Theme-Spotting: Music in Film at SFIFF

At this year's San Francisco International Film Festival, we are thrilled to screen a wealth of movies exploring the crucial role of music in film and popular culture. A range of documentaries and narrative features in our 59th program dive head first into this theme: We trace the history of musical recording in Soundbreaking; we see an old film in a different light with Mercury Rev's live score of Vampyr; we experience the highs and lows of YouTube singer-stardom in the fantastic and moving Presenting Princess Shaw. Below, we've rounded up the films in this year's lineup that tell these stories—stories about the cultural and deeply personal significance of music.

Soundbreaking: Stories from the Cutting-Edge of Recorded Music, screens April 27, 29 & 30

This immensely entertaining series covers the history of contemporary recorded music through scores of original interviews with the famous producers and artists who created it. The two segments presented here focus, respectively, on the role of the music producer (George Martin gets major props) and how magnetic tape and multi-tracking revolutionized how we hear popular music.

Sonita, screens April 27 & 29

Sonita Alizadeh is like many teenagers—she loves hip-hop, argues with her mother and gossips with her friends. She is also an Afghan refugee living under the tenuous protection of a Tehran homeless shelter, where she contends with the imminent risk of being sold into marriage under the Afghan system of “bride price.” In this inspiring documentary, she calls upon her greatest passion—rap music—in a fight for freedom and self-determination, rhyming all the way.

Radio Dreams, screens April 28 & 29

Hamid, the often exasperated program director of a Farsi-language radio station based in San Francisco, awaits a much-anticipated meeting between Metallica and real-life Afghani band Kabul Dreams at his studio. Meanwhile, he has to contend with the commercial imperatives handed down by the no-nonsense daughter of the station’s owner, and the film (winner of the Tiger Award in Rotterdam) presents it all with gentle humor and a deadpan eye towards cultural differences.

Contemporary Color, free outdoor screening April 29

Ten cutting-edge performers (including St. Vincent, tUnE-yArDs, Zola Jesus, and This American Life host Ira Glass) collaborate with 10 color guard troupes that interpret music with synchronized flags, weapons and dance. The result is the most artistic halftime show you've ever seen. This passion project from Talking Heads founder David Byrne is part concert film, part backstage musical—and truly a one-of-a-kind viewing experience.

Vampyr with Mercury Rev & Simon Raymond (Cocteau Twins), screening with live score May 2

Continuing the Festival's tradition of uniting contemporary musicians with classic film, Mercury Rev will illuminate Carl Theodore Dryer's atmospheric 1932 horror classic with their shimmering sonic compositions. In Vampyr, the great Danish filmmaker's follow-up to The Passion of Joan of Arc, a student visiting a village inn becomes embroiled in the strange goings-on of a mysterious doctor, and an old crone and a young woman are afflicted with a terrible curse. Filled with Dryer's atmospheric black and white images—autonomous shadows, brooding fogs, strange reflections—the film progresses in a dream-like mood of haunted dread.

The Music of Strangers: YoYo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, screens May 3 & 5

Sponsored by the SF Symphony
On a quest to uncover Leonard Bernstein’s “universal language of music,” renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma gathers virtuoso musicians from around the globe to collaborate on new musical explorations. This exceptional documentary profiles several of these artists, collectively called the Silk Road Ensemble, using compelling archival footage as well as numerous rousing performance sequences to elucidate the ways their artistry reflects their cultures.

Presenting Princess Shaw, screens May 4 & 5

Samantha Montgomery (an unforgettable star-in-the-making) is a New Orleans caregiver whose singing aspirations have been limited thus far to posting a cappella YouTube videos under the name Princess Shaw. When Israeli mashup artist Kutiman uses her vocals with other “found” musical elements and the resulting song becomes a viral sensation, director Ido Haar is there to capture the surprising and touching results.

The San Francisco International Film Festival offers the best in new movies, featuring major spring releases and outstanding indie films from nearly 50 countries around the world. Combining a range of marquee premieres, international competitions, new media work, musical performances and star-studded events, this two-week extravaganza is a Bay Area must. This year, the Festival is more transit-friendly than ever, centering around Mission, Castro and East Bay neighborhoods.