Soundwaves through filmstrips

7th Annual Sound Unseen Festival returns with films documenting music

Keri Carlson

Each year the Sound Unseen film festival offers a look into music beyond just the sounds. Whether the films focus on a single artist or explore an entire genre and movement, they unveil hidden stories and myths. The stories may not be as flashy as “Behind the Music,” but they offer a glimpse at the effects music has on our culture and ourselves.

Five films to see at this year’s Sound Unseen
Film: “Beyond Beats and Rhymes”

The music: Popular rap and hip-hop. The film takes a comprehensive look at hip-hop’s history up to the present.

The premise: Director Byron Hurt grew up loving hip-hop but as he began speaking to young men about violence toward women, he couldn’t shake the contradiction. So much of the music he listened to promoted the false masculinity of violence and sexism that he was trying to fight. Instead of turning his back to hip-hop though, Hurt uses “Beyond Beats and Rhymes” to understand why so many rappers project the same image.

What’s good about it: Hurt never blames hip-hop, he questions it. And while the film might not have too many new insights that hip-hop scholars have not said before, Hurt’s interviews with the likes of Fat Joe, Chuck D and Busta Rhymes give an interesting inside perspective.

Film: “Downtown Locals”

The music: Outsider art

The premise: “Downtown Locals” follows six subway musicians and performers that range from an accordion chanteuse to a folk blues stomper to an R&B keytar player and break-dancer. Each artist struggles to make a living and avoid the police under New York City’s increasing crackdown on unauthorized performers.

What’s good about it: While some of the documentary focuses on the personal stories of the performers and why they choose to play on the street, the film steps out beyond a simple look at weirdoes and gets political. “Downtown Locals” questions the laws against public art which turn into free speech and expression issues.

Film: “High Tech Soul”

The music: Techno

The premise: “High Tech Soul” documents the birth of techno in Detroit and features many of the early innovators in the genre.

What’s good about it: The film focuses specifically on the question – why did techno come from Detroit? In the search for an answer, the film goes beyond the music and DJs and really digs into the city’s history and geography. “High Tech Soul” brilliantly shows how techno heavily reflects the space it came out of.

Film: “Off and On Broadway: Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players”

The music: Indie-pop and humorous folk

The premise: The documentary follows the family band (made up of father, mother and daughter), The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players. As the name suggests, the group uses vintage slides they’ve found at garage sales as a backbone to their songs. Besides concert footage, “Off and On Broadway” shows the inner workings of a family band.

What’s good about it: Rachel Trachtenburg is a pretty cool 12-year-old.

Film: “The Treasures of Long Gone John”

The music: Punk

The premise: Amid his knickknack- and clutter-filled house, Long Gone John owns one of Iggy Pop’s jackets, Debbie Harry’s empty prescription bottle for Prozac and a mummified infant. Long Gone John is a collector of bizarre pop culture – the Smithsonian Institution’s rejects. And as a part of his collecting addiction, he started his own record label, Sympathy for the Record Industry. What began as another way to posses underground and rare cultural artifacts turned into an important DIY independent label that put out early recordings of The White Stripes and Hole.

What’s good about it: The scenes of Long Gone John’s house.