If the South by Southwest Film Festival was burdened by anything this year, it was an abundance of quality documentaries. It seemed that, while the narrative side of things was surprisingly sparse (where was the "21 Jump Street" or "The Raid" of this year?), the documentary selection was stronger than ever – there were more buzzed-about entries than we had time for, quite frankly (sorry "Medora!"), and almost everything we saw impressed us to one degree or another. Here is a quick rundown of a handful of key SXSW documentaries – "Lunarcy!," about people obsessed with the moon; "Downloaded," which aims to be the definitive documentary about file sharing program Napster; "Twenty Feet from Stardom," which charts the history of pop music from the backup singers' point of view; "Reincarnated," about Snoop Dogg's transformation into reggae titan Snoop Lion; and "I Am Divine," about director John Waters' corpulent muse, cross-dressing sensation Divine.
"Lunarcy!" (Simon Ennis)
This lively documentary, which will air later this year on the Epix satellite channel, focuses on a handful of Americans deeply obsessed with the moon including: a strange, autistic man with a genius-level intellect and a wonderful collection of paisley vests, who wants to be the first person to leave the Earth and never return; a Milwaukee retiree who devotes almost all of his free time to a moon-centric newsletter that contemplates what it's like to, say, garden up there (he also designs subterranean habitats for the moon-dwellers); and a man who claims to be the owner of the moon, selling off parcels of land to those interested in lunar development. There's even a former astronaut who paints moon-centered landscapes, using moon dust from his space suit and impressions from his moon boots to give the paintings texture.
Ennis is careful to accentuate these peoples' eccentricities without ever explicitly making fun of them, using text and graphics to keep things moving. Nothing is ever heightened or exaggerated, just comically goosed, and at a certain point, their love of the moon becomes contagious. What initially sounded absurd becomes romantic, and the movie takes on the kind of optimistic, utopian glow that used to be a part of really great science fiction and the bright-and-shiny futurism of Walt Disney. As strange as it is (and trust us, it gets plenty strange – the guy who wants to leave Earth apparently has no sense of irony, especially considering how close his proposed colony Lunar City, sounds like lunacy), there's something deeply emotional and hopeful about "Lunarcy!," made all the more powerful by how offhanded its delivery is. Odd and oddly touching, "Lunarcy!" is a movie about people on the fringes of society who just might have the right idea. Before space travel becomes uncomfortably privatized, "Lunarcy" is kind of a must-see. [A]
"Downloaded" (Alex Winter)
It's kind of amazing that no one has done a definitive feature-length documentary about Napster, the genie-unleashing program that allowed music lovers to swap songs with each other over the vast ocean of the Internet that forever changed the way we consume music. "Downloaded" still might not be that definitive documentary, but it's still pretty fascinating nonetheless. "Downloaded" focuses mainly on the friendship between Shawn Fanning, a teenage genius who created what would become Napster (that was his online handle at the time), and Sean Parker, a friend and fellow hacker (who, as we all know from "The Social Network," would also have a hand in that other culture-shaping online phenomenon, Facebook). The two rose together and took the fall together, with Parker taking it way harder due to his use of one word in one email – and that word was "pirate."
If you were one of the initial adopters of Napster, then you know this story by heart – and while Winter has access to all the major players (including the small cluster of hackers who helped develop and refine the Napster software, and people opposing the site, like Lars Ulrich from Metallica) – there are some odd omissions. For instance, while Winter utilizes tons of footage from MTV and other news outlets, he oddly enough chooses not to chronicle the moment when, sometime in 2000, MTV had a countdown to when Napster was being shut down (hosted by Kurt Loder and other personalities), which was a bizarre and profound moment in the culture. MTV, a giant corporate entity, not only was covering this little backwoods website, but it seemed to be bemoaning its death.
Elsewhere, "Downloaded" feels a bit too familiar and safe, with lots of footage of rich white guys talking on couches. (Parker remains a somewhat insufferable, antsy kind of genius.) What remains so flabbergasting about the entire thing is how, even now, music executives that Winter interviewed, still seem like they were caught off guard. It's hard to have any sympathy for an industry so fundamentally clueless. As a human drama, "Downloaded" excels, as a historical document, less so. [B]
"Twenty Feet from Stardom" (Morgan Neville)
One song that was being played, almost everywhere you went, all week long, during South by Southwest, was the new single by screechy pop band Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "Sacrilege." The song, in less than four minutes, crescendos to accompany a whole host of voices that are certainly not lead singer Karen O, and it's hard to imagine the song having the same ear-worm-y power without these additional vocals, even if you don't give much thought to them.
"Twenty Feet from Stardom" sets out to right that wrong, as a kind of "history of pop music" documentary told from the point of view of the backup singer. And my god what a point of view it is. Director Morgan Neville highlights a small cluster of backup singers (among them the legendary Darlene Love, Merry Clatyon, Lisa Fischer, and Judith Hill) who have profoundly altered the pop music landscape by their mere presence. Uncannily, Neville interviews the big shots they often sing for – people like Bruce Springsteen, Sting, and Stevie Wonder, who are totally appreciative and just as in awe of these amazing performers as we are. (Sobs were audibly heard throughout our screening.)
In one incredibly powerful moment, Neville plays the raw audio track of Clayton singing the "Rape, murder" section of "Gimme Shelter," both for Clayton and then, Mick Jagger. The vocals, raw and unencumbered by the rest of the song's ornate sonic embellishments, is something close to transcendent, and it's a hoot to see both Jagger and Clayton draw the same conclusion. They're visibly moved and shaken, and so are we.
"Twenty Feet from Stardom" stumbles a little bit towards the end (a final sing along with a number of the backup singers should have been a rousing call to arms but it comes off as unnecessarily somber), but up until then, it's a rollicking, totally engaging piece, one that explores all facets of life as a backup singer (including, tragically, why so few of them can crossover to a successful mainstream solo career). An unexpectedly moving, often joyous triumph, "Twenty Feet from Stardom" proves that history isn't just made at the front of the stage. [A-]