SXSW Report: “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop”

MAGNET’s Mitch Myers files his third round of notes from SXSW.

Things are pretty busy in Austin this week. While I was unable to attend screenings for documentaries about odd-but-lovable media characters like Pee Wee Herman and Elmo, I did catch the premiere of Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop. Director Roman Flender’s movie captures the tall redheaded one’s post-Tonight Show 32-city comedy trek, aptly dubbed his “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On Television Tour.” And as we learn from this documentary, the impetus for O’Brien’s decision to get out on the road so soon after his acrimonious split with NBC stemmed from his voracious/personal need to perform in front of a live audience.

The film certainly has plenty of laughs, but it is also a tough and personal examination of O’Brien’s ego and his insecurities. O’Brien was filled with rage after getting bumped by NBC and Jay Leno, and he clearly felt like he had something to prove to the world—and to himself. Much like Sid Caesar did during his famous work on The Show Of Shows, O’Brien pushes himself and his loyal staff relentlessly. O’Brien’s humor is also his greatest weapon—onstage he uses it to attack his former employers, but it also serves to defend against his fears and frustration in the course of the tour. O’Brien’s personal assistant catches a lot of abuse, but so do all of his writers, agents, producers, backing musicians and anyone else who dares to enter into the world of Team Coco.

O’Brien appears more and more haggard as the tour (and the film) progresses, and he loses 15 pounds in the process. His cutting sarcasm peaks during the numerous meet-and-greets designed to honor the man on his tour, but as much as he claims to hate having to be “on” all the time, he really can’t help himself, riffing and doing shtick with perfect strangers to the point of exhaustion when he should be resting up for the next performance.

O’Brien also seems compelled to attack his co-workers physically, but he does it with so much love and humor that they take the abuse without complaint. In one of the most revealing scenes, O’Brien taunts visiting actor Jack McBrayer (30 Rock) about being a hick to the point of true embarrassment—and then forces his uncomfortable Southern guest to dance to an impromptu version of “Dueling Banjos.”

The segments of O’Brien’s onstage performances are always clever and well-conceived, but the weariness that comes with high-level showbiz is the real lesson here. The stakes are huge, both personally and professionally, and like many comics, O’Brien chose to work out his numerous issues in public. The man even came out for the SXSW movie premiere that he dreaded, compulsively pleasing his fans and keeping his face in the public eye no matter what the cost.

SXSW Report: “Super,” “A Bag Of Hammers” And “It’s About You”

MAGNET’s Mitch Myers files his second round of notes from SXSW.

Director James Gunn is over-the-top crazy—as a screenwriter, he worked on the Dawn Of The Dead remake and Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, and he directed box-office flop Slither—all of which makes him an ideal filmmaker to showcase at SXSW. Gunn’s insane new movie, Super, stars Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler and Kevin Bacon. It’s a low-budget comedy about a desperate misfit who remakes himself as a superhero. He’s pathetic, deluded and vengeful, but our hero’s newfound clarion call is simply, “Shut up, crime!”

The idea of some misguided loser with a young female sidekick killing and maiming bad guys is similar to last year’s SXSW buzz-flick Kickass, but Kickass wore green and Wilson’s costume is all red, so there. Like Kickass, the violence in Super is hardcore, but Wilson’s Frank (the Crimson Bolt) and Page’s Libby (his sidekick, Boltie) are truly hilarious as unhinged crime fighters thrown together by fate. The Crimson Bolt’s secret weapon is a big metal wrench, which he uses to viciously club drug dealers and child molesters, but he gets carried away and soon maims a rude couple just for cutting in line at the movie theater.

Page is the real scene-stealer here, and her nervy, over-stimulated character eventually seduces/rapes her repressed partner before they head off to save Frank’s drug-addicted wife (Tyler) from baddie Jacques (Bacon). While not terribly original, Gunn deftly turns the superhero genre upside down. He also mocks hallucinating, schizoid, super-religious bible thumpers and a whole lot more. Not for the squeamish or the square, this flick is probably destined for transgressive, cult-classic status. For the rest of us mere mortals, Super it is just OK.

