John Lennon, Tanya Tucker, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Chumbawamba among stars of music on film at CIFF

A still from Take Me to the River: New Orleans, one of the music films playing at the 2022 Calgary International Film Festival. COURTESY CIFF

The Calgary International Film Festival’s lineup of music on film for CIFF 2022 is the next best thing to a backstage pass with the band.

And in the case of a few artists who are the subject of films this year, such as John Lennon and the Plastic Onos, it’s the only way to get that backstage pass.

The lineup this year a strong showing of multiple music genres and international locations. From New Orleans to Beirut, and from thrash metal to Inuk throat singing.

“It’s so weird, because every year once the program is locked in I think, ‘well, I’m not looking forward to next year because we won’t be able to match the quality of the submissions we got this year’ or ‘there aren’t going to be as many solid films around,'” said CIFF features programmer Guy Lavallee.

“Just when we thought all the music themes stories have been told, there’s so many more out there to be told that we just had no idea about.”

Lavallee pointed to Take Me to the River: New Orleans as one of those films that was an unexpected surprise in music and in storytelling. The film, directed by Martin Shore, is a celebration of the musical history New Orleans and Louisiana, and offers a previously unseen look into some of America’s most culturally defining moments.

“It’s crazy,” said Lavallee.

“You have these amazing performances, and it was really bridging the gap of between the generations, but then the film also gets into a little bit of the history of not just music—the musical legacy of New Orleans—but the city itself and what makes it so magical and mystical.”

It touches on icons like Irma Thomas and The Neville Brothers, alongside more contemporary artists, and even delves into the effect that hurricane Katrina had on the city.

Seeing the unknown side of rock and roll icons

Another must-see for this year, said Lavallee, is Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On. That film, directed by Madison Thomas, covers Sainte-Marie’s incredible 60-year journey as an icon of the Canadian music scene.

“I think this is one of the films this year that people will literally want to stand up and cheer then they’re watching this,” he said.

“On the one hand, it almost seems remarkable that nobody has told her story until now.”

Viewers will get to see first hand how her anti-war and pro-Indigenous rights activism almost killed her music career when she was blackballed from American radio stations. It also showcases her firsts, such as the one of the first musicians to release an electronic music album, to being the first Indigenous person to win an Academy Award.

Sainte-Marie’s story is also a personal one for Lavallee. He worked for Capitol Records when he was young, and on some of Sainte-Marie’s shows.

“I just thought this is gonna be awkward, it’s like, I don’t really know a lot about her, what’s it gonna be like to work with, I don’t know a lot of her music, and my week or two with her was like life changing. Literally,” he said.

“She was such a remarkable woman. Now, flash forward 25 years later, and I’m watching this documentary, and I’m jaw dropped while I’m watching the whole thing because there’s so much more of her story that I had absolutely no idea about.”

John Lennon comes to Toronto

Revival 69: The Concert that Rocked the World, directed by Ron Chapman, is another film that fans of untold music history in this country will deeply enjoy.

The film takes viewers back to 1969, when a fledgling music promoter attempted to create a festival featuring the original rock and roll bands from the 1950s. That festival almost failed, until a last minute request to John Lennon and Yoko Ono saved the festival, turning it into one of the defining concerts for the end of that decade.

“There were three concerts that changed the history of music. This was one of them. And here we are. A bunch of Canadians have happened our own country and we don’t even know about it,” said Lavallee.

That Toronto concert saw Lennon joined on stage by Eric Clapton after fellow Beatles musician George Harrison declined the invitation to play with the Plastic Ono Band for the event.

For fans of last year’s streaming sensation Let It Be about the Beatles’ final days as a band, this documentary will continue that story on the big screen.

The big screen experience adds magic to the music

Lavallee said that over the years, CIFF has been host to a number of amazing experiences that audiences would never be able to get at home.

Among those was the showing of Mighty Ground in 2017, which saw the film’s star Ronald Troy Collins make a visit to the festival. Collins, a homeless man living in Los Angeles, had never left that city, let alone the United States.

Coming to Canada, he was embraced by the audience and in return made up a song about his newfound love for Calgary and for Canada on the spot.

“It was amazing. This amazing moment that I’ll never forget,” said Lavallee.

“That’s what people are missing by watching things just sitting at home, and hey, I have a great TV and stereo setup at home, too… but there is no comparison for that feeling of being in a room with other people having that shared experience.”

He said that kind of experience translated to many of the other genres that are playing at CIFF this year, but said that the shared experience would be especially good for audiences this year for the music films.

“That thrill you get with a music film is that joy of discovering this music, or hearing it and sharing it together, and celebrating this performer or this artist and being able to cheer clap or be inspired.”

“You cannot replicate that. You just can’t.”

Full lineup of music films for CIFF 2022

  • And Still I Sing, directed by Fazila Amiri: The story of Afghan Star winner Zahra Elham along with Sadiqa Madadgar on the verge of career success until the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan.
  • Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry it On, directed by Madison Thomas: A 60 year genre-defying journey for one of Canada’s most celebrated rock icons.
  • Ever Deadly, directed by Chelsea McMullan and Tanya Ragaq: The story of Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq that connects concert footage and sequences in Nunavut.
  • I Get Knocked Down, directed by Sophie Robison and Dustan Bruce: A punk version of A Christmas Carol, this stars Chumbawamba front-man Dustan Bruce, who confronts his lost anarchist mojo.
  • Let There Be Drums, directed by Justin Kreutzmann: Some of the world’s greatest drummers including Ringo Starr, Stewart Copeland, Chad Smith, Jason Bonham, Steven Adler, and the late Taylor Hawkins sit down to talk drums and Grateful Dead legend Bill Kreutzmann.
  • The Return of Tanya Tucker–featuring Brandi Carlile, directed by Kathlyn Horan: Six-time Grammy Award winner Brandi Carlile takes it upon herself to write an album for country music legend Tanya Tucker, in one of the greatest comeback stories in country music.
  • Revival69: The Concert that Rocked the World, directed by Ron Chapman: John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band join the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival festival, turning it into one of the most important musical events of the late 1960s.
  • Sirens, directed by Rita Baghdadi: 23-year-old Lilas Mayassi teaches music in Beirut by day, but by night she’s performing in a Trash Metal band and falling in love with a young woman living in Syria.
  • Take Me to the River: New Orleans, directed by Martin Shore: A celebration of the rich musical traditions of New Orleans and Louisiana, with untold stories of the city’s history.

Full details of all the films and tickets are available on the Calgary International Film Festival website.

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