A still from the 2016 documentary Conduct! Every Move Counts.Filming the work of an orchestra is not an easy job. The television series Mozart in the Jungle, about a fictional orchestra, focuses on a handful of individuals to tell the broader story. Dutch documentary Around the World in 50 Concerts (dir. Heddy Honigmann, 2014) follows the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on tour and looks at the orchestra’s work in a roundabout way, by talking to music lovers about how they experience the music they hear. While both creations have much to recommend them, neither is quite as exciting as the orchestral music-making itself—and neither exactly capture the contingency, the heartache and the unpredictability of a career in music.

Conduct! Every Move Counts, screened in Toronto on Tuesday, November 21 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema as part of the cinema and the Royal Conservatory’s Music on Film series, made me think of these earlier examples because this 2016 German documentary about the Georg Solti Conductors’ Competition comes closer to both the glory and the gore. It zooms in on a few candidates (I presume the team interviewed many more of the 24 conductors selected for the 2008 competition before deciding who to follow), and while the winner did turn out to be among them, the documentary centres on the “losing” candidates and their personalities and musicianship, which they have in bucket-loads. The winner too comes across as an interesting character – Shizuo Kuwahara, who at first stands out for his bizarre arm gestures and grimacing, but who eventually convinces the orchestra (of the Frankfurt Opera), the jury, the audience on the final night as well as the doc viewers of the seriousness of his approach.

Still, he remains in the background. Foreground is occupied by the then little-known, now established conductors Alondra de la Parra (who doesn’t make it to the second round, and who in the cab on the way back to the airport says on camera: “I shouldn’t have done it. I already have my orchestra, I already conduct – I really didn’t need this”), James Lowe, Andreas Hotz, and the “dark horse” figure in this film, the very young Aziz Shokhakimov. Shokhakimov and Lowe become fast friends and the camera captures them a few times playing the “guess the symphony by my hand movement” game.

The director, Götz Schauder, managed to access and film the jury’s pre-selection of candidates, the rounds of the competition which are not open to the public, jury deliberations, the announcement of results, and of course, the final, public round at the Frankfurt Opera. On the candidates’ side, in addition to the on-camera interviews, there was access to their hotel rooms, prep time, off time, waiting time and the feedback conversations – including one particularly memorable one in which the orchestra’s first violinist tries to explain to Shokhakimov that he should try to be less cocky and listen more, since he just couldn’t fix a problem in a particular section in rehearsal.

This documentary is not afraid to go into details: there is a lot of useful footage on the nitty-gritty of the work of conducting and playing in an orchestra. There are also some surprises along the way, but after all is said and done, the reasoning of the jury remains looking fairly arbitrary, or mysterious at best. Competitions are there to drum up media interest and the excitement of the public, and to give a boost to the careers of musicians who don’t have connections or a big agency behind them. At the same time, competitions can be as arbitrary as awards and auditions, dependent on multiple other factors besides candidate’s musicianship and potential.

Conductor Tania Miller.In the post-screening Q&A at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, conductor Tania Miller talked about her own experiences with competitions – and as a young conductor, she’s tried some, including one that was won by the then still little-known Gustavo Dudamel. The Music on Film Series MC, the Royal Conservatory’s Mervon Mehta, asked her about her take on why there are still few women making a career in conducting, and she said she perceived three main reasons. First, the business side of a career in classical music: agencies, labels and media boost what they know and what’s been profitable so far, and that will be men. Second, some of the women conductors just out of school will not feel confident enough faced with what looks like an awe-inducing, largely male monolith – the classical music canon and the people whose job is to run it and write about it – and will need a confidence boost which may not come from anywhere. ‘Well, if nobody else is willing to believe in me, they must be right and I must be wrong,’ is the kind of thinking that may make a woman conductor change careers. And third, Miller said, is in part a matter of choice. It’s not an easy road to take. Alondra de la Parra says at one point in the documentary that she is studying scores from early morning to late in the evening, “and I believe her,” said Miller. “It is actually like that.” Miller went on to say that, if you want a family as an aspiring conductor, you must be extremely lucky to have an accommodating partner who is willing to do a lion’s share of child-rearing and relationship maintenance.

