Throughout the year, Bill Foster keeps an eye out for the best films about music. Now in its 28th year, the NorthWest Film Center's Reel Music Festival is a showcase for 25 to 30 of some of the world's most interesting, most underappreciated films about musicians, performances and the world around them.
This year, the festival is featuring several films that speak to the Black experience, both African and American, including "Ray Charles America," "Kinshasa Symphony," "In My Mind" and "Rejoice and Shout."
Foster's journey to find these films never ends. Throughout the year Foster keeps a running tally of the best, mostly under-watched, musical films. He keeps an eye out for local filmmakers, films that may never get widely released
"We're trying to find alternative things that you wouldn't normally find," he told The Skanner News.
Take the film, "Rejoice and Shout," says Foster, a film chronicling and celebrating 200 year musical history of African American Christianity.
"Hardly anyone gets to see gospel in this way," he said.
A film like this will likely get a limited release in the South and select cities in the North, but it would be unlikely to see this in any other theatre in Portland. "Rejoice and Shout" screens at 7 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 17 in the Whitsell Auditorium in the Portland Art Museum, where all the movies will screen.
While some of the subject matter in many of the films being screened for the Reel Music Fest are familiar – there aren't many out there who haven't heard of Ray Charles – Foster usually won't screen the big films from industry bigwigs like Bruce Springstein or the Rolling Stones.
For the film, "Kinshasa Symphony," the filmmakers document 200 musicians of the Congo's only orchestra, the Kimanguiste Symphony Orchestra, as they perform Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Foster calls it the "poster child" of the type of film that he wants for the festival. It combines a documentary story of discovery with music, as well as a bit of the dramatic – during the performance a power outage nearly ruins the entire performance.
Surprisingly, the Reel Music Festival hasn't changed all that much over the years. Foster continues to find that rare mix of commercial and independent, known and unknown that will attract an audience interested in an experience that runs a bit deeper than raw concert footage.
"Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone"
Director: Chris Metzler, Lev Anderson (in attendance)
Screening: 9 p.m. Friday, Jan. 14 Whitsell Auditorium
From the shifting fault lines of Hollywood fantasies and the economic and racial tensions of 1980s America, Fishbone rose to become one of the most original bands of the era. With a blistering combination of punk and funk, they blurred the walls of genre and challenged the racial stereotypes and political order of the music industry. EVERYDAY SUNSHINE is a story about music, politics, courage, and being funky and features interviews with Flea, Gwen Stefani, Ice-T, Perry Farrell, Branford Marsalis, George Clinton, Tim Robbins, Gogol Bordello, and many others. (103 mins.)
Director: Stan Warnow
Screening: 5 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 16
One of the true enigmas of 20th century music, Harry Warnow—better known to the world of jazz aficionados, record collectors, exotica fiends, and electronic music tinkerers as Raymond Scott—was a highly prolific figure with a career that began in the 1930s swing/big band era and continued on through the experimental musicage of the 1970s. Practically everyone on Earth can instantly recognize Scott's off-kilter melodies as heard in many Warner Brothers' cartoons, but few know that he also invented his own dazzling array of gadget-based musical instruments, played a part in busting racism on network radio, and was the director of electronic music research and development for Motown. Stan Warnow, Scott's son and renowned film editor (WOODSTOCK, HAIR), leads us on a revealing tour of his father's multi-faceted life, while attempting to reconcile the myth and reality of a man he never fully knew. "An enthralling film that tells the story of a truly pivotal figure in 20th century music whose madly eclectic achievements remain largely obscure. An essential view inside the wonders of creative genius, American-style."—LA Weekly (97 mins.)
"In My Mind"
Director: Gary Hawkins
Screening: 7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 16
In My Mind compares and contrasts two great concerts separated by half a century but united by the power of jazz. In 2009, MacArthur "Genius" Grant-winning pianist Jason Mo ran paid tribute to one of his own heroes, Thelonious Monk. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of Monk's historic 1959 Town Hall Concert, his first with a large ensemble. Playing in the same venue, Moran and his Big Bandwagon—which includes Monk's original French horn player, Robert "Brother Ah" Northern—offer a contemporary spin on Monk's iconoclastic sound, abetted by collaborating visual artists Glenn Ligon and David Dempewolf. Hawkins' film includes photographer and audiophile Eugene Smith's newly unearthed images and recordings of Monk's rehearsals from the Jazz Loft in New York. (100 mins.)
"Ray Charles America"
Director: Manya Spraic
Screening: 5 p.m. Monday, Jan. 17
"Ray Charles America," from American director Manya Spraic: "Few music icons resonate with so many aspects of American culture more than Ray Charles, one of the greatest artists in American history, who also had one of the greatest stories. Over time, both his story and his work became two sides of the same coin. Few came from less—dirt poor, blind, and ultimately orphaned—to achieve more. RAY CHARLES AMERICA examines the social and political context of Charles' work and how his unique approach to music and his ability to transcend racial barriers changed the cultural landscape as we know it. Through in-depth interviews, unreleased music, and never-before-seen footage, the film tells of Charles' impact in broader stories of love, politics, art, and business. (90 mins.)"
"Rejoice and Shout"
Director: Don McGlynn
Screening: 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 17
Packed with evocative photos, rare audio recordings, and stirring film and television performances, McGlynn's ("Howlin' Wolf," "Charles Mingus," "More Than You Know") new film celebrates the 200-year musical history of African-American Christianity. In tracing the evolution of gospel, McGlynn explores the influences of political struggle and social change on the musical form and interviews artists ranging from Smokey Robinson to Mahalia Jackson in the search for a deeper understanding of the music and its influences. Whether you know The Dixie Hummingbirds, Golden Gate Quartet, Sister Rosetta Tharp, Blind Boys of Alabama, Staple Singers, Soul Stirrers, James Cleveland, and other gospel legends, or need an introduction (you do), the revelation will run deep. (115 mins.)