Louder than ever 

Your complete guide to the 9th annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival

The first scene in Don't Look Back shows a young Bob Dylan holding up cue cards, each scrawled with words from his song "Subterranean Homesick Blues": "basement," "medicine," "pavement," "government," "trench coat," "laid off." It's an artful and sympathetic introduction by filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker and it serves the film well, since many of the documentary's subsequent scenes capture the young Dylan's grating arrogance. Yet no matter how disappointed you might be about Dylan's lack of humility, this 1967 film of Dylan's 1965 UK tour is still one of the best music documentaries ever made. It shows a rising star at once painfully transparent, pretentious, confident, too self-aware and ever-so-talented.

Don't Look Back is one of a long list of music documentaries, classic and new, that will screen at the 9th annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. The festival's Big Sky Mix-Tape theme this year really does feel like a lovingly compiled mix-tape, showcasing music documentaries that span decades and genres. Old-school fans can geek out at the chance to see longtime favorites on the big screen, like the 1973 concert documentary Ziggy Stardust, another Pennebaker film, which shows in gritty glory the final appearance of David Bowie as the title character. There are four films from producer Agi Orsi, but Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who is one that fits well into the mix-tape theme as it spans the band's evolution over four decades. Three films from David Markey provide windows into the Southern California punk scene and the touring lives of Sonic Youth and Nirvana. Those will pair well with another music film, New Garage Explosions: In Love With These Times, a snarky documentary that features present-day bands like Pierced Arrows and Thee Oh Sees. An Andrew Bird documentary, Fever Year, highlights the Chicago musician's precarious, multi-instrumental looping technique; it's in the feature competition category.

The playlist goes onand not always in the most predictable verse/chorus/verse way, either. Some of the more unusual offerings look at the banjo (and Steve Martin), a Navajo punk band, and a pianist. The closing night film, Under African Skies, goes into the making of Paul Simon's Graceland.

The music theme stretches beyond the big screen. Following last year's strange and wonderful experience of seeing Yo La Tengo live-score a series of Jean Painlevé undersea documentaries, this year's lineup puts local talent in the spotlight. Missoula bands Stellarondo and Butter, and members of Grandfatherglen and Next Door Prison Hotel, will provide original music for three films: the 1921 film Manhatta, the 1927 film Berlin: Symphony of a Great City and Missoula artist Andy Smetanka's newest silhouette short To The West.

Festival organizers have also arranged for live music to be mixed throughout the week's events. Cold Hard Cash, The Skurfs and many others will play sets before and after screenings. The lineup includes Chris "Sandman" Sand, who returns for an encore presentation of his documentary Rollout Cowboy, which debuted at last year's festival. The North Dakota native, known as "The Rappin' Cowboy," will follow the screening with a solo performance.

Even with this deluge of concert documentaries and musician profiles, Big Sky's best musical moments may remain hidden in any of the dozens of other films. Take, for example, the subject of this year's retrospective, Barbara Kopple. The music in her 1976 Oscar-winning film Harlan County, U.S.A. sets the perfect tone for a heart-wrenching story of a coal mining town fighting against Duke Power Co.: There's the hopeful "They'll Never Keep Us Down" by Hazel Dickens, and Merle Travis's portrayal of the dangers of mining in "Dark As A Dungeon." Kopple's incredible storytelling stands on its own, although the film demonstrates just how important music is to that process.

Of course, there's more to this year's festival than just music. With more than 100 films, there should be plenty of other offerings to draw you in. With that in mind, we give you a taste of what you're in for at the festival PBS recently ranked as one of the 12 top small-town film fests in the nation.

Erika Fredrickson

The good, the bad and the award-winning

Our critics review 20 of the festival's most buzz-worthy films

by Dave Loos, Erika Fredrickson, Melissa Mylchreest, Skylar Browning, Jason McMackin, Dan Brooks and Alex Sakariassen

Ecstasy of Order

Early on in director Adam Cornelius' film it's posited that NES Tetris is the most popular and challenging game in the world, video or otherwise. This mantra continues with little scientific data and no specific proof; instead, the filmmakers draw us into a world where it is indisputable fact.

Robin Mihra, a one-time Nintendo World Championship finalist, is the impetus behind the tournament that the narrative arc is built around. Via YouTube, where gamers post videos of themselves making perfect scores (999,999) or graduating to Level 29, aka "the kill screen," Mihra discovers the country's best Tetris players and culls them for a tournament in a Los Angeles movie theater. The players are wide-ranging in their geek stereotypes: over-competitive, nocturnal, basement-dwelling and ironic T-shirt wearing, all blissfully unaware that playing Tetris everyday for 20 years is an oddity. Mihra also finds the reclusive former wunderkind Thor Aackerlund, whose invincibility during the NES tournaments of the '90s still visibly frightens modern players. Aackerlund left school to become a professional video game player, a dream most kids share, but he had to support his family with his winnings.

click to enlarge Ecstasy of Order
  • Ecstasy of Order

The narrative structure is that of a sports movie. We meet the characters, we decide whom to root for, the tournament is played and a victor is crowned. Will it be the young upstart? A crafty veteran? Perhaps surprisingly, you will care. Plus, the analog synthesizer soundtrack was composed by former Missoulian Chris Pickolick. (JM)

Showing: Sun., Feb. 26, at noon at the Wilma.

Battle for Brooklyn

Big Sky audiences should already be familiar with the work of filmmakers Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley. In 2004, the duo took top honors at the inaugural Big Sky Documentary Film Festival with Horns and Halos, the story behind a controversial George W. Bush biography that almost never saw the light of day. This year, they could win again for Battle for Brooklyn.

The new film doesn't hold the immediate sex appeal of a prominent presidential candidate and allegations of drug use. Brooklyn is about eminent domain. But the consequences of that wonky legal term, and the people who engage in a vicious fight to define its meaning, make for one powerful film.

click to enlarge Battle for Brooklyn
  • Battle for Brooklyn

Daniel Goldstein is a graphic designer who recently bought a condo situated smack dab at center court of a newly proposed basketball arena. Brooklyn city officials are geeking out over the prospects of luring the New Jersey Nets to their borough, and announce a major development project that's billed as a "done deal." The vision includes the arena, a handful of skyscrapers, new housing complexes and ample open space, all designed by celebrated architect Frank Gehry. It looks gorgeous in the mockups and models; there's even an ice-skating rink.

No one, however, takes into account the 864 residents, including Goldstein, living within the project's sizable footprint.

The ensuing struggle is classic David vs. Goliath, and Galinsky and Hawley film through seven years of twists and turns to follow every development. With such a long timeline, the movie becomes more than just a fight over real estate. There's death, birth, breakups and weddings. People change. Or don't. And by the end, even the viewer feels a sense of home. (SB)

Showing: Sat., Feb. 18, at 10:15 a.m., at the Wilma.

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present

One woman sits in a chair in the Museum of Modern Art all day, every day, for three months. The public flocks, takes turns sitting across from her. She becomes something like an icon, a prophet. Is this art? Can this move an audience to tears? Yes, and yes.

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