Expect a celebration and exploration of a variety of music and musicians at the M.V. Film Center, coming up from Thursday, June 23, to Sunday, June 26. Now in its 10th year, the Filmusic Festival is the longest-running Film Center event other than the M.V. International Film Festival. This festival will feature six films with a mix of musicians and musical instruments. Reviewed this week are “The Reverend — Minister of Music,” “The Conductor,” and “Bonnie Blue — James Cotton’s Life in the Blues.” Next week will feature “Learning to Live Together: The Return of Mad Dogs & Englishmen,” “Let There Be Drums,” and “Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story.”
‘The Reverend — Minister of Music’
The Filmusic Festival opens with a musical bang on Thursday, June 23. The documentary “The Reverend — Minister of Music” (2021) is not at all what viewers would expect. It’s a portrait of the Rev. Vince Anderson and the Love Choir, and Anderson is both an outrageous singer and piano player.
Raised in California as Lutheran, Anderson entered the New York Theological Seminary in the1990s to become a Methodist minister, but dropped out to pursue a career in music. It was not an easy decision for him. He spent the next 20 years giving free performances every Monday night at Union Pool, a New York City bar. These acts combined music and spirituality, which for him are deeply intertwined.
Bars serve as the locale for his ministry, and he plays the piano and sings there in the same wild vein as Jerry Lee Lewis. “We’re dealing with spirituality as an institution,” he explains in “The Reverend,” and it seems natural for him to take his religious beliefs into bars, a place where people meet and form a community of sorts.
As one of the Love Choir musicians said, “In Anderson, the Holy Spirit met the Tasmanian devil.” Rehearsals are not a hallmark of the band’s performances, and instead, members of the band often improvise onstage. When Anderson bangs on the piano, the piano takes a beating. One of the shockers of his performances are his appearance naked, but audiences seemed to take that in stride.
In “The Reverend,” Anderson explains his unusual mix of music as well as song, and the only way for viewers to appreciate it is to see him in action.
Playing on Friday, June 24, “The Conductor” (2021) features another unique performer, but this time it’s Marin Alsop, the first woman in history to become musical director of a major American symphony. Even in the 21st century, it is unusual for a woman to become a conductor. In addition to hearing her conduct a variety of symphonies, the viewer will learn about her unusual upbringing and the challenges she faced in the male-dominated conductor’s world.
An only child, she was 9 years old when her father, a professional violinist (her mother was a professional cellist), took her to a concert with Leonard Bernstein conducting. Her immediate response was, “I want to be that.” Subsequently, her father gave her a box filled with batons. As the film points out, only a very special musician can become a conductor.
Alsop began her musical education at New York’s Juilliard School when she was 7 years old. Music, in particular the violin, became an obsession. While there, she performed with the New York Philharmonic and the New York City Ballet. In 1981, at the age of 25, she founded the string ensemble String Fever, and in 1984, at the age of 28, she founded Concordia, a 50-piece orchestra specializing in 20th-century American music.
In 1989 she won the Koussevitzky Prize as the best student conductor at Tanglewood Music Center, where she met Bernstein, who became a hero and mentor. At one point, Bernstein gave her a compliment of sorts: “With my eyes closed, I can’t tell you’re a woman.” Despite her many awards and accomplishments, she made it into the good old boys club. “They haven’t changed at the top level,” she said, and decided it was time to found a good old girls network. In 2005, she became the first female conductor to receive a MacArthur Fellowship.
She also became the first conductor of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra. Her spouse, Kristin Jurkscheit, has known Alsop for 30 years. Alsop has said of her son, “I want my son to know himself as a person.” It’s a credo for her as well.
‘Bonnie Blue — James Cotton’s Life’
The harmonica was the chosen instrument of James Cotton, and “Bonnie Blue — James Cotton’s Life” (2022) tells the history of the harmonica and Cotton. Like “The Conductor,” it plays on Friday, June 24.
Born in Tunica, Miss., and orphaned at 9 years old, Cotton grew up picking cotton in a place where people played the harmonica and expressed themselves by playing the blues. He learned the harmonica from Sonny Boy Williams, Muddy Waters, and others, in the style of the Delta blues, and he became a major influence on the Chicago blues. He never learned to read or write.
His harmonica playing led to tours with Janis Joplin and Paul Butterfield, as well as the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, and many other well-known musicians. While playing in Memphis, Muddy Waters invited Cotton to play with him at the Hippodrome. Then Cotton went to Chicago, where he played for 12 years. Living at Muddy Waters’s house, he described Chicago as a world of thugs and gangsters, as well as of police corruption.
Cotton described breathing as part of the harmonica package. In 1966, he performed at the Newport Jazz Festival. He began playing rhythm and blues, then moved on to rock and roll. He coined the phrase “When the blues had a baby, it was rock and roll.”
Drugs became a problem for him, but eventually he got clean. In 1993, Cotton was diagnosed with throat cancer and underwent radiation treatment. Once he recovered, he was told his voice would never be the same, but he continued to play the harmonica. An unpretentious man, he was generous with other musicians. He died in 2017 of congestive heart failure. For viewers in particular who like the harmonica, this is the film for them, as well as for those interested in the history of music.