Sundance isn’t the only game in town in Park City, Utah this week. The Slamdance Film Festival, Sundance’s brash, punky, snot-nosed little brother, also trots out its slate. In its nearly 20-year history, Slamdance has boosted the careers of young, then-unknown talents like Christopher Nolan and Marc Forster and introduced the world to the likes of Paranormal Activity, Mad Hot Ballroom, and last year’s General Orders No. 9. But it wasn’t always like that, co-founder Peter Baxter remembers. In the beginning, way back in 1995, it was just a group of guys leaning on each other. “It was about a group of neophyte filmmakers,” he says, “ that didn’t really know anything about independent film distribution, let alone how to put on a film festival. We were filmmakers who had just completed our first features, and we all came together to support one another’s films.” Shut out by Sundance, they decided to crash the party and hold their own film festival. In the same place. At the same time.
It’s difficult now to imagine, but in the mid ’90s Sundance was, while not the only film festival of note, certainly a looming hegemonic figure over the indie film world. And one festival can only show so many films in a given year. The mid ’90s, moreover, saw an explosion in quality indie film, Baxter remembers: “There were so many great independent films being made at that time. But back then, if you didn’t get your film into Sundance, it was hard to get it shown other places. So that’s one of the reasons we continued past the initial year. Then South by Southwest got going around that time, and so did the LA Film Festival. And of course, the number of regional film festivals that have started since that time has just been incredible.”
Relations with the more established Sundance Film Festival got off to a rocky start, especially with Sundance’s founder Robert Redford, who famously once called Slamdance “a parasite.” But even he seems to have warmed to the festival as it continues to prove itself. “When we first began,” Baxter laughs, “there was this very clear sense of ‘There goes the neighborhood.’ We moved in, and we clearly didn’t fit, and we clearly were misfits. That caused a lot of upset. But I’ve got no problem being called names. If you believe strongly in what you’re doing, that’s not going to stop you. So we continued. While being called several names. But I think over the years things have mellowed over at Sundance with regard to us. You’d like to think that when you carry on doing something as well as you can, there will be some mutual respect there. I think Redford now is quite complimentary of Slamdance. Now if you put Slamdance and Sundance side by side, they really complement each other and make for this grand American indie film experience.”
This year, in addition to what promises to be yet another selection of provocative indie films, Slamdance continues its tradition of bringing in big names that are accessible to the filmmakers and fans. The 2012 festival boasts a special screening of Jonathan Demme’s new Neil Young film, Neil Young Journeys; and of the Stan Lee biopic With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story. Demme, Young, and Lee will each be present to lead sessions of Slamdance’s Master Class series. And it’s that involvement that excites Baxter even more than the attention their films bring. “Obviously they’re already providing the festival with an awesome profile for this year,” he says. “But what’s more important to me is that they’re participating. They’re going to give of their time and of their great experience. It’s incredible that they’re not only at the festival but that they want to share with our filmmakers. That’s part of what Slamdance is all about, the sharing of each other’s experiences in doing the work.”
Here are the seven Slamdance films we’re most looking forward to:
1. Neil Young: Journeys
The Category: Special Screening
The Premise: In May of 2011, Neil Young drove a 1956 Crown Victoria from his idyllic hometown of Omemee, Ontario, to downtown Toronto’s iconic Massey Hall where he intimately performed the last two nights of his solo world tour. Along the drive, Young recounted insightful and introspective stories from his youth to filmmaker Jonathan Demme. Demme, a long-time fan and collaborator, captured these tales of Young’s childhood and masterfully weaved them together with his mesmerizing music including songs from the 2010 album Le Noise and powerful renditions of classics including “Ohio,” Hey Hey, My My,” “I Believe in You” and previously unreleased songs “Leia” and “You Never Call.”
The Key Players: Director Jonathan Demme; Neil Young
The Draw: Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, Stop Making Sense) returns to one of his favorite topics, Neil Young, for his third documentary about the enigmatic legend. If it’s half as compelling as Neil Young: Heart of Gold and Neil Young Trunk Show, we’ve got a winner.
2. With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story
The Category: Special Screening
The Premise: At 88 years old, Stan Lee’s name appears on over 1 billion comics in 75 countries in 25 languages. Stan has co-created over 500 legendary pop culture characters including Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, X-Men, Iron Man, Thor and Hulk. The film explores the life of Stan Lee from his early days, his fascinating journey from Timely Comics to the dawn of Marvel Comics to his current company POW! Entertainment. Told through the words of Stan, comic book creators, actors, film producers, family and friends, the story paints a portrait of a man whose creativity knows no bounds and whose characters have grown from humble beginnings in the pages of Marvel Comics in the 1960’s to powerhouse media properties.
The Key Players: Directors Terry Dougas and Nikki Frakes; Stan Lee
The Draw: For one of the most iconic entertainment figures of our lifetime, Stan Lee’s story is a bit undertold. He’s the creator (with his Marvel Comics artists) of characters like Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, and the X-Men, which means that while many of us have always owed him a debt for much of our childhood, these days Hollywood owes him a debt for keeping them profitable.
