On the Silver Screen:
Look Out Hollywood, Y’all!
Nashville is no stranger to star-studded premieres or huge flocks of songwriters and artists in one place, but the first weeks of fall in Music City make for a quite different scene. The Nashville Film Festival (NFF) and the International Black Film Festival (IBFF) bring a host of filmmakers, lovers, and critics from near and far to the city for a week of premieres, panels, and a celebration of filmmaking. It’s an embarrassment of riches for a city not as well known as others in the South (Atlanta, above all) for attracting film and television crews, but lovers of movies in Nashville know that institutions like the Belcourt or the film programs at Belmont and Vanderbilt keep a vibrant film culture alive and well year-round.
There’s such an embarrassment of riches, in fact, that these two festivals happening at once can make it difficult for filmgoers to see everything they’d like from what both festivals have to offer. No doubt having so many people in the city all at once is great for those looking to connect and network at these festivals, and probably even drawing in more eyeballs for the biggest events on the schedules, but smaller films and panels are more likely to be lost in the crowd.
The consequences of this are no doubt more severe for the IBFF than the NFF, as the former is both smaller and newer than the latter, but the cross-promotion that comes from treating both festivals as a single, city-wide celebration of movies like this WPLN feature will hopefully mitigate such discrepancies in the future.
The below coverage of the Nashville Film Festival by Music City Review writers is, then, doubly partial, featuring reviews for only a handful of the shorts and features at the NFF and unfortunately nothing from this year’s IBFF. This incompleteness should be seen as a reflection of truly just how much there is to watch and enjoy while these film festivals are in full swing and by no means of the quality or importance of either. –BG
One of the biggest shocks of the #metoo movement was the sheer number of women who had been victimized. There is a similar realization in Tracy Arcabasso Smith’s powerful and chilling documentary Relative. Smith conducts interviews documenting sexual abuse of her living relatives, all women, and backgrounds these accounts with footage of the family. The narrative arc seems to begin with a certain amount of blame and accusation given first to the men, then at both victims and assailants.
Slowly and delicately, the two generational responses emerge and polarize in the narrative, juxtaposing the past’s resilience of willful ignorance, “Okay it happened, and you move forward” with the relentless modern exploration of crime and context, “I don’t think you can move forward until you’ve dealt with the past” –this despite the fact that neither approach seems to have healed anyone. Soon, a recognition emerges of the possibility that her assailant may himself have been abused, and the blame generalizes to the institutions of family, church, and society as a whole. The film is as uncomfortable as it is important to watch and although offers very little in terms of solution or resolution, it does serve to perpetuate a discussion that has continued, and needed to continue, for longer than many of us are willing to admit. –JM
Wannabe is a compelling film written and directed by Josie Andrews that follows a 90’s girl group to their make-or-break audition. Filmed at the iconic Viper Room on the Sunset Strip (RIP), the group is faced with the choice of working with the lead singer’s rapist or giving up on the deal of their dreams. Wannabe grapples with what it means to be in control: ultimately showing that while we may not have control over what harms us, we do have control over our choices and responses. The ending, while inferred, is not explicit, allowing the audience to participate in this demonstration of choice.
