Review: ‘Under the Volcano’ (2021), starring The Police, Mark Knopfler, Jimmy Buffett, Nick Rhodes, Verdine White, Chris Kimsey and Giles Martin

May 31, 2021

by Carla Hay

George Martin at AIR Studios Montserrat in “Under the Volcano” (Photo by Martyn Goddard/Universal Pictures Content Group)

“Under the Volcano” (2021)

Directed by Gracie Otto

Culture Representation: In the documentary “Under the Volcano,” a predominantly white group of people (with some black people), who are connected in some way to the now-shuttered AIR Studios Montserrat, discuss this famous recording studio that operated in Montserrat from 1979 to 1989.

Culture Clash: People who recorded albums at AIR Studios Montserrat had various reactions to the laid-back, “isolated from the modern world” atmosphere of Montserrat.

Culture Audience: “Under the Volcano” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in hearing behind-the-scenes stories about the making of some the 1980s’ biggest pop albums at this very unique recording studio.

The Police recording their 1981 “Ghost in the Machine” album at AIR Studios Montserrat in “Under the Volcano.” Pictured from left to right: Stewart Copeland, Sting and Andy Summers. (Photo courtesy of A&M Records/Universal Music Group)

The nostalgic music documentary “Under the Volcano” takes viewers back to a bygone era of recording studios. It’s a comprehensive history of AIR Studios Montserrat, which operated from 1979 to 1989. The recording studio, which was in an isolated part of the Caribbean island Montserrat, hosted some of the biggest names in rock and pop music.

And the documentary is a wistful rememberance of how AIR Studios Montserrat started as a dream music nirvana for celebrated producer George Martin, who founded the studio that was tragically destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Martin died in 2016, at the age of 90, but his widow Jane Martin and their son Giles Martin are interviewed in “Under the Volcano.” The movie had its world premiere at the 2021 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.

Directed in a traditional and engaging manner by Gracie Otto, “Under the Volcano” uses the expected format of mixing archival footage with new interviews conducted for the documentary. The documentary has a lot more photographs than video footage showing what it was like to be at AIR Studios Montserrat. And that’s probably because before digital cameras existed, it was a lot more costly for artists to film behind-the-scenes footage. And it was a lot less common than it is now for artists to film themselves at work in the recording studio.

“Under the Volcano” has a very good representation of many of the famous artists who recorded albums at AIR Studios Montserrat. (AIR is an acronym for Associated Independent Recording.) Some of interviewees include all three former members of The Police; former Dire Straits members Mark Knopfler and Guy Fletcher; Jimmy Buffett; Duran Duran keyboardist Nick Rhodes; former Ultravox frontman Midge Ure; Deep Purple members Tony Iommi and Roger Glover; Earth Wind & Fire bassist Verdine White; musician Ray Cooper; and America singer Gerry Buckley.

However, some of the biggest AIR Studios Montserrat alumni and their perspectives are noticeably absent from the movie—chiefly, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Elton John and the Rolling Stones. Viewers of “Under the Volcano” will have to settle for people talking about these superstars in the documentary, instead of hearing these legendary artists’ first-hand accounts of their experiences at AIR Studios Montserrat. For example, stories about John’s recording sessions at the studio are primarily told by two musicians from his band: drummer Nigel Olsson and guitarist Davey Johnstone.

Not having these superstar artists in the documentary doesn’t lower the overall quality of the movie, but there are times when the documentary feels a little incomplete without these points of view. The “Under the Volcano” filmmakers undoubtedly made their best efforts to include these artists in the documentary. But, for whatever reasons, these legends weren’t available to be interviewed.

Fortunately, “Under the Volcano” included other important perspectives besides those of the recording artists. Several people who worked behind the scenes with the artists at AIR Studio Montserrat are also interviewed. They include music producers Chris Kimsey, Chris Thomas, Neil Dorfsman and Ian Little, as well as sound balance engineer Michael Paul Stavrou.

Some of the former longtime AIR Studios Montserrat employees are also interviewed, such as chief technical engineer/general manager Malcolm Atkin; managing director Yve Robinson; managing director Dave Harries; chef George “Tappy” Morgan; housekeeper Minetta Allen Francis; and studio managers Steve Jackson, Lloyd Oliver and Desmond Riley. And for the perspectives of people in the local Montserrat music industry, the documentary includes commentary from the late musician Justin “Hero” Cassell (who died in 2010) and radio DJ Rose Willock.

George Martin (who is best known for being the producer of the Beatles) came up with the idea to have a recording studio in a remote island location after he fell in love with Montserrat and wanted to do something radically different with his career. By 1979, he had been closely associated with famous London recording studios Abbey Road Studios (formerly known as EMI Recording Studios) and AIR Studios London, a recording facility that George Martin founded in 1965. And he wanted a change of scenery that was more laid-back than what professional musicians were used to experiencing at big-city recording studios.

According to George’s son Giles Martin, “I think my father was tired of the confines of a very rigid company structure … And he wanted a place that was more artist-friendly. Abbey Road obviously created great music, but the fridge was locked at night. They [people working late at night at Abbey Road] had to break in to get milk for their cups of tea. Even the loo [Britlish slang for toilet] roll had [the name] Abbey Road on it, so you wouldn’t steal it. It was like a very proper English factory.”

It’s mentioned in the documentary that George Martin originally thought his dream recording studio in the Caribbean would be on a large boat. But he quickly scrapped that idea when he found out how noisy the boat engines would be and would thereby ruin the any audio recordings. He decided on a remote location in Montserrat that had an element of danger to it because the recording studo was situated right in the shadow of a volcano.

The idea was that the recording studio would also have its own living quarters—like a recording studio resort—so the people working on the albums didn’t have far to go to eat, sleep and party. Furthermore, Jane Martin says, “George was looking for something that wasn’t in the middle of London … And his plan was that there would be a lack of hangers-on. It would just be [the artists] and their families.”

Giles Martin says of his father George: “He was a mad visionary, in a lot of ways. I think he liked the idea of pushing boundaries. So, if you think about what he did with the Beatles in the ’60s, he pushed the boundaries in the recording studio.”

Here’s how some of the musicians who recorded at AIR Studios Montserrat describe the atmosphere:

Dire Straits leader Knopfler says, “Going to Montserrat was like going into a dream. It’s always different. Reality is always different from what you think it would be … It didn’t have the sophistication that you’d feel straight away if you went to Antigua … It was far more innocent, far more quiet.”

The Police frontman Sting comments, “I love the idea of wilderness on the edge of civilization. I think the volcano itself is a presiding spirit over the island. It definitely gives you the sense that you’re living on the edge of something seismic … There’s definitely a mystique about the island. “Ultravox founder Ure says, “You felt as though you were in a time warp. This little island had a heart that you could feel.”

Air Studios Montserrat’s former managing director Robinson says of Montserrat: “They used to call it the hidden gem of the Caribbean and the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean. Montserrat was colonized by the Irish. And that’s why the island was so different, because it’s really a friendly place. It’s got a magic about it.”

Four years after AIR Studios Montserrat opened in 1979, Montserrat experienced another musical claim to fame when local musician Arrow had an international hit with the 1983 soca song “Hot Hot Hot,” which was later covered by several artists (including Buster Poindexter’s 1987 version) and has since become a staple song at wedding receptions and other parties. Although the most famous artists who recorded at AIR Studios Montserrat performed pop and rock music, many of the arists were influenced by soca and the laid-back atmosphere of the culture in Montserrat.

The Police recorded their 1981 album “Ghost in the Machine” and their 1983 best-selling blockbuster “Synchronicity” at AIR Studios Montserrat. “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” the biggest hit single from “Ghost in the Machine,” has a Caribbean rhythm, and the song became the first Top 5 hit single in the U.S. for the Police. The music video for “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” was filmed entirely in Montserrat, including footage of the band in the AIR recording studio.

Dire Straits’ Knopfler says that the band’s biggest hit album, 1985’s “Brothers in Arms,” has two songs in particular that were directly influenced by the Montserrat vibe: “So Far Away” and “Walk of Life.” John Silcott, a local Montserrat technician who worked at AIR Studios Montserrat at the time, says he’s the Johnny who’s namechecked in “Walk of Life.” (Stay until the end credits of “Under the Volcano” for a cute moment of Silcott dancing to “Walk of Life.”) It’s also mentioned that “Brothers in Arms” (which includes Dire Straits’ biggest hit single “Money for Nothing”) was one of the first albums digitally recorded in its entirety, specifically for the CD format, which was new at the time.

“Under the Volcano” is geared for an audience that’s not too concerned about hearing a lot of technical recording studio jargon. Therefore, the documentary doesn’t have much talk about the studio equipment used at AIR Studios Montserrat. However, producer Neil Dorfsman comments, “Part of AIR’s fame was these three incredible-sounding Neve consoles—and they had one at AIR Montserrat.” According to a 2019 Globe and Mail article, this Neve console still works.

Other notable albums recorded partially or entirely at AIR Studios Montserrat include Elton John’s “Jump Up!” (1982); “Too Low for Zero” (1983) and “Breaking Hearts” (1984); Earth Wind & Fire’s “Faces” (1980); Duran Duran’s “Seven and the Ragged Tiger” (1983); and the Rolling Stones’ “Steel Wheels” (1989). Not surprisingly, many of the hit songs from some these albums are featured in “Under the Volcano,” such as John’s “I’m Still Standing” from “Two Low for Zero” and “Sad Songs Say So Much” from “Breaking Hearts,” as well as The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” from the “Synchronicity” album, the biggest hit song and album recorded at AIR Studios Montserrat.

The Police drummer Stewart Copeland and guitarist Andy Summers remember that the recording of “Ghost in the Machine” and “Synchronicity” was at times uncomfortable because Copeland and lead singer Sting famously had personality clashes with each other. Copeland says that he had to record his drum parts for “Ghost in the Machine” in a separate room that was not close to the main recording studio, so that isolation felt strange to him and he never got used to it.

McCartney sought refuge at AIR Studios Montserrat a few weeks after the December 1980 murder of former Beatles member John Lennon. A grieving McCartney ended up recording parts of his 1982 album “Tug of War” album there, as well as parts of his 1983 album “Pipes of Peace.” McCartney and Wonder’s chart-topping 1982 duet “Ebony and Ivory” (which was on the “Tug of War” album) was also recorded at AIR Studios Montserrat.

The documentary includes a story of a raucously fun, impromptu jam session that Wonder played for some very lucky people at a local pub. Some audio of that performance is included in the documentary. The sound quality isn’t the greatest, but it’s easy to hear how electrifiying and special that atmosphere must have been.

It’s also mentioned that many other musicians (such as McCartney, Dire Straits and Buffett, to name a few) often did private jam sessions at Montserrat, where local people would sometimes be invited. As a longtime radio DJ in the Montserrat, Willock says that these famous musicians felt like they could let loose in this relatively remote area, because the locals weren’t as star-struck by famous musicians as much as the locals were star-struck by famous athletes.

Flamboyant piano man John is fondly remembered in the documentary as one of the most beloved artists at AIR Studios Montserrat because he treated the staff so well and liked to cheer people up. Former studio employee Riley calls John “very generous,” and says that it wasn’t unusual for John to pay for an “open bar for everyone.” Riley adds, “When guys are down, he brings them up.”

Of course, being a rock star in the 1980s was synonymous with heavy partying. The documentary doesn’t reveal any stories that are scandalous or salacious, although it’s hinted that the recording studio’s staff had to be accommodating to whatever party whims their studio’s clients wanted. And because this is a laudatory documentary about the recording studio, there are no #MeToo or gender discrimination stories about this very male-dominated environment.

Sure, the filmmakers could have asked the people who were interviewed for tabloid-like stories, but it’s highly unlikely that the people who were at the recording studio back then would do an on-camera “tell all” for a documentary. It’s something that people would more likely talk about for a book or feature article. Instead, the documentary has people raving about things like the delicious meals prepared for them by AIR recording studio chef Morgan, who says, “That was the best job I ever had in my entire life.”

The closest thing to an epic partying story that’s told in “Under the Volcano” is that John’s song “I’m Still Standing” was inspired by him being surrounded by other people in the recording studio who had passed out from too much partying. John looked around, laughed, and said the immortal words, “Well, I’m still standing.” His lyricist songwriting partner Bernie Taupin decided to use that line as a jump-off point to finish the song’s lyrics.

Earth, Wind & Fire’s White remembers how welcoming the local people were in Montserrat. He says that women dropped their fruit-cutting machetes and applauded when the band’s instrument cases showed up at the airport. “We hadn’t even gotten there yet! And it was beautiful.” He adds, “For us, the biggest thing was just the whole experience of going there.”

And speaking of weapons with blades being thrown, producer Kimsey laughs when he tells a story of how Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards didn’t take too kindly to music manager Peter Mensch (who was a consultant on the Rolling Stones’ “Steel Wheels” tour) suggesting how the band should do a musical arrangement of the song “Mixed Emotions.” In reaction to Mensch’s suggestion, Richards threw a knife at Mensch. Needless to say, the Rolling Stones didn’t take Mensch’s advice on how to write and record the song.

Buffett, who has made a career out of the “tropical party” lifestyle, remembers what it was like to for him and his fellow American band members to experience some culture shock at the pubs in Montserrat when they first started getting to know the area. “There was a bit of a colonial aspect of things that did not fare well with the American band,” Buffett comments.

Buffett says that one of the things that irritated him and his band was the Montserrat pub custom of ordering drinks, one at a time, by writing down an order on a paper. After being told by AIR Studios Montserrat manager Denny Bridges that it was just the way things were done, Buffett remembers saying in response, “Well, why don’t I just buy the whole fucking bar?”

Despite these inconveniences, Buffett says he has overall good memories of spending time in Montserrat, where he states, “I lived on my boat, off and on there, for 20 years.” Buffett recorded his 1979 album “Volcano” at AIR Studios Montserrat. The album’s title was inspired by the volcano located near the studio.

Buffett comments on recording in Montserrat: “It was a lovely working environment because you didn’t leave, I would say, the reign of creativity. You were constantly involved in the creation of the community, as opposed to being in Nashville. To me, there are two ways to go into the studio: You can go and look for perfection, or you can capture the magic.”

Because tranquil Montserrat was not a big tourist attraction, visiting musicians often had to adjust to living without some of their usual creature comforts. Some musicians used it as an opportunity to spend more time outdoors for athletic activities. Sting has happy memories about being taught windsurfing by a local named Danny Sweeney, whom Sting calls “a very brilliant man … The people who taught me things are my heroes.”

Not all of the musicians were comfortable being in Montserrat for a long period of time. Duran Duran’s Rhodes admits he got bored with being on the island, in contrast to Duran Duran lead singer Simon LeBon, who loved spending time swimming and sailing in the ocean. Rhodes comments that after a while, he was ready to leave Montserrat when Duran Duran was recording part of the band’s album “Seven and the Ragged Tiger.”

The album’s first two singles (“Union of the Snake” and “New Moon on Monday”) were recorded at AIR Studios Montserrat. Rhodes believes that the band made the right decision to continue recording the album elsewhere that was better suited for the dance-oriented pop/rock music that Duran Duran was making at the time. “I’m not sure we were in the right head space to make the kind of record that might have been a little more chilled,” says Rhodes of recording in Montserrat. “We wanted to make something full of energy.”

Rhodes also says that Montserrat wasn’t ideal for anyone who missed the hustle and bustle of a big city. There were also safety issues of having a recording studio in a relatively isolated area. Rhodes comments, “It was really brave of them [to build the studio there], because if something went really wrong, the closest port of call was Miami.”

And there was always the possible threat of a volcano eruption, which did indeed happen in 1995, causing massive destruction to Montserrat, six years after AIR Studios closed down on the island because of Hurricane Hugo. Elton John drummer Olsson comments on his AIR Studios Montserrat experiences, “I remember thinking a few times: ‘What if the volcano goes off?'” Earth, Wind & Fire’s White quips: “I’m from Chicago. We don’t do volcanos.”

Today, AIR Studios Montserrat is a broken-down shell of its former self, and it’s off-limits to the public. The documentary includes footage of what the former recording studio looks like now: a series of run-down and empty rooms, with some parts of the building reduced to rubble. The damage caused by Hurricane Hugo and the volcano eruption were enough to make the location of AIR Studios Montserrat completely inhabitable, even if the structure was rebuilt.

Cooper says, “When the volcano went off, that was a pinnacle point of change—a point when nothing was ever going to be quite the same again in the way that we recorded, in the way, in the way that music was dealt with— those magical moments were going to be no longer.”

However, the music, memories and legacy of AIR Studios Montserrat live on in many ways. “Under the Volcano” is a solid tribute to this influential hub of creativity. And the movie will bring a lot of joy to anyone who’s a fan of rock and pop music from the 1980s.

UPDATE: Universal Pictures Content Group will release “Under the Volcano” on digital and VOD on August 17, 2021.

Review: ‘Subjects of Desire,’ starring Ryann Richardson, Alex Germain, Seraiah Nicole, India.Arie, Amanda Parris, Cheryl Thompson and Carolyn West

April 29, 2021

by Carla Hay

Contestants in the 2018 Miss Black America Pageant, including Alex Germain (far left) and Ryann Richardson (far right), in “Subjects of Desire” (Photo courtesy of Hungry Eyes Media)

“Subjects of Desire”

Directed by Jennifer Holness

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the U.S. and Canada, the documentary film “Subjects of Desire” features a predominantly black group of women discussing the intersection between beauty standards and what it means to be a black female.

Culture Clash: Several people in the documentary say that black beauty characteristics are often co-opted when white people benefit from cultural appropriation, but the same characteristics are used against black people, who are subjected to racist ideas of what is considered “beautiful.”

Culture Audience: “Subjects of Desire” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in an impactful and honest examination of how racism plays a role in how black females are perceived in American society.

Contestants in the 2018 Miss Black America Pageant, including Ryann Richardson (second from left) and Alex Germain (front row, in pink), in “Subjects of Desire” (Photo courtesy of Hungry Eyes Media)

The empowering statement “Black is beautiful” first emerged in the 1950s. And since then, a lot has occurred in civil rights for black people in the United States. However, the insightful documentary “Subjects of Desire” shows how black women feel about the still-prevalent and damaging racism in how black females are treated and perceived by beauty standards in American society. Astutely directed by Jennifer Holness and narrated by Garvia Bailey, “Subjects of Desire” had its world premiere at the 2021 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.

Grammy-winning singer India.Arie talks about the impact of her breakthrough 2001 hit “Video,” a song about how she accepts how she looks, even though she’s doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of a light-skinned video vixen. “That song taught me a lot about people. The whole time I was writing it, I thought, ‘This is how I want people to understand who I am.’ And then [the song] came out, and people were telling me, ‘That’s how I felt!'”

“Subjects of Desire” has the 2018 Miss Black America beauty pageant (the event’s 50th anniversary) as a central focus of the documentary. The movie includes footage of behind-the-scenes pageant preparations, as well as interviews with several of the contestants. However, the documentary also gives a cultural overview of how systemic racism affects people’s perceptions of what is considered “beautiful” or “desirable” in society. Only black women are interviewed in this documentary, so that their voices are heard and not drowned out by people who haven’t lived the experience of being a black woman their entire lives.

The only exception is an interviewee who has lived her life as a white woman and as a black woman: controversial activist/artist Rachel Dolezal, a woman who is biologically white/Caucasian, but she began self-identifying as black around the time that she wanted to have Afro-centric jobs. Dolezal, who was born in 1977, used to be the president of Spokane, Washington’s chapter of the NAACP, and she taught Africana studies at Eastern Washington University. The controversy over her race made headlines when she admitted in 2015 that she was born to white parents and lived as a white female until sometime in the mid-2000s, when she began living as a black woman.

In 2002, when Dolezal was still living as a white woman, she unsuccessfully sued her alma mater Howard University (a historically black-majority school) for racial discrimination, by claiming the university denied her a job, a scholarship and other opportunities as a white woman. Dolezal doesn’t talk about that lawsuit in the “Subjects of Desire” documentary, but she does complain about being misunderstood, and she compares her situation to experiences of transgender people. “I get a lot of hate from different groups,” she claims. “I cancelled my white privilege.”

