuts recap of the career to date of Sheryl Crow from her humble beginnings as a schoolteacher in Missouri to her tentative first steps in show business (ranging from doing jingles for McDonald’s to serving as a featured backup singer for Michael Jackson on his Bad tour to a failed 1992 attempt at a debut album) until her actual first album, 1993’s Tuesday Night Music Club, became a massive international success on the strength of such songs as “All I Wanna Do,” “Leaving Las Vegas” and “Strong Enough.” This album launched a career that continues to this day but it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Crow discusses the speed bumps along the way, including sexual harassment, disgruntlement by her Tuesday Night Music Club collaborators who felt she was hogging all the credit, writer’s block, waning sales, and a highly publicized romance with Lance Armstrong that cratered just before the cyclist became enmeshed in scandal himself. She tackles most of these topics in a forthright and honest manner (although she leans a little too hard on blaming David Letterman for an incident where she misspoke on the inspiration for “Leaving Las Vegas”) and further testimonials are supplied by the likes of Laura Dern, Emmylou Harris, Joe Walsh, and Keith Richards. Although the film is ultimately a celebratory piece, in the end, it manages to avoid tripping over into complete hagiography and, if nothing else, sticks the landing better than the recent Alanis Morissette documentary did.
Co-directed by Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern, Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story takes a look at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, a celebration of music and food that was originated in 1970 by Newport Jazz Festival founder George Wein and which, save for a Covid-related cancellation, has been going strong ever since. However, it seems as if the filmmakers worried that some audiences might be put off by the idea of listening to jazz music so while there is plenty of archival performance footage from the past several decades, the emphasis at times seems to be on more universally popular non-jazz performers. Sometimes this makes sense, as when it goes into Bruce Springsteen’s memorable post-Katrina performance with his Seger Sessions band, and sometimes not so much, such as when the presence of gospel music is highlighted via a performance by Katy Perry. The resulting film is pleasant enough but is essentially the cinematic equivalent of a concert T-shirt—it serves as a reminder of some fun musical experiences but has nothing much to say beyond that.
However, the single most engaging film in the 24 Beats Per Second section by far was Kathlyn Horan’s The Return of Tanya Tucker, an alternately delightful and touching look at the singer as she goes about recording her 2019 comeback album While I’m Livin. This project was spearheaded by Brandi Carlile, who recalled how Rick Rubin rejuvenated Johnny Cash’s career in the Nineties with the American Recordings series and recruited producer Shooter Jennings to help her do the same thing for one of her idols. The film follows the project from the very first meeting between the visibly nervous Tucker, who had not recorded anything in the previous 17 years, and the eager Carlile to its eventual triumph on Grammy night and observing the process of the development of the songs and Tucker’s confidence behind the microphone is a joy to watch throughout. In between these sequences, there are recaps of Tucker’s career covering her instant stardom as a child, her subsequent array of hits, and her tumultuous relationship with Glen Campbell, and while these segments are perhaps necessary to explain her to viewers who may not be fully aware of who she is or what she has accomplished, the rest of the film is so compelling that they could have been dropped without anyone missing them at all. Fascinating to watch, genuinely moving in parts, and, of course, filled with great music, the film is a joy to watch, not just for country music fans but for anyone in the mood for a life-affirming story that will leave you genuinely feeling good afterward.