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Music Documentary Heaven 

25 Aug 2021

The number of music films on my watch list for the 29th Chichester International Film Festival is a testament to the quality on offer as well as demonstrating how much I have missed live music over the past 18 months or so.

The latest pair have something in common, too, as both claim at the start that what we are about to witness had not been seen/heard since it was recorded – “until now”.

Billie, James Erskine’s 2019 documentary about Billie Holiday, actually explored two unlikely parallel themes, as the bulk of the film was built on the audio interview tapes made by journalist Linda Kuehl. In the early 1970s she was planning a book on the great singer who died in 1959 at only 44, practically broke. The book was never completed and so the film attempts to shed light on the singer’s career through the often startling interviews of those who knew her well, while at the same time sifting through the clues as to why the book was never finished. The documentary was beautifully crafted.

It was followed by a live performance. Vimala Rowe, John Etheridge and Andrew Cleyndert were billed as going to be playing Billie Holiday, which could have meant an unhappy imitation, but I should have known better and trusted the Festival’s artistic director. Rowe clearly stated she was not doing an impersonation and soon won me over with her own versions of a number of standards and some songs I didn’t know.

The three players were good company and it rounded off the evening in style. I had been thinking of Etheridge, a wonderful guitarist, when I was watching Django a few days previously as I had seen him years ago accompanying Stéphane Grappelli, the violinist best know for his work with Django Reinhardt.

There was no live music with Summer of Soul ( … Or When the Revolution Could Not be Televised) the next night, but there were some monumental performances on film. The 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival featured the giants of soul and blues at a time when the civil rights movement in the USA and other events – good and bad – meant that the lives of African Americans were at a turning point. Unfortunately, it was also the summer of Woodstock, and the footage shot in Harlem was not able to find an audience in the shadow of the more famous festival – until now.

Another well-assembled documentary, including funny and moving interviews with audience members and performers, it was packed with amazing performances – Stevie Wonder, BB King, David Ruffin, the Staple Singers, Mahalia Jackson, Gladys Knight & the (wonderfully-choreographed) Pips, Sly & the Family Stone, Nina Simone and others. That list tells you all you need to know. One performance I found interesting was The Fifth Dimension. My first thought was their Up, Up & Away, but while not disrespecting that song, there is so much more to them.


Sandy Guthrie, from the Chichester CineFile podcast