Today, the cinetrix offers the first of three reviews of music-themed films I caught at three separate festivals this spring. Servicey!
SXSW: Sounds Like Teen Spirit
First up: a doc by the charming and adorable Jamie J. Johnson, a self-deprecating young Brit. I saw Sounds Like Teen Spirit deliberately and delightedly on Sunday night at SXSW. After a slew of bro-tastic indie boy 20something microdramas [about which more, er, sometime], I needed a palate cleanser. What better than a look at the driven moppets who compete for glory and country at the kid's edition of the Eurovision Song Contest? Tightly wound kids? Anxious/proud parents? Europop and glittering, questionable outfits? Nationalism? Yes, please!
The film, part of the SX Global sidebar at the Hideout, was all that I hoped for, with one exception that I'll get to in a bit. I slid into the seat next to my old grad school classmate Basil, and we were off and running. A nice mix of archival, talking head, and performance footage outlines the storied history and noble aim of the Eurovision contests, meant to bring nations back together through song after the devastation of World War II. Better still, the junior version features songs written by the contestants themselves.
Johnson begins at the qualifiers in Belgium--walloon Whitney loses to a four-piece featuring lanky drummer Laurens, which advances to the finals. From there, we meet the other subjects: Giorgios, a dark-eyed Cypriot boy hassled at school for being fey; Marina, a beautiful Bulgarian girl who hopes her absent oligarch father might return to her and her mother if she does well; and the aforementioned Belgian band.
And then there's Mariam. The first ever contestant from the former Russian satellite of Georgia, she carries the ambition of her tiny country with stolidity and grace. But unlike the other kids, she doesn't speak any English. Which wouldn't be an issue, except the print that screened at South By lacked subtitles. To Johnson's credit as a storyteller, 90% of the audience stuck it out, even though there were long stretches in Georgian. After a while, in fact, I began to think it was intentional, a critique of my own First Worldism. Why don't I know Georgian?
Anyway, the big show begins, our subjects compete, nerves fray, and the votes are tallied. Flying in the face of the global understanding Eurovision seeks to encourage, the countries tend to vote in blocs, rating their regional allies higher in the tally: Greece boosts Cyprus, and so on. There's no way I'll give away which country prevails, but the "where are they know" montage that closes the doc--to the strains of "The Winner Takes It All," what else?--left few dry eyes when the lights came up. The tears quickly turned to laughter, however, at the very English mortification expressed by Johnson about the missing titles in the post-screening Q&A. Seek it out, won't you?