For many of us, the past 18 months have made it crystal clear exactly how cherishable popular arts such as music and cinema can be, even if we’ve been experiencing them in isolation rather than with an audience. All of which only goes to make it even more satisfying now that we have the (tentative) opportunity to experience such things out in the wild again. In the case of the touring Doc ‘n Roll Film Festival, which celebrates the music documentary, you get two such art forms for the price of one.
The festival’s fourth jaunt to Manchester takes place from November 2-7, with eight special screenings split between HOME and Chapeltown Picture House, with a further 13 films available online under the banner of Doc ’n Roll TV. Subjects covered by the assorted new documentaries include the pioneers of Drum & Bass, provocative No Wave icon Lydia Lunch, Brazilian soul godfather Dom Salvador, and idiosyncratic British electronica artist Matthew Herbert.
Northern Soul has seen sneak previews of a couple of the films being screened. In My Own Time, from directors Richard Peete and Robert Yapkowitch, shines a light on the life and work of the legendary Karen Dalton. Raised in Oklahoma, Dalton gravitated towards the New York folk scene of the 1960s. For all her talents, though (not least her distinctive, bluesy, almost supernatural singing voice), Dalton, as one friend interviewed here puts it, “wasn’t a showbiz kind of gal”. An emotionally troubled performer, hers is a gently devastating story. Her dealings with the record industry never quite led to the widespread acclaim she deserved, but her reputation has continued to grow among music fans.
The film is unfussy, charting her life in straight-ahead chronological fashion using interview footage with Dalton’s surviving friends and family. There’s not much footage of Dalton playing live, nor of her speaking, but curiously for someone who wrote precious few songs herself, she wrote endless scraps of poetry, read here by artist and admirer Angel Olsen. It’s not always an easy watch but, in aiming for honesty and authenticity, nor should it be. Simply and effectively, In My Own Time allows the sheer strength of its subject to shine through.
A much more artful approach is taken, though not out of choice, by In a Silent Way, in which Belgian filmmaker Gwenaël Breës attempts to locate the soul of British band Talk Talk. Led by singer and songwriter Mark Hollis, over the course of five albums they moved from 80s synth-pop towards a timeless, stripped back, acoustic sound not unlike some kind of free-form ASMR jazz. Enchanted by these mysterious later albums, as so many others have been, Breës travels across to the UK to find out exactly how they came about. In this, he’s severely hampered by Hollis politely declining a request for an interview and refusing to allow any of his music to be used in the project. Several other key personnel follow suit, but Breës perseveres, speaking to whomever he can and, at one point, asking passing Essex folk if they’ve ever heard of Talk Talk, only to find to his dismay that none of them have.
Under these circumstances In a Silent Way could so easily not work, but in fact it succeeds admirably. With character, flair and some humour, it manages to tell the story organically with unexpected insight, regularly illustrating it with poetic vérité shots of nature, architecture or industry – a Canvey Island funfair here, a cobwebbed, abandoned phone box there – cannily pulling back before this threatens to disappear up its own fundament. It’s dedicated to Hollis who died not long after it was made and, though it goes against his wishes to some extent, Breës’s film faithfully captures something of the elusive spirit of his music.
Together, In My Own Time and In a Silent Way are testament to the Doc ‘n Roll Festival’s commitment to finding well-told stories about music’s more remarkable, often maverick figures. Both are well worth catching, and the festival as a whole has several more appealing documentaries in store.
By Andy Murray, Music and Film Editor
Doc ‘n Roll Film Festival is in Manchester, November 2-7, 2021. For more information and tickets, click here.