SXSW Dispatch: Delightful and Disturbing Documentaries

When Road House, the big opening night selection for this year’s SXSW FIlm & TV Festival, concluded, I fled the centerpiece venue of the Paramount Theatre — not the typical move, as they’re usually showing something buzzy in all of the evening slots. And they were doing just that, but the item in question was the first two episodes of the Three-Body Problem, the new series from the Game of Thrones team, and as a general rule, I try steer clear of such events at festivals. I’m not here to watch TV, I sneer, sometimes out loud, so I went to the theater next door to see the documentary Black Twitter: A People’s History, which turned out to be the first two episodes of a three-part docu-series. Womp womp.

It turned out to be an instructive experience, not just about the subject at hand (though it’s certainly that), but this odd moment we’re at in non-fiction, when it’s more lucrative for filmmakers and attractive for viewers to view such stories in episodic rather than one-shot form, no matter how much more appropriate they might be for the latter. The project itself also offers a challenge to what several of my colleagues have dubbed the “magazine article” rule — am I gaining anything from this documentary that I wouldn’t get from a good magazine article on the subject? — since it was based on one (a three-parter, actually) for Wired. Director Prentice Penny insightfully analyzes the appeal, utility, and longevity of the subset of Twitter populated by Black writers, critics, comedians, and weirdos, and not in a surface way (Amiri Baraka is invoked early on). It was first a space primarily for clownin’, bonding over shared obsessions and reference points, before becoming a fertile space for protest, accountability, and social change. Penny juices the visual with memes, clips, and jokes, just like on Twitter itself, and the result is informative and satisfying. But unless episode three goes really off the grid, this would’ve been just fine as an (awfully good!) documentary film. Grade: B

Hilariously, I made the exact same mistake two days later, marching into the exact same venue to watch what turned out to be the first two episodes of HBO’s docu-series STAX: Soulsville, U.S.A.. There are two episodes to go, however, and this is a rare case of a docu-series earning its duration, since there’s clearly enough material to fill those hours — and more besides. Director Jamila Wignot dives deep into the rich history of the Memphis, Tennessee R&B label, from its false start making country records to how its musicians found their groundbreaking sound to the contrast between the white-friendly, pop-oriented Motown sound and the down and dirty Southern soul of Stax. She puts all the pieces in place; it wasn’t just about making and manufacturing records, but promoting them to the DJs that would make them hits, and no detail is left unexplored.

Luckily, many of the house musicians were teenagers when the label started, so several (Booker T., Steve Cropper, David Porter, Carla Thomas) show up to share their memories, not only of the studio but of the ever-changing social environment that impacted it. My favorite (at least of what was screened) is Booker T. at the piano, walking us through exactly how he came up with “Green Onions.” When he finds the chord progression, it’ll give you goosebumps — that’s music magic, turned into movie magic. Grade: A-

Thanks to its music festival component, there are always a fair number of decent music documentaries at SXSW, and as a fan of the group, I was excited to check out This is a Film About the Black Keys. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, and your mileage may vary based on what exactly you want from such a doc. It’s an excellent history of their “basement, hopped-up country blues sound,” and how it evolved and developed as their growth in popularity required adjustment of the kind of music they made; the details of life as a working musician, whether as a bar band gigging endlessly out of a minivan or as the focal points of a well-staffed arena tour, are similarly compelling.

The trouble is that we never really get a sense of who these guys are. Part of the explanation is that they’re midwestern guys who just Don’t Talk About Stuff, and that’s all well and good and understandable, but not enough effort is made to extrapolate that information from those who know them well. And director Jeff Dupree’s focus is inconsistent; much attention is paid to their first marriages, but then their subsequent relationships barely merit a passing mention (and at least one of them is, well, noteworthy). There’s a lot of good music, and some terrific road footage, and for some fans, that’ll be enough. But it’s not, not quite. Grade: B-

Cheech & Chong’s Last Movie, on the other hand, does not shy away from conflict — if anything, it leans into it. Director David Bushell wisely chose to make both a bio-doc and a Cheech & Chong comedy (“So is this a documentary or a movie?” “I don’t know, man!”), with copious scenes of our now-aged heroes driving through the desert, discussing their careers, and (of course) making dope jokes. Bushell has some fun with the form, having observers and collaborators show up along the ride, and uses cute animations to both fill in gaps and get laughs in the biographical sections. 