On a more sentimental side, A Bag Of Hammers, starring Jake Sandvig and Jason Ritter, is a gentle tale about a pair of conniving young scammers living on their own, but whose criminal lives are irreversibly changed by the appearance of a neglected young boy. With benign humor and a subtle moral center, A Bag Of Hammers starts out looking like a slacker farce but ends up tugging at one’s heartstrings, showing the power of love and how people can create their own families in lieu of circumstance, tragedy and necessity. Ritter is especially good here, but the entire cast makes this flick a sweet little joyride with a happy-if-predictable ending.

Finally, the impressionistic documentary about John Mellancamp. It’s About You is a sleepy little film made by a father-and-son team who were allowed to tag along on Mellancamp’s 2009 tour with Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan. Following Mellancamp, his band and producer T Bone Burnett, we watch the middle-aged rocker recording his most recent album at places like Sun Studios in Memphis and the same room at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio where Robert Johnson made his classic recordings all those decades ago.

The screening was energized at the end of the night with a surprise appearance by Mellencamp, who humbly answered some questions and endorsed the film as an accurate depiction of his life on the road at this point in his long career. The insights provided were slim, but using his Super-8 handheld camera, filmmaker Kurt Markus also comments on the crumbling infrastructure of America, showing the abandoned downtown areas of Memphis and the like. Sadly, there’s no trace of Mellancamp’s new girlfriend, Meg Ryan, but fans of the Heartland’s favorite rocker will find something worthwhile to take from this thoughtful, modest film.

SXSW Report: “Girl Walks Into A Bar”

MAGNET’s Mitch Myers files his first round of notes from SXSW.

In case you haven’t heard, Friday marked the beginning of the 2011 SXSW Film & Interactive Festivals down in Austin, Texas. But rather than focus on the super-saturation of sanctioned events, everyday people, technology, star power, BBQ, booze, trade shows, conventioneers, smart-phone apps, afterparties, overstuffed bars, overtaxed infrastructures and other distractions, let’s talk about art and commerce.

Girl Walks Into A Bar, directed by Sebastián Gutiérrez, is the first movie to be produced for and distributed on the Internet (sponsored by Lexus). It’s a brand new comedy featuring a number of talented and recognizable actors, including Carla Gugino, Rosario Dawson, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Danny DeVito and Josh Hartnett. And you can go see it on YouTube right now.

Much like his films Women In Trouble and Elektra Luxx (two-thirds of a comedic sex-farce trilogy, with Women In Ecstasy still unmade), Gutiérrez literally stuffs his film with beautiful, desirable women in various stages of personal empowerment. Inspired by the original Sudoku movie, Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, it is a series of interlocking vignettes taking place in a number of Los Angeles bars, and one nudist ping-pong club.

Gutiérrez, who directed Judas Kiss and wrote the screenplay to Snakes On A Plane, is something of a cinematic Svengali. He works low budget (here he used a Canon 7D high-definition camera), but he always manages to get quality actors to work with him for minimum wage. This is probably because he writes great dialogue and is extremely funny. The lovely Gugino seems to be Gutiérrez’s main muse, as she’s featured in many of his other projects and portrays a complex-yet-confident ex-detective drawn into a possible murder plot that devolves into a wild midnight ramble of dark L.A. watering holes—encountering exotic dancers, pickpockets, hot bartenders, off-duty policemen and offbeat wise guys along the way.

Girl Walks Into A Bar was chosen to be the first movie shown at the SXSW Film Festival this year, and with good reason: It is the harbinger of things to come in new media. This movie itself isn’t great, but it is good. And it is also a perfect introduction into the world of Sebastián Gutiérrez, which seems to be a pretty cool place to be. As I said, this movie can only be seen on the Internet. It’s free, but I’m betting that they figure out how to make money off it. Let’s just wait and see.

SXSW Report: Star Time

AlexChilton2MAGNET’s Mitch Myers files his seventh and final round of notes from the SXSW Festival.

As the music fest peaked out on Saturday night, a number of musicians gathered at Antone’s to pay tribute to the late Alex Chilton and his band, Big Star. The sad and ironic fact is that a Big Star concert was scheduled at SXSW before the passing of Chilton, as was the Big Star panel at the Convention Center earlier that day.

