There’s still time to catch the FILMusic Festival, which closes Wednesday night after a week-long virtual run. A June tradition for the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society, this year’s festival brings viewers another invigorating line-up of recent documentaries about singers, groups and musical communities, along with one remarkable German Expressionist silent movie.
F.W. Murnau’s 1924 drama The Last Laugh, with recent music composed by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, is an overlooked gem by the director of Academy Award-winning romance Sunrise (1927) and the OG of vampire pictures, Nosferatu (1929).
Although it includes one comic scene with a horn player, The Last Laugh is in the FILMusic festival sheerly due to its score, composed by members of the Berklee College of Music film scoring department working with professor and department founder Sheldon Mirowitz.
In past years, Mr. Mirowitz and about 20 students in the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra would end their seasonal tour by playing an original score at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center on the opening night of the festival, accompanying such classics as The Phantom of the Opera and The Passion of Joan of Arc.
Not as well-known, but no less worth watching, The Last Laugh is a fable of human pride told strictly through acting and camera work. No intertitles provide dialogue, and the only written narrative—barely more than a touch of commentary—appears briefly at the beginning and near the end, subtitled for English audiences.
The Berklee score keeps pace with the carefully restored print, supporting without overwhelming the nearly-nonstop action on the screen.
Film cameras had only recently begun to move when Murnau made The Last Laugh, employing a wheelchair to get long shots that would influence filmmakers like Orson Welles in years to come. He also used experimental camera techniques to convincing effect, most notably in a pair of scenes depicting a drunken wedding party and the ensuing catastrophic hangover.
Star Emil Jannings is magnificently pathetic as a man who, in barely more than a single day, loses everything in which he took joy: his job as a hotel doorman, his splendid uniform, his family’s approval, his standing in the community and his self-respect.
Murnau had planned to end the movie there, Mr. Mirowitz tells film society executive director Richard Paradise in a recorded Zoom interview accompanying The Last Laugh on the festival streaming site. But the German studio didn’t want to unleash such a downer on audiences, and convinced him to add a coda more likely to leave viewers grinning instead of contemplating the folly and cruelty of humankind. It’s the unusual German Expressionist drama with a happy ending, and as such makes a particularly good choice for pandemic viewing.
Music is front and center in all of the other festival films, although each documentary takes a different approach to its subject(s).
With a wealth of historic, and in some cases previously unissued, images and interviews, Ella: Just One of Those Things follows Ella Fitzgerald from her troubled early teens and Apollo Theater debut to her death at the end of a six-decade career.
It’s sobering to reflect that had things gone a little differently for her, the world might never have heard Ms. Fitzgerald’s sumptuous voice or marveled at her flawless rhythm and prodigious creativity. From an early stint in reform school, through the suffocating racism of the era, she had to reinvent herself repeatedly: from dancer to singer to front woman, swing icon to star interpreter of American popular songs.
Home movies and a wealth of interviews help provide a sense of Ms. Fitzgerald’s own personality and her influence on other musicians. The music, of course, is sublime.
Canadians are getting their due in this year’s festival, with documentaries on singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot and rock innovators Robbie Robertson and the Band.
Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band is a feast for fans of the group, filled with archival footage, interviews and photographs going back the earliest days when Mr. Robertson and drummer Levon Helm were teenage bandmates backing up the high-octane Southern singer Ronnie Hawkins.
The documentary spends some harrowing time with the five musicians who would become the Band, backing up Bob Dylan on his first electric tour. Reviled at every stop by outraged folk music fans on multiple continents, the group heard so many boos that years later, returning to live performance with hit records of their own, Mr. Robertson had to have a hypnotist on stage with him for the first show.
Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind takes us through the streets of Toronto with the singer-songwriter, both in the present day and through archival footage that follows the rising star from coffee house to concert stage, television screen and international fame. Mr. Lightfoot’s songs, including Early Morning Rain, Sundown Rainy Day People, were the result of consistent writing, the film makes clear. Like the Band, he did some of his best work in a basement, where a snippet of 1960s color film—perhaps part of a promotion—follows him straight from bed to desk.
“Those songs said something and they had a point of view that perhaps… more than perhaps was missing from pop music at the time,” recalls fellow Canadian singer-songwriter Sylvia Tyson in an interview.
“Lot of work ethic there,” says her former husband and musical partner Ian Tyson.
Along with profiles of individual musicians, other films in the festival bring viewers into the musical communities of two businesses, a string quartet and the entire city of New Orleans.
Carmine Street Guitars is a lyrical fan letter to a cult shop in Greenwich Village, where luthier Rick Kelly and his young assistant Cindy Hulej, assisted administratively by Mr. Kelly’s 92-year-old mother, build custom and specialty electric guitars out of wood reclaimed from historic New York buildings like McSorley’s Old Ale House.
A succession of guitar players—among them Patti Smith’s collaborator Lenny Kaye, Charlie Sexton from Mr. Dylan’s band, Eleanor Friedberger from the Fiery Furnaces and more Canadians, members of the Sadies—wander through the shop to play a little and talk with Rick about guitars and what they’re made of. In an age of special effects, Mr. Kelly keeps it basic with his Telecaster-inspired models: frets, strings and a pickup or two. The movie is equally straightforward and a low-key pleasure to watch, from start to finish.
Chamber music fans will want to watch Strings Attached, about the young quartet that has seen phenomenal success almost since their earliest performances. Like other films in the festival, the concert and travel scenes evoke a pang for pre-pandemic freedoms, while also providing an escape from the familiar.
The documentaries Bluebird and Up from the Streets: New Orleans, the City of Music both focus on the musical communities in Nashville and the Crescent City, with a festival’s worth of performances and interviews in each.
On the Vineyard, the most-anticipated film in the festival is Born Into the Gig, which includes Ben Taylor and Sally Taylor among the next-generation musicians following their famous parents into performing careers. The film was produced by Tamara Weiss, and directed by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner.
Individual films are $12 for a two-day license to watch through the film society’s virtual festival site, mvfilmsociety.com.