SXSW isn’t just about RSVP-ing to endless lists, gorging on breakfast tacos and gawping at the universe’s most exciting new acts. A whole goddamn film festival is also part of the Austin festivities. Think of it as Sundance’s hipper younger brother, with tonnes of off-kilter comedies, independent documentaries and thoughtful features for movie industry types to swoon over. As usual, 2013’s selection contained a host of music-centric movies. I went and had a nose at the best of the bunch.
HBO’s new documentary about the imprisoned Pussy Riot Three is utterly fascinating, not just because of its use of footage of the band rehearsing for their infamous, 30-second long ‘punk prayer’ protest, but because it gives real insight into the three young women who ended up behind bars because of it. Eloquent, intelligent, wilful, funny and charismatic, the way that Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, respond to their shocking treatment with poise, dignity and a sense of humour, shows up the Russian government’s trial for the dated witchhunt it really is.
Don’t be put off by the fact this film contains Bono. The U2 man’s unnecessary part in the film is all over relatively quickly and painlessly, leading the way for some fascinating talking-heads chats with everyone from Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to Aretha Franklin and Percy Sledge. Telling the story of the Muscle Shoals sound – a bluesy kind of soul native to a small town in Alabama, which was born in the 1960s – it melds stories of segregation and civil rights with the birth of Southern rock, the creation of some of the finest R’n’B records put to tape and the funkiest studio session band there ever was, The Swampers.
If you were expecting an in-depth look into Billie Joe Armstrong’s breakdown and subsequent stint in rehab from either of the Green Day films showing at this year’s SXSW, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Both were in the bag before the frontman’s problems with drink and prescription meds made headlines, but even so both movies shine a bold light onto other aspects of these stadium punks. We love how emotional Armstrong gets when he hears the chorus line singing his songs for the stage production of ‘American Idiot’ and ¡Cuatro!’s artful behind-the-scenes peek at the making of last year’s ‘¡Uno! ¡Dos! ¡Tre!’ album trilogy is riveting and funny stuff.
As you’re probably aware, Snoop Dogg’s widely reported transformation into reggae star Snoop Lion is documented in this Vice movie. Except, when you hear the music, you’ll release that Snoop hasn’t quite gone the full Bob Marley, but instead served up a slightly bouncier version of his weed-loving hip-hop. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t the music that provides the film’s most interesting content. That comes in the moments where Snoop meets the iconic Bunny Wailer – who smokes his weed out of a carrot – the footage from Nate Dogg’s funeral, and Snoop being taken to a hidden Jamaican ganja plantation, during which his cousin gets monumentally, hilariously high.