From Jazz, to Dance, to Docs: Film Fests Offer Varied Fare

by Sura Wood

“The Cry of Jazz” at YBCA, the Tiny Dance Film Festival at Ninth Street Independent Film Center and the San Francisco International Film Festival will keep cinephiles happily busy this month.

This month the San Francisco International Film Festival, the city’s largest and best known film fest, presents a slate of world cinema, documentaries, tributes and live multi-media events, while two specialty series focus on the creative achievements of performing artists in, respectively, contemporary dance and that most quintessential American art form, jazz.

The new documentaries featured in “The Cry of Jazz,” a fascinating five-part series, mine the lives and extraordinary music of both famous and lesser-known African American jazz greats, while examining their inner demons and their struggles against social injustice. Battles within and without certainly afflicted Frank Morgan, an exceptional alto sax player whose career was torpedoed by drugs and the nearly 30 years he spent in and out of San Quentin prison. Morgan’s troubled life and outsized talent is the subject of N.C. Heikin’s “Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story,” a music-filled history of a gifted, deeply flawed genius, and the hopping, heroin-infused L.A. music scene of the 1940s and ’50s, when many venues were segregated and African-American artists were regularly subjected to racial discrimination. The film, intercut with interviews with Morgan and insightful observations from his family, friends and fellow musicians, traces the trajectory of Morgan’s career, from his early years as a teenage prodigy and the protégé of bebop king Charlie “Bird” Parker—when Morgan was 15, Duke Ellington asked him to tour with his band—through his descent into addiction and his comeback when
he was in his 50s. The film includes a rousing 2012 tribute concert performed at San Quentin after his death.

Drug addiction also sabotaged and ultimately felled another jazz giant, the dazzling piano virtuoso James Booker, whom Dr. John once called “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans ever produced.” Lily Keber’s film “Bayou Maharajah,” which resurrects the neglected Booker from obscurity, weaves together rare concert footage and personal photographs, archival imagery of old-time New Orleans and a rich piano soundtrack. Influenced by the Baptist Church he grew up in, Booker, who sported a signature eye patch, played with Ray Charles, Little Richard, Aretha Franklin and Fats Domino, among others, and mentored Harry Connick, Jr., who shares his memories on camera. However, it’s Booker’s expressive and nuanced music and the full-bodied sound he wrought from his instrument that best tell the tale. Despite a successful solo career, drugs took their toll; with his mental and physical health failing, Booker died at 43.

April 2 → 23

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission St.


The Tiny Dance Film Festival, whose name alludes to the brief running time of the 20 shorts it presents, not to the size of the artistic aspirations of the talented dancers, choreographers and directors who created them, emphasizes brevity and experimentation. Founded in 2013, TDFF explores the mundane, the inconspicuous, the idiosyncratic and the conceptual in films such as Eric Garcia and Kat Cole’s slightly surreal “Rawhide,” which opens on a fog-shrouded beach at dawn. As storm waves pound the rocky coast, a woman in a ratty fur coat, orange tights and white sneakers unfurls like a prehistoric animal. She migrates to a cliff above the sea, and, as spooky sounds of a theremin play in the background, has an encounter with an animated toy yak that regards her in wonder.

In a more poignant vein, several works address age and illness. An old man trapped in his aging body loses himself in movement and, for a fleeting moment, rediscovers his youth, in Nicola Balhuizen Hepp’s “Echo.” Jenny Stulberg, inspired by her grandfather, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, choreographed “I was within,” a gentle piece performed by a male and female dancer to music by Fats Waller, and shot it in an empty warehouse in Oakland; the stripped-down environs serve as a visual metaphor for the gradual deterioration of the mind and its impact on a couple’s relationship. “Lay Me Low,” a stirring work by Marlene Millar, brings together the traditional Shaker song of the title with the rhythmic, unison movement of a procession of singing, clapping and tapping mourners as they make their way along a wooded waterfront path.

April 24 & 25

Ninth Street Independent Film Center
145 9th St.


“Forbidden Room,” the latest inventive cinematic insanity from the maddening, brilliant Canadian director Guy Maddin, may be one of the most anticipated films at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. According to the “Hollywood Reporter” review of the movie, Maddin “goes through the looking glass, down the rabbit hole, into the twilight zone and beyond the great divide or maybe just deep… into his own two-strip Technicolor imagination.” A cross between silent film and the early talkies and an exercise in exuberant visual style absent plot or logic, the action, such as it is, transpires in a series of non-linear, hallucinatory sequences, some concerning a nearly airless miniature submarine, a pilfered squid and an erupting volcano.

Among the works by local filmmakers screened here is Jennifer Phang’s “Advantageous,” a speculative sci-fi film somewhat reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale.” The film is set in San Francisco in an indeterminate dystopian future, when fertility rates are declining and the economy is collapsing. Though there’s no shortage of electronic gadgets, and technology and surveillance capabilities have advanced, societal conditions have gone in the opposite direction for women in general and the single mother at the center of the story in particular.

The festival’s traditionally strong selection of documentaries continues with “Best of Enemies.” The thoroughly engrossing film, by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, chronicles America’s favorite intellectual blood sport during the 1968 political conventions: the vituperative rivalry between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, which became a delicious spectacle during a series of televised network debates between the two highly educated, patrician men who clearly reviled each other. For fans of verbal sparring and the lethal, well-aimed barb, it doesn’t get any better than this.

Cinephiles and anyone with an interest in Brando will be intrigued by “Listen to Me Marlon,” a revealing, straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth documentary in which the charismatic, famously reclusive actor, who fled Hollywood and retreated to a remote Tahitian island, reflects on his life. In what can only be described as a coup, English director Stevan Riley gained access to a cache of never-seen photographs and footage and 200 hours of private audio recordings made by Brando in which he comments on a range of subjects, from film roles, including “The Godfather” and “Last Tango in Paris,” to his turbulent youth and family tragedies. Riley integrates the material for an intimate posthumous portrait of a legendary figure notoriously guarded with the public when he was alive.

April 23 → May 7

Various venues; 415/561-5000