The Category: Narrative Features
The Premise: Three high-school virgins, suspended from school on a bogus graffiti charge, flee to the inner city in an attempt to live out the plot of The Catcher in the Rye—a book they neither have read nor understand. Bindlestiffs documents their struggles along the way as they surrender their virginities to vagrants, prostitutes, and crack fiends. Hot on their tail is Charlie, the deranged school security guard. Under the impression that the boys are planning a school shooting, he takes the law into his own hands to stop them and save America.
The Key Players: Director Andrew Edison
The Draw: I’m not sure whether Hollywood generally can’t make films that capture genuine teenage experiences, or just won’t. Regardless, it’s mostly the indie films that do that best, and Bindlestiffs promises more authenticity than a dozen American Pie sequels. Bonus: A “deranged school security guard!”
4. Holiday Road
The Category: Documentary Features
The Premise: The spirit of the holidays is showcased in a feature-length anthology of 12 separate short films written and directed by 13 of today’s hottest up and coming independent writer/directors.
The Key Players: Directors Todd Berger, Bill Palmer, Bobby Miller, Daron Nefcy, Benny Grinnell, Ian Eastin, Mary McIlwain, Aaron Arendt, Michael Suter, Dee Robertson, Doug Manley, Helena Wei, Andrew Putschoegl
The Draw: Anthologies can be dreadfully scattered and uneven, but they can also provide juxtapositions and combinations that shed new light on each individual piece. Plus, dude, they named the film after the song from National Lampoon’s Vacation. The Griswolds would want you to see it.
5. I Want My Name Back
The Category: Documentary Features
The Premise: Whatever happened to the Sugarhill Gang? “I Want My Name Back” highlights the rise and fall of former original members, Master Gee and Wonder Mike, creative leaders of the group that recorded the biggest selling Hip Hop single of all time, RAPPER’S DELIGHT. The Sugarhill Gang are widely credited with introducing the world to Hip Hop music in 1979. We go back in time with Master Gee and Wonder Mike as they recreate the beginning of commercial Hip Hop. We follow their story as they tour the world and follow up with songs like “Apache” and “8th Wonder.” And then one day in 1984 it’s gone…the money, fame and more interesting in this case, their names. They lost their identity and legacy as ruthless forces in the record industry tried to exploit and destroy them. Thirty years after their historic recording, Master Gee and Wonder Mike come back to reclaim their names.
The Key Players: Director Roger Paradiso; The Sugarhill Gang
The Draw: A story that is, in its way, every bit as classic Americana as Stan Lee’s—a story of race, identity, groundbreaking creativity, and corporate appropriation and exploitation. On a personal note, this marks the second consecutive year that Slamdance has featured a documentary I had long envisioned myself, so as I said about last year’s Superheroes, you better get this right.
6. Wild in the Streets
The Category: Special Screenings
The Premise: Toward the end of winter on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday the people of Ashbourne gather in the center of their town to renew the longest running sports rivalry on earth. The game is called Shrovetide Football and originates from two medieval communities living opposite the river Henmore. Today, they are known as the Up’ards and Down’ards. Each team consists of hundreds if not thousands of people. The field of play…the town itself. There is no referee and few rules. Each game begins at 2pm and ends at 10pm. The ball cannot be carried in motorized transport. Cemeteries, churchyards and memorials are out of bounds. Under no circumstances is manslaughter to be tolerated. The object of the game is simple: Get a 4-pound ball to one of 2 goals that lay 3 miles apart. For the past 1,000 years, Kings, Revolutions and Wars have tried to stop this ancient tradition. Against all odds, a passionate community has kept alive a meaning of life, not valued in pounds or dollars but in sportsmanship and friendship of the game. For the past 10 years the “posh” Up’ards have dominated every contest. As the “dirty” Down’ards prepare for revenge, both teams will have to fight an additional foe; modern society.
The Key Players: Director Peter Baxter
The Draw: In recent years, the serious sports documentary has seen a dramatic revival, boosted in great part by ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. But here’s a story you’re not likely to see highlighted by the network anytime soon. Slamdance co-founder Peter Baxter returns with a film that promises to be a barnburner.
7. OK Good
The Category: Narrative Features
The Premise: Guided by motivational affirmations and encouraged by an intense physical-movement workshop, actor Paul Kaplan struggles through a series of demoralizing auditions that push him towards the edge. OK, Good mixes vérite technique with confining formalism to build a hypnotic and tweaked-out meditation on performance, identity, anxiety, and one man’s personal apocalypse. The Key Players: Director Daniel Martinico The Draw: Who doesn’t love films about crazy actors? Very, very good buzz is already out about this one.
The Key Players: Director Daniel Martinico
The Draw: Who doesn’t love films about crazy actors? Very, very good
buzz is already out about this one.