CIMMfest 2016 Power Combo: Music and Movies About Music

CIMMfest-logoCIMMfest 2016 (Chicago International Movies & Music Festival) runs April 13-17 at various venues. CIMMfest is a four-day showcase of music-related films, concerts, VJ/DJ sets, Q&As, live score performances, industry panels, and presentations—an exercise in showing what movies and music mean to each other. The films come from all countries and cultures, ranging from documentaries and fiction films to concert films, shorts and music videos. I was fortunate enough to catch a few of the docs playing at CIMMfest while I was at the SXSW Film Festival in March. Here’s a quick rundown of the titles I’ve seen. The full festival schedule can be found at THE SMART STUDIOS STORY CIMMfest opens tonight at the Music Box Theatre with the 7:30pm screening of The Smart Studios Story (the Midwest premiere), a sweeping, comprehensive and utterly entertaining look at the hole-in-the-wall, Madison, Wis., recording studio run by Butch Vig and Steve Marker, and best known for being the birthplace of Nirvana’s Nevermind album (produced by Vig). Smart Studios was also the xxx of essential records by the likes of Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage, Killdozer, L7, and Die Kreuzen, among countless others. Roughly, the first third of the film establishes Vig and Marker and staples in the local music scene as musicians, before moving into their early days as studio heads in a dump of a studio that still managed to capture a raw, untapped sound that eventually become a part of the Midwest music scene. The middle of the film talks about the “glory days” of the studio in the 1990s, when the studio became globally known and they were turning down business due to so many booking by bands that wanted to capture the unnamable magic that resulted in Nevermind. Audiences may be shocked to learn that the Seattle sound of that period primarily came out of Madison, but what’s a few hundred miles to the east to true music lovers? The final portion of the film deals with the studio’s demise, which was a combination of an ill-timed redesign of the studio that made it like any generic studio in the world, and Vig and Marker’s growing interest in getting back into music with their band Garbage. The archival material in The Smart Studios Story is overwhelming, and director Wendy Schneider is wise to let it and the music tell most of the story. The interviews with pretty much all of the key players—both studio employees and musicians—are funny and informative, and will likely provide connections between bands thriving in this era of rock music that you might not have made before. The soundtrack alone should be enough to get you into the room to watch the movie, but the insight in rare footage is the real prize in this terrific doc. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with subjects Butch Vig & Steve Marker and director/producer Wendy Schneider. THE AMERICAN EPIC SESSIONS  Part history lesson, part exercise in modern artists getting schooled on the roots of the recording process, The American Epic Sessions (a companion piece to the doc series American Epic, two episodes of which are also screening during CIMMfest) is about one man’s 10-year journey to rebuild the original 1920s field-recording process, no complete models of which still exist, using only photos, descriptions, and other research. Once his device is recorded, he brings in Jack White and T Bone Burnett (both as performers and producers) to recruit other artists to record using this microphone-to-platter process. The system uses a 100-lb.-plus weight to control the speed of the platter as it records, allowing for only about 3-4 minutes of recording time (which is why most pop singles have always fallen into that range of time). With only one microphone in play, singers and musicians had to move closer to or further away from the device to control sound levels (sorry, no multitrack recordings back then). It’s a fascinating process watching, for example, Beck working with a band and gospel choir to figure out exactly where to place everybody in a tiny recording studio. Other artists include Elton John, Willie Nelson, Alabama Shakes, Rhiannon Giddens, Taj Mahal, Bettye LaVette, Nas, and of course, Jack White. The music we hear on the soundtrack is taken right from the resulting record. It’s a fascinating process from a bygone era, and I never grew tired of watching these sessions, each one with its own special brand of hiccups. Director Bernard MacMahon weaves in an essential historical context for the equipment, which was only meant as a portable means to go from small town to small town, usually in rural areas of America, to capture single recordings for the locals. But we also find out in these between-recording moments that Jack White can use a sewing machine like nobody’s business. We also find out what happens when there are various equipment issues that need fixing, and you can’t just run to the hardware store to get the replacement part. The film is a trip through time with some of the greatest voices of our time being captured in a manner none of them have before. Catch this one if you can. The American Epic Sessions screens at 2pm Sunday, April 17, at the Logan Theatre. Both the three-part doc and the feature film will be shown on PBS. BANG! THE BERT BERNS STORY Until he was inducted last weekend into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, successful and prolific songwriter and producer Bert Berns has remained one of rock music’s great unheralded architects, having discovered and mentored the likes of Van Morrison, Neil Diamond and Solomon Burke, as well as written such classics as “Twist and Shout,” “Piece of My Heart,” “Hang of Sloopy” and hundreds more. Co-directed by son Brett Berns and Bob Sarles, Bang! is a great history lesson into a time when being a moderately mobbed-up record exec was a plus, and when you got a couple of hit records under your belt, the world opened up to you in both rewarding and troubling ways. Narrated by the E Street Band’s Steven Van Zandt (who almost single-handedly got Berns into the Hall of Fame after years of lobbying), the film goes into Berns “colorful” dealing with Cuban revolutionaries and world class musicians, as well as vengeful record execs and former friends who attempted to screw him out of deals, unsuccessfully (remember what I said about being mobbed up?). The film is both a loving tribute to Berns and an honest look at a lost era of songwriting, when writers such as Goffin-King and Lieber-Stoller were also in high demand and formed friendly rivalries with Berns. And as you would expect, the hit parade that makes up the film’s soundtrack is worth the price of admission. The film screens at 6:15pm Sunday, April 17, at the Logan Theatre.
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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.