“I’m not going to lie I cried, I sobbed. And I sort of hate to admit it, because it’s not about me. But we worked so hard for, you know, a couple of years on this movie. And it felt like there were times when we weren’t sure if it was even ever going to get made or anything. And then to have it lined up, this is how it works: you take it to your festival and then the buyers get excited about it, and you sell it, and it goes out into the world, and that’s how things normally work. To have that all just sort of ripped out from under you is very disappointing, for sure.”
Those are the words of Mary Wharton, director of Jimmy Carter: Rock And Roll President, the documentary chosen to open the 2020 edition of the Tribeca Film Festival. That gala was to have been tonight. But as everyone knows, real world events and the coronavirus intervened, especially in New York City, where the fest was to have taken place over the next several days. Her film, though getting the prestige opening night slot, was not alone, and several other movies with high profile subjects and personalities, like Sean Penn and David Bowie, also are feeling the loss of this showcase as a World Premiere venue for worthy projects involving them.
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Those three films that include the searing documentary of Penn’s relief efforts in Haiti called Citizen Penn, and the new showbiz drama focusing on the early years of rock icon David Bowie, Stardust, were all hoping to launch out of Tribeca and into distribution deals. Those plans have changed, and producers and sales companies are coming up with other ways of reaching the marketplace and attracting buyers.
I have had the opportunity to see all three films, and all deserve their shot. But none of them will be part of the virtual experience Tribeca is offering films that were also going to be showcased at the fest, launching today a number of opportunities to see select entries for the 19th Tribeca Fest. That includes the Online P&I library and Industry Extranet , a way for press and buyers to see films from producers opting-in for the chance, similar to what SXSW is also doing in association with Amazon. So far, 21 films have signed up for the service that runs for the next month, while other, higher profile movies, such as the three I was able to see, go another way in garnering attention and a future theatrical life.
Wharton’s lively docu, which chronicles President Carter’s longtime association with musical legends like Willie Nelson, The Allman Brothers, Bob Dylan, Bono , and others interviewed in the film, is a long gestating project that Carter personally approved after turning down nearly every other docu pitch in recent years. He spent two hours with Wharton doing an interview on his musical influences and the importance he placed on the arts, particularly anything musical. She says it actually started out to be a film about The Allman Brothers originally pitched by producer Chris Farrell. But one thing led to another, and suddenly, Jimmy Carter became the glue that linked so many of these artists together, as the film not only spans his political career and presidency, but also the musical rhythms behind it.
“I think that it’s an interesting piece of American history that we’re looking at, where America really was at a turning point in that moment, and the world sort of changed pretty drastically and pretty quickly after that. And so it’s interesting to look back on it and use music as the lens to look at this subject of a very important historical figure, but to always be reminding ourselves that music is our touchstone. And that’s what we’re showing his experience as it relates to music,” Wharton told me in a phone conversation this week.
To do the film, she and her team pored through over 2000 photographs and something like 800 or 900 different pieces of video, hundred of hours to whittle down into this highly entertaining and unique docu. She says she still thinks they hardly even scratched the surface of all that is out there involving Carter, who, health permitting, had hoped to possibly come to the Tribeca premiere. She does say his wife and former First Lady Rosalyn and daughter Amy were among family members planning to attend. Bottom line is Wharton hopes to get the film out there somehow this year, especially with the Presidential race in full swing. “I don’t know what the options will be. I know that we’re sort of investigating (Submarine is the sales agent). You know, it probably depends on who picks it up. If it’s a streaming entity, that’s great, I just want people to see it. We hoped that it was going to have a theatrical life and we’d still like for it to have some kind of theatrical life, because, you know, we’ve put a lot of care and money into making it sound amazing and look beautiful. And, you know, quite honestly, one of the things I was crying about was like nobody’s going to get to see my movie on the big screen. It looks so beautiful on the big screen,” she lamented while mentioning she still holds out hope for a festival berth somewhere this year, if there are festivals.
