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.

IMG 1898 300All my life I’ve vacillated between mathematics and music,” James Stewart says in Integral Man, a film by Joseph Clement premiering in this year’s Hot Docs film festival. “Mathematics unfolds over a period of time and tells a story. So does music.” And so does Clement’s film, which documents its extraordinary subject so vividly.

Stewart was a professor at McMaster University when two of his students encouraged him to write a book since his classroom explanation of calculus was so much more helpful than the textbook the course prescribed. He took up their suggestion and 13 hours a day, 364 days a year and seven years later, he had written what became the best-selling calculus textbook in history. With the proceeds he decided to build a house that would reflect his aesthetics and also serve as a place to host concerts, a venue for charitable and arts organizations to raise money.

“When you move through the house, it also tells a story,” he says. Stewart’s own story includes the fact that he was an accomplished violinist, concertmaster of the McMaster Orchestra and member of the Hamilton Philharmonic string section. Along with others he began the Hamilton Pride movement in the 1970s and continued to champion LGBTQ rights throughout his life.

He spent almost a decade from conception to completion with his architects, Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe, before he moved into the five-storey structure (built into the side of a ravine overlooking the Don Valley) in 2009. It’s an extraordinary edifice, world famous, and Integral Man documents it from its imposing central staircase to its striking infinity pool. Since Clement didn’t begin filming until 2012, in order to tell a fully fleshed-out story, he incorporated Edward Burtynsky’s striking footage and photographs of the demolition and creation of Integral House into Integral Man.

The imaginative design filled with curves and glass reflected Stewart’s personality: the rational, ordered, precise classical side and the dreamer, dynamic, irreverent side open to almost anything; these two sides to his character had to be reconciled in the house. As the camera follows him through the house Stewart explains how he wanted curves and a performing space but gave the architects free reign. Suddenly we come upon a dinner party which is followed by a private concert; a typical evening. It was the love of music that brought the famous (Philip Glass and Steve Reich, for example) and the rising stars - Pocket Concerts’ Rory McLeod and the magnetic young violinist Blake Pouliot each appeared through Stewart’s fondness for the National Youth Orchestra of Canada - to the house on Roxborough Drive.

“The house is fundamentally like being in a landscape,” says Stewart. “Your relationship to nature changes. It’s dynamic, like space in motion. The house moves away and above and beyond you.” Stewart believed curvature to be essential and that the exceptional natural light in the house was a mirror image of the way the nearby forest receives light.

Midway through filming (which began in 2012), Stewart was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. As his condition worsened he planned for his funeral and his legacy, deciding in the process to host his own wake. We see him seated in the front row delighting in Measha Brueggergosman singing Strauss’ Four Last Songs (with piano accompaniment arranged specifically for the wake) a few weeks before he died in December 2014 at 73.

Two chance meetings with Brigitte Shim in 2009 and 2011 changed the course of Clement’s life and led to his directorial feature debut with Integral Man. Clement told me that Integral House represents a risk-taking endeavour that he considers to be very un-Canadian in its boldness. “It represents a vision, a passion and a willingness to go above and beyond the expected,” he said. “It represents the highest form of contribution one can make to philanthropy in a totally involved and engaged way.”     

When Stewart’s illness was diagnosed, it wasn’t difficult to continue, Clement said. “When I approached Jim about the future of the film, Jim being an incredibly pragmatic individual, insisted that the filming continue and that his death would be integral to the story.”

The spacious electronica score by Dan Goldman and Shaun Brodie complements the images without intruding. Accomplished musicians, they’ve played with Arcade Fire, the New Pornographers, Broken Social Scene and many others. Clement said that it was a back-and-forth process between editing the film and developing the music. “It was a fairly symbiotic relationship.”

Not unlike the relationship between the Integral Man and his Integral House.

Integral Man has its world premiere in the Hot Docs Documentary Film Festival May 2, 3 and 5.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

David Lynch.Filmmaker Jon Nguyen spent 25 weekends over almost three years interviewing David Lynch in his studio – painting, sculpting, smoking, drinking coffee and talking – to produce the new documentary David Lynch: The Art Life. The result is a compelling autobiography from a working artist who literally makes art every day, when he’s not occupied with filmmaking or writing his new Twin Peaks TV series. Lynch leads us on his life’s journey as an artist, from childhood to the AFI grant that enabled him to produce his fabled first feature Eraserhead.

This “private memoir” is dedicated to Lynch’s young daughter Lula, who was about three and a half when seen with her father in his workshop. (His daughter Jennifer, the offspring of an early relationship, is seen in a home movie from the late 1960s.)  Lynch’s unforced lilt as he narrates his life reminded me of John Cage’s one-minute storytelling cadences in Indeterminacy. Danish composer Jonatan Bengta’s electronically-based soundtrack over a hypnotic percussion beat etches a deep groove that moves symbiotically with the film’s natural rhythms. Bengta wrote on his Facebook page just before The Art Life premiered at the Venice Film Festival last September: “As a teen I tried to copy his hairstyle and twang my voice similarly. I then learnt how to talk like the elephant man and finally started to drink black coffee like Agent Cooper.” Lynch’s own blues-based music – I Have a Radio, The Night Bell with Lightning and Sparkle Lounge Blues, all with collaborator Dean Hurley – makes a few pointed appearances as well.

