Sunday, August 6, 2017

Music to the Ears: Metal: A Headbanger's Journey (2005), The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005), Festival Express (2003) and Be Here to Love Me (2004)

Metal: A Headbanger's Journey (2005)

Since it's summer, and the sound of live music is always in the air, my mind immediately turned to some music docs that might add some flavour to the outdoor festivities. Cutting through any preconceived notions of (or prejudices toward) heavy metal music, Metal: A Headbanger's Journey is a pretty informative and entertaining crash course in the genre. Co-director Sam Dunn, who first got his eardrums thundering when he was a high school student, took his passion for hard rock into an anthropological field study of the dark lords of mayhem. Along with co-directors Scot McFadyen and Jessica Joy Wise, Dunn lays out the roots of the music, which he connects to a series of influences: the theatrical and romantic bombast of grand opera, the blues, and the very insolent, nose-thumbing qualities of rock itself. The filmmakers travel through America and Europe, following tours and talking to metal heroes from Rob Zombie to Black Sabbath lead guitarist Tony Iommi. They also examine the darker metal bands in Europe that deliberately play into parents' worst nightmares of hard rock as the product of Satan. Metal: A Headbanger's Journey tries to go further and explore why heavy metal is held in such disrepute, but here it fails: the filmmakers are fans before they are critics. To bring more depth to the subject, they would have to call into question some of their own darker impulses and attractions. Nevertheless, Metal: A Headbanger's Journey is an intelligent historical study of rock's loudest spectacle. (In 2007, they followed up with the more ambitious Global Metal, which showed the impact globalization had on the heavy metal underground.)

The Devil and Daniel Johnston is a captivating and empathetic portrait of the manic-depressive singer/songwriter Daniel Johnston, a reclusive and volatile outsider who turned his demons loose in his art and music and found a small sliver of fame in the eighties. The documentary, written and directed by Jeff Feuerzeig, illustrates with canny insight how Johnston's innate musical sense (which came out of a lonely child's hermetic universe) was virtually inseparable from his illness. Relying on miles of film footage shot by Johnston, who relentlessly documented his own life, plus endless tapes featuring stories and tunes, Feuerzeig has woven together a complex tapestry of the makings of a tormented young artist. Once we enter Johnston's fractured world, where pain and pleasure intertwine, it's not surprising to discover that his music reached out to the outsiders of grunge like Sonic Youth and Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. The Devil and Daniel Johnston also reveals how Johnston, who was born into a Christian fundamentalist household, created songs and drawings that grew from (and yet sought to transcend) his folks' continued projections of the Biblical struggle between good and evil. Happily, by resisting turning Johnston's parents into caricatures of true believers, Feuerzeig puts forth a moving parable about the bottomless mystery of creativity, madness, and the unforeseen traps of unconditional parental love.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005)

Back in the summer of 1970, a series of rock concerts was set to take place in a number of cities across Canada. The promoters – Ken Walker, a commerce graduate, and Thor Eaton, from a wealthy family dynasty – convinced the Canadian National Railways to secure a train that would take the musicians to their various destinations. After they had booked an all-star line-up that included The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, The Band, Ian & Sylvia, Buddy Guy, Tom Rush, Eric Anderson and The Flying Burrito Brothers, the train journey, from Toronto to Winnipeg to Calgary, inspired a series of non-stop jam sessions and heavy partying fueled by alcohol. The concerts and the train trip itself were filmed, but because this sprawling tour turned into a financial disaster, the movie was shelved (and then mysteriously disappeared once law suits between the promoters and the filmmakers began). When the footage eventually turned up in the Canadian National Film Archives, a plan was made in 1999 by executive producer Garth Douglas and story consultant James Cullingham to resurrect the material. Within a few years, director Bob Smeaton (The Beatles Anthology) turned up to shoot new interviews with the surviving participants, and music engineer and producer Eddie Kramer (who had worked with Jimi Hendrix) arrived to mix and clean up the performance tracks. Finally released in 2003, Festival Express was something of a welcome resurrection: a spirited and fascinating time capsule of what became one of the last remnants of the sixties counterculture.

