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The Hottest Rock Films at SXSW

New films offer glimpses inside the private worlds of Paul Simon, Ginger Baker and more

Jacob Krupnick/Brian Nevins/John Taws

For music fans, the South By Southwest Music Conference, an annual Austin gathering that showcases and celebrates all things innovative in and around the world of music, is a prime opportunity for musical discovery and enlightenment. Since 1994, when the conference added a film component, attendees have been able to catch showings and premieres of some of the entertainment industry's finest films, too. Before SXSW kicks off next week, Rolling Stone gives you an inside look at which music-focused films are a must-see at this year's conference, from a psychoanalysis of Cream's infamous drummer to an in-depth look at the past and present legacy of Paul Simon's Graceland.

Gallery by Dan Hyman

Charles Bradley: Soul of America, sxsw

John Taws

‘Charles Bradley: Soul of America’

"Charles Bradley is probably my best friend in the world," says Poull Brien, the director of Charles Bradley: Soul of America, a tear-jerking tale of a 63-year-old soul singer who emerged from the Brooklyn projects in 2010 with his brilliant debut album, No Time For Dreaming. The exquisite work was subsequently named one of Rolling Stone’s 2011 Albums of the Year.

Before working with the singer on a music video, Brien had never met Bradley. Now the two talk several times a week. "I feel lucky just to know him," Brien says.

Bradley, who had previously scraped by collecting cans and doing James Brown impersonations, has lived a life that few would envy. "I've been lied to, I’ve been cheated on," Bradley says. "But I'm gonna walk clean." For the singer, optimism is paramount in both his music and outlook on life. "I always kept my head up," he says. "I sing strictly from the heart." Adds Brien of Bradley's second chance in life, "It's just crazy beautiful stuff."

Girl Walk // All Day, sxsw

Jacob Krupnick

‘Girl Walk/All Day’

Filmmaker Jacob Krupnick was searching for a piece of music – more specifically, one that satisfied certain requirements. All Day, the latest album from mashup DJ Gregg Gillis (a/k/a Girl Talk), checked off all the boxes. "A lot of variety, an emotional arc, very accessible," says Krupnick, who has been a fan of Girl Talk’s since first hearing 2006’s Night Ripper. The same qualities led him to base a 77-minute, dialogue-free dance film around the DJ's album.

Krupnick vacillates between referring to this visual project – which centers on a set of dancers' no-holds-barred, shaking-and-shimmying journey through New York City – as a film and a "music video of epic proportions." For the director, much of the excitement surrounding the film came from embracing its uncertainty. "We had to be comfortable for allowing these sort of random moments to take effect," he says.

Grandma Lo-fi: The Basement Tapes of Sigrídur Níelsdóttir , sxsw

Courtesy of 'Grandma Lo-fi: The Basement Tapes of Sigrídur Níelsdóttir,' shot by Orri Jonsson

‘Grandma Lo-Fi: The Basement Tapes of Sigrídur Níelsdóttir’

"Good news travels fast," says musician and first-time filmmaker Kristín Kristjánsdóttir of how she first learned of Sigrídur Níelsdóttir, a fellow Icelandic woman, who at age 70 started recording music in her home and amassed nearly 700 songs over a seven-year period. Níelsdóttir’s atypical style of musical composition caught Kristjánsdóttir's attention: the senior citizen would blend everyday sounds – her dogs barking, the whir of kitchen appliances – with the twinkle of her Casio keyboard intonations.

Kristjánsdóttir and her fellow filmmakers spent years getting to know their subject, and time revealed a charming character. "I don't think the film would be what it is if we had walked in there complete strangers and shot a film and released it two months later," Kristjánsdóttir says of the eight-year process. Sadly, Níelsdóttir passed away in 2011, but Kristjánsdóttir feels the film is a tribute to the woman's imaginative spirit. "It's mind-blowing to see a person's spirit wake up," Kristjánsdóttir says. "(Sigrídur) did things her own way. She just went for it."

RE:GENERATION MUSIC PROJECT, sxsw

Brian Nevins

‘Re:Generation’

Eight years ago, when Amir Bar-Lev saw a DJ-focused TV show that he was spearheading crumble, the filmmaker assumed that his time for a DJ-related project had passed. Then the Grammys came calling. A friend and producer behind this Grammys-sponsored adventure in genre-mashing, recalling Bar-Lev's passion for DJs, hired the director to helm Re:Generation, a behind-the-scenes documentary that follows five prominent DJs, from Skrillex to Mark Ronson, as they create tracks of varying musical disciplines. Highlights include Ronson hosting a jazzy New Orleans jam session with Erykah Badu and Yasiin Bey, a/k/a Mos Def, and Skrillex teaming up with the Doors’ Ray Manzarek and John Densmore for an electro-rock cut. ("I like to say this is the first new Doors track of the 21st century," Manzarek recently said).

Skrillex and his new Doors bros also take a stroll on the Venice Boardwalk, which as Bar-Lev recalls, was quite the experience.  "We were descended upon by tourists and rainbow rats and stragglers and all matters of hangers-on," he says, laughing. "That was quite possibly my least favorite hour of shooting."

