(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
This year’s Nashville Film Festival included what seemed to be an above average number of worthwhile movies either about music or about artists and musicians. Since that is what I consider to be a good thing, here is a thumbnail guide to some of those movies, just on the chance that you get the opportunity to see one or more of them in theatrical or TV release or on VHS or DVD. Some of these I actually saw, and on some I am relying on the expert testimony of friends.
Pre-Madonna: This is a very engaging saga of two female performance artists who landed in Nashville far ahead of their (or anyone else’s) time — hence the title. George and the Arizona Star are well known to anyone who hung out in Nashville in the early ’70s. Seeing Loretta Lynn in a floor-length ballgown singing a psychedelic country song on Letterman with Jack White and the Do-Whaters the other night was a hint of what Arizona Star was trying to do. George was Sonny to Arizona Star’s Cher. George dressed in androgynous Edwardian garb with a sword hanging from her waist. Arizona Star was Betty Boop/Marilyn Monroe vamp in carefully torn fishnet stockings and blonde ringlets. They personified what Andy Warhol’s scene in New York became. The movie was inspired by Guy Clark’s song “Arizona Star,” which brought back the saga of George and Star. This is the third in Nashville filmmaker Demetria Kalodimos’ “secret history of Nashville” series of films.
The Portrait of Billy Joe: Songwriter and singer Billy Joe Shaver has been a country music legend and icon almost since the time he threatened to whip Waylon Jennings’ ass if the latter didn’t listen to his songs. Waylon ended up recording 10 of Shaver’s songs on his equally legendary Honky Tonk Heroes album. Along the way, Shaver has written and recorded a solid body of work, established himself as a rock of country music integrity and acted in a few movies. He also, unfortunately, experienced almost unbearable personal pain in recent years with the back-to-back-to-back drawn-out deaths of his mother, his wife and his son — and musical partner — Eddy Shaver.
Festival Express: The Band’s Richard Manuel’s achingly sweet performance of “I Shall Be Released” and Janis Joplin’s heart wrenching “Cry Baby” are only two highlights of this highly-spirited documentary of a rock festival careening across Canada on a train in 1970. The Grateful Dead and Buddy Guy also star in this glimpse of one of the last giant rock festivals. There are very entertaining glimpses of what the drug-and-alcohol-drenched life was for the rock superstars in that bloated era. And — long before downloaders — there are radicalized music fans demanding that the music be free in live concerts. With dire consequences. If you missed this era, you’ll love this and regret that you missed it. If you lived through it, you’ll still love it and wonder at just how strange you were back then.
The Station Inn: True Life Bluegrass: Nashville is fortunate in being home to the pre-eminent bluegrass joint on the planet. The Station Inn is one of the most comfortable — and joyful — places you’ll ever enter. And, as this documentary graphically depicts, it’s also ground zero for some of the best music on earth. Performers include Steve Earle, Del McCoury, Peter Rowan, Sam Bush, Vassar Clements, Ricky Skaggs, Tom T. Hall, Ralph Stanley, Alison Krauss, Tim O’Brien and others.
Desperate Man Blues: Australian filmmaker Ed Gillan obviously loves American roots music. Here, he traces it through a fascinating study of record collector and fanatic Joe Bussard. Watching a record nut sit in his basement studio in his slippers and reminisce about great 78-rpm country, blues and old time records and how he got them may not sound like high drama, but anyone who loves the music will greatly enjoy the saga of Joe Bussard.
Keeping Time — The Life, Music and Photographs of Milt Hinton: Jazz bassist Milt Hinton long ago began taking photographs that parallel his remarkable musical career. He encountered people ranging from Billie Holiday to Frank Sinatra to Cab Calloway to mob boss Al Capone. Hinton died in 2000 at age 90, and his life literally spanned 20th century America.
Grand Theft Parsons: Alt-country hero Gram Parsons overdosed on drugs in 1973. His road manager Phil Kaufman — honoring a drunken pact he and Parsons had sworn to — stole Parsons’ body and burned it in the California desert. That’s the bare-bones story behind this dramatization of Parsons’ crash and burn. Johnny Knoxville stars as Kaufman in this entertaining comedy, which has taken some criticism for tinkering with the facts.
Fallen Angel — Gram Parsons: The sturdy Gram Parsons legend is painstakingly traced through many interviews and lovingly presented music in this thorough documentary. Phil Kaufman — aka the “Road Mangler” — is prominent, as he should be. Kaufman, a former sky diving instructor, has also been road manager for the likes of Emmylou Harris, Joe Cocker and Vince Gill and worked for the Rolling Stones. He should have his own documentary.
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster: Two hours and 20 minutes of love-fest with Metallica. You love them or hate them. But it’s undeniably a great flick, including the band’s group therapy, James Hetfield’s entering rehab and Lars Ulrich’s epic battle with Napster.
Imagine, Imagine: John Lennon’s best-known lyric gets the full-blown documentary treatment, replete with interpretations of the song across the spectrum. Includes archival Lennon footage and the inevitable Yoko interviews.
Black Cloud: I missed this movie, in which Tim McGraw makes his acting debut as a sheriff. McGraw is getting good reviews for his performance.