Now Playing! Inaugural Decibels Music Film Fest Kicks Out the Jams

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A blue-haired female DJ holds a record.
Still from 'Vinyl Nation.' (Sherri Kauk)

SF Indiefest, the granddaddy of a cottage industry of niche Bay Area film festivals with younger-skewing audiences, introduces a new punk sibling this week: Decibels Music Film Fest. The program streams online through Nov. 7 with 10 in-person shows spread among the Roxie, The Great Star Theater and DNA Lounge.

But first, let’s go for a magic-carpet ride in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Time Machine. In the Mesozoic Era between the Beatles’ 1964 appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and the debut of MTV in 1981, it was darned difficult to see your favorite band without a concert ticket. Yes, a handful of weekly TV shows (Shindig, Hullabaloo, American Bandstand, The Midnight Special, Soul Train, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert) presented live (and often lip-synced) performances by American and English rockers. But in the pre-VHS days, if you were out of the house, you were out of luck.

Pass the Aux

Hence the popularity, in the wake of Monterey Pop and Woodstock, of concert documentaries. In the ’70s, you followed the waft of smoke to The Concert for Bangladesh, The Song Remains the Same, The Grateful Dead Movie, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Rust Never Sleeps and No Nukes.

Backstage docs and feature-length profiles were much rarer. They were deemed less commercial than filmed performances, and were more complicated to make thanks to the musicians’ “cooperation” and their label’s involvement. The standouts, then and now, were Dont Look Back, Let it Be (aka Get Back) and Gimme Shelter.

By the time MTV arrived, youth culture had become pop culture had become the culture. Rock docs proliferated (at last!), developing into a genre and then a collection of clichés. VH1’s Behind the Music gets the blame but let’s cut it a break. Codified conventions (which is one definition of genre) inevitably invite parody.

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Digital video has transformed the music film yet again. The costs (and break-even point) are so low that it’s both possible and practical to make a film about almost any band, any artist, any niche, any scene. And the video and audio quality is so high, that almost every film can play somewhere.

Is this the Golden Age of music docs? It’s a good bet that a film about your fave (or third-fave) musician exists. It’s also likely that said film is available to stream or purchase this minute for a reasonable price. The times they have a-changed—and the crew at Decibels Music Film Fest recognizes the range and variety of tuned-up movies to choose from every year.

A huge crowd in a warehouse browses records.
Still from 'Vinyl Nation.' (Sherri Kauk)

S.F. culture writer Kevin Smokler and co-director Christopher Boone finished Vinyl Nation (Oct. 29 at the Roxie), an affectionate but unsentimental cross-country trip through the present-day landscape of records, before the pandemic, but its rollout was postponed. No doubt as frustrating to the filmmakers as a scratch or a skip in their cherished Ramones wax, but less permanent: This wide-ranging litany of interviewees plays less like a snapshot of a trend than an investigation of a formerly universal and still irreplaceable form of cultural experience.

Vinyl Nation encompasses the grass-roots joy of nationwide Record Store Day, the acute dedication of next-generation collectors and the quiet pride of revived record manufacturers. Of special note: John Vanderslice, producer and owner of the Oakland recording studio Tiny Telephone (his San Francisco location closed in 2020), jolts the film with a no-jive remark every time he’s onscreen.

Notwithstanding its S.F. Indiefest connection, the Decibels lineup isn’t limited to small-market-share movements or personalities. Penny Lane’s perfectly titled Listening to Kenny G (Oct. 27 at the Roxie, ahead of its HBO premiere on Dec. 3) slow-dances into the longstanding debate over the musical merits of the best-selling instrumentalist.

Still from 'Listening to Kenny G.' (Penny Lane)

Lane assembles a chorus of surprisingly open-minded critics to take the shine off of Kenny G’s sound. On the flip side, she pays sincere tribute to his massive success. The spine of the film, though, is a lengthy sit-down interview with the king of smooth jazz. (What a ridiculous concept given jazz’s history of improvisation and risk-taking, yet it became a popular, office-friendly radio format).

Ultimately Lane lets viewers keep their positions vis-à-vis Kenny G without succumbing to toothless even-handedness or betraying (i.e., ridiculing) the access he granted her. The interview provides the key, though: Kenny G is unshakably, preternaturally self-assured. In fact, that seems to have been his defining characteristic since he starred in his high school band.

What artist has no doubts? If not about his or her talent, then about material, direction, success, collaborators, fame, independence. An artist without doubts is one who never leaves his comfort zone. Perhaps we should stick to “musician,” and leave “artist” aside. Either way, there’s now a Kenny G film to add to the (virtually) sagging shelf of music films.

The Decibels Music Film Festival screens live and online Oct. 27–Nov. 7, 2021. Details here.