70s music revisited in varied SXSW documentaries

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By Jake Coyle / AP

Whether reggae, soft rock, hardcore punk or power pop, the music of the 70s is playing again at South By Southwest.

Several of the many music documentaries at this year’s SXSW revisit acts from the decade, a time often skipped over in pop culture history. But for that same reason, the 70s left a number of stories ripe for rediscovery or more thorough examination.

Put under the documentary lens is the beloved legend Bob Marley (“Marley”), the forgotten songwriting talent Paul Williams (“Paul Williams Still Alive”), the cult band that proved curiously resistant to the mainstream Big Star (“Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me”), the radical punk of Bad Brains (“Bad Brains: Band in DC”) and the curious story of rocker Rodriguez (“Search for Sugar Man”).

The films are among the highlights of SXSW’s robust music documentaries which essentially make up the connective tissue between the film and music components of the annual Austin festival. Many of them are grouped under their own music documentaries category, “24 Beats Per Second.”

“Marley,” which will be released April 20, takes a linear, biographic approach that takes nearly 2 ½ hours to tell the life story of Marley through friends and family. It might be called the “roots rock reggae” take on a subject often shrouded in iconography and myth.

“For all these years, I’ve seen so many things on Bob and I always felt like: ‘Who are these people talking about Bob and writing about Bob?'” says Ziggy Marley, the eldest son of the Jamaican legend.

The film is a long in-the-works project authorized by the Marley family (Ziggy is an executive producer) that originally had Martin Scorsese signed up to direct. Then Jonathan Demme, whose music documentaries include “Stop Making Sense” and “Neil Young: Heart of Gold,” came aboard and made a version. He left in 2009 after what he called “profound creative differences.”

Director Kevin Macdonald has made a number of documentaries, himself, including 2003’s “Touching the Void,” but it was his fiction film “The Last King of Scotland” that led him to Marley. While shooting in Uganda, he saw that Marley’s popularity reached even to remote African slums.

He hopes that “Marley” is the definitive documentary of the musician, and that it being “authorized” doesn’t detract from its clarity.

“You can’t worry about that if you’re trying to be impartial, if you’re trying to be honest,” says Macdonald of collaborating with the Marleys. “In a way we worked together and in another way we didn’t. Because I was in London and (Ziggy) lives in LA and some of the other family is in Florida and places, we didn’t actually see that much of each other while making the film.”

While such backstory on the relationship between filmmaker and subject rarely makes it on screen, it dominates “Paul Williams Still Alive.” Director Stephen Kessler (“Vegas Vacation”) had long been fascinated by Williams, the Oscar-winning songwriter of hits usually sung by others: “Rainbow Connection” from “The Muppet Movie,” ”An Old Fashioned Love Song” by Three Dog Night, “We’ve Only Just Begun” by the Carpenters.

He began the documentary with the intention of finding out what had become of Williams and what losing his fame had meant to him. What Kessler found instead was a movie about Williams’ victory over addiction (now sober for over 20 years) and his overall contentment with his later life as a husband and father.

“We actually uncovered that wonderful truth, which is: Where I am today is exactly where I want to be,” says Williams, who’s currently president of the American Society of Songwriters, Composers and Authors.

But the film is as much about the making of a documentary as it is its subject. It includes Kessler and Williams bickering in interviews, and Williams’ gradual evolution from wary skeptic of Kessler to his close friend.

“Things that wind up on the cutting room floor of everyone else’s documentary become key pieces of this film,” says Williams.

Kessler, who eventually moves in front of the camera during the film, thinks those scenes make the documentary more authentic.

“People know that the film is so honest,” he says. “They know these moments are not set up in any way.”

After working together on the film for more than two years, the two now share an obvious ease with one another. They’re even looking for another project to collaborate on.

“We’re married,” says Williams, smiling. “We have the rest of our lives all mapped out.”

Director Drew DeNicola never got the chance to bond so thoroughly with his principle subject. Big Star frontman Alex Chilton met with the documentary filmmakers, but didn’t grant an on-screen interview before dying of a heart attack in 2010.

Chilton’s death came shortly before a mostly reunited Big Star was to play SXSW. A tribute show was instead hastily assembled. That makes SXSW a very fitting place to screen “Nothing Can Hurt,” which is showing as a nearly finished work-in-progress cut.

“Once Alex passed away, the interest in Alex’s place in the pantheon was just so much greater than we knew,” says DeNicola. “I think that pushed the film further.”

The running narrative of the film is how commercial success eluded such an obviously exceptional band like Big Star, which in three albums created some of the finest pop songs of the 1970s. Though a wealth of today’s bands cite Big Star as an influence and the group is often called the first alternative or indie band, many music listeners are only familiar with their “In the Street” because it was the theme to “That 70s Show.”

“I started thinking about where Big Star lies in music history,” says DeNicola. “They happened to sit in this horrible little pocket of time after Woodstock and before the punk revolution.”

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