Filled with family anecdotes illustrated by old photographs, Lynch takes us through a happy childhood in the American Northwest and an unhappy adolescence triggered by a move to Virginia, all of it seemingly focused on his past, present and (implicitly) future life as a hardcore artist. An early key was his prescient mother who recognized something in her son that led her to forbid his use of colouring books because their rigidity would restrict his creativity. In high school it was the painter Bushnell Keeler, the stepfather of a friend, who became a mentor and later rented Lynch space in his studio. Keeler was the embodiment of “the art life,” which for the teenaged Lynch meant “smoking, coffee and painting.” Now at 71, he’s still blowing smoke into the haze of memory, stoking the creative process.

Among the priceless stories the film relates: Lynch inviting his father down to the basement of their house to show him his prized collection of rotting fruit and decaying insects and animals which prompted his horrified father to advise him never to have children; and then there’s the time when he was a boy at play in the street and suddenly saw a naked woman walking towards him – a striking correlation to the memorable scene from Blue Velvet. Tellingly, he always kept his friends separate from his family and his friends separate from his art friends, a compartmentalization that resonates in such films as Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive.

David Lynch and his daughter Lula. This is must-see stuff not only for Lynchian aficionados but also for anyone interested in the creative process.

David Lynch: The Art Life is currently playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

NFD Poster BannerNational Film Day 2017 PosterOui The North. On April 19, 340 unique feature films will screen for free in more than 1700 locations in Canada, plus over 60 international sites like Canadian embassies and Canadian military bases, to celebrate our country’s movies in this sesquicentennial year. From 90 screenings in Toronto to two in far-flung Tuktoyaktuk NT (appropriately The Sun at Midnight and The Lesser Blessed), the country will be blanketed in movies from coast to coast to coast in what is billed as the world’s largest film festival. “Everything from high to low,” Reel Canada’s artistic director Sharon Corder told me mid-March.

Reel Canada has been moving towards this unique celebration since they began showing Canadian films in schools in 2005. The inaugural Canadian Film Day, April 29, 2014, became an annual event that will culminate April 19 with this year’s National Canadian Film Day 150 (in partnership with the Toronto International Film Festival’s Canada On Screen project which is responsible for 150 of the screenings).

“In scale and intention,” Corder said. “We’ve been building to this. We’re going after everyone.” What an extravaganza it will be, a far cry from the not-too-distant past when Canadian movies (English-language in particular) were scorned by the general public. Now the richness of our film culture is evident from Oscar nominees to Cannes prizewinners. And, as Corder points out, because of the school webcast (with schools screening films before logging on to interact with guests), movies like Breakaway and The Trotsky are two of Reel Canada’s most popular. The same goes for the French school webcasts and Paul à Québec. And because of the “respectful inclusion of Indigenous people,” there will be more than 75 screenings of films by Indigenous filmmakers.

Some of the most popular films being screened April 19 are:

The Grand Seduction, Snowtime/La guerre des tuques, Passchendaele,

La légende de Sarila (The Legend of Sarila), The Whale, Corner Gas: The Movie, The Rocket, Anne of Green Gables, The Sweet Hereafter, Angry Inuk, Stories We Tell, Water and Sharkwater.

“Not necessarily what anyone could predict, eh?,” Corder said.

And then there the films that fit nicely into The WholeNote’s Music and the Movies niche. Most, if not all, can be seen somewhere in Canada on April 19.

It’s Only the End of the World

What follows is a random sampling of films where music plays a significant role headed by the most recent.

Xavier Dolan’s emotionally riven chamber piece, It’s Only the End of the World (2016), won six Canadian Screen Awards, three French Césars and the Grand Prix at Cannes. Dolan’s camera lingers on his characters in close-up, accentuating pauses, building to the affective climax. Gabriel Yared’s warm, empathetic symphonic score and pop music outbursts like Camille’s Home Is Where It Hurts, Grimes’ Oblivion and the Moldovan pop group O-Zone’s Dragostea Din Tei are crucial ingredients.

Sleeping Giant

Toy Piano Composers co-founder Chris Thornborrow wrote the evocative score to director Andrew Cividino’s Sleeping Giant (2015), which captures the energy of growing up near Lake Superior in a well-crafted character study over one summer of awkward adolescence. Kevin Turcotte’s uncanny trumpet on the soundtrack of Robert Budreau’s Born To Be Blue (2015), a reimagining of Chet Baker’s life, is essential to making Ethan Hawke’s portrayal of Baker believable. Pianist David Braid, who arranged the extensive music track (which is far more reality-based than the plot), leads the fine quartet of Turcotte, bassist Steve Wallace and drummer Terry Clarke. 

Mommy

Stéphane Lafleur’s understated little bijou, Tu Dors Nicole (2014) filmed in rich black and white, is a finely etched portrait of a 22-year-old young woman maturing over one aimless summer. Xavier Dolan’s Cannes prizewinner, Mommy (2014), which jumps off the screen with a life force that is contagious, is driven by a carefully chosen soundtrack of music performed by Sarah McLachlan, Dido, Counting Crows, Andrea Bocelli, Lana Del Rey and the ecstatic use of Oasis’ Wonderwall.