Greatest laugh of the evening? Mervon Mehta describing seasoned orchestra players as, on principle, “cranky bastards.” “Not the Royal Conservatory Orchestra,” interjected Miller. “Yes, not them, because they’re still students,” said Mehta to another wave of audience laughter.

The Music on Film series continues on January 30 with Strad Style, a documentary about an Ohio-based, Stradivari-obsessed violin maker, and February 27 with a bio-doc dedicated to Miriam Makeba, Mama Africa. Full program for Music on Film can be found here.

Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto.

W. Eugene Smith looking out over Sixth Avenue.Thelonious Monk in the Jazz Loft.Sara Fisko’s invaluable time capsule, The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith, captures bohemian life in the Flower District of New York City from 1957 to 1965 when acclaimed LIFE magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith rented space in a commercial building and wired it for sound. (He recorded his life there, and American history at the same time, on 4,000 hours of tape.) The heart of the film is contained in the three weeks of rehearsal that led up to Thelonious Monk’s tentet’s Town Hall concert in 1959.

Thelonious Monk (left) and Hall Overton.Smith’s next-door neighbour on the fourth floor of 821 Sixth Avenue, Hall Overton, a Juilliard professor and composer of classical music who enjoyed playing jazz at the upright piano in Smith’s loft, arranged Monk’s tunes for the historic gig. Fisko’s documentary reveals a fascinating discussion between Monk and Overton as Monk questions what Overton has done to his tune Little Rootie Tootie. Countless jazz players studied with the chain-smoking Overton and considered his teachings invaluable. Bassist Chuck Israels says he was “broadminded, a musically educated guy who was easy to be attracted to.” The young Steve Reich was another student: "I want you to write a melody that more or less follows these shapes [that Overton had drawn],” Reich recalls of his first lesson there. “You’ll learn a lot. It’s very easy to go [Reich makes a gesture that goes diagonally down from top to bottom].” Reich says that there were so many photographs filed in the loft that “you felt all the walls were leaning in on you.”

Saxophonist Phil Woods, who was a member of the tentet, is one of several talking heads remembering the era. (“People complained about Monk’s intervals,” he says.) Bassist Steve Swallow, pianist Carla Bley, composer/instrumentalist David Amram and drummer Ronnie Free are among those who amplify what the multitude of photos suggest and fill in the context. Jam sessions (several of which are excerpted in the film) often mimicked the sounds of the street traffic below, ending at dawn with many of the participants walking outside just as the day’s flowers were being delivered to shopkeepers to sell. Tenor saxman Zoot Sims, one of many who loved to jam in the loft, is remembered for his prodigious playing. The scene brought out artists like Salvador Dali, writers such as Norman Mailer, even Ultra Violet (who, as an Andy Warhol Superstar, would have her life in Warhol’s loft chronicled in a different way).

As well as the Little Rootie Tootie tape, there are six Monk tunes that buttress the soundtrack, with support from Art Blakey and Clifford Brown, Erroll Garner and selections from the American Songbook. Smith always listened to music (usually classical) while he worked – he had a collection of 25,000 LPs. Furtwängler and the VPO (Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony), Rubinstein (Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu), Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and opera taped from the loft radio appear on the film’s soundtrack. Fishko also gives us a snippet of Overton giving performance instructions to the noted violist Walter Trampler in a rehearsal for the LP of Overton’s Sonata for Viola and Piano.

W. Eugene Smith looking out over Sixth Avenue. The window was “his proscenium arch.”Fishko provides just enough backstory of Smith’s pre-loft fame to give a romantic context to his loft lifestyle: the way Fishko puts it, Smith’s leaving his family and everything his Life work (he quit the magazine in 1954) had brought him behind in a northern New York City suburb (the village of Croton-on-Hudson) was something he couldn’t avoid. And the filmmaker put the thousands of photos she had on hand to good use in giving an insight into the obsessive artist, known as a pre-eminent photo essayist in the years before television and video became the journalistic record.

Smith’s printmaking techniques were legendary; his reputation followed him to the loft where one of his assistant’s jobs was to calm visitors whom he had no time to see. Diane Arbus and the young Larry Clark, however, did visit and there are photos to prove it.

Smith’s inevitable flameout – his son talks about his father’s paranoia and suicide calls – led to his leaving the loft in 1971, but Fishko’s shepherding of his photographic legacy and audio tapes has produced an invaluable record of a bygone era.

