Welcome to the Larry411.com Guest Columnists! April 27, 2013
In my travels to the best film festivals in…
On Saturday, March 16, 2013, I attended a gala screening of Artifact at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas. The event took place in the 645-seat Vimeo Theater at the Austin Convention Center. The documentary was a selection in the 24 Beats Per Second section.
One doesn't need in-depth knowledge of the music industry to be a film journalist and appreciate rock docs or movies about record labels, copyright laws, and piracy...but it helps. Prior to this stage in my life I spent over 20 years as a rock radio DJ in the country's fourth largest market, band manager, concert promoter, and record producer. So my experience in that world is actually much greater than my relatively new, just under a decade-long career as a film festival and independent film reporter. This gives me a uniquely dual perspective and, I hope, qualifies me to accurately and incisively comment on movies such as the Napster documentary Downloaded, TPB AFK: The Pirate Bay Away From Keyboard, and Artifact, along with the Green Day docs Broadway Idiot and ¡Cuatro!, In Your Dreams - Stevie Nicks, Good Ol' Freda, and Dave Grohl's Sound City, all of which I saw at the just-concluded 2013 SXSW Film Festival.
While the latter five are classic "rock docs," spotlighting landmark events in music history or artists' latest works, the first three -- Downloaded, TPB AFK, and Artifact -- are also scathing commentaries about the current state of the record industry and its failure to keep up with technology, clinging to archaic business models which rob artists of just compensation for their work. Artifact, directed (as Bartholomew Cubbins) and produced (with Emma Ludbrook) by Thirty Seconds to Mars frontman Jared Leto, is an essential piece of viewing for anyone who's ever purchased music via vinyl LP, cassette, eight-track, CD, or digital download.
The project began as a cinematic documentation of the band's recording process and production of their new album, eventually titled This is War. But an obscenely egregious $30 million lawsuit filed by their label EMI, coincidentally served as the album got underway, transformed the documentary into a dual-themed work: yes, we see the grueling effort it takes to make a record album, but we also get a rarely-seen glimpse into the world of aging business executives who still think that the only path to an artist's success is by selling CDs and getting played on the radio through marketing and promotion by major record labels. Yes, this might have been the case in the 60s, 70s, and 80s...and even 90s...but that all changed with the development of the internet and proliferation of alternative outlets for bands to distribute their music. The post-Napster era transformed the industry but the major labels have been operating with blinders on. The fight between EMI and Thirty Seconds to Mars becomes the real focus of Artifact and unfolds before our eyes as it did with bandmates Jared Leto, Shannon Leto, and Tomo Milicevic.
The film strikes a perfect balance between telling the politico-business story of their case with the painstaking work involved in writing and recording a record album. Lawsuit aside, fans of Thirty Seconds to Mars will delight in this behind-the-scenes look at (and listen to) the band's process, with a giant helping of the brilliant songs. But the viewer does not need any experience with their music to appreciate the hard-fought David and Goliath battle at the heart of Artifact. Through intimate interviews with the Leto brothers and Milicevic, along with industry heavyweights including their manager Irving Azoff and numerous now-ex-employees of adversary EMI, a clear and concise picture emerges of an often-corrupt, dying industry that is both reviled as well as (still), unfortunately, somewhat required in the competitive landscape of record sales. How the band's battle with juggernaut EMI plays out makes this an incredibly compelling, richly rewarding documentary that serves as a lesson in how to survive as a musician at the intersection of art and commerce.
Artifact was the 36th of the 39 films I saw at this year's festival and a fitting way to end the week. For effectively examining the challenges artists face in today's music industry with intelligence and respect for their fans and casual viewers alike, I gave this truly important work five stars and a place on my 2013 SXSW Film Festival Top 5 Documentaries.
NOTE: Artifact won the Documentary People's Choice Award at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival and the Audience Award at the 2012 Gotham Awards.
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In my travels to the best film festivals in…