THE PHILADELPHIA Film Festival - which opens tomorrow and runs through April 15 - will really be humming this year, with more music-oriented documentaries and biopics than ever before. A couple focus on highbrow musical forms, more celebrate mainstream styles or service the freaky fringe. Yet all reflect, in their way, on the power of music to unify and invigorate as well as entertain us. Here's one music fan's brief take on the offerings, as they'll be unspooling chronologically.
"Young @ Heart" - Opens the festival with two showings tomorrow, at 6 and 8:30 p.m., Prince Music Theater.
Will you still love and connect to popular music, when you're 94, let alone 64? A Northhampton, Mass., choir made up of senior citizens declares "Yes We Can Can" and "I Feel Good" whenever their determined, 50-something music director Bob Cilman challenges them with a new song. The man does have a knack of finding both classic and contemporary tunes - even unlikely candidates from Sonic Youth ("Schizophrenia") and Coldplay ("Fix You") - that speak to the singers' age and condition. Music, performing and the social connections all give choir members reasons to carry on. Even the terminally ill seem to squeeze out some overtime, to make one last stage show appearance. Laced with laughs, worldly wisdom and moments of sorrow, this is the feelie/touchie movie of the festival.
"Heavy Metal in Baghdad," 4:45 p.m. Sunday, Ritz East; 7:15 p.m. April 10, International House.
Here's a real cultural and political curio. Iraqi thrash band Acrassicauda is tracked from their roots before the 2005 invasion - back when the shredders even devoted a song to "fearless leader" Saddam Hussein - and shows how the "benefits" of the U.S. liberation have affected them. They lose their practice space to a coalition bombing, curfews restrict their ability to practice, and eventually they flee, one by one, to nearby Syria in pursuit of a saner, more productive life. Another mission accomplished, Georgie?
"The Red Elvis," 7:15 p.m. Friday, The Bridge; 7 p.m. Monday, Ritz East.
Ever hear of Dean Reed? Us neither. The surprise is that this ex-pat American singer/songwriter achieved a sizeable following in Communist East Germany as a performer and movie star of the 1960s and '70s - by embracing and espousing the socialist cause. Really more "the Red John Denver" in sound and appearance, Reed also rallied the revolutionary forces in post-Allende Chile, sang in Moscow's Red Square and visited Fidel Castro in Havana - all moments captured on film and stills in eerie "Zelig"-like fashion. Through interviews with friends and lovers, certain aspects of his earnest idealism and squeaky clean personality become suspect. And his artistic accomplishments as a musician and hulking cowboy actor ain't all that, leaving you to ponder if Reed was using the Commies just as much as they exploited him.
"Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts," 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Prince Music Theater; 2:15 p.m. Tuesday, Ritz East.
As with the minimalist, hypnotic brand of modern serious music he creates,Philip Glass is a character who lets you into his world slowly. Yet eventually he wins us over with the cumulative grandeur of the big picture. So it is with this lyrical, 12-part film suite, which traces Glass from his roots in the downtown New York arts scene to his super-productive present, creating operas, symphonies and the film scores (as for Woody Allen's "Cassandra's Dream") which pay the rent. In director/cinematographer Scott Hicks' ("Shine") globe-hopping portrait, Glass manifests his obsessively methodical nature in a variety of pursuits, even as a pizza chef and practitioner of Eastern meditation. But it also becomes clear, through time spent with his third wife, Holly, that Glass' relentless focus on the aesthetic has taken a toll on the domestic.
"Frank and Cindy," 5 p.m. April 11, Ritz East; 9:15 p.m. April 13, Ritz East.
Rock 'n' roll can suspend you in a state of perpetual adolescence. So it has for Frank, a one-hit wonder and five-minute somebody of the '60s still obsessed by music and operating under the delusion it can make him rich and famous. The guy's not holding his drink and drugs as well as he used to, though, and if not for the support of his 20-years-older fan-turned-wife Cindy, would probably be eating out of trash cans. As captured and focused by her son for a film school project (at least something good came out of this mess!), we start out annoyed with Cindy for her shrewish nit-picking, while laughing at his antics. But Frank's happy drunk charm eventually wears thin, 'til you're yelling "Get a job, dude!" Every would-be performer and groupie should be compelled to watch and learn.
"Fados," 9:30 p.m. April 11, The Bridge; 12:15 p.m. April 13, Ritz Five.
