Three to see at LFF if you like... music docs

Manish Agarwal recommends three hot tickets at the BFI London Film Festival: a film by an established director, a great debut and a wild card.

Manish Agarwal

The new film from an established director…

Bad Reputation

Bad Reputation (2018)

What’s it about?

A breathless slalom through the four decades-plus career of Joan Jett. Named after her raucous 80s punk anthem (which you may recall as the theme tune for cult TV show Freaks and Geeks), Bad Reputation documents the iconic guitarist, singer and producer’s remarkable influence on successive generations of axe-slinging upstarts.

Who made it?

Veteran video director Kevin Kerslake was one of the main visual architects of the MTV-era alternative nation, helming countless promos for the likes of Sonic Youth, Soundgarden, Ride, Mazzy Star and Faith No More. Most notably, Kerslake’s eye for against-the-grain imagery shaped Nirvana’s classic posthumous documentary Live! Tonight! Sold Out!! (1994).

What’s special about it?

Bad Reputation celebrates a DIY iconoclast who’s best known for hit single ‘I Love Rock ’n’ Roll’, but whose commitment and activism have proved foundational for underground scenes fervently opposed to the mainstream, from hardcore to Riot Grrrl.

Jett started kicking against industry pricks in the 1970s, as teenage guitarist for Los Angeles glam legends The Runaways. Kristen Stewart played her in the biopic of the same name and is among this doc’s star interviewees, who range from contemporaries (Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop) to followers (Kathleen Hanna, Billie Joe Armstrong), all supporting voluble insights from its still very active subject.

See this if you like…

The Runaways (Floria Sigismondi, 2010), The Punk Singer (Sini Anderson, 2013), Gimme Danger (Jim Jarmusch, 2016) 

The breakthrough…

Mr. Soul!

What’s it about?

The eponymous Mr Soul! was gay Black Arts Movement pioneer, James Baldwin acolyte and Harlem-based TV producer and host Ellis Haizlip, whose PBS series SOUL! was appointment viewing for African-American households. Running from 1968 to 1973, this revolutionary programme blended civil rights consciousness with a staggering array of cultural guests.

Who made it?

Mr. Soul! has been assembled with loving rigour and artistic verve by Ellis’s niece, Melissa Haizlip, here making her directorial debut. Haizlip’s co-director is seasoned Spike Lee documentary producer Samuel D. Pollard, who was Oscar-nominated for 1997’s 4 Little Girls and later produced Lee’s Emmy-winning When the Levees Broke (2006).

What’s special about it?

For fans of soul, jazz and the black avant-garde, there’s a treasure trove of performances by Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight, The Last Poets, Ashford & Simpson, Hugh Masekela and Earth, Wind & Fire (to name a few).

Beyond the music, it’s extraordinary to see Afrocentric poetry, feminist dance and interviews with literary and political heavyweights – including Baldwin and Kathleen Cleaver – broadcast nationally on US public television. Not to mention the filmmaker’s out and proud Uncle Ellis, a charismatic on-screen presence and gently formidable interviewer, questioning Louis Farrakhan about the Nation of Islam’s homophobia.

See this if you like…

Wattstax (Mel Stuart, 1973), The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (Göran Olsson, 2011), I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016)

The wild card…

Shut Up and Play the Piano

Shut Up and Play the Piano (2018)

What’s it about?

This is an amusingly slippery profile of the globe-trotting musical genius and self-declared supervillain Chilly Gonzales. The son of Canada’s biggest construction magnate and younger brother of Hollywood composer Christophe Beck, the erstwhile Jason Beck has been an indie-rocker, electro-rapper, classical pianist and cravat-wearing myth-maker (“my bullshit just smells better”).

Who made it?

Shut Up and Play the Piano is directed by German debutant Philipp Jedicke. Befitting his subject’s conceptual career, Jedicke seamlessly blends archive with artifice, shuffling ego and alter-egos to trace Gonzales’ 25-year journey from Toronto punk basements to Parisian concert halls, via his time as President of the Berlin Underground.

What’s special about it?

Chilly has virtuoso chops to match that performative motormouth, garnering plaudits galore for his solo ivory tinkling, production and arrangement skills, as well as an actual Grammy Award for his work with Daft Punk. Long-term friends Peaches and Feist reminisce fondly over rare pre-fame footage, with more recent collaborators Jarvis Cocker and members of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra also paying fulsome tribute.

And if that sounds too stock music doc, the pink-suited prankster himself undercuts any reverence: “If you are a fan of my music, you should also learn to hate me… I’m totally insincere. I don’t take it fucking seriously.”

See this if you like…

Scott Walker: 30 Century Man (Stephen Kijak, 2006), I’m Not There (2007, Todd Haynes), Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami (Sophie Fiennes, 2017)

More music documentaries and music-related films with ticket availability include: After the Screaming Stops, Been So Long, Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story, Blaze, I Used to Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story, No Ifs or Buts, Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records, Summer, United Skates and Vs.

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  • BFI London Film Festival

    BFI London Film Festival

    The 62nd BFI London Film Festival runs 10-21 October 2018. Browse for tickets online and don’t forget that a limited number of standby tickets will...

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