SXSW: 5 Music Docs from the Fringe

Passion projects premiering at the film portion of Austin festival are some of the confab's best offerings.
Courtesy of Together Films

The South By Southwest Film Festival, which starts March 13, annually places a spotlight on obscure corners of the music world and in many cases, the festival provides the rare screening of these documentaries. Directors of five films premiering at SXSW about music outside the mainstream talked to Billboard about their passion for their subjects and what it took to get their films made.

Theory of Obscurity: A Film About The Residents

The Residents may be known more for their signature costumes — tuxedos with giant eyeballs covering their heads — than the nearly 50 albums and 24 multimedia projects they've released since 1972. But a new film puts a spotlight on the influence of the avant-garde group's DIY approach and its twist on musical collages, spoken word and performance art.

Theory of Obscurity: A Film About The Residents, which will premiere at SXSW on March 14, chronicles the nearly 50-year career of the theatrical art-rock collective, which was formed by Louisiana natives in San Francisco in the mid-1960s. The doc includes footage from their first show, in 1971, through their 40th-anniversary tour. In keeping with the group's anonymous image, the Cryptic Corporation, which records and markets the music and videos, handles the interviews.

"This was a dream project," says director Don Hardy, who entered the film knowing certain elements, including the band members' identities, would remain incognito. "From the beginning, they said, 'We don't want editorial control.' They respected the artistic process."

The group also will present its latest show, "Shadowland," at SXSW on March 20, an idea that Hardy shared at the first meeting between the filmmakers and the Cryptic Corporation. "We said, 'If we get into SXSW, maybe we can have a concert,'" he recalls. "Their reaction [to the film pitch] was, 'Why bother? Nobody cares about us.' I said, 'That isn't true' — and part of my challenge became proving to them that they have a legacy and an impact."

Read more SXSW: 8 Reasons Why It's Worth the Trip

Dominguinhos

Gilberto Gil, Hermeto Pascoal and other Brazilian greats discuss the genius of the late accordionist Dominguinhos in this documentary directed by Joaquim Castro, Eduardo Nazarian and Mariana Aydar.

Aydar, a singer, says Dominguinhos' "natural talent, his ability to play all rhythms, his generous nature and his humanity" are not well known to the people of Brazil. "In addition to his great hits, there is a very unknown discography, from the 70's mainly, that is really impressive."

Research for the film began in 2008 and shooting began in 2011 when Dominguinhos was battling lung cancer. Post-production, which included securing music and historical footage, took all of 2013, during which time the team created and produced an online series. The film opened in Brazil in early 2014 and spent four months in theaters.

"It's a universal story, about life and death, love and pain, the struggle for food, the life of an immigrant," says Nazarian via email from Brazil. "He became a musical phenomenon without ever looking for fame."

They Will Have to Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile

After jihadists banned music in Mali in 2012, the musicians worked to keep music alive by performing anywhere they could. Director Johanna Schwartz, who has been making documentaries for British television for 15 years, was planning a trip to the Festival in the Desert as a fan.

"I was reading the articles in London and couldn't believe music had been banned," says Schwartz. "Instead of going as a tourist, I went as a filmmaker with no support, no funding. I just showed up and started and was completely overwhelmed by the story."

Former Tinariwen manager Andy Morgan supplied crucial introductions to musical acts as she followed them from Mali to Burkina Faso, London and elsewhere. The film, which will have a soundtrack, includes music from recent Atlantic signing Songhoy Blues, Afel Boucom, Vieux Farka Toure, rapper Amkoullel and Kankou Kouyate.

Schwartz uses music as narration including new songs from. "I came up with the idea of commissioning musicians to write songs about the scenes to act like the film's narrator," she said from London. "Our soundtrack is a combination of music from our characters, music that we commissioned and the score written for us by Nick Zinner of Yeah Yeah Yeahs."

Read more SXSW Premieres Include Judd Apatow's 'Trainwreck,' Melissa McCarthy in 'Spy'

We Like It Like That

Director-producer Mathew Ramirez Warren explores Latin boogaloo, the post-mambo fusion of guajira and R&B popular in in the South Bronx and Brooklyn in the 1960s that has seen a recent global revival. "It reflects the American experience and I think that translates to all cultures, everyone who's an immigrant," says Ramirez Warren. "It's about those generations in flux, both assimilating, but kind of harkening back to their roots. That's what boogaloo was all about."

A freelance journalist, Ramirez Warren started working on the film in 2009 after writing a story on boogaloo star Johnny Colon for Wax Poetics. He secured financing through a pair of grants and a Kickstarter campaign, then reached out to the Fania label to see about securing sync licenses to the 40-plus songs in the film from the likes of the legend Joe Bataan and newcomers Boogaloo Assassins.

Fania, through its Codigo Films arm, stepped in and assisted in securing rights outside their catalog as well coordinating sales efforts for the film.

"We get hit almost daily with people wanting to do a documentary about one part of our label or an era or one of our artists. In this, case there was something more than the usual request and we decided to pursue it and partner with him on it," says Michael Rucker, chief marketing officer of Fania Records/Codigo.

Y/Our Music

Nine Thai musicians outside the mainstream, ranging from an optician who builds saxophones out of bamboo to master pin player Thongsai Thabthanon and Bangkok indie rockers, reveal their passions and aspirations. "The thing everyone has in common is they don't pander to the mainstream, they completely follow their own paths regardless of the mainstream and all of the rewards it can offer," says co-director and editor David Reeve, who fell under the sway of the country's music when he heard a violinist in a street market. "They have done it for different reasons and different ways and they continue to do that."

London-based Reeve made the film with Waraluck Hiransrettawat Every in Bangkok over the course of two years, the first 12 months spent collecting stories. Reeve would like to further expose the music of the film through a soundtrack release that, bizarrely, is not much of an issue.

"The rights situation in Thailand is actually complete anarchy," says Reeve. "If you're a ruthless person you could exploit a lot of people in Thailand. Just by making the film, we might have rights to certain songs. It's bizarre in a way that I don't understand or necessarily want to understand."

This article originally appeared on Billboard.com.

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