Dolezal’s presence in this documentary doesn’t take up too much screen time (only about 10 to 15 minutes in a 103-minute film), and she doesn’t say anything new that she didn’t already say in her 2018 Netflix documentary “The Rachel Divide.” Dolezal seems to have been included in “Subjects of Desire” as part of a necessary but uncomfortable topic discussed in the documentary: White people co-opting aspects of black beauty culture for their own self-benefit. Kim Kardashian, Khloe Kardashian and Kylie Jenner are frequently mentioned in the documentary as celebrities who are guilty of excessive appropriation of black culture to get attention for themselves.

“Subjects of Desire” does an excellent job of explaining the current dichotomy in beauty standards for women in American society, where many white women try to look more “black” and many women of color try to look more “white.” On the one hand, physical characteristics that are usually attributed to women of African biological heritage—darker skin, fuller lips, a more pronounced rear end—have become desired characteristics in how numerous women alter their physical appearance through tanning, lip fillers and butt implants.

African-styled braids or Afro-Caribbean-styled dreadlocks are other Afro-centric beauty characteristics that have been co-opted by people who are not of African descent. Even the hair perms that were popular in the 1970s were based on a desire to have hair resembling black people’s natural hair. It’s pointed out in the documentary that the rise of the Black Power movement in the late 1960 and 1970s coincided with the rise in popularity of these hairstyles until they became more accepted in mainstream society.

On the other hand, several people in the documentary point out that black women and women of color are often treated better based on how close to “white” they can look. Skin bleaching, having straight hair (through chemical treatments or hair weaves), having blonde hair and wearing blue or green contact lenses are all mentioned as examples of how black women alter their appearances to try to look more “white.” The natural hair movement (the practice of black people wearing their hair unprocessed and not straightened) has popularity that goes up and goes down. But what hasn’t changed is the fact that how a black woman wears her hair can determine what types of employment or other opportunities that she gets or is prevented from having.

“Subjects of Desire” has footage of a group of black teenage girls (of various skin tones) who discuss how beauty standards, particularly when it comes to hair and skin color, affect their self-esteem and any sense of power that they might have. The girls give some real and raw insight into how acutely aware they are that how they wear their hair will affect how a lot of people will treat them or perceive them. And the “white preference” bias doesn’t just come from white people. It also comes from many people of color who’ve internalized the racist belief that anything to do with non-white culture is inferior to white culture.

Although there are people of many different races, beauty standards in the United States are often seen in terms of black and white. Broadcaster/author Amanda Parris explains: “Because of racism, that [beauty] binary also included the binary of black and white. And that led to black women being on one end, and white women being on the other.”

Because the Internet has provided larger mass communication than ever before, today’s young people have grown up more accustomed to cultural differences than previous generations. And therefore, society’s views of beauty are more intertwined with race and political issues than ever before. The rise of Instagram, YouTube and other social media—where everyday people can become their own influencers instead of leaving everything to the usual elite gatekeepers—have also caused a massive shift in who gets to define what is “beautiful.”

“Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal” author Heather Widdows, a professor of global ethics at the University of Birmingham in Alabama, comments on this cultural change: “Appearances were becoming more and more dominant in young women’s lives. And this was an issue of justice too. Beauty has become an ethical ideal.”

However, old stereotypes remain. Dr. Cheryl Thompson, an assistant professor at Ryerson University and the author of “Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture,” has this to say about the racism that still exists in beauty ideals: “In beauty culture, black has to be minimized as much as possible, or exoticized in a certain way, so that you really see the difference.”

Thompson says that this racism has been taught for generations because of the United States’ shameful history with slavery and how that has affected people’s perceptions of white women and black women: “Getting married was kind of difficult [for black people] during slavery, so we’re already seen as ‘immoral’ and not holding the sanctity of womanhood … The history of black womanhood and white womanhood, it is so overlayed with labor and issues of purity and domesticity.”

Lighter-skinned black women in the slavery era were more likely to be chosen to work in the home, while darker-skinned black women were more likely to do the hardest labor outside. The repercussions of white slave owners enacting this favoritism based on skin color (also known as colorism) can still be seen and experienced today. Several people who comment in the documentary point out that black people who rise to the very top levels of high-profile professions tend to be lighter-skinned than the average black person.

Beauty pageants have come a long way in being more diverse and inclusive, when it comes to race. Black women weren’t allowed to compete in the Miss America Pageant until the 1950s, but the pageant didn’t have its first black contestant until 1971. It’s why the Miss Black America Pageant (founded by the black entrepreneur J. Morris Anderson) launched in 1968.

“Subjects of Desire” mentions that 2018 was a historic year for black women in beauty pageants: For the first time in beauty pageant history, Miss Universe, Miss America, Miss USA and Miss Teen USA were all black females in the same year. However, the Miss Black America contestants interviewed in the documentary say that these breakthroughs don’t mean that they do not experience the same racist prejudices inside and outside the beauty pageant circuit.

Miss Black America 2018 winner Ryann Richardson says that she learned early on in her beauty pageant experiences to put on makeup that would tone down her African-looking ethnicity, such as contouring her nose to look thinner. She makes no apologies for it and explains: “It was a means to an end. I never believed that I needed to look that way to be beautiful, to be Ryann, to be great to be excellent. But I did it to win.”

Richardson acknowledges that even though some judges still might prefer black contestants to look as “white” as possible, black women in beauty pageants are now given more freedom to wear their hair in different ways, compared to the hair restrictions that black beauty contestants had to adhere to in previous generations. Richardson adds, “I am a product of what Miss Black America inspired [by launching] in 1968, so it’s really interesting and really cool to think that 50 years later … I could be part of that Miss Black America legacy.”

Other contestants from the Miss Black America 2018 pageant who are interviewed in the documentary are first runner-up Alex Germain and second runner-up Seraiah Nicole. Just like the other contestants interviewed in the documentary, they both say that the best way a contestant can approach being part of a beauty pageant isn’t to see who’s judged as more “beautiful” than others but to build confidence and appreciation for an individual’s unique qualities. A beauty pageant is supposed to be a learning experience on how contestants, whether they win or lose, want to present themselves to the world.

Germain reveals another motivation for her to enter the world of beauty pageants: “I needed to feel as though I mattered and my voice mattered.” She remembers experiencing racist bullying when she was a child, when some boys from her school lined up and made monkey noises at her.

Germain comments on these painful memories and any racism she still experiences: “I had to be strong in myself and let those voices go … There are times when it still gets to me. You have to be your biggest motivator.” She adds, “You see the shifts in the North American beauty standards, but on the backs of black women.”

Like it or not, perceptions of beauty also spill over into how people judge other people’s personalities and intelligence without even knowing them. For black women, the stereotyping goes back to slavery and is often perpetuated by images in the media and in entertainment. “Subjects of Beauty” mentions three main stereotypes of black women, with video clips and photos used as examples:

  • Mammy: Nurturing, subservient (usually to white people) and sometimes sassy. In entertainment and media portrayals, she is usually a maid, housekeeper, nanny or some other type of servant.
  • Jezebel: Sexually promiscuous, usually dressed in revealing clothing and obsessed with being perceived as sexy. In entertainment and media portrayals, she is often a singer, actress, model, stripper, prostitute or other sex worker.
  • Sapphire: Quick-tempered, usually hostile and often a bully. In entertainment and media portrayals, she is the “angry black woman.”

Dr. Carolyn West, a psychology professor at the University of Washington, comments on these stereotypical images that don’t apply to all black women: “The Mammy, Jezebel and Sapphire stereotypes are deeply rooted in history. They haven’t gone away. They’ve just changed and morphed into different stereotypes.”

In “Subjects of Desire,” it’s pointed out that the Mammy physical stereotype (as illustrated by the controversial Aunt Jemima logo) is historically inaccurate because photos from the slavery days show that the house servants who helped take care of the kids were usually young and thin, not middle-aged and overweight. “Subjects of Desire” director Holness wrote the script used in the movie’s voiceover narration, which mentions that the Aunt Jemima brand “wasn’t just selling pancakes. They were selling the Mammy fantasy.”

The voiceover continues: “The de-eroticization of Mammy meant the white wife and, by extension, the white family [were safe]. But in truth, the Mammy was re-imagined to hide an extensive history of sexual violence and rape against black women.” The Jezebel stereotype was created to justify this sexual violence. The documentary mentions that it wasn’t until 1959, with the Betty Jean Owens case in Florida, that white men in the U.S. were given life sentences for raping a black woman.

And the Sapphire stereotype comes with a whole other set of issues. If a black woman is confident and asserts herself in the same way that men are frequently allowed to do, she is labeled “difficult.” Men can yell and scream on the job, but if a black woman does the same thing, she’s labeled a “problem” and is more likely to be fired because of it.

Simply put: The “angry black woman” stereotype has worse repercussions than the “angry white man” stereotype. In the documentary, black actress/singer Jully Black recalls the heated debate that she and white TV journalist Jeanne Beker had during the 2018 Canada Reads event (which is televised in Canada) as an example. In a clip shown in the documentary, Beker was quick to try to label her as an angry black woman on the attack, even though Black was being calm, articulate and reasonable.

“Subjects of Desire” asserts that white women also benefit from white supremacy when it comes to what is considered “attractive” in American society. A woman’s physical appearance can determine how she’s perceived and how much agency she has in public settings. White women can cry on the job, but if a black woman does it, she’s more likely to be labeled “out of control” and “unprofessional.” Crimes against white females are given higher priorities in media coverage than crimes against non-white females. And there’s no need to rehash obvious statistics of how black women are rarely allowed to advance to the top levels of an organization.

And that’s why representation matters. When people see only one race dominating as the gatekeepers of an industry, it creates a vicious cycle of racism where people think other races are not capable of doing just as well or better than the dominant race. And when it comes to female beauty standards, the general consensus in “Subjects of Desire” is that there’s been some progress in racial representation in front of the camera, but not enough progress behind the camera with people who make the major business decisions.

Thompson comments, “There’s a quote by [American feminist] Peggy Phelan: ‘If representation equaled power, then white women should feel like the most powerful people in the world, because that is actually the [beauty] image you see the most. White women are everywhere.'”

India.Arie says, “We all feel insecure about something. We live in this world that tells us that somebody is perfect, and you’re not.” The documentary mentions the Black Girl Magic movement, created by CaShawn Thompson in 2013, as a big leap forward in celebrating black female beauty. Black Girl Magic includes mentorships and other programs intended to help black females embrace themselves for who they are and not believe the racist lies that people are superior or inferior because of skin color.

If there’s any takeaway from this documentary, it’s that real change can only come when people push for it and stop supporting the people and practices that demean one race in order to elevate another. Cosmetics, hairstyles, clothing and plastic surgery are all personal choices. However, they shouldn’t come at the expense of people feeling devalued because of their race.

Germain says in the documentary: “The eyelashes, the lipstick—that doesn’t mean anything. I think when people see a pretty girl, you think they don’t have issues. But when you don’t love yourself, you don’t love anything.” And that’s why self-respect and healthy self-care are probably the biggest beauty assets of all.

Review: ‘Jakob’s Wife,’ starring Barbara Crampton, Larry Fessenden and Bonnie Aarons

April 16, 2021

by Carla Hay

Barbara Crampton in “Jakob’s Wife” (Photo courtesy of RLJE Films and Shudder)

“Jakob’s Wife”

Directed by Travis Stevens

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the horror flick “Jakob’s Wife” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and one Latino) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A minister’s housewife, who’s bored with her marriage, becomes a vampire. 

Culture Audience: “Jakob’s Wife” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in horror movies that mix bloody gore with campy comedy.

Larry Fessenden in “Jakob’s Wife” (Photo courtesy of RLJE Films and Shudder)

“Jakob’s Wife” is a memorable vampire flick that serves up a hilariously enjoyable blend of campy horror and gruesome chills, with a dash of female empowerment. The movie isn’t for people who hate the sight of blood. (It’s a vampire movie for adults. What do you expect?) But for people who can handle all the over-the-top gory mayhem in the story, then “Jakob’s Wife” might be your bloody cup of tea.

There are many predictable routes that a vampire movie can take. “Jakob’s Wife” takes some of those routes (for example, the title character’s transformation into a vampire follows the usual conventions of blood lust), but then the movie takes some unexpected and wacky detours. “Jakob’s Wife” director Travis Stevens, who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Kathy Charles and Mark Steensland, revels in the movie’s low-budget aura and makes sure that viewers know that this movie is not taking itself seriously at all. “Jakob’s Wife” had its world premiere at the 2021 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.

The title character of “Jakob’s Wife” is Anne Fedder (played by Barbara Crampton), the dutiful spouse of a minister named Jakob Fedder (played by Larry Fessenden), her husband of about 30 years. Anne and Jakob, who do not have children, live in an unnamed small town in the United States. They are Christian, but their specific religion is not mentioned in the movie.

The movie’s opening scene takes place during a church service that Jakob is conducting. He tells the parishioners during his sermon that men should respect their wives because it’s a reflection of how husband feel about themselves. “He who loves his wife loves himself,” intones Jakob.

Jakob is not secretly a hypocrite who abuses his wife. He loves Anne and he treats her very well. Anne hasn’t fallen completely out of love with Jakob, but their marriage has become boring to her. It’s implied that their sexual intimacy has decreased significantly. Jakob is devoted to his work at the church, while Anne spends her days doing workout routines and gardening.

In the movie’s opening scene at the church service, one of the parishioners approaches Jakob and tells him, “It was a beautiful service.” Her name is Amelia Humphries (played by Nyisha Bell), and she’s about 16 to 18 years old. Anne notices that Amelia’s mother Lucy, who is a regular churchgoer, is not with with Amelia.

Anne asks Amelia where her mother is, and Amelia says with some sadness and embarrassment that her mother couldn’t be there because Lucy started drinking again. Amelia adds, “I’m praying for her happiness.” Anne and Jakob express their sympathies.

While Amelia is walking home at night by herself, she’s startled to see some rats crawling around at her feet. She quickly walks away but not long after that, someone with vampire-type hands grans her from behind. It won’t be the last time that viewers see Amelia.

Not long afterward, Amelia is reported missing. Anne and Jakob have dinner at their house with Jakob’s brother Bob (played by Mark Kelly) and Bob’s wife Carol (played by Sarah Lind). The topic of Amelia’s disappearance comes up in the conversation.

Everyone except Anne seems to think that it’s likely that Amelia ran away. Anne is skeptical of that theory because she thinks Amelia was too close to her mother Lucy to suddenly abandon her. Of course, viewers who know that “Jakob’s Wife” is a vampire movie can easily predict what happened to Amelia.

Over this family dinner, the discussion also includes Anne’s involvement in a construction project that she thinks will be good for their town. She’s apparently part of the town’s Historical Society, which had to approve this project because it’s being built on historical land. The project will be an abandoned mill that is going to be turned into a retail space.

Anne comments that the Historical Society thinks the new retail space will provide tourism and jobs. Jakob is leery of the project because he doesn’t think that anything commercial should be built on this historical land. But there’s probably another reason why Jakob is uneasy about this construction job.

It just so happens that the interior designer for the space is an ex-boyfriend of Anne’s named Tom Lewis (played by Robert Russler), and they haven’t seen each other in years. Jakob calls Tom an “old flame” of Anne’s, while she downplays the relationship that she had with Tom, by saying that they were “just kids” when she and Tom dated each other.

Anne and Tom have agreed to meet for dinner at a restaurant to discuss the construction project. Judging by the way Anne gets ready for the dinner, she wants to look very attractive for this meeting and she might have some unresolved has feelings for Tom. When Anne and Tom see each other again, they can’t help but notice they’ve still got chemistry with each other.

It soon becomes clear that Tom had a “bad boy” reputation when he dated Anne. She comments to him that he was “uncontrollable” in those days. Meanwhile, Tom says to Anne about how she’s changed since he last saw her.

“You a church mouse?” Tom declares with surprise. “What happened to the adventurous Anne who wanted to travel to exotic places?” Anne replies, “You make plans for things and then life happens. It was around the time that you left town that my mother died, and Jakob was there for me.”

Anne continues, “He offered me comfort—and so did the church. They were both steady when I needed support. Make no mistake—we have a food life. I’m happy.” Tom seems to accept that explanation.

But on another day, when Anne and Tom are at the abandoned mill where the new construction will take place, it’s revealed that this was also a place where Anne and Tom had romantic trysts when they were dating each other. Tom brings it up and Anne says she hasn’t forgotten. It should come as no surprise that Anne and Tom start kissing each other.

What happens next at this abandoned mill leads to Anne becoming a vampire. Will Anne have an extramarital affair with Tom? Will Jakob find out that she’s a vampire? And how will Anne satisfy her cravings for blood? All of those questions are answered in the movie.

Anne finds out early during her turning into a vampire that animal blood won’t work for her. There’s a comical scene of her going to the butcher section of a grocery store and asking the butcher (played by Skeeta Jenkins) if she could just buy the blood from the meat. When she gets home and drinks the blood like someone would drink wine or martinis, she discovers that the animal blood actually makes her sick. And yes, there’s a nauseating scene where she vomits up blood like a garden hose on full blast.

People who watch “Jakob’s Wife” should know that the movie is very enthusiastic about showing a lot of blood and bile gushing from bodies of humans and animals. This isn’t the type of vampire movie where a vampire gives neck bites with the minimum amount of blood drainage. No, in “Jakob’s Wife,” the people who get bitten by a vampire have enough blood spewing out of them to fill buckets.

The movie gets chillingly creative in a scene where Anne visits her dentist Dr. Meda (played by Monica L. Henry) for a routine checkup. The doctor notices that Anne has new teeth (that look like baby fangs) growing inside her back teeth. And when an automatic teeth-cleaning device is put on Anne’s mouth, it leads to one of the more horrifying yet intentionally hilarious scenes in the movie.

There’s a lot of crude dialogue that’s also meant to comedic. It’s enough to say that Anne isn’t the only vampire in the story. During an attack by one of the other vampires, this bloodsucker growls to the intended victim: “I’m going to tongue fuck a hole in your head until I puke blood!”

And later, a bratty neighborhood girl (played by Armani Desirae), who’s about 8 or 9 years old, sees Anne acting suspiciously in Anne’s front yard. The girl refuses to leave because she says she wants to learn a new curse word. Anne tells the girl, “Fuck off!” And the girl replies, “I already know that one!” It’s an example of some of the off-the-wall humor in the movie.

Early on in the movie, Jakob scolds two teenagers who are smoking a joint on the hood of his car that’s parked outside the church. One of the teens, whose name is Oscar (played by Omar Salazar) angrily talks back to Jakob, while Oscar’s female friend Eli (Angelie Simone, also known as Angelie Denizard) tries to calm him down and de-escalate the situation. Jakob ends up confiscating the marijuana joint, which shows up later in one of the movie’s comedic scenes.

Where there’s a vampire plague, there’s also a vampire leader. And in “Jakob’s Wife,” that leader is called The Master (played by Bonnie Aarons), who looks like an androgynous Nosferatu type of vampire. The way this creature looks isn’t fully revealed until a certain point in the movie. The Master keeps appearing near Anne and Jakob’s house and ends up having a big moment in the movie that’s one of the highlights of the film.

The cast members of “Jakob’s Wife” lean into their roles with gusto. All of the characters are well-cast, and Crampton’s performance sets the right level of tongue-in-cheek tone (or bite-in-neck tone, as it were) that makes the movie so entertaining to watch. (Crampton is one of the movie’s producers.) And even when there are some horror movie tropes, such as take-charge Sheriff Mike Hess (played Jay DeVon Johnson) and his bumbling Deputy Colton (played by C.M. Punk), there’s enough satire for viewers to know that everyone is in on the joke.

What also makes “Jakob’s Wife” better than the average horror film is that the movie’s characters aren’t complete stereotypes. Jakob isn’t as dull and uptight as people might think he is on first impression. Anne doesn’t become an evil vampire, because she’s someone who is struggles with having to adjust to this drastic change in her life.

The movie’s musical score by Tara Busch doesn’t conform to the expected norms of a horror movie that’s about a middle-aged woman who becomes a vampire. Normally, a movie like this would have the usual Gothic scary music or have soundtrack cues using songs that were popular during this middle-aged woman’s youth. Instead, “Jakob’s Wife” is heavy with interludes of modern electronica music that sounds spooky at the same time. It’s almost as if to conjure up images that this minister’s wife could end up at an underground dance club now that she’s a vampire. It should come as no surprise that Anne’s lusty side is awakened, as she takes full control of her sexuality during her metamorphosis.

