Documentaries on Pussy Riot, FAME Studios and Sound City highlight an all-music Day Seven at Sundance

Documentaries on Pussy Riot, FAME Studios and Sound City highlight an all-music Day Seven at Sundance

As Sundance moves past its first weekend, the festival begins to change shape, and by Tuesday, it’s a different place altogether: No more gifting suites and corporate lounges, few big-ticket premieres, and a lot of intriguing possibilities. Purely by accident, the movies I had lined up for my penultimate day were all deeply involved with music, as a good number of this year’s films are. (I saw the backup singer documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom on my second day, and skipped The History of The Eagles, Part 1 because, well, it’s about The Eagles.)

Even a mediocre documentary inevitably teaches you something you didn’t know before, or, in the case of a music documentary, gives you the opportunity to spend 90-odd minutes in a theater listening to great songs on a kickass sound system. That certainly goes for Muscle Shoals (B+), Greg “Freddy” Camalier’s portrait of the legendary Alabama studio that committed world-shaking songs by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and the Rolling Stones to tape. As the proud owner of a brick taken from the rubble of the original Stax studio, I was in the tank for Muscle Shoals before the first frame, but the movie is more than the sum of its tracks. It’s a profile of figures like Rick Hall, the founder of FAME Studios, whose very first recording was a song by a local bellhop named Arthur Alexander, and of the ineffable spirit that links songs captured in the same room. To be sure, credit for a large part of the “Muscle Shoals sound” goes to Hall and his studio band, who eventually became known as The Swampers, many of whom, like Hall, were raised in rural poverty. They were also, like Hall, white, although many who heard their gritty—or, to use a word Aretha Franklin employs more than once, “greazy”—grooves assumed they must be black. The link between the civil rights movement and the surge of African-American performers storming the charts with pop songs steeped in the sound of the black church is a profound one, but the story of Southern soul is also the story of blacks and white working together, often with little fuss or fanfare. In the film, Hall recalls the skepticism in Wilson Pickett’s eyes as he drove past cotton fields on the way from the airport to the studio, but the attitude evaporated from the moment he locked in with FAME’s house band. Cue “Land of a Thousand Dances,” and two and a half minutes of sheer bliss.

The film is sometimes vague on the precise reasons for the fissures that emerged between Hall and his string of former partners, including Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler and the Swampers, who in 1969 opened a competing studio across town with Wexler’s support. (They’re reconciled now, which might have dimmed their enthusiasm for reopening old wounds.) But the film is as good as any at charting the elusive “magic” that lives in a place and time, what Etta James refers to as the sound of “Alabama Mud.”

Sound City (C+), Dave Grohl’s tribute to the storied Southern California studio, tries the same trick, but with markedly less moving results. There’s no quarreling with the studio’s track record, which ranges from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Damn The Torpedoes to Nirvana’s Nevermind, but it’s hard to join the chorus when Grohl ropes in Sound City alumni like REO Speedwagon and Rick Springfield. Sound City is a studio rat’s wet dream, devoting ecstatic passages to the studio’s analog funk and the richness of its drum sound, and especially its custom Neve recording console; it’s the first movie I’ve ever seen devote beauty shots to a sound board. But without the continuity of a house band or a regional culture, Sound City is just a place, one so consistently filthy that a veteran observes you could probably have pissed in a corner and no one would have known. The film grows especially tiresome on the subject of analog authenticity, with grizzled rock veteran after grizzled rock veteran testifying that the only real music is made by dudes with guitars playing as close to live as possible. Apparently Grohl hasn’t listened to any Foo Fighters records recently.

Music plays a comparatively minor role in Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (B+), which may be for the best: From the snatches we hear, the Russian punk trio is more notable for its social impact than its songs. But in a way, that’s the point. The music is just a means to an end, a structure around which their gleefully chaotic, brightly colored public performances coalesce. At this point, Pussy Riot is best known for the international outcry over the arrest and conviction of three members on charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” stemming from their pop-in performance in an Orthodox cathedral. (The event itself lasted less than a minute; the group’s guitarist didn’t even have time to strap on her instrument.) But directors Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin wisely keep their focus on the three women themselves. Supportive tweets occasionally slide into the frame and disappear just as quickly; their lawyer brings word that Madonna dedicated “Like a Virgin” to them at a Moscow concert, donning one of Pussy Riot’s characteristic day-glo balaclavas and writing the group’s name on her body, riot grrrl style. But the outcry has little impact on their fate, or even on Russia itself. As the directors pointed out after the screening, the vast majority of Russians dislike the group’s actions, especially the implied assault on a religion that was banned for most of a century under Communist rule. It’s obvious to outsiders that their tongue-in-cheek protest was aimed at the collusion between the Orthodox church and Vladimir Putin, whose de facto dictatorship is Pussy Riot’s ultimate target. But they’re planting seeds that have only barely begun to sprout. The courage and intelligence of Nadia, Katja, and Masha is beyond dispute, and the closing statements at their trial briefly turns a mockery of justice into a platform for articulate and far-reaching social critique. But the film, as it should, leaves the audience with the impression there is still far more work to be done.

Next: Rounding up some of Sundance’s overlooked gems, and a final Top 5.

 

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