From Stereo to Screen: DocFest Brings on the Music

by Pam Grady

There are lots of intriguing offerings at San Francisco’s DocFest, running this year June 4-18. Harry & Snowman spins an unforgettable tale of a Dutch immigrant whose life was changed forever by a horse originally destined for the glue factory. In Country delves into what drives men—some veterans, some not—to stage war games reenacting the conflict in Vietnam. Breach shines a harsh light on whaling in Iceland. One of the country’s hottest chefs, Michelin two-starred Curtis Duffy, went from being a troubled teen to opening his own highly praised restaurant in Chicago, a project that took its toll on his personal life in For Grace co-presented by EatDrinkFilms. The list goes on, with something for every taste, but it is the music docs that are a personal standout, starting out of the gate on opening night with Colin Hanks’ All Things Must Pass .


The actor’s feature directing debut relates the history of Tower Records, a business that started in Hanks’ hometown of Sacramento and went on to become the go-to record store for two generations of music fans throughout the world until MP3s and the company’s own bad decisions did it in. Hanks’ enlists Tower personnel, including founder Russ Solomon, who began an empire in a corner of his father’s drugstore, to explain what happened, and a roster of famous fans, including Elton John and Bruce Springsteen, to mourn the passing not just of a chain but of a culture. It’s a warm, wonderful history of an increasingly lost world where Tower Records (and other stores just like it) weren’t just places to shop, but communities.

Chances are, even if you can’t recall the name, Michael Des Barres, the face is familiar. He is the kid who hides his eyes behind shades in To Sir, With Love ; he was Richard Dean Anderson’s nemesis Murdoc on MacGyver ; and he was the helpful, white-haired escort in The Man from Elysian Fields (a role he apparently researched years before being tapped for it). He has also been in scads of bands going back to the glam ‘70s, including Silverhead and Detective, and he was the singer who replaced Robert Palmer in Power Station. And now he is the subject of J. Elvis Weinstein’s Michael Des Barres: Who Do You Want Me To Be? , in which his ex-wives (including super groupie Miss Pamela); his son; and famous friends, including Don Johnson, Gabriel Byrne, Sex Pistol Steve Jones, and his Power Station bandmate John Taylor wax affectionately about him. But the real draw of this irresistible doc is Des Barres himself, a witty raconteur as much aware of his own foibles as he is of the adventurous life he’s led.


Image from How Sweet the Sound .

How Sweet the Sound is Leslie McCleave’s years-in-the-making film on the gospel group Blind Boys of Alabama. The founders met as children when they attended a school for the blind, and McCleave catches up with them when they are in their 80s—still making music, and even winning Grammys, in their twilight years. The doc celebrates not just their music but their lives, and the power of the group to endure through changing times and tastes. It’s a wonderful film, full of performances and archival material.

Cross This Is Spinal Tap with Hard Core Logo and Anvil: The Story of Anvil and what you get is I Am Thor , the story of bodybuilder and metal musician Jon Mikl Thor. His is a dramatic life, full of wild twists and turns, the tale of a singer-songwriter who might have been one of the metal gods of the ‘70s and ‘80s but fate dealt him a bad hand. Mixing feats of strength with his music, Thor’s stage show at its most sedate is pure spectacle. Ryan Wise’s documentary charts the wild arc of Thor’s career and captures his vivid sense of showmanship as it follows along as he mounts his latest comeback attempt. Thor will be in attendance at DocFest and is also playing a show at Thee Parkside after the film’s screening on Thursday.

Strictly speaking, Lords of BSV is about dance, not music, but you can’t have the latter without the former. Maria Soccor’s documentary focuses on a group of young men from Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood, who have pioneered a new ultra-kinetic form of dance, Brukup. As much about the BSV members’ lives as their performance, this engrossing film examines how dance has given them an avenue out of hardscrabble lives, a gift they are intent on passing on to a younger generation that they mentor.

Meet Tomi Fujiyama in Josh Bishop’s Made in Japan , an ebullient guitarist and country singer who hails from the Land of the Rising Son. Her career reached its zenith, at least in her mind, in 1964 when she shared a bill with Johnny Cash and others at the Grand Ole Opry during its 39th anniversary celebration. Tomi’s “Tennessee Waltz” brought down the house and it is her dream to return to the Opry stage one last time. Bishop comes along as she returns to America, not just to Nashville, but also to scenes of other triumphs in Las Vegas and New York, her goal of playing the Opry is never far from her thoughts. But the Nashville of the 21st century is not what it was 50 years ago, as Bishop demonstrates in this engaging, surprisingly poignant film.

DannySaysPosterBrendan Toller’s Danny Says takes its name from a Ramones song. They would know; Danny Fields was their manager. Toller fills his documentary with performances, animation and the reminiscences of Fields and his associates, including Electra Records founder and head Jac Holzman, Tommy Ramone, Lenny Kaye, and Jonathan Richman as he builds a portrait of a singular life. Fields was a journalist, record executive, band manager, and scenester. He was part of the Factory scene (and a sometime roommate of Edie Sedgwick), in the backroom at Max’s Kansas City, and attended the birth of punk. Toller’s exhaustive doc follows the bends and twists of Fields’ life and unlikely career, and makes a case for the man’s place in pop culture history.

Rounding out DocFest’s musical selections are a retrospective screening of Brad Beesley’s riveting 2005 Flaming Lips documentary The Fearless Freaks and, for those music fans who would rather participate than merely watch, The Music Video Sing-A-Long Show Formerly Known As Prince. That 21-up show includes not just music videos, but a costume contest and birthday cake.

Horizontal RuleDOCFEST

Thursday, June 4 to Thursday, June 18, 2015 at Roxie, Brava, Balboa, and Vogue theaters. For tickets and further information, visit

Horizontal RulePamGradyPam Grady is a San Francisco-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Box Office, Keyframe, and other publications. She is a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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