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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Music-themed stories light up the screen


Gerald Schmitz

Even in the silent era music has always been an important part of the movie experience. Some soundtracks have become classics. Many stories of musicians have come to the screen in recent years. I’ve already given high praise for the Sundance drama Sing Street about teenagers who form a band in 1980s Dublin, and the award-winning Sundance documentary Sonita about an Afghan refugee girl in Iran who finds inspiration in rap music to overcome difficult circumstances and cultural restrictions. Here are other current titles to watch for.

The Idol (Palestine/Argentina)

Director and co-writer Hany Abu-Assad’s stirring film is a dramatic telling of the true story of Mohammed Assaf, a young Palestinian who overcame the poverty and violence of Gaza to win the 2012 “Arab Idol” singing contest. As children, Mohammed (Kais Attalah), his irrepressible older sister Nour (Hiba Attalah) and two other boys (one of whom, Omar, later becomes a religious militant), scrape together instruments and perform to earn a little money. Mohammed’s remarkable singing voice draws special attention and mentorship. “We’ll be big and we’ll change the world,” enthuses Nour. Although tragedy strikes when she suffers kidney failure, Nour remains an inspiration to Mohammed as a young man (played by Tawfeek Barhom). While driving a taxi for a living he never gives up his dream. Nicknamed “Tiger,” he first gets on the show “Palestine Star” then overcomes a series of huge obstacles to get to Cairo on a forged visa for auditions. Against all odds he makes it to the final competition in Beirut where his triumph sets off scenes of mass jubilation across the Palestinian territories.

Palestinians have had very little to cheer about and Gaza has been particularly afflicted. No wonder Mohammed’s musical journey lifted spirits. Yet, as the film notes, despite his position as a UN goodwill ambassador and diplomatic passport, he still needs Israeli special permission to travel in and out of his native Gaza. The power of his music is that it crosses borders that many cannot.

Born to Be Blue (Canada/U.K.)

Canadian-born writer-director Robert Budreau takes considerable historical liberties in this inventive rendering of the high and lows of famed jazz trumpeter Chet Baker’s career while still remaining true to its subject, convincingly played by Ethan Hawke. The film, which premiered at the Toronto film festival last September, opens with Baker in a prison cell in Italy in 1966, in the throes of heroin addiction and hallucination. Flash back to his sensational 1954 “Birdland” debut, heralded for its “west coast swing,” though leaving the great Miles Davis unimpressed (or more likely unhappy at being upstaged). Baker’s rapid rise was accompanied by a turbulent love life that introduced him to heroin. Carmen Ejogo plays a character, Jane, who is a composite of his love interests, including in a 1960s Dino De Laurentiis biopic, a misbegotten movie within a movie that was never completed. Fame only magnified Baker’s personal demons. He experienced what Marilyn Monroe said of Hollywood: “They’ll pay you two grand for a kiss and two bucks for your soul.”

By then Baker was a full-blown junkie. A brutal beating by dealers that badly injured his mouth sent his career into a nosedive. His longtime agent and producer Dick Bock (Canadian Callum Keith Rennie) deserted him. As Baker tries to pick up the pieces there’s an affecting sequence in which he takes Jane to meet his parents in rural Oklahoma, presenting his father, a former musician, with a recording of a favourite tune, Born to be Blue. Instead the old man rebuffs the gesture with harsh words.

Baker’s struggles are tough to watch as he painfully relearns to play, goes on treatment programs, is harassed by a parole officer and forced to take jobs beneath his talents. But he perseveres and with an assist from Dizzy Gillespie lands a crucial comeback gig at Birdland. Tragically, it seems Baker could only hit performance high notes under the influence. The movie ends as he chooses the drugs over Jane’s support, moving to Europe to relaunch his career. (He died an addict in Amsterdam in 1988.)

Budreau’s unconventional approach, which takes artistic license with some biographical details, succeeds in capturing the spirit of Baker and his times. It’s a complex compelling portrait that shows his charismatic charm and humorous side as well as the dark troubled moods that hurt him more than anyone else. As Hawke, who gives an extraordinary performance, joked following the South By Southwest Festival screening: “Apparently if he had money and drugs, he was a lot of fun.” The important Canadian connections — partly filmed in Sudbury and financed by Telefilm — include the superb musical arrangements by Hamilton-born jazz pianist-composer David Braid, which were integral to the production process.

Miles Ahead (U.S.)

Director/co-writer Don Cheadle casts himself as Miles Davis, another legendary jazz trumpet player whose artistic achievements were marred by addictions and personal tragedies. Again the approach taken is unconventional involving considerable invention. Rather than the arc of a life story, the film dramatizes incidents during a five-year period in the 1970s when the erratic Davis stopped performing publicly. An insistent reporter, Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor), claiming to be from Rolling Stone magazine hounds the reclusive drug-addled Davis for an interview then gets mixed up in the artist’s disputatious troubles with Columbia Records over royalty monies and run-ins with a shady producer, Harper (Michael Stuhlbarg), and his protégé trumpeter “Junior” (Lakeith Lee Stanfield). In one episode an irate Davis pulls a gun on the suits and another subplot revolves around an allegedly stolen master session tape that Davis is determined to get back.

Fortunately beyond this rather ragged scattershot narrative some of Davis’s musical genius shines through, especially in flashbacks to earlier career highpoints when he was still with his first wife Frances (Emayatzy Corinealdi). Cheadle is effective in capturing Davis’s mercurial personality and troubled life tending to extremes. I just wish there was more of the music and less of the melodrama.

Janis: Little Girl Blue (U.S.)

Self-destructive personalities are certainly not uncommon in the popular music business. Director Amy Berg’s documentary about Texas-born rock ‘n blues singer Janis Joplin, who like too many others died of an overdose at 27, shows why her unique raspy musical voice deserves to be remembered. Berg delves into her Port Arthur childhood and turbulent career, drawing on biographies by sister Laura Joplin and road manager John Cooke. She was also granted access to a trove of Joplin’s personal letters to family and friends, passages from which are read by singer Cat Power.

Interviews with surviving siblings, friends, partners and bandmates (Kris Kristofferson, “Country” Joe McDonald) are combined with archival footage that includes television appearances (notably with Dick Cavett) and her flamboyant presence at a high-school reunion. While Joplin’s vulnerabilities are exposed we also get the full measure of her epic talent through scenes from legendary performances, first with the group Big Brother and the Holding Company, then as a solo artist backed by the Kosmic Blues Band and the Full Tilt Boogie Band.

The film had its television premiere on PBS in early May as part of the “American Masters” series.

Hired Gun (U.S.

Director Fran Strine’s documentary, which premiered at the South By Southwest Festival in March, pays homage to the elite of session and touring musicians, the go-to “hired guns” who provide key backup instrumentals for most of the biggest acts in popular music. The stars all know who the top musicians are but it’s a competitive pressure-cooker business which demands that they always bring their A game. There are also plenty of stories of exploitation, unfairness and struggles between jobs. One that stands out is that of Liberty De Vitto, longtime drummer for Billy Joel, abruptly dumped after three decades. Contributions to hits may be uncredited or players replaced at a moment’s notice. The film adds fascinating elements to the history of pop music from the 60s onward. Like the 2014 Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom, it introduces us to a group of little-known musicians whose talents deserve acknowledgement at centre stage.