Toronto International Film Festival ’13 Diary: Day 3

September 15, 2013
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Day 3: Rock and Roll Can Save Your Life 

When you spend over a week seeing several movies per day, it’s impossible not to start drawing connections between them, especially within films you see in back to back screenings. Often times, these connections are largely projection, but on the third day of TIFF ’13, I didn’t have to try very hard to conjure my own thematic ties.

Three of the four films I saw today were overtly about the music industry in one way or another (and the fourth film had a Boston song), and between them, they covered rock music from almost every angle it can be looked at: stardom, songwriting, fandom, girlfriends, managers, label executives, journalists, pre-fame, and post-fame.

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Lucky Them

Why You Might Care: In the final film Paul Newman worked on before he died (the film is dedicated to him and Joanne Woodward is an executive producer), Toni Collette plays a Seattle rock journalist hunting for a long-missing/presumed dead rock star who just happens to be her ex-boyfriend. Thomas Hayden Church is her awkward friend filming her journey for a documentary. 

But Should You Care? What’s nice about this movie is that it figured out how to make interesting statements about fame while keeping things relatively light-hearted and focused on a story of old flames. Director Megan Griffiths does a good job creating a real feeling of place with Seattle and the Pacific Northwest, and all of the rock culture in the movie feels authentic. While Haden Church’s character feels a bit like a Sundance formula quirky add-on, Collette’s character and her search feel fully formed and believable. And without giving too much away, when the reclusive rock star is finally discovered in the film’s climactic scene, he’s played by a major star that will surprise you, even with only a few minutes of screen time. But the bottom line is this is a well-done and entertaining story about the intertwining realities of music, love, and stardom.

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Toni Collette, screenwriter Emily Wachtel, and director Megan Griffiths discussing Lucky Them

You Are Here (2013)

You Are Here

Why You Might Care: The debut film by Matthew Weiner, the writer/creator of a little show called Mad Men, You Are Here stars Owen Wilson as Steve Dallas, a Maryland weatherman who spends all of his time maxing out his credit cards on cheap dates and getting stoned with his best friend Ben, played by Zach Galifianakis. But when Ben’s father dies and he inherits millions of dollars worth of assets, it prompts he and Steve to reassess their lives.

But Should You Care? It depends how far out of your Mad Men comfort zone you’re willing to go; Thematically, There’s a lot of overlap between this and Mad Men with the emphasis on the fleeting pleasures of materialism, and Steve Dallas & Don Draper certainly share several self-destructive habits. But tonally, this is a pretty far cry from the offices of Sterling Cooper. At times, You Are Here feels like a stoner comedy that’s heavier and not as funny.

This is both good and bad. For his first film, it makes sense that Weiner would want to go in a different direction than eight years on a television show had boxed him into. But as a writer, he just couldn’t really get that far away from a protagonist he’s spent so much time with. So Steve Dallas is sort of like an evolutionary Don Draper. He’s just as afraid to experience real human emotion as Don is, but he’s recreated through the worst habits of Generation X instead of the worst habits of the Greatest Generation.

What you’ll think of You Are Here will depend largely on what expectations you go into it with. Honestly, it’s kind of a mess, especially in terms of tone. But there really is a lot here to like. It’s very funny in parts, very profound in parts (less so in other parts), like Mad Men it uses music very well (especially a scene with a drunk Steve rocking out to a Boston song), and it goes in unexpected directions. And as you’d expect from Weiner, there are a handful of lines and moments that are truly affecting; my favorite is when Ben confesses, “All I can feel is time passing, and it’s overwhelming.” But it’s worth remembering that Weiner has spent his entire career writing for television, where characters and stories are fleshed out over the long haul. He’s become arguably the best in the world at it, but film is a different animal that operates by different rules. The two hours of screen time for You Are Here feels both too long and too short. And there are times where it’s too obvious how far Weiner wanted to stray from what he’s known for, and times where it doesn’t seem like he strayed at all.

I don’t expect You Are Here to get good reviews, nor do I think it’ll do very well at the box office. It’s not funny enough to satisfy the fans of Wilson & Galifiankis, and assuming the film is marketed for that audience, people will leave the theater disappointed. At the other end of the spectrum, the mostly older Mad Men crowd just won’t harbor enough sympathy for these characters and their dilemmas. The only people this film is likely to (relatively) succeed with are younger fans of Mad Men, and there just aren’t that many of us out there. But years from now, when Weiner’s career has fully evolved into its next phase (whatever that may be), I hope people will be able to look back on this and see it as an interesting artifact of a great artist finding his way in a new medium, getting several things wrong, but also getting some things right.

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Writer/director Matthew Weiner and stars Laura Ramsey & Amy Poehler answering questions about You Are Here

 

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Can A Song Save Your Life?

Why You Might Care: The first major film by John Carney since his breakout indie hit Once (which was one of the great music films of its era), this film sees Carney going full on Hollywood. Telling the story of a young singer-songwriter getting discovered by a down-on-his-luck record executive, Can A Song Save Your Life? has a star-studded cast featuring Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine, Catherine Keener, Cee-Lo, Mos Def, and Hailee Steinfeld.

But Should You Care? When Once came out in 2007, it became the little movie that could. It was about poor people and made by (relatively) poor people, and all any of them had in common was the love of music that brought meaning to their lives. It had many charms, but one of them was undoubtedly how big the movie felt in heart juxtaposed to how small it looked in reality. Can A Song Save Your Life? has many of the same charms—it’s about people struggling at low ebbs of their life and finding that their shared passion for music can save them. But this movie has such an overabundance of stars that Mos Def and Cee-Lo barely even have real roles; they’re more like mascots there to lend authenticity to the idea that Hey people, this is a music movie! Unlike Once, there’s absolutely no one in this movie that will become more famous if it’s a huge box office hit.

