Christian Petzold's Phoenix (currently at TIFF Bell Lightbox), a haunting tale of obsessive love set in Berlin just as WWII has ended, is a kind of inverted Vertigo with subtle twists of character that undulate to a score based on Kurt Weill's Speak Low (“Love is pure gold and time a thief”). Nelly (Nina Hoss, masterful), a concentration camp survivor, her face badly disfigured by gunshot wounds, has been rescued by Lene (Nina Kuzendorf) of the Jewish Agency for Palestine. She's anxious to find her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), a piano player she sang with before she was apprehended in the fall of 1944. Despite strong indications that Johnny's character resembles his namesake in Weill's Surabaya Johnny, Nelly seeks him out after reconstructive surgery on her face. He's working in a bar called Phoenix, convinced his wife is dead, when she discovers him. To underscore his nature even more, two cabaret performers sing Holger Hiller's Johnny du Lump (Johnny You Scoundrel). Johnny's struck by the resemblance Nelly (she calls herself Esther, after her sister who did not survive the war) bears to his wife and concocts a scheme whereby she will pretend to be his wife in order for him to collect her inheritance in return for a lump sum payment.
Music was pivotal and the primary focus of eight films in this year's Hot Docs, the 22nd edition of that essential Toronto institution.
In her captivating documentary celebrating the Concertgebouw's 125th anniversary year (2013), Around the World in 50 Concerts, filmmaker Heddy Honigmann focuses on the human element. Despite its title, the movie concentrates on three of the orchestra's musicians, a percussionist, flutist and bassoonist and concertgoers in three cities on the tour: Buenos Aires, Johannesburg and St. Petersburg. Each of her subjects talks about what music means to them, from the orchestra members who play it, to the Argentine taxi driver who can't live without it; to the Soweto girl for whom playing a youth orchestra provides self worth and the man who fell in love with the violin as a poverty-stricken child, learned to play and now leads that orchestra; to the Russian with a connection to Mahler's music so personal that when he hears the Concertgebouw play Symphony No. 8, we see his tears. Honigmann's camera lingers on faces. It's the main way she draws us into her subjects. And with the orchestra she gets inside by keeping her camera on the instrumentalists even after they play; it's unusual to see musicians at rest this way. Mostly conducted by Mariss Jansons the film is carried by a judicious use of Bruckner's Seventh, Rachmaninov's Paganini Variations, Stravinsky's Firebird and Mahler's First and Second, among others.
Force Majeure’s recent Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film gave Swedish director Ruben Östlund a well-deserved higher profile and a touring program of his four feature films and two shorts. TIFF Bell Lightbox is hosting this retrospective from April 9 to 14 with one showing of each.
Anyone familiar with Östlund’s surgically precise and unfailingly perceptive detailing of the breakdown of family dynamics in Force Majeure (showing April 14), a caustic moral tale worthy of Eric Rohmer, may be interested in the evolution of its director’s art.
In the enchanting fable Kumiko The Treasure Hunter, an alienated 29-year-old Japanese Office Lady (a kind of corporate executive assistant) becomes obsessed with finding an attaché case filled with money that she believes is buried near Fargo, North Dakota. Her information has come from a VHS tape of the Coen brothers’ film Fargo which she believes is based on real events. (She found the tape while treasure hunting in a cave near the ocean.) On her company’s credit card she flies to Minneapolis in the middle of winter to pursue her dream. Ignoring the sage advice of helpful strangers she meets along the way, she eventually finds herself face to face with her Fargo reverie.
Director David Zellner’s direction, Sean Porter’s artful einematography and Rinko Kikuchi’s characterization are equally rigorous. Kikuchi, nominated for an Oscar in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel, combines a naive charm with quiet determination as she pursues her particular version of the American dream.
The 22nd incarnation of the Canadian international documentary festival known as Hot Docs runs from April 23 through May 3 at various locations in Toronto. If you look carefully in Section E: The ETCeteras, beginning elsewhere on this page, you will find an entry for it in the Screenings section. Here are details on many of Hot Docs’ 17 music-centric films.
