The Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham (www.sidewalkfest.com) has become one of my annual milestones. Held in downtown on the last full weekend of August, Sidewalk’s 2015 edition had over 250 screenings on nine screens in six locations within sweaty walking distance during roughly a 52-hour period. There are also workshops and panels, outdoor concerts, and nightly after-parties.
What I like most about this particular event is its intense brevity. Basically the screenings start with an opening night event on Friday at the Alabama Theatre and everything ends with an awards show, back at the Alabama, late on Sunday (www.alabamatheatre.com). This leads to exhaustion but it also provides an opportunity for lovers of indie movie-making to experience total immersion in a short span of time at venues that are in reasonably close proximity. There’s no way to see everything one wants to see and participants know that going in. As the name suggests, it keeps the downtown sidewalks busy. And it brings movies and movie-makers to Birmingham that would likely not play the city otherwise.
2015 marks the 17th Sidewalk. The event began as the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival (a name I prefer since it is more reflective of 21st century media) but common usage won out and it is now officially the Sidewalk Film Festival. Sidewalk is produced by the Alabama Moving Image Association and has steadily grown in size and influence since its 1999 debut. Much is still made of Sidewalk’s designation a few years ago by Time magazine as one of the “Top 10 Film Festivals for the Rest of Us.” Birmingham’s SHOUT LGBTQ Film Festival, another AMIA production (www.bhamshout.com), joined the Sidewalk line-up in 2006 and shares dates and venues annually.
While Sidewalk is international in scope and programming, it makes an earnest effort to screen local product and give Alabama artists a showcase. Scattered throughout the event are screenings of Alabama-centric features and documentaries as well as programs of Alabama narrative and documentary shorts. The Sidewrite screenplay competitions include a separate category for scripts by Alabama writers. The festival has been a proven catalyst for the emergence of a much more vital and energetic film community in Birmingham and throughout the state.
One of my must-see screenings this year was Norton Dill’s documentary, Q: Alabama’s Barbecue Legends, a production of the Alabama Tourism Department in honor of 2015 as “The Year of Alabama Barbecue.” Q is an enjoyable survey of the scope of barbecue in the state with the usual suspects featured as well as a few lesser-known joints. The diversity of attitudes and opinions captures the complexity and variety of barbecue in Alabama. It’s a good documentary although I had hoped for it to soar.
Even though I am a film buff, one of the particular pleasures of Sidewalk for me is the opportunity to just wander around downtown Birmingham and soak up atmosphere. The historic 4th Avenue Business District hosts a jazz festival on the same weekend as Sidewalk and it’s always fun to hang out on 4th Avenue and listen to the music between screenings. The 4th Avenue District is home to a favorite quirky Birmingham attraction, the Eddie Kendrick Memorial Park, dedicated to Eddie Kendricks, lead singer of The Temptations (Eddie Kendrick apparently added the “s” to his last name when he joined the group).
The Alabama Theatre, a 1920s movie palace and the centerpiece venue of Sidewalk, is part of Birmingham’s “Theatre District.” This might seem to be an odd designation since the Alabama is the only historic theatre still in operation on that part of 3rd Avenue North. However, there was a time – and I am old enough to remember the latter part of it – when the Alabama was in the center of a group of at least fourteen movie and live theatre venues stretching from 17th to 21st Streets around the 3rd Avenue core. Before suburban megaplexes, downtown Birmingham around 3rd Avenue North was where one went to see movies. I well remember as a child and even into my college years when the neon movie marquees along 3rd Avenue were bright, plentiful, and enticing.
Today, there is the Alabama. The McWane Science Center next door has a state-of-the-art IMAX theatre and Red Mountain Theatre Company has a cabaret performance space in the basement of the old Kress Building. The Carver Theatre around the block in the 4th Avenue District does double duty as a performance and screening space and the home of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame (www.jazzhall.com).
Still, Birmingham’s Theatre District is lackluster when compared to its former neon-lit grandeur. A hopeful sign in downtown this year was on the old Lyric Theatre, caddy-corner across 3rd Avenue from the Alabama. Its marquee proclaimed
NEXT YEAR WE’LL BE HERE
The Lyric was a 1000-seat performance venue built in 1914 for live vaudeville shows. The Marx Brothers, Mae West, and Milton Berle are listed among its marquee attractions. As movies and the Alabama began to dominate, the Lyric became a second-run movie theatre and by the 1970s it was a seedy adult movie house. People still talk about Deep Throat’s run at the Lyric; by that time the Lyric was known as the Roxy. The Lyric made a memorable cameo in the climactic scene of Bob Rafelson’s 1976 Birmingham film Stay Hungry in which a bunch of bodybuilders poses on the Lyric’s fire escape. After the Lyric closed in the 70s, it went through a sad decline; after the restoration of the Alabama, attention returned once again to the Lyric. Its renovation is well underway and it is slated to once again become a venue for live performance (www.lightupthelyric.com).