Jim Brunzell is more than a movie buff, he’s a longtime festival curator, having worked with Austin’s aGLIFF (the All Genders, Lifestyles, and Identities Film Festival) and currently the director if the Sound Unseen Music+Film festival (based in Minneapolis but expanded to Texas audiences in 2020.) Based here in Austin, Jim is two-time My KUTX guest and, this year, is covering all-films-music at Sundance. Read on for the films he’s excited about (we are, too.)
Starting today and running through Wednesday, February 3, the 2021 Sundance Film Festival is taking place in Park City, Utah. For the first time, the festival will be available virtually across the United States and even in our own backyard, Austin, TX, thanks to the Austin Film Society, who will be hosting a few drive-ins starting today, too. You can also go to the Sundance website and get more info on tickets and passes. All feature films are available for three-hour screening windows and will include live Q & A’s; although many films have sold out, some tickets might be available the day of the screening.
While this is the 13th time I’ve covered Sundance, what will be a strange first is not being on the ground in Park City. (This year is also my first time covering the festival for KUTX.)
Sundance has 11 categories, into which most of its programming falls: U.S. Dramatic Competition, U.S. Documentary Competition, World Cinema Dramatic Competition, World Cinema Documentary Competition, Premieres, Spotlight (films that premiered at other 2020 film festivals), NEXT (low-budget and innovative storytelling), Indie Series Program (Episodiac), Short Film Programs (multiple short programs) Special Screenings and Midnight.
Not to be forgotten, the more edgier and risk-taking films will be featured in the the New Frontier program (multimedia, live art installations, panel discussions, and new media technologies presentations), the New Frontier films (more experimental and avant-garde fare) — and plenty of conversations, events, and Cinema Cafe with featured guests include Ahmir “QUESTLOVE” Thompson (The Roots), Rebecca Hall (Passing), Robin Wright (The Land), Rita Moreno (Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided To Go For It), Gregg Akari (Mysterious Skin), Cheryl Dunye (The Watermelon Woman) and Tabitha Jackson (Sundance Festival Director).
Music Films at Sundance
This year, I’ll be jumping head-first into all the music-related films, which include fiction films and documentaries on the band Sparks, the Harlem Cultural Festival, a queer love story between newlywed musicians, a young woman joining a choir and a short film on Phil Collins’ 1980 hit, “In the Air Tonight.”
Below are some of the music-related film highlights I’m looking forward to checking out and reporting back on following the conclusion of the festival. (Descriptions are provided by the Sundance Film Festival and Sundance Institute, and all start times are Central Standard Time / CST.)
CODA: “Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing member of a deaf family. At 17, she works mornings before school to help her parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) and brother (Daniel Durant) keep their Gloucester fishing business afloat. But in joining her high school’s choir club, Ruby finds herself drawn to both her duet partner (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and her latent passion for singing. Her enthusiastic, tough-love choirmaster (Eugenio Derbez) hears something special and encourages Ruby to consider music school and a future beyond fishing, leaving her torn between obligation to family and pursuit of her dream.
Siân Heder’s heartwarming, exuberant follow-up to “Tallulah” brings us inside the idiosyncratic rhythms and emotions of a deaf family—something we’ve rarely seen on screen. In developing “CODA,” which stands for Child of Deaf Adults, Heder was determined to tell the story authentically with deaf actors. Her writing and direction—layered, naturalistic, frank, and funny—finds perfect expression in richly drawn characters and a uniformly outstanding cast, led by Jones in a fantastic breakout performance. Thursday, Jan 28 at 7pm
MA BELLA, MY BEAUTY: “Newlywed musicians Bertie and Fred are adjusting to their new life in the beautiful countryside of France. It’s an easy transition for Fred, the son of French and Spanish parents, but New Orleans native Bertie grapples with a nagging depression that is affecting her singing. Lane—the quirky ex who disappeared from their three-way relationship years ago—suddenly shows up for a surprise visit, bringing new energy and baggage of her own.
First-time feature filmmaker Marion Hill takes us on a tipsy, moody dive into polyamory that holds all of the gravity and complexity of sexual fluidity and triangulation, while maintaining the buoyant atmosphere of a hot summer adventure through the fields of Europe. Levitated by an intoxicating acoustic guitar soundtrack by Mahmoud Chouki, “Ma Belle, My Beauty” is a breezy and meaningful journey through wine-drenched candlelit dinners, firelit vineyard parties, farmers’ markets, and sunny hikes alongside the creek, as Fred, Bertie, and Lane grapple with how to get what they want inside the soup of their desires, passions, and life ambitions.” Saturday, January 30 at 5:00 P.M.
THE SPARKS BROTHERS: “Sparks is your favorite band’s favorite band, and soon to be yours too. Whether or not you’re aware of it, Sparks likely had a hand in something you’re fond of. This is a band that has been in the background of almost every art form across the last 50 years. Growing up in the ’60s, Los Angeles brothers Ron and Russell got by on a heavy diet of popcorn matinees and pop music until the spotlight of school talent shows illuminated their way on a musical journey that has so far spawned 25 studio albums.
It should come as no surprise to those familiar with the mind behind such comedies as “Baby Driver” that Edgar Wright’s debut documentary, “The Sparks Brothers,” is an absolute delight. Wright’s spirited vision brings five decades of invention to life through nutty animations and interviews with a who’s who of cool, and by digging deeply into the band’s rich, career-spanning archival. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, this charming love letter to innovation, music, and two rebel artists just might make this the biggest year yet for the brothers named Sparks.” Saturday, January 30 at 5:00 P.M.
SUMMER OF SOUL (…OR, WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED): “In 1969, during the same summer as Woodstock, a different music festival took place 100 miles away. More than 300,000 people attended the summer concert series known as the Harlem Cultural Festival. It was filmed, but after that summer, the footage sat in a basement for 50 years. It has never been seen. Until now.
“Summer Of Soul” is a stunning unearthed treasure destined to become a pillar of American music and African American history. In his striking debut as a filmmaker, the legendary musician Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson presents this transporting documentary—part concert film, part historical record—about an epic event that radiated the wholesale reevaluation of Black history, culture, fashion, and music. This rich tapestry deftly incorporates an unforgettable musical revue that includes many rare gems, such as a Stevie Wonder drum solo and a duet between Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples. “Summer Of Soul” shines a light on the importance of history to our spiritual well-being and stands as a testament to the healing power of music.” Thursday, January 28 at 9:00 P.M.
Jim Brunzell III is the festival director of the Sound Unseen Music+Film Festival and currently resides in Austin. He can be reached by email, followed on Twitter, and heard as guest DJ onMy KUTX here and here.