One of my favorite things about Hot Docs is settling in to watch a film about music and the people who make it. This year, the pickings were a little slimmer — and, sadly, I missed my window to check out the Joan Baez doc — and not quite as satisfying (for me, anyway) as in years past.
Igor Levit — No Fear (4/8)
Over the years, I’ve watched many documentaries about singers, musicians and bands I’d never heard of before. In fact, I seek them out as a way of (possibly) discovering someone or something new. Often, that’s exactly what a great music doc does: it welcomes new audiences as much as those already familiar with the subject in question. When I sat down to for this film, I only had very-cursory knowledge of who Igor Levit is: I knew him by name as a famous pianist who did some online at-home concerts during the pandemic, but that’s about it. Unfortunately, director Regina Schilling’s profile of Levit didn’t really tell me much more about him, his life, his work or why he’s noteworthy. (I only know now because I Googled.) Weirdly impersonal and sterile, the doc keeps the audience at an arm’s length and, worse, assumes they already know a lot about its undeniably brilliant subject… and, if you don’t, well, too bad. Following Levit over what feels like about a year (beginning in 2019), Schilling films his rehearsals and recording sessions, as well random moments away from the piano — be it a therapy session, shopping for new shoes, or what feels like an out-of-left-field sequence involving Levit at some kind of panel discussion (?) on discrimination (?). Who can know, because the nature of the event and Levit’s reason for being there are never explained or addressed. What Schilling does do is give Levit’s existing fans a LOT of footage of him playing Beethoven on the piano for long long sequences. A lot. So, Levit or classical-piano or Beethoven aficionados will likely enjoy the film. But if you’re not already well-versed in some or all of these things, it’ll be challenging to connect with the material in a meaningful way.
Love to Love You, Donna Summer (5/8)
Fans of the titular songstress will no doubt relish this intimate, if occasionally scattered, portrait of the “Queen of Disco.” Co-directed by Roger Ross Williams (Life, Animated) and Summer’s daughter, Brooklyn Sudano, the biographical film assembles archival concert footage, photos, music videos and never-before-seen home movies to chronicle Summer’s life and career, from her early days performing in Germany to her turbulent personal life and eventual ascent to music-icon status. Voiceover interviews and archival audio recordings paint a picture of a talented but often troubled artist, who struggled to reconcile the public and private sides of her life, but the result felt oddly disjointed at times. Its non-linear art-film-esque approach to storytelling made the doc a bit confusing for me at times, and (as someone with a non-encyclopedic knowledge of Summer) I occasionally found myself wondering where a particular moment or song fell in the course of her life and as it pertained to whatever happened before/after in the film. Nonetheless, Love to Love You is a detailed tribute very clearly crafted out of love and affection for its subject and, most likely, will be a Summer fan’s dream come true.
Check out more of our Hot Docs 2023 coverage here!