The Films Are Alive ...

Dispatches from the Toronto International Film Festival: No. 3

There's lots of music on the screens at the Toronto International Film Festival. Two high-profile music bios received their North American launch at separate gala screenings. Beyond the Sea tells the life story of singer and entertainer Bobby Darin. The ever-talented Kevin Spacey not only stars as Darin, but also directs the movie, which is an ode to old-time show-biz. Darin was one of the last of the true nightclub entertainers, who scored big with such popular hits as "Splish Splash" and "Mack the Knife." Married to another teen idol, Sandra Dee (charmingly captured by Kate Bosworth), Darin died in his late 30s, and his work may be unfamiliar to current generations. Spacey croons his own tunes in this project, adding to the film's sense of veracity. But in the end, the film is a standard show-biz biopic – big song-and-dance routines included – and constantly reminds us of the artifice of the soundstage.

Also scoring lots of attention is Taylor Hackford's Ray, a film biography of musician Ray Charles. A commanding lead performance by Jamie Foxx is already building buzz for a best-actor Oscar campaign. Foxx, who also performs his own piano work, is astonishing in the degree to which he captures the mannerisms and nuances of Charles. The film refrains from painting Charles in purely laudatory colors: This is a warts-and-all portrait. Yet, it's possible that too much time is spent on the warts – in this case, heroin addiction and marital infidelities – and not enough on the genesis of the music. Both Ray and Beyond the Sea employ a technique that has become a cliché of the biopic, and is seen here in Modigliani, another biographical film about an artist, although this one a painter. All three of these artists are haunted by ghosts of themselves as children: miniature doppelgängers that lay bare the artists' primal "issues," sparing the need for any Freudian mumbo jumbo. The fact that these living childhood ghosts appear in all three films clearly attests to the technique's trite repetition. Or perhaps the common theme is that all grown male artists are still little boys who have never fully matured and come to terms with their adult responsibilities. To that it's time to say, "Oh, grow up already."

Another musical artist who also died too young and never made peace with adult stability is Townes Van Zandt, the singer-songwriter who is profiled in Austinite Margaret Brown's Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt, which also screened in Toronto. A brilliant songwriter whose praises are sung by the likes of Willie Nelson, Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson, Joe Ely, and others, Van Zandt had lifelong problems with substance abuse and settling down. Yet the flavor of his hauntingly incisive lyrics is ably captured by Brown, who uses these testimonies and extant performance footage to design this portrait, that also receives a stunning assist from evocative road footage shot in the present day by Austin-based cinematographer Lee Daniel, a true wizard of the camera. Be Here to Love Me – of which Chronicle Editor Louis Black is an executive producer – also hosted one of the festival's finest parties on the top floor of the Four Seasons, a fete to remember with a spectacular view of the city. Another film featuring work by an Austin resident is a film called Undertow, which I regret having missed. It is the newest film to be directed by David Gordon Green (All the Real Girls), and boasts a script by St. Stephen's high school English teacher Joe Conway and a producing credit for the legendary Terrence Malick. It is due to open in theatres later this fall.

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Toronto International Film Festival, Beyond the Sea, Be Here to Love Me, Undertow, Ray, Modigliani

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