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CIMMfest No. 8 (April 13-17, 2016)

Karolyn and I look forward to CIMMfest (the Chicago International Movies & Music Festival) every year. Usually she gets me a pass as one of my birthday presents (April 14, nudge, nudge, wink, wink). However, this year we'll be on the road during the fest. We're headed back to Clarksdale--for the second time this year--for the Juke Joint Festival, then it's on to New Orleans for Jazz Fest. Before we hit the road, I wanted to recommend two films playing this year's fest. Both are treats for music lovers.

Bill Evans/Time Remembered

This is a pleasure for jazz aficionados, a stirring, haunting film devoted to the great pianist/composer. As one rememberer puts it, Bill Evans, hunched over in communion with his contemplative, dreamlike piano, told stories in his playing. Particular catnip for connoisseurs: the sections covering Evans's time playing with the Miles Davis Sextet, particularly the world-historic, cool-walkin' "Kind of Blue" sessions in 1959. We hear the beautiful "Flamenco Sketches," based around Evans' signature modal sound (it's based on his "Peace Piece"). Like Satie, this music somehow feels both still and in motion at once, evoking time and space, the turning of the earth. Particularly well-selected photographs capture the jovial spirit of Cannonball Adderly one hears in the grooves of "Kind of Blue." Photographs of Evans's girlfriend Peri Cousins, for whom he wrote "Peri's Scope," are as vivid and unforgettable as stills of a Golden Age actress. We also get glimpses of the storied days of the Bill Evans Trio, with bassist Scott Lafaro and drummer Paul Motian, and their legendary two-week stand at the Village Vanguard in 1961. We learn about Evans's loving bond with his brother, Harry, though his story ends sadly. (Bill wrote "Waltz for Debby" for Harry's daughter Debby, who is interviewed in the film remembering her dad and her uncle). Evans's life was more marked than most by tragedy. The dapper man became a selfish junkie, while still remaining a musician's musician. Making a good music documentary is the art of editing, even moreso than in most films. One must start with good interviews, then chop and stir them evocatively into good performance footage and photographs. Bruce Spiegel has made a well-turned picture in this mold. His film sings and illuminates, and we get to hear plenty of Evans's beautiful piano. Tony Bennett, interviewed in the film, calls his collaboration with Evans his favorite of his career, and leaves us with something Evans once said to him, words he tries to live by: "Search only for truth and beauty."
Bill Evans/Time Remembered screens on Saturday, April 16, 2016 at 4:00 p.m. at the Society for Arts, 1112 N. Milwaukee Ave.

The Smart Studios Story

This celebratory, sometimes exhilarating film about Smart Studios, and the Madison, Wisconsin musical community for which it was a hub, is something of a portrait of a generation. As someone who was there puts it, the movie chronicles "an innocent time." It reminded me a bit of my youth in 80s southeast Ohio, when I'd load the drums up and go and make some noise in a barn or basement with friends with guitars. We'd tape it on a boombox. This film follows some guys who started pretty much like us, Butch Vig and Steve Marker. Smart Studios more or less got its start in these guys' basements in 1979, when they were fumbling around trying to record Spooner, the band for which Vig played drums. From these roots, they founded Smart in 1983. We get a wistful, evocative look at the Madison scene in the 80s, the clubs, the characters, the WORT deejays, and bands like Die Kreuzen and Killdozer and the Tar Babies. This was a midwestern version of the underground, the zine counter-culture, the do-it-yourself spirit of punk rock. Of not waiting for some gatekeeper to say you're good, but just getting out there and making something. Smart Studios, this "ugly little brick building" on East Wash street, was the clubhouse. Vig became known as the guy who could find the Beatles in your unhinged garage band. Then everything changed and nothing changed. In '90, Smart recorded the demos for Nirvana's "Nevermind" and Smashing Pumpkins' "Gish" and Vig, suddenly and unexpectedly, found what he did for love had taken him to the top of the charts. In the film, he seems modest and non-plussed about being the man who helped shepherd tuneful, relatively raw guitar-bass-and-drum music into the mainstream, the kind of music me and my friends dug in the 80s. (Imagine if the Replacements had a Vig). Even after becoming a star producer, he seems to have stayed himself--just a Midwestern guy. After recording hundreds of guitar-bass-and-drum records, he put his next project together with an ear toward something fresh. This was Garbage, formed in 1993 with their old pal from Spooner, Doug Erickson, and fiery Scottish lass Shirley Manson, both interviewed in the film. Vig played drums, Marker played guitars and keys. The guys spent much of the 90s touring with Garbage, and Smart continued apace, losing some of what made it special after a remodel installed new, professional boards and equipment. Thus, we come to 2010 and...not its fall, exactly. It's more like, as Dave Grohl says, everything has its season, and the season for Smart Studios had come to its end. As more than one witness says, it really never was about money at Smart, just about "reaching out for some kind of connection," as the rousing "New Wave" by Against Me! (played over the end credits) puts it...or even, as someone else puts it, just sending out a youthful 'fuck you' to the world from an angry kid in a basement, like Cobain or Corgan. They just happened to reshape the music industry in their image in the process, this bunch of kids kicking out the jams. The pictures features interviews with everyone from Pumpkins Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin, to Donita Sparks of L7, to the very last intern Smart Studios ever had. Director Wendy Sheridan was there--she worked at Smart for 18 years. Deploying the basic "verse-chorus-verse" structure of the music doc (talking-head interviews, zooms into photographs, performance footage, a little animation), she has made something catchy and inspiring out of it. Something that, should it reach them, might inspire the next generation to go out and do it. Kind of, come to think of it, like what Vig and Marker did with Smart Studios.

The Smart Studios Story kicks off CIMMfest on Wednesday, April 13 (tonight!) at 7:30 at the Music Box Theatre, 3722 N. Southport. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Butch Vig, Steve Marker and Wendy Schneider. That'll be followed by a concert at the Metro by the 90s bands Catherine and Negative Examples, featuring former members of the Tar Babies. 

Check out the CIMMfest website for more information on these two films and the rest of what promises to be a full lineup of stimulating experiences on screen and stage.

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