UTNS dishes on DocFest
Our Up The Narrow Stairs blogger tells us why he’s looking forward to this year’s DocFest.
OK, I need to let you in on a little secret. DocFest is my favourite music event of the year. Don’t tell anyone from Sheffield I said that, of course – that’s meant to be Tramlines – but there, I’ve said it. Why so? Well, the combination of music and film is the perfect marriage, in my opinion. And combine that with DocFest’s knack of putting on stuff you didn’t realise you were going to enjoy until it happened, and it’s my perfect festival. Over the years there’s always been a strong musical presence within DocFest, whether it’s films with live scores, or documentaries about musicians, and I know current festival director Heather Croal is keen on expanding the music and performance aspect of the festival still further. There have even been commissioned soundtracks in previous years. Seeing one of these performed on the Crucible stage, with the film projected behind the musicians is unforgettable.
So, on your behalf, dear reader – because I’m always thinking of adding to your pleasure – I’ve scoured the programme of events and filtered it through my musical lens to let you know what will be floating my melodic boat this year.
This film documents the life of Jalal Mansur Nurridin, aka Lightening Rod, the front man of the Last Poets, a group of poets and musicians who first performed in the late 1960s. They were closely associated with the civil rights movement, and effectively performed rap and hip-hop, before those terms even existed. His solo album, from which the film takes its title, was an underground hit, and inadvertently made even more of a statement after it was removed from general sale. It was hugely influential, but outside of black America the album is virtually unknown. A host of influential followers including KRS One, MC Lyte, Ice T and Chuck D have been interviewed for this film, along with Jalal himself, in what should be a fascinating look at the roots of modern black American music.
There are a couple of chances to see Mavis!, the story of Mavis Staples, but the European premier, in the Botanical Gardens has to be the go-to event of the opening weekend. As the sun goes down we’ll be able to can settle back in our deckchairs, picnic consumed, glass of prosecco in hand, and learn more about this extraordinary woman. Now 75, still touring and recording, and with a career spanning over six decades, her remarkable life has paralleled the musical and political landscapes of the times she lived through. The Staple Singers were amongst the first gospel groups to write ‘freedom songs’, including Why (Am I Treated So Bad), which the band wrote after meeting a then- unknown Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. An unmissable highlight for me. Mustn’t forget my Slanket.
If your eyes opened wide at the very mention of the number 808, you already know, but to bring us all up to speed, I’ll explain. The reason that this is such an important figure in music is that it refers to the Rowland TR 808 drum machine. Upon its release in 1980 it wasn’t regarded as a particularly good one, but it was significantly cheaper than the others. Rejected by the recording studios, it was intended for, it was instead adopted by the emerging dance, house and hip-hop artists. Dance music was changing, and the sounds of the 808 became part of the beat that clubs echoed to. The samples weren’t digital, unlike the more expensive Linn drum machine available at that time, but they had a unique analogue-generated quality. The hand-claps and bass, snares and hi-hat became the core of tracks like Planet Rock by Africa Bambaataa and Sexual Healing by Marvin Gaye. It was the only accompaniment David Byrne used at the start of the seminal rock performance movie, Stop Making Sense. He comes on stage, plays a ‘tape’ from a boom box, which is actually a beat produced by an 808 drum machine. Interviewees for the film include New Order, Jam and Lewis, 808 State (of course) David Guetta, Pharrel Williams, Phil Collins and Damon Albarn, which illustrates how diverse and wide ranging the 808’s influence was and still is.
Cobain: Montage of Heck
The Kurt Cobain film is one I’ve actually seen already. We all know how this one will end, and part of me can’t help hoping it isn’t going to happen. Made with the full co-operation of everyone involved in his short life, director Brett Morgan was given access to everything he wanted by Courtney Love – including journals, diaries and some heartbreaking footage of Kurt from their home-movies, as he struggles to adjust to what it means to become a father. His own artwork is expertly animated to give some insight into his life, and his ending of it by his own hand is given an added poignancy by the intimacy of this film. The fragile talent he had was no protection from the pressures of fame and the expectations put upon him. This is a sad but fitting tribute to the man.
The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead
The Damned had the distinction of releasing the first single by a UK punk band, New Rose, on Stiff Records. Sadly, they never really lived up to their early promise, and saw the Sex Pistols and the Clash overtake them in the public perception of who was the biggest punk band. In-fighting, personnel changes and rivalries which carry on to this day, prevented them from having any real success, but give them their due, they are still together and still tour. I’ve lost track of who is in the band these days, although I do know that Captain Sensible, who still fronts the band, heckled the film at its SXSW premier, when any former band members who he didn’t like came on screen. Classy. This film charts their rise with a mixture of archive material and contemporary film, and I’m looking forward to reacquainting myself with a band who, I must admit, I’ve totally lost track of, and didn’t realise were still together.
Whatever Happened, Miss Simone?
Nina Simone, like the Lost Poets and Mavis Staples, was also involved in the American civil rights movement, and started playing piano in church from the age of six. At twelve she played a classical concert recital, and watched as her parents were moved from the front row to the back of the room, to make way for white people. Little wonder that she became involved in the campaign to improve the lot of black people in the US. She became a jazz/blues singer, but struggled to hold on to the money her records made, as did many black artists at that time. She never shirked from addressing the racism she saw around her, and went further than Martin Luther King Jnr in supporting an armed uprising to gain civil rights for African-Americans. This documentary is based around some newly discovered tracks, and should be a fascinating insight into the life of a tortured musical genius who herself influenced a diverse legion of musicians.
War Work: 8 Songs With Film with the Michael Nyman Band and Hilary Summers.
Michael Nyman is one of our most talented and prolific composers, long-associated with film scores such as The Piano and The Draughtsman’s Contract. In this show, the 8 Songs are a song-cycle using the words of World War 1 poets, almost all of whom lost their lives during the war. Along with archive visual excerpts, and fragments of musical motifs from that era, Michael Nyman evokes memories of lost, unknown soldiers. It all sounds highly atmospheric, and with his full band – along with singer Hilary Summers – this will be a fascinating afternoon concert at the City Hall on the 6thJune.
Greatest Show On Earth: A century of Vaudeville Circuses and Carnivals
Specially-commissioned soundtracks are the musical grist to my documentary-obsessed mill, so I’ll be right down the front for this one, and the Q&A with the director and the band members that follows. The University of Sheffield is the keeper of the National Fairground Archive, which covers all aspects of the culture and history of travelling fairs and entertainment from the 1800s to the present day. This documentary tells the story of all manner of live entertainment from the late 19th and early 20thcentury. Most importantly though, there’s a soundtrack by Georg Holm and Orri Pall Dyrason of Sigur Ros, in collaboration with Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson. There’s even a live circus performance before the film. Do you like circuses, Eddie?
So there you are. In a little over 20 years DocFest has become one of the top documentary festivals in the world – yes, the world! It is regarded as the equal of New York and Amsterdam, with 3500 international delegates and with over 30000 tickets sold to us locals last year. So go on, even if you’ve not been before, give it a go.