Music-related films catch film critic Harlan Jacobson's eye at 2023 SXSW in Austin, Texas
The 37th SXSW Music, Film, Interactive Media festival and trade show Conferences wrapped up this past week in Austin, Tx. That’s after plowing through 110 feature films, including some 75 world premieres, a dozen or more new TV pilots and series episodes, XR—extended reality—experiences, and real film makers come to Texas.
SXSW, or South By, which is how everyone calls it in Austin, has become a robust confluence of parallel festivals that reflect the explosive growth in this state capital and university town. It’s now the blueberry in the red jello that is a state that still thinks it’s a republic. How aggravating to itself that its capital, Austin, has boomed upwards and outwards as a blue tech center and host to the powerhouse media fusion festival and marketing launchpad every March that is South By.
Every time I’ve come here over the last 20-plus years, there are whole new sections of skyscrapers that weren’t there seemingly five minutes ago. When I first came in the 90s you could still see the State Capitol. I remember having breakfast with Kinky Friedman of The Texas Jewboys fame at some since-closed Austin institution on Congress Ave, the main drag downtown. I don’t remember why somebody put us together, maybe they thought we Jew boys would gasify the atmosphere over lox and bagels. I’m here to tell you that only Kinky kept up that end of the bargain.
When I plunged into the film lineup at this South By, I culled films that seemed to echo off each other. Prominent Artist Docs came at me like t-shirt shooters at a basketball game.
The best of them, Joan Baez: I Am A Noise created a stir in February at the Berlin Film Festival. I made straight for it first thing.
Born in Staten Island in 1941, raised a Quaker, half Mexican, daughter of an academic physicist, Baez is a generational touchstone: her pure aura-- a word I rarely use--her pure face sans makeup, her pure spirit consistently reaching for public decency. I’ve never loved any one on stage more than this:
That pure voice, clear and clean, called us to no arms since she debuted at 17 at Club 47 in Cambridge in 1958 — which diverged from the homespun checkerboard folk image of the Weavers model – and became a folk star a year later at Newport, with Dylan to follow her around like a lost mutt a few years later, the two of them so excited to be in each other’s presence.
We see archival footage then of Joan and Bob in Karen O’ Connor, Maeve O’Boyle and Miri Navasky’s 109-minute doc, and it’s thrilling to remember how they seemed to summon the new age of clean truth to come. What we see now is that Baez in her early 80s is still angry about Dylan ghosting her, but fairly offhand about shedding her husband-activist, David Harris. Not in the film is an incident I once heard that didn’t appear in her biography either, how she made Dylan a lamb stew, he came in, walked over to the pot and with his long black fingernails plucked out the meat and left. (It ain’t meat babe, it ain’t meat you’re lookin’ for babe.)
In the film, which starts with her final tour in 2018 when she’s 78, is her struggle with what she glancingly refers to as her bipolarity, until she lists the Quaker meeting of voices inside her head. Sad, depressed, guilty over her fame, she cops to being no angel. Baez tells us at least some of whom she harmed and who harmed her, and she summons the sad tragedies of her sister, Mimi, and Richard Fariña. From a balcony on a warm day in Paris, she accepted that she’s more comfortable with herself now. “I’m not great at 1 on 1,” she says, “better at 1 in front of 2000.”.
I wish I didn’t know all this now. There’s that legendary story about Josephine Baker in Paris a century ago, leaning down to a man in the audience trying to see her more closely: Lean back, she told him, protect your illusions.
My first association to Joan Baez was never drums, but when I think of early Be-bop and the shock of the new, I definitely think of Max Roach. He was foundational: from Dizzy, Charlie Parker, Monk, Duke, Abbey Lincoln, Coleman Hawkins, Bud Powell, Clifford Brown, Dinah Washington, Mingus, Miles, and Sonny Rollins, who is eloquent about his old friend here, all the way forward to Fab 5 Freddy at a 1983 concert at The Kitchen, where Be-Bop and Hip Hop took a ride one night. There’s simply no forgetting Max Roach as he appears in Sam Pollard and Ben Shapiro’s Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes.