The band’s original and current drummer, Jody Stephens, was there at the panel, as well as original bassist Andy Hummel and current band members Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow. Even old friend/engineer/studio owner John Fry got on Skype to join in the discussion. As interesting as the panel was, the scheduled concert turning into an impromptu tribute event was even more compelling to witness. Don’t forget that the Big Star band with Chilton, Stephens, Auer and Stringfellow had been playing off and on for the last 17 years, far longer than the original band (with the late Chris Bell) had been together.

So, it seemed like everybody who ever cared about Chilton turned up at the gig and helped the surviving members of Big Star pay proper tribute to their friend. Chilton’s widow sent a heartfelt message to the crowd that was read by publicist Heather West. The cavalcade of stars began with Meat Puppets guitarist Curt Kirkwood, who played “Back Of A Car” and “In The Street.” Naturally, Auer, Stringfellow and Stephens all took their turns singing some of the material, and old Chilton friend Chris Stamey performed Chris Bell’s classic “I Am The Cosmos” and rocked out on “When My Baby’s Beside Me.” Even Hummel, who flew in from the Netherlands, came out onstage to play.

Other musicians who performed included M. Ward, R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, John Doe, Sondre Lerche, Chuck Prophet and Evan Dando. The big (star) finale showcased the band with Susan Cowsill, the Watson Twins and Mills for a rousing version of “September Gurls.” Plenty of tears were shed and the closure that this concert provided was much appreciated: big-time closure for people who loved Alex Chilton, closure for people who still love Big Star and closure for those who attended SXSW.

SXSW Report: When The Music’s Over

When_Youre_StrangeMAGNET’s Mitch Myers files his sixth round of notes from the SXSW Festival.

The new documentary about Jim Morrison and the Doors comes a little bit late in the game. Since the flawed biopic by Oliver Stone, there’s been a solid series of unreleased live recordings, completely remastered CDs and bulked-up boxed sets of the original material. So, what can we expect to learn about the Lizard King and his buddies four decades after the fact? Not much really, except that they were an incredibly popular band thrust into the national spotlight just as rock music was becoming big business.

What makes When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors interesting is that director Tom DiCillo chose to only use cinematic material drawn between 1965 and Morrison’s death in 1971. That means there are no grey-haired talking heads discussing the old days—just vintage films of the Doors performing or recording or hanging out or being interviewed back in the day.

Interestingly, there was a dearth of unreleased footage to consider, including a strange underground movie Jim Morrison made starring … Jim Morrison. As a result, there are some amazing interludes featuring Morrison in a classic dream-state, making it abundantly clear that he really was charismatic, mischievous and good-looking. Naturally, the film illustrates his steady decline as everyone else connected to the band tries to keep him on track.

With Johnny Depp narrating this classic tale of success and excess in the music business, we’re able to see Morrison as he really was: a natural-born showman unable to resist the temptations of popularity and increasingly burdened by his own fame. It also appears that he was an alcoholic.

It’s an overly familiar story—including Morrison’s arrests, artistic accomplishments and boneheaded overindulgences—but the music still sounds great, and the insights are somewhat compelling if you’re a fan.

Nothing left to do but turn out the lights.

SXSW Report: Walk Don’t Run (Away)

RunawaysMAGNET’s Mitch Myers files his fifth round of notes from the SXSW Festival.

I have to say that the sad news of Alex Chilton’s death affected some folks down here at SXSW, and I was definitely one of them. Let me go on the record to say that when I was a kid, the very first 45 single I ever bought with my own money was “The Letter” by the Box Tops. I don’t need to explain the rest of the tale; Chilton’s career history is all over the web, and he left behind a number of important sonic documents for us all to examine. So, don’t forget cool discs like Bach’s Bottom, Like Flies On Sherbert, Feudalist Tarts, No Sex, High Priest and Black List, just to name a few of the forgotten gems.