Underneath all the blood spatter and violent mayhem, “Jakob’s Wife” also has a message of finding one’s identity in the strangest of circumstances. Is it bizarre that a woman finally figures out how to be a strong and independent person only after she becomes a vampire? This movie doesn’t seem to think it’s so far-fetched, and in fact celebrates this transformation. And if the new Anne could change the title of the movie, she’d change it from “Jakob’s Wife” to “Anne the Vampire Warrior.”

RLJE Films and Shudder released “Jakob’s Wife” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on April 16, 2021.

Review: ‘Hysterical’ (2021), starring Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho, Nikki Glaser, Iliza Shlesinger, Marina Franklin, Judy Gold and Sherri Shepherd

April 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

Rachel Feinstein, Nikki Glaser and Jessica Kirson in “Hysterical” (Photo courtesy of FX)

“Hysterical” (2021)

Directed by Andrea Nevins

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, New York City and various other U.S. cities, the documentary “Hysterical” features a group of well-known North American female stand-up comedians (who are mostly white, with a few African Americans, one Asian and one Latina) discussing their lives and careers.

Culture Clash: All of the women say that rampant sexism is the biggest problem with “gatekeepers” in stand-up comedy.

Culture Audience: “Hysterical” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a candid look at what it’s like to be a female stand-up comedian.

Marina Franklin in “Hysterical” (Photo courtesy of FX)

It’s no secret that stand-up comedy is a male-dominated business where men get paid much more than women overall, and men get the vast majority of jobs available at venues and media outlets that book stand-up comedians. And whenever there’s a documentary about stand-up comedians, women are also usually in the minority. The admirably insightful documentary film “Hysterical” puts women front and center, by having the entire movie be about well-known female stand-up comedians telling their stories through interviews, performances and some footage that follows them as they hang out with other comedians.

The comedians interviewed in the documentary represent multiple generations. There are those who started in stand-up comedy in the 1980s (Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho, Judy Gold and Wendy Liebman); the 1990s (Sherri Shepherd, Rachel Feinstein, Marina Franklin, Bonnie McFarlane, Jessica Kirson and Lisa Lampanelli); the 2000s (Nikki Glaser, Carmen Lynch, Iliza Shlesinger and Fortune Feimster); and the 2010s (Kelly Bachman). They are all very different from each other but share a lot of similarities in their struggles and triumphs as female stand-up comedians. “Hysterical,” directed by Andrea Nevins, had its world premiere at the 2021 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.

The documentary is raw, real and, of course, funny. But it also presents a brutally honest look at how society’s stereotypes of how women should act in public are entrenched in the sexism that withholds opportunities from female stand-up comedians and gives these opportunities to men instead. The movie also gives first-hand accounts about the dangerous realities of being a female stand-up comedian, whether it’s staying in unsafe areas while on tour, dealing with sexual harassment, or defending themselves from physically aggressive audience members and colleagues. These female comedians are not expecting pity when they tell their stories, but it’s clear that they want people to understand what they’ve been through to get to where they are.

Think about how people generally react when women curse out loud, compared to how people react when men say the same curse words, and you have an idea of how this double standard affects the careers of female stand-up comedians. Male comedians with an “angry” persona are generally more accepted than female comedians with an “angry” persona, which is why so many female stand-up comedians often smile during their stand-up act, even when they’re saying the angriest things. And because working stand-up comedians have to frequently travel, female stand-up comedians are judged more harshly if they’re parents away from home on tour, compared to male stand-up comedians who are parents away from home on tour.

“Hysterical” is a perfect title for this documentary because it has a double meaning: Hysterical can mean “hilarious,” or it can mean the word’s original definition of “someone losing control of their emotions or sanity,” which was a trait that was originally (and unfairly) attributed to women in the days when this word was invented. (For example, the word “hysterectomy” is related to the word “hysterical.”) “Hilarious” and “crazy” are how most female comedians are described at some point if they want to be considered successful.

The “crazy” label is one that many of these comedians wear with a badge of honor when it suits them, but they also know it can come at a price. All of the women in the documentary say, in one way or another, that being a stand-up comedian is a line of work that you have to be a little crazy to want to do. It’s a profession where people of any gender constantly get rejections, low pay (or no pay) at the bottom of the career ladder, and exploitation from all kinds of people. However, the women in the documentary say they know (because they’ve have experienced it) that whatever negativity that the comedy industry can throw at people, women get it worse overall then men do.

Just like their male counterparts, female comedians were often bullied as kids, they come from dysfunctional families, and/or they’ve suffered some type of past trauma. Depression, addiction and divorce are very common among stand-up comedians. But the women in this documentary say that women are more likely to be stigmatized for these issues than men are, simply because there are too many people who expect more perfection from women than they expect from men.

Over and over, the women share eerily similar stories of feeling inadequate or feeling like misfits in their childhood and adolescence. (Almost all come from middle-class or working-class families.) Being funny gave these comedians a sense of purpose and an identity. And laughter from telling jokes helped these comedians feel accepted in some way.

Liebman says she has a history of being clinically depressed, and comments on her family dynamics: “It gave me an identity to be the funny one.” Kirson says that her parents had a very unhappy marriage, her father was very tough on her, and she was often bullied by boys. “I was not a happy kid,” she remembers.

Glaser, a recovering anorexic/bulimic who describes having lifelong insecurities about her physical appearance, says her decision to become a comedian came early in her childhood: “I realized I wasn’t as pretty as my sister, and the pretty girls were the ones getting the roles in the plays.” Instead of trying to be a glamorous actress like other girls were doing, Glaser decided to become a comedian first. In the documentary, Glaser admits that she still feels insecure when comparing herself to her sister.

Feinstein says that she got bad grades in her childhood due to a learning disability. At 17, she moved to New York City and ended up pursuing stand-up comedy as a career. Shlesinger describes her childhood as growing up with a single mother in a Dallas suburb where they were Jews in a very Christian environment.

McFarlane, a Canadian who grew up on an Alberta farm with no running water, remembers that she felt out-of-place in her own family: “To my family, I was a very strange person. I liked things they didn’t like. I found humor in things they didn’t find funny.”

Lampanelli, who has retired from stand-up comedy, says that she grew up with an emotionally abusive mother: “My mother was a big yeller. She had a lot of rage … And I think I was that middle child who could make mom laugh to diffuse the tension in the house. I, as a comic, was doing jokes to shut everybody up before they got to me.” Lampanelli is shown in the documentary hanging out pleasantly with her mother, so it seems they’re in a good place now with their relationship.

Bachman found fame in 2019 through a viral video of her performing at the New York City club Downtime and did some ad-libbed heckling at someone she didn’t expect to be in the audience: disgraced entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein, who was at the show the year before he went on trial and was convicted of rape. In “Hysterical,” Bachman says that she’s a rape survivor, and seeing Weinstein triggered her to make comments directed at him.

While Bachman was on stage during that show, she mentioned being a rape survivor, called Weinstein “the elephant in the room,” and then said about him being at the club: “I didn’t know we had to bring our own mace and rape whistles.” At first, she got some boos from male-sounding people, while one unidentified man in the audience shouted at Bachman to “shut up.” But Bachman continued by saying “fuck you” to all rapists. Anyone who disapproved of what she was saying was drowned out by mostly female cheers from the audience.

Bachman’s rebuke of Weinstein and all other rapists got a lot of media attention and was widely praised by other comedians. In the “Hysterical” documentary, Glaser comments on this defining moment for Bachman: “That was fearless. One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.” Griffin, who is no stranger to controversy, says with admiration about Bachman’s takedown of Weinstein and rapists: “That was nothing less than an act of civil disobedience.”

Just like some of the other comedians in the documentary, Bachman says comedy is a form of therapy for her: “Everyone in [my] family has touched trauma. It’s not something we talk about, so we chose to laugh at funerals, we choose to laugh when somebody is getting divorced. Someone has the job to make things funny. We look to that person, and it helps. And I made the choice to be that person in my family.”

Women of color have the added burden of dealing with racism. Franklin, Shepherd and Lynch (who is a Latina) all tell stories about experiencing racist bullying when they were children and other racism when they became adults. Lynch, who spent part of her childhood in Spain before her family moved to the U.S. , says she was often ridiculed because of her Spanish accent when she talked.

Franklin says of the racism she experienced in her childhood, “Back then, you had to learn how to live with it. And one of the ways I did was by being funny.” Shepherd comments on her career: “As a black woman, I had to fight for a spot. I really, really had to prove that I was funny.”

Cho repeats some of her well-known stories of how her Korean American heritage and her body size were used as reasons to demean her. A low point for her was when TV executives pressured her to lose a dangerous amount of weight when she starred on the 1994-1995 sitcom “All-American Girl.” Cho says of her experiences with being body-shamed: “I have achieved more peace in my body as I’ve gotten older, but it took a long time to get there.” She has also experienced a lot of prejudice from people who think all Asian women are supposed to be quiet and submissive.

Although female entertainers are often expected to look as attractive as possible, Cho says that female comedians have a double-edged sword because people often have this attitude about women in comedy: “Don’t be too pretty. A beautiful woman is a threat.” Glaser adds, “You can be very pretty and funny. The only requirement is that you feel ugly on the inside.”

Feimster, who identifies as a lesbian, also talks about what it’s like to be a female comedian who proudly doesn’t fit into a stereotypical mold of female gender conformity or body size. She admits there have been many times when she’s been insecure about it, but ultimately, her differences make her stand out from many other female stand-up comics. Much of her stand-up comedy act talks about these issues.

Gold, another openly lesbian comedian, says that the bullying and awkwardness that she experienced in her youth had a lot to do with her tall height (she’s 6’3″) and being a “tomboy” as a child. And when she started to become taller than most of her peers, she turned any insecurities about her height into eventual jokes that made their way into her stand-up comedy act.

Feimster also echoes what many people interviewed in the documentary say about their comedy material coming from a place of emotional “damage.” She laughs when she explains why women want to become stand-up comedians: “There’s probably a lot of us that’s filling some sort of void.”

Kirson says something similar in this comment: “I say this on stage: No matter how much you clap, you’ll never fill the hole. We’re just trying to fill this hole and get attention that we’ve always wanted and can’t get.”

Don’t mistake “Hysterical” for a non-stop whinefest. It’s not. The comedians also frequently say what they love about doing stand-up. That type of passion is what keeps them going in their toughest times. And there’s quite a bit of laugh-out-loud footage of all of the comedians doing what they do on stage as examples of why they’ve achieved a certain level of fame.

All of the comedians, in one way or another, say that doing stand-up comedy is not something they chose but something that chose them. For Shepherd, stand-up comedy is about “the joy I get from getting on stage and being able to take people on a journey to a place where they can forget what they’re going through.” Feinstein says what she gets out of stand-up: “I have control. I’m a storyteller. I get to tell my tale.”

Feimster comments, “The beauty of comedy is I have a voice, I have a microphone, and I can go out and do my thing.” Later in the documentary, Feimster says, “I was a cautious kid, so it’s weird that I ended up in this job that has such a lack of stability, and you’re having to take risks all the time.”

Cho adds, “It’s mostly people’s biggest fear to get up in front of others and try to make them laugh. But, for me, when I was very different and very young, I also had to convince people that I had something important to say.”

Franklin comments, “The best experience on stage is when the whole room is with you, and you feel like you’re truly sharing a story that you can connect with.” Shlesinger says that stand-up comedy has a unique rhythm like no other form of entertainment: “It’s almost melodic. It’s almost like singing, like you can just riff and knowing that you can take them [the audience] anywhere.” Lynch says, “The very first time I performed on stage was for two minutes. And right then, I felt like I’d just married and had a baby.”

Speaking of marriage and children, the documentary fortunately doesn’t seem preoccupied about asking details about what type of family planning these women might or might not have. It’s a line of questioning that female entertainers are asked a lot more than male entertainers. Shepherd and McFarlane talk briefly about the challenges of raising kids while being a traveling stand-up comedian. (McFarlane takes her daughter Rayna Lynn, who was born in 2007, on the road with her.)

The documentary also mentions the hazards of being an up-and-coming stand-up comedian who doesn’t have the luxury of security guards or other people as protection against crazy audience members, stalkers or other potential dangers to safety. Many female stand-up comedians travel alone from city to city. And sometimes, promoters will put them in the same hotel room or condo with other comedians (almost always male) whom the women do not know.

Franklin is shown having a conversation with a male comedian friend and telling him about a bad experience she had where she stayed at a hotel on his enthusiastic recommendation, but the hotel and the surrounding area turned out to be very unsafe. The more she described the unsafe conditions, the more the male comedian began to understand that from his perspective as a man, the place wasn’t so bad. But from a female perspective, it was not a good place to be alone.

Sexual harassment and/or sexual assault seem to be experienced by the majority of female stand-up comedians in relation to their job. Most of the women don’t go into details, but some of the women describe the derogatory comments, sexual groping without consent and other unwanted touching that they’ve experienced as stand-up comedians. The general attitude is that these degrading experiences come with the territory, but more women now are more likely to report misconduct than they were in the past.

The movie makes a passing mention of how female comedians are often put in tricky #MeToo situations by people who can later claim that their offensive comments or actions were “just a joke” that a comedian should be able to take. Some of the women interviewed in the documentary hint that they feel pressure to be like “one of the guys” and have “thick skin” when sexual degradation is in their presence. The documentary should have asked this question: Is a woman who has a lot of sexually explicit raunchiness in her stand-up comedy act more likely to be considered “fair game” to be targeted for sexually explicit offensiveness?

If the offender is a comedian, the documentary could have used more exploration of the complicated issue of how comedy is used as an excuse to justify offensive things that aren’t illegal. There also should have been some discussion of “cancel culture” and how far back in someone’s life should offensive comments or actions be used to “cancel” that person. There are no easy answers, but the documentary could have asked more of these questions to get the perspectives of these female comedians, many of whom have a lot of sexually explicit content in their comedy acts.

Being a stand-up comedian, regardless of gender, is hard on a stand-up comedian’s love life. Almost all of the women talk about their love lives as part of their stand-up comedy act. And there’s an appreciation for how far things have changed from the days when it was scandalous for female stand-up comedians to talk about sex. However, gender double standards remain. Comedians vary when it comes to how raunchy or politically outspoken they want to be in their stand-up comedy acts.

The documentary mentions the 2017 controversy over Griffin posing for a photo while holding up a fake, bloodied head of Donald Trump, who was president of the U.S. at the time. The backlash was swift and far-reaching: Griffin was blacklisted from performing in most of the U.S., and she was put on a government watch list. Griffin’s 2019 documentary: “Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story” chronicled this controversy and her comeback tour outside the United States. In “Hysterical,” Griffin doesn’t really say anything new that she didn’t already say in her own documentary about this subject.

“Hysterical” has a compilation of footage of male entertainers (such as the rock band Gwar) who depicted the beheading or mutilation of Trump as part of their stage acts but never got the type of backlash and career damage that Griffin did. Glaser says of the Griffin controversy: “It was all so much bullshit. She got so railroaded.” Cho adds, “They would never treat a male comedian that way.”

Even with gender double standards, many of the comedians in “Hysterical” say that stand-up comedy is still a form of entertainment where people have true freedom of expression. (However, comedians still face career consequences if their material is considered too offensive.) Glaser comments, “I used to feel like ‘ugh,’ when comedians would pat themselves on the back and say that we are the last bastions of free speech. It’s like we kind of are. When someone tells me I can’t talk about something, I want to do it more.”

“Hysterical” has a brief overview of influential female stand-up comedians over the years. Moms Mabley, Sophie Tucker, Totie Fields, Bella Barth, Jean Carroll, Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers are all mentioned as being pioneers in their own ways. Franklin mentions Wanda Sykes as being a personal inspiration to her when Franklin started out in stand-up comedy.

But for many of the women interviewed in this documentary, being a stand-up comedian was not something they were taught to believe was a realistic career choice for a woman. Shlesinger is the only one in the documentary who says that it never occurred to her that she couldn’t be a stand-up comedian because she was a woman. And almost all female stand-up comedians have had plenty of naysayers in their lives who told them that they shouldn’t be stand-up comedians.

On average, women tend to have shorter careers in stand-up comedy than men do, because they’re more likely to experience age discrimination and more likely to stop touring for family-related reasons. But regardless of where a female stand-up comedian is in her career, she’s more likely to lose out on job opportunities to men. And this gender discrimination causes a lot of women to get discouraged and give up.

A large part of this self-doubt and insecurity comes from long-held sexist practices of booking women in only one or two slots in a stand-up comedy lineup where men get not only the majority of the slots but also the best (headlining) slots in most cases. It’s mentioned repeatedly in the documentary that female stand-up comedians have been so accustomed to these limited opportunities, it was hard to for them to feel camaraderie with female comedians because they saw each other as competition.

Griffin says of women trying to get booked into a lineup of comedians: “There was a time when it seemed like there really was only room for one.” McFarlane agrees: “It was hard to like another woman [comedian] because you felt threatened because only one person is going to get the job.”

That’s not to say that stand-up comedy is any less cutthroat for women. Nor does it mean that women are not immune to jealous rivalries. But nowadays, female comedians say they’re much more likely to reach out and support other female comedians. More venues and promoters are becoming open to booking more than just one woman in a comedy lineup. And a few places sometimes host all-female comedy lineups.

The female comedians in the documentary say that things have gradually improved as there’s slowly been progress in job opportunities for women in comedy. However, it’s up to women to join forces and create supportive networks for each other, which is something that male comedians have been informally doing for years. Franklin comments, “I never understood sexism until I got into the comedy scene.”

Shlesinger adds, “Men have always gotten to do things first, whether it’s owning property or freedom of speech or anything fun. By sheer numbers, men have been doing comedy for longer [than women have].” The general consensus that the female comedians have is that the best way to change the outdated mindset that men should always dominate in comedy is for the public to vote with their wallets and by making more requests for diverse lineups of talented comedians.

In the “Hysterical” documentary, Kirson mentions New York City venues such as Comedy Cellar and The Stand and Los Angeles venues such as The Comedy Store and The Improv as having welcoming communities for comedians of any gender: “There are certain clubs were people really become family and close and hang out.”

Feinstein, Glaser and Kirson are shown hanging out together at Comedy Cellar. There’s also some footage of Franklin spending time at Comedy Cellar with some comedian friends, including Jeff Ross. The documentary includes archival footage of comedians Amy Schumer, Glaser and Bridget Everett in a car and speaking words of support and encouragement to Griffin during Griffin’s scandal.

The support for each other isn’t all just lip service. Liebman produces a show for up-and-coming comedians called Locally Grown Comedy at the Los Angeles-area nightclub Feinstein’s at Vitello’s. The documentary includes footage from one of these shows. Liebman says that she personally looks out for young talent whom she can mentor, especially women, since she knows how much harder it is for women than men to break into stand-up comedy.

Some of the women in the documentary believe that the #MeToo movement is a major factor in this shift toward more female comedians having more solidarity with each other than in previous decades. Bachman says, “Once you stand up to power, the narrative changes.” Women in stand-up comedy are also starting to verbally push back, on stage and off, on certain people trying to dictate what beauty standards are, since these beauty standards can affect how people are treated in society.

One of the best and most emotionally touching parts of the documentary is how it covers Franklin’s journey in going public with having breast cancer. There’s footage of Franklin telling some of her comedian friends about it and revealing that she’s going to go on stage and try out some jokes about her cancer for the first time. After the friends get over the shock of Franklin having cancer and see her performance (which got a standing ovation from the audience), Franklin is shown being somewhat overwhelmed by all the love and support. And fortunately, she is now in remission from the cancer.

The women in “Hysterical” expose a lot of insecurities about themselves on stage and in the documentary. But they also show a lot more strength than they might give themselves credit for, because not too many people would have the courage to turn their personal pain into something that will make people laugh. By allowing these comedians to tell their stories, without “gatekeepers” (agents, managers, comedy promoters, talent bookers) and other talking heads interrupting and drowning out their voices, director Nevins gives each woman the chance to shine in her own way in the documentary. It’s a film that’s worth watching by anyone who enjoys talented stand-up comedians and people who speak their own truths unapologetically.

FX premiered “Hysterical” on April 2, 2021.

Review: ‘Witch Hunt” (2021), starring Gideon Adlon, Elizabeth Mitchell, Abigail Cowen, Echo Campbell and Christian Carmago

March 23, 2021

by Carla Hay

Gideon Adlon and Abigail Cowen in “Witch Hunt” (Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures)

“Witch Hunt” (2021) 

Directed by Elle Callahan

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional California city of Thirteen Palms, the horror film “Witch Hunt” features a predominantly white cast (with a few Latinos, Asians and African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A teenage girl is conflicted over her mother illegally hiding witches in their home to prevent the witches from being arrested, deported or murdered by government officials.

