TIFF 2021, Day 6: Ranking this year’s music documentaries

Another TIFF, another round of high-profile music films. Plus: what else to see today and tomorrow


An entertaining documentary about Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill album is getting the gala treatment at TIFF tonight (7 pm, Roy Thomson Hall). The Ottawa-raised music star will not be there – she’s on tour in the U.S. and reportedly unhappy with how the film turned out.

In a pre-pandemic year, opting to pay upwards of $20 or $40 to see a music documentary in a cinema that you will soon be able to catch on the small screen would be a bit of an ask. Iggy Pop, Sharon Jones (RIP), Grace Jones – they’ve all come to Toronto in recent years to promote documentaries at TIFF.

If the musician is not there, why bother? A chance to see a a music icon up close, perhaps catch an impromptu live performance during the Q&A or hear from collaborators or the filmmaker who spent a lot of time with the subject. Of course, if you’re hardcore fan, you get to see it first.

But star power aside, this year some of the music docs are using their subjects to springboard into zeitgeisty conversations that deliver the kind of moments you’d want to experience with an audience. It’s a smart strategy: the approach makes the subjects accessible to audiences who might not be inclined to tune in – or even like the music to begin with. Others are the hagiographic treatments you would expect from authorized films.

Ahead of Jagged’s gala screening tonight, here’s a cheat sheet to this year’s big music docs.

Listening To Kenny G

The world’s most famous jazz artist gets a rough ride in Penny Lane’s ridiculously fun Listening To Kenny G (NNNN), which opens with one critic describing his music as “wallpaper.” But the saxophonist from Seattle, who has sold 75 million albums globally, isn’t exactly hurting. He’s well aware of the uncharitable critiques, and is down for this exploration of why some people hate his music as much as others love it. The director, who’s undertaken culture war-type explorations with Nuts! and Hail Satan?, explains the history of the genre Kenny G invented – smooth jazz – and the ways it departs from Black jazz traditions. Lane gives us the biography, goes down all the critical hot-take rabbit holes and delves into production techniques and music theory to suggest why this instrumental music resonates with diverse audiences. Kenny G himself is an enthusiastic and highly animated subject. What makes Lane so great is that she elevates the kind of moments other directors might cut – the digressions are the main attraction. It’s a music doc that seems to look forward as much as it looks back.

Sep 18, 3 pm, digital TIFF Bell Lightbox

Jagged

Part of the same HBO doc strand as Woodstock 99 and Listening To Kenny G, Jagged (NNNN) is another music doc with a strong point of view. Having made movies about Ai Weiwei and Steve Bannon, Alison Klayman examines a lighter subject: why Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill album became so damn popular in the 90s. Morissette herself is extensively interviewed, and speaks about her life and career with a refreshing unpretentiousness. As with Listening To Kenny G, you get the sense Klayman is challenging her interview subject to an extent. After all, Morissette became as financially successful and famous as possible on her own terms, so guards are up in some ways but also down in others. Jagged is full of moving and surprising archival footage that viscerally illustrates the intense way fans responded to this music and shows how this album arrived at a point when a lot of people seemed to really need it.

Sep 14, 7 pm, Roy Thomson Hall; Sep 15, 5 pm, digital TIFF Bell Lightbox; Sep 15, 8:30 pm, Visa Skyline Drive-In; Sep 18, 3 pm, digital TIFF Bell Lightbox

Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over

Directors Dave Wooley and David Heilbroner stick to the script in this biopic on the iconic American singer behind songs like Anyone Who Had A Heart and That’s What Friends Are For. Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over (NNN) opens in boilerplate fashion with a laundry list of famous people – Bill Clinton, Gladys Knight, Valerie Simpson, Elton John – who remind us that famous people love to talk about other famous people. This movie is all about the career highs and races through the lows. But Don’t Make Me Over delivers on memorable anecdotes, with standouts involving Marlene Dietrich and Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur and Suge Knight (that is way too good to spoil). The directors also a do a good job of contextualizing why Warwick is considered such a singular vocalist and how her don’t-eff-with-me-attitude is not only infused in her creativity, but helped her break out of the boxes the industry and society would put her in. She became the first African-American woman to cross over to mainstream pop in the U.S., a feat that can still be a challenge for many Black artists today.