Although I didn’t turn in an Austin report yesterday, I still immersed myself in music the night before. Most notably I attended a killing DJ set by Madlib, who concluded his mix with a tour-de-force old-soul-and-funk montage using only original vinyl 45s. (But not “The Letter.”) I also got my head blown off by Japanese psychedelic space rockers Acid Mothers Temple, which helped wash away my depressive midnight mourning.

Last night, I got depressed again, but not about Chilton. Actually, I was bummed out after seeing The Runaways, the new movie about the infamous ’70s girl-rock band. Starring Dakota Fanning as singer Cherie Currie and Kristen Stewart as guitarist Joan Jett, this movie is more convincing visually than it is in terms of acting, directing or script. I will say that I saw a female rock critic after the showing, and she thought it was all right and perhaps I couldn’t identify with the characters. But I’m telling you, it just sucked. Yes, there is plenty of mildly accurate history here, and the recreation of the nascent glam era in Southern California was serviceable, but this movie is so lame and superficial that it just felt sad to me. The bright spots were a few of the music numbers, which had more drama than the rest of the flick. The only actor who really rose to the occasion in my humble opinion was Michael Shannon as jaded, wicked and manipulative semi-impresario Kim Fowley. Still, Shannon wasn’t nearly as jaded, wicked or manipulative as the real Fowley, but we take what we can get from these situations.

So, once again I had to forge out into the night to escape my troubles, and I found sweet relief at La Zona Rosa, where the king of the Kinks, Ray Davies, put on a fine concert performance, playing an impressive number of truly wonderful songs. The set list included a few songs from his last CD, Working Man’s Café, but focused primarily on Kinks material including “20th Century Man,” “Sunny Afternoon,” “Apeman,” “Dedicated Follower Of Fashion,” “Two Sisters,” “I Need You” and “Tired Of Waiting.” Davies even called out opening band the 88 to help him rock out for the end of his show, which, of course, included “Lola” and “You Really Got Me.” After that, dazed in confused in Austin, I stuck around for Roky Erickson with Overkill River and danced to songs like “Starry Eyes,” “Two Headed Dog” and the obligatory encore, ”You’re Gonna Miss Me.”

I stumbled home at three this morning but awoke spiritually cleansed and ready to begin again. Apparently this festival stuff is hard work, but somebody had to do it.

SXSW Report: Han Shot First!

The_People_vs_George_Lucas2MAGNET’s Mitch Myers files his fifth round of notes from the SXSW Film Conference And Festival.

The film fest may be running out of steam as the music conference begins, but here’s one fact from the documentary The People Vs. George Lucas: For every fan-movie adaptation of Dr. Who out there in the world, there are about 100 fan movies made about Star Wars. Being a fanboy in the 21st century is hard work, and this film examines the worldwide obsession with George Lucas and all things related to his amazingly popular film series. This doesn’t just include collecting action figures and writing angry blogs about the difference the original Star Wars film and the Blu-ray edition; it’s a life choice with serious implications.

Yes, Lucas basically inhabits our collective unconscious, and an incredible amount of people have remade/remodeled the Star Wars story with 3-D animations, stop-action puppets, real-life reenactments and the like. What is equally amazing is the proprietary nature of Star Wars fans and how the story (and Lucas’ über-marketing for the past 30-odd years) has burrowed its way into people’s hearts and minds.

From the infamous episode of South Park to the catchy sing-a-long “George Lucas Raped Our Childhood,” it’s clear that a lot of people are actually mad at Lucas. This film has loads of talking heads defending and debating the cultural ownership of Luke Skywalker and his buddies, but the point made here is that if you hate Star Wars, you still actually love it!

My favorite bit of fan-debated trivia centers around Episode IV: A New Hope and how Han Solo actually shot Greedo at the Mos Eisley Cantina before Greedo drew his space gun. Thoughtful Lucas changed this in the 1997 special edition (and made the original version unavailable) so that children wouldn’t get the wrong idea about blasting someone away unprovoked. Little did he know how much that would piss off an entire generation of fans. The result: T-shirts that testify “Han Shot First!”

This movie features an incredible amount of Star Wars derivations, and by the end you’ll probably want to make you own version as well. And don’t forget the two-hour Star Wars Holiday Special from 1978 with Chewbacca and his family howling at each other for much of the show, even if Lucas really wants you to forget.

