Movies about music are a natural fit for South by Southwest and for film fans here in the Live Music Capital of the World; here are four that caught our critics’ attention.
“If I Leave Here Tomorrow: A Film About Lynyrd Skynyrd.” This documentary from Stephen Kijak chronicles the history of the Southern rock band, including its early days and the 1977 plane crash that killed Ronnie Van Zant and several others. Read Joe Gross’ review of the doc, which is expected to air on CMT sometime this year (just try not to yell “Free Bird!” at your TV when you watch).
“Hearts Beat Loud.” Nick Offerman (“Parks and Recreation”) stars as a single father who isn’t ready for his daughter to move across the country for college; the sudden success on Spotify of a song they wrote together adds to the complications. Read Matt Shiverdecker’s review of the movie, in which he writes, “I will love Ron Swanson to my dying day, but I think this may be the best performance of Offerman’s career.” The film is scheduled to open in select cities this summer; no word yet on an Austin date.
“Blaze.” This biopic about Austin songwriter Blaze Foley stars Arkansas musician Ben Dickey as Foley and Austin musician Charlie Sexton as Townes Van Zandt, under the direction of Ethan Hawke. In his review, Joe praises the stunning performances from non-actors and calls the movie “an ode to the artist-as-emotional-outlaw, with all the good, bad and ugly that implies.” No release date has been set, but once it comes out, this one is too good to miss.
Feeling some South by Southwest regret? Wishing you could have been a part of the full film experience? Well, I can’t promise that Steven Spielberg will show up at your favorite cinema anytime soon, but I can tell you when you’ll have the chance to see these big-name movies that played during SXSW.
“A QUIET PLACE”: This horror-thriller directed by John “The Office” Krasinski, starring real-life couple Krasinski and Emily “I’m the next Mary Poppins” Blunt, opens April 6. Read Joe Gross’ review of the movie, which he says “works best as a tense fable, a ‘Twilight Zone’ blown into 90 often-gripping minutes.”
“BLOCKERS”: This sometimes raunchy, sometimes heartfelt comedy about teens trying to have sex (and the parents trying to thwart their plans) will be in theaters April 6. Read Natalie Mokry’s review of the movie,which she says “proves that it is possible for subtle and slapstick to coexist rather nicely.”
“FINAL PORTRAIT”: The story of artist Alberto Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush) and a writer who once posed for him (Armie Hammer) is scheduled to open in Austin on April 13 (but check your listings; this isn’t a nationwide release, so things could change). Read our review from Charles Ealy,who calls it “a subtle rumination on the creation of art.”
As a movie constructed of tiny moving parts, it’s fitting that “Isle of Dogs” resonates most warmly in its quiet, little moments. There’s the scene where a recently orphaned 12-year-old boy, laid up in traction in a hospital, meets his new guard dog, who licks his hand in silence. Or a later scene when the same boy gives a biscuit to a different dog, a wary stray who’s never tasted one before. The hound is overcome. So is the viewer.
The latest from film auteur (and University of Texas alum) Wes Anderson, “Isle of Dogs” closed out the 2018 South by Southwest Film Festival in its North American premiere to a packed house wearing complimentary “PRO-DOG” headbands. Set in the near future in the fictional Japanese metropolis of Megasaki City, the stop-motion-animated film tells a seemingly simple story at its heart: A boy sets out to find his lost dog, with the help of a pack of mangy mutts.
The boy, Atari Kobayashi (voiced by Koyu Rankin, whom one hopes has a best friend with the last name Bass), is the ward of the authoritarian Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura, also with a writing credit), who has exiled all dogs in the city to live on the dumps of Trash Island. The reason why is all explained in an ancient legend prologue. Best not to dwell on the motives too long, but suffice it to say that the Kobayashis are decidedly cat people.
Atari’s beloved guard dog, Spots (a stout-hearted Liev Schreiber), was the first pooch to get the boot. Six months after the mayor’s decree, more dogs have found themselves subsisting on scarce garbage for food on the island, and Atari arrives in a tiny prop plane for a hero’s quest. Guiding him are Rex (Edward Norton, such a delightful drip of a dog), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), King (Bob Balaban) and Chief (Bryan Cranston), that grizzled stray with a chip on his shoulder and nose for a fight.
As you might guess for a movie about man’s best friend, “Isle of Dogs” stands up for loyalty in all its forms: between owners and pets, or between members of a pack, or of young idealists toward their cause. When the movie puts Atari and Chief together, it charms. Cranston imbues the jaded stray with a heart-rending pain through all those bared teeth, as he learns what the most simple kinds of affection feel like. The lack of subtitling of Atari’s Japanese dialogue is also a tidy device to put an English-language viewer in the dog’s, er, paws.
