Let's be honest. There's not much I can say about the Northwest Film Center's 23rd Reel Music series that is going to give anyone a boner. Sure, I could spew a bunch of hyperbolic nonsense about how great this year's selection is, but that would just sound ridiculous. Or I could try to get all academic and attempt to dissect what it is about music documentaries that can be so compelling. But that would be boring and contrived, and most of you want to read that slightly less than I want to write it.
All of this leaves me in the uncertain position of how to write about Reel Music. What I can tell you is that the thing I've always loved most about Reel Music is the eclectic mix of topics showcased every year. It is the oldest cliché to say there's something for everyone; still, it's kind of true. What's also true is that this year there is an incredibly diverse lineup of films, a handful of which are among the best films I've seen in the past year or two.
Reel Music starts off strong this year with Pick Up the Mic (7 pm Friday), Alex Hinton's wonderfully insightful documentary about the burgeoning world of queer hip-hop. Mixing often deeply personal interviews with live performance footage, Hinton's film explores how the music and culture of hip-hop, which once gave voice to the poor and disenfranchised of the black community, has been appropriated by members of the queer community. The film challenges not only the notions of the role of hip-hop in society, it tackles and defies preconceived notions of gender and sexuality.
Originally produced for VH-1, Sam Cooke: Legend (7 pm Saturday) traces the life and career of the gospel singer turned pop star who, as a singer, songwriter, businessman and activist, helped change the world of contemporary music. In a society defined by its cultural illiteracy, many have forgotten the contributions of Cooke. The same is true for P-Funk, the pioneers of funk profiled in Parliament Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove, which screens with Sam Cooke: Legend.
Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan: Cowboy Jack's Home Movies (7 pm Sunday) is a wild ride that combines home movies, interviews, performance footage and animation to recount the life and career of "Cowboy" Jack Clement. Clement's career as a songwriter and producer helped him cultivate relationships with some of the biggest names in country music, and for decades he filmed and videotaped his friends and colleagues. Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon distill 30 years of Clement's home movies into one fascinating documentary that chronicles his fascinating life, career and friendships.
Reel Music continues through the middle of February, bringing with it a great selection films that includes the incredible Malfunkshun: The Andrew Wood Story (Jan. 12), Don Letts' comprehensive Punk: Attitude (Jan. 14) and When Stumptown Was Jumptown (Feb. 4), Samuel Adams' historical overview of the jazz and blues scene in Portland.
Guild Theatre, 829 SW 9th Ave., 221-1156, www.nwfilm.org. $4-$7.