Oh, the beautiful sorrow and pity that is Fado! A melancholy, poetically charged Portuguese musical form, it revels in longing and sorrow - the memories of the departed, the extinguished old flames, the cultural disconnect of a diverse population rooted in Africa and Brazil and the Caribbean. And yet Fado singers still find hope and faith, ironically, in the continuity and performance of this most melodramatic form: "To live embracing Fado," sings one, "to die embracing you!" While spawned in the cafes and bordellos of Lisbon in the early 19th century, the varied forms of Fado are mostly portrayed here on a flat, shiny soundstage, with parading dancers and singers intoning in front of static cityscape projections, in the impressionist swirl staged by Spanish director Carlos Saura ("Blood Wedding," "El Amor Bruja"). There is virtually no narrative, outside of on-screen lyric translations, and in the advance print I saw, artists were not even identified. Still, there was no missing the blonde diva Mariza (a Kimmel Center fave). Later we learned that Brazilian stars Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso, Mexican/American singing notable Lila Downs ("Frida") and the Cape Verdean Fado superstar Cesaria Evora are also among the performers. Diehard world music devotees will find this film fascinating; others should probably stay away.
"Song Sung Blue," 9:30 p.m. April 11, Prince Music Theater; 7 p.m. April 13, Ritz East.
If good at what they do, we rarely look below the surface of "tribute" artists - that peculiar breed of performers who make a living by looking and sounding like someone famous who's either too expensive or unavailable for most fans to hear in concert. But thanks to the harsh home movies shot by their kids, and the documentary footage added on by Haddonfield, N.J., director Greg Kohs, we get to learn a whole lot more about Mike and Claire Sardina, a tribute act known professionally as Lightning and Thunder. He's reasonably convincing as Neil Diamond, she's OK as Patsy Cline, and they're getting pretty big in their hometown of Milwaukee, where Mr. Diamond himself rarely hangs (and the long-dead Cline, never.) When a tragic accident leaves deep physical and emotional scars that take years to heal, the pair's already long-shot of making it in Las Vegas becomes an almost impossible bet. Not being all that sympathetic of impersonators, I'd have preferred a documentary about Philly's foul mouthed "Dirty Diamond." This one will play better in Middle America, though.
"What We Do Is Secret," 7 p.m. April 12, Prince Music Theater; 2:30 p.m. April 13, Ritz East.
Best known from "E.R" and "A Walk To Remember," actor Shane West plays Darby Crash, the Fascist-doctrine spouting, skin-cutting, drug-shooting front man of The Germs. You know, the punk band that enjoyed a brief reign of terror in the L.A. punk underground of the early 1980s. Director Rodger Grossman's approach is odd - veering between deadly serious and twisted (unintentional?) parody of the whole thrash and burn scene. The saddest joke is that Crash's master plan for suicide martyrdom was upstaged by the murder of John Lennon the very same night. Avoid sitting behind a Mohawk haircut if taking this one on.
"Deep Sea Blues," 4:30 p.m. April 12, Prince Music Theater; 7 p.m. April 14, International House.
Once again, Philly filmmaker Robert Mugge shows his true devotion to the blues with this fun-filled ride on the 2007 Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise. There's a bit of schmoozing with the organizers, attendees and stowaways, plus some colorful shots of on-board events (like a Taj Mahal cooking lesson) and the Caribbean ports where the boat docks. But the real lure and excitement is in the music, with full-blown, knock 'em dead performances by the great cast of talents who kept the party going 24/7 - from spicy Louisiana talents Tab Benoit and Buckwheat Zydeco to the dazzling boogie woogie pianist Deanna Bogart to rock 'em/sock 'em Lil' Ed & The Blues Imperials, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Bobby Rush (who also performs a mean wedding ceremony.) This ride's almost as thrilling as being there - and a whole lot cheaper.
Patti Smith: Dream of Life, 7:15 p.m. April 15, Prince Music Theater.
We didn't get to actually screen this one, drat. Still, its status as festival closing night event suggests the organizers really believe in this portrait of artist/poet/musician/activist/mother Patti Smith. She's the South Jersey sprung "godmother of punk" who took New York and the world by storm, only to quit the scene for 16 years to raise a family. After a series of personal tragedies, she started her comeback course in 1994 - with this later journey documented by producer/cinematographer/friend Steven Sebring. *