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SXSW 2010: No One Knows About Persian Cats, American: The Bill Hicks Story, and NY Export: Opus Jazz

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SXSW 2010: <em>No One Knows About Persian Cats</em>, <em>American: The Bill Hicks Story</em>, and <em>NY Export: Opus Jazz</em>

No One Knows About Persian Cats (Bahman Ghobadi). In Tehran, being in an indie rock band can be extremely dangerous. After stints in jail and the constant fear of being caught playing “underground music,” bandmates Negar and Ashkan decide they need to go to London to play their music live. They get introduced to Nedar, a fast-talking, hyper-passionate underground music know-it-all who, after listening to their CD among his pet parrots and stacks of illegally obtained DVDs, uses his web of connections to try and get them overseas. He promises to help them on their journey to find a backup band and visas (a U.S. passport on the black market is $26,000).

Negar and Askan’s search for underground musicians through windy roads, basements, secret practice spaces is fascinating. At each stop, these real-life musicians play their music as the pair listen in, studying to see what and who will work with their band. These scenes often incorporate montages of Tehran street life. One of the most interesting segments concerns a rap group meeting on a floor of an unfinished building, and overlooking the city the group raps about class struggle in Tehran.

Bahman Ghobadi’s film premiered at Cannes, winning the Special Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section and continued on to win several International awards. The film is a delicate and beautiful portrayal of the musicians in Tehran and how they struggle to do what they love. It is my hope that it will continue to play screens around the world.

American: The Bill Hicks Story (Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas). To be honest, the only thing I knew about Bill Hicks going into this film was that he was a comedian. Narrated by his mother, brother, and close friends, the documentary delves into Hicks’s life, starting with him as a child in a strict religious home, sneaking out to Houston comedy clubs to get a few laughs only to get caught by his parents, and employs an innovative animation technique that renders photos from Hicks’s life in a 3D fashion. But it’s the detailing of Hicks’s comic evolution, from the rare footage of him as a teenager in Houston comedy clubs to his wild success in England and his last TV performance on The Letterman Show before his death in 1993, that is the film’s greatest reward.

American: The Bill Hicks StoryAs a teenager, Hicks knew he wanted to be a comedian. While still in high school he would frequent open mic nights at Houston comedy clubs and was great at getting laughs at his family’s expense. The film goes on to show his struggles as a comedian whose vision was never appreciated by American audiences. Leaving for Los Angeles to make it big in TV never worked out, sending him back to Texas, to the Houston comedy clubs and years of alcohol addiction. Those years have fueled the image of Hicks most people know: angry, patriotic, hilarious, and full of big-hearted honesty. The film reveals that during his later years, after getting sober, Hicks found his voice and his jokes became more political. In archival footage, he’s heard saying of the Gulf War, “There never was a war because a war is when two armies are fighting.” His jokes also began to focus on the human condition, and in another clip he ponders the news covering a drug story in a positive way: “From the news room: A man today on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration…there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream and we’re the imagination of ourselves…here’s Tom with the weather.” Hicks’s message, albeit still laced with razor-sharp political critique, became more about optimism and love.

The film can be tedious at times, in particular when it focuses on the minutiae of his youth, as these details don’t add to the story but, rather, drag it out. I got the feeling that the film’s length was icing on the cake for true Hicks fans than the average festival movie viewer who is unfamiliar with his life. But besides these small discrepancies this documentary terrifically preserves the brilliance of Hicks Hicks.

NY Export: Opus Jazz (Jody Lee Lipes and Henry Joost). In 1958, Jerome Robbins, choreographer of shows such as West Side Story, created a “ballet in sneakers” called NY Export: Opus Jazz. After playing The Ed Sullivan Show, it went on to tour the world and forever changed the landscape of jazz dance with its innovation and unpretentious approach, using “regular”-looking people in real situations.

Flash forward 50 years later when two members of the New York City Ballet had an idea to bring the show back. SXSW favorite Jody Lee Lipes was brought on as the cinematographer for what he thought of as “just a job” that wouldn’t take long. Instead, he became enthralled in the project and eventually became a co-director.

Shot in modern New York City, in abandoned buildings, concrete parks, above ground subway tracks, the original choreography from 1958 works seamlessly in this new interpretation. Even though I am a complete dance novice, this almost dialogue-free, beautiful dance narrative, had me at the first sequence. NY Export plays on PBS on March 24 and shouldn’t be missed.

South by Southwest (SXSW) runs from March 12 to March 20.