Speaking of Anderson, all the director’s trademarks are here, even in miniature form: the twee musical throwback (an instantly infectious “I Won’t Hurt You” by the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band), the impeccably curated tableaus, the eclectic cast of favorite players. If you’re going to go animated, why not stock up like winter is coming and beloved character actors are canned goods? Tilda Swinton’s turn as a prescient pug dubbed the Oracle is a gas, and she’s used with remarkable restraint. “Lady Bird” director Greta Gerwig gives a foreign exchange student/budding journalist/dog rights activist pleasing notes of Lisa Simpson and Leslie Knope. Heck, even Yoko Ono did some voice work in this thing.
Much like Anderson’s previous stop-motion film, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” the intricacies of the animation are exquisite. The canine characters glow with fur-bound life. The crying effects look so good that you can tell the production team got incredibly stoked and slotted them into the movie wherever they could. You will believe a man’s best friend can cry.
Back to the language barrier. To watch the movie, you’ve got to try to wrap your arms around the cultural politics of “Isle of Dogs,” which features dogs voiced by white actors in a Japanese world and human Japanese characters mostly voiced by Asian actors. Anderson goes to pretty laborious lengths to avoid subtitled dialogue, including translator characters (one is voiced by Frances McDormand). Questions arise: Why did Gerwig’s character need to be a foreign exchange student instead of a Japanese schoolkid, for example? Expressive line readings from Rankin and Nomura constantly made me wonder what the film is like to watch if you understand both English and Japanese. I also wondered if Anderson thought about such a person at any point from concept to post-production.
“Isle of Dogs” also doesn’t really spend much time thinking about female characters, whether human or canine. Female dogs are mostly absent: There’s Swinton’s bit-part; a show dog voiced by Scarlett Johansson who only exists to service an underdeveloped romance and also get in a really lazy “bitch” joke; and another pooch that’s literally just there to have puppies. Even Gerwig’s plucky agitator has her agency undercut by a crush on Atari that’s a little cute but mostly elicits a “yeah, sure, I guess?” If ever there was a movie you could tell had an all-male writing team, this is the one.
The tone trends wicked in parts, including a trash furnace cliffhanger that’s left dangling too long for anyone who actually likes dogs. It would also be naive to not view “Isle of Dogs” through a Trump-era lens, what with its executive edicts and themes of exile, press suppression and disinformation, all in the name of power. Anderson also slips in a line about staged political protests that feels scorchingly pointed in 2018 (I heard titters in the theater) but also undercut the fantasy.
Anderson attempts a lot. When its story about dogs and kids goes small, “Isle of Dogs” does quite a few good tricks.
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber, Greta Gerwig, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban
“You can make out the silhouettes of our past in the morning light,” the title card reads at the beginning of Nicholas Kovacic and Matthew Riggieri’s documentary “Agave: The Spirit of a Nation,” which made its world premiere at South by Southwest last weekend and screens again Saturday afternoon.
Combine the vague quote that touches on cultural history and naturalism and blend it with the dark images of workers starting pre-dawn days in agave harvesting, and you get a nice encapsulation of the tone and message of this 75-minute documentary.
As an spirit lover knows, over the past several years, mezcal production has skyrocketed. It lags behind tequila in popularity, but the explosion of that spirit led to a watering down, as corporations used to diffusers squeeze the last drop of juice from the plant and the distilling process introduced non-traditional ingredients like sugarcane to stretch the production and increase profit.
Mezcal, made from more than 200 varietals of agave as opposed to the single-source blue agave that fuels tequila, has traditions that extend centuries. The harvesting of agave, the artisanal production methods of harvesting, roasting and fermenting the product has long connected thousands of Mexican families to their land and to history.
As demand has increased in recent years, many of these families fight to preserve their traditional approach, hoping to protect their families’ legacies. The film traces the stories of mescal producers Carlos Camarena, Graciela Angeles Carreño of Mezcal Minero Real and Aquilino García Lopez of Mezcal Vago in Jalísco and Oaxaca, as the trio reveal their personal histories with the spirit and elucidate its importance in establishing and growing their families and businesses.
The movie, which at times uses a somewhat corny voice-over you’d expect at a museum instillation, touches briefly on mezcal and tequila’s history, glossing over periods of colonialism and the corporate tequila boom of the last few decades, but it mostly tells the general story of mezcal by focusing on the three main characters’ person stories.
