SXSW Film 2016: ‘Sing Street’ review

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“Sing Street” is a feel-good New Wave/pop coming-of-age love story.

Conor (Ferdia-Walsh Pino) dreams big and after transferring to a more rough- and-tumble school where a bully lurks at every corner and black shoes are required. He falls in love with Raphina (Lucy Boynton), who’s one year his senior who lives in a girls’ home across the street.

Raphina becomes Conor’s Apollonia and the impetus for him to start a band with some misfits from his new school. His look changes day by day as they first struggle through a cover of Duran Duran’s “Rio” and then Conor discovers who he is, spiritually and musically, as his music-sensei brother turns him onto The Cure.

“Sing Street” is one part love story and one part brotherly love flick to a soundtrack of New Wave standards that may be familiar if you came of age in the 1980s. Think “Schoolhouse Rock” sans the actual school of rock.

“Sing Street” deals heavily in hope, following your dreams, rebellion, teenage angst through a fairly overt commentary of staunchly Catholic mores and the troubled socioeconomic climate of a mid-1980s Ireland. You can catch “Sing Street” at 8 p.m. Monday at the Marchesa and 11:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Alamo Ritz.

 

 

SXSW Film Review: “Miss Sharon Jones!”

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The career of soul singer Sharon Jones has been unconventional in just about every way. Once famously told by a Sony executive that she was “too old, too fat, too short and too black to make it,” the former wedding singer and corrections officer has had a long road to success.

 

After four well-received albums with her band the Dap-Kings, Miss Jones seemed primed for the biggest release of her life. All of the pieces of the puzzle had seemingly come together and that’s what made the news that came next sting extra hard. A stage 2 pancreatic cancer diagnosis in 2013 sidelined the release of a finished record called “Give The People What They Want,” and put her future in jeopardy.

 

Academy Award-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple (“Harlan County USA”) chronicles this difficult period in Sharon’s life and career with an unflinching eye. Before beginning chemotherapy, Jones goes to a hair salon to have her braids cut off and head shaved. There’s a stunning close-up as she clutches the cut hair tightly in her hands, followed by the tears welling up in her eyes as these first visible changes due to her illness occur. It’s a raw moment, only lightened somewhat by her passionate self-promotion telling the man temporarily altering her appearance to “Google her” and the band.

 

It’s the first of many powerfully intimate moments reflected through her treatment and recovery. We follow chemotherapy sessions and interviews with band members who admit that they are struggling financially because of the band’s time-out. Despite a lack of mainstream success, the Dap-Kings had already crafted a rabid fanbase that allowed them to tour and stay afloat. Without the ability to hit the road and promote an album, Sharon is shown not only having to deal with her own recovery but also facing the economic pressures of having so many people dependent on her for their livelihoods.

 

A fascinating documentary could’ve been made about Sharon Jones even before the cancer diagnosis. Her story has been one of survival and hope for anybody following their dreams when they’ve been told they should just give up. Success came late in life for her and showed how hard work can pay off in ways that you never expected. The one word that kept popping up in my head during the film was resilience. To fight for every inch of that success and then have to battle to stay alive proves how strong she really is and, after seeing this documentary, I’d never bet against her.

 

Kopple is not afraid to peel back the layers of this story – there are tears, there is fighting, there is infectious laughter. For her part, Jones is not afraid of being seen as vulnerable and her humanity shines through in every moment. We watch her flinch during a chemo session, but we also get to watch her shout with sheer joy when she gets the news that the band has been booked to play on “Ellen.”

 

If you somehow stumble into this film without knowing the music of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, it’s hard to imagine that you’d walk out with anything but the desire to go buy all of their albums. The film culminates in a real celebration – after being deemed “cancer-free,” a beleaguered Jones takes the stage at the Beacon Theater in New York to a sold-out crowd that includes her doctor who gets to watch her perform for the first time. Still exhausted from her treatments, she takes the stage and feeds off the crowd’s energy to regain her footing and kick-off another year on the road. Here’s to many, many more.

 

Other screenings: 10:45 a.m. Wednesday, Alamo South Lamar; 1:45 p.m. March 19, Topfer Theater.

 

SXSW Film 2016: ‘Sidemen: Long Road To Glory’

'Sidemen' features the incredible photography of over 15 shooters that captured these legendary bluesmen over the course of their long careers. These three images of Pinetop, Willie and Hubert capture the film's essence. | Credit: Photos by: Jerome Brunet and Sandro Miller
‘Sidemen’ features the incredible photography of over 15 shooters that captured these legendary bluesmen over the course of their long careers. These three images of Pinetop, Willie and Hubert capture the film’s essence. | Credit: Photos by: Jerome Brunet and Sandro Miller

Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith were some of the greatest musicians to ever play the blues. Director Scott Rosenbaum had an idea to bring them together for a documentary that would culminate with a big reunion show inspired by “The Last Waltz.”