Culture Audience: “Witch Hunt” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in horror movies about witches and with teenage main characters, but the movie isn’t very scary and squanders the story concept with a rushed and disjointed ending.

Christian Carmago and Elizabeth Mitchell in “Witch Hunt” (Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures)

“Witch Hunt” has a very interesting concept that would have resulted in an outstanding horror film if it had been handled in better ways. The concept is that in the United States, witchcraft is illegal, and a teenage girl has mixed feelings about her mother being part of an underground network that hides witches who are targeted for arrests, deportations or executions. It starts out as an intriguing horror movie with timely allegories about immigrant controversies in the U.S., but then it monotonously slides into a disappointing hodgepodge of ideas ripped off from other movies. “Witch Hunt” had its world premiere at the 2021 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.

The performances in “Witch Hunt” are far better than the movie’s plot, which tries to be edgy with social commentary and feminist sensibilities. But “Witch Hunt” ultimately becomes a watered-down “cat and mouse” game with baffling inconsistencies, weak horror tropes and characters making nonsensical decisions. And a character in “Witch Hunt” obnoxiously reveals (without spoiler alerts) the ending of the Oscar-winning 1991 classic thriller “Thelma & Louise,” which has a surprise ending that shouldn’t be revealed to viewers who don’t know how “Thelma & Louise” ends and who haven’t asked for this spoiler information.

Written and directed by Elle Callahan, “Witch Hunt” opens with a red-haired woman in a hangman’s noose who’s being burned at the stake in front of a courthouse somewhere on the East Coast in the United States. A small crowd has gathered to watch this horrific spectacle. A man dressed in a government uniform lights the fire.

In the crowd, the woman’s daughter (who’s about 12 or 13 years old and also a redhead) cries out, “Mom!” Meanwhile, before the woman perishes in the fire, she calls out several times, “Christ!” The visual effects in this scene are somewhat cheesy, but it could be more easily forgiven if too many other scenes weren’t such a letdown.

It’s later revealed in the story that the woman who was burned at the stake was convicted of practicing witchcraft, which is a crime punishable by death in the United States. The Bureau of Witchcraft Investigations (BWI) is in charge of finding and arresting witches. Only women and girls in this story are targeted for being witches. And almost all the witches happen to have red hair. It’s a pretty big plot hole, because if most of the witches in this story have red hair, then that would make it easier for the authorities to find them.

After this scene of a witch burning at the stake, the movie then cuts to three months later in the fictional Southern California city of Thirteen Palms. (“Witch Hunt” was actually filmed in Los Angeles.) Some mean girls are harassing a student in a high-school classroom during a U.S. history class. Two of the girls throw a wadded-up note at a redhead girl named Abby (played by Sydney Wilder). When she opens the note, she sees the words “Witch Bitch” surrounded in flames. Why the animosity toward Abby?

The “mean girls” clique consists of group leader Jen (played by Lulu Antariksa), who is stuck-up and vindictive; Kelly (played by Bella Shepard), who is spoiled and conceited; and Sofie (played by Anna Grace Barlow), who is shallow and somewhat empty-headed. It turns out that Abby has caught the eye of Jen’s ex-boyfriend Paul, who broke up with Jen three months earlier. When Jen sees Paul and Abby flirting in the school hallway, Jen tells cattily tells the other mean girls that Abby is a “slut” and practically snarls, “What does he see in her?”

Another teenager who hangs out with this snooty clique but who doesn’t bully other people is Claire Goode (played by Gideon Adlon), who is a free thinker and isn’t afraid to question out loud some of the government’s policies for witches. One of the policies that’s on an upcoming voter ballot is Proposition 6. A “yes” vote for Proposition 6 is in favor of allowing the California government to deport the children of convicted witches to Mexico, where witches are legal and are given asylum. The proposition came about because many people believe that being a witch is a biologically inherited trait, not just practicing a set of beliefs.

In the United States in this movie, there’s literally a witch hunt going on and deep-seated hatred against witches. During a school break, Claire, Jen, Kelly and Sofie watch a viral news video of a witch being caught by a mob at the U.S./Mexico border. “Witch Hunt” doesn’t get too graphic with its violence (this movie is clearly aiming for an audience that includes a lot of underage teenagers), but based on what’s shown, it’s implied that the witch was probably tortured and possibly killed by the mob.

Claire seems to be conflicted about how witches are being treated in this society. On the one hand, Claire believes that witches are criminals. On the other hand, she doesn’t believe that they should be tortured and killed just because they’re witches. Based on what Claire tells her friends and her mother, she thinks that witches should be locked up or deported.

There’s a reason why Claire has mixed feelings about witches. Her widowed mother Martha (played by Elizabeth Mitchell) has been hiding witches in a secret section of their home. The witches are smuggled in large wooden crate boxes by people in an underground network that are pretending to deliver office-sized bottled water dispensers in the boxes. Claire tells her mother to stop helping witches because it’s illegal and dangerous, but Martha ignores this request.

Martha handles the intake of the smuggled witches, but Claire knows everything that’s going on and is worried that they will get caught. Martha’s ally in the underground network is a man named Jacob Gordon (played by Treva Etienne), who transports the crate boxes to and from the Goode family home. He also takes empty water dispensers from the home, to make it look like he’s collecting bottles for recycling.

Claire has identical twin brothers named Corey (played by Cameron Crovetti) and George (played by Nicholas Crovetti), who are about 8 or 9 years old. They are examples of the many underdeveloped and ultimately useless characters in the movie. The twins add almost nothing to the plot. And the “mean girls” clique also ends up not being a very important plot device for the movie.

During the course of the movie, three witches are shown as those who’ve been smuggled into the Goode family home. The first witch is Gina (played by Ashley Bell), who appears to be in her 30s. Gina speaks in a strange language and has a palm-sized blue butterfly as some kind of magical creature. It’s implied throughout the story that Claire is irritated that these smuggled witches are taking up space in the home, as well as taking up her mother’s time and energy. Gina is eventually smuggled out of the home, and her fate is shown in the movie.

After Gina leaves, two other witches are smuggled into the home: Fiona (played by Abigail Cowen) is about 17 or 18 years old and her sister Shae (played by Echo Campbell), who’s about 12 or 13 years old. Fiona and Shae are hiding because they are orphans whose mother was executed for being a witch. It should come as no surprise to viewers (and it’s not spoiler information) that Fiona and Shae’s mother was the same woman who was shown burned at the stake at the beginning of the movie.

Fiona and Shae would be directly affected by Proposition 6, which looks like it’s going to get voted into law, since the majority of the population hates witches. Claire ends up becoming friendly with Fiona, but Claire is a little creeped out by Shae. One night, Claire wakes up in the middle of the night and is startled to find Shae staring at her, as if Shae is in a trance. Fiona makes an apology on behalf of Shae and explains that Shae is a sleepwalker.

Claire’s quick friendship with Fiona isn’t adequately explained, since the movie makes a big deal of showing how Claire is prejudiced against witches, and it’s the main reason why there’s friction between Claire and her mother Martha. One minute, Claire is calling witches “criminals.” The next minute, she’s hanging out with Fiona as if they’ve been best friends forever. It’s quite an abrupt about-face that doesn’t ring true.

Of course, a movie like this has a chief villain who is fanatical in his intent to hunt down witches. His name is Detective Hawthorne (played by Christian Carmago), who’s from the BWI. He doesn’t hesitate to commit police brutality to get what he wants.

Detective Hawthorne uses some kind of magical thermal pocketwatch to detect a witch’s presence. If the watch detects low air pressure, then that means a witch was recently there or recently did witchcraft there. It’s not a very clever detective tool for this story, because witches could be smart enough to cover their tracks by manipulating the air pressure.

Unfortunately, Detective Hawthorne is written as a very one-dimensional, predictable character. There’s no suspense or backstory for him. And so, viewers just get Detective Hawthorne being a very hollow antagonist right through the inevitable showdown toward the end of the film.

“Witch Hunt” attempts to draw parallels between bigotry toward witches and real-life bigotry toward undocumented immigrants who pass through the U.S./Mexico border. The hatred of witches is shown in ways that are overtly violent. For example, Claire and other students are out in the schoolyard when they witness a witch getting shot for trying to escape from a Border Patrol detention bus that was passing by the school.

The witch hatred is so out-of-control, attempted murder is allowed to test if people are witches. There’s a scene where BWI officials are at Claire’s high school to try to kill female students who are suspected witches. They strap the girls to wheelchairs, throw them in the school swimming pool, and see if any of them can escape from the wheelchairs during a certain period of time. If any of them can escape, that’s “proof” she’s a witch.

If any of them can’t escape and might die by drowning before the wheelchairs are pulled out of the water, the attitude is, “Oh well, too bad if someone dies.” It’s another terrible plot hole, because it doesn’t take into account that parents of innocent children would be outraged by this type of violence inflicted on their children at school. And not to mention that a school would be sued for these barbaric tactics.

The bigotry against witches and suspected witches also comes out in hate-filled conversations from seemingly “pleasant” neighbors. A nosy neighbor named Cynthia (played by Deborah May) comes over to the Goode home and tells Martha that she heard that someone in their neighborhood was caught smuggling witches over the border. Martha pretends to agree with the bigotry of Cynthia, who says about the witches: “I don’t understand why the Mexicans are giving them asylum. They’re not refugees! They’re criminals!”

But for every scene that adds a touch of realism, there are two or three scenes that are dull or illogical. For example, in one scene, Kelly from the “mean girls” clique is shown trying to buy a ticket at a movie theater, but she’s barred from entry because the employee at the box office tells Kelly that her name is on a list of suspected witches. Claire sits on a bench nearby and watches as Kelly angrily denies that she’s a witch.

First of all, considering all the murderous violence against witches in this witch hunt, it’s kind of bizarre that there’s an entire scene showing that this society punishes suspected witches by not letting them go to the movies. If you think about it, witches who are persecuted in life-or-death situations are supposed to have bigger problems than not being able to go see a movie. And it doesn’t make sense that the government would go to all that trouble to ban witches from movie theaters, when there are other types of banishment that are much worse that could’ve been shown in this movie.

The scene is also illogical because even if movie theaters had a list of names of suspected witches, it doesn’t explain how people could get around that blacklist by paying cash or by using someone else’s bank card to buy tickets. Does that mean that people in this society have to show a photo ID every time they go to the movies and there’s a master list of blacklisted people that all movie theaters have? It’s never fully explained and it’s just a poorly conceived scene overall.

And in another illogical scene, Claire and Fiona sneak out and go to a bar that serves alcohol, even though there’s no explanation in the movie for why these obviously underage girls were allowed in the bar. And why would Fiona agree to this if she’s supposed to be in hiding? In this bar scene, Claire is surprised to discover that Fiona has never seen the movie “Thelma & Louise,” starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon as two best friends who go on the run from the law after one of them kills a man who attempted to rape the other friend.

This is the scene in “Witch Hunt” where Claire blabs the whole plot of “Thelma & Louise,” including the surprise ending. (Viewers of “Witch Hunt” will find out later why Claire gave away all this spoiler information.) But what’s really ridiculous about this scene is that Fiona decides to do some attention-grabbing magic tricks in the bar, such as levitating liquid in a glass. Why go to a bar to do these tricks when they could’ve done all of that in a private location?

And then, the witchcraft is taken up several notches. Fiona suspends time and gets several bar stools to levitate up to the ceiling. Fiona then allows the bar stools to suddenly drop, just as she lets time to start again, while the bar patrons react in shock as they see the chairs fall from the ceiling to the ground. (These tricks are shown in the “Witch Hunt” trailer.) Claire and Fiona quickly run out of the bar, as if they just played a prank.

Of course, as gimmicky as these witch tricks are in the movie, it actually makes no sense for a witch who’s supposed to be in hiding to pull these kinds of stunts in front of people in a public place. Fiona might be a stranger to people in the bar, but Claire is more recognizable in the community. It doesn’t take long for word to spread that Claire is hanging out with a witch. And you know what that means when Detective Hawthorne finds out.

“Witch Hunt” has some scenes that are supposed to be spooky but just come across as a little bit amateurish, considering all the high-quality scares that are in plenty of other horror movies. Coincidence or not, Adlon was also in 2020’s “The Craft: Legacy,” another not-very-scary witch movie that had problems with its screenplay and direction. As the main character in “Witch Hunt,” Adlon’s acting is perfectly adequate, but Claire’s personality isn’t very memorable.

There are long stretches of “Witch Hunt” that are boring, while the last 15 minutes are rushed to cram in the climactic showdown and a last-minute explanation for something that was obvious throughout the film. And one of the worst things about “Witch Hunt” is when Martha makes a decision toward the end that’s completely contradictory to her purpose in the movie. Children might enjoy this movie more than adults who want a compelling and believable story. Ultimately, “Witch Hunt” panders to people who don’t have enough life experience to notice the big plot holes in the film.

UPDATE: Momentum Pictures will release “Witch Hunt” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on October 1, 2021.

Review: ‘The Fallout,’ starring Jenna Ortega, Maddie Ziegler, Niles Fitch, Will Ropp, Shailene Woodley, Julie Bowen and John Ortiz

March 21, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jenna Ortega and Maddie Ziegler in “The Fallout” (Photo by Kristen Correll)

“The Fallout”

Directed by Megan Park

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in California’s Los Angeles County, the dramatic film “The Fallout” features a racially diverse cast of characters (Latino, white and African American) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: After experiencing a devastating school shooting, a teenage girl, her schoolmates and her family have different ways of coping with this tragedy.

Culture Audience: “The Fallout” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted and realistically written dramas about how a mass murder has psychological effects on survivors, particularly young people.

Jenna Ortega and Maddie Ziegler (Photo by Kristin Correll)

There have been several documentaries about how survivors of school shootings in the U.S. are coping with these tragedies. “The Fallout” is a fictional drama, but the movie achieves a rare balancing act of handling this sensitive subject matter with realistic emotions and above-average acting. What makes the movie also stand out is that it’s not a non-stop barrage of depression. It’s able to convey, with occasional touches of levity, how life can go on for survivors, even if their lives will no longer be the same.

Written and directed by Megan Park, “The Fallout” had its world premiere at the 2021 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival, where it won the top jury prize as the best movie in the narrative feature competition. Writer/director Park, who made her feature-film directorial debut with “The Fallout,” also won the 2021 SXSW Film Festival’s Brightcove Illumination Award, given to a filmmaker on the rise. Park previously directed music videos, such as Billie Eilish’s “Watch.” Eilish’s brother/musical collaborator Finneas O’Connell wrote “The Fallout” musical score.

The beginning of “The Fallout” gives the appearance of being a typical teenage story. The movie’s protagonist Vada Cavell (played by Jenna Ortega, in a standout performance) and her openly gay best friend Nick Feinstein (played by Will Ropp) are driving in Nick’s car to their high school. They live in an unnamed city in California’s Los Angeles County. (The movie was filmed in Los Angeles.)

Vada (pronounced “vay-da”) and Nick appear to be 16 or 17 years old, probably in their third year of high school. If they were in their last year of high school, movies like this would make a point of telling the audiences that these students are high-school seniors because Vada and her classmates would be talking about their plans after they graduate. All of the main characters in the movie come from stable, middle-class homes.

Vada and Nick have the type of comfortable rapport that best friends have with each other, where they discuss things they wouldn’t talk about with just anyone. In their conversation while going to school, Nick and Vada talk about drinking coffee, which leads to Vada mentioning that coffee gives her the urge to defecate. Vada and Nick laugh and say that they should have a code for that bodily function when they talk about it in front of other people.

When Vada and Nick arrive at school, it seems like it’s going to be a normal day. The biggest problem that Vada thinks she’ll have to deal with that day is how to comfort her younger sister Amelia (played by Lumi Pollack), who has texted Vada a “911” emergency alert while Vada is in one of her classrooms. Vada quickly excuses herself from class to go in the hallway and call back Amelia, who attends another school and appears to be about 13 years old. Amelia is hiding by herself in one of her school’s restrooms.

It turns out that Amelia called because she’s surprised and embarrassed that she got her first menstrual period while in school, and she’s confused about how to handle it. Vada mildly scolds Amelia for scaring Vada into thinking it was a real emergency. Vada calms Amelia down and gives her a “big sister pep talk” on what do next. And like any good older sister would do, Vada offers to take Amelia out for a meal after school, so they can talk some more about this milestone in Amelia’s physical growth toward womanhood.

Feeling satisfied that she handled the situation correctly, Vada then goes into the ladies’ restroom. She sees a fellow classmate named Mia Reed (played by Maddie Zeigler) doing her own makeup in the restroom mirror. Based on the way that Vada stares at Mia, Vada is slightly in awe of Mia, who has the look of an Instagram model and a reputation at school for being somewhat of a social media influencer. The other students talk about Mia as if she’s a mysterious and glamorous loner, who gives the impression that she’s more sophisticated than the average student in high school.

Mia comments to Vada: “Photo day,” to explain why she’s doing her makeup instead of being in class. Vada replies before she goes into a stall, “I’ve got to get my shit together.” It’s Vada’s way of saying that she thinks she should pay more attention to her own hair, makeup and wardrobe. When Vada comes out of the stall, she says to Mia as a compliment, “You don’t even need to wear makeup.” And that’s when they both hear gunshots.

During the next six minutes of terror, which are shown from the point of view of the students trapped in this restroom, viewers can hear that people in the school are being killed by a gun. There are screams and cries for help amid the gunshots. This violence is never shown on camera because it doesn’t need to be. It’s a massacre that has occurred all too-often in real life.

Vada and Mia hide in the same bathroom stall together and stand up on the toilet, in case the shooter comes in and looks for feet underneath the stalls. As Mia and Vada clutch each other in horror, someone bursts into the room in the stall next to them. At first, the girls think it’s the shooter, but it’s really a fellow classmate named Quinton Hasland (played by Niles Fitch), who quickly identifies himself.

Mia and Vada tell Quinton that he can hide with them in the same stall. The girls are shocked to see that Quinton’s clothes are covered in blood spatter. He tells them that he hasn’t been shot, but he’s panicking because he witnessed his brother getting shot. Quinton is understandably anguished over the decision to run for his life or stay behind to try to help his brother.

The movie doesn’t show how long Vada, Mia and Quinton were crouched in fear in the bathroom stall. Nor does “The Fallout” show what happened when the police and medical emergency teams arrived. A visual clue later in the movie indicates that eight people died in this massacre.

And “The Fallout” isn’t about what happened to the shooter and why he committed this heinous crime, except to indicate that he was a male student from the school. The shooter is never seen or heard in the movie, although his name is mentioned in one of the movie’s most emotionally powerful scenes. It’s implied that the shooter died at the scene, most likely by a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The rest of the film is from Vada’s perspective about how Vada, Mia, Quinton, Nick and Vada’s immediate family (her parents and Amelia) deal with the aftermath of tragedy, including coping with survivor’s guilt. Vada goes into school-appointed counseling with an empathetic therapist named Anna (played by Shailene Woodley), who tries to break down the emotional walls that Vada puts up in their first few sessions together. Vada tries to persuade Anna that she’s doing as well as she can in her recovery.

In her first session with Anna, Vada talks about how she sleeps up to 14 hours a day, but insists (not very convincingly) to Anna that it’s only a few more hours of sleep per day that was part of her normal routine before the shooting. Vada gives this self-evaluation of her personality: “I feel like I’m very good at managing my emotions. I’m very low-key and chill.” Anna patiently advises without sounding judgmental: “It’s really good to show your emotions.”

Despite what Vada told Anna, there are signs that Vada isn’t coping well at all. When Vada is awake in bed, she shivers and twitches in fear. Her excessive sleeping is a sign of depression. And when her parents—Carlos (played by John Ortiz) and Patricia (played by Julie Bowen)—try to talk to Vada about what happened, she shuts them down and tells them that she’s going to be fine. Vada avoids her family by sleeping in her room as much as she can.

During family time together, such as during meals, Amelia talks as if nothing bad really happened, perhaps in a way to try to get things back to normal. But based on Vada’s angry reactions to Amelia’s nonchalant small talk, Vada is offended that Amelia acts oblivious to how this tragedy is affecting Vada. Although Vada doesn’t want to open up to her family about what she’s going through, she doesn’t want them to completely act as if the school shooting didn’t happen either.

