Many a demographic is super-served throughout the year on the Philadelphia film festival calendar. Cineastes with particular interests are catered to by the Latin American, Jewish, Terror, Gay & Lesbian, Science, Asian American and Animation film festivals, among others, not to mention the overarching Philadelphia Film Festival, which will take place in October this year.
Add another group of movie buffs to the list: music fans. Starting this week, the inaugural XPN Music Film Festival will take place in University City, with 20 movies screening, mostly at the Annenberg Center on the University of Pennsylvania campus.
The fest, which is being presented by adult alternative radio station WXPN (88.5 FM) and curated by the Philadelphia Film Society, which also presents the Philadelphia Film Festival, begins Thursday night with Big Easy Express.
A documentary, the opening film follows the XPN-friendly folkie bands Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, and Old Crow Medicine Show on a 2011 tour-by-train from Oakland, Calif., to New Orleans. The closing-night movie, on Sunday, is Under African Skies, director Joe Berlinger's documentary that follows Paul Simon back to South Africa on the 25th anniversary of his landmark album Graceland.
The music filmfest is the brainchild of XPN general manager Roger LaMay, and it grows out of the "Sight & Soundtrack" subcategory of music films that has been a PFF staple in recent years.
"The first question people ask is 'Are there enough films?'?" LaMay said Monday. "And there are more than enough films. There are documentaries, performance films, narrative films driven by music or musicians. It's a really growing category."
With the changes in the music business, in which bands must find synergistic ways to promote their albums and tours, "increasingly, music needs video," LaMay says. "It's an extension of that."
The movies bookending the festival — the only two to be shown in the just-under-1,000 capacity Zellerbach Theatre, the largest of the Annenberg's three theaters — feature artists who are staples of XPN's playlist.
But the festival, which LaMay hopes will grow next spring and include live performances, does not stick to the singer-songwriter genre.
There's a classical-music doc on the schedule, Of Love, Death and Beyond: Exploring Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony, that features the Philadelphia Orchestra. Girl Walk?//?All Day follows three dancers moving across Manhattan to the music of the copyright-flouting DJ Gregg Gillis, also known as Girl Talk. It will be shown at a dance party at World Cafe Live upstairs on multiple screens (no seats).
No Room for Rockstars is a documentary focusing on the 2010 version of the traveling punk-rock summer camp that is the Warped Tour. And among the most buzzed-about narrative-fiction films is Tonight You're Mine, a rock romantic comedy filmed at the Scottish T in the Park music festival in which two musical rivals get handcuffed to each other, and hilarity ensues.
"About half of the movies reflect the tastes of the XPN audience," says LaMay, who cites as his faves the Simon movie and The Wrecking Crew. The latter is Denny Tedesco's 2008 doc about his father Tommy and other '60s Los Angeles studio musicians who played on sessions with Frank Sinatra, the Monkees, and the Beach Boys among others. "But it's not just for XPN listeners, it's for music fans in general. The opening and closing movies are real sweet-spot films for the XPN crowd, but there are others that aren't."
Among those is Uprising: Hip Hop & the L.A. Riots, Mark Ford's doc about the role music played in the violent protest and civil unrest that set much of south Los Angeles ablaze in 1992 after the not-guilty verdicts for the four Los Angeles policemen caught on videotape beating Rodney King.
The movie, which is being shown at Annenberg's Harold Prince Theatre on Saturday, on the weekend that marks the 20th anniversary of the riots, is narrated by Snoop Dogg. It's not the only hip-hop film in the festival — there's a 12-minute short called "The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke," about 2 Live Crew leader Luther Campbell, being shown with Uprising.
But Uprising is probably the most serious-minded film of the fest. Packed with compelling, rarely seen amateur footage, the movie takes a hard look at the roles played in the riots by, in particular, the incendiary rap song "F— tha Police" by N.W.A. and the speed-metal rant "Cop Killer" by rapper Ice-T — as well as the healing power of Dr. Dre's G-funk masterpiece The Chronic, in the aftermath of the conflagration.
"We wanted to explore the connection between hip-hop and social unrest … from a more human perspective," says Ford, who previously directed the 2008 N.W.A.: The World's Most Dangerous Group for VH1's Rock Docs series. (Uprising will premiere on the cable channel at 9 p.m. on May 1.)
Part of Uprising's goal was to investigate how much of an anthem N.W.A.'s incendiary anti-law-enforcement song was, and why. "People felt like somebody was finally saying what they couldn't say out loud," Ford says. "And giving them the ability to stand up against authority after decades of racial profiling and in some way dehumanizing police tactics."
The song, Ford says, "was kind of a mantra, and a battle cry. It really was a relevant piece of music for those three or four days … Music was part of that story. And we thought it was important to give the music the credit at a significant time in American history."