When all three men died in 2011, Rosenbaum had to completely refocus his plan. The end result made its world première last night on the first evening of SXSW.

These musical geniuses played with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, pioneers of electric Chicago blues. Over the years, their riffs and beats would power some of the most iconic songs ever to be recorded.

Their work struggled to be recognized in the mainstream until the early 1960s when British teens, removed from the racial lines that divided the music in America, started to fall in love with American blues music. It ended up influencing an entire generation of artists from England like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton who helped to turn American teens on to these musicians who were right in their backyard.

Perkins, Sumlin and Smith all rose out of the Jim Crow South and ended up in Chicago, music already deep in their blood. Perkins ended up on piano and Smith behind the drums for Muddy Waters while Simon played guitar for Howlin’ Wolf. They were always in the background, but their impact on the music was undeniable. They helped to establish the cornerstone of rock and roll and this film lovingly tells their stories.

Thankfully, the filmmakers were able to get over two years worth of interviews under their belt before these titans of the blues passed away, meaning that we get to hear many stories in their own words. Comedian and podcaster Mark Maron narrates the story, providing a little extra context to the important history and legacy of these players. Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Bonnie Raitt, Gregg Allman and Johnny Winter are among the artists who shared stages with these men over the years who are also interviewed and recount some of their favorite memories.

At the post-film Q&A, a local audience member asked why Clifford Antone’s story of supporting the blues in Austin didn’t make it into the film. It was argued that he was the one who convinced Pinetop Perkins to spend his final years living in town and to continue playing. Rosenbaum admitted that there were hundreds of hours of footage that had to be narrowed down and that, in shaping the final cut of the film, a lot was left out.

“Sidemen” is an important story of friendship, perseverance, and passion. In the end, it seems fitting to have focused on who these men were and tell the stories of how they all went from humble, if not difficult, beginnings to become the greatest blues musicians who ever lived even if their names weren’t on the marquee. These are stories of skill but, also to a degree, of chance. Had they not been in the right place at the right time, who knows how different their legacies might be.

Other screenings: 10:45a.m. Wednesday, Alamo South Lamar; 1:45 p.m. March 19, Topfer Theater.

Famed photographer Rose Hartman is introduced to Austin

Rose Hartman, the fashion and celebrity photographer who captured some of the most iconic moments of the famed New York club Studio 54 in the late 1970s, dropped by the American-Statesman offices this morning to talk about the new documentary, “The Incomparable Rose Hartman.”

Rose Hartman
Rose Hartman

 

Jerry Hall, in a Rose Hartman photograph.
Jerry Hall, in a Rose Hartman photograph.
Bianca Jagger atop a birthday party horse at Studio 54. Taken by Rose Hartman.
Bianca Jagger atop a birthday party horse at Studio 54. Taken by Rose Hartman.

Directed by Otis Mass, the film details how the New Yorker became friends with Studio 54 co-owner Steve Rubell and gained access to the VIP area at the club, before the dividing curtain was lifted at 11 p.m. and the dancing and partying began.

Probably her most iconic photograph is of Bianca Jagger atop a white horse during her birthday party at the club. But she was also one of the early chroniclers of model Jerry Hall, the Texas native who recently married Fox News mogul Rupert Murdoch.

Before showing up at the Statesman offices, Hartman had an interview on “Good Morning Austin,” a program on Austin’s Fox affiliate. She was asked about Hall’s recent marriage to Murdoch, and she said, in her typically blunt way, that she regarded it as “beauty and the beast” to the somewhat surprised co-anchors.

Hartman was also mystified that the next guest on the show was a cat. Yes, it was Grumpy Cat. And Hartman couldn’t figure out why a cat would be on an interview show. Welcome to Austin, Rose.

At any rate, the documentary is a hoot, and so is Hartman.

It premieres at 6:15 p.m. Saturday at the Alamo South, followed by screenings at 11:30 a.m. Monday at Alamo Slaughter, 8:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Alamo South and at 3 p.m. March 19 at the Alamo South.

She’ll also be signing books of her photography at the Austin Convention Center at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday. The two books are “Incomparable Women of Style” and “Incomparable Couples of Style.”