And as goes the cast, so go the tunes. While most of the key songs in Once, including the Oscar-winning “Falling Slowly,” were stripped down songs that were believably played and recorded on a Dublin street corner, that’s not exactly the modus operandi of Can A Song Save Your Life? Everything here has the same studio sheen you’d expect on the latest Maroon Five album, and sadly a lot of it is just as forgettable. All of the songs in this movie are good—they’re well written, well recorded, and all fairly catchy. But they do nothing to distinguish themselves in any way, shape, or form. While Once reminded people of the power that “real” music could still have, the songs here—and particularly the way they’re transformed within the film—only serve to illustrate how real music can be sapped of its power and turned into everything else.

I’m probably over-emphasizing the look, feel, and sound of the movie, and bitching about that aside, the story here is good. As I said, many of the charms from Once are carried over here. The character arcs are mostly compelling, and there are times where the story could have taken the easy way to mediocrity but it defiantly doesn’t. I liked the way the film ended and I liked where the characters are left. And against all odds, I even thought Adam Levine was good in it. If you accept early on that this ain’t Once, then it really is a pretty good movie. But it has that inescapable feeling of a great indie band that sold out to a major label and got neutered in the process.

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Stars Adam Levine & Keira Knightley and writer/director John Carney answering questions about Can A Song Save Your Life?

 

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All Is By My Side

Why You Might Care: This is the long awaited Jimi Hendrix movie starring Andre Benjamin (Andre 3000 of Outkast fame). Written and directed by John Ridley (who also wrote 12 Years a Slave, which has been all the rage at the fest), this film covers one year in Hendrix’s life—roughly mid-’66 to mid-’67—which encompass his discovery as a side-man for King Curtis, his move to London and tutelage under manager Chas Chandler (former bassist of The Animals), the formation of his backing band The Experience, and ending just before he leaves for the Monterey Pop Festival (which rock fans will know is the moment that Hendrix became a star).

But Should You Care? Yes, you should, but probably not for the reasons you think. Whenever this comes to theaters (probably sometime in spring 2014) it’ll inevitably get labeled “The Jimi Hendrix biopic,” but that’s the worst thing anyone could call this movie. Two things need to be clear right off the bat: 1) This movie takes place entirely before most of the general public knew who Jimi Hendrix was, and 2) No song that Jimi Hendrix wrote is featured in this movie. Anyone that doesn’t know these two things going into the movie—particularly that second point—will almost definitely leave the theater feeling like they’ve been swindled. And that’s why no one should ever call this a Hendrix biopic; because that label creates a set of expectations that the movie cannot possibly live up to. Nor does it try to.

The second point, the lack of Hendrix songs, is the one that’s really disappointing, even if you know it going in. For legal reasons that I don’t totally understand, the film was not given permission to use Hendrix’s music. (Most likely explanation: the Hendrix family wanted way too much money considering this film, which is really an art-house film, doesn’t have that much commercial potential.) So Ridley and his team had to tailor the movie using other avenues to express Hendrix’s ability and artistry. Luckily, they gained the rights to use several other songs that Hendrix played, such as “Wild Thing” and “Sgt. Peppers” (which Hendrix famously played live just two days after the song was first released in the summer of ’67). And Hendrix’s guitar prowess is a constant in the film via several old blues numbers that he cut his teeth on before he started writing his own songs. So the good news is there’s plenty of great guitar work. But the bad news is that it’s really hard to understand how Hendrix lit the world on fire without ever hearing the first 30 seconds of “Purple Haze.”

The response to that, technically, is that this film isn’t really attempting to show how Hendrix lit the world on fire, but rather how he arrived at the crossroads to be able to do such a thing. Taken for what it is (and not for what it wasn’t allowed to be), this film is a fascinating portrait of Jimi, done in a very interesting and artistic way that manages to be fulfilling despite its obvious obstacles. Andre Benjamin is a revelation as Hendrix, embodying him to the extent that we lose the realization we aren’t seeing the genuine article. However, it’s not really a showy role. Benjamin isn’t given the opportunity to show much range of emotion, and most of the heavy lifting in that department comes from his two main costars: Imogen Poots, playing the former muse of Keith Richards who first discovered Hendrix, and Hayley Atwell, playing Hendrix’s longtime girlfriend. Both young actresses turn in good bits of scene stealing.

What’s most interesting here is the editing and photography, which sort of combine the jump cuts of Godard with the loneliness of Sophia Coppola. What they combine to create is the rock and roll version of the portrait of the artist as a young man, and Benjamin’s expressive acting help the viewer get inside Jimi’s head. Ridley has to be commended for crafting not just a watchable Hendrix movie without the use of his songs, but a fairly good and interesting one. But even if it’s not Ridley’s fault that “Purple Haze” and others are missing, it’s still an existing problem that’s impossible to avoid. Ridley did the best job he could with the hand he was dealt, but it’s difficult not to imagine what All Is By My Side coulda/woulda/shoulda been under different circumstances, especially given just how damn good Benjamin is as Jimi.

(My lingering question: Where was “Hey Joe?” Hendrix’s first single, which was released within the time frame this film covers, wasn’t written by Jimi, so I wouldn’t think the Hendrix family owns the publishing rights to it. It’s still one of Hendrix’s best known recordings, and it seems like the film could have found a way to use it, but who knows.)

 

Tomorrow: A Lance Armstrong documentary, a hilarious new British gangster flick, and the first Great Film I saw at TIFF ’13.

 

Daniel Joyaux is a film and entertainment critic living in Ann Arbor. You can follow him on Twitter @thirdmanmovies for constant updates throughout the fest, and see more of his writing at thirdmanmovies.blogspot.com