The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith plays at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema August 4 to 10.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Jean-Pierre Melville (left) and Pierre Grasset.To celebrate the centennial of the birth of French director Jean-Pierre Melville, TIFF Bell Lightbox is screening 12 of his feature films and one short between June 29 and August 19.

Most of Melville’s films dwell in the shadowy world of men who live close to death – gangsters, cops, French Resistance fighters. They usually unfold in B&W, methodically, in stories told like a procedural. His characters often drive around in big American cars, finned gas guzzlers from the late 1950s and early 1960s, and Melville likes to shoot them externally through the front window and internally from the back seat. He’s fond of long looks filled with unspoken words, and of scenes of dancing girls in clubs. But even fonder of jazz, which he uses extensively in the films I was able to preview for the TIFF retrospective.

Melville himself stars in Two Men in Manhattan (July 9), as a journalist for Agence France Press dispatched by his employer to investigate the disappearance of a French delegate to the United Nations. Released in 1959 (but more importantly, shot in Manhattan in November and December 1958), this noirish B-movie looks terrific, the authentic footage of NYC exquisitely beautiful and time-capsule worthy. The journalist turns to an alcoholic photographer pal (Pierre Grasset) for help in the case – he’s got photos of the diplomat with three different women (possible mistresses) – and the duo set out to cherchez la femme. One of these women is a jazz singer with a light, dusky voice (played by Glenda Leigh), who they meet during a recording session of Street in Manhattan at Capitol Records. (Leigh was still active in Florida as recently as 2013.)

Two Men in Manhattan: Martial Solal, piano; Bernard Hulin, trumpet.The evocative score is by Christian Chevallier and Martial Solal (who also wrote the score for Godard’s Breathless, Melville’s Léon Morin, Priest and Bertolucci’s The Dreamers). From the opening trumpet underneath footage of Times Square, you know immediately that you’re in New York in the 1950s. The trumpet theme recurs periodically as the city is unveiled from the UN to Greenwich Village, including contemporaneous marquees of movies featuring the likes of Jeff Chandler and Esther Williams. But it’s images of Times Square and 42nd Street that jump out like time-lapse photography. Two Men in Manhattan may not have the gravitas of Army of Shadows, the elegance of Bob le flambeur (July 7) or the gangster demi-monde of Le Doulos (July 29), Le Deuxième Souffle (July 25) and The Red Circle (July 28), but it’s a jewel in its own right and not to be missed on the big screen.

Jean-Paul Belmondo in Le Doulos.Army of Shadows (June 30; July 30) is an unmissable portrait of a handful of French Resistance fighters (Lino Ventura and Simone Signoret star) inexorably doomed in the early days of the movement; Léon Morin, Priest (July 16) also takes place during the German Occupation which serves as backdrop to its erotically charged tale of a lapsed Catholic-turned-Communist widow (Emmanuelle Riva, fresh from Hiroshima, mon amour) and the intellectually engaged priest (Jean-Paul Belmondo, fresh from Breathless) who rekindles her faith.

The series opened with a 35mm print of Le Samouraï (June 29; August 19), a film that influenced John Woo and Jim Jarmusch among others. Its ultra-cool hitman is played by the magisterial Alain Delon, his screen presence at its peak. The jazz-based score, filled with foreboding that mirrors the psyche of its protagonist, is by François de Roubaix. In Melville’s last film, Un Flic, Delon is a cop who plays piano for his mistress (Catherine Deneuve), the girlfriend of his prey (Richard Crenna, whose craggy face can’t be dubbed the way his voice is). Michel Colombier’s score was his first for Melville (who never used any composer more than twice) but followed in the jazz footsteps of most of its predecessors since Eddie Barclay and Jo Boyer’s memorable work in Bob le flambeur.

TIFF’s retrospective on the work of Jean-Pierre Melville runs until August 19 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more information, visit http://www.tiff.net/#series=army-of-shadows-the-films-of-jean-pierre-melville.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

 

Suki Waterhouse. Courtesy of NEON.With its hallucinogenic mood, stunning cinematography, survival-revenge theme and lone-wolf protagonist, Ana Lily Amirpour's follow-up to her striking debut A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night shows off its confident director's singular vision of a post-modern western with aplomb.

Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is a young woman unceremoniously dumped into the vast Texas desert, lumped in and fenced off with other marginalized rejects of American society known as the bad batch. She's soon caught by one of the area's many cannibals (bridge dwellers), who severs her right arm and leg. Managing to escape using her toughness, ingenuity and a skateboard, she's found by a Good Samaritan who brings her to the town of Comfort, where a Hugh Hefner-like, LSD-dispensing strongman known as The Dream (Keanu Reeves) holds its citizens in his thrall. But Arlen can't resist the call of the wild in the form of Miami Man (Jason Momoa) and his young daughter. As the story unfolds (with frequent satiric jabs), it's clear that Arlen is living out an allegorical distillation of the American dream of family and freedom.

Jason Momoa and Suki Waterhouse. Courtesy of NEON.The Bad Batch's languorous dystopian atmospherics are enhanced, amplified and re-enforced by Amirpour's well-chosen soundtrack. Federale's All the Colours of the Dark, for example, begins sleepily, like the day itself. “I awoke in the dark / called out into the cold dark” it sings out, as the day unfolds in a series of landscapes and skyscapes matching the music's druggy somnambulance: “All the colours of the dark will remind you of someone who once was you.”

Keanu Reeves as The Dream, with his enforcers. Courtesy of NEON.Black Light Smoke's Screws in My Head, with its cool, insistent beat, buttresses the carnival-like dance music played by Comfort's resident DJ (Diego Luna) that introduces The Dream and his coterie of pregnant machine-gun toting enforcers with their “THE DREAM IS INSIDE ME” T-shirts. Earlier, the same band's Firefly underscores Miami Man and his bridge-dwelling family with a rolling, hypnotic beat and pointed lyric: “I'm like a firefly trapped in the spotlight.”

And what could be more apt than the lyric of White Lies' Fifty on Our Foreheads to put a bow on the movie's happy, if uncertain, ending: “A quilt of darkness dotted with our teardrops. The moonlight licked the face of danger.”

If you're a fan of post-apocalyptic movies, The Bad Batch is a must-see.

The Bad Batch plays from June 23 to June 29, at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

 

Daniel Houck in Strad Style.There are at least 20 films with a significant musical component in this year’s Hot Docs International Documentary Festival, which runs at various Toronto venues from April 27 to May 7 (hotdocs.ca). There are must-see movies and others of more than passing interest among the several I’ve already seen; many promising titles are tucked away among the 230 in the 2017 lineup.

My review of Integral Man, Joseph Clement’s vivid portrait of the late mathematics professor, LGBT activist and orchestral violinist, James Stewart, can be found in the May issue of The WholeNote. Stewart’s unique Toronto home, Integral House, built into the side of a ravine with royalties from his best-selling calculus textbook, is integral to the documentary, as is footage of Measha Brueggergosman singing Strauss’ Four Last Songs in the house for Stewart and his guests at his own living wake.

Long Strange Trip, Amir Bar-Lev’s four-hour rich exploration of The Grateful Dead, presents a definitive picture of the iconic band including its cultural and musical origins (from Jerry Garcia’s early connection to the Beat Generation of the 1950s to Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests of the 1960s). There are many nuggets to chew on: one in particular from Joe Smith, the Warner Brothers executive in charge of The Dead and a fount of key information. He recalled that the film crew whom he hired to document the band’s 1974 European tour were continually being given drinks by the band members; he said that he would never accept a drink from The Dead (because more often than not they would be laced with LSD; one of the band’s central tenets was to have fun). Needless to say there was no film of that tour.

Stefan Avalos’ Strad Style chronicles the improbable but triumphant story of a reclusive Ohio violin-maker, Daniel Houck, whose confidence that he can produce a copy of “Il Canone,” the Guarneri violin built in 1742 that Niccolò Paganini played, carries him through an eight-month journey that threatens to be derailed more than once. A violin aficionado who loves listening to old masters like Oistrakh and Heifetz and idolizes Amati, Guarneri and Stradivari – all from Cremona, Italy – Houck suffers from bipolar disorder but functions with medication. He befriends Razvan Stoica on Facebook when he discovers the Romanian-born violinist has won the Strad Prize at a Salzburg festival and offers to make him the Canone replica. There is magic stuff here.

