Reel Sounds – Vol. 3: IDLES, Toy Pianos And More At Doc’n Roll 2020

In the most unusual year, Doc'n Roll remains reassuringly reliable – this year programme features gems for hipsters and forklift-ers alike, finds Neil Fox

In the face of the overwhelming pressures and challenges of 2020 (to put it mildly) the ever-innovative Doc N Roll Fest has stood firm. The music-led film festival has managed, despite the constant turmoil of the UK film industry, to prosper thanks to the launch and growth of its streaming platform Doc N Roll TV. The latest iteration of the flagship London festival, before hopefully taking some titles out to the regions as (kind of) normal, features a now-expected array of films featuring heavy-hitting musical talent. There are films about Phil Lynott and Kelly Jones (I’m wondering if when I see the Kelly Jones film it will shift my opinion on him in the way last year’s offering, the brilliant David Crosby: Know My Name did) as well as two sold-out screenings of the much anticipated IDLES doc Do Not Go Gentle: A Film About IDLES.

Elsewhere, there are a variety of gems that circle similar themes and ideas, such as mental health issues and the need for supplemental work to pay for creative ambitions, for better and for lesser. Johana Ožvold’s experimental tribute to experimental music, The Sound Is Innocent mines much of the same formal and thematic territory as Caroline Catz’s similarly striking film Delia Derbyshire: The Myths & Legendary Tapes. It has all the usual elements you’d expect in a documentary – archive, interviews, performance – but the way they have been looped, sampled, mixed and abstracted means this story of the evolution of electronic music and the relationship between performer and technology ends up creating a post-modern fable, recalling the labyrinthine underworlds of Jean Cocteau more than a traditional music documentary.

Focusing on a performer undertaking a similarly imaginative avant-garde musical journey is Chuang Xu’s Twinkle Dammit!, which tells the story of Margaret Leng Tan, the first woman to receive a doctorate from Juilliard. And also, as the film so charmingly illustrates, the world’s first toy piano virtuoso. The film follows the pianist and her friend and collaborator George Crumb, another avant-garde legend, as she prepares to perform the world premiere of a new piece of his, as part of her Three C’s world tour which sees her playing Crumb’s work alongside that of John Cage and Henry Cowell. As a musician and guide, Leng Tan is insightful and funny, her ideas on music education are particularly astute and it’s fascinating to hear her talk about how she is still on Singapore time so many years after making her home in Brooklyn. Despite playing toy instruments, Tan is framed with an artistic and serious understanding of her imagination and vision. The film also includes maybe the most authentic moment of Hipsterdom ever captured on screen, in the form of the UnCaged Toy Piano Festival.

One of the things that Doc N Roll has done is provide a space for showcasing films that would otherwise have likely been delivered directly to fans, in the form of DVDs on band websites for example. That may be a diplomatic way of saying that some of the films have limited appeal, but it’s nonetheless providing a space for fans to share in a big screen experience with a general curious public. Two films that fall into the possibly fans-only bracket this year are JoyCut At Robert Smith’s Meltdown and The Holy Gift. The former is a document of the band’s performance and ‘book us!’ promo captured at The Cure frontman’s South Bank extravaganza and is co-directed by the band. The latter is directed by an avowed fan who took 14 years to make the film. This makes it a possibly unwitting tribute in itself, to the length of time between Tool albums – Tool being the band at the heart of this documentary love letter that asks fans and artists why they are drawn to Tool’s music. Both films are well made but insular, never quite resonating beyond the music or reaching anyone not already drawn to listen.

Offering little beyond a brief reminder of the unique context of New Orleans – and all the better for it – is The Offline Playlist. This is 50 minutes of rollicking good times that brings together a host of New Orleans musicians across the R&B, Soul and Cajun spectrum for a special gig at the legendary Preservation Hall venue. The performances are so good it almost makes you forget the whole thing is a Spotify initiative.

Two real festival highlights are films with eerily parallel narratives and protagonists. It’s Not All Rock & Roll and This Film Should Not Exist tell the stories of Dave Doughman and Swearing At Motorists, and Ben Wallers (The Rebel) and the Country Teasers, respectively. Both are portraits of musicians committed to remaining so, in the face of almost total indifference. Seen as visionaries in their respective spheres – the fertile post-modern indie soil that birthed the likes of Guided By Voices in the case of Swearing At Motorists – the films follow a familiar initial trail, the early days of potential glory fuelled by the ignorance of youth, but both end up in unexpected places. They touch on the demons of addiction and mental illness in serious, moving ways – themes that are also at the heart of the IDLES film – and both celebrate singular, engaging creators and performers who stick to their guns and their art. These are films that feel like important documents, but also vital investigations into the nature of careers in independent music. That both Dave and Ben survive as humans by (coincidentally, I believe) driving forklifts for a living is telling. It makes their regular forays into small venues to let their inner voices come to the fore especially uplifting.

These are the personal highpoints of a festival programme that, again, proves that Doc N Roll have their fingers on the pulse of the music documentary medium and continue to curate vital, diverse programmes for all tastes, with much under the surface to aid our passage through these times. Plus, the tunes are great.

Doc’n Roll 2020 runs until November 15 online

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