SXSW 2023: You Can Call Me Bill, Hung Up on A Dream, Going Varsity in Mariachi, & Angel Applicant

You Can Call Me Bill (SXSW)

A quartet of docs investigate how art affects its creators and its audience.

Having already made several essay films exploring some of the most famous films (78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower SceneMemory: The Origins of Alien) and filmmakers (The People vs. George LucasLeap of Faith: William Friedkin on The ExorcistLynch/Oz) of our time, documentarian Alexandre O. Philippe now applies his technique to examining the life, work, and meaning of the one and only William Shatner

You Can Call Me Bill is essentially a one-man show. Shatner sits before Philippe’s cameras and pontificates on pretty much anything that comes to mind. He speaks on everything from sad stories about his childhood to his rollercoaster career to his thoughts on the environment and what might await him after when he finally shuffles off this mortal coil. No one else turns up to discuss Shatner and his legacy. The only other commentary comes in the form of film clips. They range from the familiar–Star Trek and TJ Hooker–to the more esoteric–White Comanche, the bizarre Esperanto horror film Incubus and the psycho-killer lunacy that is Impulse. There’s even footage of his 2021 space flight. 

Of course, as is the case with most celebrity-driven documentaries, one’s appreciation for the film will depend to a large degree on your appreciation of the subject. In this case, however, I would urge viewers to look beyond their existing feelings about Shatner. Even if the notion of listening to him orate on seemingly anything that happens to pop into his mind might inspire you to flee in the opposite direction, this film is still worth consideration.

You Can Call Me Bill (SXSW)

Face it, of all the actors out there, how many of them can you think of who would have the sheer nerve and guts to essentially deliver a stream-of-consciousness monologue about their very existence in the first place? Additionally, whatever you may think of him as an actor or a personality, the guy certainly knows how to tell a story in an entertaining and endearingly non-ironic manner. His approach to life—still approaching everything that comes his way with curiosity and passion—is weirdly inspiring.  

I suppose some Shatner fans may wish he had delivered more specific commentary regarding certain aspects of his career. The free-associative approach utilized by him and Philippe could frustrate those hoping for a more chronological look at his life. That said, this approach is well suited to the subject at hand. The result is a film that will entertain you. Perhaps it may even make you rethink your feelings regarding Shatner. Hell, after watching this, I may even give the Shatner-directed Star Trek V: The Final Frontier another look despite its reputation for being a franchise low point. 

Music-related documentaries have always been a central component of the SXSW lineup. This year was no exception, featuring films on subjects ranging from legendary performers like Joan Baez and Donna Summer to the 1969 Toronto concert that featured the first live appearance by John Lennon following the breakup of the Beatles. One of the most winning was Hung Up on a Dream, Robert Schwartzman’s highly entertaining look at the cult English band The Zombies. Formed in the days before the British Invasion, they became the first British band after the Beatles to hit #1 in the U.S. with “She’s Not There.” Alas, the next few years led to numerous creative and financial missteps. In their wake, the group broke up just before the release of 1968’s Odyssey and Oracle, a now classic album that spawned the massive hit “Time of the Season.”  

Hung Up on A Dream (SXSW)

Surviving band members Rod Argent, Colin Blunstone, Hugh Grundy, and Chris White recount their journey. While the film (co-produced by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman) is not particularly innovative in retelling their rise, fall, and unexpected decades-later revival, the guys are charming and likable throughout. Additionally, the music is so good. Call me crazy, but I would take Odyssey and Oracle over Sgt. Pepper any day of the week. Combined, those elements leave viewers with a newfound admiration for The Zombies’ legacy and tenacity and a hunger to seek out still more of their songs.

The musicians at the center of Sam Osborn and Alejandra Vasquez’s Going Varsity in Mariachimay not have the decades of experience as The Zombies. Nonetheless, the students of Mariachi Oro clearly demonstrate the same level of desire and enthusiasm. The doc follows this competitive mariachi band from Edinburgh North High School in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas over the course of the 2021-22 school year. Under the tutelage of director Abel Acuna, we see them competing in a couple of small-scale events before arriving at the state championship.

There, they must face off against the big fish of the pond, the Mariachi Nuevo Santander from rival Roma High School. Perpetually underfunded, with many students having little to no prior musical experience, Mariachi Oro is at an immediate disadvantage. Account for the typical distractions of teenage life–one of the best players in the group considers leaving so that he can spend more time with his new girlfriend–and their success grows even less likely.

Going Varsity in Mariachi (SXSW)

By focusing entirely on the group and its evolution throughout the year, the filmmakers elect to skip over the history and development of mariachi music. For those with little prior knowledge of the musical approach–or those hungry for further insight–this may prove frustrating. Still, even without prior mariachi knowledge, viewers will certainly get a sense of the joy it brings Acuna and his students. Moreover, the audience witnesses how their lessons can help serve them later in life, even if they never play a note after graduation. 

The students prove to be an engaging lot, with or without their instruments. We follow one who hopes her involvement with the program will help get her a much-needed scholarship. Additionally, a pair of romantically involved female members hope to go on to teach music someday, even as they’re all too aware of the homophobia gaining strength in their state. Going Varsity in Mariachi does not exactly reinvent the world as documentaries go, but it is nevertheless highly entertaining and touching. It could well inspire newcomers to learn more about mariachi music. 

Art and how audiences can use it to help process events in their own lives is the focus of one of the festival’s most unusual and affecting documentaries, Ken August Meyer’s profoundly personal and compelling Angel Applicant

Winner of the festival’s top Documentary prize, Angel Applicant places Meyer himself at the film’s center. Suffering from systemic scleroderma–a life-threatening incurable autoimmune disease that attacks connective tissues and internal organs and causes the skin of its victims to harden and tighten–Meyer turns to the later works of Paul Klee. 

Angel Applicant (SXSW)

A Swiss-born artist, Klee’s works ran afoul of Adolph Hitler and earned him the dubious title of “degenerate artist.” Klee’s artwork took a decided turn for the abstract in his later years when he also fell victim to scleroderma. However, rather than give up on creation, the artist elected to use his new limitations as part of his creative process. 

The film alternates between Meyer undergoing the progression of his illness and recounting Klee’s artistic legacy. Both prove to be equally fascinating, tying together by the movie’s end in an unexpected and quite moving manner. The result is an affecting example of first-person filmmaking. It’s touching without being cloying. Ultimately, it will give viewers much to think about regarding the myriad ways art can touch and shape our lives. 

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Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.

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