Mavis Staples

Mavis! Is Jessica Edwards' inspirational film on the life of Mavis Staples, whose unique voice brought joy and happiness to millions as the most prominent member of the Staples Singers, a family act led by and directed with great foresight by Roebuck “Pops” Staples. Roebuck Staples grew up on a Mississippi plantation that also fostered the great bluesmen Howlin' Wolf and Charley Patton; Staples learned blues guitar from Patton, later incorporating it into his gospel music, thereby crossing a line that had never been crossed before.

The Staples Singers had a vast influence on people from Bob Dylan to Martin Luther King Jr. Dylan recalls hearing them as a 12-year-old: “Sit Down Servant made me stay up for a week,” he said. Why Am I Treated So Bad, which Pops wrote after he attended King's Montgomery Alabama church, was the Civil Rights leader's favourite song.

Informative talking heads (Bonnie Raitt, Chuck D, Levon Helm, Prince and more), a strong working relationship with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy (who revived her career after her father's death in 2000) and historical perspective from biographer Greg Kot combine with priceless archival footage to present a vivid picture of a musical force of nature.

Mavis Staples

Kot pointed out that her life touched on seven musical eras beginning in Chicago with Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls and Mahalia Jackson as neighbours. Raitt described her as “sensual without being salacious.” The Staples Singers were among the most popular gospel music acts (when gospel music was hugely popular in the post-WWII years). They had a style that harked back to the 1920s plus a deep tremolo that was electric when combined with reverb guitar.

Footage from a 1963 Westinghouse TV show, Folk Songs, and More Folk Songs, amusingly quaint, featured Dylan and the Staples; later appearances on television with Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton are no less culturally rich. Mavis appeared with The Band in The Last Waltz and recorded with Levon Helm and Steve Cropper. And brought her own gravitas to Prince's music (“Prince called – can you imagine?”).

Mavis! Plays at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema November 13-19 and December 7, 10, 14 and 17.

Director Jessica Edwards will participate in Q&As on November 13 at 4:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., and on November 14 at 4:00 p.m.

 

heart of a dog

The most musical film I saw at TIFF 2015, Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog, is a visual and aural poem filled with truths and lies, imaginatively linked by the writer/director/narrator’s familiar persona.

Her Rat Terrier Lolabelle’s death sparks a lighthearted yet serious reminiscence that mirrors Kierkegaard’s maxim, “life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards,” as it pertains to her wondrously talented pooch. The lovable and talented animal doesn’t mind hearing her owner’s hypnotic cello figure for the 70th time.

Anderson learns to feel sad without actually being sad as she deals not only with Lolabelle’s death but that of her mother and husband (Lou Reed) as well. Reed is never mentioned but appears at frame’s edge in a home movie taken in Central Park and briefly as a doctor in a hospital scene. His song Turning Time Around ends the monologue after nearly 75 minutes and carries on through the final credits (which finish with a dedication to his “magnificent spirit”). It’s a touching acknowledgement of a significant part of her life the loss of which she obviously is unwilling to fully confront. Meanwhile her dry sense of humour carries the narrative as she showcases Lolabelle’s talent at the piano and “a pretty good Christmas record” that she and her pet produced.

Her whimsy masks a serious undercurrent. Humour is apt to appear in unlikely places that gently jar the viewer’s mind but always crack a smile; she uses 8mm home movies, dollar-store animation and her own drawings to further layer her artistic mien.

The soundtrack’s major instrument is Anderson’s voice. However filtered it may be, it’s always ultra-present, the perfect elastic vehicle for her insights, bemused observations and grains of Buddhist teachings (which reminded me of John Cage’s Indeterminacy).

Heart of a Dog includes musical excerpts from several of her pieces—The Lake and Flow from Homeland (2010), Beautiful Pea Green Boat from Bright Red (1994), Rhumba Club from Life on a String (2001) and excerpts from Landfall (2011) with the Kronos Quartet. The music interrupts, comments on, bumps up against and fuses with the narration; it’s an essential component of this fanciful, uplifting film.

Heart of a Dog is currently playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

Heddy Honigmann

As she prepared for her next film, Heddy Honigmann graciously took the time to answer several email questions prompted by her superb documentary about the Royal Concertgebouw's 125th anniversary season, Around the World in 50 Concerts (now on view at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema until August 21).

Read more: Music and the Movies: Director Heddy Honigmann on Around the World in 50 Concerts

Double bassist Dominic Seldis of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra In her captivating documentary celebrating the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra's 125th anniversary year (2013), Around the World in 50 Concerts, filmmaker Heddy Honigmann focuses on the human element.

The movie concentrates on four of the orchestra's musicians, a percussionist, flutist, bassoonist and double bassist, as well as concertgoers in three cities on the tour: Buenos Aires, Johannesburg and St. Petersburg.  Each of Honigmann's subjects describes what music means to them, from the orchestra members who play it, to the Argentinian taxi driver who can't live without it; to the Soweto girl for whom playing in a youth orchestra provides self-worth and to the man who fell in love with the violin as a poverty-stricken child, learned to play, and now leads that orchestra (the Soweto Youth Orchestra); to the Russian with a connection to Mahler's music so personal that when he hears the Concertgebouw play the Symphony No. 2 and Stravinsky's The Firebird, we see his tears.

Honigmann's camera lingers on faces. It's the main way she draws us into her subjects. And she gets inside the orchestra by keeping her camera on the instrumentalists even after they play; it's unusual to see musicians at rest this way. You really get a sense of what it means to be a symphonic musician on tour.

Mostly conducted by Mariss Jansons, the film is carried by a judicious use of Bruckner's Seventh, Rachmaninov's Paganini Variations, Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony and Violin Concerto, Verdi's Requiem, Mahler's First, Second and Eighth, among others. The emotional connection is intensified by Honigmann's subjects' evident joy in music.

Honigmann's direction can take on a musical life of its own. For example, there is a section that begins with a dinner conversation between the flutist and the bassoonist. The flute player reveals that he is easily moved by folk music, that the melancholy nature of the tango makes him feel warm; he finds folk music in The Rite of Spring, Mahler and Dvořák. Suddenly it's the next day and the film has taken us into the bassoonist's hotel room where he's calling home. As we hear the famous minor key funereal version of the Frère Jacques folk song in Mahler's First Symphony, the camera seamlessly pans through the streets of Buenos Aires ending up in the concert hall where the orchestra is playing the Mahler – it's a very musical montage that grows organically out of the material.

The power of music to elevate, soothe and communicate is at the core of this moving documentary.

Around the World in 50 Concerts plays August 14 through August 21 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.

Neil Young

Journey through the Past (1972), the invaluable collection of footage from 1966 to 1972 documenting the early years of singer-songwriter-guitarist-filmmaker Neil Young's prodigious career, peels back the layers of the onion that was at the centre of 1960s counterculture. Built around a trip to Nashville, the film cuts between old footage of Buffalo Springfield classics For What It's Worth and Mr. Soul, by Stephen Stills and Young, respectively; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young elevating Young classics Ohio and Southern Man; manager Elliot Roberts worrying about concert ticket prices going up to the colossal price of $10; Crosby analyzing the Nixon-Billy Graham ruling class nexus; and outright hippie talk from Stills (“We reassure ourselves with words. Someday the reassurance won't be necessary. Soon.”)

Read more: Music and the Movies: Neil Young Retrospective
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