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TIFF 2012: Snoop, MJ, Peaches, Jared Leto and the festival’s music-themed films reviewed

The mighty Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is about to reach the halfway mark. A truckload of dolled-up actors have already graced the city’s red carpets, studios big and small have signed distribution deals to bring compelling stories to audiences the world over and the international press has survived on a diet of coffee, cigarettes and cocktails. As we continue to navigate our way through the festival tsunami, we bring you reviews of TIFF's six highest-profile music-themed films, which those heading to Toronto this week can catch before the event wraps on Sunday.



It’s been a turbulent summer for Snoop fans, to say the least. Reports of his Rastafari awakening in Jamaica, his roaring new reggae moniker and his very confusing performance at Osheaga left dogs of every allegiance wondering what the future held for their esteemed West coast rapper. Snoop fans will be happy to know that Reincarnated, the Vice-produced documentary recounting his spiritual and musical odyssey to the birthplace of reggae, is a riveting portrait that delves deep into the artist’s intent.

The man once dubbed “America’s Most Loveable Pimp” by Rolling Stone opens up to director Andy Capper about his formative years as a pimp and gangbanger who rose through the ranks of hip hop during its most violent streak (see: Death Row days). Having now reached the very adult age of forty, still mourning the loss of his cousin Nate Dogg and looking to spread “peace, love and positivity” wherever he goes, the doc captures a Snoop in transition, adamant about carving out a new path. He puts it best when he says, “I know Obama wants me to come to the White House, but what the fuck do you want me to perform?”

Reincarnated reveals a charismatic, funny and sharply observant Lion: one who revels in herb smoking (what an understatement) with his spiritual big brother and living legend Bunny Wailer, travels throughout Jamaica to gain a better appreciation of its people, invites his daughter Cori B to perform on one of his tracks and waxes poetic about the benefits of fruit on a catchy reggae jam. Of course, don’t go into Reincarnated expecting a hard-hitting exposé (the film is exec produced by Snoop and his wife), but the film nevertheless manages to address whether this could all be one shrewd marketing gimmick. Snoop’s answer? Time will prove naysayers wrong. The rap icon, who was more than a tad fashionably late to his TIFF Q&A, fessed up to crying while watching the movie, as “this is not a movie; it’s my life.”

The doc also features musical whiz kids Major Lazer, who take up the challenge of reggae-fying Snoop in Kingston's recording studios, and the resulting tracks – at the very least, the snippets sampled in the film – are first-rate, reformed Snoop. There’s a cloud of giddy herb smoke hovering over this film, which only bodes well for the film's theatrical possibilities. Jah man!

Plays September 16


Greetings from Tim Buckley

The first thing that will strike you about Dan Algrant’s Greetings from Tim Buckley is that perennially pouty Gossip Girl castmate Penn Badgley can more than hold his own behind the mic in a break-out performance as the young, tortured Jeff Buckley. This dual biopic, seamlessly gliding between the late ‘60s and the early ‘90s, provides a sensitive primer on the tragic story of the Buckleys – both father Tim and son Jeff. 

Focusing mostly on folk-rocker Jeff as he preps (albeit reluctantly) for a 1991 tribute concert dedicated to Tim (who died of a heroin overdose at 28 back in 1975), the film finds the young man coming to terms with his dad’s musical legacy, his feelings of resentment and the pressure to measure up to a troubadour musician who abandoned him as a baby. Set a few years prior to the release of Jeff’s debut record, Grace, the Badgley storyline is intercut with glimpses of a young Tim and his musical genius (Ben Rosenfield). The parallel narratives further support the strong case Greetings builds about musical ties that bind…

A budding romance between Jeff and a concert intern played by Imogen Poots is tacked on, no doubt to spark interest among those unfamiliar with the oeuvres of Buckley father and son. It treads dangerously close to fluff-ville, but there’s enough chemistry there to make it work. If you know nothing about these two talented singer-songwriters and their short-lived careers (Jeff died just as tragically, in a swimming accident back in 1997), this is a great place to start. The major surprise being Badgley’s serious pipes and stage presence, which will introduce Jeff to a whole new generation.

Plays September 14


The Secret Disco Revolution

While this disco doc has its share of shortcomings, I’m baffled by the viciousness with which the Toronto press has torn the film to shreds. For one, film critics seem to think the film’s main argument – that disco was actually a liberating time for gays, Blacks and women – is preposterous. As someone who’s long been interested in surveying the larger role dance music has played towards social progress, I don’t understand why that’s so hard to acknowledge. It wasn’t just about the sex and drugs, guys, even if it did take years of critical distance to draw that conclusion.

The problem with Jamie Kastner's film, however, is that it relies on too few experts and their stuffy, overly academic “revisionist disco theories”, which really just strips away all the fun in exploring the period. The doc’s also hindered by some confusing tonal shifts – the strange reenactments and satirical narrator lead us to wonder whether the director really agrees with what his film is arguing.

But there are fascinating insights here – a look into the scene before a disco record had even cracked the Billboard charts (circa 1972), Saturday Night Fever as major propaganda, the rise of the Disco Sucks movement and how the genre broadened the music landscape by giving radio stations no other choice than to pay attention to what club DJs were spinning.

And there’s one particularly fascinating moment –  a heated exchange with the Village People, who seem quite uneasy with being labeled “subversive”, as they argue that songs like "In The Navy" were really, in all seriousness, about joining the Navy. They argue against their “gay icon” status, telling Kastner they were nothing more than a party band. Kudos to Kastner for letting his interviewees – namely Village, Martha Wash and Robert “Kool” Bell, question his claim that disco was political. Looks like our culture still needs some time to digest it all.