We learn of Camarena returning to lead the family business at the behest of his father, of Angeles Carreño playing the role of business leader and caretaker for her family’s legacy, and of García Lopez, whose sections of the movie give the most visceral sense of the artisanal nature of the back-breaking work involved in producing mezcal the traditional way.
Questions arise about the role of global climate change on agave cultivation and the conflict of trying to keep children at home working with mezcal when greater opportunity awaits beyond their hometowns, but the true crisis that agave faces or how these families will be able to stem or fit into a more global and industrialized world never feels completely fleshed out.
While that bigger overhead view of the situation in Mexico is lacking, the passion and heart of those featured rings true. So, when García Lopez says, “People have been selling mezcal like it is only an alcohol, but in its essence, it is truly so much more,” you understand that, as she says, mezcal is part of her genetic makeup.
The documentary slate is always strong at South by Southwest; here are a few that our critics felt stood out this year.
“Daughters of the Sexual Revolution: The Untold Story of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders” comes from Oscar-nominated “Murderball” director Dana Adam Shapiro. The film, Matt Shiverdecker writes, “tackles our country’s evolving morality in the 1970s through the lens of one of the most overtly sexual icons in American popular culture at that time.”
Charles Ealy says “Weed the People” makes a powerful argument for marijuana’s medicinal uses. The film looks at “cannabis and its anti-cancer properties – and at how everyday people are making all sorts of efforts to get it to help themselves or their children.”
SXSW is the ideal place to screen a music documentary. “If I Leave Here Tomorrow” chronicles the history of Lynyrd Skynyrd, including its early days and the 1977 plane crash that killed Ronnie Van Zant and several others. Joe Gross says the doc is moving and well made.
Shiverdecker calls “TransMilitary” “a provocative and timely documentary … that looks at the difficulties faced by the estimated 15,500 active duty troops in the United States military who identify as transgender.”
Looking for some gentleness in the world? “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” explores the life and legacy of Fred Rogers, creator of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Natalie Mokry writes, The documentary makes sure we never forget those beautiful days in the neighborhood.
“People’s Republic of Desire” won the Documentary Feature Grand Jury Award at SXSW 2018. Gross writes that the film about live-streaming performers in China who vie to make millions from online fans is “a completely bonkers William Gibson sci-fi story come to life.”
Austin loves Bill Murray, and Bill Murray seems to really love Austin. “The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned from a Mythical Man,” which had its world premiere at SXSW, “traces the origin stories of the many legendary tales of Murray popping into other people’s lives,” Matthew Odam writes.
Hormones. Acne. Bullies. School violence. Being a teen is tough (though raising a teen is no walk in the park, either).
Looking back at all the movies our critics reviewed during South by Southwest, I was struck by how many had to do with teens trying to find their place in the world, or parents having to learn to let go.
In “Eighth Grade,” Bo Burnham’s directorial debut, we follow Kayla (Elise Fisher) as she tries to navigate the last week of that pivotal year. Natalie Mokry says the movie “is incredibly painful because the story is told well and hits so close to home.”
“Lean on Pete” tells the story of Charley (Charlie Plummer), a lonely young man looking for a safe home for himself and his horse. Charles Ealy says this movie stand out because of Plummer, “who appears poised to become one of our most versatile young stars.”
Want to know how social media could be influencing your teens? The documentary “Social Animals” examines the lives of three young Instagramers and how the platform has taken over their lives. Mokry says the film “dives into this generation’s desire for validation” and “will stand as a great documentation of the problematic role social media plays.”
We’ve established that it’s tough to be a teen; now, imagine you’re a black Muslim-American teen. That’s the premise of “Jinn,” which won SXSW’s Special Jury Recognition for Writing award in the Narrative Feature Competition. Ealy says the movie is “about how a young spirit can break through the various cultural restraints teens face.”
In “Family,” Kate (Taylor Schilling) must step away from her busy corporate life to connect with her awkward niece. Lest you think that sounds like a sickly sweet plot, Matt Shiverdecker says “the true highlight of the entire film is watching Schilling, in full face paint, on stage with the Insane Clown Posse at the Gathering of the Juggalos.”
You think you had it hard as a teen? Try being a young girl who transforms into something wild — and potentially dangerous — at puberty. That’s the premise of “Wildling,” which Ealy says is “a parable, with supernatural and horror undertones. But it’s also a metaphor for being yourself.”
