The annual South by Southwest festival took place a couple weeks ago in Austin, and after the big event was canceled in 2020 and held entirely virtually in 2021, it finally returned in person this year.
Unable to make it to Austin this year, I participated virtually in both the film and conference programs. And as usual, for something that used to be known primarily as a music festival, the film festival program this year featured a long list of music documentaries.
There was I Get Knocked Down, a film about the band Chumbawumba, and The Return of Tanya Tucker, Featuring Brandi Carlile, which examined the country singer from the 1980s, and Carlile’s writing an album for her. Lover, Beloved featured Suzanne Vega performing a pair of old talks by Carson McCullers, while Look At Me: XXXTENTACION examined the too-brief life of the notorious rap star. And In the Court of the Crimson King looked back at the half-century career of King Crimson.
But the two most notable documentaries at the festival that I saw were two very different ones: One about the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and the other about the late rocker Ronnie James Dio.
Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story
It doesn’t quite match the pedigree of Oscar Best Documentary winner Summer of Soul, but Jazz Fest is likely to appeal to fans of Questlove’s chronicle of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival.
Directed by Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern, the documentary follows the history and cultural legacy of the annual New Orleans musical festival. Shot mostly at the festival’s 50th-anniversary edition in 2019 but also including some earlier archival footage, Jazz Fest also sports numerous interviews.
The most powerful footage in the film is unquestionably that of Bruce Springsteen, at the post-Katrina edition of the festival in 2006, performing “My City in Ruins.” It was written about the then-decaying town of Asbury Park, N.J., before becoming a post-9/11 anthem, performed on the 9/11: A Tribute to Heroes telethon, and included on The Rising album in 2002. It also fit perfectly as a Katrina song, without a single word being changed:
Like most projects about New Orleans, Jazz Fest made me want to get on a plane and fly to that city as fast as I can.
The film has been picked up by Sony Classics and will arrive sometime this year.
Dio: Dreamers Never Die
About 20 years ago I saw Tenacious D perform live at a music festival near Boston, and before they broke into their tribute to Ronnie James Dio, called simply “Dio,” Jack Black shared some amusing revisionist history: “Black Sabbath fired Ozzy because he didn’t rock as hard as Ronnie James Dio.”
That is, alas, not exactly what happened, but Dio did indeed replace Ozzy Osbourne as the frontman of Black Sabbath, beginning with the 1980 album Heaven and Hell. Various reunions in the ensuing years would alternate between the two singers; I remember one tour that was billed as “The Original Heaven and Hell Black Sabbath.”
But that was just one of many iterations of the singer’s career, which began when he was a teenager in the late 1950s and extended to not long before Dio’s death from cancer in 2010, at age 57.
The documentary, directed by Don Argott and Demian Fenton, is fairly traditional and straightforward, combining plentiful archival footage with interviews with friends, colleagues, and family members, including his widow Wendy, an executive producer. Jack Black is interviewed in the film, and we also see Dio’s cameo in his movie Tenacious D: in The Pick of Destiny. And yes, you’ll get to hear most of his most prominent and popular music.
It depicts the man born Ronald James Padavona as a generally good dude, who was much less of a hellraiser than most of his contemporaries and ended up with a wildly eclectic career. He was part of many bands, from Rainbow to Dio to Sabbath to his final band, with some ex-Sabbath members, called Heaven and Hell.
There’s no word on distribution for the film, but it’s going to be a must for Dio fans, whichever era is their favorite.