Houston Cinema Arts Festival's Music Films Have a Strong Texas Accent

Amy Berg's Janis: Little Girl Blue kicks off the 2015 Houston Cinema Arts Festival Thursday at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Amy Berg's Janis: Little Girl Blue kicks off the 2015 Houston Cinema Arts Festival Thursday at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Photos courtesy of Houston Cinema Arts Society

Of the more than 40 feature-length films at this year's Houston Cinema Arts Festival, eight — or approximately 20 percent — could safely be called “music movies”: one classic comedy starring a popular '90s rap duo, a new film about a Sinatra-style lounge singer looking to regain his mojo, and six documentaries that cover everything from a youth orchestra in poverty-stricken Paraguay to the late Lone Star legends Janis Joplin and Doug Sahm. Now in its seventh year, the HCAF offers plenty to do besides watch movies – short films, animation, panels, artist's talks, a “Meet the Makers” brunch, and an appearance by Houston native and Boyhood director Richard Linklater — but to us the festival's especially strong musical component is its biggest selling point.

To wit, the HCAF kicks off this Thursday, November 12, with a screening of Amy Berg's Joplin documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue, and continues through November 19. Tickets are available for individual and multiple screenings; Saturday/Sunday-only, weekend and All Access passes are also available. See houstoncinemaartsfestival.org for more details.

The popular L.A. indie-rock band Dengue Fever brings a twist of traditional Cambodian music to some otherwise pretty psychedelic tunes, but they're hardly the first. In the '60s and early '70s, young Cambodian musicians fell hard for the rock and roll they heard coming out of America, France and other Western countries, and soon began creating some pretty great music of their own. However, their groovy new culture came under threat when the communist Khmer Rouge regime seized power in 1975, and quickly began their horrific campaign to purge all Western influence from the country — including, and maybe even especially, rock and roll. That bands like Dengue Fever exist today testifies to the Khmer's ultimate failure, and Don't Think I've Forgotten makes an entertaining look at nearly 50 years of Cambodian music, plus a timely lesson how great music can often be a byproduct of troubled times — and how hard some musicians can be willing to fight to be heard.

Screening: 7 p.m. Thursday, November 19 at Asia Society Texas Center. Dengue Fever's Ch'hom Nimol and Zac Holtzman will perform afterward.

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Starring wholesome yet quick-tongued rap duo Kid N' Play, this 1990 teen comedy can still be seen on cable most weekends, often followed by one or more of its many sequels. The simple plot concerns a high-school student/aspiring rapper who also happens to be named Kid, who must reach the party at his buddy Play's house and secure the affections of his crush Sydney (future Martin co-star Tisha Campbell). In his way stand his domineering dad, who grounds him for fighting at school that day, and the trio of bullies he had tangled with earlier but are now dead-set on stopping him from reaching his destination. House Party also stars Martin Lawrence — in a key pre-stardom role as a trash-talking wannabe DJ — and comedian Robin Harris (Bebe's Kids), who passed away shortly after filming his part as Kid's pops.

Screening: 4 p.m. Saturday, November 14 (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston). Kid N' Play will be in the house, and will recreate House Party's famous “rap battle” scene later that evening at Cafe Brasil.

The struggle to bring Janis Joplin's life story to the big screen has long been one of Hollywood's biggest mysteries: why is it taking so long? Filmmaker Amy Berg (West of Memphis) beats the pair of Janis biopics still in development with this 80-minute documentary. Joplin's story is of course well-known by now — the Port Arthur native was out of step with her conservative upbringing from the word go, but her operatic vocals made her rock's first major female star just as her tragic addictions were taking hold — but here it's told mostly through Joplin's own letters to her parents, as read by celebrated indie-rocker Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power).

Screening: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, November 12 (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston). Houston rapper/local hero Bun B, himself a Port Arthur native, will moderate an audience discussion with Berg.

