Buffy Sainte-Marie. Image credit: 01 Courtesy of TIFFOnce again, it’s time for the Toronto International Film Festival (September 8 to 17) and The WholeNote’s annual TIFF Tips guide to festival films in which music, in one way or another, plays an important role. After two years of restricted access, the 47th edition of the film festival is all live with dozens of special guests.

Our picks are based, variously, on track record, subject matter and gleanings from across the Internet. Out of the 255 titles  from 65 countries, I’ve focused on 14, beginning with a handful of documentaries directly tied to music.

Read more: 11th Annual TIFF TIPS

Sun Ra. Photo credit: Baron Wolman.This fall from September 30 to November 25, Hot Docs is streaming the new Tom Surgal film Fire Music: The Story of Free Jazz, which explores the birth of free jazz from the late 1950s to the late 1970s. Presented in-person for one screening at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto on September 29 and now available for at-home viewing through the Hot Docs website, the documentary outlines the early years of a genre that Hot Docs describes as full of “emotion, fire and fury.” Whether you’re a die-hard free jazz fan, a bebop enthusiast, or an occasional jazz patron, Fire Music is not to be missed.

I was glad that the filmmakers didn’t bite off more than they could chew: Fire Music demonstrates some initial outgrowth from the free jazz scene, but predominantly outlines on the establishment of the genre, focusing on the contributions of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, Sun Ra, and Albert Ayler. One of the film’s assets, however, is that it also features voices who have not traditionally been in the spotlight, such as Joseph Jarman, John Tchicai, Ingrid Sertso, and Sam Rivers. One of the most special moments is in the section “The Big Apple Reckons,” where we get to hear stories from saxophonists Prince Lasha and Sonny Simmons. Their 1963 album The Cry was a new and welcome discovery for me. Extensive historical footage from Don Cherry, Eric Dolphy, and Rashid Ali brings us the film’s greatest strength: the capturing of an oral history. Stories that are slowly being lost are retold here—and better yet, they are told from the mouths of artists who were present, anywhere from Paris in 1968, from the Loft Scene, or playing at the Five Spot Café.

Read more: Music and the Movies: Fire Music

Oscar Peterson. Photo courtesy of TIFF.Once again, it’s time for the Toronto International Film Festival (September 9 to 18) and The WholeNote’s 10th annual TIFF Tips guide to festival films in which music, in one way or another, plays an important role.

Our picks are based, variously, on track record, subject matter and gleanings from across the Internet. Out of the 177 titles (118 features, 45 shorts, 14 docs) from 64 countries that make up the festival’s 46th edition, I’ve focused on 18, beginning with a handful of documentaries directly tied to music.

Music Documentaries

Prolific documentary filmmaker Barry Avrich’s Oscar Peterson: Black + White, billed as a “groundbreaking docu-concert,” explores the life and legacy of the jazz icon, from his days as a child prodigy to the development of Peterson’s signature sound – as well as his tenacious experiences confronting racism and segregation while touring the United States. Avrich draws from a vast archive of rare performances, interviews and conversations. The film also features new performances of Peterson’s music by his protégé Robi Botos (with Dave Young and Larnell Lewis), Jackie Richardson (singing “Hymn to Freedom”), Measha Brueggergosman, Denzal Sinclaire and Joe Sealy. Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and vocals by Peterson himself highlight the wall-to-wall archival performances.

Dave Wooley and David Heilbroner’s Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over chronicles Warwick’s long career as a performer and activist. Annie Lennox blogged about Warwick’s performance of “Walk on By” on her website on June 23, 2015: “I’ve always been drawn to the alchemy of Burt Bacharach’s music. Dionne Warwick must have been his perfect vocal muse, with the most amazing voice to express and interpret his songs. I think it would be hard to find another singer who could do them justice apart from Dusty Springfield. Romantic, melancholic and hauntingly beautiful, Dionne Warwick is second only to Aretha Franklin as the most-charted female vocalist of all time, with 56 of Dionne’s singles making the Billboard Hot 100 between 1962 and 1998.” TIFF co-head Cameron Bailey writes: “Charismatic, outspoken and stylish, she’s a great raconteur.”

Read more: Eighteen Picks: TIFF Tips 2021

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
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