You did it, you did it. Horace and Kris BowersA Concerto is a Conversation is this complex tale of two men – their vision, resilience and successes –  told in exactly 13 minutes. In this story of family, transcendence, love and the pursuit of excellence, we follow a young Black American classical pianist and composer, Kris Bowers to the premiere of his violin concerto, For a Younger Self, at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The story is told in parallel with the journey of his grandfather, Horace Bowers Sr., from Jim Crow-era Florida to the position of highly successful businessman in California.

Often when I watch films about Black people, I do not recognize myself or anyone I know in the stories and perspectives presented for consumption. I know that film is not always meant to be “the whole truth” or “the story of a people”, but what is often presented as Black is a limited trope, is unbeautiful, is a sidekick for a white lead. 

This documentary, co-directed by Kris Bowers and L.A.-based Nova Scotia-transplant Ben Proudfoot, counters that vision, centralizing the story of the Black leads without compromise and with what I can only call love. 

Read more: A Concerto is a Conversation counters a limiting trope

L-R: Dusan Brown (far left), Viola Davis, George C. Wolfe, and Chadwick Boseman, on the set of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020). Photo credit: David Lee/Netflix.Just as it has done with so much of our prior way of life, COVID-19 has played havoc with how we’ve watched movies since March 2020. In Toronto, the theatrical experience has been severely curtailed in favour of streaming films. Many major Hollywood titles have been postponed, and the autumn rollout of prestigious product driven by the appetite of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and other key programming institutions has been delegated to the likes of Netflix (as well as lesser-known streaming services). The Academy Awards has met the pandemic head-on; the 93rd edition of the Oscars will air on ABC/CTV at 8pm, April 25, 2021.

Before I begin my totally idiosyncratic take on some of the nominees by following the music, it’s worth taking a wider look at what is undoubtedly the most diverse group of Oscar nominees ever collected in the same year. A record 70 women received 76 nominations; two women (Chloé Zhao for Nomadland; Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman) were nominated for Best Director. Only five women had ever been nominated for that Oscar previously. Zhao, born in China, received four nominations (Director, Editing, Screenplay and Best Picture), becoming only the second person (Walt Disney was the first) to be so honoured. Frances McDormand is the first woman ever nominated for acting in and producing the same film (Nomadland).

Nine actors of colour were nominated, an Oscar record for acting categories: Best Actor nominees Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal) and Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom); Supporting Actor nominees Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield for Judas and the Black Messiah and Leslie Odom, Jr. for One Night in Miami; Best Actress nominees Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) and Andra Day (The United States vs. Billie Holiday). Steven Yeun is the first Asian American actor to garner a Best Actor nomination (for Minari, the story of Korean immigrants in search of the American Dream). Yeun and Youn Yuh-jung – the favourite to win Best Supporting Actress for her charismatic portrayal of the grandmother in Minari – are the first Korean-born performers nominated; the film’s director, Lee Isaac Chung, is only the second Asian American nominated for Best Director. For the first time, a film solely produced by Black artists (Judas and the Black Messiah) has been nominated for Best Picture. The Makeup and Hairstyling duo from Ma Rainey are the first Black nominees in that category.

Read more: Music and the Movies: What to expect at the 2021 Academy Awards

Frank Zappa in ZAPPA. Photo credit: Roelof Kiers; photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.Alex Winter’s new documentary – ZAPPA – about the iconoclastic musician and biting social satirist, Frank Zappa, has much in common with Thorsten Schütte’s absorbing, revelatory 2016 documentary, Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words. Zappa’s widow Gail (d. 2015) and son Ahmet (who runs the extensive Frank Zappa estate through the Zappa Trust as co-Trustee) were executive producers of the 2016 film. Ahmet Zappa is also a producer of the new film, which is more about the man than the previous more music-oriented doc. A conservative libertarian who had no use for drugs, Zappa was not how he appeared to be. Nonetheless, given the extent of the Zappa archives, there is much treasure to be found here. Early in the film the man himself takes us on an archival tour – a labyrinth of floor-to-ceiling 8mm movies, audio and videotape of recording sessions, even jam sessions by the likes of Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) and Eric Clapton (neither of which we hear – perhaps they’re being saved for future release).

