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Toronto: Music Films Engage Auds and Buyers

While two high-profile music films have not, for different reasons, generated much buzz — Aretha Franklin doc “Amazing Grace” was pulled from the lineup (producers screened it privately for buyers), and Hank Williams biopic “I Saw The Light” has seen lukewarm early reviews — the festival has plenty more keeping both music-loving filmgoers and buyers engaged.

“Miss Sharon Jones!,” a new doc following the soul-funk singer’s battle with cancer as an album release and tour with her longtime band the Dap-Kings draws closer, drew cheers and tears at its world premiere Friday night, following a packed industry screening earlier that day.

Jones, the entire band, her manager, doctor, and nutritionist friend joined director Barbara Kopple onstage for the Q&A, with Jones thrilling the house with an a cappella rendition of the gospel number she sings at church in one of the film’s many emotionally charged scenes.

Early Saturday, Submarine’s Josh Braun said “Jones” had two theatrical offers and positive momentum on the sales front.

Kopple, who directed the Dixie Chicks doc “Shut Up and Sing” and Oscar-winning docs “Harlan County, USA” and “American Dream,” told Variety on Saturday that “Jones” had initial support from VH1 but ended up being mostly self-funded. “You only live once, and if you have the chance to tell a story like this you can’t let anything get in way.”

With the strong box office performance of Amy Winehouse film “Amy” (A24), the third highest grossing doc in the U.S. so far this year with just over $8 million, and success of recent Oscar-winners “20 Feet From Stardom” and “Searching for Sugarman,” music docs with compelling characters and narratives can succeed both with or without a widely recognized star.

“Distributors often used to equate album sales with theatrical potential, but now they see these films can work in the marketplace with the right strategy,” says Braun, who sold “20 Feet” helmer Morgan Neville’s “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble” to the Orchard and HBO (U.S. TV) before its Toronto world premiere, and also has “Thru You Princess,” about the creative connection between an Internet-famous Israeli YouTube composer and a young New Orleans woman and aspiring songwriter.

Toronto is also screening the North American premiere of Amy Berg’s “Janis: Little Girl Blue” (PBS American Masters), Neville’s “Keith Richards: Under the Influence” (Netflix) and Kahlil Joseph’s “The Reflektor Tapes” (Arts Alliance), about the band Arcade Fire.

On the music-themed feature front, Robert Budreau’s “Born to Be Blue,” which stars Ethan Hawke as iconic jazz trumpeter and singer Chet Baker, has its world premiere Sunday, a couple of weeks before Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis biopic “Miles Ahead” (SPC) bows at the New York Film Festival.

“In the early 1960s, when Baker was serving time in Italy, he was approached to do a film about his life by (Italian producer) Dino De Laurentiis, but it never happened,” explained Budreau. “So I loved imagining that movie was made, and breaking from from the biopic cliches by reimagining Chet’s life in a film within a film, which I hope captures the spirit of the improvisational medium of jazz.”

Hawke does his own singing as Baker, and also took trumpet lessons to prepare for the role.

EOne is releasing “Born” (a Canada-UK co-production) in Canada. CAA and Cinetic are co-repping for the US, and K5 Intl. is handling international sales.

Friday saw the world premiere of Hany Abu-Assad’s “The Idol,” a biopic about 2013 Arab Idol winner Muhammad Assaf, which Variety chief film critic Justin Change called “a crowdpleasing tale of a pop star’s rise.” Assaf is set to perform Sunday evening at the festival’s free street festival. Seville has international sales rights.


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