Blink and you might miss this little gem about the creative process that is in the cinematic roman à clef family alongside Almost Famous. Inspired by journalist/author Jon Ronson’s experience as a keyboardist with the Frank Sidebottom band at 20 in 1987, Frank follows a present day naive cubicle-dwelling office worker with pop music dreams as he immerses himself in the strange world of a band with the unpronounceable name “Soronprfbs.”
Reuben Atlas’ The Brothers Hypnotic follows eight of Phil Cohran’s 23 offspring as they forge a career for the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble through fierce independence and musical smarts, moving from street performances to playing with Prince and Mos Def. But the film is also a tribute to the musical training their father gave them: “Long tones were the first things we ever learned. It’s the essence. One note. It’s meditation and it connects you to the universe. And because anything that’s worth anything lasts long.” The elder Cohran played trumpet with Sun Ra among others, but was at least as well known for his work with Chicago’s African-American community and his Afro arts centre. Just as important as their musical education was the self love and sense of identity he taught them, which enabled them to inspire and bring joy and happiness to people. The results are contagious and well worth seeking out at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, June 6 to 12.
Music-centric films were less evident in the 2014 Hot Docs than last year’s bountiful crop, yet there were a handful of notable movies that kept feet tapping and sent the mind reeling.
Allan Hicks’ fearlessly intimate Keep On Keepin’ On focuses on the relationship between nonagenarian jazz trumpeter Clark Terry (b. 1920) and blind pianist Justin Kauflin who is in his early 20s. Terry joined the Count Basie band in his late 20s, describing it as prep school for the university of Ellingtonia and stayed with Ellington for a decade before becoming the first black musician hired by NBC (he was a regular on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, for example). He’s best known as a teacher, however, with his famous system of doodle-tonguing and thousands of students (Strikingly, Quincy Jones at 13 was his first.) spreading his philosophy of music far and wide.
The Toronto Jewish Film Festival (TJFF) invariably includes movies in which music is the major force and this year’s 22nd edition (May 1 to 11) is no exception. From a thorough examination of Sophie Tucker, “the last of the red hot mamas,” to more conventional bios of Marvin Hamlisch and Lionel Bart, from a brief but focused look at Barbra Streisand’s roots in Brooklyn to a fascinating examination of the legendary jazz writer and tireless First Amendment advocate, Nat Hentoff, and a restored copy of the 1938 Yiddish-language film, Mamele, the TJFF has again unearthed evidence of the unmistakable ties between Jews and music.
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In A Story of Children and Film, Mark Cousins’ engaging and wide-ranging cine-essay, the writer/director gathers clips from 53 diverse films to take the audience on a treasure trove of images and ideas.
Cousins is best-known for the mammoth The Story of Film: An Odyssey, a 15-hour, 15-episode compendium that was recently shown on TCM (Turner Classic Movies). In his latest rumination, an easy-to-digest 106-minute chamber piece, he begins by considering the view from Van Gogh’s room in the asylum at Saint-Rémy and the painting he made of it.
“Art shows us again and again that if we look closely, openly at a small thing, we can see lots in it,” Cousins points out in his lilting, Belfast narrator’s voice. The “small thing” he looks at next is a scene of his niece and nephew playing together in a room in a house in the North of England. Out of their interaction he discerns several characteristics, like shyness (“wariness”), anger (“strop”), social class and showing off (theatricality).
Each observation sends his mind roving, through a myriad of cinematic images stored over years of moviegoing and note-taking, so that by the end of this fascinating journey we’ve glimpsed parts of 53 films.
It’s a very musical construct, the way the content is assembled, diverse scenes made into a whole, in no small part sewn together by the sound of the filmmaker’s own melodic voiceover. And helped immeasurably by choice excerpts from the “Première communion de la Vierge” from Messiaen’s Vingt Regards Sur L’Enfant Jesus performed by pianist Hakon Austbo. The filmic excerpts, of course, are served up with their own distinctive, if not memorable soundtracks.
Cousins’ supple transitions take us from a wary child in Chen Kaige’s Chinese masterpiece, Yellow Earth, through the cautious expressions early in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to the open shyness of Children in the Wind (Japan, 1937) to Jane Campion’s anxious protagonist in An Angel at My Table, to what Cousins calls “the glint of shyness” in Ghatashraddah (India, 1977), to an early, beautifully-lit Tarkovsky (The Steamroller and the Violin, 1961) and four more equally distinctive examples before we’re back in the room in England. Then it’s off to examine lives “railroaded by social class.”
And more. Memorable in sum.
A Story of Children and Film is currently onscreen at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.