Shortly after the massacre, Vada found out that the shooter (whom she didn’t know) had followed Vada on Instagram. It’s a small detail, but how Vada reacts when she finds out is indicative of how she doesn’t like to show many of her emotions on the surface. She expresses some surprise, but then is quick to add that she never knew the guy and never followed him on social media. Her response is to brush it off, but deep down, this information must be disturbing to her.

After the shooting, Mia and Vada begin texting each other and become each other’s confidants. Mia invites Vada over to her house (it’s here that it’s obvious that Mia’s family has more money than Vada’s family), and this invitation leads to Vada going to Mia’s place for regular visits. Both girls are afraid to go back to school, but Mia’s anxiety is more severe, since she tells Vada that she’s afraid to leave her bedroom. Because of Vada’s visits, Mia gets over that fear and the fear of leaving her house.

Mia’s gay fathers, who are successful artists, are away in Japan on business. Mia, who is an only child, keeps in touch with them by phone, but they are never shown in the house with Mia. It’s implied that they leave Mia alone a lot, which is why she’s more independent than most of her teenage peers. But it’s also made her lonely, and it explains why she quickly bonds with Vada. After the school shooting, Mia’s parents grant Mia’s request to not go back to the school and to be homeschooled instead.

Vada is intrigued by Mia because before they became friends, she had a perception of Mia of being somewhat of a “badass,” based on Mia’s dance videos that Vada watches on the Internet. The first time that Mia and Vada hang out together, Vada remarks that in real life, Mia is very different than what Vada expected: “In the videos, you come off as so hard.” Vada is pleasantly surprised at how nice and down-to-earth Mia is when interacting with her. When Vada expresses anxiety about going to the funeral of Quinton’s brother, Mia offers to go to the funeral with Vada.

Because of what they went through together during the school shooting, Mia and Vada feel like they can openly talk to each other about it. During one such conversation, it’s revealed that while Vada’s way of dealing with the trauma is excessive sleeping, Mia’s anxiety has resulted in insomnia. Vada asks Mia, “Did you have the craziest nightmares last night?” Mia replies, “You have to be able to sleep to have nightmares.”

Mia is seemingly more confident than Vada, but Mia has her insecurities too. Mia guzzles wine and liquor and she smokes marijuana to block out whatever emotional pain she’s experiencing. Vada gets caught up in drinking alcohol and smoking weed with Mia.

And there’s a memorable scene in the movie where Vada impulsively tries Ecstasy for the first time when she’s at school. While flying high on Ecstasy, she gets blue ink from a pen all over her face, and she has trouble navigating her way down a flight of stairs. It’s one of the few scenes in “The Fallout” that’s intended to be funny. “The Fallout” infuses this slapstick comedy into the story as a way to show that life after a school shooting isn’t all gloom and doom for the survivors.

However, the movie also authentically shows in a non-judgmental way that drug use is often a coping mechanism for trauma survivors. Not much is shown or discussed about what Mia’s drug/alcohol use was like before the school shooting. But there are definite references to Vada being a good student before the shooting. Her “good girl” image begins to tarnish after the shooting took place when her grades start to slip, and she shows signs of minor delinquency.

Despite her occasional acts of teenage rebellion, there are signs that Vada identifies more with nerd culture. Vada mentions in a therapy session with Anna is that she has a celebrity crush on actor Paul Dano, who usually plays soft-spoken, geeky characters. And in a conversation between Vada and Mia, they ask each other if they prefer Drake as a sex-symbol rapper or when he portrayed a basketball-star-turned-misfit-paraplegic teen in the TV series “Degrassi: The Next Generation.” Mia and Vada both agree they prefer the wheelchair “Degrassi” version of Drake.

Vada’s parents try to do the best that they can to help her cope with the shooting tragedy, but Vada tends to avoid them. Vada’s relationship with her mother Patricia has more tension (Vada describes Patricia as “uptight”) than the relationship that Vada has with her father Carlos. There are also hints that some of this tension is because Vada thinks that Patricia prefers Amelia over Vada.

There’s a scene in the movie that exemplifies this tension. Vada sees Patricia and Amelia joking around together in the kitchen. Amelia and Patricia don’t see Vada though. Vada looks sad and a little jealous as she observes them and then walks away.

And in an earlier scene, Patricia tells Vada: “All I want is what’s best for you. I want to see that sparkle back.” Vada looks insulted by that comment, and then tells Patricia, as a way to hurt her mother emotionally: “You know that Amelia got her period?” Patricia looks surprised and says, “When?” Vada than smugly replies, “Like forever ago. I guess she just didn’t want you to know.”

But Vada is keeping secrets too. She doesn’t tell her family about her friendship with Mia. And as Vada spends more time with Mia, they become closer in a way that indicates that their relationship will become more than a friendship. Vada also expresses a sexual attraction to Quinton. (This isn’t spoiler information because it’s in the movie’s trailer.)

Vada doesn’t define her sexuality in this movie, but at one point in the story, she describes herself as a socially awkward virgin, and she expresses some disdain at the thought of herself having a husband in the future. It’s interesting that the two people who are her possible love interests are also the ones who were hiding with her in the restroom during the school shooting. The movie leaves it open to interpretation if Vada showing a romantic attraction to them after the shooting was a direct result of this shared trauma or if she was already attracted to them anyway.

Meanwhile, Kevin and Vada start to become distant from each other. He’s aware that Vada is spending more time with Mia. But he’s become an anti-gun-violence activist (there are scenes of Kevin doing things that will remind people of the real-life David Hogg), while Vada avoids going to the activist rallies that Kevin now enthusiastically attends. Vada admits to Mia that she feels a little guilty over not doing more to speak out against gun violence. But the movie shows that, just like in real life, not every survivor of a gun shooting is going to become an activist.

Before Vada’s life was turned upside down, she was closest to Kevin, her sister Amelia, her father Carlos and her mother Patricia. After the shooting, the movie shows an emotionally resonant moment that Vada has with each of them, as she comes to terms with how she’s changed since the tragedy and how her relationship with each of them has changed. When Vada has a heart-to-heart talk with her father, she says something that rings true to anyone who’s survived a mass shooting: “I had no idea one guy with a gun could fuck up my life so hard in six minutes.”

What will stick with people who watch “The Fallout” is how the main characters in the story seem like they could be based on real people, thanks to writer/director Park’s terrific handling of this story and the superb acting by the cast members. It’s not an easy thing to do a coming-of-age drama about people affected by a school massacre. And the last five minutes of “The Fallout” is a harrowing example about how “getting back to normal” is something that’s hard to define and even harder to experience.

UPDATE: HBO Max will premiere “The Fallout” on a date to be announced. Warner Bros. Pictures will release “The Fallout” in countries where HBO Max is not available.

2021 South by Southwest: SXSW Film Festival awards announced

March 19, 2021

The following is a press release from SXSW:

The South by Southwest® (SXSW®) Conference and Festivals announced the 2021 Jury and Special Award winners of the 28th SXSW Film Festival. Feature films receiving Jury Awards were selected from the Narrative Feature and Documentary Feature Competition categories. SXSW also announced all other juried sections, including Shorts, Design and Virtual Cinema Awards. Special Awards announced included: Louis Black “Lone Star” Award, Adobe Editing Award, Adam Yauch Hörnblowér Award, Final Draft Screenwriters Award, ZEISS Cinematography Award, the Mailchimp Support the Shorts Award and the Brightcove Illumination Award which honors a filmmaker on the rise, celebrating the innovation and creativity of new artists within the SXSW Film Festival official selections. The 2021 SXSW Film Festival Awards are presented by Brightcove. 

All film categories, except Special Events, will be eligible for category-specific Audience Awards, which will be certified by the accounting firm of Maxwell Locke & Ritter. After screenings conclude at 11:59 CT on Saturday, registrants have Sunday until 11:59pm CT time to vote.  More information here. Winners will be announced via sxsw.com on Tuesday, March 23.

“We are so honored by the 2021 filmmakers who entrusted their work to us for this online version of our event, and joined us on this new adventure in such a beautiful way,” said Janet Pierson, Director of Film. “We are thrilled we could launch great new projects and talent in this pandemic year, and hope the films, sessions, music and gatherings online and in virtual reality, showcased the resilience, perseverance and creativity of our community.” 

The 2021 SXSW Film Festival Juries consisted of: Narrative Feature Competition: Amanda N’Duka, Jake Coyle, Joanna Robinson
Documentary Feature Competition: Jacqueline Coley, Sean Fennessey, Steven Zeitchik
Louis Black “Lone Star”: Joe Gross, Ann Hornaday, Stephen Saito
Brightcove Illumination Award: Clayton Davis, Kate Erbland, Inkoo Kang
Narrative Shorts Program: Janicza Bravo, Karen Han, Ina Pira
Documentary Shorts: Opal H. Bennett, Omid Fatemi, Sheila Nevins
Animated Shorts: Bryan Dimas, Chris Prynoski, Taylor K. Shaw
Midnight Shorts: Jason Blum, Arbi Pedrossian, Kristy Puchko
Music Videos: Hugo Burnham, Michael Kauffman, Kristian Mercado
Texas Shorts: Sarah Green, Paula Mejía, Monique Walton
Texas High School Shorts: Laura Kincaid, Hans-Martin Liebing, Cooper Raiff
Episodic Pilots: Jessica Derschowitz, Yassir Lester, Ben Wasserstein
Excellence in Title Design: Brian Mah, Brian Merrell, Erin Sarofsky
Excellence in Poster Design: Damon Nelson, Yen Tan, Erica Williams
Virtual Cinema Competition Jury: Myriam Achard, Jesse Damiani, Liz Rosenthal

The 2021 Film Festival program has 75 features including 57 World Premieres, 3 International Premieres, 4 North American Premieres, 1 U.S. Premieres, 8 Texas Premieres and 53 films from first-time filmmakers + 84 Short Films including Music Videos, 5 Episodic Premieres, 6 Episodic Pilots, 20 Virtual Cinema projects, 14 Title Design entries, plus 34 Special Events.

Films will continue to be available on the SXSW Online platform until 11:59 CT on March 20. SXSW will continue running the Online Shift72 Screening Library through March 31, 2021, for those films that have opted-in to the extended timeframe. 

The 2021 SXSW Film Festival Awards: 

Feature Film Grand Jury Awards 

NARRATIVE FEATURE COMPETITION

Jenna Ortega and Maddie Ziegler in “The Fallout” (Photo by Kristen Correll)

Winner:The Fallout
Director: Megan Park

The Fallout takes us through the emotionally charged healing journey of a young girl whose life is forever changed in the wake of a school tragedy. Writer and director Megan Park delivers a timely, riveting, and thought-provoking film on the toll it takes on a teenager who is facing a world where they no longer feel safe. It is an intense, moving piece that highlights an important issue to which one can’t help but feel connected.” 

Special Jury Recognition for Multi-hyphenate Storyteller:  I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking)
Directors: Kelley Kali, Angelique Molina

“Kelley Kali’s I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking), financed in part by stimulus relief checks, is a marvel of multitasking and resourcefulness. Kali’s film, which she wrote, directed, produced and stars in, winningly captures the pandemic plight of a homeless, roller-skating single mother over a memorable daylong odyssey.”  

Special Jury Recognition for Breakthrough Performance: Islands
Director: Martin Edralin
Actor: Rogelio Balagtas

Islands gives us the story of a painfully shy man set adrift in the world by the declining health of the parents who sheltered him. This story, of someone blooming late in life, hinges on the tremendously compelling, interior performance from relative newcomer Rogelio Balagtas who can break hearts throughout with his tears and enables the movie to transcend with a single smile.”


DOCUMENTARY FEATURE COMPETITION

Lily Hevesh in “Lily Topples The World” (Photo by Steve Price)

Winner: Lily Topples the World
Director: JeremyWorkman

“A joyful portrait of grace in artistry and commitment in engineering, Lily Topples the World shows a life online that transcends virality and touches something deeper. In Lily Hevesh, aka Hevesh5, the film features a collaborative, creative soul who comes by community and entrepreneurship naturally. A rare achievement in nonjudgmental subcultural exploration and a gorgeously rendered portrait of burgeoning adulthood that tumbles forward, like Lily’s domino art, into something beautiful.” 

Special Jury Recognition for Exceptional Intimacy in Storytelling: Introducing, Selma Blair Director: Rachel Fleit

“Selma Blair’s unflinching and raw vulnerability in Introducing, Selma Blair, coupled with director Rachel Fleit’s almost voyeuristic chronicling of her MS diagnosis, invites us not just to feel empathy for the star. More than that, it invites us into her fight, prompting anyone watching to feel joined with her in battle. That level of disarming intimacy is rarely witnessed on screen, particularly from a public figure, making the feat all the more incredible.”

Special Jury Recognition for Humanity in Social Action: Not Going Quietly
Director: Nicholas Bruckman

“Activist is a word much used in contemporary culture. But few give expression to it like Ady Barkan, a California organizer who, upon being diagnosed with ALS in his early 30s, responds not with self-pitying convalescence but by barnstorming his fight across the country, bringing a movement with him. Barkan’s tale suggests that grace is not incompatible with ardor, and hardship no obstacle to achievement. Bruckman’s film captures him and the powerful women who lead his fight in ways that are richly human, always affectionate and frequently rousing.”

Short Film Grand Jury Awards 

NARRATIVE SHORTS 

A scene from “Play It Safe”

Winner: Play It Safe
Director: Mitch Kalisa

“We were so thrilled by the varied, inventive selection of films in the Narrative Shorts competition this year. Of the shorts, we have decided to award the Jury Award to Play It Safe, for approaching oft-addressed topics in a new way, for its incredible main performance, for its thoughtful direction, and compelling cinematography.” Special Jury Recognition for Visionary Storytelling: Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma
Directors: Topaz Jones, rubberband.

“We are awarding Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma a Special Jury Recognition for Visionary Storytelling for its bold filmmaking and mix of music, visuals, and documentary footage.”

Special Jury Recognition for DirectionLike the Ones I Used to Know
Director: Annie St-Pierre

“We are awarding Like the Ones I Used to Know a Special Jury Recognition for Direction, as its weaving between reality and flights of fancy make it a Christmas tale to remember. Congratulations to all of the filmmakers this year, and thank you for your new works!”

DOCUMENTARY SHORTS

“Águilas”

Winner: Águilas

Directors: Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, Maite Zubiaurre

Águilas is a film that most poignantly displays the need immigrants feel to come to America — even at the cost of starvation and death. Failed attempts are presented by a backpack, a sweater, and scattered bones. How desperate the dream is of a perfect landing that ends so tragically.”Special Jury Recognition for Courage: Red Taxi
Director: Anonymous

Red Taxi is a film that is being recognized for its courage. The type of courage that spans the definition of the word. The subjects are courageous, the filmmakers are courageous and the film itself is courageous both stylistically and in the way it speaks on an issue through editing that is measured, considered and understanding of the complexities of the post-colonial project.”Special Jury Recognition for Poetry: I Ran From It and Was Still in It
Director: Darol Olu Kae

“Its title invites audiences to expect a wholly distinct storytelling experience and this film delivers. For it’s audacious storytelling through textured imagery, bold structure and lyrical approach, we award this special achievement to I Ran From It and Was Still In It.”

MIDNIGHT SHORTS

“The Moogai” (Photo by Tess Peni)

Winner: The Moogai
Director: Jon Bell

The Moogai is a haunting, psychological thriller that explores postpartum depression in an impressive display of disciplined filmmaking that stuck the landing at every pivotal moment. The cinematography is striking, the actor’s performances are brave, and the underlying commentary on a country’s forced removal of generations of children is heartbreaking. Filmmaker Jon Bell’s film affected us on so many levels that we proudly recognize it with the Jury Award prize.”

Special Jury Recognition for Bold Vision :Stuffed
Director: Theo Rhys

“Stuffed proudly presents a story grisly and grotesque yet beautifully bittersweet. Director and co-writer Theo Rhys stitches together a world of rot, flesh, and leather, then brings it to radiant life with curious characters and striking songs of dark dreams, lifting love, and the ultimate sacrifice. It is with shock and awe that we award this strange and sensational short a Jury Recognition for Bold Vision.”

ANIMATED SHORTS

“Nuevo Rico”

Winner: Nuevo Rico
Director: Kristian Mercado

“Be prepared for this dystopian tragedy to rip your hair out by the roots and pour liquid vaporwave rainbows directly onto your brain’s tongue. A cautionary tale of friendship and fame, Nuevo Rico slaps convention to the ground and stomps on it with steel toed boots of satisfying stylistic innovation. Kristian Mercado Figueroa doesn’t give a fuck — and gives all the fucks at the same time. If you’ve never wrestled a laser snake in a Lambo going two hundred off a cliff into an iridescent volcano, Nuevo Rico will make you feel like you have.” 

Special Jury Recognition for Innovation: KKUM
Director: Kang Min Kim 

“An awe inspiring masterclass in creativity, resourcefulness, and innovative lighting and stop-motion techniques. This film manages to elevate simplistic materials to create mesmerizing sequences, while also taking you on a poetic, dreamy, and emotional journey that serves as a beautiful tribute to a mother’s love.” 

Special Jury Recognition for Storytelling: Your Own Bullshit 
Director: Daria Kopiec

“We the jury have selected Your Own Bullshit for a Jury Recognition for Storytelling for its masterful and experimental take on a vastly relatable human story. Its stylistic choices, humor, sound design, character development, and pace bring excitement to a topic under which it is not easy to push boundaries. Yet, it does just that.”

MUSIC VIDEOS 

Madame Ghandi, “Waiting for Me” (Photo by Sajna Sangeeth Sivan)

Winner: Madame Gandhi – ‘Waiting for Me’
Director: Misha Ghose

Of all the wonderful works nominated, Madame Gandhi’s ‘Waiting for Me’, directed by Misha Ghose, soared to the top for its compelling visuals, rich color palettes, and vital message of empowerment and self-expression. The video supported and enhanced both the song and the artist. This video and this artist deserve to be shared, seen, and heard by everyone. Everywhere.”

Special Jury Recognition for How the Hell Did They Do That?!: Waze & Odyssey, George Michael, Mary J. Blige & Tommy Theo – ‘Always’
Director: Nelson de Castro

“The Jury would also like to award the music video for ‘Always’ by Waze & Odyssey with a Special Jury ‘How the Hell Did They Do That?!’ recognition.” 

Special Jury Recognition for Pure Joy: Kuricorder Quartet – ‘Southpaw’
Director: Sawako Kabuki

“The Jury would further like to recognize for pure joy, the music video, ‘Southpaw’ by Kuricorder Quartet, directed by Sawako Kabuki.”

TEXAS SHORTS 

“Summer Animals”

Winner: Summer Animals
Director: Haley Elizabeth Anderson

Summer Animals, Haley Elizabeth Anderson’s short film entry for SXSW 2021, captivated us with its naturalistic style and layered approach to storytelling. Ostensibly a story about three siblings and their quest to find a moment of relief — or a pool to cannonball into — during a particularly grueling summer, the film evolves into something else entirely, and is anchored by the cast’s stellar performances and Anderson’s clear-eyed direction.”

Special Jury Recognition for Vision: O Black Hole!
Director: Renee Zhan

“This imaginative journey explores a literal impression of its title and a figurative one. It’s otherworldly imagery, music and sound design combined for an emotional experience that surprised us at every turn.”

TEXAS HIGH SCHOOL SHORTS 

Winner: A Really Dark Comedy
Director: Manasi Ughadmathe

A Really Dark Comedy is a well-crafted comedy short that weaves together great comedic timing, excellent chemistry between its two leads, and some surprising twists. We found it to be a breath of fresh air in a pandemic year where everyone could use a (really dark) laugh.”

Special Jury Recognition for Directing: Beyond the Model
Director: Jessica Lin

“The power of this documentary comes from the artistry and sensitivity of its director, Jessica Lin. Parts observational and parts reflexive, Beyond the Model‘s clear voice stems from a desire to allow its subjects to breathe and share, making for an organic, poignant, and insightful short.” 

