Festival Films – Hot Docs: Pop Culture hits & misses

by Allan Tong of Reel ‘n’ Rock for FILMbutton.com

Samba, jellybeans and Communist disco dominate a slate of documentaries at this year’s edition of Hot Docs. For what’s good and what’s not, read on (ratings based on four stars):

Disco and Atomic War (***) is a clever, funny voyage through the end of the USSR as seen through the eyes of an Estonian growing up with TV and Lenin. Sneaky Estonians secretly watched decadent Finnish TV which helped to subvert the Communist lie of the workers’ paradise. Disco music, the TV show “Dallas” and the soft-porn epic Emmanuelle helped bring down the Soviet empire by 1991. Tongue-in-cheek and charming.

In contrast, Space Tourists (**1/2) looks at today’s rent-a-rocket philosophy of the Russian space program. A good idea, but too plodding for my tastes.

Listen to this film: Soundtracker (***) profiles Gordon Hempton who collects sounds for a living.  As he roams the U.S. recording coyote howls and the wind whistling through the tall grass, he laments the loss of nature to human civilization.  He and this film force the viewer to regard nature with a sense we ignore: our ears.   Sound never looked so good.

We Don’t Care About Music Anyway (***) profiles several avant-garde musicians in Tokyo. Not to everyone’s taste, but this film showcases extreme sounds and musics, from turntablism and noise all shot in industrial setting to reflect Japan’s high-tech but cold, urban environment.

Across the globe, Brazil is showcased in Beyond Ipanema (***1/2) which tells the history of modern Brazilian music. Not just the samba and bossa nova, but hip hop. Unlikely admirers are Japanese music collectors and urban DJs. Includes interviews with Bebel Gilberto and David Byrne.  Aimed at introducing this music to North American audiences, and may be old hat to scholars.  Me, I loved it.  Stylish and entertaining.

A Drummer’s Dream (***) profiles some top drummers who perform but also philosophize about their art.  Not just a series of drum solos (which are excellent), but interviews with depth.  Definitely a film for drummers but also lovers of music.

Less successful is Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields (**) which profiles this cult band led by “genius and misanthrope” Merritt.  He is neither, but a clever guy who makes interesting music.  Unfortunately, he’s also withdrawn and monotonic and not the greatest subject for a feature-length doc.  Fans will enjoy this film more than the rest of us.

David Wants to Fly (***1/2) is a left-field film, meaning that a young German filmmaker meets his idol, David Lynch, and checks out transcendental meditation.  Problem is, he exposes TM as another money-making cult.  Told with wit and flair.

Candyman: The Story of David Klein (**1/2) profiles the man who invented the JellyBelly jellybean, but sold the company for peanuts.  He’s an uber-mensch and that’s his problem:  he’s too nice a guy.  And this is too nice a film, lacking enough conflict to hold the viewer.

A middle-aged man in a loveless marriage meets a lonely teenager on the internet in Talhotblonde (****).  That sounds like a cliche, but it isn’t in this extraordinary film.  I’m not writing anymore or else I spoil the ending.

Dr. Yoshiro NakaMats invented the floppy disk, a pedicab that runs on water, and an inflatable bra. He boasts 3,375 patents compared to Thomas Edison’s measly 1,093, and received the Nobel Prize for Nutrition after photographing and analyzing every meal he has eaten for the last 34 years.  The Invention of Dr. Nakamats (***) is lighthearted and could have easily trivialized this man, but the film maintains Dr. NakaMats’ dignity while celebrating his many facets.

Allan Tong is a filmmaker, Toronto-based festival programmer and film journalist who specializes in rock music.

Comments are closed.