For reasons that are hard to understand (and to explain), film and music festivals are separate entities and usually very difficult to mix. Cinema people, it seems, don’t care about rock or pop music. And the same happens, supposedly, the other way around. But hundreds of marketing experts around the world can tell you that this is simply not true. So, why there are so few festivals in which music and movies can go together, like they do when you read magazines such as “Les Inrockuptibles” or “Rolling Stone”? Isn’t there an audience for both things at the same time?
The people of Gijón (“Xixon”, in Asturian), a beautiful coastal town in the north of Spain, understood this connection a long time ago, and they organize a film festival that’s really closer in spirit to a music festival than the classic, high-minded, academic seriousness of lots of film festivals around the world. It’s not that they don’t care abut programming serious films. Au contraire. You can say that this edition of the Festival de Cine de Gijón, with its Claire Denis and Pirjo Honkasalo retrospectives, its focus on documentaries and first and second films, and its taste for the thought-provoking movies from all over the world, is really a first-class film festival, the most challenging and interesting in Spain. And I also have to mention the three or four books about film they publish every year: some of them are among the best in the Spanish language on their respective subjects.
But, having a high percentage of young people in attendance, the organizers decided to devote a big space of the festival to music. Every year they have a section about music and film, composed mainly of documentaries about the most diverse subjects. And almost every night, some of the major names in Spanish independent pop music (and some Portuguese and English bands) play free concerts for guests and audiences. This is not the first film festival that does this kind of thing. But the difference is that they take it very seriously. It’s not just the “party time” one usually can find late at night in film festivals around the world. This is a very good music program that complements the experience of being in Gijón.
Since this is a website about film and not about music, it’s probably not the right place to review the shows, but to talk about the movies that take music as their main subject. Gijón opened with Walk the Line, a straightforward biopic about the life and tribulations of the great Johnny Cash (good acting, good music, forget the rest), but the best were some of the documentaries shown in “Desorden y concierto”, the section devoted specifically to music.
Already shown in some film festivals around the world, the touching Be Here to Love Me tells the story of another renegade of country music, Townes Van Zandt. Lesser known than Cash (but, also, dead), the movie made by Margaret Brown shows the tragic, poignant and sometimes funny life of this great singer-songwriter who died in 1997.
Another legend (the organizers have a thing for dead rock stars, even if they couldn’t get Last Days, by Gus van Sant, to be shown in the fest) is ex-Clash singer Joe Strummer. Let’s Rock Again! documents the last tour Strummer made (with his band The Mescaleros) after being out of the “music scene” for about a decade. Strummer was such a charismatic figure than, even when the movie is not particularly brilliant, it has some moments of insight, sadness and, of course, great live music.
Another touching “homage” to a departed musician was New York Doll, the Greg Whiteley film that tells the strange story of Arthur “Killer” Kane, the tall and quiet bass player of the explosive punk group The New York Dolls. Kane went through a series of personal problems and professional failures after the group disbanded, later becoming a Mormon and lived a very simple life working in a library in Los Angeles. But he lived long enough to see the group reunited for a final concert in London, in 2004.
Screaming Masterpiece (Gargandi snilld), by Ari Alexander, is about the Icelandic music scene. This workmanlike film tries to explain how a small and isolated country can produce some of the most interesting rock music today, with artists like Bjork, Sigur Rós, Mum or Mugison, amongst others. Another “scene” covered was the local one, in El viaje del Xixon Sound. The film centers on the influential artists (like Australian Blonde, Manta Ray, Nosoträsh, Mus or Nacho Vegas) that made Gijón one of the capitals of the independent rock music in Spain. It was weird to discover, after watching the movie, that most of the musicians who appeared in it were working for the festival in jobs not related to music at all.
Another revelation was Punk: Attitude, the documentary made by Don Letts (also a musician and a DJ) which covers the origins, explosion and aftermath of the punk scene, with shows and testimonies of most of the musicians, filmmakers and artists directly or indirectly implicated in the cultural movement that was known as punk.
With its punk attitude and a serious work ethic, Gijón ends up being one of the most interesting festivals dedicated to “new cinema” (and “new music”) in Europe. It’s probably time now for some of the bigger festivals to really understand this connection and make good use of it. And this means a lot more than the occasional concert with Emir Kusturica and his band…