A trio of music-themed documentaries are screening at this year’s Philadelphia Film Festival. Here’s a rundown of which ones to watch.
Art Dealers (October 27, 9:45 Film Center) is an entertaining concert film/documentary about the South Philly band, Low Cut Connie, featuring charismatic, shirt-ripping frontman Adam Weiner, whose voice is as big as his personality. Weiner got his start playing in the New York City gay bar, Pegasus, which hosted drag shows, and he wrote and performs the song, “Shake It Little Tina” about that experience. But the film doesn’t address much of the band’s history. Co-directed by Roy Power and Weiner, this is a companion piece for Low Cut Connie’s latest album, “Art Dealers,” and it features two 2022 performances—one at Sony Hall and the other at the Blue Note in New York City, where the band rocks out with several songs from their new album, including the high energy “Whips and Chains.” Things also wind down for the ballad, “The Party’s Over.” The music is great, and there are fun backstage and off-stage moments, including interviews with band members, and interactions with fans. Guaranteed to please devotees while also converting the uninitiated, Art Dealers will be followed by a Q&A and a live performance at the festival.
Scream of My Blood: A Gogol Bordello Story (October 25, 6:00 pm Bourse; October 26, 8:30 pm, East) is an infectious and affectionate portrait of the “gypsy punk” band founded by lead singer and ringmaster Eugene Hütz. Their concerts showcase the arresting power of their music as an orchestra of immigrants furiously play violins, accordions, percussion instruments, and more in fabulous theatrical performances. Scream of My Blood features plenty of clips of the band singing hits including “Not a Crime,” “I Would Never Wanna Be Young Again,” “Blueprint,” and, in the film’s rousing finale, “Undestructable.”
But it is the message behind the music about the immigrant experience that defines the band. Hütz recounts growing up in the Ukraine, listening to Black Sabbath. His family moved from Kyiv to the country (after Chernobyl) and Hütz developed an appreciation for folk music and punk. (He was also influenced by Sonic Youth.) When the Soviet Union collapsed, Hütz moved again, first around Europe, then to Burlington, Vermont. But when he went to New York City and found a community of musicians, Gogol Bordello took off—and so did Hütz, touring the U.S. and Europe, recording albums, and acquiring an international roster of bandmates.
Directors Nate Pommer and Eric Weinrib chronicle all of this with interviews, concert footage, and archival clips as well as news reports. Hütz talks about his burnout, eats ants in South America (their butts are full of protein), and eventually returns to the Ukraine, playing music with and for soldiers during the current war.
There is both joy and pain throughout, but Hütz proves his theory that “music is a form of magic,” and can be a soothing tonic, a communal experience, and a rallying cry. It is hard not to get swept up in Gogol Bordello’s energy. This fabulous doc captures the alchemy of it all.
Pianoforte (October 22, 10:00 am, East; October 27, 2:45 pm, Bourse) is a modest documentary about the International Chopin Piano Competition. Filmmaker Jakub Piatek follows a handful of musicians who are participating in this prestigious event, which is held over 21 days every 5 years. Broken down into four stages, there are 87 entrants are whittled down to a handful of winners. Pianoforte follows a half dozen young competitors—Eva, Marcin, Alex, Michelle, Leonora and Hao—who are seen practicing, working with their teachers, and agonizing over each stage of the event.
Unfortunately, viewers do not get to see much of the performances; nor are any of the Chopin pieces identified, which is frustrating. Most of the film’s running time is spent off-stage where the subjects reveal their idiosyncrasies and neuroses, which are not very interesting. 17-year-old Eva has very long hair she combs regularly. Hao has a closer relationship to his teacher than his mother, which is as sweet as it is creepy. The most chill entrant is Alex, who practices meditation techniques and seems more mature than the others. The subjects seem chosen at random, rather than because they have important stories.
Pianoforte also does not explain the rules of the competition, which is a drawback for viewers wanting to know more. When Hao or Marcin feel they gave a bad performance one has to take their word for it. This documentary is valuable for providing a glimpse into this rarified world, but for viewers expecting to hear beautiful music, or witness a nail-biting competition, Pianoforte is a disappointment.
Full schedule and tickets for the 32nd annual Philadelphia Film Festival available here.