Charismatic and engaging, the three stars make you cheer for them and wish for their success. Margo Parker does a particularly good job as the lead character. She has great chemistry with the other characters and the audience feels how conflicted she is, especially as the other group members ultimately leave the decision in her hands. The frustration the audience feels at the dilemma is mirrored in the pain the characters feel for past and present trauma. A short film with a big impact, Wannabe leaves you with much to reflect upon. –BM
Eddie Prunoske’s Intimacy Workshop is a darkly comedic, and at moments quite gross, ten minute short that takes aim at self-help groups and allergic reactions to intimacy—it’s Fight Club meets NyQuil. Adam Uhl’s photography is well done and the Prunoske’s blocking/framing is inspired as is Emily Fleischer’s casting: a fantastic bouquet of awkward masculinity. Dare I say I’d like to see a sequel? Gesundheit! –JM
Hallelujah by Victor Gabriel is 13 minute short film about two brothers struggling with the sudden responsibility of taking care of their niece and nephew. This powerful short does not pull any punches. Hallelujah, the nephew, is contemplating the possibility of committing suicide after the sudden loss of his father. It is a touching look about moving forward through adversity and accepting responsibility in the face of the many tragedies of life. In the short there is a flashback to the day of the tragedy, and the scene is masterfully shot with a camera that is constantly rotating. This perfectly captures how dizzying painful memories can be and is just one example of the little details that makes this short so great. This short has been awarded many times over, including winning the Grand Prix for Best Short at HollyShorts, which qualifies it for Oscar consideration. This is one not to miss. –DK
The Return of Tanya Tucker: Featuring Brandi Carlile
Kathlyn Horan’s new documentary The Return of Tanya Tucker: Featuring Brandi Carlile follows the recording and promotion of Tucker’s 2019 Grammy Award-winning album While I’m Living. The album, produced by Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings, was Tucker’s first in 17 years. According to Horan, the project began quite spur-of-the-moment when Carlile’s wife, Catherine Shepherd, called her the night before recording began in L.A. to see if Horan would like to shoot some behind-the-scenes footage for the album. After the first few days of filming, Horan told Nashville Film Festival attendees during the Q&A following the film’s screening, she knew she was working with something much bigger than that.
In the film we follow Tucker and Carlile through the songwriting and recording process, some emotionally tense moments while promoting the album, and all the way to Tucker’s first Grammy wins after 14 career nominations, with a healthy amount of archival footage and biographical recap to establish the emotional stakes of her return. In another filmmaker’s hands or with a different personality at the center of everything, this might sound like the makings of a cut-and-dry artist retrospective documentary. However, Horan smartly decides to let events play out without much external commentary, let alone the types of talking head expert interviews that are generally spliced throughout documentaries of this sort. Ultimately, it’s the magnetism and self-deprecating charm of Tanya Tucker that hold our attention throughout the film alongside her fascinating working dynamic with Brandi Carlile.
As the title of the film suggests, though this is Tucker’s album and her moment in the spotlight, without the tireless work of Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings, the album project likely would never have existed. We get a sense of what this project means to Carlile in the film’s earliest moments during the recording of While I’m Living. At one point, while discussing Tucker’s impact and legacy Carlile asks her if there were any women singers Tucker looked up to when she was younger, in the way Tucker meant so much to Carlile. Tucker, in her usual irreverent but lovable style, shakes her head and says “Elvis. And Merle Haggard.” It’s the beginning of one of the documentary’s most interesting threads, namely the tension between who an artist is and who their audience expects or needs them to be. However, what the film is concerned with isn’t just that this difference exists, that’s plain enough, but rather with how that tension is just as easily edifying and validating as it is cruel and alienating.
Carlile asks Tucker a number of questions in this scene and throughout the film about her legacy and her musicianship, all of which clearly borne of Carlile’s love and admiration for Tanya Tucker, legendary country music star, a love no doubt shared by most of Tucker’s fans. And yet, Tanya Tucker, the human being, seems to struggle not so much with answering the questions, but seemingly with being able to play along with what Carlile wants (maybe even needs) from her. Horan’s camera shows us the doubt and insecurity in Tucker’s eyes in these moments. We never mistake this resistance as pure stubbornness or rudeness, but rather a kind of roundabout vulnerability. I don’t think Tucker is being evasive when she downplays her talent or the influence she’s had on singers of all stripes. Instead, the film reminds us of the cruel tabloid coverage she faced in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and why she might find herself on the defensive when confronting an unrecognizable image of herself constructed in someone else’s imagination, for motivations she may not ever truly know.
