2012 marks the tenth year of AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs, the week long festival that descends upon downtown Silver Spring Maryland, a spaciously developed enclave located just outside of Washington DC. The past ten years has been a period of remarkable growth for the festival and, more broadly, American documentary film. Like any newly established entity, a decade’s worth of experience has shown that there’s wisdom in stability; this year’s slate continues a shift towards more catholic, musically inclined programming that bares little resemblance to the more politically inclined fare of the mid-to-late 2000s.
Case in point: opening the festival is Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey, the story of Manila born singer Arnel Pineda whose YouTube videos bore an uncanny likeness to the full-throttled pipes of Journey’s Steve Perry, earning him a spot as the new lead singer for the 80s power-balladeers. With its familiar soundtrack, reality show leanings and inspirational message, Don’t Stop Believin’ will likely be a crowd-pleaser, if not exactly a must see.
The hometown crowd will rapturously devour Mandy Stein and Benjamen Logan’s Bad Brains: A Band in DC, an assessment of the hardcore band’s storied 30-year career, one characterised by riotous live performances, lead singer H.R.’s unpredictable behavior—and most detrimentally—unfortunate flirtations with muddled reggae. Other rock-oriented highlights include Beware of Mr. Baker about Cream drummer Ginger Baker and Charles Bradley: Soul of America, detailing Bradley’s unusual career trajectory—better known as "The Screaming Eagle of Soul”—who was discovered while performing as a James Brown impersonator.
There’s also Under African Skies, a re-assessment of Paul Simon’s landmark album Graceland which, now stripped of its original context and controversy, celebrates its 25th anniversary as a beloved touchstone for musicians both big (Paul McCartney, David Byrne) and small (Vampire Weekend, countless polyrhythm-centric indie rock bands). The film is directed by Joe Berlinger who, along with Bruce Sinofsky, will be honored Tuesday night at the annual Guggenheim Symposium for a body of work that includes the musical psychodrama Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Crude and the Paradise Lost trilogy which follows the harrowing incarceration, trail and subsequent release of the West Memphis Three.
One short garnering some chatter is American Juggalo, a 23 minute peak behind the curtain of the Insane Clown Posse’s infamous Gathering of the Juggalos, the music festival whose over-the-top 2009 infomercial became an internet phenomenon. A Heavy Metal Parking Lot for the 21st century, this glimpse into the Juggalo psyche—the film is currently available online here—may do little to change widely held perceptions but it does offer rich insight into this bizarre subcultural phenomenon.
What would a documentary festival be without a few glowing high-profile biographies? Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself will hopefully capture the droll exuberance of the legendary cad and adventurer. Ann Richards’ Texas takes a look back at the brassy former Governor who crashed the boys club of Texas politics back in the early 1990s. For the artistically inclined, there’s Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present an HBO documentary tracing the career of the famed performance artist, culminating in her ambitious 2010 MoMA exhibit where she engaged in a “mental dialogue” with those seated across from her.
Closing out this year’s Silverdocs is Emmett Malloy’s Big Easy Express, a tour film that follows Mumford & Sons, Old Crow Medicine Show and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros as they embark on a six-stop tour via train, plundering the American folk and bluegrass tradition in all of its bearded, jug-playing glory. Whether the film presents the shows as convincing hootenannies or cross-generational carpet bagging remains to be seen.
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