EPISODIC PILOT COMPETITION

Marisol Agostina Irigoyen (pictured at right) in “4 Feet High” (Photo by Natalia Roca)

Winner: 4 Feet High
Directors: Maria Belen Poncio, Rosario Perazolo Masjoan

“For its beautifully cinematic and heartfelt coming-of-age story, with a confident performance from a standout lead actress, the jury is awarding this year’s top prize to 4 Feet High. The episode is thrillingly unique from its opening minutes, with a strong point of view and an engaging central character whose journey feels keenly specific but also evokes universal high school experiences — and while the story takes its time, there is never a wasted frame. We commend the cast and creative team for telling this a moving story in such an assured way.” 

Special Jury Recognition for Best Duo: Pretend Partners
Director: Ron Najor

“For their witty script and genuine onscreen chemistry, the Special Jury Recognition for Best Duo goes to Kristin Erickson and Ron Najor for Pretend Partners. As showrunners, screenwriters, producers, and stars of the project (in addition to Najor directing), Erickson and Najor created an inventive take on the romantic comedy that was sweet and hilarious in equal measure, and then carried that story themselves as its central characters.”  

SXSW Film Design Awards Presented by Adobe 

POSTER DESIGN COMPETITION

Winner: Bob Moses Featuring ZHU – ‘Desire’
Creative Director: Owen Brown, Art Director and Illustrator: Benjámin Kalászi, Graphic Designer: Diego L. Rodríguez (Paramoidme)

“A visually gripping design, this poster draws you into a surreal moment frozen in time where something you want so badly seems just out of reach. We were struck by the electric color palette, bold typography and dreamy illustration style that evokes flight, time travel and science fiction. Everything in this poster just feels intriguing and we are so excited to award the Excellence in Poster Design Winner to “Desire”!”

Special Jury RecognitionThe Box
Designers: James Burns and Shal Ngo, Aleksander Walijewski

“A mix of bold graphics, creative typography, and emotive imagery, this poster grabs attention and pulls you into the narrative of prisoners in criminal reform systems and isolation. Spending a moment with the imagery feels like a window into the film and the minds of those enduring their own boxes, both tangible and the ones built in our minds. Overall, this poster was interesting, thought provoking, and wove together narrative and design in striking ways. Brava! We’re thrilled to give a Special Jury Recognition to “The Box”!”

TITLE DESIGN COMPETITION

Winner: The Queen’s Gambit Title Sequence
Designer: Saskia Marka

“Using simple geometric forms and a restrained palette, these titles spring to life through elegant motion design that captures the spirit of the protagonist’s brilliant mental calculations.”

Special Jury Recognition: Birds Of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn Title Sequence
Designer: Michael Riley

“This sequence embodies everything a great title should: The tone is a perfect match for the movie, the style is unique and ownable, and the visual narrative keeps the audience engaged and delighted throughout.”

VIRTUAL CINEMA COMPETITION

“Samsara”

Winner: Samsara
Director: Huang Hsin-Chien

Samsara provokes existential questions about the future of humanity and consciousness. 

From the evolution of users’ hands to the rhythmic juxtaposition of vignettes, every detail is weighted in metaphor. The result is a work that compresses a universe into a few minutes; audiences are left to reflect on humanity as a collective macro-organism—as experienced through the machine.”

Special Jury Recognition for Immersive Journalism: Reeducated
Director: Sam Wolson

Reeducated offers a glimpse into a horrifying world obscured from public view. Through illustration and testimony from three people who lived through the internment camps in Xinjiang, we learn about the brutal practices used against the Uyghur ethnic minority. It’s a striking piece of 360 cinema that makes a clear argument for the unique affordances of immersive formats for telling stories, establishing a powerful logic and vocabulary through the use of composition, scale, pace, and perspective.”

SXSW Special Awards 

Jenna Ortega and Maddie Ziegler in “The Fallout” (Photo by Kristen Correll)

Brightcove Illumination Award
The Brightcove Illumination Award honors a filmmaker on the rise, celebrating the innovation and creativity of new artists within the SXSW Film Festival official selections.

Brightcove Illumination Award
Presented to: The Fallout
Director: Megan Park

“For her empathetic and honest exploration of life after tragedy, inspired craft, and stellar guidance of a talented young cast, we award the Brightcove Illumination Award to Megan Park for her The Fallout.”

Caroline Catz in “Delia Derbyshire – the Myths and the Legendary Tapes” (Photo by Felicity Hickson)

Adam Yauch Hörnblowér Award
In honor of a filmmaker whose work strives to be wholly its own, without regard for norms or desire to conform. The Adam Yauch Hörnblowér Award is presented to a filmmaker from our Visions screening category.

Adam Yauch Hörnblowér Award
Presented to: Delia Derbyshire – the Myths and the Legendary Tapes
Director: Caroline Catz

“R#J”

Adobe Editing Award
Adobe is committed to celebrating creativity for all and empowering everyone to bring their stories to life. By creating greater opportunity for all voices, we can enact change in our communities and move the world forward. We are proud to celebrate the art and craft of editing as we grant the Adobe Editing Award at the SXSW Film Awards. We are also pleased to spotlight this year’s incredible title and poster designers through the Film Design Awards presented by Adobe.

Adobe Editing Award 
Presented to: R#J
Editor: Lam Nguyen

“Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break” (Photo courtesy of Belstone Pictures)

Final Draft Screenwriters Award
Final Draft, the industry standard in screenwriting software, is proud to support SXSW and provide the second SXSW Final Draft Screenwriters Award. We pride ourselves in shining a spotlight on new voices in the writing and filmmaking community, and coming together with like-minded organizations, such as SXSW, that share the same core values. A huge congratulations to this year’s recipient from all of us at Final Draft!

Final Draft Screenwriters Award
Presented to: Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break
Screenwriters: Brook Driver, Matt White, and Nick Gillespie

A 1970s photo of Guy Clark, Susanna Clark, Susan Walker and Jerry Jeff Walker in Nashville in “Without Getting Killed or Caught”

Louis Black “Lone Star” Award
To honor SXSW co-founder/director Louis Black, a jury prize was created in 2011 called the Louis Black “Lone Star” Award, presented to a feature film world premiering at SXSW that was shot primarily in Texas or directed by a current resident of Texas. (Opt-in Award)

Louis Black “Lone Star” Award 
Winner: Without Getting Killed or Caught
Directors: Tamara Saviano, Paul Whitfield

“This year’s Lone Star Award goes to Tamara Saviano and Paul Whitfield’s remarkable Without Getting Killed or Caught, an examination of not just the life of legendary Texas singer-songwriter Guy Clark but the complicated, fascinating relationship between himself, his wife Susanna and his best friend Townes Van Zandt, all of whom made extraordinary work together and apart. The storytelling was graceful, densely layered and immersive.”

Carel Nel in “Gaia” (Photo by Jorrie van der Wal)

ZEISS Cinematography Award
ZEISS Cine Lenses is honored to be returning this year to support the SXSW film community in the Cinematography category.  We believe that by supporting the art within the frame, ZEISS helps filmmakers realize their creative vision.

ZEISS Cinematography Award
Winner: Gaia
Cinematographer: Jorrie van der Walt

“Chuj Boys of Summer”

Mailchimp Support the Shorts Award
Mailchimp is committed to uplifting and supporting creators. We’re so proud to support SXSW by helping short films win big. We congratulate the honorees of the Support the Shorts Award and Special Jury Recognition as well as the entire SXSW-invited filmmaking community.

Mailchimp Support the Shorts Award
Presented to: Chuj Boys of Summer
Director:  Max Walker-Silverman

“With its gentle, observant eye, Chuj Boys of Summer offers a vision of unexpected compassion and tender masculinity. Director Max Walker-Silverman and writer Marcos Ordoñez Ixwalanhkej Mendoza know too much about the world to provide convenient answers to the film’s complicated questions, so they instead focus on the little gestures that define their characters’ lives. Against the grandeur of the San Juan Mountains, these small moments become unspeakably powerful.”

Mailchimp Support the Shorts Special Jury Recognition
Presented to: Like the Ones I Used to Know
Director: Annie St-Pierre
“Weaving a Christmas tale filled with familiar indignities, Annie St-Pierre and her talented ensemble deftly transform heartbreak into levity while always staying one step ahead of the audience. As every emotion imaginable plays across the cast’s astonishing faces, it’s the heroes’ crumpled dignity that leaves us smiling.”

Mailchimp Support the Shorts Special Jury Recognition
Presented to: Malignant
Director: Morgan Bond, Nickolas Grisham
“In its combination of rich characterization and mysterious camera work, Malignant manages to conjure a uniquely cinematic sense of hallucinatory tension. We honestly can’t pinpoint exactly what it is that directors Morgan Bond and Nickolas Grisham have done to create this much unease, but thanks to their mesmerizing talents, Malignant‘s climax floods the senses and lingers long after the film is over.”

SXSW is proud to be an official qualifying festival for the Academy Awards® Short Film competition. Winners of our Best Animated, Best Narrative and Best Documentary Short Film categories become eligible for Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awards (Oscars). Any British Short Film or British Short Animation that screens at SXSW is eligible for BAFTA nomination. Films are also eligible for the Independent Spirit Awards, more information on eligibility here.

About SXSW
SXSW dedicates itself to helping creative people achieve their goals. Founded in 1987 in Austin, Texas, SXSW is best known for its conference and festivals that celebrate the convergence of the interactive, film, and music industries. In 2021, the event moves to a digital format. SXSW Online offers conference sessions, music showcases, film screenings, exhibitions, and a variety of networking and professional development opportunities. An essential destination for global professionals, SXSW Online 2021 will take place March 16 – March 20. For more information, please visit sxsw.com

SXSW Online 2021 Platinum Partners are White Claw, High Grade Hemp Seed, Showtime, Mountain Dew Rise Energy and The Austin Chronicle.

Review: ‘Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free,’ starring Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

March 18, 2021

by Carla Hay

Rick Rubin and Tom Petty in “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” (Photo courtesy of Tom Petty Legacy, LLC/Warner Music Group)

“Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free”

Directed by Mary Wharton

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Los Angeles, the documentary film “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” features an almost all-white group of people (and one black person) in the music industry, in this chronicle of the making of Tom Petty’s 1994 album “Wildflowers.”

Culture Clash: While recording the album, Petty was going through personal problems (such as a failing marriage), he battled with Warner Bros. Records over songs that he wanted on the album, and he fired longtime Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch.

Culture Audience: Fans of Petty are the obvious target audience, but “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” will also appeal to people who like classic rock music and behind-the-scenes stories about making albums.

Tom Petty in “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” (Photo courtesy of Tom Petty Legacy, LLC/Warner Music Group)

“Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” has the look and feel of many other documentaries that focus on the making of a specific album. There’s nothing really groundbreaking about this documentary, and it’s not the type of movie that people should feel like they need to see in movie theaters. The documentary is a must-see for Tom Petty’s fans and other people who are inclined to like classic rock. And it could be entertaining to people who are interested in the art of creating songs. Everyone else might think this movie is a little boring.

“Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” chronicles the making of Petty’s 1994 “Wildflowers” album, which he said in many interviews was the best album he ever made. The album was recorded at the Los Angeles recording studios Sound City and Ocean Way Recording. And musically, it was a departure for Petty because it didn’t have as much of the signature jangly guitar sound that’s on his previous albums. Instead, “Wildflowers” included a full classical orchestra and had songs with a more somber or pensive mood than his previously released tunes.

Petty died of an opioid drug overdose at age 66 in 2017. Years earlier, he revealed that he was addicted to heroin from 1996 to 1998. Therefore, Petty’s drug addiction is not an issue that’s brought up on this documentary, since the most serious years of his addiction happened after “Wildflowers” was made. In the documentary, there is some mention in Petty’s own words about how unhappy he was in his marriage to his first wife Jane at the time he made “Wildflowers.” The former spouses were married from 1974 to 1996.

Directed by Mary Wharton, “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” (which premiered at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival) consists primarily of archival footage of Petty in the recording studio that was originally filmed in color but is, for the most part, presented in black and white in the documentary. A prologue in the documentary explains that the archival footage from these “Wildflowers” recording sessions and the subsequent tour were filmed on 16mm film between 1993 and 1995 by Petty’s longtime videographer Martyn Atkins. The footage was discovered in an archive in early 2020.

Also in black and white is more current documentary interview footage of surviving members of Petty’s band The Heartbreakers, as well as music producer Rick Rubin, who all worked on “Wildflowers” and share their fond memories of those recording sessions. The documentary mostly sticks to celebrating Petty’s music and the camaraderie that he had with his band members, Rubin and other people involved in making the album. There is some but not a great deal of insight into the drama that went on behind the scenes with Petty battling MCA Records (his former record label) and starting fresh with Warner Bros. Records, with “Wildflowers” as his first album released by Warner Bros.

“Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” is at its best when viewers get to see how the “Wildflowers” songs were crafted and recorded. There are the hits, of course, such as “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “You Wreck Me” and “It’s Good to Be King.” But there are also several album tracks (including “Harry Green” and “Climb That Hill Blues”) that didn’t make it on to the original release of the 15-song “Wildflowers,” because Warner Bros. disagreed with Petty’s wishes to release “Wildflowers” as a 25-song double album. In 2020, the deluxe package album “Wildflowers & All the Rest” was released with the original “Wildflowers” album, plus previously unreleased studio tracks and live recordings from the “Wildflowers” era.

Even though the Heartbreakers were part of the recording sessions for “Wildflowers,” the album was officially a Petty solo record, and it was the follow-up to his wildly successful 1989 solo debut album, “Full Moon Fever.” Jeff Lynne, the mastermind of Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), produced “Full Moon Fever” and the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 1991 album “Into the Great Wide Open,” as well as several albums from other artists. Lynne was also a bandmate of Petty’s in their all-star supergroup the Traveling Wilburys, whose other members were George Harrison, Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison.

In the documentary, Rubin talks about how he was flatly turned down by MCA when he offered to produce Petty’s second solo album. “I was told that Tom worked exclusively with Jeff Lynne, and there was no chance that I’d ever get to work with him [Tom Petty]. It was a cold brush-off.”

Up until that point, Rubin was mostly known in the music business for working in hip-hop (he co-founded Def Jam Records) or producing rock artists who were younger than Petty, such as Red Hot Chili Peppers. In the late 1980s, Rubin left Def Jam and founded Def American Recordings, later renamed American Recordings. Def American’s biggest successes in the early 1990s were the bluesy rock band the Black Crowes and the thrash metal band Slayer.

And so, by the early 1990s, Rubin wasn’t exactly the first person people had in mind to produce Petty’s second solo album. By his own admission, Rubin says in the documentary that he wasn’t even a fan of Petty’s music until he heard the “Full Moon Fever” album and became obsessed with it.

But three things happened that helped Rubin to become the producer of the “Wildflowers” album.

  • (1) Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers left MCA Records and signed to Warner Bros. Records, the record company for Red Hot Chili Peppers, a funk-influenced rock band had its first major breakthrough success with the Rubin-produced 1991 album “Blood Sugar Sex Magik.”
  • (2) Petty, as he says in the documentary, was ready to make some big musical changes.
  • (3) Heartbreakers lead guitarist Mike Campbell recommended Rubin to Petty, and they all genuinely liked each other from the start. Rubin, Petty and Campbell are all credited with producing the “Wildflowers” album.

As Petty describes it in the documentary’s archival footage: “I love Jeff Lynne dearly, but I thought I should do something else. Mike Campbell suggested Rick. He said, ‘I think you’ll like him.’ So I called him [Rubin] up.”

It’s mentioned more than once in the documentary that Rubin and Lynne couldn’t be more different from each other as producers. Lynne is a multi-instrumentalist and a meticulous recording craftsman who likes to take pieces of songs and build them in layers. Rubin barely knew how to play guitar during the “Wildflowers” sessions, and he prefers to make records with all the band members present at the same time and recording live.

Petty explains Rubin’s producing style in the documentary: “Rick Rubin really loves music, and that’s why I decided to work with him. It’s not because of his technical skill. He plays no instrument, really. He’s learning to play guitar … He’s not a corporate man … In a way, he’s guided me back to a musical place where I feel comfortable.”

In an archival interview from the “Wildflowers” recording sessions, Rubin says, “What I have to offer is as a fan. I can come in and say what I like and what I don’t like. And I don’t necessarily know why, but just trying to be true to [Petty’s] own taste and try to steer it in a direction that feels natural and good to me.”

The documentary also has a more current interview with Rubin, Campbell and Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench sitting down together. They further discuss the contrast between Lynne and Rubin as producers. Tench comments, “The records with Jeff are beautiful pop records. And my participation was minimal on both the records. Because, you know, Jeff had an idea, and there’s a keyboard, and he’s going to play it, and that’s great.”

Tench states how Rubin’s style of producing affected the “Wildflowers” recording sessions: “This is almost like taking what you learned from Jeff and setting it free. It’s very focused on song craft and record craft, but there’s also a freedom in it that’s very cool.” Campbell adds that Rubin put more emphasis on live performances in the recording studio and by recording songs as “organic tracks and not one thing at a time.”

Also present for these recording sessions were orchestrator/conductor Michael Kamen (who died of a heart attack in 2003, at the age of 55) and George Drakoulias, a music producer who made a name for himself working as a producer and A&R executive for Def American acts such as the Black Crowes. At the time of the “Wildflowers” recording sessions, Drakoulias was still doing A&R for Def American. Unlike his then-boss Rubin, Drakoulias was a longtime fan of Petty’s by the time Drakoulias was included in the recording sessions for “Wildflowers.”

In the documentary, Drakoulias (who’s described as a “musical contributor” to “Wildflowers”) remembers with a laugh his experiences with Petty during those recording sessions: “He tolerated me. He found me amusing. Tom was a hero, and idol. ‘Damn the Torpedoes’ [the 1979 Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album] was the record that really changed my life.”

Also interviewed in the documentary is Heartbreakers drummer Steve Ferrone, a Brit who replaced original Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch in the “Wildflowers” recording sessions. Ferrone later became an official member of the Heartbreakers and remained in the band until the group broke up after Petty’s death in 2017. In 1994, Ferrone was living in New York City as a session musician when he got a call about a “top-secret” audition. He didn’t know it was for the Heartbreakers until he arrived at the studio and saw Petty and Campbell there. Just like Rubin, Ferrone was recommended by Campbell to be brought into Petty’s musical inner circle.

Tench comments on how Ferrone was crucial to helping Petty achieve the sound that’s on “Wildflowers,” as exemplified by the bluesy cadence that the drums have on “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” “Ferrone was the key to cracking the code to sound different,” Tench says. In archival footage, Petty says why he decided Ferrone should be in the band: “He played instinctually. He played perfectly the first time through. And I liked him.”

As for Lynch’s ouster from the band, Petty says in voiceover commentary that it was because Lynch wasn’t fully on board with Petty’s new musical direction, and Petty got tired of what he describes as Lynch’s mercurial temperament: “He had a real explosive personality. He could be really sweet and very loving, and then he could be the biggest problem.”

Campbell says of Lynch parting ways with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: “We were in a quagmire of disharmony, like a marriage. It happens.” Lynch is shown briefly in archival footage, but he is not in the documentary for any new interviews.

Heartbreakers bassist Howie Epstein (who died of a heroin overdose in 2003, at the age of 47) is also seen in archival footage. Epstein comments in archival footage: “Tom and I get along real good. I’ve never had one weird moment with him.” Meanwhile, Petty says about Epstein in footage from the Wildflowers” sessions: “I really appreciate him being my friend. It’s so hard to find people like Howie in the world who are so pure of spirit.”

Even though the Heartbreakers played on “Wildflowers,” why was it labeled a solo album from Petty instead of a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album? Petty explained it years ago, but it’s repeated in the documentary. As he puts it: “I wanted the freedom. I really wanted to be free of the democratic process, but I think it was time to turn the corner and find another place to go. And that was ‘Wildflowers.'”

Just like on a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album, Petty wrote the majority of the “Wildflowers” songs himself, with Campbell getting co-songwriting credit on a few songs. Petty might not be remembered as the greatest singer or guitarist, but there’s no question that he’s considered one of the greatest American rock songwriters in music history. In new interviews in the documentary, Tench and Campbell share their thoughts on Petty’s songwriting talent.

Campbell says, “I’ve worked with a lot of people—good writers and great singers—but I’ve never seen anybody who could do that like he could. He could just pull things out of the air in the moment.” Tench adds, “Tom was a great songwriter. I had always appreciated it and know that this is incredible to be in this band. But you almost take it for granted that Tom is going to come in with a great song.”