The Genius and the Opera Star, Vanessa Stockley’s no-holds-barred depiction of the love between a 92-year-old former opera singer, Ruth Berk, and her 55-year-old daughter, Jessica, proves convincingly that parental love goes both ways. Living in a cramped Greenwich Village apartment that’s often occupied by the daughter’s empathetic boyfriend, their days are marked as much by Ruth’s singing along to Sinatra records as by Jessica’s complaining. The vintage home movies and tapes add another layer.

Raise Your Arms and Twist, Documentary of NMB48 takes you deeper than you may ever want to go inside the bizarre phenomenon of the Japanese pop idol groups. NMB, from Osaka, is at the top of the charts, with nine of their first ten songs Number One hits. Dozens of teenage girls dressed like dolls in short skirts are coached and choreographed to appeal to their thousands of adoring fans; management is all-knowing and all-pervasive, down to the handshake events in which fans get approximately ten seconds of intimate conversation with an idol. One singer after shaking 3000 hands in a nine-hour session said: “It gives me energy; it’s like spending the whole time with your friends.”

The Road Forward chronicles decades of Indigenous activism in Canada through song, print and struggle. The Native Voice newspaper (since 1946) and the Native Brotherhood (which began in 1931 in BC’s fishing villages) both fought for Native rights. Archival footage is amplified by several Indigenous performers who carry on an oral tradition that reaches out inclusively beyond the personal.

The Batwa Music Club in Ghosts of Our Forest.Daniel Roher’s Ghosts of Our Forest follows a 24-year-old Ugandan Batwa (pygmy), who has formed the Batwa Music Club to perform the spiritual and traditional music of his people, all of whom were forcibly removed from their ancestral homes in 1992.

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World devotes its energies to ten Indigenous North American musicians who made considerable contributions to the musical life of the last century. Taking its cue from Link Wray’s influential 1958 guitar instrumental, Rumble, Catherine Bainbridge’s doc includes blues great Charley Patton, songbird Mildred Bailey, Jimi Hendrix, Robbie Robertson, Buffy Sainte-Marie and more. Bainbridge is best-known for Reel Injun, her examination of the movies’ treatment of Indigenous people.

La Chana is a portrait of a Catalan flamenco legend and her triumphant return to the stage after years out of the limelight.

Chavela recounts the story of the legendary Mexican chanteuse, who defied sexual convention and challenged macho cultural norms with her music and her love affairs.

Fatou Seidi Gahil performing in Illighadad, Niger in A Story of Sahel Sounds.A Story of Sahel Sounds follows Oregonian Chris Kirkley as he travels to Niger in search of musicians he’s never met to be part of his Sahel Sounds project. The soundtrack looks to be a keeper.

Give Me Future uncovers the ingenuity with which Cubans share banned music while ostensibly focusing on a concert in Havana by Major Lazer in front of half a million people.

A poor African-American family in North Philadelphia opens up their basement music studio to the neighbourhood in Quest, an in-depth portrait filmed over the course of ten years.

Resurrecting Hassan studies a family of blind Montreal buskers who fall under the spell of a Russian mystic who they hope will resurrect their sighted son/brother, a drowning victim. The heartfelt passion of the wife/mother’s singing reflects more than the grief over her loss.

Tony Palmer, this year’s recipient of Hot Docs’ Outstanding Achievement Award, has made more than 100 documentaries. Six of the seven being shown here have a musical component. Palmer had unlimited access to Leonard Cohen for Bird on a Wire, an intimate look at Cohen’s 1972 overseas tour; it’s essential viewing. All My Loving, Palmer’s second film, was facilitated by his friendship with John Lennon. Conceived as a means of getting performers like Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Eric Burdon and The Who onto the BBC, when it finally aired in 1968, its effect was transformative. All You Need Is Love (Ep.14 The Beatles) is taken from Palmer’s 17-part 1976 historical series; The Beatles and World War II (2016) combines war footage with covers of Beatles songs. Margot, Palmer’s film about England’s greatest ballet dancer Margot Fonteyn, would strain credulity as fiction given her tragic life history. The Harvest of Sorrow (1998) is a compulsively watchable portrait of Sergei Rachmaninoff, much of it told by the composer’s own words spoken to great effect by Sir John Gielgud. Archival footage, talking heads and modern performances (pianists Mikhail Pletnev and Valentina Igoshina; Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra) combine to produce an insightful portrait of one of the most popular figures of the 20th century.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

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