The NW Film Center’s Reel Music Festival returns for its 35th installment in a much humbler fashion than before: There are a mere 17 films screening this time around, a far cry from the 30 documentaries and concert films offered last year. With that shrinkage comes a narrowing of focus: Aside from a few notable films, the selections this year represent middle-of-the-road fare made to appeal to artists’ existing fanbases.
Even among those safe bets, there are plenty of films that should perk up the ears of music junkies. The highlight for this writer is Itzhak (screening Sun Jan 14), a portrait of violin maestro Itzhak Perlman that will air later this year on American Masters. Free of stodgy narration and edited in an almost stream-of-consciousness fashion, director Alison Chernick’s loving film works in glimpses of the classical music exemplar’s sizable ego (watch him slyly find a way to get a solo during rehearsals for a guest appearance at one of Billy Joel’s Madison Square Garden shows), but the strongest impression that comes across is Perlman’s impressive generosity, as seen in his work with a new generation of musicians.
The best bets can be found by looking toward the outliers on fest’s schedule, like Carl Theodor Dreyer’s haunting and breathtaking 1928 silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc.
The majority of Reel Music’s single-subject films stick to the same documentary formula, taking us step by step through an artist’s life and career. That occasionally yields surprises, as in Chavela (Sun Jan 14), an uncompromising look into the wild, bold path of lesbian ranchera singer Chavela Vargas. The rest tend to walk well-trod ground: There are no new insights to be gleaned from Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars (Fri Jan 12), Lili Fini Zanuck’s film about Clapton’s celebrated, troubled history, or The Big Beat, which puts the spotlight on recently passed rock legend Fats Domino. They’re fun, sure, but inessential.
One of the other jewels of the fest, though, is Long Strange Trip (Fri Jan 19), 2017’s four-hour documentary on the Grateful Dead made for Amazon, which offers new insights even for lifelong Deadheads. Director Amir Bar-Lev, given unprecedented access to the group’s vast archive, digs up never-before-seen footage of the Dead on tour—and their backstage shenanigans at the peak of their acid-gobbling days. It’s a great deep dive for newbies as well, especially the charming yet unapologetic section of the film that centers on the band’s legion of fans.
The best bets can be found by looking toward the outliers on fest’s schedule, like Carl Theodor Dreyer’s haunting and breathtaking 1928 silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc (Fri Jan 26), which will screen at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall with live musical accompaniment from members of the Portland Youth Philharmonic and a huge choir. Attendees would also do well to check out the fest’s closing film, A Life in Waves (Tues Jan 30), which fixes its gaze on electronic music pioneer Suzanne Ciani. The documentary itself is unbalanced, lingering too long on Ciani’s work as a sound artist for commercials instead of giving time to her innovative experimental music. Yet with so few women getting their due for advancing the cause of electronic music, this flawed work is still a worthwhile step in the right direction.