Now in its 41st year, music has always been a staple at the Toronto International Film Festival, one of the world’s most prestigious events for cinema lovers of all stripes. Running Sept. 8-18 at various venues across the city, this year’s edition sees the return of the Festival Street program, which features free screenings, food trucks, and concerts from up-and-coming performers and a big name or two (including Pharrell Williams). On Sept. 15, legendary Los Angeles party A Club Called Rhonda takes over the Drake Hotel, with sets from Wolf + Lamb, Dinamo Azari, Jacques Greene, Project Pablo, and more.
The TIFF programming team haven’t forgotten about the music-centric movies either; this year’s lineup ranges from tried, tested, and true biographical documentaries to behind-the-scenes concert films. Whether you’re a fan of dancehall, jazz, or punk rock, here’s our ten recommendations of what to see at the festival.
If you need more jazz biography documentaries in your life, check out the new John Coltrane doc by John Scheinfeld (who also directed 2010’s The US vs. John Lennon). Chasing Trane sounds like a very pure biography film: it documents the famed musician’s childhood in the Jim Crow South, his relationship with Miles Davis, and his heroin addiction. If you’re a real hep cat, you’ll enjoy its many interviews: Sonny Rollins, Carlos Santana, Common, Kamasi Washington, and more. Even Bill Clinton makes an appearance, to speak of the lasting influence of Coltrane’s music. Groovy.
Music-obsessive Jim Jarmusch has two TIFF films this year: Paterson, a dramedy that sneaks in a Method Man cameo, and Gimme Danger, about The Stooges with Iggy Pop as its primary subject. The documentary charts the growth and explosion of the group from the perspective of Jarmusch, a dyed-in-the-wool fan. The chronicling of Detroit rock and Iggy’s self-destructive personality are the film’s main focuses, with an abundance of supposedly candid interviews with the band’s frontman. Even in his wise old age, Iggy’s got the kind of larger-than-life personality that was made for documentaries. Such an entertaining performance, combined with Jarmusch’s deep appreciation of the music, makes for a promising look at one of punk rock’s most trailblazing bands.
TIFF is obviously excited about the upcoming biopic about African-American mathematician Katherine Johnson, Hidden Figures, who helped NASA catch up in the Space Race with her colleagues. Not only is the festival showing a sneak preview followed by a Q&A with the film’s stars and collaborators, including Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, and Pharrell Williams (who handled the soundtrack, wrote original music, and serves as a producer), there’ll be a Pharrell concert afterwards. Here’s hoping R&B singer Monae also makes an appearance on the mic during the latter.
I Called Him Morgan
Jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan was one of the greats of his time, but his life was cut short at the tender age of 33 when his wife Helen shot him in the New York jazz club Slug’s Saloon. The documentary traces the musician’s jazz roots and his work with Art Blakey and Dizzie Gillespie, while also exploring what happened the night of his murder. I Called Him Morgan features new interviews with Lee’s peers, like drummer Albert Heath, saxophonist Billy Harper, and saxophonist/composer Wayne Shorter. It also adeptly mixes in archival footage, including Lee’s lively performance of “Dat Dere.”
Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids
Director Jonathan Demme may be best known for his 1991 blockbuster The Silence of the Lambs, but Talking Heads fans know him as the man responsible for the best concert film of all time—Stop Making Sense, featuring David Byrne in an oversized white suit. Demme’s preternatural talent for shooting musical performances might explain why the savvy JT sought him out for the pop star’s final nights of his 20/20 Experience tour, backed by the Tennessee Kids, Timberlake’s group of dashing singers, dancers, and musicians. With their splashy Tom Ford menswear and carefully choreographed numbers, Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids is an absolute must watch for all the poptimists.
King of the Dancehall
Nick Cannon is always full of surprises—did you know he’s now a college freshman?—so if you didn’t already know he’s directed movies before (the straight-to-VOD kind), you’d be forgiven. But the subject matter of King of the Dancehall, is at least somewhat promising: Tarzan (Cannon, of course) is a young Brooklyn man trying to raise money for his sick mamma (Whoopi Goldberg). He visits Kingston, Jamaica, and gets caught up in both its weed and dancehall scenes, and the musical plays out as a loving tribute to the deep-rooted culture of the country’s music and its influence around the world. Busta Rhymes and Beenie Man also makes appearances.
Most of the music-related films playing at TIFF this year are about very well-known acts—chalk it up to our never-ending desire for viewers to see favourite musicians narrativized on-screen—but Mali Blues deserves its due too. It’s a documentary about Malian musician Fatoumata Diawara, whose relationship with her home country is, well, complicated. While this is true for the country’s musicians in general—Islamic fundamentalists banned music for a while in 2012 and artists faces threats of getting their fingers cut off—Diawara’s problems run deeper. After fleeing Mali to avoid an arranged marriage, she returns to perform her first-ever concert in the country. Immersing itself in a strong, vibrant African musical culture built on a variety of traditions and sensibilities, check out Mali Blues for something different.
The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography
The main appeal in seeing The B-Side comes from a place of cinephilia rather than musicophilia—it’s the latest film from acclaimed documentarian Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War). That said, his subject is legendary American photographer Elsa Dorfman, who became best friends with a slew of influential musicians and artists during the 1960s, including Bob Dylan, Jonathan Richman, and Allen Ginsberg. Even if you’re not familiar with her portraits, The B-Sidepresents a behind-the-scenes look at the work of a unique craftswoman, who got to know these legendary people very well at a time when they were at their creative zeniths.
The Rolling Stones Olé Olé Olé! : A Trip Across Latin America
The best kind of music movie is the road movie. It shows musicians at rest, play, and work, offering an amusing cross-section of idiosyncrasies. The Rolling Stones Olé Olé Olé! seems no different in this regard, as it follows the Stones across their exhilarating tour, concluding with their historic stop in Havana, Cuba, where fans were once detained for listening to their music. Observing how fandom for such a recognizable band in another part of the world can be fascinating subject material, and the film is probably worth the price of admission for the mariachi rendition of “Happy” alone.
The Sixth Beatle
First, there was much debate about the fifth Beatle, and now we need one about a sixth? Kidding aside, it’s interesting that this documentary, about Liverpool concert promoter Sam Leach, argues for a more humble position of sixth Beatle. Before they were picked up by manager Brian Epstein, while they were still figuring out their sound and performing gigs at home and in Germany, Leach gave the UK band that first push towards stardom. In this documentary, the British octogenarian accounts the early days of the band and the burgeoning Liverpool music scene. Beatles docs typically focus attention on Beatlemania and everything thereafter, so The Sixth Beatle is a refreshing delve into older, obscure music history about the world’s most beloved band.
For showtimes and tickets, head over to TIFF’s official website.
Tina Hassannia is on Twitter.