Noise Pop 2011's Film Series Rawks

Dennis Harvey February 17, 2011

Got Feist? will. At least you will if you hazard this year's Noise Pop Film Series (running Feb. 23-27 at various SF venues) in which the Canadian solo singer-songwriter and Broken Social Scene member has a prominent place.

Let's face it: Most pop stars—even those who resist the term—want whatever attention they get. Leslie Feist is an exception in that she's a reluctantly famous figure who really, really would prefer to remain invisible despite all clamor for her to step-up-to-plate as international "alternative" recording artist, multimedia concert locus, and glamour puss.

Anthony Seck's adventuresome documentary Look at What the Light Did Now—chronicling the very long road by which her 2007 album The Reminder was recorded, music-video'd, toured, and otherwise made fairly huge—is almost as striking as Grant Gee's 1999 Meeting People Is Easy. That latter film chronicled the soul-draining floggage demanded of ultimate post-rock art band Radiohead when their masterpiece OK Computer shockingly won exactly the success it deserved.

Anthony Seck's doc  isn't quite so bent on staring into the existential void of unwanted celebrity—it wants things to turn out all right in the end, as they do. (And as they did for Radiohead, though you wouldn't know it from brilliantly bleak Meeting.) Feist wants to be arty, intuitive and elusive despite the pressures of increasingly mainstream stardom. I'm still not sure I like her music—oh so easily adaptable to pensive dramatic moments in TV dramas like Grey's Anatomy and big-screen ones like The Jane Austen Book Club—but I love the documentary about her process. She is not a phony.

She isn't an actress, either, though one can applaud her trying in a subsidiary role in Ivory Tower. This wild-swingingly satirical feature by Chilly Gonzales—a frequent past collaborator who stars, scored and co-wrote the screenplay—is a laugh riot portraying fierce "jazz chess" tensions between two estranged brothers who are global competitive champions. Deliberately ludicrous in a Best in Show vein, this mockumentary-style effort portrays genius inner torment as a conniving Canuck fashion statement.

Another major export from the Great White North, Arcade Fire, is the focus of Miroir Noir: Neon Bible Archives, Vincent Morisset's depiction of the Montreal ensemble's extensive touring for their 2007 album Neon Bible. We are promised additional “gems and surprises” by Morisset on a program that will also feature some of his web design work for the band.

If that's enough Canada for you, head south to Pool Party, about one of those things that makes Brooklyn just as cool as it thinks it is: Summertime concerts at McCarren Park pool, one of eleven enormous public swimming facilities built by the WPA during the Great Depression. Closed in 1984, it went unused for over two decades—even as all its sister pools were renovated for continued use—with many community members actually in favor of permanent shutter, fearing it would magnetize gangs and crime.

Then someone had the very good idea of using the space for free concerts and other cultural events, starting a "golden hipster era" for the pool that, like all good things, came to an end as renovation plans finally began moving forward amidst an overall gentrification wave. Beth Aala's delightful documentary is a history of the burrough, its changing economics, politics and ethnic makeup. It's also a showcase for performances by the likes of Yo La Tengo (doing "Do the Swim"), Sonic Youth, the Breeders, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Aesop Rock and more.

Other Noise Pop Film Fest features offer in-depth looks at some disparate, idiosyncratic, enigmatic musicians. Tom Zé: Astronauta Libertado chronicles the half-century career of the Brazilian tropicalismo performer and songwriter whose highly experimental work in the 1970s and ’80s belatedly won him a whole new audience when David Byrne began releasing his work in the U.S. two decades ago. (Local film festival habitues may also recall the San Francisco International showed a different documentary about Zé in 2007.)

If Zé is a figure of restless energy and flamboyance, his opposite number might be the subject of The Extraordinary Ordinary Life of Jose Gonzalez, the tightly buttoned-down Swede of Argentine extraction whose delicate, hypnotic music is based on classical guitar. This very quiet, wry, deliberately awkward portrait—sometimes success means talking to people you don't want to and sleeping on planes with your mouth open—uses animation, tour diaries, concert footage and more to capture a personality that makes Leslie Feist look like a raging extrovert.

Closer to home, there's The Family Jams, Kevin Barker's doc about three San Francisco acts—Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, and Vetiver—flying the freak-folk flag on tour in 2004. This intimate behind-scenes features a lot of music, a little drama, much shirtlessness (from guess-who), guest cockroach appearances, posthumous molestation of Bessie Smith (in effigy), Antony of Antony and the Johnsons (who's like Bessie Smith but goes unmolested), original psychedelic folkie Linda Perhacs, a North Carolinian named “The Corndawg,” slavish Stevie Nicks adoration, and other endearingly random stuff.

I'll admit never much liking these folks' music—not everyone can swallow so much twee—but might have to revise that opinion, having now been made aware over 81 minutes' course that they are all really, really nice. Really! There's a scene here involving a dragonfly that you will truly want to snort at. But just try.

Last but certainly not least, there is the ultimate Noise Pop Film Festival movie: Wednesday's opening-night world premiere of This Is Noise Pop, which chronicles the 18-year-old institution in interviews and tons of archival performance footage from The Donnas, Guided by Voices, Death Cab for Cutie, Sebadoh, The Shins, Modest Mouse, Beulah, Stephen Malkmus, Bob Mould....yeah, just about every band you like.

It's directed by Adam Werbach—yes, the onetime 23-year-old youngest-Sierra-Club-president-ever, now a wizened 31. Given that he's had to fit this filmmaking hobby in between writing books, working for SF's Public Utilities Commission, being on Greenpeace's international board, etc., etc., one must forgive him for taking, uh, seven years or so to edit the thing. This is one hippie you can't tell to get a job: He's already got waaaay too many.

This Is Noise Pop was not available for preview, but it is almost scientifically impossible that it should fail to be excellent. This determination is based on personal research: Having just returned from the more headline-producing likes of the Palm Springs, Sundance and Santa Barbara film festivals, I am here to tell you that as far as curatorial batting averages go, our very own wee Noise Pop Film Festival is stupefyingly good. Seriously, there isn't even a slightly disappointing movie in the bunch.

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