The beat goes on at the Maryland Film Festival

Station North comes alive with sounds from an eclectic slate of music-based movies

  • Harry Belafonte will appear at the 2011 Maryland Film Festival.
Harry Belafonte will appear at the 2011 Maryland Film Festival. (LUCAS JACKSON, REUTERS )
April 29, 2011|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

Thanks to the Maryland Film Festival, it ought to get good and loud and even lyrical at Station North this Thursday through Sunday with a vital, eclectic slate of music-oriented movies.

Alice Donut, for a quarter-century a bulwark of Baltimore's underground rock scene, rockets into above-ground view with "Freaks in Love." "Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone" should set audiences bobbing to the punk-pop-rock-funk sounds of Los Angeles' favorite sextet.

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop will present "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" — with its galvanizing Ennio Morricone score — to dramatize the operatic glory of inspired movie music.

The Alloy Orchestra, the one-of-a-kind three-man ensemble that uses keyboards, found objects and wind instruments to create a unique percussive sound, will offer original accompaniment to three scintillating silent shorts: Buster Keaton's "One Week," Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle's "Back Stage," and Charlie Chaplin's "Easy Street."

The beat begins opening night with the short "Pioneer," starring singer-songwriter Will Oldham. The film's director, David Lowery, says, "Even though [Will] isn't singing in his film, there's a musicality to his delivery that is integral to his performance."

It continues with such wildly different documentaries as Pedro Costa's tribute to French singer-actor Jeanne Balibar, "Ne change rien," and "Last Days Here," "a grimy, full-body immersion in the bloody filth of heavy-metal hell as experienced by Northern Virginia's answer to Black Sabbath, Pentagram." There's also "Hilvarenbeek," an experimental short by musician Dan Deacon and video artist Jimmy Joe Roche, co-curators of the popular "Gunky's Basement" film series.

It all should build to an emotional climax with the closing-night presentation, "Sing Your Song," a sweeping documentary about superstar Harry Belafonte. Taylor Branch, author of "America in the King Years," will engage the pioneering singer/actor/activist in a post-screening conversation that could cover everything from his days as America's king of calypso to his civil-rights activism (American and global) and his many humanitarian crusades, including "We Are the World."

Interviewed this week, Branch, Alsop and other presenters (and directors) are already delivering the zing to a festival that could boast the unpretentious exuberance of a platter party.

Taylor Branch on Harry Belafonte: "I told him that if he'd come down [to the festival], I'd show up however he wanted me — and he said he wanted me to wear a loincloth. He is very serious, yet he is also just delightful. I'm glad that the film, in that respect, is a lot like Harry. In the civil rights movement, the survival instinct gave rise to some incredible humor and teasing — a lot of it was gallows humor, but a lot of it was whimsical, too. He has all that. I hope we can bring some of that out in the Q&A so it's not all earnest celebrity biography. It'll be fun.

"When he sang the [calypso hit] 'The Banana Boat Song,' to Harry, even that was political, because in a general sort of way he was trying to say that through song we can join the world together. He was introducing music of different cultures to the United States. It was not the hard-nosed politics that he's doing now with his work on juvenile-prison reform or that he did before with Dr. King and SNCC, but it is of a piece with a lot of other things he's done, like [helping organize] 'We Are the World.' Take the title of the film: If you can get somebody to sing a song and sing a song with you, you've gone a long way to crossing cultural boundaries. It's not a sharp-edged sword, but an instrument to create a common family."

Marin Alsop on Ennio Morricone: "I chose to show 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' because Morricone wrote a phenomenal score for it. I also hoped it would be an unexpected choice for some people — I think some might have expected me to pick [Leonard Bernstein's] 'On the Waterfront,' which is also phenomenal. Morricone's music is so effective and really supports the drama and the action of the movie. When I was a violinist in New York, I used to play for film scores and commercials; I was at the top of that world for 10 years. I always enjoyed working with Morricone. I thought he was one of those John Williams types: These people are really skilled and really understand what music can do to support a film without overwhelming it. I can't stand it when a score is too much.

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