Portions of this story first appeared in the March 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.
The collision and collusion of film, interactive technology and music at South by Southwest is always a showcase of synergy and opportunism, and no better example of that would be Dave Grohl’s extreme efforts to promote his music documentary Sound City. Grohl’s scheduled omnipresence will include a keynote address and special “oldies” concert by his Sound City Players, whose album Real to Reel happens to come out March 12.
Also contributing to the festival’s doc buzz: Searching for Sugar Man‘s Oscar win in February, which confirmed music docs as objects of industry respect and popular interest. “The founders of SXSW love music and film equally, so SXSW has always been a key place for the intersection to blossom,” says festival producer Janet Pierson.
A well-made music movie — documentary or narrative — can certainly appeal to a range of SXSW attendees, so we recommend these 10 to watch among all of the parties, panels, gigs and barbeque.
1. Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker
Pianist James Booker lived and died an eccentric New Orleans legend of amazing musicality. A one-eyed homosexual drug addict, he was an uncanny keyboard virtuoso who played on countless recordings and mentored everyone from Dr. John to Harry Connick Jr. Director Lily Keber provides plenty of music history, classic footage and earnest testimonials from such NOLA music icons as Allen Toussaint and Irma Thomas. As a result, Bayou Maharajah shines — especially when Booker plays those 88s. March 14, Topfer Theatre at ZACH.
2. Broadway Idiot
Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, just off a stint in rehab, segues from the punk band’s performance at New York’s Madison Square Garden to his musical American Idiot on Broadway in this world premiere, followed by a live performance. “Green Day’s been to SXSW before, and they love it,” says director Doug Hamilton. March 15, Paramount Theatre at 2:45 p.m.
3. Good Ol’ Freda
Director Ryan White‘s documentary heads into the festival with heavy buzz for securing the rights to four original Beatles songs. The film centers on Freda Kelly, the Fab Four’s secretary, who spent 11 years working for the band and running its fan club. “Janet Pierson has been my biggest supporter,” says White. “She let me know early that SXSW definitely wanted it, so we were able to get Freda to come out for the world premiere, which is really exciting.” March 15, Paramount Theatre.
4. Finding the Funk
Author and music critic Nelson George takes a road trip in search of the soul of funk music in this documentary narrated by everyone’s favorite black music freak Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, who states that the genre is the essential bridge between ’60s soul and ’80s hip-hop. Tracing the roots of funk ain’t nothing but groove thang as we follow the trail from James Brown, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Maceo Parker and Parliament/Funkadelic on to the Beastie Boys, D’Angelo and beyond, all the while letting many of the music’s pioneers tell the story. Nelson’s doc comes amid a wave of renewed interest in all things funky: The Help director Tate Taylor is developing a James Brown biopic with Mick Jagger and Brian Grazer producing. The only challenge at the Funk premiere will be staying in your seat. March 13, Alamo Ritz 1.
5. The Great Hip Hop Hoax
The unlikely saga of Scotland-born hip-hop duo Silibil n’ Brains — who invented new identities as L.A. homeboys and scammed many, including credulous music executives — is told through interviews with the duped and doodle dramatizations. Jeanie Finlay directs. March 14, Stateside Theater.
6. Muscle Shoals
When producer Rick Hall opened FAME Studios in a little Alabama town near the Tennessee River, he begat a fusing of black and white music cultures that resulted in some of the most important soul music of all time. Among the studio’s regulars: The Swampers, an intuitive group of session musicians who made essential records with Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and countless others. When The Swampers left Hall and FAME to open their own studio across town, it simply doubled the amazing musical output from this obscure locale. Directed by Greg “Freddy” Camalier, testimonials about the Muscle Shoals sound abound from the likes of Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Bono and Gregg Allman. March 12, Paramount Theatre.
7. Born In Chicago
Director John Anderson chronicles the passing of the torch between first-generation blues masters like Buddy Guy, who came from the Mississippi Delta, and their young, white apprentices in Chicago. Among the musicians featured in the doc: Elvin Bishop, Paul Butterfield, Michael Bloomfield, B.B. King, Bob Dylan and Keith Richards. March 13, Paramount Theatre.
8. A Band Called Death
In the vein of Anvil comes a documentary about black hard-punk power trio Death from Detroit, formed in the 1970s by Hackney brothers David, Bobby and Dannis. After recording demos, the idiosyncratic threesome couldn’t get a record deal without changing their name, so they moved to Vermont and broke up the band. Visionary brother-leader David died in 2000, and another decade later they were finally discovered in 2009. Their old recordings were released on CD, and a subsequent Death revival resulted in new careers for multiple musical generations of the Hackney family. March 14, Vimeo Theater.
9. Good Vibrations
Based on the life and times of Terri Hooley, a rebellious music buff in Ireland who opened the Good Vibrations record store in a ravaged section of 1970s Belfast, the Narrative Spotlight feature stars Richard Dormer and was inspired by John Peel’s radio show. Energized by the defiant youth movement, Hooley helped launch the Irish punk scene by forming a record label and putting out singles by bands like The Outcasts and The Undertones. Think: 24 Hour Party People only Hooley got his ass kicked, never made any money and barely secured one decent deal with Seymour Stein and Sire Records. March 11, Alamo Ritz 1.
10. Sound City
Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl delivers a love letter to the forgotten Van Nuys, Calif. studio where some of the most important albums of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s were recorded. Among them: Buckingham Nicks’ 1973 debut, Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled 1975 album, Grateful Dead’s Terrapin Station, Rick Springfield‘s Working Class Dog, Neil Young‘s After the Gold Rush and Nirvana’s Nevermind. The story of the nondescript but seemingly magical space is told via interviews with a slew of musicians. The doc also features new musical collaborations by the Sound City alums with a cameo by Grohl’s bromance partner Paul McCartney. March 13, Paramount Theatre.