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VIFF Music Docs

October 17, 2009

I choose films to watch at the Vancouver International Film Festival the same way I choose books to buy at a bookstore: I go straight to the music section! Call me one-dimensional (and yes, I know I am), but the only way I can deal with the wealth of fine cinema at VIFF is to just see music documentaries. Gone are the carefree days when I could see a gazillion movies at the festival. So if I have to prioritize, it may as well be with music docs, a genre I adore. Now that VIFF is over for another year, here’s a look back at three films I caught.

The Man Who Bottled Clouds

At the risk of sounding simplistic, one way I assess a documentary’s effectiveness is how much I learn from watching it. By that measure, The Man Who Bottled Clouds unequivocally succeeds. It tells the story of Humberto Teixeira, a Brazilian renaissance man who was a great composer, lawyer, politician and bon vivant. Teixeira and singer/accordionist Luis Gonzaga – both from Northeastern Brazil – did more than anyone to develop and popularize the influential baião style of Brazilian music. They wrote more than 400 songs, including the classic “Asa Branca”. I was engrossed with the film, which adroitly weaves together interviews and performances from the likes of Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa and David Byrne. You can still catch the flick, as one of the VIFF Repeats, on Oct. 20, 6:30 pm at the Vancity Theatre.

Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould

I know next to nothing about classical music. But I do know that Glenn Gould was a genius on the piano. Most of my classical collection consists of his recordings. I’ve always found it soothing to listen to his amazing technique and lyricism. I’ve also been fascinated with Gould’s persona as as eccentric artist. The film thoroughly covers all of these aspects of his life. Some points the film effectively conveyed:

  • Gould played piano like a machine – his contrapuntal lines seemed impossible. But he was a machine with soul.
  • As a young man, he was handsome and charming. Scenes of a young Gould reminded me of the images of a dashing young Chet Baker in Let’s Get Lost. They didn’t look alike at all, but they both had a raw beauty.
  • Gould’s eccentricities got extreme. Not going to the hospital to see his dying mother, because of a fear of germs, was over-the-top.
  • He was way ahead of his time with his CBC radio documentaries, which were painstakingly constructed.
  • Gould’s death from a massive stroke at 50 was a tragic loss – there was a lot of profound music still to come from him.

Ashes of American Flags: Wilco Live

The other two films completely absorbed me with their rare archival footage and intriguing minutiae of their subjects. The Wilco documentary didn’t captivate me like that, but it was still satisfying as a live concert film. Shot at legendary American venues like the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and Tipitina’s in New Orleans, the film documents Wilco’s powerful chemistry. Ashes of American Flags provides insights about the musicality of the band members, just by zooming in on each of them, but it especially affirms guitarist Nels Cline’s virtuosity. As for frontman Jeff Tweedy, the too-short doc captures his essence as an unlikely, sharp-witted and vocally engaging alt rock star.

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