Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on defunct, Central Indiana arts website Sky Blue Window on July 17, 2014. Some content, style and formatting may differ from the original version.
When Indy Film Fest kicks off this evening, its lineup of acclaimed feature-length and short films will demonstrate the talents of independent moviemakers from near and far. The nearest being one of Indy’s own — director Jace Freeman. The festival will be a homecoming for him and his rock n’ roll documentary The Ballad of Shovels and Rope.
“Coming home to the Indy Film Fest is a big deal for me as a filmmaker,” Freeman says. “A lot of my support network is here, and I’m excited to show them what I’ve been up to for the last few years.”
Freeman’s documentary chronicles the husband and wife musical partnership of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent across two years of constant gigging and the home recording process of their breakthrough 2012 LP, O’ Be Joyful. Viewers are inserted in the passenger seat of their touring van-turned mobile home and are provided a voyeuristic look at the couple’s painstaking rise to stardom. The film garnered the “Ground Zero Tennessee Spirit Award for Best Feature” at Nashville Film Festival earlier this spring.
As a Nashville transplant, Freeman is inspired by his location in the heart of Music City. “Most of my friends are directly involved in the music industry,” he says. “I even met and married an amazing singer-songwriter named Regan Lorraine. I was always interested in rock docs, but moving to Nashville gave me a unique perspective on what really goes on behind the scenes.”
Freeman first became aware of Shovels & Rope a few years ago when a friend at a record label recommended Hearst’s solo material. This initial interest led to an opportunity to shoot some live footage of Hearst and Trent on tour. It was love at first sight. “During that shoot in the fall of 2010, I met Michael and fell in love with his music too,” he says. “Then I learned that they were going to form a band together as a husband and wife duo. I was swept away with their grace, humility and authenticity, and it got my gears turning about a bigger project.
Rather than wait and see whether Shovels & Rope gained traction nationally, Freeman got in on the ground level. “We made an investment of time and resources on a new band, but we had faith in Michael and Cary Ann as individuals,” he says. “They had a track record of writing and recording incredible songs in their solo efforts. We definitely believed that something wonderful would happen when they combined their talents and energy into a focused project.”
The film lets the voices of its protagonists carry the story, with no narrator or staged interviews. “Michael and Cary Ann opened up their house and lives to us, and we were always on the same page — even if it involved them trusting our vision and creative direction,” he says. “They are obviously storytellers too, so they understood what we were doing. The process unfolded naturally with respect, communication and trust.”
Like most rock docs, The Ballad of Shovels and Rope relies heavily on music as a vehicle for the action on the screen. Rather than separate the songs and live footage into musical segments apart from the narrative, Freeman and his team at The Moving Picture Boyschose to weave the two together. “The story we ended up with is a little more universal,” he says. “The best thing I’ve learned from our audiences so far is that they don’t have to be a fan of the band or even the genre to like the film and connect with the story. Everybody seems to be responding strongly and emotionally to the film.”
And he’s right about that. The powerful documentary proves capable of stirring emotions. Late in the film, cameras are on hand in Hearst’s childhood living room when she plays O’ Be Joyful for her family for the first time. Eventual hit single “Birmingham” sets the tone for the scene. The astonishment of her family at the strength of Hearst and Trent’s work is palpable and drove me to tears. “That’s really nice work,” Hearst’s stepfather says. “Your voices blend so well together.” With that recognition, any larger fame and success is almost irrelevant.
This weekend, Freeman will have a chance to bask in a bit of familial recognition as well. “Growing up in Indy let me put down some good roots that were nourished by family and friends,” he says. “I’ve known some of my Indy friends since the second grade, and most of my family lives north of the city. Without their support and encouragement, I do not think it would have been possible for me to transition as easily into a filmmaking career.”
Written by Rob Peoni
As the old saying goes, nothing is sacred. This is especially true in art, and music in particular, where musicians blend influences and styles in an increasingly complex meld of sounds and cultural signifiers. The Internet and its vast array of musical platforms has only served to bring this melting pot to a more intense boil, where a 16-year-old in Beirut can draw from the same catalog as his teenage counterpart in Indianapolis.
