Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival (www.sidewalkfest.com) is always the final full weekend in August before college football season commences. Although the festival events begin several days before the weekend main event, Sidewalk, for me, always begins on Friday evening and ends late on Sunday night. During that time, there are several hundred screenings of every variety of shorts, documentaries, animation, and feature-length moving pictures at venues throughout the northside of downtown.
2019 marked the 21st edition of Sidewalk. In the early years, I would pride myself on how many screenings I could cram into a 48-hour period. Nowadays, I study the schedule carefully, curate a schedule that fits my time, and allow myself time to breathe. At Sidewalk, it’s impossible to see everything one might want to see; that’s part of the charm and mystique.
Sidewalk’s most exciting new addition to downtown Birmingham this year is the Sidewalk Cinema and Film Center, a two-theatre complex in the basement level of the Pizitz building that will screen indie films 365 days a year. With the two screens at the Pizitz, the Alabama, the Lyric, the Carver, Red Mountain Theatre’s cabaret space, and the McWane Center’s IMAX, Birmingham’s downtown “theatre district” is once again living up to its name.
Friday, August 23
Traditionally, my Sidewalk weekend begins with lunch at Chef Frank Stitt’s Chez Fonfon. My weekend pass is waiting at the Central Ticket Office at the Pizitz, around the block from the Alabama, Sidewalk’s most storied venue (www.alabamatheatre.com).
In the early days of Sidewalk, the Opening Night presentation was often a cutting-edge film which might open to mixed response. I remember the grumbling after John Sayles’s Silver City opened Sidewalk in 2004. It wasn’t Sayles’s best, but I was happy to catch a new Sayles movie on a big screen in Birmingham.
Since those days, the Opening Night film is most often a goofy documentary geared to a broad general audience. Although I enjoy being there for the opening festivities, I am sometimes likely to leave when the feature starts. A few years ago, when they opened with a documentary about some cat that was a sensation on the internet, I didn’t even bother to attend opening night.
This year, the opening feature is I Want My MTV. The 2019 documentary, directed by Tyler Measom and Patrick Waldrop, premiered in May at the Tribeca Film Festival. I Want My MTV is both informative and a great feel-good way to open Sidewalk 21. Alan Hunter, one of the original MTV veejays interviewed in the doc, is a Birmingham native, a founder of Sidewalk, and, for many years, was the very popular opening night emcee for the festival.
A short documentary, “Lost Weekend,” is screened prior to the feature. “Lost Weekend,” by Birmingham filmmakers Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb, chronicles the climaxes and misadventures of a young Pennsylvania man who wins a 1980s MTV contest in which the prize is a weekend for two to hang out in Detroit with Van Halen’s concert tour. Everything you expect to happen in that scenario, happens.
Alan Hunter is on hand to help introduce the feature film, which focuses on the genesis and early years of what was then a music video network that became a major force of 1980s popular culture.
As the Opening Night movie ends, the sell-out Alabama Theatre audience flows onto 3rd Avenue North in front of the theatre for the opening night street party. I have no doubt a good time will be had by all, but I walk through the festivities and straight to my room at the Tutwiler Hotel.
Saturday, August 24
When I arrive back at the Alabama on a bright and sunny Saturday morning, I don’t quickly comprehend why there are “cigarette girls” in the theatre lobby offering packs of candy cigarettes to patrons. However, I am there to attend a screening of the new documentary, Mike Wallace Is Here, directed by Avi Belkin, and am about to watch an hour and a half of on-screen smoking from a time when on-screen cigarette smoking was common, even for reporters on the job.
The life of Wallace, the legendary investigative news man who is best remembered for his decades on “60 Minutes,” is examined in detail in a fascinating no-holds-barred way that is reminiscent of the interviewing style of Wallace himself. His detailed examination into every story he covers is as incisive and prickly with Bette Davis and Barbra Streisand as it is with the Ayatollah Khomeini and John Ehrlichman.
After the screening, I grab a quick bite at the Pizitz Food Hall and head to the Alabama School of Fine Arts for a block of Alabama- and politically-themed documentary shorts. My favorite is Carroll Moore’s “Dawoud Bey: The Birmingham Project,” an examination of Bey’s photography mission to capture images of children the same age as the “four little girls” of the Birmingham church bombing were when they were murdered in 1963. He also includes homage to the two young boys who were murdered later in the day during the bombing’s aftermath.
“Call Me,” directed by Megan Friend and Norris Davis, is a most entertaining exploration of the rhymes and reasons behind attorney Alexander Shunnarah’s ubiquitous billboards that cover the state of Alabama. The 9-minute short includes the full 48-second Alexander Shunnarah / Jurassic Park parody by Kelly Coberly.
