ASSHOLE MUSICIANS IN TRANSITION
California Solo (World Dramatic)
Premise: A former 1990s Britpop rocker has long settled for an unfettered life of drinking too much, recording podcasts and working on a farm outside of Los Angeles. When he’s caught driving drunk and faces deportation, he must confront past and current demons in his life to stay in the country.
Track Record: Writer/director Marshall Lewy’s debut feature Blue State—about a disgruntled liberal who moves to Canada after George W. Bush’s re-election—played at a few festivals in 2007 before going straight to DVD.
Familiar Faces: Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting), Danny Masterson (That ’70s Show)
The Case in Favor: Carlyle has rarely gotten a showcase role like this, one that he richly deserves. And there are enough intriguing details in the description that it may not be just another “alcoholic musician goes straight” tale.
The Case Against: Then again, it might be just another “alcoholic musician goes straight” tale. And distributors apparently didn’t see a ton of potential in Blue State.
I Am Not a Hipster (NEXT)
Premise: Brook, a talented young singer-songwriter, has become the cliché of a tortured artist while struggling to come to terms with the death of his mother. Into his isolated life come his three sisters and estranged father, as they prepare to scatter his mother’s ashes.
Track Record: The first feature for writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton, whose solid short film Short Term 12 played Sundance in 2009.
Familiar Faces: Mostly a cast of unknowns, aside from veteran character actor Brad William Henke (Bram from TV’s Lost).
The Case in Favor: Low-key character drama seems to be an area in which Cretton is comfortable, if Short Term 12 is any indication.
The Case Against: The NEXT category has, over its short history, been a grab-bag of occasionally impressive efforts amidst a lot of stuff that wasn’t at all ready for prime time.
The Verdict: I Am Not a Hipster by a slim margin. Cretton seems to have some raw talent, and there’s the potential for more discovery both in a concept that isn’t quite as well-worn, and in a filmmaker who may be an “I saw his first movie back in the day” memory someday. (SR)
BEHIND THE MUSIC
Under African Skies (Documentary Premieres)
Premise: Paul Simon returns to South Africa to explore the incredible journey of his historic 1986 Graceland album, including the political backlash he sparked for allegedly breaking the U.N. cultural boycott of South Africa, designed to end apartheid.
Track Record: Director Joe Berlinger has a 20-year record of compelling documentaries, including the “behind the music” doc Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.
The Case in Favor: Berlinger has already demonstrated a talent for getting great fly-on-the-wall material from musicians.
The Case Against: Paul Simon is nobody’s idea of a live-wire character, so it’s going to be left to the supporting players in this tale to provide the spark that’s unlikely to come from the central subject.
Shut Up & Play the Hits (Park City at Midnight)
Premise: A documentary that follows LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy over a crucial 48-hour period, from the day of their final gig at Madison Square Garden to the morning after, the official end of one of the best live bands in the world.
Track Record: Co-directors Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern also collaborated on 2010’s No Distance Left to Run, a documentary about the reunion concerts of the British band Blur.
The Case in Favor: The unique-sounding structure could be a terrific way to find focus, rather than a broader story about the band and its influence. The filmmakers also seem to have a distinctive interest—based on their other film—in bands as living entities rather than mere producers of music.
The Case Against: If LCD Soundsystem’s brand of disco-punk isn’t your thing, you’re going to have to hope that the backstage stuff is really good.
The Verdict: Shut Up & Play the Hits is the slightly more intriguing option between two documentaries that both could be terrific. Your personal musical tastes may dictate a different direction, but we’ll opt for the narrow focus and potential for higher energy. (SR)
Keep the Lights On (U.S. Dramatic)
Premise: Documentary filmmaker Erik and closeted lawyer Paul meet for a casual encounter, but begin what will become a 10-year relationship. But that relationship is complicated by dysfunctional codependence, including drug abuse.
Track Record: Director/co-writer Ira Sachs was at Sundance in 2005 with Forty Shades of Blue, and dealt with complex gay relationships in his 1996 coming-out drama The Delta.
Familiar Faces: Julianne Nicholson (Boardwalk Empire)
The Case in Favor: Sachs is a proven filmmaking talent who has shown a facility for creating characters who sidestep all stereotypes.
The Case Against: Initial press-release description of the story as “autobiographically inspired” inspires fear of a filmmaker too close to the material to know what is and isn’t working.
Smashed (U.S. Dramatic)
Premise: Kate and Charlie are a young married couple whose bond is built on a mutual love of music, laughter and ... drinking. When Kate decides to get sober, her new lifestyle brings troubling issues to the surface and calls into question her relationship with Charlie.
Track Record: James Ponsoldt was at Sundance in 2006 with his Nick Nolte-starring drama Off the Black.
Familiar Faces: Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), Octavia Spencer (The Help), Megan Mullally (Will & Grace)
The Case in Favor: If we know anything from Breaking Bad, it’s that Aaron Paul can kick all kinds of acting ass playing someone dealing with an addiction.
The Case Against: Off the Black was a less-than-stellar story of someone trying to fix up an alcohol-filled life.
The Verdict: Keep the Lights On, if for no other reason than Sachs’ proven history. The solid cast of Smashed hardly makes it easy to dismiss, but when the chips are down, bet on the director. (SR)