Indie Memphis' ties to this city, and all the musical history that comes with it, give music a place of honor in what is ostensibly a festival of film. Many documentaries on local music have premiered here, from Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me to Antenna, which memorialized the local club that hosted so much post-punk rock-and-roll. This year is no different, with perhaps more musically oriented content being offered than ever before.
Speaking of Big Star, Thank You, Friends: Big Star's Third Live ... and More (already released on DVD) documents a unique assemblage of A-list musicians who come together periodically to celebrate the band's music, especially its enigmatic and haunting third album, first released in 1978. Those who frequent the concert series at the Levitt Shell will recall the 2014 performance of Big Star's Third, complete with members of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, where the band's drummer Jody Stephens was joined by Mitch Easter, Chris Stamey, Ken Stringfellow, and others in a re-creation of Big Star's sound.
The ever-shifting group reached its apotheosis last year at the Alex Theatre in Los Angeles, where the ensemble was filled out by Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone of Wilco and Robyn Hitchcock, to name a few. It's breathtaking to see and hear the songs gain new life in a live setting, yet some of the material leaves one longing for a bit more of the anarchy that always lurked behind even their most polished recordings. The music does take flight in a more chaotic way as the band leans into the latter day material. One only wishes the guitars were louder.
Meanwhile, another kind of Memphis beat is honored in Mr. Handy's Blues, a new documentary about W.C. Handy by hometowner and longtime television producer/director Joanne Fish. Ten years in the making, it explores the intriguing combination of insider/outsider status Handy embodied, being well-versed in orchestral music even as he turned a sympathetic ear to that then-obscure folk form known as the blues. Woven into his roller coaster of a life story are testimonials from musical heavyweights on Handy's impact on American music. Especially compelling is the footage of current-day big bands playing his arrangements, captured with the clarity of high fidelity techniques.
Another hometown documentary overlaps with Handy's influence. Furry Lewis & The Bottleneck Guitar Story is a musicological appreciation that dips briefly into Lewis' life story. This is a labor of love by local director David Brian Guinle, as he guides us through the crucial historical details suggesting that Lewis was the first to record and popularize the sound of bottleneck guitar.
Starting with the parallel influences of U.S. soldiers bringing slide guitar techniques to the mainland from Hawaii, and W.C. Handy's embrace of the blues, the film picks up Lewis' story when he finds his first broken guitar. "It was time for him to be set in his place," says Guinle. "Not just put a note on the street. Because he played a more important part in our music."
Guinle's story ultimately settles into the director's 1977 footage of jazz saxophonist Fred Ford interviewing Lewis and setting up several performances by the guitarist in his last years. It is here, and in footage of Lewis and young Lee Baker playing together, where the film really shines. Lewis plays his unique electric Martin GT-70 with aplomb and Ford chimes in with brief, learned observations. Unlike so many music documentaries which offer mere samples of live performances, this one lets Lewis' playing go on for the bulk of the film, and it's a treasure.
Beyond these histories of local visionaries and their performances, there's a lot more music to be found. The documentary Sidemen focuses on the players behind the distinctive ensemble sounds of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. Another, A Life in Waves, tells the story of synthesizer pioneer Suzanne Ciani. Beyond documentaries, the narrative features Barracuda, Flock of Four, and The Golden Age all spin dramatic tales around musical performers and their circles. And there will be special screenings dedicated only to music videos, including outdoor screenings at the Indie Memphis block party. Dozens of local bands will be featured.
But it will be the ultimate local band — Booker T. and the MG's — that will shine out above the others, in a screening not even listed under the festival's music-related fare. Up Tight! was an obscure offering in the early days of what some call "blaxploitation" film. A dramatic political allegory in its own right, it is especially notable for the soundtrack, composed by Booker T. Jones and performed by the MG's. Unlike classic MG's fare, it goes beyond funky instrumentals for more introspective and moody gospel flavors, including "Johnny, I Love You," sung by Jones himself. And of course, the centerpiece is an extended version of their masterpiece, "Time Is Tight."