Rock 'N' Roll Exposed: The Photography of Bob Gruen, sxsw

Photograph by Bob Gruen

‘Rock & Roll Exposed: The Photography of Bob Gruen’

"It ain't just about the people who stand on stage," says acclaimed filmmaker and longtime member of Big Audio Dynamite, Don Letts, speaking of rock & roll. "There's all different ways to spread the message." Bob Gruen, the latest subject of Letts' ongoing foray into rock history, has gained unparalleled access to rock royalty over his four-decade plus career as one of the genre's most-iconic photographers: in the 1970s, Gruen spent nine years by John Lennon's side and today calls everyone from Iggy Pop to Billie Joe Armstrong close friends.

Gruen never played a single note, but Letts says the photographer was able to relate with his subjects. "He spoke the same language," says Letts. Always looking for "another way to tell rock & roll's story," Letts viewed Gruen as a perfect subject. And with today's commercialization of mainstream music, the director feels that it's important, more than ever, to keep rock's great history alive. "I grew upon music that was about changing people's minds," he says, "not about changing their fucking sneakers."

Sunset Strip

Courtesy of Sunset Strip/Press Photo

‘Sunset Strip’

Before it became his literal backyard, Hans Fjellestad thought he was well-versed on the history of L.A.’s famed Sunset Strip. But after undertaking the ambitious challenge of capturing nearly a century’s worth of the iconic street’s history for his latest documentary, Sunset Strip, the filmmaker was blown away by how little he actually knew. "This little mile-and-a-half stretch of road has had this rock & roll personality since before there was rock & roll,” he says. For the film, Fjellestad spoke with prominent musicians from Ozzy Osbourne to Guns N' Roses' Slash. While each person is uniquely connected to the Strip, strong emotions were universal. "People are attached to this bit of road," Fjellestad says, "musicians especially."

Under African Skies, sxsw

Jon Kamen

Under African Skies

"There's a handful of records that someone has a special connection with," says Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Joe Berlinger, the brains behind the acclaimed Paradise Lost trilogy and the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster, as well as this journey into the history of Paul Simon's Graceland. "For me, [Graceland] is one of them." Despite his affection for the album – famous for blending African rhythms with traditional pop melodies – Berlinger needed assurance that Simon was open to exploring the political firestorm that surrounded its recording, particularly the singer's controversial decision to record with black musicians in 1986 apartheid-divided South Africa. "After the first meeting, it became clear we wanted to make the same film," Berlinger says of his initial sit-down with Simon. Featuring interviews from Paul McCartney, David Byrne and Peter Gabriel, Under African Skies also contains spectacular music: the camera catches reunion-show rehearsals with Simon and the original Graceland musicians, some of whom the singer hadn't seen in 25 years.

 

 

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, sxsw

Maude Schuyler Clay

‘Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me’

In late 2009, when directors Danielle McCarthy and Drew DeNicola sat down with Alex Chilton at a Box Tops gig in New Jersey, the notoriously bristly guitarist was largely uninterested in what they had to say; the duo were looking to create a documentary about Big Star, arguably Chilton's most famous band and one of the most confounding non-success stories in rock history. "He just kept saying, 'This is not the first thing I'm inclined to do,'" recalls DeNicola. "It was a line he kept repeating to the point of absurdity."

Even after Chilton unexpectedly passed away a few months later, the filmmakers pushed onward, eager to give one of rock's most famous cult bands its proper due. The ongoing project, which features never-before-seen footage and interviews with the band's surviving members, aims to answer a question that's been plaguing DeNicola since he first became enamored with the band as a college student in the 1990s: What's marginal about Big Star? To DeNicola, the answer is, well, nothing. Says the director, "It's the most successful music I've ever heard."

Uprising: Hip Hop & The LA Riots, sxsw

Michael Schumann

‘Uprising: Hip-Hop & the LA Riots’

For three days in April 1992, riots erupted in South Central Los Angeles after four LAPD officers were acquitted for the now-infamous beating of African-American motorist Rodney King; this act of social upheaval has since gone down as one of the most widely-publicized acts of public uprising in recent American history. But an even more intriguing aspect of the riots is the role that music – more specifically, hip-hop – played in it. "This was a time that people rose up against oppression," says Mark Ford, the director of Uprising: Hip-Hop & the LA Riots, a VH1 Rock Documentary that examines both the riots themselves and the myriad forces that contributed to the brutal three days. Ford sees hip-hop – particularly NWA's "Fuck Tha Police" – as "the soundtrack of the riots" and a means by which the oppressed could unite. "('Fuck Tha Police') became a mantra and a battle cry," Ford explains.

Next month marks the twentieth anniversary of the riots; one naturally wonders if history could repeat itself. Says Ford, "The circumstances and the pressures are certainly there."

Beware of Mr. Baker, sxsw

Courtesy of 'Beware of Mr. Baker'

Beware of Mr. Baker

When Jay Bulger's face was bashed in at the hands of Ginger Baker, the young director wasn't surprised.  "Of course he broke my nose," says Bulger, who spent the past four years documenting the infamously volatile Cream drummer for a character portrait of a documentary that features interviews from Baker's peers and collaborators, including the likes of Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood. "He's Ginger fucking Baker!"

Bulger, whose six-week stay at Baker's South African compound is vividly captured in a 2009 Rolling Stone feature, dedicates much of the film to breaking down Baker's highly-complicated psyche. The drummer, having been driven out of several countries in his lifetime, now lives in virtual isolation. "He takes no prisoners. He's from another time," Bulger says of Baker, describing the now-72-year-old as "unapologetic" and "uncompromising." Adds the filmmaker, "If he had been born a couple hundred years ago, he would have been a pirate ship captain."

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