Sundance Music Wrap-Up 

Music-focused docs & legendary performances

click to enlarge Twenty Feet From Stardom performance
  • Twenty Feet From Stardom performance

“It’s all the same water,” said Percy Sledge, his voice quiet, raspy, yet filled with the soul of Muscle Shoals. We’re side stage at the BMI Snowball Sunday; minutes prior, Sledge dropped jaws singing his old R&B soul classics like “When a Man Loves a Woman,” the No. 1 single that put Rick Hall’s FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals on the map.

The tiny Alabama town lies on the Tennessee River, what the Native Americans called Nunnuhsae or “The Singing River.” I hail from about 300 miles upstream—Knoxville, Tenn. Sledge and I talked about the river’s power—it’s a wellspring for creative rejuvenation or something—and his comment (“It’s all the same water”) struck a chord. Metaphorically, there’s a “water,” I believe, that all musicians—creative types, artists, so on—connect to, sit and meditate by, and swim in.

The Sundance Film Festival is always a truly inspiring week for me. I know many people who absolutely hate it, passing judgment on those they assume pass judgment on them. That’s never been my experience. Luckily, I had the privilege to meet musicians like Sledge; documentarians like Greg “Freddy” Camalier, whose Muscle Shoals premiered this week; filmmakers of all ilks and so on. These people are tapped in—and it makes me want to be more prolific in my disciplines.

This year’s music-focused documentaries—and their coinciding concerts—celebrated the collaborative spirit of music-making and shined a spotlight on engaging narratives.

Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters, Nirvana) bought the custom Neve 8028 console from Los Angeles’ Sound City Studios after it closed commercially in 2011. The investment was the catalyst for his directorial debut about the legendary studio, Sound City, but, more importantly, to explore the lost art of analog recording and the human element of music—spontaneous writing and recording of new music and the interactivity between musicians. For the doc’s soundtrack, Reel to Reel, Grohl formed an all-star band, the Sound City Players. During their performance Jan. 19, the dozen-plus cast—which included John Fogerty and Stevie Nicks—captured that ethos, with egoless playing and feeling.

click to enlarge music_sf_sundance4_130131_1.jpg

I don’t go to church, but I imagine that when church works at its deepest, most meaningful levels, it’s like Sunday’s Celebration of Music in Film concert, featuring five back-up singers from Twenty Feet From Stardom. For these selfless harmonizers who spent their careers supporting leading ladies, it is all about that connection—to the audience and to each other, which doc director Morgan Neville captured perfectly.

I can explain the show’s effect like this: Afterward, we went to see an Andrew Bird solo set—he’s one of my faves. I would have never thought that being 15 feet away from Bird would be a downer, but it’s because the Twenty Feet From Stardom concert was one of the most profound concerts I’ve ever seen: the humility, the collaborative spirit—I almost cried five times. The power of music is a mighty thing indeed. Yet, maybe it all does come from one source. It’s all the same water.

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