Another Tribeca musically-oriented entry, the early Bowie origin drama Stardust, was to have World Premiered there this Friday night. But instead, in perhaps a futuristic vision of the weird twists premieres could take, had a virtual World Premiere today for select press and buyers on Zoom that featured a live introduction from the film’s director, Gabriel Range, and stars Johnny Flynn, who plays the circa-’71 Bowie, Jena Malone as his first wife, Angie, and Marc Maron as the record company publicist who accompanied him on a cross country tour of America to gain attention for the fledgling new musical star, including a big dream of a Rolling Stone cover. The film was then made available through a private portal over a 24-hour period that also included access to a mini-site of photos and info about the film. Film Constellation, the sales agent, was behind the idea, and it is a first in my career, I can say that. “I thought I’d be somewhere else Friday night, but we’re trying something new,” said Range during the intro that would have been on a stage at Tribeca instead of in the digital universe.
There should be interest in Stardust, which basically portrays the real-life events that led to Bowie’s iconic Ziggy Stardust era. Recent rock-oriented musical biopics Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman have shown there is a huge worldwide market for this kind of material. However, this one is more narrowly focused and done in a much lower key, basically a compelling dramatic look at Bowie’s musical beginnings, off-center personality, and wholly original style that would later make him a superstar. Flynn, most recently co-starring as Mr. Knighley in Emma, is dead-on perfect in the role and loved doing it. “I had the time of my life making the film… At first, I thought no one could play Bowie, no one could touch it. But it is really specific, one moment that acts as a prism for this whole life,” he said in the intro, reportedly beamed to five continents. When Maron, terrific in the film, said he first heard of the project, he thought the director was out of his mind. “How is he going to do that?… But I have seen the film, and I believed he was Bowie, it really is 1972, and it’s happening.”
At this point in his career, Bowie had only made a minor splash with “Space Oddity.” Today’s event could be put in that category as well in terms of premieres, a definite oddity for all involved. “Well, this is kind of a interesting, sweet, and, uh, bad way to premiere our film – in front of a masked audience. But it is kind of beautiful as well,” said Malone. Hopefully the movie gets to an audience when they aren’t masked someday in the not-to-distant future.
As for Citizen Penn, I got an a very early view of it, and it is riveting, a remarkable documentary outlining Penn and his foundation’s decade-long efforts to help Haiti after the devastating January 12, 2010 earthquake that affected millions. It chronicles Penn and his team from the moment they get there right after the seismic event to the ensuing 10 years right up to now. In his Directors Statement in notes prepared for the Tribeca premiere, director Don Hardy explains how the film got started.
“A few days after the quake, I happened to have a meeting with Sean Penn about another project, and he was very distracted throughout our conversation. It was obvious he had other things on his mind. Gradually, it became clear that during our meeting, he was coordinating with the State Department to get a confirmed landing time in Port au Prince so he could take a plane full of supplies and medical personnel into Haiti. It all seemed a little bizarre and implausible. I knew Sean had a history of running toward intense areas of concern, such as Iraq, Iran, and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Still, why would he do this? Why Haiti?”
.When he offered to shoot footage that could be shared with news outlets about events there, Penn took him up on it, wanting the world to see the sad truth of what was happening. Hardy kept returning and shooting footage, but felt they needed to do more that could be in-depth. He pitched a documentary idea, but Penn was reluctant, not wanting to do anything that was some sort of “promotional piece.” But after several years, Hardy approached him again in 2017, and Penn agreed as long as it was not a vanity project.
Hardy retained full creative control, and Penn gave a very comprehensive interview that is weaved in and out of the stunning footage Hardy has amassed in creating Citizen Penn. The film was to have had its World Premiere this Sunday night with Penn present and participating in a Q&A. Now the filmmaking team is hoping instead to find buyer interest to continue getting this story out there so it can never be forgotten.
The Tribeca Film Festival was started by Robert De Niro and his producing partner, Jane Rosenthal (and Craig Hatkoff) in 2002 as a way to help bring that area of New York City back on its feet after the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. Now it could be playing a new important role in 2020, however virtually, after another devastating event – for New York and the world – by allowing the voices of artists to still thrive.
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