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Canadian Music Week ups its movie ante with films about music

OutKast’s André 3000 (nee André Benjamin) stars as Jimi Hendrix, in a film directed and written by John Ridley.

Charla Jones/The Globe and Mail

This year, Canadian Music Week went from being Toronto's comeback coronation festival, a welcome home for local bands who survived the sweaty trek south to Austin's South by Southwest, to a head-on competitor with North by Northeast – Hogtown's own sister/copycat Music/Film/Interactive/Energy-Drink Marketing Festival. CMW brass made a calculating, arguably predatory move, pushing back from March to early May, counting on the warmer weather and shallow pockets of T.O. concertgoers who can only splurge on one big-ticket music-fest wristband in a six-week period.

So for 2014, CMW has one-upped everything, including its film-festival component. The loose mandate for music-fest tie-in film programs has always been: movies about music. For something that remains, at its core, a music festival, it makes passable, pretheoretical sense. After all, people at a music festival like music, they should like a festival of music-movies. Right?

The problem is that these festivals tend to privilege the secondary qualities of music-ness over a primary quality of movie-ness. They provide homes for so-so biopics of famous musicians or docs footnoting music history. CMW's film program offers plenty in the latter camp, with fan-oriented documentaries about proto-punker Johnny Thunders, sonorous post-rockers Slint, and late singer-songwriter sadsack Elliott Smith. But it also seems determined to work within its broadly defined mandate, with music-movies that play like real-deal movie-movies.

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Jimi: All Is by My Side seems at first like a phoned-in HBO biopic: more a casting proposition than a movie proper. OutKast's André 3000 (nee André Benjamin) stars as Jimi Hendrix, in a film directed and written by John Ridley, who recently netted an Oscar for the 12 Years a Slave screenplay. It feels a little out-of-the-can, but in narrowing the focus on Hendrix's early years and his growth as a guitarist, performer and sixties icon, Ridley gives André 3000's largely winning performance room to breathe. His nervy, heavy-lidded Hendrix feels like more than caricature.

Elsewhere, CMW casts its programming net further. Swim Little Fish Swim is a neatly made and beautifully shot story of an NYC artiste (played by Dustin Guy Defa) trapped in twee adolescence, pursuing his non-career as a musician against the sensible protestations of his breadwinning wife (Brooke Bloom). His joie de vivre is cracked further open by Lilas (co-writer/director Lola Bessis), a Parisian artist adrift in Manhattan on a soon-to-expire visa, desperate to extend her stay lest she be forced back to France to work for her famous-artist mother.

What opens as a piece of grating indie privilege porn – oh boo-hoo, the wannabe artist may end up gainfully employed! – extends its sympathies, working toward more convincing (and grounded) conclusions about the tension between responsibility and artistic fulfilment, and the whole bogeyman of millennial entitlement.

Perhaps the biggest to-do in the program is the midnight (well, 11:30 p.m.) screening of cult oddity Miami Connection on May 9. Released in eight cinemas around the greater Orlando, Fla., area in 1988, Miami Connection was rediscovered in 2009, and played right into the hands of a cult-movie culture predisposed to fawning over movies so-bad-they're-good. To summarize Miami Connection is to unfairly reduce its often-unbelievable weirdness. But basically: A group of college-age orphans who play in a dance-pop band called Dragon Sound moonlight as tae kwon do warriors street-fighting with local gangs, and a team of motorcycle-riding ninjas. Then they write and perform songs about battling ninjas, as if to goad them further.

Miami Connection is crude and crummy, but entertaining from stem-to-stern. It's one of those films that's so uniquely incompetent, you'll swear it was made that way just to capitalize on the boom on sourcing and reassessing bad movies (see also: Troll 2, The Room, Birdemic, Fateful Findings) as midnight-movie crowd-pleasers. And in Dragon Sound's dopey, synth-driven single Friends, there's a takeaway for all aspiring musicians sweating out the conferences and showcases of Canadian Music Week: "Friends for eternity, loyalty, honesty. We'll stick together through thick and thin."

That's what playing music's all about, right? Friendship? Sure. That and the stinky vans and promise of free beer.

CMW Film runs May 8-10 at the Royal Cinema (608 College St.). For tickets and showtimes:

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