There has been a "recent surge in people making films about music, and we've been drawn to the films that examine the spirit of creativity in music," said Trevor Groth, the Utah native who is the festival's director of programming. "It ties very naturally to independent film, which has a lot of the same impulses."
Which is why it seems there are more and more music-related films every year at Sundance. "Robert Redford has always loved exploring the intersection of different art forms," Groth said.
At the intersection of music and film • While Sundance films about music are nothing new, audiences' appetite for them seems to be increasing.
Exhibit one is last year's "Searching for Sugar Man," which chronicled the efforts of two Cape Town fans, Stephen "Sugar" Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom, to find out if the rumored death of American musician Rodriguez was true. It screened to rapturous applause on the opening night of the festival and ended up winning the Special Jury Prize and the Audience Award for best international documentary.
Sundance programmers noticed. "Music creates an atmosphere in which a film can be experienced and helps allow the audience get lost in the film," said Peter Golub, director of the Sundance Institute Film Music program. "Any music that is wed to a film alters the way that film is perceived."
Golub reels off a long list of films with soundtracks and songs that have forever seared themselves into filmmakers' heads: "Patton," "To Kill a Mockingbird," "The Shawshank Redemption," "Doctor Zhivago," "Cinema Paradiso," "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," "E.T.," "Schindler's List."
Then there are classical Golden Age musicals, such as "Singin' in the Rain," "West Side Story" and "An American in Paris," or more recent musicals such as "Chicago," "Dreamgirls" and "Les Misérables."
For bringing attention to indie music, special attention should be paid to former Rolling Stone writer and director Cameron Crowe, who introduced grunge to mainstream America though 1992's "Singles."
Crowe also helmed 1989's "Say Anything …," which includes one of the finest contemporary musical moments in film: When Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) holds up a boombox playing Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" outside Diane Court's (Ione Skye) bedroom window.
Enter Dave Grohl, Lynryd Skynyrd, The Eagles • One of the most highly anticipated films to open at Sundance this year is the directorial debut of former Nirvana drummer and current Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl. His "Sound City" documentary chronicles the rise and fall of the famed Los Angeles music studio where classic albums such as Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" and Nirvana's seminal "Nevermind" were recorded. The movie also serves as a philosophical treatise hailing the indie spirit of people making music together in a live setting, rather than in front of a computer.
The new documentary "is the most important thing I've ever done," Grohl said in a phone interview. "All along, our goal was Sundance, from Day 1. It seemed like the perfect place to be."
Along with the film's premiere on Jan. 18, the Park City Live venue will host a sold-out performance of Dave Grohl's Sound City Players. This first incarnation will feature musicians featured in the documentary, including Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty, Rick Springfield, Alain Johannes, Chris Goss and Corey Taylor, as well as Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, Lee Ving of Fear and Brad Wilk of Rage Against The Machine.
Also taking the stage will be a cast of Grohl's current and former bandmates including Taylor Hawkins, Nate Mendel, Chris Shiflett, Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear. Smear, Novoselic and Grohl are the surviving members of Nirvana, and their reunion, alone, would make for a historic evening.
Another music-related film at this year's festival is "Muscle Shoals," a documentary from another first-time director, Greg "Freddy" Camalier, which explores the history of the small Alabama town and the area's outsize impact on modern music. The film includes interviews from Bono, Mick Jagger, Gregg Allman, Aretha Franklin and Alicia Keys, focusing on the studios where songs such as "Brown Sugar," "When a Man Loves a Woman" and "I'll Take You There" were recorded. The locale and house band were also immortalized by a lyric in Lynyrd Skynyrd's classic song "Sweet Home Alabama."
"They don't call it a universal language for nothing," said Camalier, explaining the reason to make a film with music as its thematic thread.
Then there's "History of The Eagles Part 1," a music documentary with an impressive filmmaking pedigree. Directed by Alison Ellwood, the biopic is produced by Alex Gibney, who directed "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," nominated in 2005 for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and "Taxi to the Dark Side," which won the documentary-feature Oscar in 2007. His other films include "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer" and "Casino Jack and the United States of Money." This year's festival also will screen Gibney's "We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks," another buzzed-about documentary.
The Eagles documentary has a resonance because the band's music served as a soundtrack to the 1970s and beyond, Ellwood said. "When people listen to Eagles songs, people didn't just listen to The Eagles, they did things to The Eagles," she said. "People have memories of iconic musical things in their lives."
For example, she remembered the first time she ever ate sushi. She was sitting in a sushi bar, listening to "Hotel California" playing on the radio while chefs were tapping their wooden mallets to Don Henley's drumming.
Music and film are inextricably linked, Gibney said. "You want to feel music, not talk about it," he said. "That's what cinema does at its best."
Shining a spotlight • Another film that should bring nostalgic memories to Sundance fans is "Twenty Feet From Stardom," directed by Morgan Neville, whose "Troubadours" (about the 1970s singer-songwriter movement) debuted there in 2011.
