This is a bit late, but it’s my blog, and I’ll blog when I want to. (Apologies to Leslie Gore.)
I did what I always do in October: see some music documentaries at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF). Every year after the VIFF program is announced, I look forward to going on the festival’s website and searching for some music docs to watch. This year’s crop was fairly extensive, but I narrowed it down to three that I had to see:
Beware of Mr. Baker
I really enjoyed this film, but I felt a bit guilty about liking it so much. Director and writer Jay Bulger crafted an insightful and funny look at the adventures of legendary drummer Ginger Baker. With the help of extensive archival footage and many scenes he shot with Baker, Bulger captured the whole story: from Baker’s early days as a jazz drummer in London; to playing in supergroups Cream and Blind Faith; playing with Fela and developing an obsession with playing polo in Nigeria; the failed marriages, estrangements with children, financial woes, and miscellaneous lunacy; drum battles with jazz icons Art Blakey and Elvin Jones, in which Baker held his own; and a clear picture of how influential Baker’s exhilarating drumming has been, based on interviews with Neil Peart, Stewart Copeland, and other ace drummers.
Why the guilt? Because Baker isn’t Mr. Nice Guy. Over the course of the film, he doesn’t exactly distinguish himself as an exemplary figure. He’s left some wreckage along the way, and in the very first scene Baker wacks Bulger square on the nose with his cane. Not nice to break the nose of the person making a film about you. Despite all of that, I found myself rooting for Baker and quietly cheering when he’s shown near the end of the doc at a comeback gig. But I guess it’s often like that with movies: taking the side of the flawed protagonist, who in this case is also his own antagonist.
The Sound of the Bandoneón
If there’s a film about tango music playing, I’m there. Automatically. I’m a tango music lover, plus movies about tango typically show the old world elegance of Buenos Aires, and I’m down with that. The Sound of the Bandoneón, directed by Jiska Riskel, didn’t disappoint – musically or visually. I loved the scenes with virtuoso bandoneónist Néstor Marconi and the shots showing historic tango halls. The scenes with the master bandoneón refurbisher are also interesting and informative – I had no idea that tourists and collectors taking bandoneóns out of Argentina are a threat to tango’s survival.
I assumed a documentary on the bandoneón would talk about Astor Piazzolla, the greatest ever bandoneónist and tango composer, but there wasn’t a single mention of him. That’s actually refreshing because notwithstanding Piazzolla’s brilliance, paying tribute to him is an unoriginal cottage industry that gets tiresome.
What really surprised me was the emphasis on Daniel Vedia, another great bandoneón player, but one who plys his trade as a musician and teacher in Argentina’s countryside. I had never thought about tango as anything but an urban phenomenon, so the scenes with Vedia broadened my knowledge of tango. Some of the scenes in the country and in the city were slow-moving but affecting. Like tango itself.
Play Like a Lion: The Legacy of Maestro Ali Akbar Khan
Just like films about tango, if there’s a documentary about Indian classical music, I’m there. Again, it’s about the music and the visuals of the country. I’m an India nut: I’m enraptured by Indian food, Indian classical music (north and south), and the place itself. Short of going there, which I was lucky enough to do 20 years ago, a film can take you there. Actually parts of this film take place in San Rafael, California, where the late master (yes, another master) sarod player Ali Akbar Khan set up a college of Indian classical music in the sixties – one of the first institutions of its kind in North America. But there are also scenes in India, showing Alam Khan continuing his father’s legacy on the sarod and talking about the challenges of doing so.
So I got my India fix from Play Like a Lion, which like the tango film and unlike Beware of Mr. Baker, tells its story with subtle cinematic textures. I stuck around to hear the Q&A with director Joshua Dylan Mellars. I have no memory of what Mellars talked about (note to self: blog much closer to the time when I see something I want to write about), but I remember being impressed with his persistence in getting the film done. (Coincidentally, his first documentary was on tango music. His second doc was on fado.) As he said in this interview in CineSource, Mellars focuses on conveying “emotional life” and “emotional depth” in his films, which involves a long gestation process. He succeeded in conveying exactly that in Play Like a Lion.