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Music takes on different guises at Sundance

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in a scene from Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash.
By Piya Sinha-Roy
Reuters (*)

Famed Utah-based film festival brings lavish melodic line-up this year

Since the early days of film, music has gone hand in hand with movies, but a new crop of filmmakers is using music to explore existential themes of humanity that will be showcased at the annual Sundance Film Festival.

Whiplash, a contender in the US dramatic competition, kicked off Sundance as the first of numerous films that use music as a tool to explore human identity at the festival, held in the Utah ski resort of Park City. The film, directed by Damien Chazelle, features rising star Miles Teller as a drummer who enters music school and comes face to face with a teacher who challenges him to pursue perfection, pushing him to the limit.

“It is such a singular film,” Trevor Groth, Sundance’s director of programming, told reporters. “It really is one of the potential breakouts of the festival because it’s so unique.”

Whiplash is competing against Low Down, a coming-of-age tale following a young girl growing up with a troubled musician father, and Song One, in which a young woman seeks out a musician to help her younger brother come out of a coma.

“I was really fascinated by the idea of music’s connective power, and how it can connect people in unpredictable ways without them even knowing it,” Kate Barker-Frayland, the director of Song One, said.

The romantic drama, starring Oscar winner Anne Hathaway and Johnny Flynn, brings together two people who are at low points in their lives. Barker-Frayland said she wanted to cast their story against the backdrop of Brooklyn’s vibrant music scene.

“I wanted to shoot all of the performances live and record the music live to really capture what it’s like to go watch a show at all these different places. Music is such an emotional thing and any song has some emotional content,” she said.

Now in its 30th year, Sundance is the top independent film gathering in the United States and has helped launch the careers of many up-and-coming filmmakers, including Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh and David O. Russell.

The festival, backed by Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, is held in the snow-covered streets of Park City until January 26.

Sundance has also ushered some strong music films into the awards race in recent years, with 2012’s Searching for Sugar Man winning the best documentary feature Oscar the following year, and 2013’s 20 Feet from Stardom, which is on this year’s Oscar shortlist.

In God Help the Girl, a contender in the world cinema dramatic category, Scottish musician Stuart Murdoch, from indie-pop band Belle & Sebastian, explores a coming-of-age tale with a musical. In the spotlight category, Only Lovers Left Alive, starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, follows a dejected musician who finds solace in his lover as his world collapses.

“I’m curious as to how music is of such interest to our filmmakers,” said John Cooper, director of the film festival. “It could be tied to their passions being very similar, but each film is so unique in the approach that they’ve taken, it’s almost as if there’s no similarities except for the music.”

Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory, a contender in the US documentary competition, explores the healing power of music as one man crusades to have music in nursing homes to help those with Alzheimer’s disease.

The festival’s closing night film, Rudderless, directed by actor William H. Macy, sees a father cope with the grief of losing his son by forming a rock and roll band to perform his late son’s original music.“It’s definitely going to be a celebration of music at the festival,” said Cooper.

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