Celebrating its 20th Anniversary this year, the Noise Pop Festival has expanded from a local music showcase to a multi-media event, featuring a pop-up shop, a local designer fair, art shows, happy hours, and a film festival alongside 103 bands performing at 18 venues. This year's film festival features nine music-related films, five of which were available for preview.
It's not just music that links these films together. It's obsession and an overriding question about skating (in one case literally) the line between chaos and control. Musicians tend to develop young, and the issue that comes up repeatedly throughout the Noise Pop film series is whether one can create something that gains momentum and grows without being overtaken when it develops into a force of its own. It's definitely a Frankenstein and the monster dilemma. We make art so that it can live on its own, but sometimes we also make monsters and the monsters can turn on their creators, especially true in pop music. The films -- all documentaries -- also ask another, subtler question about what it means to belong in a cult of individuality. Since pop music is the nexus of art, business, and the culture industry, how do artists maintain their individual visions while becoming willing or un-willing participants in a machine that generates fads, fashions and even whole social movements?
These questions are probably most directly addressed in the frenetic Upside Down: The Creation Records Story, which captures the crazed, often drug-fuelled rise of the British label that was home to Jesus and Mary Chain, Primal Scream, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Ride, The Telescopes, Teenage Fanclub and Oasis, among many others. Though the label is best known for exporting Oasis to the world, it was also the main progenitor in the late 1980s and early 1990s of the "shoegaze" movement, a strain of music that relied heavily on guitar effects and buried vocals. Upside Down is the fever dream of Creation's founder Alan McGee, the label's "President of Pop," a madman genius who discovered and signed most its best-known acts. Always this side of bankruptcy and on the other side of a very long weekend, the label lived from advance to advance, but fostered a chaotic creativity that came to symbolize an era. The film's style is a collage of electronic psychedelia that perfectly captures Creation's incredible rise and seemingly inevitable demise. Seriously, don't miss it. The Noise Pop screening is the film's San Francisco premiere and features a Q&A with director Danny O'Connor. (Sat., Feb. 25, 7pm, Roxie Theater)
At the other end of the spectrum lies Andrew Bird: Fever Year, a documentary following the troubador on a rigorous cross country tour. Similar to Upside Down, Fever Year shows Bird's single-minded pursuit of a sound and of a way of working that courts chaos onstage through improvisation. Bird and his band find the most satisfaction out on the edge of their own capabilities and at the outer bounds of their collaborative space. The film depicts Bird's efforts to make and to -- however briefly -- capture a particular sound. The rock and roll lifestyle of non-stop touring seems to be his only route. Suffering through a never-ending fever, Bird wonders if the symptoms aren't evolutionary, if he isn't developing into a creature ideally suited to the music hall. The film has beautiful sequences of Bird generating his own particular brand of mid-western Americana music using a loop pedal, violin, voice and whistles. (Fri., Feb. 24, 9pm, Roxie Theater.)
In the heartbreaking category, Hit So Hard tells the story of Patty Schemel, the powerful drummer for Hole. The documentary follows Patty's journey from small town girl to superstar drummer on the cover of Rolling Stone to crack addict living on the streets of Hollywood and then back again from near oblivion. I have to admit, I cried several times during the film, Patty is jsuch a tough yet touching character, and the film provides an inside glimpse into the pre-suicide home life of Kurt and Courtney, revealing the almost mythological couple through the eyes of a sometimes sad and troubled, but ultimately triumphant close friend. (Wed., Feb. 22, 9pm, ATA.)
In its own words, Dragonslayer "is a punk rock manifesto to youth, love and learning to survive after the decline of western civilization," which seriously cannot be said more cogently. The story of Josh "Skreech" Sandoval, a skateboard hero from Fullerton, the film is an unvarnished, though -- oxymoronically -- highly polished (produced by Christine Vachon) portrait of a lost boy who scrapes up enough money to travel a small circuit of skateboard competitions. Now a new father and newly in love (not with his son's mother), Dragonslayer is also the really tender story of a boy becoming a man and learning to take on responsibility in the reduced circumstances of a burned out, post-crash America. This, too is an exploration of the space between natural talent and the urge to self-destruct. It follows Josh and his girlfriend Leslie as they face a faded out future, but still try to live out their own nomadic image of freedom on side-streets and in back alleys and skate parks. (Sat., Feb 25, 9:15pm, Roxie Theater.)
Avoid Blank City, a documentary about the No Wave Super-8 Cinema of the 1980s. The film is terribly made and the "artists" portrayed may be legends, but they aren't particularly interesting. Where the bands on Creation are the real deal, true psychotic madmen and women, most of the folks in Blank City seem to be caught up in a not very interesting pose. Granted, they might all be crazed lunatics, but the portraits they produced of the asylum don't do justice to the insanity.
The Noise Pop Film Festival runs February 22-25, 2012 at the Roxie Theater and Artists' Television Access in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit noisepop.com.