Playing's the thing

A quartet of documentary shorts sheds some light on the genius of music, and the people who create it. Carsten Knox rocks out.

Peter Gabriel hadn’t released a proper album of new material since Us in 1992. He’d staged the international Secret World tour, then for years, silence, broken only by a largely instrumental project in conjunction with the opening of the Millennium Dome in London. When he released Up in 2002 and launched the Growing Up tour, much had changed in Gabriel’s life. A new wife and child joined him on his worldwide jaunt, plus two daughters from a previous relationship: Melanie, who sings with him, and Anna, a burgeoning director who shot the behind-the-scenes doc Growing Up on Tour: A Family Portrait. That documentary, along with three other shorts, screens at the Atlantic Film Festival as part of the Music & Image series on Friday.

AFF director Lia Rinaldo “is a big Peter Gabriel fan,” says senior programmer Lee Ann Gillan. “She went after it. The documentary is a really interesting look at how to put on a huge world tour, but it’s also the story of a family working out their dynamics.”

The Music and Image program at the AFF was put together in conjunction with Nova Scotia Music Week to bring film producers and broadcasters together with local musicians. Beyond the business incentives, it is also an opportunity for the festival’s programmers to bring in more music-related movies. However, feature-length music documentaries are the norm while the shorts are a little more unusual.

“It was very serendipitous,” says Gillan. “Documentary shorts are kind of a rarity—sometimes it’s a real hunt. To have four together makes a lovely, perfect two-hour program.”

The Peter Gabriel doc was sought out, but Rusty Nails’ documentary The Ramones and I just dropped through the festival’s mailbox. It’s a seven-minute-long recollection of the influential punk godfathers in their heyday. A teenage social pariah, Nails used the Ramones to escape the suburban social norm. He made the film as a fan tribute of sorts, intersplicing rare footage of the band performing with home movies of himself as that young, self-conscious, leather-jacket sporting disciple.

“It’s a really sweet piece about loving a band… maybe too much,” says Gillan.

Stranger: Bernie Worrell on Earth is a case of cinematic rescue, an effort to bring props where they are most deserving. Bernie Worrell was a child prodigy—a member of the Washington Symphony Orchestra at age 10—and as a teen enrolled in the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. He made his impact on popular music with his unique keyboard sound when he joined funk pioneers Parliament Funkadelic.

Toronto musicologist and composer Bruce Russell says Worrell is as responsible for the P-Funk success as George Clinton or Bootsy Collins.

“His keyboards on Parliament’s ‘Flashlight,’ especially the synth bassline, signalled the beginning of electro-funk,” says Russell. “All at once churchy, droll and deft, the parts he recorded for dozens of P-Funk jams and spaced-out song skits lent a zany Saturday-morning-cartoon energy to their sound.”

Later in his career, Worrell worked with major acts outside of the electro-funk world—Talking Heads, Keith Richards and Mos Def—and his work has been widely sampled in hip-hop. Clearly, he’s a musician’s musician, but his contribution is also on the verge of being forgotten.

“People don’t realize his influence,” says Gillan. “It’s kind of a sad story and pretty resonant. It’s a real shocker to recognize what he’s done.”

The short, directed by Philip DiFore, should go some way to assert Worrell’s legacy, and features David Byrne, Clinton and Morrell himself sounding off on his music.

Finally, there’s Sweet Soul Music, the new film from Ron Mann, Canada’s premiere counter-culture witness with films such as Comic Book Confidential, Go Further and Grass. This time his camera looks at the Canadian roots rock movement and how it produced Blue Rodeo. The Toronto band recently celebrated 20 years together.

“With Ron Mann, we always show his stuff,” says Gillan. ‘When we heard he’d made a musical documentary, we went for it.”

These four films screen Friday, September 23, at Park Lane, 7:05pm, $10. The film festival box office is located on the main floor of Park Lane.