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Rock stars on the big screen

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which ranks among the top five festivals of its kind in the world and the largest in North America, was being inaugurated with a gala featuring a rock documentary or "rockumentary" on U2, from The Sky Down. Anirudh Bhattacharyya reports. At the rock show

world Updated: Oct 09, 2011 02:48 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya

A crowd gathered outside the Roy Thompson Hall in downtown Toronto, separated from the venue by a series of barricades. As a convoy of black SUVs pulled in, the crowd began screaming, "Bono ! Bono!" This was a call to the charismatic frontman of the Irish rock supergroup U2. Over the decades, U2 has claimed for itself the sort of status that precludes the necessity of real names. Bono, born Paul Hewson, and the group's guitarist The Edge, christened Dave Evans, would rarely be recognised by their given names.


The fans on this cool early autumn evening in Toronto were there for the opening night of the 2011 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

At the rock show

TIFF, which ranks among the top five festivals of its kind in the world and the largest in North America, was being inaugurated with a gala featuring a rock documentary or "rockumentary" on U2, from The Sky Down.

Here were the leading men of global rock on the red carpet, starring as themselves in a film directed by Davis Guggenheim, whose previous credits include the Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

That a mainstream film festival, where the likes of George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie would appear, had chosen a music-based documentary as its curtain-raising film was "unusual", as Bono himself acknowledged the day after, during a discussion at TIFF's headquarters, Lightbox.

Both cold logic and creative sensibility drove that decision. The film had been pushed by the festival's documentary programmer Thom Powers. He explained, "I brought this film to them and I said, look, this is a very special film. You should think about doing something unique with it."

Guggenheim had taken up the subject of the making of the U2 album, Achtung Baby, nearly two decades ago, and developed a gripping narrative around the worst days of U2, when the group almost fell apart.

But still, here was a music documentary headlining a major film festival. And not only that, From The Sky Down was just one of five rockumentaries that were being showcased at TIFF this year. There was: Pearl Jam Twenty, on the grunge rockers' journey from their formation in a Seattle to superstar status Neil Young Journeys, which follows the 65-year-old musician during his Le Noise tour Paul Williams: Still Alive, in which the filmmaker rediscovers the Grammy and Oscar winner, a major star of the 1970s, who vanished from the celebrity circus in the 1980s The Love We Make, in which documentary-maker Albert Maysles follows former Beatle Paul McCartney for weeks after 9/11, as he prepares for the Concert for New York City.

The trend was obvious. The rockumentary has established mainstream film cred. At TIFF 2011, it had arrived as a genre.

Director Davis Guggenheim told the HT what he believed was the reason for this phenomenon: "I think it's reinventing itself. The rock documentary got clichéd for a while, it became sort of behind-the-music, it was about car wrecks and drug overdoses. Now these documentaries are about deeper themes and more interesting subjects, good stories."

The form's resurrection has not occurred overnight. It's been in the making the past few years. In 2008, the Rolling Stones film, Shine A Light, opened another major film festival. But true momentum may have been achieved last year with the hit film, The Promise, based on the creative process behind Bruce Springsteen's bleak album Darkness On The Edge Of Town, which struck a popular chord as economic hardship revisited the United States.

Just as important are the filmmakers themselves. Once anonymities known only to those who read the credit line, the makers often have name recognition equal to that of their subjects Director Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull) just premiered a film based on the life of late Beatle George Harrison. Another Academy Award-winner, Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous), was the force behind the Pearl Jam film.

Another factor behind the return to the rock movie is that traditional music sales, in the form of CDs, have been gutted after the Internet took over as the source for tracks. So, record labels have been supportive of rockumentaries as they server as a form of value-added music.

As Powers said, "The tremendous sales that film (Springsteen's The Promise) had later was a wake up call for the music industry, as they look for new ways to bring attention to their acts. Because, let's face it, the music industry is going through convulsions right now. So they need some fresh ideas and the attention these documentaries can bring is proving to be a very significant factor." So, it's also part of the packaging. For instance, Pearl Jam's 20th anniversary has seen not just a tour, but film, soundtrack and book carrying the same name.

The year 2011 could be a milestone in terms of how the rockumentary is perceived and marketed. The clutch at TIFF may have been a coincidence, but as the festival's co-director Bailey said, "It does speak to a larger trend, we are seeing more of these films. We are seeing more of an intersection between the movie world and the music world."