Three to see at LFF 2015 if you like... films about music

Three hot tickets at this year’s BFI London Film Festival for lovers of music and films about musicians.

Stuart Brown
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The American Epic Sessions

The American Epic Sessions (2015)

The American Epic Sessions (2015)

What’s it about?

The American Epic Sessions is an element of a wider project, American Epic, telling the story of America’s earliest sound recording machine, the Western Electric lathe, run by weight and pulleys and without the need for electricity. In the 1920s, it was toured around the US, for the first time capturing the raw expression of an emerging culture, and giving a voice to the poorest communities in a divided nation.

Using a lovingly restored machine, the sessions capture an extraordinary series of live performances from a glittering cast of modern day artists, conducted by Jack White. The effect is spellbinding, as iconic musicians of today relive the recording experience of the founding mothers and fathers of their art.

Who made it?

The project is exec produced and presented by Jack White, Robert Redford and T Bone Burnett – a triumvirate that in itself represents a recommendation of the very highest order for anyone with a passion for cinema and music. The film was made by British filmmakers Bernard MacMahon and Allison McGourty, co-founders of Lo-Max Films. Allison founded and runs the independent record label Lo-Max recordings, home of artists such as The Go-Betweens, The Wrens and Simon Lynge. Bernard has directed music videos for these artists as well British bands Garbage and The Fall.

What’s special about it?

It’s a unique convocation of a truly special lineup of musicians: Alabama Shakes, The Americans, The Avett Brothers, Beck, Frank Fairfield, Ana Gabriel, Rhiannon Giddens, Merle Haggard, Bobby Ingano, Elton John, Auntie Geri Kuhia, Pokey LaFarge, Bettye LaVette, Los Lobos, Lost Bayou Ramblers, Taj Mahal, Steve Martin & Edie Brickell, Fred Martin & The Levite Camp, Ashley Monroe, Nas, Willie Nelson, Charlie Kaleo Oyama, Blind Boy Paxton, Raphael Saadiq, and Jack White himself.

White is a kind of high-priest conductor, both in a musical sense and in that he is the portal through which these artists are being connected to their shared pasts. These modern day musicians are used to digital technologies with its infinite capacity to edit, dub, clip and overlay, but here have to nail a performance in one take, gathered around a single microphone. It’s a challenge they embrace and revel in.

Hot Sugar’s Cold World

Hot Sugar's Cold War (2015)

Hot Sugar's Cold War (2015)

What’s it about?

Composer and producer Hot Sugar, aka Nick Koenig, makes intricate, brooding electronic music that has an intelligence and complexity that sets it apart. This film portrait opens with his very public breakup with his girlfriend and collaborator, rapper Kitty. Mediated through the lens of social media, these events set up a soul-searching journey which takes in visits to director Jim Jarmusch, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and Das Racist’s Heems and Kool A.D among others. 

Who made it?

It’s directed by Adam Bhala Lough, an established and accomplished independent filmmaker who has seven features to his name, including The Upsetter: The Life and Times of Lee Scratch Perry (2008), Lil’ Wayne – The Carter (2009), and the narrative feature Bomb the System (2002), which tells the story of the emergence of graffiti art as a cultural form. 

Hot Sugar’s Cold World received an honourable mention in the Special Jury Prize for international feature documentary section of Hot Docs, Canada’s major international documentary festival.

What’s special about it?

It feels as though the internet is awash with films detailing the lives and music of ‘underground’ producers, and it has to be said, most are pretty uninspiring affairs. Here, though, Bhala Lough keeps us guessing. We’re never quite sure whether or not Koenig’s apparent distress at the split is genuine, or indeed if some of his encounters along the way are not tongue-in-cheek pastiches of the artist in distress. It’s an unusual approach, but it effectively draws us into Hot Sugar’s offbeat world, where we’re given a rare insight into this sonic wanderer’s highly unusual and absorbing approach to making music.

We bear witness as Koenig constructs his compositions with layers of sound, blending the everyday sounds of wind and rain with the sound of him clapping in the Notre Dame, the silence in a morgue, or the echoing in the Parisian catacombs.

Fresh Dressed

Fresh Dressed (2015)

Fresh Dressed (2015)

What’s it about?

Fresh Dressed is a beats- and basslines-laden chronicle of how the rise of hip-hop as a global phenomenon became the catalyst for black culture to dominate the fashion industry, from the high street to the catwalks.

Who made it?

Director Sacha Jenkins is a writer, producer, artist, musician and curator who is recognised as one of the most prominent voices in the chronicling and interpretation of hip-hop culture. He published one of the earliest zines on graffiti culture, Graphic Scenes and X-plicit Language, and Beat Down, one of the first hip-hop newspapers. In 1994, he established influential hip-hop culture magazine Ego Trip. He is currently creative director of Mass Appeal, a magazine and website dedicated to hip-hop art, music and fashion. Fresh Dressed is his directorial debut. 

What’s special about it?

The many facets of hip-hop culture have been extensively covered by writers and filmmakers, but this is a story that hasn’t yet been told. Jenkins draws us in with a nostalgic collage of old school beats, fat-laced Adidas, Cazal shades, Kangol hats, tracksuits and fur coats; and we’re introduced to many of the characters that defined what it meant to look fly in the days when hip-hop was evolving in New York’s streets and block parties.

Once there, he draws from a rich mix of archival materials and in-depth interviews with rappers, designers and other industry insiders, such as Pharrell Williams, Damon Dash, Karl Kani, Kanye West, Nas Jones and Andre Leon Talley, to tell the story of hip-hop smashing into the fashion industry.

But it’s the way it captures the desire for freedom of expression through fashion that make this film special. The images and music are glorious; with a smile, they had me remembering how badly I needed those Adidas shell toes and matching tracksuit so I could roam the mean streets of Chichester looking like Run-DMC.

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