Music and exercise: Friday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I caught two movies Friday, a music documentary at the Roxie and a very unique coming-of-age story at the New Mission‘s Theater 1.

B+ Soundbreaking: Stories from the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music

Like The Wrecking Crew, Soundbreaking looks at how music–specifically rock and roll–is created in the studio. But it isn’t about session musicians. It’s about the producers who control the recording, handle the mix, and provide the singers and songwriters with another opinion. It’s also about how technology changes music.

I can’t really call this a movie; certainly not a feature. What we were shown were the first two episodes from an upcoming television documentary series for PBS; a dream of George Martin‘s that he didn’t live to see completed.

As you’d expect, there’s a lot of interviews with famous and not-so-famous people, a lot of anecdotes, and a lot of music.

The first episode concentrated on the producers, and the working relationships they have with their more-famous collaborators. Some were friends. Others, such as Martin, were father figures. Still others, such as Phil Spector (no relation, although I do have a brother named Phil), are feared dictators.

The second episode looked at the evolution of studio technology and how it has changed (and will continue to change) the music. As recording devices went to four-track, 16-track, to today’s virtually unlimited tracks, musicians and producers found new ways to create sound. And sometimes they went overboard.

After the two episodes, co-director Jeff Dupre did a Q&A with the audience. Some highlights:

  • On the structure of the series: The obvious way to start would be with Edison, but we wanted to start with when recording became an art.
  • On favorite interview subjects: Annie Lennox and Tom Petty were great. It was a total privilege to meet these people and talk to them about what they love.
  • On words in the interviews that can’t be said on PBS: I’m about to go back to New York and bleep a lot of things.
  • What the other six episodes will be about:
    • The human voice
    • Electric instruments
    • The rhythm track
    • Sampling and hip hop
    • Rock videos
    • Distribution formats, and how they dictated the music.

The first two episodes will play again tonight (Saturday) at the New Mission at 9:30. The series will appear on PBS starting in November.

A- The Fits

This impossible-to-categorize narrative film will get a theatrical release in June, so I’m only allowed to write 100 words about it now.

The Fits shows us the world of an inner-city gym through the eyes of pre-teen Toni (Royalty Hightower). She clearly idolizes her older brother, who works there while training to be a boxer. Quite an athlete herself, she joins the gym’s synchronized dancing team. But something strange is going on; girls are having fits, going out of control and shaking hysterically. Toni rarely talks in the film, but Hightower’s expressive face and athletic physicality says it all. Co-writer and director Anna Rose Holmer allows us to just watch and see, while being told almost nothing. It’s a very strong film.

After the screening, Holmer and Hightower came onstage for a Q&A. Some highlights, avoiding spoilers:

  • Hightower, on her working relationship with Holmer: We helped rewrite the lines because they didn’t feel right.
  • Holmer’s take: I was so excited with Royalty because I felt I had a collaborator.
  • It felt like we were making a feature-length fitness video.
  • How did this film change your (Hightower’s) life: It changed my life a lot. I was only known in Cincinnati; now I’m known all over the world.

The film has one more screening at the festival, on Monday at 9:15. But as I said, it will get a theatrical release come June.