Maryland Film Festival-DAY 3

Saturday May 3, 2008

How ironic that my first 2 films today were documentaries that focused on people who pursued their dreams who thought nothing of the possible resulting consequences despite the incredible obstacles they faced as a result of the pursuit. First up was the amazing "Song Sung Blue" (*** 1/2) which won both the Grand Jury Award and the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2008 Slamdance Film Festival. Being an aspiring musician in several rock bands in my early 20's, I have always had a keen interest in films dealing with individuals who went to extreme lengths to make it in the fickle world of entertainment. Luckily, I woke up in time to realize that dreams don't always pay the bills. So, I abandoned these ideas when I joined the thousands and thousands of people (many of whom were way more talented) on the sidelines. I also understood that one needed a ton of luck to go along with talent-and even then you had to have extreme tunnel vision to be relentless in making it happen no matter the consequences. Greg Kohs's wonderful documentary deals with the Milwaukee husband and wife duo Mike and Claire Sardina (known as Lightning and Thunder) and uses a decades worth of footage to bring this fascinating story to the screen. The film focuses on Mike's (Lightning) obsession to make it "big" by performing mainly Neil Diamond material (along with those of Patsy Cline and ABBA). Not only did Mike resemble the pop icon, he also had the sound and inflections of Diamond down pat. They became local icons in Milwaukee and hit it big when they opened for Pearl Jam in front of 30,000 people. It was then that Mike thought that that was the break they needed. However, tragedy struck when Claire was loses her leg after she's hit by a car while innocently gardening in her front yard. Their career takes a downturn after this, as does their personal life, but it wasn't enough to discourage Mike and Claire's dream to succeed. Their no holds bard roller coaster ride is fully exposed by the incessant filming of the duo through all their tragedies and triumphs. If this were a fictionalized story, you probably wouldn't believe it. What made it more special was Claire's appearance at the festival (see DAY 1 above) which left special poignancy to the proceedings. Speaking with her after the screening, Claire informed me that she was invited to the AFI Silverdocs documentary film festival in mid-June held in Silver Spring Maryland where she will also perform. If you can make it there, it would be well worth the trip!

Next up was an even more starling doc, "Waiting For Hockney" (****) made by first time filmmaker JuliaCheckoway. A hit at Robert DeNiro's Tribeca Film Festival, the focus is on Maryland resident artist Billy Pappas. A graduate of the Maryland Institute Of College of Art (which was where the screening took place), his idea to succeed was to create a graphic drawing that utilized the theories of David Hockney of reproducing a work of art in such minute detail that it would rival a photograph. His obsession to create the work while also hoping to meet his idol which, hopefully would result in receiving a commission to continue his artistic career is painstakingly chronicled by the filmmaker. What makes this journey so dramatic is that his effort to create this one masterpiece (based on a famous photograph of Marilyn Monroe) took him over 8 years while working over 8 hours a day! You'll have yourself wondering whether this dream was merely passing fantasy, a mad obsession by the artist, or was it a work of art to be treasured by the art world and the starting point of greatness. What Julie has done is exquisitely portray this journey through the use of archival footage and a wonderful use of music throughout to help build the suspense along the way. By not unveiling his portrait until 3/4's of the way through the film only serves to heighten your interest and the suspense. It's an incredibly impressive documentary for a first time filmmaker.

Next up was one of the hits at this year's Sundance, "American Teen" (*** 1/2). Winner of the Directing Award, the film chronicles the lived of 4 seniors at an Indian High School over the entire 2006 school year. Mixing superb animation (used to mirror the thoughts of each student) and music, you get an inside scoop on what it's like to be in be in their shoes. This isn't your or your parent's high school, believe me! By focusing on 4 teens who couldn't be more far apart in the high school caste system (a nerd, a basketball star, the "queen bee", and the artistic girl) your impressions of them slowly change, as do they, as they experience their own personal struggles during this provocative year of their life. What must have been an editing nightmare is beautifully brought to the screen by director Nanette Burstein, and your empathy for each teen grows the longer you're with them. The film has been picked up by Paramount Vantage and will be released nationwide in July.