All of that material is fun, and funny, but the film is at its best and most poignant when things start to fall apart; the duo’s observations and understanding of their shifting dynamics are astute, and Bushell intermingles and interrogates them skillfully. (At one point, Tommy observes ruefully, “Wow, people do have different memories.”) These are age-old arguments and resentments, but they still feel like open wounds, and that kind of honesty and pain is often in short supply in hagiographies like this so easily could have been. Grade: B 

There’s a house style developing, over at HBO, of fast-paced, entertaining documentaries that are, in one way or another, about hustlers. Muta’Ali Muhammad’s MoviePass, MovieCrash falls snugly within those parameters, telling the story of the steady rise and spectacular fall of the company, which provided a “Netflix for the movie theater” that seemed too good to be true for consumers, and, it turned out, definitely was. Muhammad’s masterstroke is structuring the story in much the same way it was initially presented to the news media — as the brainchild of Netflix and Redbox alum Mitch Lowe and venture capitalist Ted Farnsworth, both white dudes of a certain age — before revealing how that duo basically ripped the company from the hands of Stacy Spikes and Hamet Watt, the two young, Black entrepreneurs who actually founded it.

MovieCrash does what we expect — the postmortem analysis of the unsustainable logistics, the irresponsible spending, the rapidly-increasing shell game — with skill, and digs into the specifics of stock growth vs. profitability in detail without alienating the casual viewer. But it’s the film’s understanding of the identity politics in play, of the shockingly cavalier manner in which this company was stolen from its creators and run into the ground (burning through $250 million in less than a year), that it really hits, and hits hard. Grade: A-

I’ve seen few fictional movies that are as terrifying as the opening sections of Jenny Carchman’s Whatever It Takes, in which a Massachusetts couple that publishes a niche e-commerce trade blog are subjected to threatening Twitter DMs which quickly escalate into genuine harassment and stalking. It’s genuinely creepy because it’s entirely plausible, something much more plausible, to most of us, then being hacked up by a masked killer. 

The story of Ina and David Steiner was one I’d somehow missed when it happened a few years back, and if you’re similarly in the dark, I’ll leave you there — the twists and turns of Carchman’s film, which twists from home-invasion horror into cyber-thriller, are worth preserving. Suffice it to say that she strikes the right balance of shock, indignation, and bemusement, amazed that this insane story happened at all, alarmed that it stopped where it did. It’s a terrific documentary, maybe the best of the fest. Grade: A

“There’s a hunger, since the beginning of time, to play.” So says the bushy-bearded historian who opens Simon Ennis’s documentary The Hobby, walking us through the ancient history of board games, and setting this stage for this easygoing portrait of the board game scene, as experienced by a handful of game enthusiasts, designers, and influencers. As with any good documentary of a scene, success here is all about finding good characters; they’re all super-likable, which helps, and Ennis finds a good organizing event in the first annual World Series of Board Games, and the suspense that competition entails. 

He tackles perhaps a few too many characters (or introduces a few too late), but that’s not a big problem. These folks are easy to mock, but they’re approached with genuine affection and empathy, particularly those who are more candid and vulnerable about the least comfortable aspects of their own personalities, and how this world helps them overcome them. Grade: B

Faders Up: The John Aielli Experience played less like a documentary, at least at SXSW, than a home movie — in the best way. It’s a biographical profile of John Aielli, an Austin institution, a radio host who broadcasted for nearly 60 years, most of them on the local public radio station, KUTX. His show, “Eklektikos,” was an anything-goes mismash of contrasting (or even clashing) musical styles, along with his own (sometimes rambling) musings about life in general and life in Austin in particular. “I just love to talk,” he explains early on, and it’s simple but true; directors David Hartstein and Sam Wainwright Douglas give some screen time to his quirks and the criticism they attracted, but Faders Up functions primarily as a valentine to “one of the last bastions of old, weird Austin.” Grade: B+

Jason Bailey is a film critic and historian, and the author of five books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Playlist, Vanity Fair, Vulture, Rolling Stone, Slate, and more. He is the co-host of the podcast "A Very Good Year."

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