With this in mind, the concept of a Caucasian musician from California transforming into a mariachi singer while serving a stint in prison for robbery proves plausible. This is the storyline behind Mateo, a documentary in Indy Film Fest’s Rock + Reel series, which showcases works about music and is screened in front of audiences at The White Rabbit Cabaret.
In the years since Matthew Stoneman emerged from prison, he has established a cult following in the United States and Japan as a “gringo mariachi” performer. Mateo, the debut film from director Aaron Naar, follows Stoneman as he attempts to record his first album while living in Havana, Cuba. In the film, Stoneman is depicted as one having a complex personality and whose checkered past and vices threaten to derail his success as a musician. As evidence, listen to Stoneman and Naar’s interview on WNYC’s Soundcheck podcast from earlier this summer.
In short, don’t miss this flick if you have ever wondered what Ry Cooder’s career might’ve looked like if he never left Cuba after working with Buena Vista Social Club.
After attending the screening of Pulp: A Film about Life, Death & Supermarkets, the kickoff of Rock + Reel, I can attest that the experience of watching a movie about music on a stage and sound system worthy of Indy’s finest independent musicians and touring acts is an opportunity worth seizing. Prior to each screening, attendees are treated to music curated by Musical Family Tree’s Jon Rogers, as well as complementary snacks. The staff at White Rabbit also tailors the drink specials to reflect themes from the movie, which is an awesome touch. Tickets for Mateo are free, but space is limited. Watch the clip below, and register for the screening via Eventbrite.
Here’s a clip from Mateo that shows the highs and lows of being a gringo mariachi:
Written by Rob Peoni
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on defunct, Central Indiana arts website Sky Blue Window on October 27, 2014. Content, formatting and style changes may differ from the original version.
For the third installment of Indy Film Fest’s Rock + Reel series featuring movies about music at White Rabbit Cabaret, attendees will be treated to Frank, a dark but hilarious comedy from Irish director Lenny Abrahamson. The film stars Michael Fassbender (12 Years A Slave, Inglorious Basterds) as Frank — the masked lead singer of a struggling experimental pop band of misfits. The movie picks up steam when Jon Burroughs, played by Dohmnall Gleeson, fills in on keyboard and subsequently joins the band for the recording of its next album.
Over the course of the recording, Burroughs is forced to endure all of the pitfalls of life as the newest band member. Despite the film’s comedic surface, Abrahamson achieves an authentic portrayal of the political infighting and absurdity that comes part and parcel with any tight-knit rock band. It helps there isn’t a poor performance in the bunch, with Maggie Gyllenhaal threatening to steal the show as the manipulative synth player Clara. Frank culminates in a chaotic voyage to SXSW filled with misadventures that are not to be missed.
Prior to the screening, viewers will be treated to a solo performance from Bloomington’s Kenny Childers. As front man to Gentleman Caller, member of The Mysteries of Life, Old Flames and songwriting partner to Lily & Madeleine, Childers is, without a doubt, one of the premier songsmiths this state has produced in the past 20 years. He also happens to be a huge fan of Frank. Despite the fact that he rarely plays solo sets these days, Childers leapt at the opportunity to play alongside the screening. Below, listen to a playlist of Childers’ classics from the Musical Family Tree archive and read a short interview with him. Grab tickets to the Oct. 30 screening of Frank via Eventbrite, and don’t wait too long. Given the rarity of a Childers’ live performance and the strength of this film, those tickets won’t be around for long.
A selection of Kenny Childers songs from Musical Family Tree:
Sky Blue Window: The last time I saw you play was a Gentleman Caller show in Broad Ripple Park as part of MFT’s Listen Local series. Are you playing solo or as Gentleman Caller much these days?
Kenny Childers: Almost never. I may have played one show since Broad Ripple Park. Playing hard gets tougher and tougher for me. I just don’t care for it much and get really uncomfortable and anxious for days beforehand. I’ve also been busier with other aspects of music that are more rewarding for me, like writing, cowriting and recording. I take monthly trips to Nashville these days to write with other artists, and that takes up enough of my time, along with recording projects.
SBW: What made you hop on this Indy Film Fest gig?
KC: This was a different thing for me. I am a huge movie nerd (though I’ve got nothing on Richard Edwards). I watched this movie when it became available online and then immediately watched it again. I just adored it. Hit home like nobody’s business.
