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The Boston Phoenix The Sight Of Music

Sundance's rock dreams

By Jon Garelick

SEPTEMBER 11, 2000:  Music on film is first of all film: if it ain't a good movie, it almost doesn't matter how good the music is. I learned this one night watching a video of one of the greatest jazz match-ups of all time: Charles Mingus playing with Eric Dolphy. It was a European concert, black-and-white, with static set-ups, very little camera movement, and no interview material or other narrative context. The band played and played and played. And I fell asleep. That's why we need Behind the Music.

I thought of this again plowing through five of the films from the Sundance Channel's September offering "Sonic Cinema," which mixes new films and video shorts with historic films, some of which have become classics, others of which are better-known as video-store novelties.

A prime example of the latter is Urgh! A Music War (1981; September 4, 8, 13, 16, and 24). Directed by Derek Burbridge, and produced by I.R.S. records honcho (and Police manager) Miles Copeland, it's part label-promo film (performances by the Police open and close the set), part historical document. It compiles one live performance after another, matching lost names (Toyah Wilcox, John Coover Clarke, Alley Cats) with bona fide legends (X, Dead Kennedys, XTC, Joan Jett, Gang of Four). But all that hardly matters. Despite a few surprises (whatever happened to Lesley Woods of the Au Pairs?) and a few musical puzzles (the differences among punk, new wave, and '70s rock get blurred as you travel from XTC to Klaus Nomi to Athletico Spizz Band), this is film that robs music of its nuance. The associative flights that music can inspire are here reined in by the monotonous imagery.

Instrument (1999; September 11, 21, 24, and 30) matches the DIY æsthetic of its subject, DC-based hardcore heroes Fugazi, but adds up to a real film, if a long one (two hours overdoes it by a good 30 minutes). Video director Jem Cohen avoids the performance-film blahs by mixing in archival and new footage as well as other devices to vary the movie's flow and texture. You get a good feel for the band's æsthetic of denial (no MTV, no interviews, no T-shirts) and their ability to create a large network of fans below the radar of mainstream media attention. But after a while the alternative politics of singers Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotti become exasperating. The film's best moments: evocative one- and two-shots of fans' faces as they wait in line for the shows.

It's jarring to go from Instrument to The Cream Will Rise (1999; September 15, 24, 27, and 30), a portrait of former mainstream media darling Sophie B. Hawkins. At first, Gigi Gaston's film seems almost a parody of Instrument, shot in lush color, with plenty of slo-mo focus on Hawkins's long athletic legs and thick mane of dirty blond hair and the same kind of Fugazi-like screeds about the media and the record industry. But as Hawkins's mother and brother are drawn into the film, a weird thing happens: a psychodrama unfolds right before your eyes, with Hawkins experiencing a kind of recovered-memory breakdown and her family recoiling in a manner that would be familiar to anyone who's read up on the literature of child abuse. There's no reassuring patter of Behind the Music off-screen narration, and the results, though not without moments of tedium, are truly disturbing. It's as though Gaston and Hawkins had accidentally turned the rhetoric of MTV and VH-1 against itself.

Gimme Shelter (1970; September 5, 9, 14, 24, 29), directed by brothers Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, documents what's been called the end of the Woodstock era, a bare five months after Woodstock, when an audience member was stabbed to death virtually at the foot of the stage as the Rolling Stones played "Under My Thumb." At the time, critics blamed the Stones for the murder: the band had put on a free concert at Altamont Speedway near San Francisco, invited the local Hell's Angels to serve as security (at the advice of free-concert-givers the Grateful Dead), and then let chaos ensue, all for the sake of a film they were making. But what's more likely to linger after images of Mick Jagger's prime '60s strut and the on-stage chaos and the slo-mo homicide: a sense of pop culture's vast underbelly -- rock's heart of darkness, where the audience is never really "one" and all concerts are, at their core, nasty, brutish, and long.

For respite, there is perhaps the greatest filmed pop-star profile of all: D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back (1966; September 16, 20, 24, and 28), where Bob Dylan, at 23, is as nasty as he wants to be on a 1965 solo tour of England. The performances blaze and so do the off-stage encounters, with Dylan blasting away at journalists, hangers-on, and the fame that consumed him even as he sought it (one key bit: Dylan checking his chart ratings against folkie upstart Donovan). And it offers perhaps the Mother Of All Deals, where manager Albert Grossman suggests to an unctuous English booking agent about a third party: "Would it be in bad taste . . . to tell him it looks like we have a better offer?"

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