Telluride Film Festival Turns Into Music Fest With ‘Judy’ and Full Slate of Rock Docs

Amid new documentaries about Billie Holiday, Johnny Cash and Linda Ronstadt, "Amazing Grace" also got its belated Telluride premiere.

telluride film festival
Chris Willman / Variety

The 8,750-feet-elevation hills were alive with the sound of music at the Telluride Film Festival. When it came to tuneage, it was as if Telluride almost wanted to give the heavily music-focused South by Southwest Film Festival a run for its mellifluous money this year.

The 46th annual gathering of the cineastes kicked off with Renee Zellweger singing nearly a full concert’s worth of material, and well, as part of her Judy Garland biopic, “Judy”; offered the Weeknd playing himself, briefly but hilariously, in a crime drama, “Uncut Gems”; gave the world multiple versions of a strong new Thom Yorke song, with Edward Norton’s noir-ish “Motherless Brooklyn” as the jazzy delivery system; and unveiled a slate of fall music documentaries on Billie Holiday, Linda Ronstadt, Johnny Cash and “Country Music” itself.

And, oh yes, there was another music doc not quite so fresh out of the editing bay: the Aretha Franklin gospel concert movie “Amazing Grace,” which was supposed to have its world premiere in the canyon in what only seems like a previous century.

“I was going down the gondola and remembering all of the energy and hope that we had four years ago,” said Alan Elliott, the producer of “Amazing Grace,” waiting in line at the fest’s annual Labor Day picnic. “There are just so many surreal things that happened. I keep remembering how I was here with the film under my arm, being sued by the guy who was the lawyer of the Unabomber.” After trying and failing to show the film twice before in Telluride, the third time was the charm. Never mind that the movie opened last winter, after it became legally untangled; it was the principle of the thing.

There’s just as much amazement, but maybe less grace, in the retelling of Garland’s final year that forms “Judy.” In the run-up to its premiere at Telluride, questions abounded among the Judy faithful. Joaquin Phoenix approximating a gruff Johnny Cash is one thing, but could Zellweger come within a Kansas mile of even touching one of the most bravura singers of the 20th century? If not, would that be okay, since the film is set in a time period when Garland was not at the peak of her powers? Would audiences finally tear up and say: “You had me at ‘trolley’”?

As “Judy” director Rupert Goold was getting on the charter plane out of Telluride’s mountainside airport Monday night, he felt like he’d come away with a pretty good idea of how audiences were answering those questions.

Coming into the premiere, “I didn’t have any anxieties, no,” Goold said. “In the tests we’d done, no one had had an issue with it. I think when the trailer dropped, maybe there was some discussion on social media with people questioning why we weren’t using either the original recordings or whether it was the right vocal quality. But I didn’t feel like anyone seemed to mention that in Telluride. Obviously. I’m sure people may have occasional gripes about the film in different ways, but they didn’t seem to be about the singing or the music at all, so that was reassuring.”

Goold had reassured Zellwegger she didn’t need to nail every inflection 100 percent. “If you try to be too slavish and imitate things, then you get into karaoke territory,” the director said. “I felt that we wanted Renee to bring her own take on it. And also, like you say, the film is deliberately about a specific period when she doesn’t sound like Judy Garland, and that’s part of the (drama) — that she’s worried that they’re going to expect the Carnegie Hall performance. And she has what she has at that period in her life — which is still remarkable, but not necessarily the thing that we all expect.”

The soundtrack album for “Judy” will be slicker; it uses recordings Zellweger made before and perhaps after filming, whereas Goold wanted live-on-the-set takes. “I was less involved in the album, to be honest, so I haven’t even heard all of it. I mean, I heard it as we were pre-recording the tracks. But I always felt that the album wouldn’t be Renee being Judy; it would be Renee singing Judy. Whereas I think the vocal capture in the film is much more to do with the performance she gave in front of the camera on the day, the tracks on the soundtrack are more produced and studio-based, and they don’t replicate all the music in the film, necessarily.”

“Billie” would make for an interesting double-feature with “Judy,” even though, as a documentary the Holiday picture clearly couldn’t be much more different in its approach. Curiously, the Telluride film that “Billie” has the most in common with stylistically is director Thom Zimny’s “The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash,” in that they both feature a lot of tight close-ups of… spinning cassette spools. Who knew a focus on Memorex that would be one of the dominant visual motifs of Telluride 2019?