SBW: When watching the movie, did you ever dream you might be able to play alongside Frank’s band “Soronprfbs?”
KC: I did not! I did, however, have a lot of fantasies about being in the band.
SBW: Despite the ridiculousness in Frank , I thought there were some elements, particularly the relationships between the band’s members, that rang true. As a longtime musician, what parts of the film rang true for you?
KC: Oh, soooo much rang true, especially the ridiculousness. Being in a band is pretty ridiculous. It addressed the particular kind of collective madness that creeps into projects, when you are inside them. It’s what infuriates me regarding the concept of a “music critic” and why I try not to read too many reviews of projects I really care about. Very few people know how emotionally difficult it can be, or how crazy you can go making these things. It’s giving birth. When I read some half-assed, poorly written lukewarm review of something I’ve been involved in, I remember Richard Edwards curled up into a painful ball on the couch with his sock hat over his face, or Madeleine wringing her hands, squinting and working so hard to get the things they feel to their core to come out.
The other concept that really got me was the intersection of music and mental illness. As a person who kind of lives at that intersection, I think the movie does a great job of exploring that. Does one make the other better or worse? While Frank’s giant fiberglass head seems silly on the surface, I immediately thought “what a great idea!” As a person who has some real anxiety issues, wearing a giant mask you never take off seems like kind of a good idea. Wish I’d thought of it. But I suppose we all wear a mask of some sort. Who wants to truly be known?
SBW: What do you have planned for the set at White Rabbit?
KC: A lot of new songs, a lot of which are more naked lyrically than I have typically been known to write. A lot of new spiritual crisis songs I guess!
SBW: Have you ever played SXSW? If so, talk a bit about that experience.
KC: Yeah a few times, but before it has become the gross industry schlock fest it seems to be these days. I mean, I got to see Richard Buckner play in a little ballroom, half full. Wayne Coyne did a performance art, fan-interactive experiment in a parking garage. It was more a festival of fans then, and was so much fun. Now it’s become more like a showcase series for insiders. I’m sure it still has value, obviously, but doesn’t much appeal to me as a fan or musician any longer, not that they are knocking on my door asking me to play it!
SBW: In some ways, Frank is a caricature of the gimmicks required to get noticed as a musician these days. Have you ever been reduced to sporting a costume or other similar gimmicks?
KC: No, but not because I’m above it. If I could do it in an artistically fulfilling way, Ziggy Stardust-style, I totally would, but conceptual presentation ain’t my long suit. But I want to note that I see Frank as more than that — it looks like a gimmick, but it’s actually protecting something very real, and masking some real damage. Like I said, his giant fiberglass head didn’t strike me as ridiculous at all. It reminds me of when LonPaul [Ellrich] used to show up at the studio wearing a wig, and became genuinely upset when someone mentioned or giggled at it. He just felt like being someone else that day, was the way he saw it.
SBW: You have a role with Lily & Madeleine, a band who caught a relatively big buzz early. Talk a bit about that experience.
KC: It’s been tremendous for me. They are lovely people to work with and have an incredibly supportive family. That’s so rare, and I feel lucky to help them realize their songwriting potential. We’ve been working together since they really became serious about this two and a half years ago, and their growth into brave young women with a really genuine artistic drive has been beautiful to watch. It’s also lead me to an ever increasing cowriting career with other folks around the country, which is something I’ve come to realize I’m pretty good at. They’ve helped me so much, and hopefully I’ve helped them too.
SBW: Are you touring with Lily & Madeleine in support of their new LP?
KC: Not at this point.
SBW: A lot of Jon’s character in Frank deals with being the new guy in a band and figuring out where you fit in the group’s dynamic. Talk about a time in your career when you were the new guy.
KC: Hmm…, that’s been quite a long time ago. Probably the last time I joined an established band as the new guy was The Mysteries of Life, and I wasn’t alone — LonPaul joined at the same time. It wasn’t scary like it was in Jon’s case. Jake, Freda and Geraldine were such normal-seeming, polite sweethearts. With LP and I joining, it was probably more like if Frank and Clara had been the new guys in Jon’s band.
SBW: Anything to add?
KC: Nothing much, just sooooo looking forward to seeing this movie on a screen with some friends after going on and on about it for over a month!
Written by Rob Peoni