As part of the ’12 SBIFF’s “Cinesonic” sidebar and the generally amped-up segment of music films, and especially pop/rock music films, at least two of the films fall under the shadow of the VHI syndrome, offering fuller pictures of acts heretofore unexplored in a deeper way. We can safely file the documentaries on the Cowsills and Morphine’s Mark Sandman under the “where are they now…?” (and “where is their back story now?”) category, but from radically different ends of the spectrum and different time trajectories.
With the ‘60s teen idol and family band archetype of the Cowsills, their high profile in the ‘60s was their public pinnacle, and the documentary Family Band: The Cowsills Story seeks to tell the behind-the-scenes and after-the-fame-bubble story. Morphine, quite in contrast, was a unique, low, dark and enigmatic band from the alt-rocking ‘90s, and the documentary Cure for Pain: the Mark Sandman Story tells leader Sandman’s story backwards, from his early death onstage in 1999. Each story, in its way, is fascinating, heartwarming at times, tragic at others, but ever compelling to the rock culture junkies among us and within us.
Eerily enough, one point of commonality between these varied rock tales is the death of two brothers in each case. The passing of Mark Sandman’s two brothers no doubt left an indelible mark on the musician, whose music often clung to darker emotional palettes, and whose band Morphine was powered by bluesy swagger, Leonard Cohen-ish brooding and a wholly new and refreshing — and low-end hugging — sound, with Sandman’s two-string slide bass, baritone sax and drums. Guitars not allowed.
Sandman was a laconic mystery man in interviews, and steered skillfully from the subject of his background, but his mother’s book opened the subject, publically, which paved the way for this intriguing documentary. Admirers and friends offering up telling interviews for Cure for Pain (directed by David Ferino and Robert G. Bralver) include Ben Harper, Mike Watt, Les Claypool, and Josh Homme, whose band Queens of the Stone Age had the unenviable task of following up the truncated set by Morphine in Palestrina, Italy, cut short when Sandman suffered a fatal heart attack in the middle of the set. As one musician says, the one positive upshot of Sandman’s fate is that he died with his boots on and the embrace of his life’s passion, in the midst of a show.
With Family Band: the Cowsills Story, directed by Louise Palanker, Bill Filipiak, and Ian Boyles, we’re led through the remarkable and fairly unknown saga of the one-time hit making family band which became the model for TV’s “The Partridge Family.” Feeding off of the power of stark contrast and historical context, the engaging doc cuts back and forth from primary colored clips from their halcyon days — appearances on Ed Sullivan, scoring hit records with the fiendishly catchy “Happy,” “Hair,” and other songs — and interviews with a wide range of those involved in the meteoric rise and fall of the band. In short, the high-flying trajectory was self-sabotaged by a stage father running amok, the architect of the band who was also abusive and alcoholic stage father.
Two of the five brothers have died within the last few years, but we get a strong sense of who they were in the film, which ends on the up note: the remaining siblings are still tightly connected and continue to make music.
Another common factor between these two disparate rock and roll stories is the fact that their music has timeless power on its side, if in various ways. The Cowsills took the high road, with cheery pop suitable for the whole family, which was surprisingly and a bit sneakily quite sophisticated and cooler than it pretended to be. Morphine took the low road, eating hipness and attitude for breakfast, but with deposits of humanity and melodic invention threading through that seductive low rumble of a sound. Both bands made sounds worth knowing, and rediscovering, with the help of reminders like these films.
You know it’s film festival time when …an evening out can include a dizzying array of events and venues, and a furtive desire to check out as much as possible (if you have the cultural obsessive gene, that is). So, post-Cowsills saga, we drifted up State Street for a quick blast of data and entertainment at the “Virtuosos” character actor tribute evening at the Arlington, and then popping across the street to SOhO. There, Bob Cowsill — star of screen and stage this night — was the leader of a killer “cover” band. Joining him were his drummer brother and former Santa Barbarans Robbie Scharf on bass, and on the three-handed guitar, the super-cool Timmy Bryson. On a cover of the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High,” Bryson peeled off a whirring solo on a 12-string Rickenbacker which seemed to channel both Toger McGuinn and Steve Howe, and Tim Bryson.
Then it was time to race back down to the Metro to catch the late screening of the impressive comic-tragic film Mike, about a ne’er dowell but loveable Alsatian youth and his fall from whatever grace held him together. The film also features the fine young French actress Christ Theret, so wowing in the intriguing and stealthily emotional film Twiggy (strange — she is pregnant in both films, but has very different attitudes about the condition) Mike is crisply directed by the German in Paris director, Lars Blumer, who was in the house at the Metro 4, kindly giving A’s to Q’s around 12:15 a.m.
All in a night’s work, bleeding into the next day.
Some films sneak up on you and do a neat end-run around your guesswork and expectations. The Argentine/Canadian film Another Silence is one of those, a cop-in-pursuit flick, about a tough female Toronto policewoman with a highly personal score to settle, which yearns to be an existential art film, and almost gets there. Santiago Amigorena directs the film coolly, and savors the spaces and timelines between events, spreading out mostly in the wide open, yawning space of the Argentine/Bolivian border.
What starts out with a burst of violence, before the opening credits, lapses into the hypnotic pace of an Antonioni film: think L’Aventura or especially The Passenger, those classic slow-mo “chase” films in which the destination and the kill shot aren’t necessarily the goal of the artistic enterprise. Actress Marie-Josée Croze, looking like Diane Lane and with a similar strength of resolve, nicely embodies the persona of the haunted kickass pursuer. She handily wields a gun and a punch when necessary, while also harboring a palpable anguish to match the arid alienation of the landscape.
Fans of Czech cinema and Eastern European animation and angst will want to run, not walk, to check out Tomas Lunák ‘s Alois Nebel — the Czech Republic’s official Oscar bid — a black-and-white film made with the semi-realistic, semi-surrealistic feel of the rotoscope animation technique (as seen in Waking Life). A wonder of bleak chic, relishing mysterious, nocturnal doings in wintry climes, the film lives in a foreboding yet somehow sweet space, mostly in a small train station in Bily Potok circa 1989, just as the iron curtain is falling and Vaclav Havel era is beginning. A back story dating from another historic transition moment, at the end of WWII in 1945, haunts the narrative backdrop and leads to the climactic resolution, as we follow the plight of kindly, lonely and “foggy” railway man Alois, on the brink of finding love in his life.