In the case of the Johnny Cash documentary, the film was roughly two-thirds completed in the editing bay when the filmmakers were unexpectedly given access to a box of scores of hours of interviews the late icon did with his biographer in the 1990s. As a result, the whole film changed, as Cash’s voiceover came to dominate the picture. “Billie,” meanwhile, had a similar discovery as the instigation for the project. Director James Erskine and the Holiday estate were able to require a similarly dusty box containing hundreds of hours of interviews that were done in the 1970s, not with the singer herself — Holiday died in 1959 — but with her surviving friends and contemporaries, all of whom had some serious dishing to do. In both films, there’s a thrill of ghostly voices that might have been lost to the ether (or “Storage Wars” collectors) coming back to haunt and intrigue us in the present. With so much expert testimony on the soundtrack, all those inserts of cassettes in action nearly seem riveting themselves.

There was considerable overlap in the subject matter of “The Gift” and the two hours that were shown of “Country Music,” shortly to be seen in its 16-hour-plus entirety on PBS. It just so happened that the chapter Ken Burns chose to show, episode 5, is the one that focuses on Johnny Cash — along with other mid- and late-‘60s crowd-pleasers like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. But a sharp stylistic point of departure kept anyone from thinking they were watching the same thing twice, even if elements like the retelling of the Folsom Prison concert overlaps. For “The Gift,” Zimny interviewed friends and celebrity fans but put them all off-screen, in voiceover. In “Country Music,” though, every interviewee is on screen in glorious color.

To have talking heads or not have talking heads? Each approach works. With the Cash film, you don’t need to see the contemporary witnesses — because we all remember what Bruce Springsteen looks like, right? But in “Country Music,” you want to see the faces… especially when Dwight Yoakam is reciting a verse from one of Merle Haggard’s most emotional broken-family songs, “Holding Things Together,” and he has to stop, all choked up. It’s contagious: listening to the lyrics, you find yourself suffering, too, from second-hand choke.

There is no crying when the Weeknd makes his big-screen debut in Josh and Benny Safdie’s “Uncut Gems,” billed under his real name, but playing a dude called the Weeknd right as he’s about to find fame. It’s more of a cameo than anything, but a memorable one, as it involves some sexual badinage and a fistfight with Adam Sandler — and a live performance of one of his early songs.

Oldies were played for laughs in other films at the festival. In “The Climb,” a breakout hit that’s destined to at least be a cult favorite, one of the lead guys does a basement striptease for his fiancé to the tune of… Shawn Mullins’ “Lullaby”? “The Two Popes” gets a slightly less absurd joke out of the two title clerics meeting up and one asking the other what hymn he’s singing: It’s ABBA’s “Dancing Queen.”

Potentially Oscar-eligible original songs were in unusually short supply in this year’s Telluride crop, although the international star Sigrid has one at the close of the populist action-adventure “The Aeronauts.” The festival had more of a wealth of eligible or just provocative scores, though.

Randy Newman and James Newton Howard are two returning veterans who are sure to come up a lot in the awards conversation. Newman returns to more elegiac form with a score for Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” that’s like a reprise of “Ragtime”-era bittersweetness. The glimmering moments of hope in that divorce drama’s score are in far shorter supply in the almost wholly mournful work Newton Howard has done for Terence Malick’s three-hour Nazi–resistance tearjerker, “A Hidden Life.” There’s enough of an abundance of Bach, Beethoven and other classical cues in Malick’s movie that, when it comes to Oscar consideration, this could be a case where someone stands with a stopwatch to make sure the pre-existing music doesn’t actually outweigh or get mistaken for Newton Howard’s fresh content.

Adaptability could play well with the Academy. Thom Yorke’s original song “Daily Battles” proves malleable in “Motherless Brooklyn,” as his vocal version is first heard first, before it shows up as jazz instrumental played by Wynton Marsalis and company against a slow dance in a Harlem nightclub. (See Variety’s interview with actor-writer-director Norton about Yorke’s song here.) Daniel Pemberton also enlisted Marsalis for the film’s “Chinatown”-evoking score.

Other scores of interest ranged from EDM artist Daniel Lopatin’s tense settings for a series of unfortunate events in “Uncut Gems” to the way mid-‘60s garage-rock songs not only appear as needle drops in James Mangold’s “Ford v. Ferrari” but are the key inspiration for Marco Beltrami’s (literally) driving underscore, too.

With “Amazing Grace,” Elliott was back on what he considers a home ground for the film, its L.A. setting and Aretha’s Detroit base notwithstanding. The producer was being greeted like a returning hero at the festival, by fans ranging from Alice Walker to Philip Kaufman, after a morning “Sunday service” screening at the Masons Hall — something he hopes might be repeated in future years.

“The movie is like a child of Telluride,” said Elliott. “It does not exist without Tom (Luddy) and Julie (Huntsinger). They helped find people to financially make insurance payments years ago. Their connectivity is remarkable. And so it’s their baby. I’m just glad they decided to keep us.”