Vibrant personalities dominate documentaries at every fest, but it feels like SXSW has always been drawn to unique stories told by the people who live them. The trio of characters that drive the docs in this dispatch couldn’t be more distinct other than there are movies about major chapters of their lives that just premiered in the land of BBQ and big hats. The quality level ranges here too from a film that appears to be one thing but becomes something much richer to a celebrity bio-doc that pushes back against the form to the story of a band that’s actually more about one specific member.
My favorite doc of SXSW this year was Penny Lane’s “Confessions of a Good Samaritan,” a fascinating dissection of altruism, empathy, and personal exploration. Lane doesn’t make traditional documentaries, but she’s never thrown herself into one as she does here. I’m generally not fond of filmmakers who become the subject of their movie, but I’ll make an exception when it involves said director literally giving part of their body to the production.
Lane decides she wants to become an altruistic donor, a small group of people who decide to donate body parts, usually a kidney, to a complete stranger. The vast majority of life-saving organ donations come from relatives and loved ones, but the need far outweighs the supply of viable donors. If everyone walking around with an “extra” kidney gave one away? There would be no more need for kidneys. Lane decides not only to donate a kidney but to explore the very concept of altruism, and she ends up in some very unexpected places.
Without spoiling anything, “Confessions of a Good Samaritan” doesn’t only play out like an encouragement for us all to try to make a better world. If more people even thought about their fellow man as much as Lane does, we’d all be in a better place. But Lane discovers that life isn’t that simple. Altruism is complicated, and that gets even thornier when making a movie about it. Lane starts to question not only why she’s giving up part of her body but dragging a camera crew through the process. It helps that she's a wonderfully forthcoming subject who allows us to go with her on this vulnerable journey that reshapes how she looks at the world. It could do the same for you.
Mr. William Shatner is also someone who uniquely looks at the world. He's the subject of “You Can Call Me Bill,” the latest from the ambitious documentarian Alexandre O. Philippe (“78/52,” “The People vs. George Lucas”). Loyal readers know that bio-docs are my Kryptonite, but Philippe avoids the talking-head, chronological structure that drains my soul in two ways. First, he employs a more thematic construct, moving back and forth in time as the film raises different ideas instead of just employing a simple “then this happened” structure. Second, he lets Shatner tell his own story. There are no colleagues, fans, or experts. Just Bill. And he has a LOT to say.
Shatner is a remarkable interview subject because he also seems fundamentally uninterested in traditional anecdotes from a career. Oh, sure, he’ll name-drop a legend like Edward G. Robinson, but it’s to get at something about acting tics and how someone can be very different on-camera than off. Shatner comes alive not when speaking about his career but what’s important to him, especially in this late chapter of his life. He’s clearly thought a lot about what’s next, and the section in which he conveys the awe of his recent journey to outer space is downright moving.
It's impossible to walk away from Philippe’s film and not think that Shatner is a more complex man than entertainment history has given him credit for. He’s an easy personality to imitate, which sometimes can lead to a facile appreciation of things like performance and legacy. Hearing Shatner discuss how he approached Captain Kirk on “Star Trek” as someone in a constant state of wonder at the discoveries around him creates not only a greater understanding of why that show worked—we were all Kirk, marveling at the universe—but how it impacted Shatner’s life. He has always tried to find something new and wonderful in art, his life, and the planet. We could all do a lot more of that.
Finally, there’s Jed I. Rosenberg’s “Louder Than You Think,” a bio-doc about an unexpected subject, the drummer who helped give Pavement their wildly influential early sound. Pavement was a game-changer for yours truly, someone who was there for their explosion on the indie rock scene, and I wasn’t fully aware of the role Gary Young played in the band. A veteran drummer by the time he even joined the band, where he was significantly older than the kids around him, Young became a personality at shows, largely because of his unchecked alcoholism.
Young's work on those early Pavement recordings is essential to a success still rippling through the industry, so I’m all for an unsung hero finally being sung, but Rosenberg’s film is a little like a short in feature form. There’s not quite enough story here, in part because Young’s cycles of creative joy and rampant self-destruction feel repetitive. Young’s role in indie rock history makes for an interesting anecdote, for sure, but it’s harder to shape that into a rewarding full film.
“When did you realize Pavement was a big deal?” “After I left.” In my eyes, that exchange is the most interesting aspect of “Louder Than You Think.” How many people have failed to realize what they were a part of creatively as it unfolded? Did Young really think Pavement was just another indie rock project that he could drink and party his way through? After too much trouble, he was kicked out in 1993, but his role on those early albums influenced their future and the lives of other bands. While that’s happening, he's drinking his life away, probably never expecting his life will be told in a movie. How many other people out there who have influenced hundreds of artists toil away in obscurity? While I don’t think the film about him works simply by virtue of not having quite enough story to tell, I’m happy I now have greater respect for a formative part of one of my favorite bands.