Get rhythm

Music films highlight the 2008 Mill Valley Film Festival

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Perhaps because Marin County is the pasture to which many a semi-retired rock star got put out, the Mill Valley Film Festival has long emphasized music-related film and live performance. Now that the festival is officially over 30 (and hence untrustworthy according to ancient wisdom), MVFF '08 will wave its vintage freak flag even harder than usual.

We have seen the future of retro-rockumentary here, and it is groovy, man. Nothing dials the lysergic clock to quarter-past-wow faster than a dose of tribal-love rock. Pola Rapaport's Hair: Let the Sun Shine In (2007) memorializes the musical that brought counterculture sounds, politics, genitalia, and follicles to 1968 Broadway. Which it duly freaked out — becoming a worldwide cultural phenomenon and launching careers for performers including Melba Moore, Keith Carradine, Tim Curry, Ben Vereen, Diane Keaton, and Donna Summer. Those first four are interviewed alongside composer Galt MacDermot, director Tom O'Horgan, co-book author and lyricist James Rado (mercurial co-creator Gerome Ragni being a famous casualty), and collaborators on the 40th-anniversary Public Theatre production now headed to Broadway.

There's no end of amusing, exciting, and tragic backstories around Hair — far more than this brisk documentary can encompass. But it still rewards, not least for original-cast performances on TV's Smothers Brothers and Tonight Show that offer near-pure glimpses of O'Horgan's joyous avant-garde staging.

Rock purists grew huffy about Hair (musical theatre = corny!) and commercial rock's perceived inorganic nature, as flavored primarily by tasty processed studio additives rather than "pure" singer-songwriters whose bands (unlike original-sinners the Monkees) actually played on platter and tour. Denny Tedesco's The Wrecking Crew (2007) pays homage to those older, jazz-trained virtuosos who really played on practically every 1960s pop record. They brought incalculable invention, but were almost never credited on hits by the Beach Boys and umpteen others. Now geezers, they (including solo-star breakout Glen Campbell) are a hoot; ditto the onetime beneficiaries of their craft who also appear in interviews, like Cher, Brian Wilson, and Herb Alpert.

At the time regarded as pure of saints and free of such creative taint, the Beatles remain so holy that no messing with the original script(ure) is allowed. MVFF documentary All Together Now — about the creation of Cirque du Soleil's Vegas spectacular Love — fascinates mainly because it reveals what a ginormous ass-pain dealing with today's legal guardians of Beatledom can be. As we see, the combined weight of fan fanaticism, $180 million in production costs, and "protective" input from widows Lennon and Harrison (George Harrison's friendship with Cirque founder Guy Laliberte having inseminated Love) nearly crushes this project's tortuous incubation. By contrast, a jovial Paul McCartney and dead-cool Ringo Starr blithely approve all messing with a catalog they deem solid and nostalgic, but hardly sacred.

Speaking of legends, Bill Graham is back and funny as hell in Last Days of the Fillmore, a once-ubiquitous (at weed-choked midnight and campus shows), long-inaccessible 1972 documentary newly restored for imminent DVD release. When this concert flick about the Fillmore West's (temporary) closing came out, audiences lined up for the groovers, not the backstage shmoozers. Yet Graham's fed-up phone rants now seem more engaging than the bloated blooze-rawk of Cold Blood, Hot Tuna, Elvin Bishop, and even Santana or the Grateful Dead.

Other movies likely to make you thrust your Bic high in triumph include Mika Kaurismaki's Sonic Mirror (2007), a film about world-beat percussionist Billy Cobham.

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