Gabrielle, the title character of Louise Archambault’s exceptional Gabrielle (2013), is a young woman with Williams syndrome (a genetic condition characterized by learning disabilities, among other medical problems). She has a contagious joie de vivre and perfect pitch (exceptional musical gifts are a positive blessing of Williams syndrome). Gabrielle and her boyfriend are members of a choir that is preparing for an important music festival. The film’s emotional impact is unforced and uplifting.

In his mesmerizing documentary, The End of Time (2012), Toronto filmmaker Peter Mettler uses images and sound -- the tools he’s most comfortable with – to observe time and make our experience of it palpable. Music by Autechre, Robert Henke and Thomas Koner animates his images (of lava flowing on the big island of Hawaii, for example) while techno DJ Richie Hawtin (“Plastikman”) distills time down to its basic rhythm and Christos Hatzis’ and Bruno DeGazio’s Harmonia depicts harmonic overtones.

Nathan Morlando’s cinematic intelligence permeates every frame of his film debut, Edwin Boyd: Citizen Gangster (which won Best Canadian First Feature at TIFF 2011). His cinematic good sense led him to hire Max Richter to compose the music which supported the narrative without ever being overbearing.

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner

The following classics of Canadian cinema are inseparable from their musical bearings:

I am one of many who believe Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001) is the best Canadian film ever made. Music by Huun-Huur-Tu, Christopher Mad'dene, traditional Inuit ajaja songs and throat singing, plus Chris Crilly’s score back this Inuit tale handed down over the generations. A masterpiece of stunning landscapes, epic in scope.

Francis Mankiewicz’s haunting Les Bons Débarras (1979) uses Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.23 K488, Franck’s Symphonic Variations and Puccini’s O mio babbino caro to underline its Gothic passion. The music in Jean-Marc Vallée’s coming-of-age masterpiece, C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005), is inseparable from its narrative. Patsy Cline, Charles Aznavour, Grace Slick, Pink Floyd, David Bowie and the Rolling Stones (among others) form the soundtrack to a life. And Perez Prado’s Mambo Jambo makes it alright in the end.

Denys Arcand’s Le Déclin de l'empire américain (1986) captures a vibrant historic moment in Quebec’s intellectual and social history to a score by François Dompierre. Arcand’s next film, Jésus de Montréal (1989), uses Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and the exotic The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices to buttress his engrossing, uncompromising look at contemporary religious values.

Bruce McDonald’s iconic road movie, Highway 61(1991) is propelled by The Archies, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Tom Jones, The Ramones, Sonny Terry, Nash the Slash, The Razorbacks, Rita Chiarelli, Colin Linden and the infamous Bourbon Tabernacle Choir.

Alan Zweig will make a guest appearance April 19 at 9pm when his compulsive documentary, Vinyl (2000), shows (appropriately) at the Sonic Boom Cinema Club, 215 Spadina Ave.

J.A. Martin: photographe

One of the first Canadian films to make an international splash, Jean Beaudin’s J. A. Martin, photographe (1977), a beautiful cinematic portrait of a bygone age, is supported by Maurice Blackburn’s unobtrusive score.

Oscar winner Howard Shore has worked with David Cronenberg on almost all his films including the seminal Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), Dead Ringers (1988) and Crash (1996).

Mychael Danna, another Oscar winner, has scored almost all of Atom Egoyan’s films including the still-resonant The Sweet Hereafter (1997). He has an uncanny but totally unforced ability to combine Western and non-Western music seamlessly. For proof, watch (and listen to) Deepa Mehta’s best film, Water (2005).

Egoyan’s Calendar (1993), unusual in not being scored by Danna, is one of the director’s most revealing and personal films. The music by Eve Egoyan (piano), Jivan Gasparyan (duduk), Hovhanness Tarpinian (tar) and Garo Tchaliguian (singer) reinforces the enigma that drives the film’s deceptive narrative.

Two indelible Music and the Movies moments: Atom Egoyan’s Exotica resonant with Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows and Sheila McCarthy literally flying high accompanied by The Flower Duet from Delibes’ Lakmé in Patricia Rozema’s I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987).

One film I wish was available: Julian Roffman’s beatnik time capsule, The Bloody Brood (1959), was Peter Falk’s first starring role and the movie that preceded Roffman’s widely heralded 3-D horror film, The Mask (1961). I saw it at a special TIFF Cinematheque screening several years ago and was delighted to see that the jazz combo that provided the music in the coffee house where Falk and his cohorts hung out was led by none other than the eternal hipster Harry Freedman. On English horn. How cool is that!

Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould

Finally, there is François Girard’s Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993), its elegantly constructed vignettes a masterful distillation of the life of a (musical) genius. That is the film I would choose to watch on National Canadian Film Day 150. Luckily for me, it’s showing at TIFF Bell Lightbox on April 19. Writer-actor Don McKellar and star Colm Feore are special guests.

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