Saw two music biopics this weekend at the IFC Center, and left both with a sense of bemused surprise. Surprise that I liked (nay, loved) one more than I expected to, and surprise that the other left me fairly cold.
Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten is a 2-hour montage of interview clips, personal accounts, and distracting animations that, in the end, accomplishes little more than namedropping some of Joe's more impressive friends. It's nice to see John Cusack, Flea, and Bono around a campfire waxing rhapsodic about Joe's finer qualities, but the film fails to truly capture the essence of what Strummer and The Clash meant to rock and roll, or to penetrate the more interesting subtleties of Joe's character. Almost without fail, interesting bits (like the then-unknown Sex Pistols opening for Strummer's pre-Clash band The 101'ers) are glossed over, and what little narrative continuity the movie does have is constantly interrupted with barely relevant Big-Brother-is-watching-you clips and borderline unintelligible off-the-cuff testimonials.
It's not all bad: there are a few neat insights into some of Strummer's more opaque lyrics (wtf is "Rock the Casbah" about?), and some of the old clips of The Clash on stage are worth the price of admission alone. But when it was all over, I walked out of the theater lamenting the film's unevenness and wondering why Steve Buscemi got so much screen time.
Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (trailer above) was another story altogether. It might very well have been the best film I've seen yet this year, and is absolutely the first during which I have ever shed a tear (just one, but still). I don't expect this will ever see wide release, but if you can't get to a theater that's showing it, you owe it to yourself to save it on Netflix now so that you can put it in your queue when it becomes available.
Although there are occasionally awkward reminders of the unavoidable fluffiness of the film resulting from Seeger's own participation in its production, the film succeeds in telling the extraordinary story of a man so certain of the power of music to move people that for him, it actually does. With some really great testimonials sprinkled liberally in (Springsteen cautions that the blacklisting of an artist like Seeger is never too far off when the administration in power is given to personal attacks on its detractors) The Power of Song is all-at-once nostalgic, poignant, inspiring, and inspired. I'm not a film critic, but for what it's worth, I'm calling this an absolute must-see. For what else it's worth, the critics agree.