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The 10 Best Music Films at Sundance 2012

This year’s slate includes a documentary about LCD Soundsystem and a new film by Spike Lee

Sundance

Pablo Ramos/Brett Pawlak/John Castillo

Since its humble beginnings in 1978 as a small gathering in Park City, Utah of film-industry players with a passion for independent productions, the Sundance Film Festival – the brainchild of Robert Redford – has become a full-fledged Hollywood spectacle and the largest independent film festival in the country. For filmmakers, having a film selected to Sundance is a prestigious badge of honor. And in recent years, an assortment of music-focused films have gotten the Sundance nod. Here's the lowdown on this year's must-see music-focused films, from Shut Up and Play the Hits, a documentary exploring the final days of LCD Soundsystem, to Ice-T’s directorial debut, Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap.

By Dan Hyman

Sundance

Courtesy of Sun Yunfan

‘Himalaya Song’

While preparing for the debut of this multimedia performance film, classically trained violinist Gingger Shankar realized she was entering unchartered territory. "I'm definitely a little bit nervous," Shankar says of Himalaya Song, a video-cued musical performance that serves as a complement to a visual journey into the heart of this majestic mountain range. "It's almost scoring a film live," she explains. Shankar's no rookie, though: She's performed with Smashing Pumpkins and Cheap Trick, in addition to scoring Mel Gibson's religious epic The Passion of the Christ. Here, Shankar and Chinese musician David Liang, along with filmmaker Mridu Chandra, infused modern electro-sounds with ancient instruments to help tell this tale of a region burdened by melting glaciers and other major ecological changes.

Sundance

Brett Pawlak

‘I Am Not a Hipster’

Destin Cretton, the writer and director of this portrait of a singer/songwriter in San Diego's bubble-of-an-indie-music community, can’t tell you what a hipster is – he’s aware it shows up in the title of his film. “It's a very confusing term,” he says. "I honestly don't fully know what it means." I Am Not A Hipster, aided by a full-length album of original songs by San Diego musician Joel P. West – all of which are performed onscreen by lead actor Dominic Bogart – is not an exploration of hipster culture. Rather, it's the culmination of Cretton's dream to "write a project that incorporates character-driven acting with good music." Bogart, whom Cretton discovered while the actor was performing in Chicago's edition of Jersey Boys, learned to play and sing all of West's music for the film, which is available online.

Sundance

Jacob Hutchings

‘Predisposed’

It's rare that a Sundance selection is stocked with as much Hollywood star-power as Predisposed, a comedic drama starring Jesse Eisenberg, Oscar-winner Melissa Leo and Tracy Morgan. Here – as in last year’s 30 Minutes Or Less – the Social Network star portrays a hostage. This time, in Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia)'s script, Eisenberg is Eli, a piano prodigy taken prisoner by his mom's (Leo) drug dealer (Morgan) while attempting to check her into rehab. It also happens to occur on the same day he’s set to audition for a prestigious university. Let the madness ensue.

Sundance

David Lee

‘Red Hook Summer’

"We've got baseball bats," Spike Lee says with a menacing cackle, offering an explanation for the airtight lid those in his circle kept on his newest "joint"; word on Red Hook Summer came out only after the acclaimed director tweeted about it. The film, which Lee is calling the fifth installment in his "ongoing chronicle of Brooklyn," is soulful: It centers around a Southern boy who visits a Brooklyn housing project and deals with a crazy-eyes preacher-of-a grandfather hell-bent on saving him. So Lee emphasized its music, enlisting time-tested pianist Bruce Hornsby to write the score, and also featuring 10 songs from unsigned crooner Judith Hill, a This Is It backup singer who performed at Michael Jackson’s memorial service. Hornsby, a longtime collaborator of Lee’s – he most recently scored the director’s ESPN documentary Kobe Doin’ Work – appreciated his boss’ uncharacteristically hands-off approach. "I would send the music and [Spike] would find the place for it," Hornsby says. "It was quite enjoyable."

Sundance

‘Searching For Sugar Man’

"I still haven't got a single cent for three years of full-time work," says Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, who wrote and directed this passion-project documentary that delves into the mystery of Rodriguez, an obscure Seventies-era American musician who achieved cult-like status in apartheid-era South Africa. Six years ago, Bendjelloul discovered that, thanks to a bootleg of Rodriguez’s otherwise-forgotten debut album Cold Fact that circulated in South Africa in the Seventies, the musician is held in the same god-like regard there as the Beatles and the Stones. And despite having done projects with superstar artists such as Elton John, U2 and Madonna, Bendjelloul was never more fascinated: "I had never heard a better story in my life."

Sundance

Shut up And Play the Hits

‘Shut Up and Play the Hits’

This chronicle of LCD Soundsystem's Madison Square Garden bow-out, directed by British filmmakers Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, is as much a voyage into frontman James Murphy's mind as it is a concert film. According to the directors – who previously helmed a 2009 doc on Britpop legends Blur – the most revealing material was shot hours after the band's massive sendoff. The camera is there as Murphy awakes the next morning – his first in a decade where he's no longer the face of LCD. The filmmakers also deliberately chose to focus on Murphy's post-show behavior, so as to compare the "guy on stage" with a man who prefers life's "small moments." To the directors, the singer's post-show normalcy was baffling: Southern says Murphy treated his decision to break up the band "as easily as you'd decide what pair of trousers to put on that morning." Don't expect closure: Both filmmakers say fans may be left scratching their heads. Says Southern, "It might make people question whether [ending the band] was the right decision."

Sundance

Paul Toogood

‘Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap’

Over the last two years, Ice-T traveled the country, piecing together this portrait of hip-hop through interviews with many of the genre’s biggest stars: Dr. Dre, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Nas and Mos Def all sit down with the iconic MC for this feature-length documentary on hip-hop’s evolution. Ice-T, who’s spent the better part of the past two decades as an actor, always envisioned himself as a director, and thought keeping his debut project close to the chest would make for a smooth jump behind the lens. "I felt like [hip-hop] would be the first place to start," he says. On film, every rapper tells a different tale, but the message is unified: Hip-hop was their saving grace. And while Ice-T says he wasn’t aiming to spread a particular "agenda," he couldn’t deny his findings. "When every artist says [hip-hop] saved my life," he says, "it’s an honest fact."

Sundance

Courtesy of K&S Films

‘The Last Elvis’

On the surface, Argentinean director Armando Bo's emotion-laden film charts the life of an Elvis impersonator with a blurred line between his life and that of the man whose music he sings. For Bo, who spent the past six years working on this Spanish-spoken drama (with English subtitles), the film became a much more intense journey than he'd ever imagined. "My intention was to go as deep as possible into the psychological side of this person," the filmmaker says of Elvis Gutierrez, the lead character played by real-life Elvis tribute artist John McInerny. Onscreen, Gutierrez must balance his deteriorating family life amid his mental deterioration: His ex-wife and daughter, Lisa Marie, play central roles in his struggle. Looking back on the project, Bo says the danger of impersonation is rooted in one’s lack of self-worth, fueled by the need to live vicariously through others. "It’s a metaphor for celebrity," he says of the film. "Everybody's copying somebody."

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