Demi, Petty, Charli, and Foo: Four Music Docs at the 2021 SXSW
The South by Southwest Film Festival has long existed alongside a music festival, and while the fest is taking place virtually for the second year in a row, this year’s film lineup offered plenty of musical films of note. Those included four different music-focused documentaries.
A look at those four:
Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil
So, that was really something, huh?
There’s a long tradition of music documentaries brandishing their stars’ images, and sanding off the rough edges. Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil, the new doc that kicked off South by Southwest on Tuesday night, is very much not that.
The doc, which grew out of a tour documentary from 2018 that was shelved following Lovato’s near-fatal drug overdose, is full of huge revelations, about the overdose, about abuse in Lovato’s past, and about her life today, which is not entirely free of drug use.
It’s certainly the first documentary I’ve ever seen in which the subject announces that they now identify as gay, and it’s only the fifth or sixth-biggest piece of news.
It’s hard not to sympathize with Lovato, who has clearly been battling numerous demons from a very young age, nearly always in the public eye.
I don’t know that Dancing With the Devil even qualifies as a movie; it’s technically a four-part series that will soon debut on YouTube. But it’s movie-length, at about 140 minutes, and who knows about the TV/movie distinction when it comes to YouTube? But it’s undeniably great.
Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free
When Tom Petty died back in 2017, he left behind hours of gorgeously filmed making-of footage from his celebrated 1994 solo album Wildflowers. A double-album version arrived after his death, and now there’s the documentary, which shows a great musician at, or at the very least near, the height of his powers.
Wildflowers — the album with “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “You Wreck Me,” “It’s Good to be King,” and the title track — was technically a solo album, but most of the members of the Heartbreakers played on it. The difference was, Rick Rubin produced it, and gave it a different sound than that of Petty’s other albums around that time.
The movie features rarely-seen camaraderie among Petty and his bandmates, reminiscent of last year’s Bruce Springsteen making-of documentary. It also features some really outstanding music. Most of all, it made me miss Petty a lot.
We Are the Thousand
This may be the movie from the festival that made me smile the widest.
It’s the story of Rockin’ 1000, a group of musical hobbyists in Italy who, once a year, assemble thousands of musicians to play rock songs together. They play in a huge field, or maybe a soccer stadium, with hundreds of guitarists on one side, and a few hundred drummers banging away on another.
Back in 2015, the video of the original meeting of the Rockin’ 1000 playing the Foo Fighters’ “Learn to Fly” went mega-viral, as part of a campaign to get the band’s frontman, Dave Grohl, to visit Cesena, the Italian town where it was shot.
That video made a lot of people cry — including Grohl himself, he admits in the documentary — but what hit me was the pure, unadulterated joy.
I’ve long said that once the coronavirus pandemic is over, I never want to see an on-screen Zoom call, or a movie set during quarantine, ever again, and I don’t image many other audiences do either.
A couple of SXSW films are just that, and one of them is Alone Together. It’s a documentary about the British pop singer Charli XCX, and her time living in quarantine while making new music. At the same time, she had frequent Zoom events where she connected with her fan base, many of whom are young LGBTQ people, stuck in not-so-great circumstances during the pandemic.
The film is directed by the team known as Bradley & Pablo. Even if you’re not a devotee of her music, Charli is an engaging presence, and the doc shows her spending the longest time she ever had at the same time with her romantic partner, Huck Kwong; unlike Lovato, her quarantine romance appears to have lasted.
I’m still not especially looking forward to the next year of The Cinema of Quarantine, but Alone Together was a better example of that than most.