Every year at the Toronto International Film Festival, I go looking for a certain kind of film. It’s not always there, and even when it is, it often tends to get lost amongst the shuffle of all of the usually more-high-profile selections. It’s the sort of film whose sole purpose is to express pure joy; pure, positive emotion. It’s the sort of film where the usual method of analysis and categorization are irrelevant, because the overwhelmingly positive vibe which it emits trumps all other sense of reason.
This year, 12.12.12. is that film.
The movie follows the exploits of three producers – James Dolan, John Sykes and the ever-compelling Harvey Weinstein – in the aftermath of the devastation which Hurricane Sandy wreaked on America’s east coast last year. Through candid interviews – though, notably, never as talking heads – the documentary observes as a top force of Hollywood’s elite assembles one of the most impressive concert fundraisers of all time – in less than four weeks, to boot.
12.12.12. is not a documentary in the traditional sense. It has no official “director”, though a conversation with Weinstein after the film suggests that producer Meghan O’Hara may unofficially fill that role. In reality, it’s more of a showcase for the charitable spirit and good will that these filmmakers bestowed upon the devastated regions in the wake of a tragedy. It wouldn’t be surprising in the least if a fair number of people found the entire affair to be a bit self-congratulatory, a little self-serving, and more than a little pompous.
But it’s not. The filmmakers do everything in their power to properly contextualize the narrative, and it offers a great glimpse into what it was like around that time. Not only do we get pristine concert footage of some of the greatest living musical legends on the big screen, we get to see them behind-the-scenes at their most intimate, we get to see every detail (and hiccup) involved in making such a large-scale production work, and we get to see actors and celebrities from all walks of entertainment life come out to support the cause.
But much, much more importantly, we get a sense of the people. The film is filled with nearly as many shots of crowd members as band members, and we spend almost as much time amongst the heroes of the tragedy as we do with the performers. The filmmakers do a great job of splicing in footage, statistics and interviews with people who were directly affected by the storm: cell phone footage of a devastated boardwalk, news footage of cars floating down streets, casual conversations with nurses, firefighters, police officers and even local community leaders who helped control the chaos when things were looking their bleakest.
And it is this human element that makes the film such a success. The filmmakers know that a series of powerful, emotional and legendary performances was not enough for a film like this. East-coasters deserve better, and they get it. One of the most striking sequences in the film involves a handful of locals at a Brooklyn bait and tackle shop / bar, where they watch the concert on television. At one particular moment, a sanitation worker cheers loudly at the TV when Steve Buscemi congratulates his branch of civil workers. Cheers all around, some pats on the back, and his beaming face up at the TV. Nothing more is required.
The film boasts some terrific performances from some of the most popular musicians of all time: The Rolling Stones, Sir Paul McCartney, The Who, Billy Joel, Roger Waters, Eddie Vedder, Bon Jovi, Alicia Keys, Kanye West… The list goes on. But as the film opens on a shot of Bruce Springsteen’s face as he croons melancholically about being raised in the swamps of Jersey, you recognize that this is not just a big party for celebrities; it’s about the people, and about the places. And that makes it a very special concert film, indeed.
12.12.12. is alternately beautiful and awesome. The cinematography is wonderful, the concert and its behind-the-scenes access are unparalleled and its cause is indisputable. Maybe it is all a little bit self-absorbed, but if it is, it’s deservedly so: these producers did a great thing with this fundraiser, and though they could have chosen to make the film entirely about their own importance, they turn the cameras onto the people who really matter. And as an East-coaster myself, I truly appreciate that.
I hope that everybody in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and all of the places afflicted by the storm get a chance to see this film. It’s all for them.