SXSW Report: On the Record…

In the second part of realscreen's three-part South By Southwest round-up, Adam Benzine reports on British music documentaries Sound It Out (pictured) and Upside Down, as well as Andrew Rossi's New York Times profile Page One.
March 18, 2011

With the music portion of South By Southwest (SXSW) 2011 in full swing, it seems appropriate to examine some of the most talked-about music documentaries at the event, the first of which takes us to Stockton-on-Tees, a small market town in the North East of England.

Jeanie Finlay’s charming documentary Sound It Out, which had its world premiere at SXSW, follows the staff and customers of the titular record shop, which is the last remaining independent music retailer in the Teeside area.

Such shops have taken a beating in recent years, with the triple threat of online piracy, eBay and cost-cutting retail chains all conspiring to reduce consumer demand, and Sound It Out is one of the last of a dying breed.

Finlay’s film, billed as something of a real-life version of High Fidelity, is effective in portraying the passion of the shop’s owner and his assistant, but where it really hits its stride is in focusing on the regular customers who commit to the shop with almost religious zeal. The doc follows these characters – all of whom bring a smile to the face – into their homes, where they discuss the importance of music in their lives and their passionate love for the Sound It Out record store.

Among them are two metal-loving Goth teens, an assembly of young men who DJ from their garden shed, and a Status Quo obsessive who finds in the shop the inclusive environment that has been missing for most of his life.

The film also effectively portrays the difficulties the recession has brought to the area, with many out of work and an increasing number of customers trying to sell music and goods to the store in a bid to raise cash. As should befit such a doc, an excellent soundtrack keeps pace.

The story behind the documentary is just as interesting, with Finlay having used crowd-funding from some 260 online backers to raise the money to make the film, with each supporter earning an associate producer credit.

Success stories of such ventures are still few and far between in the factual sector, so Finlay’s triumph is a welcome addition to a nascent canon which includes the likes of Franny Armstrong’s The Age Of Stupid.

Staying with the independent music vibe, Danny O’Connor’s Upside Down: The Creation Records Story looks at Creation Records, one of the most influential UK labels of the eighties and nineties. Creation is best known for launching Oasis upon the world, as well as bands such as Primal Scream, The Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine and Super Furry Animals.

The documentary predominately focuses on Alan McGee, a maverick Scottish entrepreneur who, through a mixture of talent, luck and hard-work launched a handful of bands that would go on to define a generation.

At this point, the author should note that he is a particular fan of Creation, so the barrier for judgement has been set particularly high. Nevertheless, the documentary presents a more-or-less complete account of the label’s history, from its early drug-fuelled ascension through to the parties and chaos, its buyout by Sony, McGee’s nervous breakdown, the world-conquering success of Oasis, and its eventual dour collapse.

Particularly impressive is O’Connor’s ability to track down a strong array of key characters, including all of the label’s co-founders, early and long-serving staff members, and representatives from all the label’s key bands, including Oasis, Primal Scream, The House Of Love and Super Furry Animals. Even My Bloody Valentine’s reclusive Kevin Shields puts in an appearance, as do minor characters from forgotten acts such as 3 Colours Red and The Loft.

If there is one criticism of the film, it is perhaps a little too gushing, both in its overall tone and in its praise of McGee, a man whose belief in his skills as a talent spotter was both his greatest strength and his biggest hubris.

Nevertheless, this is a well-constructed film, and certainly the authoritative documentary on this important record label.

Shifting away from music, Austin’s State Theatre this week played host to a jam-packed screening of Andrew Rossi’s Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times. As the title suggests, the doc spends a year following a selection of key editors and writers at the 160-year-old ‘old gray lady’ in New York City.

Over the course of 12 months, Rossi and his team embeds with the paper’s staff during several key events, including the release by WikiLeaks of a controversial war video; the exit of U.S. combat troops from Iraq; and the newspaper’s culling of 100 of its 1,250 editorial staff during the downturn.

At the center is David Carr, an investigative reporter and former drug addict whose dry wit is a frequent highlight. Carr is an old-school journalist, unafraid of asking tough, direct questions, and he also acts as the film’s narrator.

Acting as his counter-point is Brian Stelter, a young blogger brought in at the paper to bring it into the 21st century, via Twitter, Facebook and all things social media. The interplay between the older Carr and the younger Stelter is frequently amusing, never more so than when Carr admits that he “can’t get over the feeling that [Stelter] is a robot sent here to destroy me.”

On the whole the doc is both thoughtful and enjoyable, if not hugely revelatory, and in addition to following current events it also reflects on the paper’s history and some of its most recent scandals, including those involving Jason Blair and Judith Miller.

It also looks at the publication’s attempts to keep up with digital media such as the iPad, as well as aggregation news sites such as The Huffington Post, Newser and Gawker, and poses the ultimate question of whether or not print newspapers have a future.

Finally, in a similarly ink-based vein, an honorable mention goes out to Errol Morris’s Tabloid, which screened in the ‘festival favorites’ section. The film ostensibly reflects on the life of former beauty queen Joyce McKinney, a one-time tabloid sensation whose story is really too bizarre to condense into a few lines.

The doc was one of the highlights of 2010 and is one of the funniest documentaries of recent years – if you have yet to see it, check it out.

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