When your next door neighbor’s little brother can take his smart phone in the backyard and film his dad washing the car, you get a direct sense of why, and how, there are so many documentaries coming down the pike the last few years. Music documentaries especially seem to be having their moment. Aside from recent surprise hits like 20 Feet from Stardom, Searching for Sugarman, and A Band Called Death, there are promising docs coming on the DC hardcore scene, ‘60s psych-rock masters, the Seeds, Japanese garage-punk band Teengenerate, a Chicago punk history, and ‘90s noise-rock label, Amphetamine Reptile, to name just a very few.
It’s either a golden age or an embarrassment of riches, time will tell. But you can trust that when venerated NYC performing arts hub Lincoln Center decides to run a music documentary series, it will be special. Enter Isa Cucinotta. She’s been a film programmer at the Film Society of Lincoln Center for a while, and she’s about to unveil the second annual Sound + Vision film series, featuring a wide array of musical topics, special guest Q&As, and live performances as well. The series starts tonight and goes through August 9.
So how did you become involved with the Sound + Vision series?
I started it myself last year, simply because I noticed there were so many good music documentaries out there, and I wanted to show them to people. I proposed it to our program director, and he went for it. But I’ve been doing documentary programming for years, mainly environmental docs, a variety of things. But this series is really a passion of mine.
How do you go about sifting through all the submissions?
Well we didn’t do open submissions per se. I went to SXSW, saw a bunch there. But I can’t go to every documentary festival, so I went online and looked up other doc festivals around the world to see what was out there. Wrote to producers and directors, asked to screen their films, and talked to others to get suggestions. And then I just watched as much as I could. I do it all myself. It takes a lot of time, but getting to watch all the movies is the fun part. I don’t want to outsource that… It’s a whole year job putting this together.
So we’ve understood for years now that it’s easier and easier to pick up a small digital camera and go make a movie. Whether that’s a good development or not is a discussion for another day. But there does seem to be an explosion of documentaries in the last few years, and particularly music-themed docs. Do you have any notion why that would be?
Yeah, in the last five years or so, documentaries do seem to be getting more attention, and perhaps that’s just an outgrowth from the fact that documentaries as a genre have become more popular, as that ease in making them has increased. And perhaps it’s people looking around for interesting subjects—and bands are usually interesting subjects. And maybe it’s just, “Oh, I haven’t thought about that band in a long time,” or here’s something new on the music scene, let me explore it.
And in general, it’s cheaper to make a documentary than work up all the financing, etc. to make a feature-length fiction film.
Yeah, you just have to hope that you find a good story and that your subjects are going to be available. And a lot more luck is involved in a documentary than a feature film. You have a lot more control over the elements of fiction. With documentaries, you’re exploring unknowns.
As a kind of corollary, there has also been a bit of an explosion of indie music labels who focus on digging up and reissuing extremely obscure cult bands and rare out of print records. Same with music documentaries, at least some of the interest is that everyone wants to find that “lost” act, and ride the excitement of a story like that, like A Band Called Death.
Yeah, true, but there are always people who have heard of these more obscure musicians, and this taps into older fans who want to hear that stuff again, and introduce that music to a new audience. Like last year we showed Bayou Maharajah about James Booker. He’s actually pretty well-known. But with time and that type of older music and everything, that film kind of brought him and his story back to a whole new generation.
I think also that a lot of interest comes from just being amazed by seemingly heretofore lost footage being found, in an era where every band has ten Youtube clips up by their third show. There’s a mystery to music from previous eras when there wasn’t so much documentation.
Sure, and it takes a lot of research to find that footage and get it together. And if someone is able to get all that together with a compelling story, that’s the thing. And yeah, people are used to that now, with YouTube and everything—people want to see the bands, not just hear them.
Are there any of the films in the series that stick out particularly?
Ha, I knew that questions was coming. That’s very hard, I can’t quite pick favorites.
Well then how about, were there any you had to say no to?
Oh yeah, there are always a lot you have to say no to, but I don’t want to talk about those either. But the more obscure films in Sound + Vision, like Message By Music: Senegal In Transition, is about this current Senegalese rapper whose music goes back to the traditional griots of Senegal. I like it because it’s modern and goes back to traditional music, it’s political, there’s a lot going on in there, even though that topic might not at first top the list of what people think they’d want to see. But there’s a whole scene of modern rap music in west Africa. And The Last Song Before The War, this film also combines traditional with modern music, and political and social concerns as well.
I’m excited for the opening night flick, Beautiful Noise, about the roots of shoegaze, with Cocteau Twins, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and My Bloody Valentine. And My Way sounds fun.
Oh, I love My Way, and you’re right, it is very funny. It’s crazy! This young woman from Pennsylvania just goes on this road trip across the country to get her music noticed. She’s a great character, and she’s going to be there at the showing too, which is really exciting because she’s really funny, she’s full of energy, she’s all over the place and makes things happen. A great story and a great person.
And then there’s the 30th anniversary presentation of the Talking Heads’ live movie, Stop Making Sense.
Yeah, it’s the anniversary of the film, though we’ve been in talks with the distributor about showing it for a while. Of course it’s a film I saw when it came out and loved it, but I haven’t seen it since. It’s been restored, and I’m always happy to bring back older films, retrospective films. Seeing them in a movie theater is so different and more impactful than a small screen. And of course David Byrne is going to be there for a Q&A, so that’ll be a fun evening.
What do you think of his recent comments about living in New York City, and how it’s too expensive for artists?
Well, I haven’t read all his comments yet. But I will say that I was at Lincoln Center Outdoors yesterday watching some performances, and he was there at several different stages watching the music. So he is still very much involved with the music scene in New York. He’s never shy about going out to performances.
Patti Smith made similar comments to that effect too. But I think if you live here, especially in the summer, there are so many free, fun, interesting events that can inspire you. Like yesterday, I wanted to go to that Lincoln Center event, but I was already DJing at this punk rock record fair at a bar in Greenpoint, and that was totally fun. There’s always something going on…
Oh yeah, there is so much all year round, but especially in the summer when it comes to music. It’s great, but it also makes it really hard for this film festival. We all want to make sure we get an audience, but we’re competing with everything else in New York City that’s offered. So you know, you’ve got to fight hard.
Well, I think we can trust that Lincoln Center will put together a quality event.
I hope so. What I like about this Sound + Vision series is that there’s a variety of music that we represent, from Americana, country, classical, right up to Europe in 8 Bits, about people who make music from Gameboys and old electronic games.
Yeah, and you’ve got that Heroes Of American Roots, and that’s a free showing actually.
Yes, that is a very interesting one! Joe Lauro he’s an archivist who has an incredible collection of rare clips, performances, and he’s put together a collection of them. He’ll be doing a talk too, that’s going to be really fun. And this is the first year we’re doing live music performances too. We want to add those elements to make it even more of an event, and make it more cohesive—films about music and music at the films.