What’s Coming Out of #TIFF21 Part One: Music Docs

Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over. Photo: courtesy of TIFF.

Music documentaries are ample at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival and I have been in my happy place viewing a few since last Thursday’s festival start.

Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over is a 95-minute review of the legendary songstress and activist’s 60+ year career that includes reflections from the artist herself and several celebrity peers and admirers, including Gladys Knight, Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, Sir Elton John, Alicia Keys, Gloria Estefan and a very comical Snoop Dogg – who recounts the story of Warwick inviting him and several rappers to her home to “out gangster” and school them on the detrimental language used in their music.

Intertwining performance footage and personal interviews, with an original score by Philadelphia native Bill Jolly, directors Dave Wooley and David Heilbroner chronicle Ms. Warwick’s early career – which includes glimpses of her warrior and activist spirit while performing in segregated areas and her defying musical expectations from both Black and White audiences – through her musical peak, to her career revival and continued activism in the LGBTQ+ and Black communities.

Shying away from any of the more controversial topics that have revolved in Warwick’s orbit – like the abuse allegations against her late sister Dee Dee or her stint as a spokeswoman for the Psychic Friends Network – the film serves as a polite and entertaining tribute to a woman who deserves any and all flowers bestowed as “The Artist who Bridged the Gap.”

I rate it 3.0 out of 5 on the MMTrometer.

No release date is currently available, but included in the below TIFF press conference for Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over, around the 8:20 mark, is Ms. Warwick’s answer to an #MMT question about a possible “That’s What Friends Are For” remake.

Jagged. Photo: courtesy of TIFF.

“The whole why do women wait thing? Women don’t wait. A culture doesn’t listen.”

Alanis Morissette in the documentary Jagged.

The best-selling female rock artist of all time. An icon, especially for many women “confessional singer-songwriters” who came behind her. The inspiration behind a popular Broadway musical. Outspoken survivor of sexual abuse. All of these things about Alanis Morissette and more are highlighted in the documentary Jagged, which made its premiere this year at TIFF.

Directed by Alison Klayman, the penetrating film gives a look into the life and career of the Canadian born Morrisette, who experienced moderate success in both music and television as a teenager before her landmark record-breaking album “Jagged Little Pill” was recorded and internationally released.

From her repeated assaults as a teen by unnamed men, to her development of an eating disorder due to industry pressures, to the sexist treatment she experienced by some media/music journalists who attributed her work and successes to male producers, “Jagged” addresses both Morrisette’s highs and lows as she reflects on her musical journey, past and present.

Peers and admirers, such as musician Shirley Manson (Garbage), critic Hanif Abdurraqib, and filmmaker Kevin Smith (Dogma) also offer insight and praise Morrisette and the lasting impact of her artistry.

Klayman presents her narrative in an up-front and personal nature while interweaving concert footage that invites the viewer in even further – and elicits nostalgia for those old enough to remember the “Jagged Little Pill” release.

I rate it 3.5 out of 5 on the MMTrometer.

“Jagged” will be distributed by HBO, with no release date yet available.

Listening to Kenny G. Photo: courtesy of TIFF.

In Listening to Kenny G, director Penny Lane both poignantly and humorously sets out to understand the nature of the high criticism, especially in the musician community, and the acclaim that has made saxophonist Kenny G the top selling instrumentalist of all time.

Asked by Lane what he loves about music, G responds, “I don’t know if I love music that much. I guess I think about the musicians…what it takes to make that music, and how good they had to be.” A strange quote to hear from someone who has sustained the level of career success in that very music business, yet he elaborates, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with hard work, practice, preparation and not perfection but striving for it.”

And therein lies part of the answer to Lane’s question in my opinion. You see, it’s not that I fall in the camp of not liking G’s music – I actually own two of his CDs even though I haven’t played his music in well over a decade. But I do believe that G’s high focus on preparation, and not the love of music itself, may be why some believe his tunes lack (fill in the blank).

Via Lane’s inquisitiveness and her ability to give clues about G’s lifestyle with her lens, one learns that preparation for G is at a high, almost obsessive, level in most areas of his life – he inquires during a break if he is answering well because he wants to be the “best interview” she’s ever had, his home is one of the most ordered I’ve witnessed on camera, and he practices daily – still – for hours a day.

Yet, I think it’s undeniable that G is one of the most accomplished musicians of the past few decades – with record sales to prove it, and the entire nation of China literally adopting his song “Going Home” to signal the end of the work day/cue people to leave areas.

Forthcoming with his answers, and very much aware of the criticisms of him throughout his career, G makes it plain that he’s writes music that appeals to him and, “…the way I just hear it. The fact that what appeals to me also appeals to other people, that’s the beautiful thing.”

G proceeds to speak about those critics who aren’t kind to him, which is apparent in the documentary as Lane interviews noted radio personalities, music journalists, professors and critics, such as Pat Prescott (94.7 THE WAVE), John Halle (Professor of Music Theory, Bard College), Jason King (Writer & Music Professor, NYU), Chris Washburne (Professor of Jazz Performance, Columbia University), Will Layman (Jazz Critic, POPMATTERS), and Ben Ratliff (New York Times Jazz & Pop Critic).

Many of their comments aren’t the most complimentary, but none are as antagonistic as the missive that was posted back in 2000 on a website’s message board by jazz musician/composer Pat Metheny. What spawned Methany’s anger, beside his apparent distaste for Kenny G? G’s duet of “It’s a Wonderful World” with the late jazz genius Louis Armstrong (who was long deceased before the cover and was added a la Nat King Cole to his daughter Natalie’s duet “Unforgettable).

As entertaining as it is revealing, “Listening to Kenny G” offers a well-rounded look into both the loved and hated career of one of the most successfully decorated and top selling artists of all-time.

I rate it 4 out of 5 on the MMTrometer.

“Listening to Kenny G” will premiere on HBO and HBO Max on December 3.

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