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, covered all-films-music at Sundance. Read on for his thoughts on this year’s films.
The 2021 Sundance Film Festival wrapped on Wednesday, February 3, and its first virtual festival seemed to be a huge success on all fronts. For many, this might have been their first virtual festival and/or first time attending Sundance; for others veteran and professional attendees – those who have inhabited the snowy mountain town of Park City, Utah, standing in countless lines, nearly getting sideswiped by the flurry of buses, traffic and, of course, snow on a daily basis – it was probably a bit a of relief to take in the festival from home. Maybe you had the opportunity to attend and/or participate from home or, if you were lucky, to check out one of the drive-ins hosted locally by the Austin Film Society.
Sundance has always been a haven for great music- and art-related premiere selections (Sing Street, The Go Go’s, Anvil: The Story of Anvil! and Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, to name a few) and this year was no different. I got the chance to catch the majority of the music-related films (with a couple winning awards) and they did not disappoint.
As I mentioned, in the preview post, I was looking forward to this year’s film music lineup. After taking in 41 films during the festival, an all-time first happened: the first film of the festival was also my favorite: the impressive opening-night selection and winner of the U.S. Grand Jury Prize and Documentary Audience Award, Summer of Soul (… or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), directed by first-time director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. Thompson has assembled a love letter of a doc with so much love and compassion, not to mention footage that sat in a basement for 50 years – a helluva achievement. A documentary about the Harlem Cultural Festival, it features people who attended the festival series (which brought in 300,000 attendees!) People from Rev. Al Sharpton to teenagers living in the neighborhood reminiscence about how the Harlem Cultural Festival took shape and how it was definitely a moment in the zeitgeist. The deep dive of the performers (Sly & the Family Stone, Nina Simone, Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight & the Pips and Stevie Wonder … drumming!) is the highlight and exclamation point to the doc. The footage is incredible, and a joy to watch as you see how much fun the concert goers had, which makes the doc easily watchable and relatable. It will strike a chord with multiple generations and new fans, given the cultural and historical significance when the concert series took place in 1969. If you missed the film, Summer of Soul was recently bought by Searchlight and Hulu and will be released in late 2021.
The other music documentary going into the festival with quite a bit of buzz was Edgar Wright’s, The Sparks Brothers, featuring brothers Ron and Russell, who have been making music for over 50 years and are still relatively unknown to the mainstream. While Sparks have legions of fans, some have never heard of Sparks before and, on first listen, may think the band sound like a British new-wave band, despite the brothers growing up in Los Angeles. Their success semi-eluded them in the states – they did make the transition by going to London, and became mildly successful there, but never had the huge success many in the music industry felt Sparks was due. Clocking in at an absurd and unnecessary 140 minutes, The Sparks Brothers is definitely for die-hard fans, no question. Those unfamiliar with Sparks will find the doc engaging and interesting for sure, but some will find it a bit repetitive and an endurance test, especially, since Wright (“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” “Shaun of the Dead”), a fanboy himself (he appears on camera as FANBOY), seems to have asked very famous (white) fans (like Beck, Jack Antonoff, Mike Myers, Jane Widelin, and more) to speak on camera about how great and strange the brothers’ band is. The most interesting nugget to come out of the film might be for Sparks fans to know that the script and music they wrote for the upcoming musical “Annette,” directed by French indie-darling Leos Carax (“Holy Motors”), has been picked up by Amazon Studios, so fans could potentially get a double-dose of Sparks on screen by the end of 2021.
Sundance is also known for discovery. One of the best discoveries of the festival was writer/director/editor Marion Hill’s lovely feature debut and NEXT Audience Award winner Ma Belle, My Beauty. Hill’s story may not be an original one, but shot in the beautiful French countryside, with a terrific New Orleans jazz score, this story of a complicated polyamorous love triangle flows as smoothly as all the red wine guzzled with only a touch of a hangover. Hill seems to know the film’s characters, and comes across as a pros’ pro in her writing and direction – finding the nuances, sexual tension, body language and insecurities among these characters. Its best unseen character, the excellent music soundtrack by Mahmoud Chouki, really pops in the film (especially with a nice glass of Merlot.)
The most-talked about film (on social media) from the entire Sundance festival, CODA, also found plenty of love from the jury and audiences, cleaning house in the awards section by winning four in total: the U.S. Grand Jury Dramatic Jury, the Audience Award, Directing Award for writer/director Sian Heder and U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast. CODA was also the big winner as the film got picked up by Apple+ for $25 million (the biggest sale in Sundance history), ensuring it will be seen by a wider audience. CODA, standing for Child of Deaf Adults, follows young adult Ruby (a knockout performance by Emilia Jones), the only hearing member in her deaf family (including Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) as she works with them in the family fishing business everyday before school. Starting her senior year, she finds a passion in singing after joining the school choir, partly so she can be near her latest boy-crush. When it comes to the moment when Ruby needs to decide whether to stay with her family and continue to work in the fishing business or move away to pursue her singing career, CODA knows exactly what it is: a crowd-pleaser with a winning effect. Heder’s script has a naturalist approach, is surprisingly funny, and gives each character plenty of time to shine on screen. Even if at times the film plays like a TV-movie, CODA nevertheless, due to Jones performance, pulls at your heartstrings and should be one of the most talked-about films for the upcoming 2021 year.
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.