Nuggets and obscurities are at a premium in 21st-century music films, and the 33rd edition of the Reel Film Festival overturns many stones. Former stars Mavis Staples and Syl Johnson clamor to be remembered, glam-metal superstars Twisted Sister are put under the microscope in a film that ends the moment the band finally makes it, and the very title of the Residents retrospective is Theory of Obscurity.
We'll spare you the pains of enduring other, less appealing trends—like the cheap animation that makes The Glamour and the Squalor hard to sit through—by recommending these picks.
Roxy: The Movie (9:15 pm Friday, Jan. 15)
One of the great frustrations of watching music films is that you rarely hear an entire song. Roxy, on the other hand, is nothing but a concert film. Frank Zappa and the Mothers' three-night stint in December 1973 is perfectly captured. The band is on fire. Zappa is cool as a cucumber. Roxy puts you in the best seat in the 500-capacity house, watching a band at the height of its powers.
Korla (5 pm Sunday, Jan. 17)
Korla Pandit was a bizarre pop-culture figure—a dark-skinned man who wore a jeweled Indian turban and played virtuoso organ music in the '40s. Korla had his own program in the early days of television, where he stared into the camera, played eerie and exotic music, and never spoke. It took decades for the public to discover that Korla Pandit was actually an African-American man dressing as an Indian to make it in show business. It's a remarkable and puzzling mystery, unraveled in this engaging film.
We Are Twisted F***ing Sister! (9:15 pm Friday, Jan. 22)
Twisted Sister traded on its image as a caricature of '80s metal excess, but this film proves beyond a doubt that its success was earned. Starting with the band's formation in 1972, it follows Twisted Sister's astounding bad luck during its first decade. While striving to make it, Twisted Sister carved out a regional following in the New York-New Jersey area, and after playing 3,500 shows, it finally received a legitimate record deal. Focusing on the band's early days is a perfectly executed stroke of genius. Even if you're not a fan of the music or image, We Are Twisted F***ing Sister! is an inspirational testament to faith, courage and big hair.
Jaco (7 pm Wednesday, Jan. 27)
Jaco Pastorius often introduced himself as the greatest bass player in the world. In this film's interviews with the likes of Sting, Flea, Geddy Lee and Herbie Hancock, no one seems to argue. But there were several dark sides to Pastorius' unfiltered genius. Using color Super 8 footage from Jaco's early life and funding from Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo to great effect, Jaco spares no expense in telling the tragic story of this incredible musician whose meteoric rise was cut short in a fatal altercation with club security.
Mavis! (9 pm Friday, Jan. 29)
Mavis Staples has been touring for the past 60 years, projecting a voice as deep as her soul and a message of love that's infectious. She was the star of her family band—the Staple Singers—when it became friends of Martin Luther King Jr. and led protest songs during the civil rights movement. Adored by Bob Dylan (who once proposed to Mavis) and later by Prince, Staples successfully transitioned from gospel to soul to rock, before disco nearly killed her career. Today, at 75, she's been rediscovered by this fantastic HBO production that's directed, produced and edited by only women.
see it: The 33rd Reel Film Festival is at NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium from Jan. 15-Feb. 5. Full listings at nwfilm.org/festivals/reelmusic.