Other documentaries in the block explore political activism to get out the vote (“Woke Vote”); emergency responders in Tuscaloosa (“Druid City Strong”); photographic documentation of abandoned buildings in Birmingham (“Walls of Jericho”); diversity and inclusion in a rural Alabama climbing expedition (“The People of Climbing”); student debt (“A Generation Drowning”); and a 70-year-old murder case that went unpunished (“Murder in Mobile”).
From the School of Fine Arts, it’s a short walk to Birmingham Museum of Art for Vita and Virginia (2018), a British film directed by Chanya Button. This is another biographical exploration of the tortured romance of Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) and Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton). This latest one is adapted from the 1992 play of the same name by actor/playwright Eileen Atkins.
Vita and Virginia lingers over the cat and mouse game that leads up to the affair of Woolf and Sackville-West in the artistic communities of 1920s England – particularly the Bloomsbury group. The story is told realistically, but with the occasional inclusion of tangled imagery that seeks to capture Virginia Woolf’s mental instability and emotional confusion. There is a stilted, stagey formality to the dialogue at times, but one adjusts to the play’s pace and structure. Atkins based much of her play on the letters of the two title characters; there are some fine moments when the camera rests on a face speaking directly into the camera, delivering emotional and occasionally laughably over-the-top declarations.
Despite noble and occasionally brave performances, Debecki and Arterton seem miscast to me.
Among the supporting actors, Peter Ferdinando delivers an understated, complex, and compassionate performance as Leonard Woolf and Isabella Rossellini has a fine turn as Vita’s snarky mother, Baroness Sackville.
By the time Vita and Virginia is over, a passing thunderstorm drenches downtown and Museum maintenance staff is scrambling to deal with puddles and leaks outside the main entrance as I make haste to get back to the Tutwiler to change and join a friend for dinner.
Sunday, August 25
I will not go to church today, but I waken to the pealing of church bells throughout the city – not an unpleasant way to meet the day. And I plan to attend something equally spiritual and, to my tastes, more inspirational.
A few months ago, when I first heard the buzz about the new Aretha Franklin documentary, Amazing Grace (1972/2018), I remember thinking I hope that’s scheduled to play Sidewalk this year.
In 1972, director Sydney Pollack and his crew filmed the two-night recording session of what would be Aretha Franklin’s best-selling live gospel album, Amazing Grace. The recording took place in the sanctuary of the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Franklin was supported by legendary gospel singer James Cleveland, the Southern California Community Choir, and an all-star group of musicians. Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts are spotted in the audience.
For some reason, during Pollack’s recording of the two services, the audio and video were not synched, the footage was deemed unusable, and eventually the film was presumed lost.
Fast forward to the early 2000s: the “unusable footage” is rediscovered, producer Alan Elliott supervises a team of digital experts in the rehabilitation of the “lost” footage, and the resulting movie is a revelation. During her lifetime, Franklin kept suing to halt screenings of the reconstructed movie. After her death, the family consented to the release and it is finally being shared with audiences world-wide.
No real effort was made to mold the concert into something “cinematic.” Much of the footage is raw and immediate, with awkward camera movement, sloppy zooms, finding focus – all still there for the world to see.
So is raw emotion – James Cleveland breaking down in sobs at one point; the choir clearly overcome by the event they are witnessing and being a part of; Rev. C.L. Franklin – Aretha’s father – jumping up to wipe the sweat from her face and neck as she plays the piano. His handkerchief completely covers her face at one point just before she starts to sing. The audience, lost in emotion and awe, becomes a part of the power of the film and Pollack’s camera crew scrambles to capture it all.
You must see it.
As the Sidewalk audience gathers outside the Lyric Theatre for the screening, ladies distribute church fans on the sidewalk. When the audience is seated in the theatre, Birmingham-based gospel singer Belinda George Peoples emerges from the wings to sing “Amazing Grace” a capella. By the end of Peoples’s performance, the audience is singing along.
The event feels more like a church service than a movie screening as the audience claps and sways with Aretha’s powerful sound on songs like “What a Friend,” “Wholy Holy,” “God Will Take Care of You,” and the title song. There’s a very effective medley of the gospel standard “Precious Lord (Take My Hand)” with Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.”
But the song that gets to me most is Franklin at the piano playing and singing “Never Grow Old,” with the camera closing in tight. It moves me to see a young Aretha Franklin (she was 29 when the album was made) plaintively repeating the phrase “never grow old” and its contemplation of eternity. Mick Jagger is there, also 29-years-old at the time, and, in the Lyric, I am sitting a few seats down from a friend I knew in college in the ‘70s.
When our work here is done and the life crown is won
And our troubles and trials are over
All our sorrow will end, and our voices will blend
With the loved ones who’ve gone on before
Never grow old, never grow old
In a land where we’ll never grow old
I leave the theatre and drive across town to have lunch with Mother. I have a list of movies I plan to see later on Sunday afternoon, but – blessedly assured that I have gotten what I came for – I actually feel a little sanctified as I hit the road for home.
Archival photo of Alabama Theatre, Birmingham; 1934