Coming in the shadow of the big Oscar season-opening fall festival trifecta of Venice, Telluride and Toronto, September squeezes in a new contender on the circuit as the Los Angeles Film Festival takes a big roll of the dice and moves from its longtime June date to the heart of the awards season. It kicked off last night with the sensational 1960s music documentary, Echo in the Canyon and runs through September 28, when it will close with the world premiere of David Raymond’s Nomis starring Henry Cavill, Ben Kingsley and Nathan Fillion.
Thursday night’s opener (there will be an encore showing tonight at the Annenberg in Beverly Hills), which was executive produced by its star and interviewer Jakob Dylan, focuses on the Laurel Canyon sound developed in the mid-’60s and features interviews with the likes of Brian Wilson, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Roger McGuinn, Beck, Michelle Phillips, Jackson Browne, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Lou Adler, the late Tom Petty and others tied to the uniquely Southern California sound. Considering this fest is all about L.A. in one way or another, it seemed the perfect opening choice for a festival promising 40 features and about the same number of shorts, lots of conversations and community-centric activities and a whole VR display taking place in Playa Vista.
Last night’s movie premiere was at the historic outdoor Ford Theatre, right in the backyard of the Hollywood Bowl. In addition to the debut of the 82-minute film itself first time director and former music biz executive Andrew Slater, it also featured live musical performances afterward from Dylan and other participants in the film including Jade, Phillips (an original “Mama” of the Mamas and the Papas joining for the band’s rendition of “Monday Monday”) and Browne, all doing brilliant covers of songs from the catalogs of the groups the film focuses on including The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Association, The Beach Boys and so on.
Festival Director Jennifer Cochis said it was the perfect start. “I don’t think it could have been more L.A. if I tried,” she told me. “If I was to make a film to open the LA Film Festival, it couldn’t be more perfect. And it’s not like we are just playing a movie in a theatre. We are actually playing a movie in a canyon. Plus there’s a music performance to go with it!” she laughed.
And what a movie! The film deftly cuts between the making of a tribute album to a live concert performance in downtown L.A. to expertly chosen vintage footage to the present-day interviews to put it all in perspective. It’s irresistible in every way. The late Petty is especially articulate in describing the magic of the era and the Laurel Canyon musical influence, and the film is rightly dedicated to him.
I have been to Cannes, Telluride and Toronto this year and can’t think of a better opening-night film, or a movie more in tune with its festival. This film, like many at LAFF, is up for distribution, and executive producer Dan Braun of Submarine Entertainment says they are looking for just the right fit. This one should be scooped up immediately. It has all the elements including the tribute album tie-in from Dylan and friends and the feel of Oscar winner Twenty Feet from Stardom. (Braun told me they actually brought in the editor of that film for post-production on this one). It will play great to both baby boomers who were there when this musical sound exploded and to younger generations who will discover that good music never goes out of style. The new version of the Mamas and the Papas’ “Go Where You Wanna Go” by Jade and Dylan is worth the price of admission alone.
This is a great documentary that really captures a time and place deeply missed. Interestingly, the whole idea came about, according to Slater, when he and Dylan saw the 1968 film Model Shop, an L.A.-based movie featured heavily in clips played throughout Echo in the Canyon. It was from director Jacques Demy, whose work was also the inspiration for Oscar winner La La Land — which, if the timing were right a couple of years ago, also would have been the perfect fit for this festival, now newly reconfigured but still not running from its mission statement to serve the community. Mayor Eric Garcetti opened last night’s proceedings with a big shout-out to all who put together what he called, “the perfect L.A. night,” and that it was.
The festival is produced by Film Independent, the organization responsible for, among other notable events, the annual Independent Spirit Awards always held in a tent on the beach in Santa Monica the day before the Oscars. When I had dinner in Westwood a week ago with Film Independent President Josh Welsh and Cochis, he clearly was excited about the move, despite the increased competition for films and eyeballs this time of year (New York and London film festivals are right on its heels). “We wanted to move here because this is the time of year with the films that really represent Film Independent or that Film Independent represents,” Welsh said. “We had long conversations about what is the ideal time of year for the L.A. Film Festival to reside in, and if you look at the kind of work that we support all year long and that we celebrate at the Spirit Awards, those films don’t come out in June or April, but instead they are coming out in September, October, November — so moved to the time year where the work is. I am so excited about the program this year. This is our first time in this window. I think Jennifer has done an amazing job putting together a program that takes full advantage of the season that we’re in. I think the program speaks for itself.”
Films to look out for include Benjamin Francis Kasulke’s promising teen comedy, Banana Split; director Tom Shadyac’s inspiring true story of a man caught up in a hopeless justice system, Brian Banks; Brazilian film, Socrates from director Alex Moratto; promising political comedy, The Oath, a world premiere helmed by actor Ike Barinholtz and starring Tiffany Haddish and Jon Cho; Rupert Everett’s The Happy Prince; the documentary Maria by Callas; a biting look at a female comic, All About Nina; showbiz biography Making Montgomery Clift, from Robert A. Clift and Hillary Demmon; El Chicano from director Ben Hernandez Bray, and numerous other films. Both Welsh and Cochis also point to a big advantage for them by moving to September, when all the colleges are back in session and students are around. They think this brings a whole new available film audience to the fest, and Welsh points out they have actually teamed with Loyola Marymount University to present a new feature called The Portal, which focuses on VR and immersive storytelling at LMU’s new complex in Playa Vista.
The lineup certainly is diverse but also devoid of many of the awards hopefuls that have unspooled during Venice, Telluride and Toronto, save for TIFF Documentary People’s Choice winner Free Solo, which will have its L.A. premiere this week at LAFF, and a few others. It certainly wasn’t for lack of trying. Cochis told me she eagerly approached A24 but wasn’t able to secure their mixed-reviewed Cannes Film Festival competition entry, Under the Silver Lake and the recent TIFF world premiere of Jonah Hill’s terrific writing and directing debut, Mid90’s. Both are absolute naturals for this fest considering their L.A. connections (Mid90s takes place entirely in West L.A. and centers on a bunch of Motor Avenue skateboarders, and Silver Lake is set a hop, skip and a jump from where LAFF opening night took place). She refuses to be frustrated by the films she couldn’t land, but LAFF still has a ways to go in convincing the awards consultants that this festival in September should be treated like the others and could be very influential. Thursday night’s smash opening may help.
“I feel like I am in a lab a little bit, and Josh trusts me enough to let me experiment a little bit,” Cochis said. “I think my wishes for it are something that will eventually manifest [into greater participation from awards titles], but I’m so grateful with what we have.” She noted that also includes Cannes prize-winning Swedish Foreign Language entry Borders from distributor NEON, which has another title as well, along with films from SXSW and Tribeca and others. “The heartbeat of the festival is something that is exactly what we are always going to be, and if big things drop in eventually that’s the other piece I am waiting for.”
I would guess it’s only a matter of time. Meanwhile, what’s on tap seems pretty cool to me.