Maybe it’s the boundary-pushing programming. Maybe it’s the red carpet-defying dress code. Whatever the reason, the Sundance Film Festival seems to rock a little harder than most, consistently introducing audiences to the year’s most buzzworthy music films — whose afterparties often become full-blown concerts.
Last year’s festival saw the premieres of Floria Sigismondi’s all-girl rock band biopic, “The Runaways,” with a performance by Joan Jett, plus Sam Taylor Woods’ John Lennon pic, “Nowhere Boy,” while Sundance 2009 featured two high-profile rock docs: Tom DiCillo’s Doors pic, “When You’re Strange,” and Davis Guggenheim’s guitar hero riff-fest, “It Might Get Loud.”
Sundance 2011 is shaping up to be just as eclectic and electric, with a generous selection of documentaries and narrative features in which music plays a central role, plus a few appearances by well-known indie rockers moonlighting as composers and a handful of projects that don’t fall into any traditional category at all.
Documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville’s “Troubadours” takes us back to the legendary ’60s and ’70s singer/songwriter scene in Los Angeles, focusing on Doug Weston’s Troubadour nightclub and the friendship between James Taylor and Carole King, who toured together in 2010. The film offers first-person accounts from, and music by, many who were there, including David Crosby, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Kris Kristofferson and the famously private King, who told her story at A&M Studios, seated at the very piano where “Tapestry” was recorded. King is confirmed to play in Park City.
For Neville, the selection of this film for documentary competition is especially gratifying, as Sundance doc selections tend toward the “edgy.” “It’s nice to know that there’s space for something warm and soulful, too,” he says.
Actor Michael Rapaport, who makes his directorial debut with “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest,” finds this year’s festival bringing his career full circle. “The first time I ever saw myself in a movie was at Sundance in 1992 at the premiere screening of ‘Zebrahead,’?” he recalls. “To be coming back 19 years later directing a documentary that I’m so passionate about is overwhelmingly exciting.”
What Rapaport expected would be a celebratory film about the group’s history and its sold-out 2008 reunion tour turned into something more probing as the members struggled with interpersonal hurts and disappointments, often while the camera was running. “Those were some of the most exhilarating moments as a filmmaker,” he says.
At the same time, “Beats, Rhymes & Life” boasts a stellar cast of characters, from Adam Horovitz to Kanye West to Pharrell Williams, all paying homage to these pioneers. “If you grew up as a first generation hip-hop fan,” says Rapaport, “A Tribe Called Quest is our Beatles, our Rolling Stones.”
Classic rock plays a key role in the Salt Lake City Gala Film premiere selection “The Music Never Stopped,” which takes its title from a Grateful Dead song. Director Jim Kohlberg tells the story of a man who uses ’60s music to communicate with his brain-damaged son, and in fact, the Lou Taylor Pucci starrer is so reliant on the canon that Kohlberg figured it would simply never happen. He remembers contacting music supervisor Sue Jacobs and saying, “We have to get Dylan and the Dead first and we’ll never do it but it’s worth a shot in the dark.” But, he adds, “To my surprise and delight Dylan and the Dead came on very quickly.”
Kohlberg believes the artists responded to the film’s portrayal of music as socially and psychologically beneficial. “Even if you’re not a musician you respond to it emotionally because of the characters.”
Although “The Music Never Stopped” re-creates a Grateful Dead show from the ’80s with a math teacher from Brooklyn standing in quite convincingly for Jerry Garcia, Park City Dead Heads should be on the lookout for the real Bob Weir, who is slated to do an acoustic set.
Indie-leaning audiences will want to keep an ear out for Richard Ayoade’s “Submarine,” which features new songs by Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner, and “Sound of My Voice,” the feature debut from Zal Batmanglij, whose last name will no doubt be familiar to fans of Vampire Weekend. The director’s brother Rostam plays keyboards and guitar for that band, and in between tours he laid down tracks for the film, which is about a cult in the San Fernando Valley.
Although the seed of Batmanglij’s inspiration came from his visits to the culty L.A. yoga studio Golden Bridge, the score is more “Terminator” than tamboura. “I love those ’80s synths and that sense of impending doom, that sense of lonely Los Angeles,” he says.
Miranda July, who knows a thing or two about lonely Los Angeles, recruited composer Jon Brion (“Magnolia,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) to write the music for her latest, “The Future.” Premiering out of competition, the film follows a 30-something couple thrown into crisis, who encounter a talking cat and a living T-shirt on their strange trip.
The shorts category has several sonic standouts as well, including the rock musical horror movie “The Legend of Beaver Dam,” by Montreal musical theater duo Jerome Sable and Eli Batalion, with songs inspired by Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. As for Beastie Boy Adam Yauch’s longform musicvideo “Fight for Your Right Revisited,” it’s hard to know what’s more of a calling card: the fact that the film is in advance of a new album; a cast that includes Jack Black, John C. Reilly, Seth Rogen and Elijah Wood; or the rumors of a private Beastie Boys show.