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Musical Highs and Artful Low Notes

A Look at Some of SBIFF 2012’s Sonically Inclined Films


‘Tis a fine year for films in the line of music at SBIFF, thanks to the interesting — if overly pop-oriented — Cinesonic sidebar. We might ask for more representation from the more “serious” side of the musical universe, lest the mass tastes dictate, but there are a number of winners in the bunch. Too many pop docs play like record company publicity department ploys or expanded, exaggerated VH1 puff-ups, but the choices here generally dodge that bane.

Paul Simon
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Paul Wellman

Paul Simon

Take the Paul Simon doc, director Joe Berlinger’s fine Under African Skies, which takes a fair-minded view of the Graceland experience, 25 later. Simon’s adventure, recorded in Capetown, was a classic album but one with controversial aspects, including moral questions of cultural imperialism and the political faux pas of pulling the celebrity card and violating the then-active anti-apartheid cultural embargo. In the summer of 2011 (just before he played at the Santa Barbara Bowl, in fact), Simon answers critics, and the film provides telling details of his process of folding the South African musicians’ input to his songs. We hear the bubbling brilliance of Graceland in a new way.

Music is both at the core and on the periphery of a unique film and life story, in the fascinating El Medico: The Cubaton Story. Director Daniel Fridell creates an engaging tale about a young doctor in Cuba, known as El Medico, whose truest passion is music. After making humble recordings on his own, a rather slick and semi-exploitative Swedish producer “discovers” him and lands a deal with Warner’s in Madrid. The catch? El Medico’s mother refuses to give her blessing for her son leaving his medical practice, citing the good graces of the Cuban government’s subsidizing his schooling, and his moral imperative for tending to his patients. She is also perturbed by the shameless t & a pandering of the racy videos the Swede has cooked up around Cubaton’s music.

Thus, he is prevented from touring Europe and feeding machinery of stardom. In the end, the documentary functions on multiple levels. It deals with the dream machine of a talented singer/rapper, the dubious interjection of slick production on a musician whose best music is made in a more real, raw, and culturally organic way, and not just incidentally, the upside to the socio-political phenom that is Fidel’s Cuba.

Of the Latin American films I’ve seen so far, the strongest has also been the most atypical. The Last Christeros (Los Ultimos Christeros) , directed with a poetic cinematic sensibility by Matias Meyer, is a slow and lyrical piece of work with a particular historical context — the last stand of pro-Christian fighters against the new government of the Mexican revolution in the 1930s. But instead of painting that setting with a broad, overly explanatory brush, Meyer relies on the power of calm, stately images, with cinematography organized like a series of tableaux. We follow the path of a small band of Christeros, mostly without horses and with little ammunition left, as they meander in a dry mountain landscape, in an existential drifting pattern. Dialogue is spare, and some of the back story is actually conveyed through songs, with occasional fragments of ethereal brass music providing the sonic equivalent of the shots of clouds and nature.

All in all, the film is a good illustration of how it is possible to make a fresh and artful film with minimal means and minimalist ways, and all put to fairly hypnotic results.

RANDOM NOTES: I kept hearing from folks about the heartwarmth and charm of the Quebecoise film Starbuck, and somehow I kept missing screenings. So I grabbed a screener from the press office determined to finally join the throngs and see what the fuss was about. In some kind of experiential/wordplay pun, I watched it in one of the 25 Starbucks joints in town (true story) and tried so hard to enjoy it but was prevented by my resistance to the particular, seemingly indigenous quality of smug, overly sentimental and manipulative French diaspora cinema that it represents. I was disturbed by the brutal, machine-gun like succession of warm and fuzzy moments and the feel-good tactics made me feel bad.

Am I the only one in the crowd who finds fault with this French-language farce? What’s wrong with me? Should I see someone about this? I had a happy childhood, and I cried at Lucky. But Starbuck left me cold, I fear. Apparently, I’m in the minority on this one.

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