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The Sundance Film Festival does a fine job showcasing films about music, with a lineup featuring shorts directed by Lou Reed and the Beastie Boys' Adam Yauch, and documentaries on A Tribe Called Quest, the singer-songwriter movement of the 1970s and Harry Belafonte.
But the Slamdance Film Festival, held near the top of Main Street in Park City, claims it's the more indie-spirited festival and when it comes to films about music, that boast might be true. This year's Slamdance slate includes films that personify the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll ethos of music that speaks to the seedy dissenter inside all of us. The Tribune talked to three of these filmmakers.
"Last Fast Ride The Life, Love and Death of a Punk Goddess" • Narrated by singer and spoken-word artist Henry Rollins, the film documents the tragic life and tragic death of Marian Anderson. The Anderson in the film is in many ways the polar opposite of the better-known Marian Anderson, the late opera singer who was an important figure in the struggle for black artists to overcome racial prejudice.
The Anderson in this documentary is a bisexual, drug-addicted singer who inspired iconoclasts such as Rollins, as well as inspiring director Lilly Scourtis Ayers to direct her first full feature.
"For me, what I gravitate to is psychology and why people do what they do," said Ayers, a Hollywood native with a master's in film directing from Columbia University. "Her complexity is what drew me to her."
Before dying from a heroin overdose at age 33 in 2001, Anderson was the frontwoman for the Insaints, a San Francisco-based punk-rock group. Their music aside, the Insaints were known for Anderson's controversial and lewd stage act, which included lesbian sex acts that often had her being willingly sexually abused during shows, frequently followed by the performers urinating on each other.
After Anderson died, a member of the Insaints asked Ayers if she would film a short tribute to Anderson. It eventually became a much longer piece as Ayers explored Anderson's life, which included childhood sexual abuse. Ayers was able to capture Anderson's gentle and selfless offstage demeanor, which was markedly different from her onstage persona. "It [was] her means of expression," Ayers said about Anderson's performance art. "If anything could have saved her, it was music."
"Pleasant People" • This debut feature was directed by Dave Bonawits, an Atlanta-based video editor. The narrative features a frustrated singer-songwriter named Jiyoung (played by Jiyoung Lee) who is only comfortable onstage, performing music that becomes an obsession more than a passion.
"I had this idea of a confessional singer-songwriter," Bonawits said. "It's about being honest in her songwriting, and then being honest in her relationships with people."
He cast his friend Lee in the lead role and gave the character the same name. "I am a musician," she said, mentioning her band Ant Brain, but contrasting herself with her character, saying "music is much more important to her."
Lee also lives in Atlanta and works from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. every day, editing clips from TBS shows to be used in promotional ads. Filming began in November 2009 and the project had a $2,000 budget, with filming planned around Lee's work schedule.
"[Music] is an important part of the story," Lee said. "Her emotions come through music. … At first, she says her songs don't mean anything." But through the course of the film, Lee the character realizes that the words she sings do mean something.
"Road Dogs" • Directed by Shane Aquino, the documentary follows three of Hollywood's most visually provocative bands on cross-country tours that often ended in disastrous blazes of glory.
Aquino, a film-school dropout, began directing music videos for bands in the Los Angeles metal scene and agreed to document tours by HTTH (Heavenly Trip to Hell), Peppermint Creeps and Kettle Cadaver. "This whole project is accidental," he said. "I just got caught up in this whole scene."
The director risked his life on the tours. Some episodes included riding with a bus driver who had been up for three days on meth, but insisted on driving the bands along snowy mountain cliffs. Oh yes, and the driver also boasted he had no feeling in his legs.
Aquino also recalls sleeping outside in 14-degree weather, surviving through huddling with others like penguins. Many times, the director said, he believed he would be arrested or killed, which led him to draft a will during the course of filming. He assigned friends to continue making the film in case anything happened to him.
In 2008, after the drummer for the Peppermint Creeps died from alcohol poisoning, Aquino realized he had enough footage to film a tribute to him, as well as an account of the brotherhood small bands develop during the long and winding road to little-to-no success. The film ended up being "more comical than anything else," Aquino said. "[The bands] may not consider them the 'good times,' but they are."
Even more indie
Slamdance screenings are at the Treasure Mountain Inn, 255 Main St., Park City, through Jan. 27. The theme of the 17th annual festival is "All is not lost." Tickets are available at the inn's box office, or online at http://www.slamdance.slated.com/2011. The festival supports emerging storytellers by donating 10 percent of ticket proceeds to filmmakers.
'Road Dogs' screenings • Sunday, Jan. 23, 3 p.m.; Tuesday, Jan. 25, 8:30 p.m.
'Pleasant People' • Tuesday, Jan. 25, 7:30 p.m.
'Last Fast Ride The Life, Love and Death of a Punk Goddess' • Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2 p.m.