That was an unusual one, because we were really equals," composer Philip Glass says of his collaboration with director Godfrey Reggio on the landmark 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi. "Normally it's not like that." Indeed, a couple seconds later in director Scott Hicks' Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts, we hear Woody Allen explain how he'll ask Glass to rework his music several times, at which Glass just shrugs and heads back to work. It's a revealing sequence, although if Glass' offhand analysis of music's subservient role to film direction is correct, you'd never know it from several offerings at SFIFF this year in which music plays a starring role.
Hicks' Glass is among the most successful of these music-themed films. A remarkably intimate look at the iconic artist structured in a series of themed vignettes (a nod to François Girard's 1993 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould?), the film follows Glass around for a year, documenting him as he composes symphonies, cooks pizza, and chats with colleagues like Ravi Shankar, offering a look at the creative process that transcends mere biopic.
The other music biography in the fest, Cachao: Uno Más, is actor Andy Garcia's heartfelt tribute to Israel "Cachao" López, the virtuosic Cuban bassist who died in March (a scheduled concert at Yoshi's will now happen as a tribute). The film clearly aims to emulate the warmth of Wim Wenders' now-classic Buena Vista Social Club and mostly succeeds, though Garcia, who served as producer, musician, and talking head, didn't need to occupy so much screen time. Still, even in the film's long-winded moments, the music — mostly filmed during a captivating 2005 San Francisco concert at Bimbo's — propels it forward and wordlessly makes the case for Cachao's lasting influence on Latin and popular music.
Less successful is Spanish director Carlos Saura's Fados. Meant as an all-encompassing survey of the mournful Portuguese balladry, the film does showcase compelling performances from worldwide stars like Caetano Veloso, Mariza, and many other lesser-knowns. But the lack of explanation or context, save for the subtitled lyrics, relegates it to an overlong, stylized music video marked "for aficionados only."
Live music and film will mix during SFIFF's run, too: Pixies proprietor Black Francis will try his hand at silent film scoring with a special screening of The Golem, the bizarre 1920 German Expressionist masterpiece; and performance artist Anna Oxygen and her collaborators Cloud Eye Control channel Laurie Anderson with a live multimedia performance at the Kabuki to be topped off with an interactive aerobics class. The local underground art scene gets a boost at Mezzanine with a screening of Evolution: The Musical!, a hilarious 40-minute religious-themed "movella" by first-time directors and writers Kenny Taylor and Andrew Bancroft that will feature live music and comedy from some of the film's cast.
Perhaps the most moving use of music in the festival comes in a film that is not, ostensibly, about music. Dawn Logsdon's documentary Fauborg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans is heartbreaking in its depiction of the cultural devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. But the movie is fascinating and even uplifting in its recounting of the region's lesser-known history — the deep African influence that made the city unique long before the Civil War. The film shows that the disappointment and violence faced by the city's black population after the end of Reconstruction birthed a jazz scene that sustained and identified the community. It's an intriguing premise — that music evolves in tandem with society — strengthened by a soundtrack that showcases New Orleans' living history.
Best of the Fest
Our critics' recommendations from this year's films.
No flesh in the pan, Argento plays prominently in two featured movies at the Film Fest this year.
Q&A with Medicene for Melancholy Director Barry Jenkins
Local film director gives this town a dose of its own Medicine.