Music Films Come to Life at Houston Cinema Arts Festival

It's not by design, but the fifth installment of the Houston Cinema Arts Festival is so packed with music-oriented films, both narrative and documentary, that it makes a pretty damn good music festival all by itself -- complete with several live performances.

Pairing music with films has always been an essential element of HCAF, which officially runs Wednesday night through Sunday at ten different venues across town, from the Aurora Picture Show and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston to the Asia Society Texas Center and Project Row Houses' Eldorado Ballroom. (Many screenings take place at Sundance Cinemas downtown, however.) At the first HCAF in 2008, San Francisco indie-rock band Dengue Fever set a precedent by providing a live score to the 1925 film The Lost World.

"To tell you the truth, I'm not trying to make the festival primarily a music festival," says the festival's artistic director, Richard Herskowitz. "The main thing is to celebrate all the arts, and so I'm kind of happy that this year has that kind of emphasis.

"I would say music is always going to be one of the most important art forms in the festival," he adds. "Because for one thing, we love to do live performance with film."

This year's HCAF indeed sees a number of live performances, from a set from two members of the Gourds following the new documentary about the popular Austin band that recently went on hiatus, to Chinese folk musicians who will accompany the film The Love Songs of Tiedan. Other live sets include a klezmer score to 1931 drama The Yellow Ticket, interactive musician/animator Jeremy Rourke climbing into the screen, and some even more progressive than that.

"A lot of stuff in our gallery downtown [HCAF headquarters at 1201 Main] is really futuristic stuff," Herskowitz says. "We've got an interactive film by this young hip-hop perfomer named young Jake and it works out of an iPad. It's really hard to describe. You gotta see it."

One of HCAF's featured guests is Charlie Ahearn, who will present a screening of his seminal 1983 hip-hop film Wild Style and several other works. And then alongside possible Oscar contenders such as Nebraska and August: Osage County, other HCAF offerings -- such as a 20th-anniversary screening of Richard Linklater's classic stoner comedy Dazed and Confused and Wim Wenders' haunting 1984 drama Paris, Texas, shot largely in Houston and featuring Ry Cooder's evocative slide-guitar score -- are today arguably remembered for their music more than anything else.

"Sometimes I think it's by unconscious design," laughs Herskovitz. "I did notice that myself when it was done; you know, the variety of music that's celebrated across the festival is pretty amazing to me."

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So what does Herskowitz look for in a music film for the HCAF?

"I'm particularly concerned that the film be cinematically exciting," he says. "That it not simply be informational, that it uses the artistic qualities of the cinematic medium in original, exciting ways. So it's exciting and interesting music, but also exciting filmmaking."

And then how does he find the films that he presents?

"For one thing I go to a bunch of festivals, but I also consult with a lot of people," explains Herskowitz. "Sometimes they're other programmers and sometimes they're people locally who advise me. There are people in this town who are really savvy."

The HCAF was kind enough to send over brief synopses of all 16 music-focused films screening at its 2013 festival; Rocks Off condensed them a little bit more. A complete schedule of screenings, a map of HCAF's ten venues and lots more is available at cinemartsociety.org.

See the films on the next page.


All the Labor The story of the boisterous, soulful, pan-roots Austin band the Gourds, who announced they were going on hiatus last month. (D: Doug Hawes)

Becoming Traviata Building a modern interpretation of Giuseppe Verdi's 19-century opera through a tight focus on the relationship between director Jean-Francois Sivadier and soprano Natalie Dessay as Violetta. (D: Philippe Beziat)

Before the Spring, After the Fall A young Egyptian metal band backs into the Arab Spring of 2011 and finds the stakes surrounding each gig raised considerably. (D: Jed Rothstein)

Charlie Ahearn's Hip-Hop Videos Wild Style filmmaker Ahearn follows artists such as Grandmaster Caz and NINE11THESAURUS around cities like New York, Baltimore and Las Vegas. (D: Charlie Ahearn)

Enzo Avitable Jonathan Demme, who made the landmark Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense, heads to Naples to examine famous Italian saxophonist Avitable and his surroundings. (D: Jonathan Demme)

Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction The world according to the popular character actor and Paris, Texas star, now 87 years old and a musician of some renown among admirers like Debbie Harry and Kris Kristofferson. (D: Sophie Huber)

Houston Ballet: Breaking Boundaries The origins and triumphs of the Bayou City's own ballet company, now the nation's fourth-largest. World premiere. (D: John Carrithers)

Jamel Shabazz, Street Photographer Ahearn returns to examine the life and times of the Brooklyn photographer, whose book Back In the Days is an essential document of early hip-hop culture. (D: Charlie Ahearn)

My Father and the Man In Black After his father's suicide, the son of Johnny Cash's longtime manager gets to know both men. (D: Jonathan Holiff)

Narco Cultura Sex, drugs and narcocorridos in this look at the symbiotic relationship between the Mexican drug cartels and the musicians who celebrate and profit by them. (D: Saul Scwarz)

More films on the next page.


Ballad of the Weeping Spring Told as a spaghetti western, two estranged Israeli bandmates reunite after one falls ill to mount a performance of their long-lost symphony... before time runs out. (D: Benny Toraty)

Jeremy Rourke: Live Performance and Animation San Francisco musician/animator interacts with his creations in a most hands-on way.

One Chance Shy British shop clerk aspires to an opera career, and goes viral after appearing on Britain's Got Talent. (D: David Frankel)

The Love Songs of Tiedan Epic romantic comedy about the adventures of a folk singer from northwestern China, told in the rustic style known as er ren tai. (D: Hao Jie)

The Yellow Ticket 1931 silent classic about anti-Semetism in czarist Russia (co-starring Laurence Olivier, Lionel Barrymore and Boris Karloff), scored live by noted klezmer musician Alicia Svigals. (D: Raoul Walsh)

Wild Style 30th-anniversary screening of Ahearn's film, which many believe is Hollywood's first account of hip-hop culture, that tracks hotshot graffiti artist Ray as he becomes New York City's most wanted fugitive. (D: Charlie Ahearn)

See all things HCAF at cinemartsociety.org.


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