When the Sound Unseen film festival was born in 1999, the cutting-edge cultural celebration of films on music entered the national arts scene with little fanfare. 17 years and several awards later, Sound Unseen has become a mainstay of the Twin Cities arts scene. “I want the best films that we can get so that people can experience them and enjoy them as much as I did when I first saw them,” said festival director Jim Brunzell in anticipation of this year’s festival, running from Nov. 10-13.
Unique fanfare surrounds the opening night film, Contemporary Color. The film depicts a live event organized by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center to celebrate the synchronized dance routines that comprise Color Guard, which also features flags, rifles, and sabers. The 10 original dance pieces choreographed for the film included collaborators like Nelly Furtado and Ira Glass working with teams across the US and Canada. Brunzell describes it as “family-friendly and outside of the box,” but still captivating. “I was definitely hooked on it within two or three minutes.”
There is palpable excitement surrounding the rest of the lineup as well. The docket of competition films, each experiencing a Minnesota premiere, runs the gamut from sad to quirky to adventurous to contemplative.
Aaron Faulls and Nate Gowtham’s Colin Hay – Waiting For My Real Life documents the life of former Men At Work lead singer Colin Hay. The film covers his family’s emigration to Australia, the success of his band, his struggles with addiction and declining popularity, and a gradual rediscovering of himself and his own artistic freedom.
Jonathan Keijser’s What Would Beethoven Do? explores the current state of classical music. The film features a variety of voices, with artists like Bobby McFerrin and Eric Whitacre emphasizing the current relevance of classical music.
Arctic Superstar follows Samí rapper Nils Rune Utsi – known as SlinCraze – who lives with his mother in Máze, a nearly abandoned town in the Arctic Highlands of Norway. As Utsi attempts to start a rapping career, his simultaneously embarks on the ambitious mission of saving his endangered language. “They have a hundred words for ‘snow,’” observes Brunzell, “and no words for ‘yo.’”
Goodnight Brooklyn — The Story of Death By Audio aims to bring viewers inside of Death By Audio, an underground venue for music and art in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Though the feature-length film ends with the closure of one of New York City’s best venues for music and art, it also chronicles the origins and continuing influence of that space.
Saturday, Nov. 12 features The Sad and Beautiful World of Sparklehorse, a documentary about singer-songwriter Mark Linkous. A highly influential figure in the alternative music scene, Linkous led a dramatic life. Despite the struggles with addiction and mental illness that led to his suicide in 2010, Linkous was still able to release successful music even in his later years as a collaboration with producer Brian Burton, better known as Danger Mouse, led to the release of the acclaimed Dark Night of the Soul.
Salima Koroma’s directorial debut Bad Rap follows the lives and careers of four Asian-American rappers trying to break into a world that often treats them as outsiders. This documentary features dynamic live performance footage and revealing interviews as a host of artists attempt to gain a foothold in a genre in which they have been historically underrepresented. For Brunzell, who originally saw the film at Tribeca Film Festival, Koroma’s work raises unique questions. “How do you market them? Where do they play? Who’s their audience? It’s all about trying to sell a brand.”
Producer Michael Slaboch will be in the audience to discuss the screening of his film Syl Johnson: Any Way the Wind Blows. This feature is a portrait of an overlooked yet hugely influential African-American musician whose 60-year career spanned blues, funk, soul, and hip-hop even as he remained relatively anonymous. In spite of enjoying success in Chicago in the 1960s with songs like “Come On Sock It To Me” and “Is It Because I’m Black,” and recording with the same band and producer as Al Green at Hi Records in Memphis in the ‘70s, Syl’s music remained largely unknown and his career was seemingly over by the ‘80s as he suffered under contracts that deprived him of the rights to his work.
BANG! The Bert Berns Story, follows the narrative of ‘60s R&B rock star Bert Berns. With his co-director Bob Sarles, filmmaker Brett Berns brings his late father’s story to the screen with interviews from music icons (Ben E. King, Van Morrison, and Paul McCartney, to name a few) and rare performance footage. Though Berns’s name is often overlooked, songs he wrote like “Twist & Shout,” “Piece of My Heart,” “Hang On Sloopy,” and “I Want Candy” have achieved immortality.
Beyond the competition films, an array of festival films include Donnie Darko and Southland Tales plus a conversation with their writer and director, Richard Kelly. Brunzell has also devoted time to Tower, on the 1966 shooting at the University of Texas-Austin, though he realizes this film has little to do with music. “Occasionally, we’ll do films that are not necessarily on music but are artist-based,” Brunzell notes. “Just the way this film was made is interesting – they used rotoscope animation for entire sequences and made that animation create the story, which gave it a more visual, sensory experience.”
Brunzell is eager to close the festival on a strong note on Nov. 13 at the Bryant Lake Bowl Theater in Minneapolis with Strike a Pose. This feature follows up with dancers from Madonna’s 1990 Blond Ambition tour a quarter-century later and examines the struggles many of them faced as they attempted to return to their lives in the years after the tour and documentary (1991’s Madonna: Truth or Dare) that catapulted them to overnight stardom.
Brunzell, who was exposed to the film at Tribeca and through his work as program director for the Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival in Austin, Texas, was particularly excited about this feature and finds that it answers essential audience questions. “Whatever happened to that band? Why hasn’t that filmmaker made anything in five years? You’re always searching. They were very talented dancers and performers who lived through that industry, and once Madonna was done with that tour, in a way, their celebrity and time in the limelight disappeared as well. I think there’s more to the story – more depth, and more heart.”
Ultimately, the motivation behind that selection drives every Sound Unseen. “For as long as I’ve been involved, my passion for film has always come first and foremost,” Brunzell recalls. “I want the best films that we can get so that people can experience them and enjoy them as much as I did when I first saw them.” And for the next 17 years? Jim Brunzell’s eyes are wide open. “I want to see us grow. That’s all you can ask for. You just hope that people show up and enjoy themselves, because we care about the product. It’s not about making money and paying bills. That’s my vision – do something that you love and see where it goes.”
For information on additional films and events at this year’s festival, see soundunseen.com.
Ibad Jafri is a senior at Carleton College studying International Relations and Cinema & Media Studies. A few weeks ago he shared an impromptu duet with Garrison Keillor.