This tension comes to a head in the middle of the film when we join Carlile plucking away at an upright piano, informing us she’s waiting for Tanya Tucker to arrive for a rehearsal of the song they cowrote for While I’m Living, the moving lead single “Bring My Flowers Now.” Tucker’s late, we learn, way late, and attempts to figure out when or even if she’s coming to rehearse have been unhelpful. The version of Brandi Carlile we see in this moment is quite unlike what we’ve seen before. She’s evidently tense, readily admits she’s nervous, and we can see in her eyes a look of feeling almost totally out of control. We quickly learn why Tucker’s lateness has her so on edge. It’s the eve of an all-star birthday concert for Loretta Lynn (who sadly passed away between the screening of the documentary at the Nashville Film Festival and the publication of this review) at Bridgestone Arena.
The high-profile nature of the concert and the management of so many famous singers’ busy schedules for soundchecks and rehearsals have left Carlile in a rough spot. The film cuts ahead to Tucker’s van arriving at Bridgestone arena, some time later. She’s apologetic, but glamorous and charming as ever. After a quick run-through on an electric piano in the bathroom, Carlile and Tucker are ready for the performance itself. Of course, it’s flawless. Earlier in the film, Carlile asks Tucker how often she leaves the stage feeling satisfied. “Almost never,” Tucker tells her. Seeing them now, in the afterglow of performing their song in front of an arena filled with people, though Tucker doesn’t seem willing to admit it, it’s clear just how proud both of them feel.
The last third or so of the film covering the Grammy nominations and ceremony feature many of its best scenes. Perhaps the best sees Tucker sitting in front of her hotel room window as she gets ready for the Grammy ceremony, reflecting on the journey of the album. She admits that she nearly hadn’t agreed to record it at all, but that Shooter Jennings’ insistence changed her mind. We’ve already seen Brandi Carlile confronting the difference between the Tanya Tucker in her mind and the real woman in the film, but here we finally see the same happen for Tucker. “I just thought there was more love behind me than ahead of me,” she tells the camera. Her tears tell us she knows she was wrong.
Horan’s film is a moving, complicated portrait of a fascinating working relationship and a key moment not only in the life of Tanya Tucker, but in the overall historiography of country music. Full of music, humor, and surprising vulnerability, it’s the sort of documentary that will no doubt appeal to country music fans and non-fans alike.
Mate by George-Alex Nagle is a completely engrossing tough watch. This 30 minute film deals with a young man Jack trying to reconcile his relationship with the self-destructive thirty year old John, a working class man living on the western part of Sydney, Australia. Over a weekend visit Jack learns that the lifestyle of John is nothing to desire or emulate, and that adulthood is a complex endeavor. It is brutally honest in its depiction of the struggles of maturity and masculinity. Joshua Brennan, who portrays John, is particularly good at depicting the dangers and darkness of a man on the edge. Beautifully shot and just the right length, this film is definitely worth the watch. –DK
Immediate Family is director Danny Tedesco’s documentary about musicians you haven’t heard of, but whose music you’ve heard. It’s a flip on the typical music film: Linda Ronstadt, Stevie Nicks, Keith Richards, Phil Collins, James Taylor, and Carole King were just a few of the artists who gave interviews about their experiences with the subjects of the documentary, these legendary session musicians: drummer Russ Kunkel, bassist Leland Sklar, guitarists Danny Kortchmar, Waddy Watchel, and later Steve Postell.
The musicians are rapidly introduced and begin to tell their stories, starting from when they first picked up their instruments, to the present day and the band they’ve formed together, Immediate Family. After the first ten minutes or so the documentary slows to a pleasant pace. The subjects cheerfully tell anecdotes about recording sessions, collaboration on songs, and life while on tour, which got a lot of laughs from the Nashville Film Festival audience. There are quirky animations, old photographs, a variety of excellent footage from recording sessions and concerts, and hit song after hit song. These men, who have spent fifty years working as successful, high-level musicians, were fascinating to watch on screen. Being so used to performing in the background, they had a unique mixture of seasoned professionalism and flattered joyfulness as they spoke about their musical journeys. As one of them said, they were used to being on stage, but unused to the spotlight.