SXSW Report: Cöde Name, Lemmy


MAGNET’s Mitch Myers files his fourth round of notes from the SXSW Film Conference And Festival.

It was just another full house at the Paramount Theater in Austin during SXSW, and the man of the hour was none other than Lemmy Kilmister. Without resorting to hyperbole, Kilmister is rock ‘n’ roll. As the leader of Motörhead for the last quarter century, the bassist/singer has been unrelenting in his life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, which apparently still has a great deal to do with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

Featured documentary Lemmy is a true and accurate testimonial that features a number of friends and fans paying tribute to the walking one and only. Dave Grohl, Metallica, Joan Jett, Slash, Ozzy, Alice Cooper, Henry Rollins and many others insist that the Motörhead brand is a definitive and overwhelmingly influential hybrid of heavy metal, punk and thrash like no other, and that Kilmister is the living embodiment of all things good and true in the world of rock. All the ecstatic testimonials sound a little contrived at the beginning of the film, but by the end there is no doubt that it’s true. Lemmy is the man.

Not only that, Lemmy is a simple man; give him some booze, cigarettes and a video game and he can sit like Buddha for hours, days or weeks. He’s a British-born expatriate who’s been living in L.A. for decades and fits right in with the Hollywood rockers, actors and porn stars. According to the film, when Kilmister isn’t on tour, you can find him at the Rainbow Bar & Grill, but just don’t bother him until after he’s had a few Jack-and-Cokes. The documentary does a good job giving you his history as a roadie for Jimi Hendrix as well as his years with the Rockin’ Vickers (from the mid-’60s) and his formative time with quintessential space rock band Hawkwind before being fired for preferring speed and booze instead of acid and grass.

There are plenty of live performances showcased here, and we all get to sing along with “Ace Of Spades” a few different times. The Motörhead lineup has been quite steady in recent years, and guitarist Phil Campbell and drummer Mikkey Dee were also in attendance at the Paramount. Basically, styles and fads in music evolve over time, but Kilmister’s blueprint has remained virtually unchanged. He doesn’t pander, and the rest of the world has slowly caught on to the originality and single-minded vision of Mr. Kilmister.

At 63, he is a wise and uncomplicated man surrounded by friends, family, roadies and band mates who are somehow feeding off of the world that he has created for himself. And don’t let the fascination with Nazi regalia fool you—Kilmister has a heart of gold. He’s also an original rock ‘n’ roller who has outlived almost everybody he once knew. And he is still going strong.

SXSW Report: (Luxx) Interiors And Other Stories

Elektra_LuxxMAGNET’s Mitch Myers files his third round of notes from the SXSW Film Conference And Festival.

The SXSW film festival is finally in full swing with several worthwhile premieres, countless after-parties and a whole lot of barbeque. The narrative film with the biggest buzz thus far seems to be Micmacs by Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, while the documentary of choice is the strangely titled but wholly inspirational Marwencol by first-time director Jeff Malmberg. Of course, everyone’s looking forward to the movie about Lemmy Kilmister and big biopic The Runaways starring Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, but let’s wait and see on those two.

On the independent side, Will Canon’s narrative Brotherhood is a suspenseful, tension-filled joyride in which a semi-innocent frat-boy hazing ritual builds into a series of unanticipated disasters. The big question starts out simply—if everyone else was taking turns robbing a convenience store using a handgun, would you go along with the crowd? This really grabbed the attention of the Austin audience as the hero’s moral choices become more urgent and the demand for blind solidarity more desperate.

Director Steven Soderbergh volunteered a labor of love in the form of a documentary about his late friend, monologist Spalding Grey. And Everything Is Going Fine stitches together rare and revealing footage of Grey talking about himself (which is all he ever did anyhow) to create one big, tortured life story. Soderbergh first worked with Gray on Gray’s Anatomy in 1996, and he had the full cooperation of Gray’s widow and son in the development of this sad but touching homage. Gray was one of the finest storytellers of his generation, and while this doesn’t have the continuity of a feature like Swimming To Cambodia, it does illustrate the downward spiral that eventually resulted in Gray’s suicide. There are no big surprises and the ending is somewhat weak, but it’s only in retrospect that we see a tortured Gray hurtling toward his fate.

