Harry Pot/Sundance Institute

Soundtrack to a Coup d'Etat (2024)

Johan Grimonprez, the documentarian behind "Soundtrack to a Coup d'Etat," anticipates that his video essay will cause some controversy when it gets shown on the Belgian television networks that cofunded it. You might think it would cause some in the States and the corridors of the United Nations also, except that international involvement in the death of Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba in 1961 has been accepted and historicized since roughly the day after it happened, relitigated by radical activist art and mentioned in Oliver Stone films as an example of exactly the kind of things Oliver Stone films are about. Mr. Grimonprez analyzes the affair through a huge quantity of rigorously cited archive footage, interviews, academic literature and testimony. And jazz, since the film wraps the Congo Crisis inside the global anticolonial currents surging at the time, reflected in Black music and U.S. civil rights struggles as much as anywhere else. But it's the Belgian colonial powers that look worst in the harsh light that Mr. Grimonprez shines on them.

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The Music Lovers

Oléo Films

Maestra (2023)

The first thing that happens in "Maestra," a documentary by Maggie Contreras following an international group of female orchestral conductors, is the sound of someone screaming in rage or agony or anguish over a black screen. A viewer primed by the film "Tár" for the psychodramas of the profession will suspect the person shrieking might be about to stab someone with a baton; but when the lights come up it turns out to be Mélisse Brunet, a modest and experienced French-born conductor guiding a young student through a spot of primal scream therapy. Ms. Brunet advises her pupil to "Wear what you want and do what you want" at the podium, the film's first approach to the expectations that can restrict female conductors, and the likelihood that they will be told to do neither of those things. The individuals followed by "Maestra" are diverse, talented and committed; but by the end you appreciate why Ms. Brunet's screams might be coming from the heart.

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Siren Song

Nabis Filmgroup, Nevada Cine

The Klezmer Project (2023)

What happens when a self-described “mediocre cameraman” falls in love with a klezmer clarinetist he meets at a wedding in Buenos Aires? They get funding from Austrian television to make a documentary about klezmer music in Eastern Europe, of course. This unusual Argentinian documentary melds three intertwined strands – Yiddish folk tales, the lives of and the romance between the directors and the search for Jewish music in the parts of the world where the Jews were most thoroughly exterminated – into a story of how music and language are used as the building blocks for personal identity, and what personal identity means in a globalized world. It’s not an entire success, largely for reasons which should have been obvious to codirectors Leandro Koch and Paloma Schachmann before they started, but it’s such an unusual story the weaknesses are easily forgiven.

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Queer as Folk

Michael Lavine/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

It's Only Life After All (2023)

Young people seem to think the open-minded acceptance most queer people currently enjoy has always been the case, instead of the biggest cultural shift most gay people over 40 have seen in their lifetimes. Amy Ray and Emily Saliers met in elementary school in Georgia in the ’70s and admired each other all through their schooling. As teenagers, they realized they had similar interests in music and songwriting, and some time later, when they ended up at the same college, they realized that together they were something special. They both had singing and guitar talent; Emily had the knack for writing catchy songs, and Amy had the drive to make things happen. They called themselves Indigo Girls, and the rest is documentary history.

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The Boy Can't Help It

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Little Richard: I Am Everything (2023)

Baz Luhrmann's film "Elvis," already cooking at 450 Fahrenheit, is goosed even further when Alton Mason turns up playing Little Richard, screaming "Wop Bop-A-Loo-Bop" from a range of two inches as you rock backwards in your seat. Mr. Mason gives "Tutti Frutti" all he's got; but even skilled impersonations of Little Richard look like best guesses after 10 seconds of reminder about the real thing. This is handy for "Little Richard: I Am Everything," a documentary about the life and career of the singer born Richard Wayne Penniman, which samples a range of his performances but opts not to run any of them at length or let archive footage of the singer in action just unspool. The film wants to talk about the many contradictions and agonies in Little Richard the man, rather than the thermal updraft of the music; and for those issues, you have to hear him speak.