Danny Tedesco, who also made The Wrecking Crew documentary about 1960’s session musicians, brings his filmmaking experience and palpable affection for the music industry to the screen. Immediate Family is an interesting look at the music scene, particularly of the 1970’s, and particularly to viewers who are fans of 70’s music. If you want to learn about the band’s intimate personal lives you will be disappointed; any marriages, births, deaths, divorces, or conflicts are almost unmentioned. But that isn’t the point of Immediate Family, which is a celebratory, egoless look at the musical careers of skilled musicians and the family they have made together.
The Immediate Family Film website has a list and spotify playlist of songs that were performed or produced by the subjects of the documentary: Immediate Family – Documentary | Soundtrack –GT
Still Working 9 to 5
The documentary Still Working 9 to 5 records the origins, influence, legacy and impact of the late ‘70s comedy 9 to 5 starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, and Dabney Coleman. The original film, which is described as a “Trojan Horse Comedy,” was a project largely created by Jane Fonda and then tailored for the participation of Parton and Tomlin. As such, the documentary discusses Fonda and the original film for the role each played in the women’s movement of the late 1970’s and early 1980s. Here, the documentary does well not to over-reach on the original film’s impact—seeing the film more as part of, and record of, the period’s movement than as an inspirational source. The narrative is then carried forward with a description of the (tragic) failure of the Equal Rights Amendment to achieve status as law.
Later and perhaps more forgettable iterations of the 9 to 5 narrative are also discussed as the documentary follows the women’s movement through the 21st Century. Uncovered in the subtle impact of the film is the continuing influence on individual actors from Rita Moreno to Allison Janney or Stephanie J. Block.
As part of this extended political narrative, it is also interesting to witness progress in the careers of women involved in the original project (and I wish more time was spent celebrating this). Fonda, a long-demonized activist of the left, has recently rediscovered mainstream acceptance for her role in Grace and Frankie while Parton, a country star once objectified for her body type has become an icon for the south; an icon whose silence in political discourse is belied by her relentlessly progressive philanthropy and quiet support for women’s issues. These women are profound models with extraordinary long careers, careers the likes of which did not exist in the 1970s. In all Still Working is a very well-done document of the continuing relevance of a dated but still important cultural artifact—even if its very longevity is a tragic necessity of the ongoing fight. –JM
The lineup for this year’s Nashville Film Festival is somehow both undeniably local and excitingly global. The winner of the best Tennessee feature, Waheed AlQawasmi’s Jacir, which follows a Syrian refugee resettling in Memphis, was shot entirely in the state. A host of music documentaries, from Kathlyn Horan’s The Return of Tanya Tucker: Featuring Brandi Carlile to Joshua Britt and Neilson Hubbard’s Big Old Goofy World: The Story of Oh Boy Records and others in between, placed Nashville musicians and musicmaking as a central theme of this year’s festival.
At the same time, the host of films from around the country and across the globe brought plenty of huge names and famous faces to Music City, while also bringing with them a diverse array of stories and perspectives to Nashville audiences. The winners of the best narrative feature award at both the Nashville Film Festival and the International Black Film Festival, Gabriela Martins’ Mars One and Denise Dowse’s Remember Me: The Mahalia Jackson Story respectively, are but just two films from the festivals highlighting interpersonal struggles against the backdrop of oppression and state-sponsored violence. Still other films and documentaries offered reflections on the #MeToo movement and the long, long ongoing fight for gender equality.
The quality, diversity, and political relevance of these films help to center Nashville’s film scene as an increasingly important one. They also show that the tireless work of these festivals’ programming directors, Hazel Joyner-Smith at IBFF and Lauren Ponto at NFF, are integral parts of Nashville’s ever-growing cultural scene. That the festivals place so much importance on the work of local filmmakers and crews is an exciting prospect and will no doubt help more than anything to foster this growth and enrichment in the coming years. –BG
Authors–Benjamin Gates (BG), Bethany Morgan (BM), G.E. Tipton (GT), Daniel Krenz (DK), Joseph E. Morgan (JM)