“Sadie” is another story of a teen on the dark side. In this movie, a 13-year-old is willing to go to great lengths to try to reunite her parents. Shiverdecker says that director and writer Megan Griffiths “nails the dynamics of her young characters, and both of the young leads give boldly natural performances.”
OK, let’s give the parents a little time here. “Blockers” takes a comic look at adults who can’t come to terms with the idea of their little girls growing up and exploring their sexuality. Leslie Mann, John Cena and Ike Barinholtz bring heart and sometimes raunchy humor to the film as they attempt to foil prom night plans. And as Mokry says, “One of the best things about the movie is how strong and uninhibited its female characters are, especially where the three teens are concerned. Much like their male counterparts, they are young and hormonal, and they don’t shy away from expressing it to one another. ”
Music and family come together in “Hearts Beat Loud,” which stars Nick Offerman as a single father who isn’t ready for his daughter to move across the country for college. Shiverdecker says, “I will love Ron Swanson to my dying day, but I think this may be the best performance of Offerman’s career. He brings this character to life with a raw vulnerability and hopefulness that makes you want to root for him no matter the odds.”
Daryl Hannah really likes the term “spitball production.”
We’re sitting in a suite at the Four Seasons discussing her new movie, “Paradox,” starring Neil Young and some of the folks in Promise of the Real (with whom Young has been touring and making albums for a few years now). It premiered March 15 at South by Southwest, then heads over to Netflix on March 23.
Hannah is joined in this conversation by Promise of the Real’s Micah Nelson (son of Willie) and his girlfriend, Alex. Nelson has been telling me about his middle-school hobby of making stop-motion animation with clay and action figures. This eventually turned into the band/art collective Insects vs. Robots and the “spitball and duct-tape production” he does for that group.
“‘Spitball productions … I like that!” Hannah says, her face lighting up. It’s clearly the ideal term for “Paradox,” a not-really narrative, 72-minute Western that blends some fictional characters played by “Neil and the band, Neil’s mangers, the road crew and our caretakers and friends” with live footage of the band in full flight.
Shot over three or so days on Hannah’s Colorado ranch, “Paradox” came together in September 2016, when the band was taking some time to get used to the altitude in Colorado before playing a show in Telluride and embarking on a short fall tour that included the Desert Trip festival (aka Old ‘chella).
The band had a little rehearsing to do, but Hannah knew “they would eventually end up in this beautiful natural setting, sitting around the campfire, making jokes and singing songs. So I said, ‘Let’s catch that! Not make a doc about them sitting out there, but let’s make a little movie.”
Proceeding with a 10-page script for a short, Hannah said the characters started improvising. There’s some performance footage from a few shows and some actual songs and some recordings of playing guitar in the woods. But the most striking musical element is the stuff that sounds like an original score: feedback, enormous-sounding drums, fragments of melody — think Young’s landmark collage “Arc” as a movie score.
“We got these giant skin drums, and we were just trying out different stuff in the studio,” Nelson said. “We’d look at footage and say, ‘Oh, we need something for this section, let’s jam and record it, and that was it. I think we did that for about a day.”
They even shot a scene out in Luck in “Willieville,” the Western town set from “Red Headed Stranger,” wherein Willie meets Young’s man-in-black character.
“I used to play out there as as kid,” Micah Nelson says. “I was stung by many hornets.”
Eventually Hannah says she would like to make “a real film that is properly made according to traditional norms but still with an imaginative and creative story but also I’m sure I am going to keep making spitball productions. It is very liberating to make art without asking for anyone’s permission.”
A voice-over fills the first minute of “Paradox,” which screened March 15 at South by Southwest and will be available March 23 on Netflix. Over a shot of a night sky filled with stars, said monologue is read by one Willie Hugh Nelson of Luck, Texas; a green oscillogram on the bottom of the screen maps his dulcet tone:
“Many moons ago, in the future, when the womenfolk had rightfully just about given up on us, a mangy group of outlaws hid out by a precious water source while the real bad guys quietly stole the seeds of life. Thankfully, music still helped our spirits fly.”
So, yeah, that’s what we’re dealing with here.
Shot over three or so days in fall 2016 while Neil Young (who has directed movies under the name Bernard Shakey) and the Promise of the Real (his backing band of late that stars Lukas and Micah Nelson, sons of the above mentioned Willie) got used to the altitude in Colorado before a short tour, “Paradox” was written and directed by actress Daryl Hannah, Young’s romantic partner since 2014.
