TIFF 2013 – My Home’s Here at the Jersey Shore: Harvey Weinstein’s 12.12.12.

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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.

8/10

d.a. garabedian

Mantra: Dave Grohl’s SOUND CITY

6-e1c89e4912ef6f21dc643e681fc168c9Dave Grohl’s SOUND CITY is the first great film of 2013. As his directorial debut (specifically in the documentary genre), it lacks nothing in the way of surety: shots are eloquently framed, interviews are casual, insightful and cut to the bone and his pacing is rock solid. One finds it easy to forget that this is the same man who screams bloody murder into microphones for a living.

But Grohl is a man of many talents, as he so perfectly explains in a clip which did not make it into the final film. After hearing an instrumental piece as a child – one which offered a solo passage to each of the instruments involved – he became obsessed with the idea of trying his hand at, and eventually mastering, each of them in turn – guitars, drums, et al. And so the grown-up Grohl has since proved to the world: the legendary drummer behind one of the most influential bands of the past 20 years and a powerful songwriter, vocalist and guitarist in his own right, the man has become a spokesman for this generation of rock music. And now he can add filmmaker to that list of admittedly blush-worthy talents.

SOUND CITY follows, for the most part, the story of the iconic and titular studio since its inception in 1969. The film essentially boils down to the history of rock ‘n’ roll over the past 50-odd years, filtered and magnified through the presence of this single studio and the people who ran it, used it and created inside of it. Rick Springfield, Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, Ratt (all of whom appear in the film – plus many, many more)… The studio defies generations and genres, but it holds one simple truth as a common thread: the importance of artistic creation and, perhaps more importantly, the importance of the human element behind that creation.

For the most part, Grohl’s focus finds itself centred entirely on the studio’s mixing console, known as the Neve Board. This board is one of only a handful that was ever made, and is essentially a one-of-a-kind artifact, left lingering as the days of analogue music recording have hit their lowest point in history. The importance of this board cannot be understated, and Grohl wisely focuses on it. It is a unifying presence amongst these impossibly diverse but equally brilliant musicians; the thing which helped make them the people that they are today. Grohl is adamant about this: Nirvana recorded NEVERMIND in that studio, on that board, and it changed his life.

Though to many non-musicians, the importance of the particulars of this technology may be lost, but Grohl does a perfectly satisfactory job in describing just how meaningful the presence of it (particularly as counterpointed against the digital age, which plays a strong role in the middle portion of the film) is to the creation of the music through which it was recorded. It’s hard to accurately describe the exact reason why this board is so special without getting into brain-melting, scientific particulars which will inevitably be lost on the non-musician, so Grohl smartly sidesteps it. In fact, in one of the funniest scenes in the film, the filmmaker gets Rupert Neve himself (the engineer who designed and built the console) to explain the particulars – which are quickly lost on Grohl’s glazed-over eyes.

Because that is essentially what SOUND CITY boils down to: it doesn’t matter how these things work. It doesn’t matter that the studio is a mess, or that nobody can explain just why the reverb and decay of a certain room in the studio makes it, against all logic, the perfect place to record drum tracks. It just matters that there’s some sort of magic in this place, and that it comes through in the music. It helps create the art, through engineering, or luck, or plain old witchcraft. It just works, because you can feel it.

And that’s what ultimately makes this film so special. After an hour or so of delving extremely successfully into the history of rock ‘n’ roll as it exists around this studio, Grohl pivots the film into something else entirely. Following the history of Sound City Studios up until the very moment when the place closed its doors forever a few years back, the musician-turned-filmmaker buys that console and continues its legacy in his own studio. He invites back all of the musicians whose lives have been changed by it, and they record what will become the official soundtrack to this movie: a series of brand new songs, written in collaboration by some of the greatest rock musicians to ever live.

This is where the film transcends itself to become something truly magnificent. I simply cannot remember the last time I was moved to so much joy as I was in the last 40-or-so minutes of this film. The entire “Real to Reel” segment is so creatively stimulating, so emotionally poignant and so downright celebratory that it defies description. Perhaps this is a fact that will be lost on the non-musical viewer, but for anybody who has ever played an instrument, or followed a band, or just been a true fan of music – this is something you are not likely to ever experience again.

It’s over a half an hour of some of the greatest musicians in the world, gathered around the mixing board that helped make them the artists that they are today and creating new music together. The process is fascinating and, frankly, humbling: when Grohl, Josh Homme (of Queens of the Stone Age) and Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails) get together in a room and slowly work out the specifics of a brand new song (“Mantra”) that they are writing on the spot, you get a real feeling for just how impossibly talented these people are. And bringing them together around this metaphorical personification of what the music industry used to be is a powerful and exhilarating message.

And when Sir Paul McCartney himself joins all of the surviving members of Nirvana to write what will eventually be known as “Cut Me Some Slack”, one gets the feeling that you’re witnessing the entire history of an art form encapsulated in one room, in one moment.

“Why can’t it always be this easy?” asks Grohl.

“It is,” replies McCartney.

And if that’s not enough to make you want to follow your dreams, I’m not sure what will.

8.5/10

d.a. garabedian