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Silverdocs goes behind the music

Explorations of creative process highlight documentary festival’s varied slate

- - Sunday, June 19, 2011

What makes an artist? And what makes art? This year's Silverdocs documentary film festival offers a host of potential answers.

Now in its ninth year, the seven-day festival held in Silver Spring July 20-26 serves as a showcase for the work of some of the world's most prominent documentarians, including husband-and-wife team Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker ("Don't Look Back," "The War Room," "Monterey Pop"). The verite pioneers will be honored this year for career achievement with Silverdocs' Charles Guggenheim Symposium award.

Other prominent filmmakers at this year's festival will include Marshall Curry("If a Tree Falls"), Whitney Dow ("When the Drum Is Beating"), Alex Gibney ("Catching Hell"), Steve James("The Interrupters"), James Marsh ("Project Nim"),Chris Paine ("Revenge of the Electric Car") and Jim Whitaker ("Rebirth").

Part of the festival's declared mission is to "promote documentary film as a leading art form." With 108 films from 52 countries this year, it offers plenty of evidence that the form, bolstered in large part by the increasing availability of inexpensive video equipment, is thriving.

This year, though, the festival's promotional mission has a self-referential quality, as many of the films serve as explorations of the creative process itself. In particular, the world of pop music, which has been through a series of titanic shifts thanks to explosions in online piracy and home recording technology, is the subject of a large number of documentaries showing this year.

"Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest" looks back on the influence of seminal positive hip-hop band A Tribe Called Quest. "Bob and the Monster" steps off the stage to tell the story of indie-rocker Bob Forrest's alternate career as a drug counselor. "Monterey Pop," which is screening outdoors, takes viewers back to 1967 and the Monterey International Pop Festival.

"Jay Reatard: Better Than Something" chronicles the life and musical career of multi-instrumentalist Jay Lindsey, the hell-raising punk rocker with the flippant stage name of the title. Lindsey died of a drug overdose at age 29 last year after a decade and a half as a minor punk icon. His career suggested the sweep of many of the technological changes that have forever altered the industry.

Directors Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz spent hours talking with Lindsey in the months before his death, and their nuanced video portrait reveals his introspective, surprisingly methodical approach to music.

Lindsey clearly enjoyed crude provocation of any sort. He giddily described the acoustic sets he played late in life as "aesthetic terrorism against punk rock." But he favored wide experimentation above all, proclaiming without apology that he would rather be a dabbler "at 100 things than a virtuoso at one."

Experimentation is also at the heart of "The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye," a feature-length documentary about the gender-bending sexual transformation of influential underground musician and performance artist Genesis P-Orridge, who remade his own body in the image of his lover in order to explore the amorphous concept of "pandrogeny." Genesis, a key player in the gothic, proto-industrial band Throbbing Gristle, is something of a space cadet. Marie Losier's surrealistic direction frequently resembles a music video. Her nontraditional style amplifies the dreamlike ambiance but likely will lose some viewers with its emphasis on moody abstraction.

In contrast, "Sound It Out," director Jeanie Finlay's charming portrait of a dingy independent record shop in northern England looks away from the musicians in order to focus on their most fervent fans. In doing so, it examines music's most concrete product: the physical albums themselves - vinyl records in particular - and the increasingly tiny cult of young men who collect them.

Digressing every few minutes into small portraits of the store's record-nut customers, the film plays like a sort of real-life "High Fidelity," but also highlights the struggles of the changing music business. It notes that stores like Sound It Out are increasingly rare: Across the United Kingdom, more than 500 record stores have closed their doors permanently in the past five years.

Music isn't the only popular art featured in this year's festival. "Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey" offers a history of the popular Sesame Street character's creator, puppeteer Kevin Clash. Director Marcos Nine's short film, "Comic Author X-Ray," mixes animation with interview in a project on cartoonist David Rubin.

"El Bulli: Cooking in Progress" takes viewers behind the scenes of the preparation process of one of the world's most famous and innovative restaurants as it shuts down for six months in order to prepare a whole new menu. There is little story to be found; instead, it's a fascinating, raw document of the creative process.

Early on, one chef looks at the other's work in progress and asks, "Are you convinced it's going to be good?" The response: "No, but I'm experimenting."

Given the variety and sheer number of films on display at Silverdocs, festival-goers would do well to take a similar approach.

For complete schedule and ticket information, go to http://silverdocs.com/.