Shot quick and cheap, “Paradox” blends a vague, possibly improvised Western narrative with a terrific instrumental score and a few new and old songs. Young has a roles as the enigmatic Man In Black; Lukas and Micah are Western-ish outlaws called Jail Time and the Particle Kid. Sample dialogue: “Those two fellas are the Nelson brothers. The older one, the one on the left, he’s a gunslinger. They call him Jail Time. The other one? The Particle Kid. Nobody knows what planet that boy’s from. The man in the black hat, they all steer clear of him. I heard he can be kinda … shakey.” Oy gevalt.
Ever wanted to see Young’s legendary manager Elliot Roberts as a cowboy? He’s in there! There seems to be some mining going on, also plenty of guitar playing. Willie himself pops in for a scene as Red (a scene shot in Willieville).
This was during Young’s anti-Monsanto period, so there are lines such as “Y’all are excited for flowers, but you haven’t yet sowed the seeds. Protect the seeds” and “When saving the seeds is outlawed, it’ll be the outlaws who saved the seeds.”
The guitar playing is, naturally, a highlight. Young and the band run through a song or two, and there’s a furious jam (that feels like the end of “Cowgirl in the Sand”) recorded at Desert Trip, aka Ol’ Chella. And the soundtracky bits — all guitar feedback, vague chordings and massive toms — are totally great, as is the acoustic ramble that floats around here and there.
It is exactly the sort of flick that everyone involved will say was a lot of fun to make. Is it a lot of fun to watch?
In “Hearts Beat Loud,” a film absolutely tailor-made for South by Southwest, director Brett Haley (“The Hero”) delivers a heartwarming ode to the healing power of music.
Nick Offerman stars as Frank, a single father and occasionally cantankerous record store owner in Brooklyn. He’s having difficulty accepting the fact that his only daughter, Sam (Kiersey Clemons), is about to go away to college in the fall. To add insult to injury, she’s taking off across the country to attend UCLA. The father/daughter duo have always casually made music together for fun with impromptu jam sessions at home, but one particularly creative night results in a perfect little song that just so happens to provide our movie with its title. When Sam informs her father that she is not looking to do anything more than make some music in their living room, he’s disappointed but determined to change her mind.
Frank takes a recording of “Hearts Beat Loud” and does an internet search to find out how to release a song on streaming sites. A few clicks of the mouse later, their little home recording is uploading from TuneCore to Spotify under the name We Are Not A Band. A few days later, out at a local bakery, he hears their song playing in the store. Incredulously asking the cashier what is playing, he discovers that the song has already been placed on the curated “New Indie Mix” playlist on Spotify. “We’re on a playlist with Iron & Wine and Spoon!” he says. It’s a plot twist that, especially for struggling indie musicians, might seem a little far-fetched, but isn’t that the promise and magic of the movies?
In the meantime, Frank’s landlord Leslie (Toni Collette) has been forced to raise the rent on the record store location, and Frank makes the decision to close down after 17 years in business. Not only does he have the expense of Sam’s impending college days to worry about, but his mother, Marianne (Blythe Danner), is slowly beginning to show signs of memory loss and has already been arrested for shoplifting in a local bodega. It’s clear that more time and resources will soon need to be devoted to her care. These are harsh realities to face, but Frank’s excitement over the possibility of success for We Are Not A Band takes precedent in the short term.
Now, I will love Ron Swanson to my dying day, but I think this may be the best performance of Offerman’s career. He brings this character to life with a raw vulnerability and hopefulness that makes you want to root for him no matter the odds. And Clemons, who starred in the movie “Dope” and has spent some time on Amazon’s “Transparent,” is a revelation here. As Sam, she perfectly expresses the hopeful uncertainty of that transitional time in your life between high school and college. In supporting roles, Texas native Sasha Lane (“American Honey”) is terrific in her few scenes as Sam’s love interest, Collette gets in a raging karaoke cover of Chairlift’s “Bruises,” and it’s a real delight to see Ted Danson behind a bar again as Frank’s best friend Dave.
Just like with “Sing Street” a few years back, this is a movie where I wanted to own a soundtrack the nanosecond it ended. The brilliant original songs as performed by We Are Not A Band were written by Keegan DeWitt, who composed the score for Haley’s last two films. Hopefully, we’ll get them all on vinyl when distributor Gunpowder & Sky begins to release the film in select cities later this summer.
“Hearts Beat Loud” screened March 14 at SXSW; there are not other showings scheduled during the festival. Grade: A-