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Spirit of the North

Courtesy of TIFF

Ever Deadly (2022)

Tanya Tagaq is a well-known name in Canada, and this documentary about her life and work, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and which she codirected with Chelsea McMullan, takes that a little too much for granted. Ms. Tagaq is a poet – excerpts from her book “Split Tooth” are read in voiceover over anatomically correct animated drawings by Inuk artist Shuvinai Ashoona. However she is mainly known as a singer – a throat singer, to be precise. The movie begins with a display of traditional Inuit throat singing, which is always a duet, in which Ms. Tagaq and Laakkuluk Williams Bathory appear to be passing the same breath back and forth as they vocalize. But the core of the film in a concert performance of Ms. Tagaq’s contemporary throat singing, in which she is backed by a three-piece band as she takes over a concert hall by appearing to harmonize with herself.

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Score Card


Ennio (2022)

One of the great clichés available to the critic is the term “roller-coaster.” This is normally interpreted to mean that the film in question is a fast-moving, exhilarating experience with lots of emotional ups and downs. To this control freak – who’d rather undergo a marathon screening of all the “Fast & Furious” movies than go anywhere near a theme park – “roller-coaster” conjures up an entirely different meaning. It infers that the film is terrifying, nausea-inducing and only to be undertaken in order to impress somebody that you find attractive.

“Ennio” is in itself a bit of a roller-coaster but for different reasons. It starts calmly enough with the aged maestro Ennio Morricone undertaking his morning exercises – including press-ups that many men a third his age could not manage or be bothered with. But then the brakes are off and we are zipping along through the great composer’s life in a blur of archive footage, movie clips and so many different talking heads offering up opinions and anecdotes that it’s hard to keep track of who’s who, even with the captions. “Game of Thrones” was a comparative cakewalk next to this. One emerges from “Ennio” disoriented and slightly breathless.

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When the Saints Go Marching In

The Kennedy/Marshall Company/Sony Pictures Classics

Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story (2022)

In a way, “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story” feels like “Summer of Soul ( . . . Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” with melanin vastly depleted. Directors Ryan Suffern and Frank Marshall seem oblivious at best, ignorant at worst, glossing over glaring questions so as to not hold anyone accountable for apparent inequities on display, making the proceedings as pleasant and inoffensive as possible to make nice with white upper-middle-class boomers who presumably make up their target audience.

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Doing It


Charli XCX: Alone Together (2022)

This short (67 minutes) documentary about underappreciated pop star Charli XCX owes a great deal to “Madonna: Truth or Dare” (aka “In Bed With Madonna”). Well, most every music documentary is in the shadow of “Truth or Dare” but here the parallels are explicit. Alek Keshishian’s revolutionary documentary focused on the closed world of Madonna and her dancers on tour; here co-directors Bradley Bell and Pablo Jones-Soler focus on the closed world of a singer and her fans (many of whom are gay, hence the movie being shown as part of BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival) in private online spaces during the 2020 lockdown. And while Warren Beatty famously whined that Madonna didn’t want to live off-camera, there seems to be no moment of Charli’s life where she’s not performing for a camera. The key difference, of course, is that Madonna’s dancers were professionals, paid to be there, while Charli’s fans – Angels, of course – are teenagers and young adults from around the world, desperate for attention from a singer who puts that desperation to work for her.

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Losing Her Religion

Andrew Catlin/Sundance Institute

Nothing Compares (2022)

In January 2022 Sinead O’Connor’s 17-year-old son, Shane, committed suicide. This hideous fact will no doubt color the reception of Kathryn Ferguson’s fine documentary “Nothing Compares.” Any praise seems callow in the face of her grief and any criticism feels like twisting the knife. This is especially due to the upsetting public display of Ms. O’Connor’s private grief, part of her tendency to live her every thought out loud, which has been at the heart of her public persona since she began gigging in Dublin as a teenager. This blurring of the personal and the professional is different when a musician does it. A similarly confessional artist like Tracey Emin does can blur the lines because her fame is limited and therefore the reaction more controllable. But Ms. O’Connor’s fame and her notoriety are global, and she ripped up her global career when she ripped up a photo of the Pope on “Saturday Night Live” in 1992. “Nothing Compares” limits its focus to the years of her global rise and sudden fall, from 1987 to 1993. If you think of this documentary as a package of the greatest hits, that makes sense. But as with any compilation album, a lot of nuances are lost.

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