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Hot Docs 2024 #7: Creative Artists

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Hot Docs Film Festival

There’s a wealth of potential documentary subjects in the creative world, and there’s never a shortage of great films about art and artists on offer at Hot Docs (see previously reviewed outstanding 2024 offerings Teaches of Peaches and Any Other Way: The Jackie Shane Story). From documentaries celebrating creativity and imagination to those tipping their proverbial hat to performers persevering, here are five more solid selections to check out this year.

Grand Theft Hamlet (6/8)
Imagine staging a production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and having to pause to ask audience members to please not kill the actors. That’s one of the laugh-out-loud moments in this inventive, wholly unique pseudo-“animated” documentary — created and recorded entirely within the world of the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) multi-player video game — from co-directors Pinny Grylls and Sam Crane, the latter of whom is also one of the film’s two primary subjects. When, during a game of GTA, Sam and his fellow-actor friend Mark Oosterveen lament the lack of work amid pandemic lockdowns, the duo get an idea: “employ” themselves (and combat their own boredom) by mounting a play inside the game, using other players to fill out parts. From recruiting amateur talent to finding the perfect location within the world of GTA to perform, and repeatedly trying to evade death at the hands of random players who pop up during rehearsals, the film chronicles the ridiculous and fun artistic experiment. The action does begin to get a bit repetitive, the novelty of the in-game film does wear off, and I did find myself getting a bit of motion sickness due to the constant movement of the characters/screen, but GTH makes for an entertaining Hot Docs palate cleanser amid heavier-themed films at the fest.

Me, Michael and I (6/8)
There’s something uncomfortable about the exploration of extreme fandom in this documentary from co-directors Régis Coussot and Nicolas-Alexandre Tremblay. The film profiles Québecois Michael Jackson impersonator Fréderik Duffour — a white guy who, in his mid-20s, has already devoted much of his life to an all-consuming infatuation with Jackson, and who’s determined to fully embody the artist and honor his musical reputation, no matter what it takes. This includes undergoing pricey cosmetic-surgery procedures in Turkey, amassing a closet full of replica costumes, and endless hours rehearsing (song by song) Jackson’s every move, gesture and tic to ensure performance perfection down to the tiniest detail. Interviews with Duffour’s girlfriend and family members provide insight into a man who’s driven, dedicated to his art, and determined to succeed… but who may also be struggling with psychological issues — Duffour himself admits to bouts of depression and anxiety, and extremely emotional reactions when things don’t go his way. Divided into chapters based on Jackson’s song titles, the film is a raw, unflinching and sometimes unsettling look at what it means to chase artistic dreams, revealing along the way that there can sometimes be a thin line between having a healthy passion and an unhealthy obsession.

Michel Gondry, Do It Yourself (6/8)
This comprehensive biographical documentary from director, and longtime assistant to its titular subject, François Nemeta takes viewers into the mind and imagination of the creative genius, whose often-homemade special effects and “let’s try this and see what happens!” approach to his craft have resulted in some of the most fantastically unique music videos and movies of the past 30ish years. Chronicling Gondry’s storied career — from his early days as a drummer (and music-video director) for 1980s French pop group Oui Oui to crafting iconic videos for the likes of Björk and The White Stripes, and directing wonderfully surreal films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — it’s an encyclopedic examination of his artistic and technical expertise across myriad projects. The doc features archival and present-day interviews with both Gondry and some of his famous collaborators (including both Jacks: Black and White), as well as brother Olivier, and is so packed with material that it might have benefitted from an additional 15 to 20 minutes in running time to slow down some of the segments that feel a bit rushed. Still, it’s an appropriately whimsical doc about movie magic, and a magician who routinely makes it.

Swamp Dogg Gets His Pool Painted (6/8)
Unfolding through casual poolside conversations amongst its primary subject and his pals, this quirky and colorful doc from co-directors Isaac Gale and Ryan Olson pays loving tribute to the titular R&B cult hero, whose journey to relative fame has kind of been as wacky as his name. From his early days as singer “Little” Jerry Williams in the 1950s to his executive roles at assorted record labels, and his prolific career as a songwriter and producer (claiming 2,000+ songs to his credit), the film charts his professional progression and the key milestones along the way. Now living in a modest home in the San Fernando Valley with his equally eccentric aging-musician roommates, Moogstar and Guitar Shorty, Swamp Dogg is revealed to be a man of many talents and many stories (at one point, he was on the FBI’s Watch List!), but also an extremely hardworking performer and a dedicated father. Gale and Olson’s film matches its subject in tone and execution, using stylized graphics and animation to punctuate the narrative, and demonstrates that creativity doesn’t vanish as you get older, it can propel you to greatness as long as you “just be cool.”

This is Going to Be Big (6/8)
In the same celebratory vein as 2022’s OKAY! The ASD Band Film, director Thomas Hyland’s sweet and spirited documentary follows a group of neurodivergent teens as they prep for a big performance. In this film, it’s the students at the Bullengarook Campus of the Sunbury and Macedon Range Specialist School in Australia, who — with the encouragement, guidance, and unwavering support of their teachers and parents — decide to mount a John Farnham-themed musical about a trio of time-travelling teenagers hopping through the decades and repeatedly encountering the You’re the Voice singer. Shot over six months, and tracking several of the cast members through the entire production process from rehearsals to opening night, the doc explores the various challenges the kids encounter, including pre-show jitters and serious health challenges. Affirming and affectionate, it’s a documentary with subjects who will steal your heart, and one that demonstrates how something as seemingly ordinary as a school production can nonetheless have such a profound and meaningful impact on its performers and their families.

Check out all of our Hot Docs 2024 coverage here!

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