TIFF 2019 Playlist: Films for Music Lovers at the Toronto International Film Festival

By Pat Mullen
I Am Woman is an opening night Special Presentation at TIFF 2019.

A red carpet event at the Toronto International Film Festival has more energy than a rock concert. This year’s festival cranks things up to 11 by offering several high-profile screenings and special events that cater directly to music fans. Whether old school music docs or biopics are your jam, there’s something for every variety of music lover at this year’s festival. Here’s a preview of the must-see films for music fans at TIFF 2019:

Headliners

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band

TIFF makes history by starting the festival with an event long overdue: for the first time ever, a Canadian documentary is the opening night gala. TIFF couldn’t have picked a better film to take the honour as this celebratory portrait of Robbie Robertson from his early days with the Band to The Last Waltz gives a hometown hero his due. The Band’s legacy and longevity is evident in the youthfulness of the film’s director, as 26-year-old filmmaker Daniel Roher makes his TIFF debut by honouring a rock legend whose music fuelled family canoe trips and inspired his path as an artist. Get ready to hear some old favourites along with a few new tunes including Robertson’s title track for Once Were Brothers, a poignant ode to brotherhood. As a bonus, Robertson and director Martin Scorsese will be on hand for a special TIFF Cinematheque screening of their seminal music doc The Last Waltz.

Western Stars

We dare you to watch the trailer for Western Stars and not shed a tear. This Bruce Springsteen doc is a portrait of the Boss stripped and raw. The doc features concert footage of Springsteen’s newest album Western Stars, which was performed live only once as an intimate jam session in the Boss’s barn. The music itself is worth the ticket as the country-twang of Springsteen’s album is a late-career masterpiece and caters itself perfectly to the big screen where emotions swell beyond the frame. Even more intriguing is the fact that Western Stars marks Springsteen’s first feature credit as a director as he joins long-time collaborator Thom Zimny (Springsteen on Broadway) in bringing his story to the screen.

Award-worthy Biopics 

Judy

One of the most hotly anticipated award season hopefuls at TIFF is this glimpse into the final year in the life of Judy Garland, played by Renée Zellweger who does all her own singing. (Take that, Rami Malek!) Garland aims for a comeback as she heads to London to perform a string of sold-out shows at the Talk of the Town, and there’s a bit of art-imitating life as Zellweger returns to the kind of role that made her one of the top stars circa 2000-2003. We’ll be over the rainbow if Zellweger has her McConnaissance and a return to the podium with Judy. But can Zellweger outdo Judy Davis’s performance as Garland in the TV movie Me and My Shadows? Can anyone?

I Am Woman

This uplifting biopic tells the story of Helen Reddy, the ambitious Australian singer behind the 1971 megahit “I Am Woman.” Hotel Mumbai’s Tilda Cobham-Hervey is destined to be a breakout performer of TIFF’19 with her heartfelt turn as the singer who delivered the unofficial anthem of the women’s liberation movement. The film should motivate audiences to carry on the fight of feminists and revolutionaries like Reddy—a point the film stressed when Reddy’s granddaughter Lily Donat contributes a poignant original song, “Revolution,” as the rallying cry for the next generation.

Practice Makes Perfect

Sound of Metal

We’re all familiar with shirtless, sweaty rockers, but how often do we see stories about deaf ones? Sound of Metal stars Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler) as a metal drummer who dedicates himself to music so intensely that he eventually loses his hearing and, in turn, his sense of purpose when he can no longer keep the beat. Ahmed brings his own musical background to the role with his double life as hip-hop artist Riz MC with an intense and physical performance. The film puts audiences into the mind of the performer with a uniquely layered soundtrack that conveys the experience of deafness with all screenings at the festival close-captioned for the hearing impaired.

The Audition

Nina Hoss (Phoenix) gives a ferocious performance as Anna, a stern taskmaster of a violin teacher who demands perfection from her students. This intense character study makes Whiplash look like beginner lessons as Anna pushes her latest victim, Alex, with such force that it sees ripple effects in her family life. She demands the best from her students, putting them through gruelling rehearsals and studies to bring out the best in their talents, but struggles to deliver herself when it’s time to play.

Movers and Shakers

How to Build a Girl

Booksmart and Lady Bird star Beanie Feldstein brings to the screen the youth of many a music/arts critic in the coming of age film How to Build a Girl. The film adapts the memoir by rock journalist and author Caitlin Moran, who followed her passion at age 16 by covering the music beat for Melody Maker and rising high as the hippest voice on the scene. While stories about full time careers for arts reporters are inevitably period pieces these days, the film should provide warm inspiration for voices eager to cut through the blogosphere and pursue their dreams.

I Am Not Alone

System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian provides the musical score and lands an executive producer credit on this documentary about the 2018 Armenian Revolution. The film illustrates how art and activism go hand in hand as director Garin Hovannisian takes audiences to the front lines of a social movement. Immediate footage from protestors on the ground and objective interviews with parties from all sides combine for an intense and urgent snapshot of history in the making. If you liked TIFF’13 People’s Choice Award Winner The Square, this doc’s for you.

Live Music

David Foster: Off the Record

Perhaps the most star-studded event of the festival comes in the music doc David Foster: Off the Record. This portrait of prolific music producer David Foster features an A-list roster of talking heads with Céline Dion, Lionel Richie, Barbra Streisand, Quincy Jones, Michael Bublé and Josh Groban singing his praises. (Foster’s list of collaborators also includes Whitney Houston, Madonna, Chicago, and Alice Cooper.) Directed by festival perennial Barry Avrich (Unauthorized: The Harvey Weinstein Project), the film is in good hands with an equally prolific talent who’s covered virtually every corner of the arts beat in documentary. Foster will be honoured at a special soirée following the screening where he’ll pick up yet another award to add to his collection of 16 Grammys.

III

TIFF provides a special one-time event to launch the Lumineers’ new album III (aka “Three”). This exclusive showcase of film and music poetically realizes the folk rock roots of the Colorado-based band. Drawing upon the lyrics of members Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites, III is a visual complement to the album, a long-form free-flowing music video and visual essay that pushes new boundaries of musical storytelling. The film follows the members of the Sparks family, played by Nick Stahl, Anna Cordell, and Charlie Tahan in a haunting story of love and loss that affects the family for generations. Following the screening, the Lumineers will take the stage to perform songs from their album III, which is set for release on Sept. 13.

TIFF runs Sept. 5 to 15, 2019. For more info visit tiff.net

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