Neil Young

Journey through the Past (1972), the invaluable collection of footage from 1966 to 1972 documenting the early years of singer-songwriter-guitarist-filmmaker Neil Young's prodigious career, peels back the layers of the onion that was at the centre of 1960s counterculture. Built around a trip to Nashville, the film cuts between old footage of Buffalo Springfield classics For What It's Worth and Mr. Soul, by Stephen Stills and Young, respectively; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young elevating Young classics Ohio and Southern Man; manager Elliot Roberts worrying about concert ticket prices going up to the colossal price of $10; Crosby analyzing the Nixon-Billy Graham ruling class nexus; and outright hippie talk from Stills (“We reassure ourselves with words. Someday the reassurance won't be necessary. Soon.”)


Amy Winehouse – Somerset House July 2007. Copyright: Rex Features

In 1998, 14-year-old Amy Winehouse was already a confident, talented performer who considered herself a jazz singer. In a video at a friend's birthday party she revealed her admiration for Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett and Thelonious Monk. She would die 13 years later, a victim of alcohol poisoning, her body ravaged by bulimia, crack cocaine and heroin, her principal personal relationships with her self-serving father, her drug-addled husband and her exploitative manager all stacked against her profound creative life.


Morton Subotnick performing Silver Apples of the Moon at Moogfest 2012 in Asheville, N.C.

A light and fog pre-Apocalypsis vision of mid-20th-century industrial detritus, the bones of the Hearn Generating Plant – its worn steel girders exposed along with its upper floors towering over pools of muddied water that were like giant stepping stones to be avoided – welcomed 82-year-old electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick to its environs June 20 at the Luminato Festival for a historic performance of his seminal 1967 work Silver Apples of the Moon.


Ronald Zehrfeld (Johnny) and Nina Hoss (Nelly)

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.

The Concertgebouw

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.


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