“Does it matter?” American composer Leonard Bernstein asks about the relevance of music, shown in archival footage in the film The Music of Strangers. “The world totters, governments crumble and we are poring over music.”
Acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma saw Bernstein’s Harvard lectures in the 1970s, and they became influential moments in his young musical career. Decades later, Ma grapples with Bernstein’s questions in The Music of Strangers—which screens at the 12th annual Boulder International Film Festival (BIFF) on Saturday, March 5—a film that follows his multicultural Silk Road Ensemble over a decade-and-a-half, as they share their music with audiences around the world.
The power of art is, and always has been, a primary motivator for BIFF. The names Werner Herzog, Catherine Deneuve, Helen Mirren, and Alan Rickman dot this year’s festival program (with the legendary Bruce Dern attending as the Career Achievement Honoree), yet most of the 50-plus curated films are lesser-seen, under-distributed gems.
Like recent iterations of the festival, which have opened with prominent music documentaries—Troubadours, Muscle Shoals, The Wrecking Crew, among others—this year’s Thursday night gala features Miss Sharon Jones, the film The Hollywood Reporter calls a “portrait of female strength and resilience” delivered with “fluent camerawork and crystal-crisp sound recording.” Covering the life of modern, throwback soul diva Sharon Jones, the film continues the expanding theme of music at the 2016 BIFF.
By Friday afternoon, festivalgoers will take in South by Southwest’s Audience Award Winner, Landfill Harmonic, a film documenting a waste consultant’s side project of teaching music (on instruments made of garbage) to landfill-dwelling Paraguayan children. Saturday brings Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, Sonita, a moving and political fly-on-the-wall film of a young Afghani woman who has to choose between her family’s plan to sell her into marriage, and her own pursuit of rap music.
Bernstein’s questions seem difficult to answer intellectually, but in a tactile and experiential world there’s no denying the power of music in the lives, loves and freedoms of the individuals portrayed in these films.
Beyond the 2D explorations mentioned above, live music will fill venues around downtown Boulder throughout the BIFF weekend. Notably, the BIFF singer-songwriter showcase, which was started four years ago with the goal of “bringing licensable original music to the filmmakers,” says BIFF music and events producer Lisa Bell.
The showcase is a behind-the-scenes look at artists discovering artists as filmmakers are introduced to undiscovered musicians. “It’s all about discovery,” Bell says. Namely, “films you would not normally see and music you would not normally hear.”
This year’s showcase selected nine singer–songwriters from 2,700 submissions with additional artists selected to play afterhours events and pre-film overtures. (Last year’s fest included a solo performance by Nathaniel Rateliff accompanying the film Austin to Boston—in which he was featured—“but we don’t take full credit for his 2015 success,” jokes Kathy Beeck, BIFF director, who cofounded the fest with her sister Robin).
Here’s an incomplete listing—this reviewer’s picks—for taking in the music of BIFF.
Miss Sharon Jones: March 3, 8 p.m.; Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St.
Landfill Harmonic: March 4, 12:15 p.m.; Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St.
The Music of Strangers: March 5, 5 p.m., First United Methodist Church, 1421 Spruce St.
Sonita: March 6, 10 a.m., Boulder High School, 1604 Arapahoe Av.
On the Songwriter Stage
Katherine Homes’ patient and spacious musings are delivered with an angelic voice. March 4, 4 p.m.
Nancy Just’s powerful-yet-vulnerable timbre hearkens hauntingly back to folk maven Melanie. March 4, 6 p.m.
The Farmer Sisters prove again that harmonies sound sweeter sung by siblings. March 5, 4 p.m.
Zach Heckendorf. What if Jack Johnson grew up on hip-hop and snowboarding instead of palm trees and surfing? This is what. March 5, 7 p.m.
Grim & Darling combine strong vocals, acoustic instruments, beatbox and rap to create a worthwhile genre mashup. March 5, 8 p.m.
Note: All songwriter performances will take place at the Lazy Dog “Filmmaker Lounge,” 1346 Pearl St.
At the Parties
Pandas & People’s mandolin is central, but the music is just good, clean, infectious indie-pop. March 4, 9 p.m., Lazy Dog, 1346 Pearl St.
The Burroughs: Big band, big soul, big show for the big BAD (BIFF After Dark) celebration. March 5, 9:30 p.m., Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St.
Banshee Tree‘s captivating and quirky almost-gypsy, almost-swing opens the closing ceremony. March 6, 6:15 p.m., Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St.
The Boulder International Film Festival runs March 3 to 6. For more information and full program listings—including limited Longmont and Broomfield screenings—visit biff1.com.