Sundance 2024, blog 2

Into the Music


Wilfred Okiche checks in from the 40th edition of the Sundance Film Festival, which has always been welcoming to documentaries of musicians.

From vanity projects boosting the profiles of their subjects, to more thoughtful explorations of the artistic process, the artist biography has consistently proven to be one of Sundance’s biggest draws. In the last half decade, Sundance has premiered documentaries on Taylor Swift, Kanye West and Sinéad O’Connor to name just a few.

Music documentaries, especially ones based on A-list artistes, living or dead often arrive at the festival with studios already attached. Not surprising considering the intricate maze of consent, permissions, licensing and archival work that cannot be done independent of the artists or their estates. It is for this same reason that a lot of these documentaries often struggle to uncover profound or insightful information about the artistes they profile.

The Greatest Night in Pop which comes to Sundance from Netflix is a perfect example of fan service done responsibly and perhaps too well. In 1985, a supergroup of American artistes inspired by the effectiveness of the Band Aid charity single ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ over in the United Kingdom, came together to record a song for aid in Africa. Led by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, then at the height of their powers, ‘We Are the World’ was produced by Quincy Jones with vocal contributions from everyone who was red hot at the time. We are talking Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Diana Ross, Bob Dylan and so many more.

This presented massive logistic challenges of course as Jones insisted that the key to making this recording work was that everyone had to be in the same room for one night only. The night of the American Music Awards which Richie was also hosting was chosen as it was the one event that would bring most of the artistes into the same space in Los Angeles. ‘We Are the World’ was a massive, inescapable success, topping music charts throughout the world and becoming the fastest-selling U.S. pop single in history. It has also raised over $68 million in aid relief.

Bao Nguyen’s The Greatest Night in Pop details the events that led up to that night, with recollections and reflections from some of the players who helped make history. Lionel Richie who is a producer on the film is the main talking head, but Nguyen also gets some support work from Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper as well as some of the producers, soundmen, cinematographers and recording engineers present in the room. It is all very well presented if a tad surface level and by the end packs a surprising emotional wallop. The documentary isn’t interested in taking a more critical eye for example, on how well-intentioned celebrity projects like this one also contributed to media depictions of Africa as a place of disease and death.

For a far more complicated look at artistic essence, Devo, the freewheeling look back at the eponymous American New Wave band popular in the ‘80s and an avant-garde approach to music and life. Director Chris Smith proves a perfect match for the material as he brings to Devo the same experimental energy- an engaging mix of talking heads, irony, art collages- that characterized the band in their heyday.

Devo traces the band’s rise and fall highlighting the music, pioneering music videos, crossover commercial success with their single ‘Whip It’ single’, performance art aesthetic and unyielding commitment to the counterculture. For the band, rebellion was futile because it had been co-opted into the system. Without being preachy, Devo underlines how the band’s big message, that of (American) society devolving and crumbling into itself has proven to be prophetic in many ways.

Dawn Porter (John Lewis: Good Trouble) retreats into more traditional biography territory for Luther: Never Too Much, the first officially sanctioned documentary of the bestselling R&B vocalist, composer, producer and arranger Luther Vandross. Sony Music Entertainment is backing this respectful and lovingly detailed rendering of the life and times of one of the greatest singers of all time.

The film goes back to Vandross’ childhood in New York City and chronicles his time doing backup singing for Bowie and Bette Midler, recording jingles, as well as his relationships with divas like Roberta Flack and Dionne Warwick and their influence on his own career.

As a portrait of artistic excellence, Luther: Never Too Much is top notch as it puts Vandross’ talent and commitment to his stage craft in sharp focus. Vandross speaks for himself in interviews he granted during his lifetime and his close friends add more layers.

But Porter also complicates the picture by foregrounding Vandross’ personal and creative choices. His weight and relationship with food was a constant source of turmoil as well as the struggles with his sexuality which he chose not to address during his lifetime despite circulating rumors. Perhaps because this an estate sanctioned biography, Porter skirts around the sexuality issue and chooses to put a lid on it in keeping with the lifetime wishes of the singer who died of a heart attack in 2005 after suffering from a debilitating stroke two years earlier. Despite this restriction, the film would still be worth the price of admission just to hear Vandross doing some of his famous vocal harmonizations on performances of some of his biggest hits.