Sep 15, 5 pm, digital TIFF Bell Lightbox; Sep 18, 7 pm, digital TIFF Bell Lightbox

Oscar Peterson: Black + White

The Montreal-born jazz pianist’s music is a near-constant presence in this by-the-numbers music doc from Canadian director Barry Avrich. At a concise 83 minutes, Oscar Peterson: Black + White (NN) briskly endeavours to show why the late jazz legend was so influential by mixing talking heads, archival footage and new scenes of musicians playing his music on a stage. But the straightforward, exposition-heavy account means this film is for diehard fans only. Avrich focuses on Peterson’s virtuosity, how his non-stop work ethic was eventually curtailed by health issues, and how he pushed back against racism while on tour in the U.S. If you’re not deep into jazz but are familiar with the genre’s icons, it’s hard to viscerally and emotionally grasp the ways Peterson’s music landed in his heyday after seeing this, though many musicians attempt to explain it.

Sep 18, 3 pm, digital TIFF Bell Lightbox

– Kevin Ritchie

Also screening today

Ste. Anne (9 pm, digital TIFF Bell Lightbox, NNN), is the beautiful and bewitching feature debut from Manitoban filmmaker Rhayne Vermette. The loose story is about a woman coming home from the city to the countryside where her daughter lives, a move that requires a kind of personal rewiring. Screening in the Wavelengths program, the experimental narrative is pushed along through a collage of striking visuals that use negative space and light to constantly reframe landscapes and, in turn, suggest our ever-evolving attitudes toward the places around us.

Also playing in Wavelengths is the charming Futura (3 pm, digital TIFF Bell Lightbox, NNN), a collaborative film by Italian directors Pietro Marcello, Francesco Munzi and Alice Rohrwacher. During the pandemic, the trio travel their home country quizzing teenagers on their thoughts on the future. The answers are often absorbing and surprising. (KR)

TIFF’s digital platform gives you the chance to catch up to two movies I really loved, Thyrone Tommy’s Learn To Swim (1 pm, digital, rating: NNNN), which I reviewed Saturday, and Céline Sciamma’s delicate Petite Maman (1 pm, digital, rating: NNNN), which I caught up to a few days back and found absolutely enthralling.

Theatrically, there’s Snakehead (6 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 3; digital availability Thursday at 9 pm), writer/director Evan Jackson Leong’s thriller – inspired by true events – starring Revenge Of The Green Dragons’ Shuya Chang as a woman who rises to the head of a human-smuggling organization in New York City; The Gravedigger’s Wife (6:30 pm, TILL Bell Lightbox 1; digital availability Friday at 7 pm), Finnish-Somali filmmaker Khadar Ayderus Ahmed’s drama about a couple facing a terrible decision in Djibouti City; and a Primetime presentation of the first three episodes of Yeon Sang-ho’s new Netflix series Hellbound (8 pm, Cinesphere; digital availability Thursday at 3 pm; rating: NNNN).

Three Minutes – A Lengthening (9:30 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 4; digital availability Friday at 3 pm; rating: NNNNN) is Bianca Stigter’s evocative, elegiac repurposing of three minutes of colour film footage shot in 1938 in the city of Nasielsk, Poland, a year before the German invasion. The precious images of doomed Jewish citizens are shuttled back and forth, played in slower and slower speeds, willing these people back into existence, healthy and happy, for a sliver of time. It’s produced by Steve McQueen, who did something similar with his video installation Ashes a few years back. You should see this. (Norman Wilner)

What to see tomorrow

Theatrical screenings are throttling down, but there are still a few major titles set to screen. There’s Pablo Larraín’s Spencer, which Glenn Sumi found absorbing and haunting, and Anita Rocha da Silveira’s Brazilian fundamentalist allegory Medusa is screening at the Cinesphere, which should be as dazzling an experience as Dug Dug was last weekend.

But if you boot up TIFF’s digital platform, you’ll find the first opportunities to catch buzzy festival titles like Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s charming Julia Child documentary Julia, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s intimate epic Drive My Car and Bruno Dumont’s media satire France. Seriously, that thing’s a gold mine. (NW)

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