Zappa’s early home life was completely without music. His father worked at a gas chemical factory, so his toys were gas masks and his interests concentrated on chemistry – he made gunpowder at the age of six. As a young teenager he read a magazine story about how Sam Goody’s (a major record seller in the 1950s) was able to sell records by Edgard Varèse that were considered too strange for most people to buy. Zappa bought The Complete Works of Edgard Varèse and it changed his life. “I just liked it [the way percussion was playing an integrated melodic part] and couldn’t understand why other people just didn't like it,” he said. There’s an 8mm snippet of him playing Varèse on the harmonica. He had no interest in Mozart or Beethoven, “only in the man who could make music which was that strange.” Hearing Ionisation led Zappa to write orchestral music. Much later, he took to playing Varèse’s Octandre as an encore “because after hearing it, the audience wouldn’t possibly hear another number.”

He taught himself to play blues guitar in high school by listening – sometimes staying up until 3am – to the music of Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Guitar Slim, Elmore James, Lowell Fulson and Johnny “Guitar” Watson (with whom he later played). In his mid-teens he was a member of a racially mixed band, The Blackouts, which at the time was considered too radical for the small California town where he lived.

Read more: Music and the Movies: ZAPPA

Ana Golja and Louis Gossett Jr. in The CubanIn the opening credits of The Cuban – a new film released in Canada in July, written by Alessandra Piccione and directed by Sergio Navarretta – the viewer is treated to a watercolour montage of Cuban imagery, accompanied by evocative, minor-key music played by a small ensemble. As the credits end and the visuals shift from vibrant animated colour to the live action of a Canadian assisted-living facility, the band drops away. Alone amidst the beige-grey gloom, the piano pensively underscores the scene: paperwork is frowningly passed back and forth; a young boy, bored with his visit, works on a jigsaw puzzle; a full bedpan, making a trip down a dimly-lit hallway, is spilled onto the hardwood. It speaks to the mood-setting power of the score that the moment doesn’t come off as a joke, nor a tragedy, but rather as a small, frustrating but typical event in a day spent caring for the elderly.

The bedpan-spiller is Mina (Ana Golja), a young university student who works at the assisted-living facility, and The Cuban examines the relationship that she develops with Luis (Louis Gossett Jr.), an elderly Cuban musician who lives at the facility and who suffers from dementia. The pianist is Hilario Durán – JUNO-award-winning, Grammy-nominated – who, in addition to performing on the soundtrack, was the film’s score composer. In light of the film’s recent release, I had the opportunity to interview Durán via email about the project’s roots, his connection to the film’s characters, and the Toronto musicians who helped him bring his musical vision for the film to life.

Read more: Music and the Movies: Q&A with The Cuban’s Hilario Durán

The Disciple. Courtesy of TIFFIn this year like no other, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has adapted to the pandemic’s parameters by making most red carpet events virtual and scaling back on how films will be presented. 

TIFF’s 45th edition – running from September 10 to 20 – offers both digital and in-person screenings, using TIFF Bell Lightbox and the Isabel Bader Theatre at reduced capacity to conform to measures provided by the City of Toronto and Public Health Ontario, ensuring that there will be a modicum of lineups. As well as drive-ins at CityView and Ontario Place, there will be an open air cinema at Ontario Place. A sophisticated, secure digital platform, called Bell Digital Cinema, will house most of the 50-plus films selected for TIFF 2020 enabling Festival-goers to watch Festival films at home on their television screens.

Given The WholeNote’s early deadline, TIFF’s schedule and program notes were unavailable, so the current guide is based on a film’s subject matter, a filmmaker’s track record and gleanings from across the Internet.

Read more: 9th Annual TIFF Tips
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