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Movies and music: Toronto film fest turns tuneful

Bruce Springsteen pumped up the volume for music at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, and this year, the cinema showcase has cranked it up to 11.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Bruce Springsteen pumped up the volume for music at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, and this year, the cinema showcase has cranked it up to 11.

A year after Springsteen's memorable visit for a film about his album "Darkness at the Edge of Town," the Toronto festival opens Thursday with a documentary about Irish rockers U2 and continues with a musical lineup featuring films about Neil Young, Pearl Jam, Paul McCartney and 1970s songwriting staple Paul Williams.

The 11-day festival also includes "W.E.", a drama directed by pop star Madonna, and a range of other feature films and documentaries with music backdrops, from the Paris nude-dance revue portrait "Crazy Horse" to the musical road-trip comic drama "The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best."

"There just seems to be kind of a perfect storm of films about music," said festival director Piers Handling. "Rock 'n' roll probably got to a moment in history where there's enough material, and enough filmmakers who grew up with the bands are finding that material and going back to make some pretty definitive documentaries."

The list of filmmakers taking on music subjects at Toronto includes Academy Award winner Davis Guggenheim ("An Inconvenient Truth") directing the U2 documentary "From the Sky Down," a look back at the band's 1991 album "Achtung Baby" as Bono and his band mates prepare for a live performance of the songs.

Jonathan Demme, the Oscar-winning director of "The Silence of the Lambs," has the concert film "Neil Young Journeys," his third documentary featuring the rocker, this time in a solo gig at Toronto's Massey Hall.

Cameron Crowe, who made "Jerry Maguire" and won a screenplay Oscar for "Almost Famous," comes to the festival with "Pearl Jam Twenty," a portrait of the Seattle-based band that is playing two concerts in Toronto Sunday and Monday following the film's premiere Saturday.

Albert Maysles — whose credits with his late brother, David, include the Rolling Stones documentary "Gimme Shelter" — directs "The Love We Make," a chronicle of former Beatle McCartney's memorial concert in New York City after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Gimme Shelter" and D.A. Pennebaker's Bob Dylan film "Don't Look Back" stand as monumental rock portraits of the 1960s. According to Crowe, it took nearly four decades for another film of similar stature to appear with Martin Scorsese's 2005 Dylan documentary "No Direction Home."

Crowe, who started as a rock journalist and has known Eddie Vedder and the rest of Pearl Jam almost since the band formed in 1991, said Scorsese's film rocked the world of other music-loving filmmakers, contributing to the current rush of documentaries.

"Maysles and Pennebaker made these incredibly strong rock documentaries, and really, that got left behind for years and years," Crowe said. "Now the mantle has kind of gotten picked up. It is Scorsese who did it. He took the biggest subject, Dylan, went back and explored the roots and tells a story that goes right up to the ... 'Judas' moment" — the notorious fan cry of betrayal over Dylan's transition from acoustic folkie to electric rocker.

A year after "No Direction Home," Demme made the acclaimed concert film "Neil Young: Heart of Gold" and followed with 2009's "Neil Young Trunk Show." The new film, "Neil Young Journeys," intercuts between the rocker's solo performance and video of a conversation he had with Demme on a drive to the gig in a 1956 Ford Crown Victoria from Omemee, Young's north Ontario hometown.

"The real challenge in doing a performance film is, how do you make a film that has its own identity and isn't a lot like other performance films we've seen?" said Demme, whose credits include the 1984 Talking Heads concert flick "Stop Making Sense."

"If a performance of a concert is one certain kind of journey, we take that automobile journey from Omemee into the big city, so you see these two journeys reflecting who Neil is in different ways. It really gave us something that works well in the rhythm of the movie and helps make it completely different."

Also in the Toronto lineup is director Stephen Kessler's "Paul Williams: Still Alive," a documentary about the diminutive musician and actor who was ubiquitous in the 1970s, when his songwriting credits included the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun," the Oscar-winning "Evergreen" from "A Star Is Born" and the Oscar-nominated "The Rainbow Connection" from "The Muppet Movie."

The festival also offers fictional films with musical themes, among them Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's "Chicken with Plums," whose lead character tumbles into a hallucinatory spiritual journey after his cherished violin is broken; Sheldon Larry's "Leave It on the Floor," a musical set among LA's underground ballroom dance subculture; and Bibo Bergeron's animated musical fantasy "A Monster in Paris."

Ryan O'Nan wrote, directed and stars in the Toronto premiere "The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best," in which he plays a singer-songwriter reluctantly drawn into a cross-country tour with a new band mate (Michael Weston) who plays nothing but Fisher-Price-style children's instruments.

O'Nan, who starred with America Ferrera in last year's Sundance Film Festival premiere "The Dry Land," wrote most of the songs in "Brooklyn Brothers" and toured as a musician for years before becoming an actor.

He had long thought about making a music-themed film, and his desire was reinforced a few years ago when he went to see an earlier music documentary from director Guggenheim, "It Might Get Loud," the guitar dream-team portrait featuring U2's The Edge, Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Plant and Jack White of the White Stripes.

"When the documentary was done, the whole crowd stood up and cheered. I was looking around like, who are they cheering to? There's nothing there," O'Nan said. "There's just something about music, man, that links people in this unspoken way that nothing else really can. They were literally cheering to a blank screen."



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