Janis Joplin in Festival Express (2003)

Festival Express is a poignant slice of counterculture lore since many of the performers – especially Joplin, who would die three months after the tour – were hitting their peak just before drugs took them into the depths of self-destruction. Beginning in Toronto, because Montreal had pulled out due to a schedule clash with St. Jean-Baptiste Day, the picture covers the famous riot by a couple of thousand of protesters from the leftist May 4th Movement (named after the date four students were murdered by the National Guard at Kent State University) who charged Walker and Eaton with price gouging and declared a free "people's concert." The clash between Toronto police and activists lead to The Grateful Dead's staging their own free concert later in a nearby park as a gesture to quell the violence. But the news of the uproar spread across the country and the Winnipeg show had only a modest turn-out as people feared more crowd violence. The promoters faced a financial bath. At the final stop in Calgary, where over a thousand people sneaked into the show, there was a heated confrontation between Walker and Calgary mayor Rod Sykes after Skykes demanded that Walker open the gates and stage a free concert. The tour started with a budget of $900,000, with about $500,000 put aside for the talent alone. But due to the dwindling turn-out, and with gross receipts just over $500,000, the project lost between $350,000 and $500,000.

If the tour was a financial failure, Festival Express the documentary is a huge success. The performances, which are shot by Peter Biziou (The Truman Show), have a remarkable clarity and sensitivity to the style of the music, and the sound mix itself by Eddie Kramer is pristine. Festival Express also features some remarkable highlights from the stage, including The Grateful Dead (performing the country/folk harmonies heard on American Beauty and Workingman's Dead) on "New Speedway Boogie" and "Friend of the Devil," Buddy Guy's electrifying version of "Money (That's What I Want)," a stunning cover by The Band of Little Richard's "Slippin' and Slidin'," and Janis Joplin tearing up the stage with Etta James's "Tell Mama." The footage on the train is equally fascinating, especially The Dead's Bob Weir dressing down the M4M activists for throwing bricks at the Toronto police. The conviviality of the artists jamming and partying creates its own spirit of camaraderie (there's a beautifully sad moment when The Band's Rick Danko, Jerry Garcia and Joplin do a drunken version of "Ain't No More Cane," and Garcia leans over later to tell Joplin how much he loves her). Festival Express is a bittersweet and haunting tribute that unfolds like an epic folk tale of a time when the Utopian spirit of the period was coming to an end. What makes it even more unusual is that (unlike the film Woodstock) it focuses on the artists rather than the audience in the stands. "Woodstock was a treat for the audience," Mickey Hart of The Grateful Dead says in this movie, "but the train was a treat for the performers." The picture is the proof in the pudding.

Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt (2004)

If Festival Express is an epic tale, Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt is an intimate ballad. Director Margaret Brown doesn't so much chronicle the sad and tragic life of the Texan country outlaw artist Townes Van Zandt ("Waiting Around to Die," "Pancho and Lefty") as paint an impressionistic portrait that has the effect of bringing out the melancholic beauty of his work. She assembles, with delicate precision, scenes from television appearances, interviews, and footage of the artist from James Szalapski's touching Heartworn Highways (1981) to provide her storytelling something of a musical texture that invokes the wandering spirit set loose in Van Zandt's best songs. Although Van Zandt, who resembles a cross between Hank Williams and Chris Isaak, became a legend to Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Guy Clark and Kris Kristofferson (all of whom are interviewed here), he always remained on the fringes of popular taste. In Be Here to Love Me, Brown takes us on a wistful trek to those fringes and amply illustrates why Van Zandt, long before he died in 1997, had already begun haunting the musical landscape.

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Talking Out of Turn: A Collection of Reviews, Interviews and Remembrances currently being assembled on Blogger. 

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