Around the World in 50 Concerts: Definitely one to look forward to. Dutch filmmaker Heddy Honigmann’s keen eye followed the Concertgebouw Orchestra from Buenos Aires to Soweto to St. Petersburg as the acclaimed orchestra celebrated its 125th anniversary by playing 50 concerts in six continents. The Hollywood Reporter’s Neil Young enthused about the mutually beneficial relationship between the musicians and their audiences that forms the film’s core. April 24, 23, May 1, 3
Music Lessons: Hot Docs head honcho Brett Hendrie writes that filmmaker Michael Mabbot uses this 20-minute film to take us behind the scenes at Sistema Toronto “to see firsthand how [José Antonio Abreu’s] program is helping to build both community and a new generation of talent.” The world premiere screening will be followed by a live performance by the Sistema Toronto Yorkwoods Orchestra and a special in-conversation session at the Isabel Bader Theatre April 28 at 6:30 pm.
They Will Have to Kill Us First(above): Award-winning American-born, UK-based filmmaker Johanna Schwartz tells the tale of Malian musicians who were forced to flee or go into hiding after Jihadists took control of the North of their country a few years ago and instituted extreme sharia law. They cannot imagine life without music, so they continue to play despite the risk. It’s the documentary counterpart to Abderrahmane Sissako’s memorable 2015 Oscar-nominated Timbuktu. April 26, 28, 30
What Happened, Miss Simone?: Oscar-nominated director Liz Garbus (Bobby Fischer Against the World) weaves together rare archival footage and interviews with Nina Simone’s closest confidantes and collaborators to paint a picture of an extraordinary musical talent who had a lot of personal and political issues. Using previously unreleased audio recordings, Garbus enables Simone to tell her story in her own words. It’s a story I can’t wait to experience.April 29, May 1, 2, 3
Lowdown Tracks: According to programmer Alex Rogalski, filmmaker Shelley Saywell and singer and activist Lorraine Segato of The Parachute Club, inspired by depression-era recordings of early American folk songs, set out to document a new catalogue of songs and stories from five of Toronto’s modern troubadours, unknown buskers whose songs fill subway platforms and street corners and whose personal histories vary as much as their voices. A soundtrack evolves from the island ferry docks and freeway underpasses, rooming houses and rooftops, showing us that music is the common language in this empowering celebration of survival. April 25, 27, May 2
Sweet Micky for President: Justin Lowe wrote in the Hollywood Reporter: “When it comes to getting out the vote, music can make all the difference in an electoral campaign. In the 2010 Haitian presidential election, it was professional musicians who made the difference, however. Former Fugee’s rapper Pras Michel endorsed musician and candidate Michel ‘Sweet Micky’ Martelly, actively backing him throughout his eventful campaign. Filmmaker Ben Patterson captures the candidate and his supporters in close-up for his dynamic debut feature.” Winner of both the Audience and Jury Prizes for Best Documentary at the Slamdance Film Festival. April 29, May 3
DocX Virtual Reality Showcase – Four short films employing revolutionary technology: Take a breathtaking voyage through the Northwest Passage in Polar Sea 360°; transport yourself to the stunning landscapes of Mongolia and into the lives of nomadic yak herders in Herders. Measha Brueggergosman takes users with her on a personal voyage through Canada and Cameroon as she performs a selection of spirituals in Songs of Freedom. Strangers With Patrick Watson, an intimate and understated virtual reality project, invites users to go behind the scenes with the Montreal singer-songwriter as he works on his music at home in his studio loft. The 20-minute exhibit is free to view at the Isabel Bader Theatre from April 24 to May 1, 10:00 am to 7:00 pm.
There are many more for the intrepid doc explorer to seek out. As I AM: The Life and Times of DJ AM examines the brief life of million-dollar DJ, Adam Goldstein. Breaking a Monster looks at the price three tween boys from Brooklyn pay to satisfy the demands of the music industry. Adam Lough’s Hot Sugar’s Cold World follows beats generation superstar Nick Koenig (Hot Sugar) as he creates one-of-a-kind music made entirely out of sounds from the world around him even as his high-profile girlfriend dumps him. Judging by its Sundance critical raves, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is a fascinating portrait of the grunge icon. Finally there is no excuse to miss Mavis! a doc that chronicles the six-decade musical odyssey of the legendary gospel/soul singer Mavis Staples complete with her own memories of a life inextricably linked to civil rights.
Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.