Two of the more personal songs on “Wildflowers” is “To Find a Friend” and “Don’t Fade on Me,” which Petty says were about his crumbling marriage. “I was becoming disenchanted in my marriage at the time,” which he says in a voiceover from archival footage. At the time, he says that he didn’t consciously write about this disintegrating relationship. “But when I hear [the ‘Wildflowers’ album], I can see it was working in the back of my mind somewhere.”

Petty and Jane’s daughter Adria Petty, who is an executive producer of the documentary, comments in an interview: “At the time that ‘Wildflowers’ was being written, he was definitely going through therapy for the first time. And that was an interesting door of perception that was opening.”

Adria Petty adds, “I think that feeling of confidence and self-examination at that time made him make a lot of different decisions about his life. He did it slowly, methodically and carefully. And they were painful for him.”

One of the big changes was Tom Petty’s split from MCA. Alan “Bugs” Weidel, the equipment/clubhouse manager for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, says that Petty was “never really happy with MCA. He really wanted to be on Warner Bros., and when that opportunity presented itself, he jumped on it.” The documentary includes new footage of Weidel reuniting with Campbell at the “clubhouse,” where the band’s instruments were kept.

And there’s archival footage of Petty, Rubin and Kamen in a room together and eating a small cake with a Warner Bros. logo on it. As they dig into the cake, Petty remarks jokingly, “We like to record for Warner Bros. because they taste good.” Rubin and Kamen are smiling and they seem amused too.

In a separate footage, Petty is heard saying in a voiceover about parting ways with MCA and moving on to Warner Bros.: “We had a long run at MCA and a very successful one. It just felt like time in life … I really just went to work for people I know. And I trust their instincts.”

However, the disputes that Petty had with Warner Bros. over how many songs should be on the “Wildflowers” album are mostly alluded to but not completely exposed in the documentary. The movie doesn’t show any screaming arguments with record company executives or lawyers. In fact, there are no “suits” shown or interviewed in this movie. And keeping out the corporate types from being in this film is probably the way that Petty would’ve wanted it.

Rather than getting into all the recording contract issues involved with the length of the “Wildflowers” album, the documentary footage puts more emphasis on Petty having a hard time deciding which songs he wanted on the album in the first place. The feeling that the documentary wants to convey is that Petty and the rest of the musical team ended up recording a lot more songs than originally expected because of Petty’s creative output and because they were having such a great time recording the album.

In new interviews for the documentary, Campbell chokes up a little when he says that listening to the songs on “Wildflowers” after Petty’s death is “emotionally hard … but other times it’s joyous. This is a whole plethora of experiences on the record.” Tench adds, “When you lose a great artist, you appreciate them more.”

“Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” shares part of its title with Christopher McKittrick’s unauthorized biography “Somewhere You Feel Free: Tom Petty and Los Angeles,” which was published in 2020. In the documentary, it’s mentioned that the “Wildflowers” song “California” best summed up how Petty (who was a Florida native) felt about how California (specifically the Los Angeles area) changed his life. His daughter Adria says that after he moved to California, Petty was able to reinvent himself early in his career and became a success with the Heartbreakers.

People watching the documentary might feel that the black and white imagery makes the movie look dull and washed-out. Others might think having the movie in black and white gives it a classic look. There’s only one part of the documentary where it changes from black and white to color in the middle of the song. And that’s in studio footage of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” which was recorded during the “Wildflowers” sessions but was not on the album. Instead, the song (the last Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song recorded with drummer Lynch) was released on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 1993 “Greatest Hits” album.

The documentary’s color footage (mostly of the band performing on stage) definitely livens up the movie, but the black and white palette probably gives the movie a more consistent look and the ability to hide some of the color footage’s flaws. One of the constant themes in the movie is how much fun it was to record the album. But for anyone who knows what it’s like to record an album, it’s not the same energy as doing a live performance.

Creativity in a recording studio is captured in stops and starts, so people watching this documentary should not expect the movie to be like a non-stop adrenaline rush. It’s more like a respectful stroll into the dynamics of Petty and his musical team. It’s not going to interest people who like to see band conflicts in music documentaries. But for people who appreciate Petty’s music and talent, this documentary gives a worthwhile peek into his creative process.

Review: ‘Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil,’ starring Demi Lovato

March 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Demi Lovato in “Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil” (Photo courtesy of OBB Media)

“Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil”

Directed by Michael D. Ratner

Culture Representation: The four-part docuseries “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” features a racially diverse group of people (Latino, white and African American) of mostly people in the entertainment industry, including Demi Lovato, discussing her life and career, particularly from 2018 to 2020.

Culture Clash: Lovato, who is a recovering drug addict, relapsed and had a near-fatal overdose in 2018, and she says that she no longer believes that complete drug abstinence is the best method of recovery for her.

Culture Audience: “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in stories about how celebrities cope with addiction and trauma.

Demi Lovato in “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” (Photo courtesy of YouTube Originals)

Singer/actress Demi Lovato is well-known for revealing a lot of painful and unflattering aspects of her life, so it should come as no surprise that her four-part YouTube docuseries “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” has a confessional tone to it. The docuseries had its world premiere at the 2021 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival. Among other things, Lovato goes into details about what she experienced before and after her near-fatal drug overdose at her Los Angeles home in July 2018. (She has since moved from that house because of the bad memories.) She also reveals publicly for the first time that she’s a rape survivor and how the COVID-19 pandemic quarantine led to her very quick and ultimately failed engagement to actor Max Ehrich.

Directed by Michael D. Ratner, “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” has much more disturbing revelations than Lovato’s 2017 YouTube documentary film “Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated.” There’s a trigger warning at the beginning of “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” because it contains graphic talk of sexual assault, her drug use and eating disorders. She goes into details about what happened before and after her overdose of heroin laced with Fentanyl.

Lovato says that the drug dealer who supplied the drugs also sexually assaulted her and left her for dead. She also reveals that when she was 15, she lost her virginity by being raped by someone she worked with in her Disney Channel days. Lovato doesn’t name either of her alleged rapists, but she says that when she reported her underage rape to adults, nothing happened to her alleged rapist. And she claims that she’s managing her addiction problems by drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. That’s not a good sign that she’s on the road to a healthy recovery.

It’s a big contrast to “Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated,” where her most personal revelation was that she’s openly living her life as a member of the LGTBQ community. (The movie had scenes of her discussing her attempts to find love on online dating sites.) Lovato refuses to label her sexuality, and she will only describe herself as “queer” or “not straight.” “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” shows that although Lovato claims to be in a much better emotional place than she was in 2018, she’s still struggling with the idea that her recovery from addiction means that she has to completely abstain from drugs and alcohol.

She admits to drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana “in moderation,” even though she’s said in many interviews that she’s an alcoholic and drug addict. Although she talks a lot about the drugs that she’s used and/or been addicted to over the years, in “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” she leaves out any mention of her alcoholism. And that omission is probably because she keeps repeating in the documentary that she’s tired of other people controlling her life and telling her what she can and cannot put in her body.

Ever since former Disney Channel star Lovato first went to rehab in 2010, at the age 18, she has publicly talked about her recovery from a variety of issues, including drug addiction, alcoholism, eating disorders (anorexia and bulimia), self-harming (cutting) and bipolar disorder. In “Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated,” she repeated the claim that she was clean and sober since 2012. And in 2018, during her “Tell Me You Love Me” tour, she was filming another documentary about herself, until her drug overdose resulted in shutting down production of that untitled documentary, which was permanently shelved.

“Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” has some clips from that never-seen-before 2018 documentary that shows a seemingly happy Lovato on tour. But as is often the case with entertainers who are drug addicts, they are very skilled at hiding dark sides of their lives. In “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil,” Lovato says of her shelved 2018 biographical film: “In that documentary, I was allowing the cameras to see the tip of the iceberg.”

“Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” opens with Lovato backstage during that 2018 tour, in footage that was taken one month before her overdose. She’s on the phone with her mother, Dianna De La Garza. Her mother gushes, “Demi, that was the best show you’ve ever done! It’s only going to get better from here.” Lovato gives a small smile but there’s some sadness in her eyes.

There’s also a clip from a concert earlier on that 2018 tour, with the footage showing Demi being congratulated on stage by opening acts DJ Khaled and Kehlani for her sixth “sober birthday,” to celebrate her being clean and sober for the past six years. On the surface, Lovato looked healthy and happy. But in “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil,” she now confesses that she relapsed later that night.

Lovato says, “I picked up a bottle of red wine that night and it wasn’t even 30 minutes before I called someone that had drugs on them … I’m surprised that I didn’t OD that night. I ended up at a party and ran into my old drug dealer from six years before. That night I did drugs I had never done before.”

According to Lovato, she did a dangerous mix of methamphetamine, Ecstasy, alcohol and OxyContin. “That alone should’ve killed me,” Lovato adds. She also confesses that during this relapse that lasted for months, she tried crack cocaine and heroin for the first time.

The first time she went to rehab in 2010, Lovato says that she was addicted to cocaine and Xanax. Years later, when she turned to crack cocaine and heroin (which she usually smoked, not injected), Lovato says in the documentary that she was trying to get the same “upper/downer” combination feeling that she had with cocaine and Xanax. “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” includes a photo identified as Lovato on crack for the first time and a photo of her while she was smoking heroin.

Lovato says she quickly became addicted to crack and heroin, but she was able to hide these addictions from most of the people who were close to her. Her immediate family members are interviewed in the documentary: mother Dianna De La Garza; stepfather Eddie De La Garza; older sister Dallas Lovato; and younger half-sister Madison De LaGarza. All of them say some variation of how Lovato is very good at keeping secrets and pretending that everything is just fine. “There’s a lot that the public don’t know,” says her stepfather Eddie, who is interviewed while sitting on a couch with his wife Dianna.

Demi’s parents got divorced when she was 2 years old. For years, she has been open about how her biological father Patrick Lovato struggled with mental illness (bipolar disorder, schizophrenia) and drug addiction, and their relationship was fractured for a very long time. Patrick died of cancer in 2013.

In “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil,” she talks about how she still feels trauma over her troubled relationship with her father, whom she says abused her mother Dianna. Demi also says that she feels terrible about how her father died alone. His body, which wasn’t discovered for several days, was so decomposed that there couldn’t be an open casket at his funeral. Demi says that her biggest fear was that he would die alone, and she says she’s still haunted by guilt over it.

As for what led to her relapse and overdose in 2018, Demi comments: “Anytime you suppress a part of yourself, it’s going to overflow. Ultimately, that’s what happened to me in a lot of areas of my life. And it led to my overdose, for sure.” She adds later in the documentary: “I was miserable. I snapped.”

In addition to the issues of abandonment that she had with her father, Demi says she believes that the beauty pageants she entered as a child also had a negative effect on her: “My self-esteem was completely damaged by those beauty pageants.” Demi says that her eating disorders began as a direct result of the pressure she felt to be thin and pretty for the pageants.

Her mother Dianna says in the documentary about Demi’s childhood traumas: “I didn’t know that she needed to work with a professional to work through some of that.” In a separate interview, Demi says, “I crossed the line in the world of addiction. It’s interesting that it took a quarantine to work on this trauma stuff I’ve never really taken the time to dig deep and do the work on.”

To her credit, Demi doesn’t sugarcoat the very real and permanent health damage that her overdose caused: “I had three strokes. I had a heart attack. I suffered brain damage from the strokes. I can’t drive anymore. I have blind spots in my vision. When I pour a glass of water, I’ll totally miss the cup because I can’t see it anymore. I’ve also had pneumonia, because I asphyxiated, and multiple organ failure.”

What happened the night of the overdose has been reported in many media outlets, but the story in this documentary is told by Demi and some other people who were with her in the 24-hour period before and after her overdose. On the evening of July 23, 2018, Demi had been celebrating the birthday of Dani Vitale, who was Demi’s choreographer/creative director at the time.

Demi, Vitale and some other friends went out to nightclubs before heading back to Demi’s house. (The documentary includes phone footage of Vitale and Demi doing a choreographed dance routine on the rooftop.) Vitale, who is interviewed in the documentary, says that she didn’t know that Demi had been using drugs at that time.

That night, Demi begged Vitale to stay overnight at the house, but Vitale declined because she had to go home and feed her dogs and had to get up early the next morning. However, Vitale says as she was driving away from the house with a friend, she told the friend that she had a strange feeling that something wasn’t right. Ultimately, Vitale says that she didn’t stay because of her other obligations and she didn’t want to treat Demi like a child who needed a babysitter.

Demi says that when she was alone in the house, she called her drug dealer and spent the rest of the night doing drugs with him. The documentary includes blurry video surveillance footage of him leaving her house that morning, a few hours before Demi was found unconscious and the ambulance was called. Police later decided not to arrest him for his involvement in this overdose.

Jordan Jackson, a woman who was Demi’s assistant at the time, was the one who found Demi naked, unconscious and surrounded by vomit in Demi’s bed the next morning on July 24, 2018. “There was one point where she turned blue. Her whole body turned blue. I was like, ‘She’s dead for sure,'” Jackson says in the documentary. “It was the craziest thing I had ever seen.”

When Demi woke up at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she was legally blind for a short period of time. She didn’t even recognize her younger sister Madison, who chokes up with emotion in the documentary when she remembers that moment: “She looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘Who is that?’ That’s something you never want to hear your sister say.”

Cedars-Sinai neurologist Dr. Shouri Lahiri, who sits next to Demi while he’s interviewed in the documentary, remembers that her oxygen levels were “dangerously low and trending down.” Demi also was put on dialysis to clean her blood, and the tubing had to be stuck through her neck. “It was like a horror movie,” as Dianna De La Garza describes it.

Demi is seated next to Dr. Lahiri when he talks about her hospital treatment. He says he didn’t know she why she was famous until about a week after he became her doctor, when he looked her up on the Internet. In the documentary, Dr. Lahiri mentions that he avoided looking up the information earlier because he didn’t want Demi’s celebrity status to affect his medical decisions about her. It’s kind of hard to believe that while she was in the hospital, he didn’t know for the first several days why she was famous, considering all the media coverage about her overdose.

Demi’s stepfather Eddie De La Garza gives a lot of praise to the hospital doctors who helped Demi with her recovery. But no one (not even Demi) is seen or heard in the documentary explicitly thanking Jackson, the person who found Demi and made the crucially important decision to call 911. Jackson admits in her documentary interview that she was afraid that calling 911 would bring a lot of negative publicity for Demi, but Jackson did the right thing and called anyway. Part of the 911 call is played in the documentary, and Jackson is heard asking the 911 operator if the ambulance could not turn on any sirens when it arrived at the house. However, the operator said that there would be ambulance sirens, and 911 operators have no control over that.

Demi says in the documentary, “I’m really lucky to be alive. My doctors said that I had five to 10 minutes [to live before I was found]. Had my assistant not come in, I wouldn’t be here today.” It would’ve been nice for Demi to directly and publicly thank Jackson in the documentary. If Demi did thank her while filming this documentary, it didn’t make it into the movie. And based on the “bare it all” tone of this film, a moment like that wouldn’t be edited out of the film if this thank you really happened while filming.

The documentary also shows that Vitale’s career and reputation were damaged by this overdose, because she was wrongfully blamed for it and wrongfully identified as being a drug buddy of Demi’s. Vitale says she doesn’t do drugs, but she was bullied and harassed by many of Demi’s fans who believed that Vitale was the one who supplied the drugs that Demi took that night. Vitale lost clients because of the overdose scandal. Demi says that her fans who harassed Vitale went too far.

In the documentary, while Vitale is getting her hair and makeup done for the interview, Demi is shown going into the room, hugging Vitale, and telling her that she’s sorry that she didn’t come forward sooner to clear Vitale’s name, but she was still in recovery at the time. Demi also says that she hopes that the documentary will help Vitale set the record straight that Vitale had nothing to do with Demi’s overdose. They seem to be friendly with each other, but it’s clear that Vitale doesn’t want to risk going through this experience with Demi again.

During her interview, Vitale tears up with emotion when she talks about the fallout from Demi’s overdose: “It was the hardest thing I ever had to deal with in my life. I just wanted [Demi] to live … I lost all my teaching jobs. No one wanted to bring their kid to an apparent heroin dealer teacher. I lost all the artists I was working with. No one wanted to deal with the drama … I had to rethink my whole future, all because of someone else’s decision.”

After recovering from her overdose, Demi says she decided she no longer wanted to have a team of people controlling what she ate or people checking up on her as if she would relapse at any moment. As an example, she says that for her birthdays, her previous management team would only allow her to have watermelon cake. After she fired that management team, Demi says one of the ways she celebrated her freedom from other people telling her what to eat was by having three cakes on her birthday.

After getting rid of her previous management, Demi asked Scooter Braun (who’s most famous for being Justin Bieber’s manager) to become her personal manager. Braun, who is an executive producer of “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil,” is interviewed in the documentary and says that he was skeptical about representing Demi until he met her in person and she won him over. During contract negotiations, Demi says she relapsed and was truthful about it to Braun. Demi says she was sure that after this confession, Braun wouldn’t want to represent her.

But the opposite happened. Braun says that rather than distancing himself from Demi because of the relapse, he wanted to help her. He says his reaction was, “As long as you tell me the truth, we’ll work through it.” Braun also says, “She didn’t need a manager. She needed a friend.”

Demi didn’t get rid of everyone on her business team after the overdose. She gives a lot of credit to her longtime business manager Glenn Nordlinger and head of security/chief of staff Max Lea for helping her through tough times. Nordlinger and Lea are both interviewed in the documentary. Nordlinger says it was his idea to get Demi checked into the Cirque Lodge addiction treatment center in Orem, Utah, for her post-overdose rehab. Demi is seated next to Lea and Nordlinger during some of her interviews, and she often keeps her head lowered, as if she’s still ashamed of what they know about her.

Two other people who’ve remained in Demi’s inner circle and are interviewed in the documentary are Sirah Mitchell (a hip-hop artist) and Matthew Scott Montgomery (an actor), who are each described in the documentary as Demi’s “best friend.” Mitchell is also described as Demi’s “former sober coach.” Mitchell and Montgomery, who were not with Demi on the night that she overdosed, profess unwavering loyalty to Demi. They both say that they knew that Demi was doing heroin and other drugs in the weeks leading up to the overdose, but they say that Demi ignored their concerns and there was nothing they could do about it.

Mitchell and Montgomery seem to be among Demi’s biggest cheerleaders, but they also come across as enablers who will say what she wants to hear so she won’t cut them out of her life. For example, Mitchell and Montgomery make vague excuses for why they’re going along with Demi’s plan to drink alcohol and smoke marijuana as part of her “recovery” from alcoholism and drug addiction. By now, these friends should know that when drug addicts/alcoholics think they can handle drugs and alcohol, that’s still being in the sickness of denial.

As for Demi’s family members, they all say that based on their experiences with Demi, they know that an addict can only truly recover when the addict is willing to stop what’s causing their addiction of their own free will, not because other people are pressuring them to do it. Demi says that the first time she went to rehab, she was forced to go because she was told that she wouldn’t be able to see her sister Madison again if Demi didn’t get rehab treatment. In the documentary, Demi notes the “full circle” irony that after she woke up from her overdose, she literally couldn’t see Madison because of Demi’s temporary blindness.

Demi’s case manager Charles Cook is the one of the few people interviewed in the movie to warn viewers that Demi’s way of handling her addiction is not going to work for everyone. He chooses his words carefully, so as not to offend her, but it’s pretty obvious that he’s conflicted in endorsing Demi’s decision to continue to drink alcohol and use marijuana. Cook and Demi both say that addiction recovery doesn’t have a “one size fits all” solution, and Demi is trying to figure out what works best for her.

The documentary includes interviews with some celebrities who know Demi and have worked with her, including recovering addict/alcoholic Elton John. He is blunt when he comments on addicts/alcoholics who think they can still use their addiction substances as part of their recovery: “Moderation doesn’t work.” However, he praises Demi by saying: “She’s human and she’s adorable and she’s brave.”

Christina Aguilera and Will Ferrell also say good things about Demi. Aguilera says, “She’s just no bullshit when it comes to her spirit and her energy and her laughter.” Lovato and Aguilera teamed up for the duet “Fall in Line,” which was on Aguilera’s 2018 album “Liberation.” The song was also released as a single.

