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SXSW: Auds, Buyers Search for Next ‘Sugar Man’ Among Rocking Music Docs

Stevie Nicks, the Beatles' secretary, Billy Joe Armstrong among fest's subjects

Austin — For auds and buyers searching for the next “Sugar Man,” there’s no better place for one-stop shopping than the SXSW Film Festival, which intersects with its sister music fest midweek and finds a whole new buzz-generating crowd eager to sample a music docu slate packing both celeb heat and little-known-story gems.

The fest’s world preem-packed 24 Beats Per Second program bowed docu contenders like Lily Keber’s “Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker” (about the 1960s-70s era musician Dr. John described as “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced”), Reuben Atlas’ “Brothers Hypnotic” (about the family dynamic and career trajectory of the eight-man Chicago jazz/hip-hop brass ensemble — all sons of jazz legend Phil Cohran) and Sini Anderson’s “The Punk Singer,” an intimate “whatever-happened-to?” portrait of outspoken riot grrrl movement figure Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill, Le Tigre).

The fest’s dedicated music strand also screened Morgan Neville’s “Twenty Feet from Stardom,” which was snapped up by TWC after its Sundance bow, and Greg Camalier’s Sundance-preeming “Muscle Shoals,” that inked theatrical (Magnolia) and TV (PBS’s “Independent Lens”) deals announced during SX.

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“With our ongoing primary focus on feature docs we know these music-themed films are going to do well in the marketplace and awards season,” said Submarine’s Josh Braun, who repped both pics as well as last year’s Oscar-winning “Searching for Sugar Man.”

“Distributors are becoming more open because they see how films like ‘Sugar Man’ resonate with audiences, so well theatrically and have a vibrant life as they move through ancillaries,” he continued.

At SX, Braun is repping Ryan White’s “Good Ol’ Freda,” a crowd-pleaser that world-preemed Saturday and tells, for the first time, the story of Fab Four’s loyal secretary Freda Kelly during the heady days of Beatlemania. Pic has momentum with buyer offers. “We don’t necessarily expect a sale during Southby but are confident our expectations will be realized in the weeks ahead,” said Braun.

“Freda” and AJ Schnack and David Wilson’s “We Always Lie To Strangers” (repped by Cinetic), which world-preemed Monday, are pics that — while not specifically music-focussed — tap into auds’ appetite for showbiz behind-the-scenes glimpses while delivering highly cinematic, character-driven narratives that should see both thrive on the fest circuit and find good buyer homes.

“Strangers” offers a sweeping Altman-esque portrait of contemporary America by following the members of two prominent showbiz families and a few other fascinating working performers in Branson, Missouri, a town frequently referred to as the “Las Vegas of the Ozarks.”

Wilson, who founded the True/False fest in Columbia, Missouri, in 2004, and Schnack, who started the Cinema Eye docu awards in 2008, filmed “Strangers” over five years and were “imbedded” in the town in 2008. While it’s tough for docus that don’t tackle prominent issues or include celebrities to find auds beyond the festival circuit, the co-helmers have good reason to smile.

“Just look at the films that won the documentary Oscar the past two years in a row,” said Wilson, referring to “Undefeated” and “Sugar Man.” “They’re both so different from the kinds of films that usually win and both were embraced by filmgoers.”

While SXSW provides plenty of space for little-known stories and potential breakouts, the fest also makes sure the stars align.

Musician and director of Sundance docu buzzer “Sound City” (which also screened here this week) Dave Grohl hits the Stubb’s stage Thursday night with the Sound City Players, featuring an all-star lineup including Stevie Nicks. Thursday afternoon the Fleetwood Mac chanteuse appeared at the screening of making-of docu “In Your Dreams,” which she co-directed with producer Dave Stewart. Earlier this week a one-day theatrical release (April 2) of “Dreams” in more than 50 cities was announced by distributor Abramorama.

Friday delivers similar film/live-show synergy with the afternoon world-preem of Doug Hamilton’s “Broadway Idiot,” about Green Day frontman Billy Joe Armstrong’s prep for the bow of his musical “American Idiot,” with a much-anticipated concert by the band at Austin City Limits Live on deck for the evening.

The SXSW Film Festival runs to Saturday, the Music Festival to Sunday.

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