The Sound Unseen film festival launches this Wednesday, again bringing music-lovers in Minnesota insight into artists both obsurce and beloved, histories of creative titans and audio visionaries, and examples of how art can change the world.
The festival begins with the celebratory Mavis!, a loving portrait of Mavis Staples and her decades-long impact on American music. Following that, there are more than 20 films in the festival lineup, some of which are in competition, and scheduled musical performances from local acts.
The films will be screened over the coming days at a few venues across the Twin Cities, including the McNally Smith College of Music, Bryant Lake Bowl and the Trylon microcinema.
Below are a few of the festival highlights. A full list of the films showing can be found here.
Heart of a Dog (Nov. 13; 7 p.m.; Trylon Microcinema)
There are some artists that simply speak your language, who move beyond mere personal preference into the realm of deep experiential understanding. For me, two of those artists are film director Chris Marker responsible for my all-time favorite film La Jetee) and musician Laurie Anderson. They both share an observational alien sensibility that feels entirely hyperconscious, and Anderson’s new, elegiac film Heart of a Dog frequently feels like a confluence of their shared traits. The film is a diffuse meditation on the nature of death — specifically Anderson’s beloved dog Lolabelle, her late husband Lou Reed, her mother, and living in New York during 9/11 — and the Buddhist concept of life between death, all of it delivered in Anderson’s unmistakably quizzical philosophical interjections. Forget calling this the classier Marley & Me. File it right alongside Joan Didion’s crystalline, devastating The Year of Magical Thinking. — Eric Henderson
Landfill Harmonic (Nov. 14; 1:15 p.m.; McNally Smith College of Music)
An eye-opening and touching documentary on poverty and art, Landfill Harmonic traces the story of a Paraguayan orchestra in which every musician plays an instrument made out of garbage. Directors Graham Townsley and Brad Allgood introduce us to various inspirational characters, from the visionary who started giving free music lessons in the landfill slum of Cateura, to the old handyman who makes instruments out of oil drums and bedframes, to the young girls who lead the violin section. From their humble of humblest beginnings, the film follows the orchestra’s rise to international stages and playing with (I’m not joking) the metal band Megadeth. Yet, this isn’t a rags to riches story. The focus, instead, is what can be made out of rags — tight-knit communities, better futures and beautiful music. — Jonathon Sharp
Theory of Obscurity: a film about The Residents (Nov. 13; 9:15 p.m.; McNally Smith College of Music)
To my ears, The Residents make pretty terrible music. But, to them, that could be the point. Theory of Obscurity attempts to explain the importance of the the art-rock band, which has been around for decades despite the fact that the group’s members haven’t been identified. Filmmaker Don Hardy recounts the band’s history, and gets insight into the group’s highly conceptual art from its famous fans, such as “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening and magician Penn Jillette. The main thrust of the film is about creativity, the idea being that The Residents have, by virtue of being obscure, the creative faucet on full blast at all times. This appears to have allowed them to experiment with genre and form, especially when it comes to new technology. (They were one of the first to create music videos.) While the film answers some questions about how the band functions, the more human side of their story is left tantalizingly unknown. — Jonathon Sharp
Breaking A Monster (Nov. 14; 3:15 p.m.; McNally Smith College of Music)
Luke Meyer’s Breaking a Monster is an intimate look at the swift journey of a black, preteen heavy metal trio as they go from Times Square street performers to a band with a major-label record contract. Unlocking The Truth‘s YouTube videos get them noticed on social media, and they gain the ear of a 70-something New York industry veteran who helps land them a $1.8 million contract with Sony Music. But are these youngsters ready to be churned through the music industry’s machinery? Monster could be a companion piece to 2013’s A Band Called Death, about another black rock trio who were groomed in the 70s. Legendary music exec Clive Davis allegedly dumped them after a falling out over the band’s name. Death, who were quite ahead of their time, didn’t have the Internet to help them circumvent the now-decaying industry, which may be the thing that gets UTT through their infancy and on to a solid career. Besides the joy of watching the lovable and talented trio and their families, one of my favorite aspects of Monster is seeing the industry people at work — many of whom are reminiscent of Christopher Guest characters. — Stephen Swanson
Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai (Rain The Color of Blue With a Little Red In It) (Nov. 15; 6:30 p.m.; Amsterdam Bar & Hall)
American filmmaker Christopher Kirkley transposes Purple Rain to central Niger in Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai. The title means “Rain The Color of Blue With a Little Red In It” in English — because the Tamasheq language lacks a word for Prince’s favorite color. Minneapolis is now the Saharan city of Agadez; Prince is the striking and smooth Mdou Moctar; Morris Day is the equally fabulous Kader; and First Avenue is the L’Alliance Française d’Agadez. Moctar pretty much plays himself — a brilliant Tuareg guitarist … who just happens to ride around his arid city on a purple motorcycle. His Apollonia has much more self-respect and grace, but his rival is just as cold blooded as his Minnesotan counterpart. Akounak, which is said to be the first feature-length film in the Tamasheq language, showcases the electrified sounds of Tuareg guitar music. And it’s worth the price of admission just to be introduced to these hypnotic grooves. — Stephen Swanson