No, it’s not about a vacuum cleaner. Outrageous sex comedy Elektra Luxx is a quirky sequel to outrageous sex comedy Women In Trouble, both conceived by director Sebastian Gutierrez. Starring the lovely Carla Gugino as retired porn star Elektra Luxx, this flick is filled with funny dialogue and gorgeous gals like Emmanuelle Chriquí (from Entourage) and Malin Akerman (from Watchmen). Unfortunately, there were technical difficulties with the (digital) film projector, and the screening broke down smack dab in the middle of the movie, disappointing the 1,500 fans that had come out for the premiere. Gutierrez stalled the crowd with some hyperbolic industry spiel while the SXSW staff struggled to repair the problem, but even the babealicous cast onstage teetering in their high heels could not salvage this lost evening. Still, everyone got a big standing ovation, and then we all got the hell out of there. So, on to the next episode, all hail Elektra Luxx, and stay tuned for part three, as Gutierrez has intended this underground sex farce to be a low-budget trilogy of the highest order.

SXSW Report: Remember The Alamo

Aint_In_It_For_My_HealthMAGNET’s Mitch Myers files his second round of notes from the SXSW Film Conference And Festival.

The film fest is lumbering along at a steady pace. In many ways, it’s running smoother than ever, with plenty of cool venues and an inordinate amount of supportive services. The SXSW Interactive Conference is also in full swing, and its number of attendees has doubled since last year, reaching nearly 6,000—eclipsing the turnout of the film festival as well as the music fest that starts on Wednesday. So, it seems that technology is the new rock ‘n’ roll even, if the city’s overburdened bandwidth has been choking off many a smartphone and wireless connection. But as popular as it all is, some folks have forsaken the festival this year. Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth were big no-shows for a horror-director panel, leaving the massive crowd of disappointed fans to query Robert Rodriguez and the guy who made Zombieland. Ouch.

As always, the documentaries are a huge part of the film festival’s programming, but so far there hasn’t been that one standout film to galvanize the crowd and create a real buzz. Good thing for the Alamo Drafthouse venues, where you can at least eat food and drink beer while watching movies. The Alamo is probably the most progressive film venue franchise in America, and I only wish that they had one in my hometown of Chicago. Screw popcorn and candy, I want fish tacos and a San Pellegrino when I’m watching a flick.

Thankfully, the bountiful Alamo hosted the premier of Ain’t In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm on Saturday, which helped pass the time as the documentary lagged occasionally. Not that Helm’s life story is boring, far from it, but rather than delving deeply into his years as drummer, singer and driving physical force of the Band, this film focuses on his more recent rebirth as host of the midnight “Rambles” on his Woodstock farm nearly every weekend. The film shows Helm post-bankruptcy, struggling with serious health issues and the aftermath of his battle with throat cancer, which left his magnificent voice a vulnerable and sometimes unreliable commodity. The scenes of him receiving medical treatment are tough to watch, but lend great insight into his current situation. While not a biography, we are given great access to Helm’s daily life and professional pressures, but are left to make our own conclusions about his past.

At age 70, Helm is finally being recognized as a respected elder of Americana, and his last two recordings have been critically acclaimed. In the film, you can see him and guitarist Larry Campbell working on song arrangements and leading their band of devoted musicians. You can even watch Helm smoking pot with Billy Bob Thorton, but too many highpoints of his illustrious career are glossed over or completely ignored. Campbell speaks to the long running feud over publishing royalties that has left Helm bitter and estranged from his former Band mate Robbie Robertson, but Helm himself is less than forthcoming on many personal issues.

Ultimately, one has to read Helm biography This Wheel’s On Fire in order to appreciate the enigmatic musician depicted in this film. An unrepentant party animal with a history of drug problems, he knows the price of having a good time, struggles to keep the family business going and has yet to relent. Still, this is what happens when the subject of a documentary has a little too much influence over the final product—lots of access, but the movie presents a lot more questions than it answers.