March 19th, 2007
The line-up for this year’s Wisconsin Film Festival was announced last week and there are several films about music to be had.
Regular readers of this blog know how I feel about polka and I’d like to think that It’s Happiness: A Polka Documentary is here at the festival because of my call to arms. Granted, this is not the case, but I’d like to think so.
It’s Happiness: A Polka Documentary:
The thrill of a film festival is seeing gems like this: a movie about Wisconsin polka bands and the women who love them. You’ll visit Art Altenburg’s concertina bar and learn the difference between a concertina and an accordion; tailgate at a polka festival and drink to the health of the polka off a shotski (an old ski drilled to fit four Jagermeister shot glasses for a communal down-in-one toast), and meet Greg Durst, a record collector with the largest stash of vinyl in the state. A smart and accomplished documentary about a part of our state’s great musical traditions: just put a big red circle around it in your program guide and come to the show.
If you’re male and reading this, you’ve no doubt played air guitar.
Air Guitar Nation:
Whang! When a couple of guys attending the Air Guitar World Championships realized that no American was participating for this rock crown and subsequently created a U.S. contest, you just know that a movie wasn’t far behind. Fortunately, filmmaker Alexandra Lipsitz was there to capture the blood, sweat, and tears of the first New York regional playoff, through to the electrifying finale in Finland. Focusing on the rivalry between the straight-up skinny-tie powerpunk of Dan “Björn Türoque” Crane and the loopy Van-Halenesque virtuosity of David “C-Diddy” Jung in his Hello Kitty breastplate, Air Guitar Nation delivers a thoroughly compelling battle-of-the-bands throwdown. Editor Conor O’Neill knows a thing or two about capturing the tension of a competitive event, having worked on both Murderball and Word Wars. You may keep reminding yourself that these guys don’t have real guitars, but why bother? It’s a fantastically hilarious freaky experience.
Of interest to locals who love bluegrass is Cork n’ Bottle String Band: The Ken’s Bar Story :
Relive the smoky bluegrass glory of Wednesday evenings at Ken’s Bar, when the Cork n’ Bottle String Band packed the tiny tavern with fans. Ken’s is no more, but the experience has been preserved in this exuberant documentary, with field production and interviews by Jamie Thomas and Laura Kalinowski. The off-kilter band is named for the Johnson Street liquor store where many of the musicians worked, and early practices were held in the store’s basement among barrels of beer. A bit of Madison music history is captured here, and this premiere screening will doubtless have Cork n’ Bottle fans stomping their feet.
Hip hop is a heated topic these days and it is no less true here in Madison.
The Hip Hop Project:
It’s rare these days that the media reports on the positive effects of hip hop music, but in Matt Ruskin’s compelling and inspirational documentary we follow Chris “Kazi” Role, a once homeless teenager, over the course of four years as he works to inspire a group of New York City teens to use hip hop as a vehicle for self discovery and redemption. Under auspices of the educational group Art Start, Kazi founds the Hip Hop Project to help teenagers interested in hip hop music reach their creative potential through encouraging them to eschew gangsta clichés and instead rap about the real issues affecting their lives. The film deftly weaves the stories of several of the teenage rappers with that of Kazi’s own inspiring journey to confront his past. Touching without being sappy and inspirational without being preachy, The Hip Hop Project is a wonderful story of hope, healing, and the realization of dreams.
It’s in the Blood: Leo Abshire & the Cajun Tradition:
Celebrate the unique regional traditon of Cajun fiddling with Leo Abshire, a gentleman musician who played for presidents, royalty, and Olympic athletes. It’s In the Blood interviews Cajun legends Doug Kershaw, D.L. Menard, and Steve Riley, who help us understand the culture and context of Cajun music and what it means to carry on the traditions. Leo Abshire & the Olde Timers Cajun Band play because they have to: it’s part of who they are and where they come from. When Leo picked up his fiddle, he was transformed.
A UW grad, Susan Dynner, takes a look at punk today in Punk’s Not Dead:
Thirty years after the Ramones and the Sex Pistols shocked the system with their hard, fast, status-quo-killing rock, the longest lasting punk band in history is drawing bigger crowds than ever, “pop-punk” bands have found success on MTV, and kids too young to drive are forming bands that carry the torch for punk’s raw, immediate sound. Meanwhile, “punk” has become a marketing concept to sell everything from cars to vodka, and dyed hair and piercings still mark a rite of passage for thousands of teens. Can the true, nonconformist punk spirit still live on in today’s culture? UW grad and filmmaker Susan Dynner brings us the answer, in the form of this rambuctious and smartly edited film, with interviews, performances, and behind-the-scenes journeys with the bands, labels, underground press, and the fans who keep punk alive. Who’s in the film? The list is insanely long: The Germs, Rancid, Black Flag, The UK Subs, The Offspring, more, more, dozens more.
Lastly, there’s this film which sounds absolutely fantastic – War/Dance:
The students at the Patongo Primary School have been invited to participate in the national music and dance championships! Everyone is busy preparing for the competition: rehearsing songs, making costumes, and trying not to be too shy when the big-city musicians visit to help put the final polish on their dances. In this beautifully made documentary, gorgeously shot in HD, we meet students Nancy, Dominic (the xylophonist), and Rose: all eager to compete and represent their village in a contest no one expects them to win. Their village is actually a refugee camp, home to a displaced community suffering from a civil war in northern Uganda. These teenagers all have wrenching tales to tell about the violence that has been a part of their lives, and they have dreams to share about their future, too. If you’re not generally tempted to see all these festival films about war and strife, you might yet consider getting a ticket for War/Dance — the memorable stories of Nancy, Dominic, and Rose will stay with you for a long time.