Neville's new film shines the spotlight on musicians who rarely receive the spotlight: backup singers, including Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill and Merry Clayton. Clayton famously sang "Rape, murder! It's just a shot away" on The Rolling Stones' greatest song ever, "Gimme Shelter."
"The singers featured in the film have made a huge contribution to the music of the last 30 years, but since they are by definition backup singers, the general audience doesn't know who they are," Golub said.
One of the film's subjects, Love, said that in film "music is soothing for the soul. I can't even think of not having music in movies."
Also at this year's Sundance are films about more recent music history, such as "Pussy Riot A Punk Prayer" and "Narco Cultura." The former features the prosecution of Russian punk band Pussy Riot, who protested Vladimir Putin's rule inside the holy site of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior and were sentenced to two years in prison for their defiance. The latter is a look at how American's war on drugs has influenced popular culture in Mexico, with singers glorifying drug cartels just as Americans once glamorized Billy the Kid in the 19th century and drug dealers in 1990s-era hip-hop.
It was through music that filmmakers were allowed into the subculture that "Narco Cultura" documents, said director Shaul Schwarz. "The music is important because it shows the growth of 'narco culture' and how young people respond to it," Schwarz said. "It represents what millions live through each day."
It was the genre of punk rock that drew co-director Mike Lerner to making a film about Pussy Riot. "I hope the film shows how powerful music can be to engender social change," he said.
His co-director, Maxim Pozdorvkin, said he grew up listening to the same music that influenced the Pussy Riot musicians. "Music and art have always served as alternative ways of engaging with larger social and political issues," Pozdorovkin said. "Film does something similar, exploring global issues through the prism of individual characters and their experience."
Celebrate the music of Sundance
Quite a few films at this year's festival have powerful musical scores, said Peter Golub, director of the Sundance Institute Film Music program. He listed "The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete," with music by Mark Isham; "jOBS," John Debney; "Stoker," Clint Mansell; "The Necessary Death of Charlie," Christophe Beck; "Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes," Nathan Larson; "American Promise," Miriam Cutler; "Blackfish" and "When I Walk," Jeff Beal; and "Dirty Wars," David Harrington.
For more information about the 2013 festival, visit sundance.org/festival.
Welcome to the Sundance Music Festival
Park City Live, at 427 Main St., will be taken over by Wynn Las Vegas from Jan. 17-21. The venue will host DJs from around the world (including Dutch Afrojack, British Nero and French Cedric Gervais) spinning during the first weekend of the festival. It will feature "the flavor and flair of Las Vegas," said Ronn Nicoli, director of strategic marketing for Wynn's exclusive nightclubs XS and Tryst.
The Celebration of Music in Film event, at 8 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 20, at the Sundance House, 638 Park Ave., Park City, will feature backup singers who have worked with Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Sting and Chris Botti. The concert celebrates a documentary about legendary backup singers, "Twenty Feet From Stardom." (Event open to festival credential holders as space permits.)
The annual BMI Snowball music showcase at the Sundance House, at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 23, will celebrate "Muscle Shoals," a documentary about the legendary Alabama music studios. (Event open to festival credential holders as space permits.)
Other music-related events
Sundance-sponsored panels and roundtables include "Music and Film, The Creative Process," a discussion Wednesday, Jan. 23, at the Sundance House; and "Power and Story: Measure for Measure" at the Egyptian Theatre on Friday, Jan. 25, which will feature composers Terence Blanchard and Jan A. P. Kaczmarek talking about music's effect on cinematic history.
At this year's Sundance ASCAP Music Cafe, at 750 Main St., there will be a new nightly showcase (open to all credential holders) curated by Los Angeles radio station KCRW-FM.
"I get the sense that [Sundance] wants to bloster their music offerings," said Jason Bentley, KRCW music director. Andrew Bird and Jenny Lewis are among performers slated for night performances during the first weekend. Bentley mused that Sundance officials might like to emulate the success of the Sundance London Film and Music Festival, where music has had more of an emphasis than in Park City.
As for the daytime series, one performer, in particular, will bring a smile to the face of anyone who enjoyed the intersection of music and film in the 1980s. On Friday, Jan. 18, at 4:15 p.m., the Blue Sky Riders trio will perform, including Kenny Loggins, the undisputed King of the Movie Soundtrack. His credits include "I'm Alright" from "Caddyshack," the title song from "Footloose," and "Danger Zone" and "Playing With the Boys" from "Top Gun."
A new series, Concerts at Sundance, will feature local and international artists' performances to benefit the Huntsman Cancer Institute. The series will take place at Park City clubs, as well as nightly performances at the Silver Star Café, 1825 Three Kings Drive. View the schedule at www.parkcityrestaurants.com/silver-star-cafe. (These concerts aren't affiliated with the festival.)