Plays September 13



Whether you’re a staunch protector of Blanket, Neverland and MJ's childlike innocence or a subscriber to the Wacko Jacko school of thought, you’ll get a kick out of BAD25. Since Jackson’s untimely passing in June of 2009, lovers and haters alike have only been treated to This Is It, a rehearsal footage compilation of Jackson in the weeks and months leading up to the tour that would never be. So who better than Spike Lee to revisit the King of Pop’s legacy in this intimate and eminently entertaining love letter to MJ, as his estate celebrates the 25th anniversary of Bad’s release?
Lee, who directed Jackson in the 1996 video for “They Don’t Care About Us”, takes us back to a post-Thriller time, when Jackson’s entourage was concerned that his global domination was perhaps approaching its expiry date, with the rise of hip-hop, soaring new recruits like Prince and Whitney Houston, recurring criticism from the African-American community and the suggestion that he was in dire need of an edgy, sexy, more male-assertive makeover. BAD25 takes us through the production of one of the biggest LPs of all time care of unseen archival material. The footage provides a rare glimpse into the life of a born entertainer whose level of artistry and dedication remain astounding.

Lee speaks with an armada of MJ’s closest collaborators as well as artists who’ve been influenced by Jackson (Cee Lo Green, Mariah Carey and an arrogant-as-ever Kanye West). The director also takes us back to the making of each Bad video – with Wesley Snipes’ auspicious acting debut, people puzzled by that "Annie are you okay?" line from “Smooth Criminal” (Jackson stole that from his CPR training) and a group of "real" gang members invited to be a part of “The Way You Make Me Feel” video. The result is no doubt celebratory – Lee isn’t out to revisit any of the Wacko Jacko claims that forever tarnished the star. But it’s also incredibly touching and infectious, making a strong case for MJ's place in the pop music pantheon.

Plays September 15 and 16
Airs on ABC November 22 for American Thanksgiving


Peaches Does Herself
as a serious, sit-down screening
***½ as part of a raunchy dance party

Our favourite expat gender bender and punk-rock provocateur makes her feature film debut with this balls-out, multi-camera recording of a stage production she originally toured back in 2010. The transgressive Berlin-based performer describes the project as “like The Rocky Horror Picture Show for the next generation”, and I’d argue she’s being very modest. For one, the score to Peaches Does Herself compiles a “best of” from her back catalogue, making it eminently more catchy and propulsive than Rocky sing-alongs could ever aspire to be.

As for the film itself, it’s an inventive retelling of Peaches’ humble journey from a young, DIY musician busting beats in her bedroom to the commanding, erotically-charged electro queen she’s grown into. But Peaches Does Herself is really better suited to a raucous late-night dance party than a solitary sit-down experience. After all, Peaches is there to remind viewers what they’ve gotten themselves into: “you came to see a rock show – a big, gigantic cock show!” Her explicit operetta lives up to the hype with its aging, Dolly Parton-like stripper (the “Naked Cowgirl”), the flashy vagina mattress from which her Fatherfucker Dancers emerge, her well-endowed dildo, MIDI laser harps, a pair of tits on fire, detonated sex bits and trans porn actress Danni Daniels as the object of Peaches’ affection.

Beyond the potent glam rock energy, this original stage production gives us a peek into the wacky world of Merrill Beth Nisker. A nice addition to the repertoire of pop musicals – with titillating gender twists.

Plays September 13, 15 and 16 at TIFF
Peaches Does the Drake 
| Friday, September 14 at 9pm | Drake Hotel | 1150 Queen Street West



Artifact is a documentary showcase for spiritual rock band 30 Seconds to Mars and its frontman Jared Leto, who muses in the film’s opening voice-over that “sometimes you have to fight in order to be free.” Oh Lordy.

The film chronicles his band’s 2008 legal battle with label Virgin/EMI – which sued 30 Seconds for some 30 million bucks, alleging breach of contract – while attempting to reveal greater truths about the recording industry. For one, that it’s a dying, dirty business. Problem being, of course, that these things have become common knowledge as record labels and music shops have expedited their steep plunge into irrelevance over the last four years, world economic crisis notwithstanding.

The film unfolds chronologically, interspersed with captions of the “Day 48 of lawsuit” variety, leading us to assume the filmmaker really wants us to grasp the ins and outs of 30 Second’s fight with The Man. But here’s where it gets really frustrating: the film is directed by a certain Bartholomew Cubbins…Leto himself using a filmmaking pseudonym. No surprise, then, that he’s portrayed as a kind of courageous musical warrior fighting against the unknown, all-powerful enemy. We never get to see anyone from the opposing camp on camera and worse still, we’re left in the dark as to the terms and conditions of the agreement 30 Seconds is fighting their former label over. It feels disingenuous to ask viewers to root for you when you’re essentially cherry picking the information they’re privy to, no?

Then there are all those talking heads (namely Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington and System of a Down’s Serj Tankian) raving about Leto’s work ethic and supporting his position that major labels are out to rob artists. Even though interesting and valid arguments are made, it all feels so drearily dated. Why wait so long to release a documentary about an issue that was relevant back in 2008-2009 when the music landscape evolves so quickly? When a bewildered Leto asks his manager and lawyer “why isn’t there a new model?”, you just want to chastise the musician for being so narrow-minded. Although the music industry is in shambles, alternatives to the conniving monster labels do exist. But perhaps not for musicians whose lifestyle involves renting out Frank Lloyd Wright properties on a whim to get their creative juices flowing.

Plays September 14, 15 and 16 at TIFF


Toronto International Film Festival
Until September 16 |