Marijuana was an everyday boost to get it moving, Cocaine was for New Year’s, a rich man’s drug, but the road to hell lay in heroin’s then cheap price. Which also landed Roach in jail. His mother gave him what for, and Roach came out and formed a quartet in 1953 with Clifford Brown on trumpet. Roach played with a political awareness of race in America, telling his son Darryl that if he didn’t have drums, he’d have picked up guns.
After Clifford Brown died at 25 in 1956 in a car wreck on the PA Turnpike, it knocked Roach off his pins, losing years to a breakdown, divorce, alcohol and a free-range temper.
Roach regained the dignity of a chief and the precision of jet engine, pushing the term jazz away as a white conceit given to African American sound and its musicians. There isn’t a person in The Drum Also Waltzes, set to air on PBS this Fall, who doesn’t spell out the way Roach changed what they call jazz forever: Sonny Rollins, Harry Belafonte, who used to prowl boites with Marlon Brando and Roach, Quincy Jones, Questlove, and on and on in testimony to just how great Roach was. They wanted to be artists like Stravinsky, the film articulates but sketches the way Roach insisted on his dignity and extended his beat as a leader and a conscience. You simply wont find better archival footabe of Max Roach than in THe Drum Also Waltzes
Born in S. Carolina in 1924, died of Alzheimer’s in Brooklyn in 2007, Roach, recalled Maya Angelou at his memorial at Riverside Church, “We are bigger and stronger and better, because Max Roach was our brother.”
I did enjoy Love to Love you, Donna Summer, co-directed by Roger Ross Williams but driven by Summer’s daughter, Brooklyn Sudano. If I had forgotten that Summer ignited Disco and the kind of wild party atmosphere of the late 70s and 80s, the strength of this film is that it thumps with you-are-there. Summer’s “I Feel Love” in 1977 changed the face of music,“ Elton John is here to tell you.
Another gospel singing refugee, in part because she was abused by the pastor as a kid, and in part because she had an unerring sense of where the culture wanted to go, Summer left Boston for Germany to become a star there and then back home. She was also pretty unstable—surprise—but while the film doesn’t shy away from Summer’s floating craziness, the film captures that big voice, that big sound and spirit and the big drive of her daughter to revive the catalog, starting with this film.
Finally, what better place than South By in Austin to see The Lady Bird Diaries, a doc by the very good doc filmmaker, Dawn Porter, who made Gideon’s Army and John Lewis: Good Trouble, and this one about the First Lady to the 36th President of the United States, Claudia Alta Taylor, Lady Bird Johnson to us. Porter has taken some of the well-known milestones – the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the student revolt-- and people – the Kennedy’s, first and foremost -- and some work from a book by Julia Sweig, to repave what’s known about Lady Bird and the President.
Most notable to me is Porter landing on Lady Bird’s assertion in her diary that when Johnson announced he would not seek and would not accept the renomination of his party on March 31, 1968 -- a night I remember well for people exploding out onto the streets – it wasn’t because the party was in full revolt, brought on by Minnesota Senator Gene McCarthy’s 40-plus% showing in the March 12th NH Primary, holding Johnson to under 50%—that’s never mentioned—nor the decision of Bobby Kennedy to entire the field, nor the high possibility LBJ wasn’t electable and knew it. It’s there in Lady Bird’s diary way back in ‘64 that she’d told him not to run again in 1968. And that was that, Lyndon was just following the good sense Lady Bird brought to the table along with the highway beautification program she brought to the nation. Maybe so, and I guess I mean that. But I think I’ll wait for Robert Caro’s long awaited fifth installment of his Johnson masterwork for confirmation
Since what we know and what we remember was so much on display in the docs this year, I wonder if the befouled breakfast with Kinky Friedman I remember at my first South By maybe didn’t happen. Maybe Kinky didn’t stink up the place. Maybe Lyndon Johnson listened to Lady Bird the way she said there. Memory always sticks its nose out to see what’s blowin’ in the wind.
But I didn’t look Kinky up either for lox and bagels this time at South By. I was takin’ care o’ bidness.