For several years, the best-kept secret in Texas music has been the Jones Family Singers, a close-knit family of gospel singers from Bay City who follow the Pentecostal faith and the direction of their father, Bishop Fred Jones. The catalyst for Alan Berg's 90-minute documentary, though, is Michael Corcoran, current dean of Texas music writers. (Corcoran, formerly lead pop/rock critic for The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman, has written off and on for the Houston Press as well.) A longtime gospel-music lover and historian despite his atheism, Corcoran discovered the Jones Family about a decade ago; his endorsement has helped the group make several Austin City Limits Music Festival appearances. This year they played the grandaddy of them all, the Newport Folk Festival. (Some members of the Jones Family's old congregation, though, haven't exactly been thrilled about the group's newfound audiences.)

Screening: 4 p.m. Sunday, November 15 (Sundance Cinemas), with a performance by the family afterward.

Shortly after the horrible December 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a story out of South America began restoring at least some measure of people's faith in humanity. It was about the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura, a group of youth musicians who live near a Paraguayan landfill once estimated take in about 1,500 tons of garbage every day. The children's instruments were fashioned from the refuse, such as one boy's cello made of an old oil drum and some cooking tools; his performance of the prelude to Bach's "Cello Sonata No. 1" is a Landfill Harmonic highlight. Once the story got out, the kids were even invited to Carnegie Hall, but the film turns on the orchestra's rush to save their community of 2,500 families when it is hit by devastating floods.

Screenings: 10 a.m. Friday, November 13 (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston); 11 a.m. Thursday, November 19 (Sundance Cinemas)

Proud son of San Antone Doug Sahm was a child prodigy whose steel-guitar skills once dazzled Hank Williams Sr., but he hit the big time in his twenties with “She's About a Mover.” Produced by Gulf Coast impresario Huey P. Meaux and recorded at Houston's SugarHill Studios, the song set the British Invasion to a Tex-Mex groove and reached the Billboard Top 15 in 1965. Sahm would have other brushes with national success, notably 1969's “Mendocino” after he relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, but in Texas his grasp of almost every homegrown musical idiom — country, blues, swamp pop, Cajun, norteno, etc. — made him a genuine folk hero; after his 1999 death at only age 58, his legend only grew. Longtime Texas Monthly writer Joe Nick Patoski's film, his first, features Sahm's sons/fomer bandmates Shandon and Shawn; fellow Texas Tornados Augie Meyers and Flaco Jimenez; and many others singing the praises of “Sir Doug.”

Screening: 6:15 p.m. Friday, November 13 (Sundance Cinemas), with appearances by Patoski and producer Dawn Johnson.

Saturday Night Live fans who have seen Christopher Walken's many hosting appearances know the offbeat actor with the distinctively deadpan voice is also a better-than-average song-and-dance man. Here, he stars as a Sinatra-style crooner who has seen better days but is having trouble letting go, the opposite problem of his daughter Jude (Amber Heard, Mrs. Johnny Depp), a would-be performer whose lack of motivation becomes her old man's pet project. The film played at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, where the Hollywood Reporter dubbed it “a showbiz drama about second, third and fifteenth chances.”

Screening: 7 p.m. Monday, November 16 (Sundance Cinemas).

Here, director Beth Harrington examines the vast legacy of “America's first superstar country group,” the trio of A.P., Sara and “Mother” Maybelle Carter. The group began performing traditional Appalachian folk songs before even the Great Depression, and yet their entire catalog remains in print. Later generations — Anita, Helen and June, known as the Carter Sisters, and June's daughter Carlene — became successful performers in their own right, and the Carters' influence grew further still when their family tree was joined by Johnny Cash, who at one point in The Winding Stream looks at the camera and says, “You want to hear the real story?” Performances in the film include George Jones, John Prine, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Kris Kristofferson, Joe Ely, Roseanne Cash, Sheryl Crow, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Screenings: 3:15 p.m. Saturday, November 14 (Sundance Cinemas); 7:30 p.m. Thursday, November 19 (Sundance Cinemas). Austin-based Americana duo Hogan & Moss will perform a 30-minute set of Carter Family music before each screening.

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