Ferrell says he was inspired to put Demi in his 2020 Netflix comedy movie “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” after seeing her emotionally perform “Anyone” at the 2020 Grammy Awards. The Grammy show was her first high-profile performance after her overdose, and she followed it up with another critically acclaimed performance at Super Bowl LIV, where she sang a powerful rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Clips of both performances are in the movie, as well as snippets of her performing on tour in 2018 and in the recording studio. Demi says that she wrote and recorded “Sober” while she was in the throes of addiction to crack and heroin. And she mentions that her song “Dancing With the Devil” is one of the rawest, soul-baring songs she’s ever written about her addiction. Braun says, “In the studio, Demi is in her happy place.”

Demi describes her brief engagement to Ehrich in 2020 as part of their whirlwind and unconventional romance. Most of their courtship happened when they moved in with her mother and stepfather to quarantine with them during the coronavirus pandemic. Demi and Ehrich dated for just six months before calling it quits. After the breakup, he went on social media and gave interviews saying that he was blindsided and treated unfairly by Demi.

In the documentary, Demi says that she and Ehrich probably wouldn’t have gotten engaged so quickly if they hadn’t quarantined together. And although she doesn’t divulge the full details of their breakup, Demi reiterates what she’s already said publicly: She says she found out that Ehrich didn’t have the right intentions in their relationship. The documentary has selfie video footage of a forlorn-looking Demi after the breakup, fretting to the camera that she won’t find anyone to love her.

Demi has this to say about her love life at the time she filmed this documentary: “I feel like I’m too queer in my life to marry a man right now.” She describes her outlook: “Life is fluid, and I’m fluid, and that’s all I know.”*

In addition to dealing with her physical health problems as a result of the overdose, Demi says she has the psychological trauma of being sexually assaulted. She has this to say about the sexual violation from her drug dealer: “When they found me, I was naked, blue. I was literally left for dead after he took advantage of me. I was literally discarded and abandoned.”

“When I woke up in the hospital, they asked if I had consensual sex,” Demi says in one of her documentary interviews. “There was one flash that I had of him on top of me. I saw the flash, and I said, ‘Yes’ [in answer to the question if the sex was consensual]. It wasn’t until a month after my overdose that I realized, ‘Hey, you weren’t in any state of mind to make a consensual decision.’ That kind of trauma doesn’t go away overnight, and it doesn’t go away in the first few months of rehab either.”

Demi reveals that instead of staying away from the drug dealer that she says raped her, she actually contacted him again when she relapsed after her overdose. And she says that when they had sex again, she wanted to be the one in control. Instead, Demi says this “revenge sex” made her feel worse.

And she also says it was history repeating itself because something similar happened with the person she says raped her when she was 15: “When I was a teenager, I was in a very similar situation. I lost my virginity in rape. I called that person back a month later and tried to make it right by being in control. All it did was make me feel worse.”

In the documentary, Demi doesn’t name her alleged rapists, but the drug dealer who admitted he was the one who supplied the drugs on the night of the overdose already gave tabloid interviews after he found out that he wouldn’t be arrested for supplying her the drugs. His name is already out there in the public. And in at least one of his interviews, he claimed that Demi was his sex partner in a “friends with benefits” situation.

As for the guy whom Demi says raped her when she was 15, she drops some big hints about who he is. “I was part of that Disney crowd that publicly said they were waiting until marriage.” She says in the documentary that this virginity image was a lie for her and her alleged rapist, which obviously implies that he was part of that “Disney crowd” too.

Commenting on how she lost her virginity, Demi says: “I didn’t have the romantic first time. That was not it for me. That sucked. Then I had to see this person all the time so I stopped eating and coped in other ways.”

Then she takes a breath and says, “Fuck it. I’m gonna say it.” She says that her #MeToo moment came when she reported the rape to adults (whom she does not name in the documentary), but her alleged rapist “never got in trouble for it. They never got taken out of the movie they were in. I always kept it quiet because I’ve always had something to say. I don’t know, I’m tired of opening my mouth. Here’s the tea.”

Just like many people with #MeToo stories, Demi says she’s going public with her truth to help give other people the courage to do the same. “I’m coming forward with what happened to me because everyone it happens to should absolutely speak their voice.” She also says, “At the end of the day, I’m responsible for my life choices and only hold myself accountable. And the last two years have been about me doing the work to identify and confront those traumas, so I can be my best self and truly be happy.”

The problem with these types of “confessions of a famous addict” is that they usually have the celebrity confessing that they previously put on a fake front of being happy and/or sober in public, but they were really miserable and/or relapsing in private. Then they usually end the documentary by saying they’re doing much better now. But it can be hard for people to believe that, when the celebrity has already admitted that they’re skilled at pretending that their life is better than it really is.

Demi says in the “Dancing With the Devil” documentary that when she made the “Simply Complicated” documentary, she was really miserable and pretended at the time that she happy. Is there eventually going to be another “confession” from Demi where she will say that she was lying in this “Dancing With the Devil” documentary too? It’s a vicious cycle where people aren’t going to know what to believe.

Another problem that people tend to have with these celebrity “tell-alls” is they usually come out at around the same time that the celebrity has a new project to promote. And it makes people wonder how much of this pain is being used to market something that the celebrity wants to sell. Sure enough, the documentary includes studio footage and video clips to promote Demi’s seventh studio album “Dancing with the Devil … The Art of Starting Over,” which is due out on April 2, 2021, the same week as when this docuseries’ last episode is released on YouTube.

Most addicts and alcoholics don’t get to profit from selling their stories. And there’s a lot of denial going on in the documentary when Demi, who spent years telling the world that she’s an alcoholic, now says she can handle drinking alcohol in moderation. Did she not learn anything in rehab?

Although there are website addresses and hotline phone numbers listed in the documentary as resources for people who want to get more information on how to get help for addiction or surviving sexual trauma, the mixed messages that Demi gives in her “Dancing With the Devil” documentary can actually confuse people. She does briefly acknowledge that she’s luckier than most addicts, because she can afford top-notch rehab treatment and a team of people who can get her whatever she asks for because she’s paying them to do it. But that acknowledgement rings hollow because she’s basically saying, “I know I can afford to go to the highest-priced rehab centers in the world, but I’m going to indulge in my addictive substances anyway, just because I feel like it.”

However, people who are not gullible fans can see the documentary for what it is: It shows the difficulty of overcoming addiction and how celebrities are surrounded by “yes” people who will say what the celebrity wants to hear so that they can stay in the celebrity’s inner circle. If there’s any meaningful takeaway from “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” it’s that if celebrities want to tell the world their truth, they should summon the courage to have people in their lives who will tell them the truth. And when it comes to addiction to alcohol and drugs, they can start with the basic fundamentals of rehab, which is that an alcoholic/drug addict isn’t doing enough real work to get clean and sober if that alcoholic/drug addict is still drinking and drugging.

*UPDATE: In May 2021, Lovato came out as non-binary, with identity pronouns “they” and “them.”

YouTube Originals will premiere “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” on Demi Lovato’s YouTube channel on March 23, 2021.

2021 South by Southwest: What to expect at this year’s SXSW event

February 12, 2021

by Carla Hay

For the first time, South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference & Festivals will be held online for the 2021 edition of the event, which takes place March 16 to March 20, and has been dubbed SXSW Online. After being cancelled in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, SXSW is following safety protocols to offer a virtual experience for SXSW attendees in 2021. SXSW is arguably the best-known event in the U.S. that combines music, film, interactive and convergence programming.

Here are some of the anticipated highlights of the festival:

Keynote and Featured Speakers

Willie Nelson (Photo courtesy of ABC/Image Group LA)

The lineup of SXSW keynote speakers includes:

  • Grammy-winning artist Willie Nelson
  • Politician, activist and author Stacey Abrams in conversation with author N.K. Jemisin

Featured speakers include:

  • Author James Altucher
  • Favor president/CEO and H-E-B Chief digital officer Jag Bath in conversation with Inc editor-at-large Tom Foster
  • Talk show host/comedian Samantha Bee
  • Oregon congressman and Congressional Cannabis Caucus founder Earl Blumenauer with Politico federal cannabis policy reporter Natalie Fertig
  • Business mogul and Virgin Airlines founder Sir Richard Branson
  • Oscar-nominated film composer Nicholas Britell
  • Hip-hop artist Dave Burd (aka Lil Dicky)
  • Filmmaker Erin Lee Carr
  • Electronic dance music duo The Chainsmokers
  • Singer Chiquis
  • Entrepreneur Mark Cuban
  • Interdisciplinary artist Torkwase Dyson
  • Relativity Space co-founder/COTim Ellis
  • Dance choreographer Laurieann Gibson
  • Author/psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb
  • Schwab executive vice president and chief digital officer Neesha Hathi
  • Singer/songwriter Imogen Heap
  • Oscar-wining filmmaker Barry Jenkins
  • Affectiva co-founder/CEO Dr. Rana el Kaliouby
  • Oscar-nominated actress Taraji P. Henson in conversation with Self magazine editor-in-chief Carolyn Kylstra
  • Twilio co-founder/CEO Jeff Lawson
  • Computer scientist Kai-Fu Lee
  • Grammy-winning rapper and “NCIS: Los Angeles” actor LL Cool J
  • Oscar-winning actor Matthew McConaughey in conversation with Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber
  • International yoga teacher, actress, writer and entrepreneur Adriene Mishler
  • Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian
  • Actor, filmmaker, author, and Olympic athlete Alexi Pappas
  • Sony Music Publishing chairman/CEO Jon Platt in conversation with Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter Carole King
  • Emmy-winning producer, Grammy-winning artist and actress Queen Latifah
  • Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke
  • NFL football player Laurent Duvernay-Tardif
  • NFL football player Sebastian Tomich
  • NBA basketball star Chris Webber
  • Grammy-winning artist Wyclef Jean

Featured Sessions

Descriptions courtesy of SXSW:

  • Alexi Pappas & Bill Hader on Being a Bravey – A conversation with Olympian, actress, and author of the bestselling book Bravey, Alexi Pappas, in conversation with Emmy award-winning actor, filmmaker and creator/star of “Barry,” Bill Hader. Pappas and Hader will discuss their evolving relationship with mental health in their creative, professional, and personal lives, and on the lessons they’ve learned from mentors along the way.
  • Are We the Smartest Kids on the Block? – A conversation with Harvard University Professor of Science Avi Loeb, and New Scientist reporter Leah Crane about the search for extraterrestrial life, one of the most exciting frontiers in astronomy. With the recent discoveries on the cloud deck of Venus and studies of the weird interstellar object `Oumuamua’, find out how the search for unusual electromagnetic flashes, industrial pollution of planetary atmospheres, artificial light or heat, artificial space debris or something completely unexpected holds the promise of advancing and maturing both science and society.
  • Beyond the Gender Binary – With increasing recognition of the fluidity of gender, the time has come for a 21st century approach to gender justice. Dividing billions of people into one of two categories “man or woman” is not natural, it is political. Gender diversity is an integral part of our existence. It always has been, and it always will be. The gender binary – the idea that there are only two separate and opposite genders – was built to create conflict and division, not foster creativity and humanity. In this conversation ALOK and Demi Lovato will speak about the status of trans rights in the United States and the power of creative self-expression in the face of gender norms.
  • Bruce Mau: Designing for the Cluster – Bruce Mau applies his MC24 design principles and his new life-centered approach to confronting the simultaneous cluster cascade of crisis that he calls “The Cluster: Pandemics – Racial and Social Justice – Climate – Food Insecurity – Governance.” In this conversation with philosopher and writer Sanford Kwinter, Mau will demonstrate that all of these global challenges are interrelated and that they have their origin in a fundamental crisis of empathy.
  • Building Equity In Startup Communities – A discussion about scaling equity throughout the technology, startup, and venture ecosystem to ensure a path to shared prosperity for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous People of Color in the fourth industrial revolution and beyond. Foundry Group and Techstars co-founder Brad Feld, and 100 Black Angels & Allies Fund and Opportunity Hub co-founder Rodney Sampson will discuss their strategies for operationalizing diversity, equity and inclusion in the startup ecosystem, moderated by Business Insider reporter Dominic-Madori Davis.
  • Can 5G Transform the Live Music Experience? – In the last year we have felt the absence of live music. Artists have stepped up and gotten creative to reach fans virtually with some amazing results – but it can’t replace the impact of live performances. As we look forward to the return of live music, artists have a new platform to help deliver innovative experiences – 5G. The next generation of cellular delivers capabilities that can take the live experience to new levels of immersion and unlock new opportunities for artist creativity. Join Cristiano Amon, President and CEO-elect of wireless leader Qualcomm, and Grammy-nominated DJ Steve Aoki and hear from two visionaries about the future of the live experience in a 5G world.
  • The Chainsmokers on launching MANTIS VC – Grammy Award-winning and Billboard Chart topping artist/producer duo, The Chainsmokers, are a dominating musical force with a diverse repertoire of songs that have led them to become one of world’s biggest recording artists. Alex Pall and Drew Taggart have expanded The Chainsmokers’ empire into film and television, tequila, philanthropy, and most recently their venture capital firm Mantis. Hear their story on how the duo have evolved their music career into so much more with Andreessen Horowitz Managing Partner Chris Lyons.
  • A Conversation with Desus Nice and The Kid Mero – A conversation with multi-talented comedians, authors of the New York Times bestseller “God-Level Knowledge Darts: Life Lessons from the Bronx,” co-hosts of Showtime’s first late-night talk show “Desus & Mero” and the long-running Bodega Boys podcast, Desus Nice and The Kid Mero.
  • A Conversation with Noah Hawley and Andrew Bird – Set in Kansas City 1950, Fargo’s fourth installment follows two crime syndicates jockeying to control an alternate economy of exploitation and graft while fighting for a piece of the American dream. Join Noah Hawley (creator / executive producer / director / writer) and Grammy Award-nominated musician Andrew Bird for a not-to-be-missed conversation about how a concert in Austin lead to Bird’s acting debut in “Fargo.” Moderated by Whitney Friedlander. All four installments of the critically acclaimed limited series are currently available to stream on FX on Hulu.
  • A Conversation with the Russo Brothers and Elizabeth Banks – A fireside chat between visionary directors/producers Anthony and Joe Russo (“Welcome to Collinwood,” “Arrested Development,” “Avengers: Endgame,” “Relic,” “Mosul” and “Cherry”) and acclaimed actress, director, writer, and producer Elizabeth Banks (“Charlie’s Angels,” “The Hunger Games” and “Shrill”). Banks will talk to the Russo Brothers about their new film “Cherry,” as well as the work they are doing with their company, AGBO. “Cherry” stars Tom Holland and is based on the critically acclaimed debut novel by Nico Walker. It will be released in theaters in February and on Apple TV+ in March.
  • COVID-19: The New Reality – Dr. Michael Osterholm, joined by health economist Jane Sarasohn-Kahn, will speak to the SXSW community about what is next in the fight against COVID-19. From the immediate concerns around new variants to the “collateral damage” we face from this pandemic, Dr. Osterholm and Ms. Sarasohn-Kahn will share insights to help navigate public health in 2021 and beyond.
  • Evolving the Gaming Industry with CouRage & Loaded – Gaming is taking off and bringing new opportunities for creators, brands and entertainment companies. Loaded, the leading management company for some of the world’s biggest professional gamers will host a special Q&A with leading content creator CouRage to examine the state of the today’s gaming industry and how the creator community has evolved the business for the better. The talk with Loaded VP of Talent Bridget Davidson will highlight key learning from CouRage’s successful career, as well as spotlight how brands and other non-endemic companies can work with creators to capture both eyeballs and engagement.
  • Forging a New Social Contract for Big Tech – Beyond privacy, revised liability laws can hold companies accountable for what they disseminate online. Antitrust actions could check the flow of wealth to the small number of companies that control platforms, aggregators, and algorithms. A lightweight horizontal regulation could add a safety layer to the high-risk applications of artificial intelligence. This discussion features U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar; Denmark tech ambassador Anne Marie Engtoft Larsen; Executive Vice-President of the European Commission and Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager; and President & Co-founder Center for Humane Technology Tristan Harris. The session will focus on the role for technology companies in the 21st Century and what a new “social contract” could look like for Big Tech – in both Europe and the United States.
  • Gene Editing: The Biotech Revolution of our Times – Bestselling author Walter Isaacson has established himself as the biographer of creativity, innovation, and genius. He wrote about Einstein, a genius of the revolution in physics, and Steve Jobs, a genius of the revolution in digital technology. Though the past half-century has been a digital age, based on the microchip, computer, and internet, Isaacson argues we are now on the cusp of a third revolution in science—a revolution in biochemistry that is capable of curing diseases, fending off viruses, and improving the human species. With the invention of CRISPR, we can edit our DNA. CRISPR has been used in China to create “designer babies” that are immune from the AIDS virus and in the U.S. to cure patients of sickle cell anemia. With the life-science revolution, children who study digital coding will be joined by those who study the code of life — and all the moral dilemmas this brings. Isaacson will be joined in conversation with award-winning journalist, New York Times bestselling author, and a co-founder of Stand Up to Cancer Katie Couric.
  • Indigenous Peoples Hold the Key to Saving Earth – For centuries, Indigenous communities have served as guardians of the environment, protecting nature, respecting flora and fauna, and using traditional knowledge and wisdom passed down over generations. They safeguard 80% of biodiversity left in the world, which is key to turning around the climate crisis, as biodiverse areas are major carbon sinks. In this panel, Nemonte Nenquimo, a leader from the Waorani community in Ecuador and founding member of Indigenous-led nonprofit organization Ceibo Alliance and Amazon Frontlines speaks with Julia Jackson, Founder of Grounded.org, to discuss why climate philanthropy must be reimagined to protect the future of our planet, by directing resources to indigenous communities who are at the frontlines of our climate emergency.
  • Immersive Retail: Connected Shopping in a New Era – A conversation about the acceleration in changes to the retail environment and what major initiatives the retail industry is pursuing to enable the widespread proliferation of AR/VR and 3D content for e-commerce and retail with TechTalk/Studio president and co-founder Kevin O’Malley, IBM Global Business Strategy Partner Silke Meixner, and Unity Head of Industry Verticals, Operate Solutions, Tony Parisi.
  • Late Night Girls Club: Samantha Bee & Amber Ruffin – Samantha Bee (host and executive producer of the WGA nominated, Emmy Award-winning show Full Frontal with Samantha Bee) in conversation with Amber Ruffin (writer, executive producer and host of WGA Award-nominated series The Amber Ruffin Show). The two will discuss the trials and tribulations of covering politics in today’s unpredictable climate from a unique, comedic point of view. As the longest running correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Bee eventually went out on her own in 2016 with Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. The show continues to use political satire to entertain, educate, and empower viewers while keeping the government in check. Ruffin is also an Emmy and WGA Award-nominated writer and performer for Late Night with Seth Meyers, and was the first African American female to write for a late-night network talk show in the U.S.
  • Live Music in Venues: What’s Next? – 2020 was a year of catastrophic impact for the live music industry as the pandemic brought the industry to a screeching halt. A year later, this session brings together independent venue perspectives from across the US., including Troubadour talent booker Amy Madrigali, Iridium director of artist relations & programming Grace Blake, First Avenue Productions president and CEO Dayna Frank and moderated by Pollstar, VenuesNow executive editor Andy Gensler. How have they been able to support developing talent? What’s ahead for their establishment and how they can get back to supporting a full schedule of acts?
  • Melinda Gates + Kelly Corrigan Talk Big Change – For more than two decades, Melinda Gates has been on a mission. Her goal, as co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has been to find solutions for people with the most urgent needs, wherever they live. Throughout this journey, she has come to a critical conclusion: when we lift up women, we lift up humanity. In conversation with podcaster, PBS host, and bestselling author Kelly Corrigan, Gates will discuss her bestselling book, “The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World,” and its stories of the empowered women Gates has met over the years. Gates will talk about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s work around family planning, education, and gender equality, and she will call us to action—urging us to drive progress in our homes, workplaces, and communities.
  • Music’s Limitless Variations – Hear from Lenzo Yoon, the Global CEO of BTS’ label Big Hit Entertainment (hereafter referred to as Big Hit), as he explains how Big Hit was able to see what comes next, as well as prepare for the future at every critical juncture, and share Big Hit’s past, present and tomorrow. Yoon presents prospects and insights on the future of the K-pop industry and, furthermore, on the future of the global entertainment industry.
  • Ocean Storytelling with James Cameron & Brian Skerry – Join world-renowned filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer at Large James Cameron and National Geographic Explorer and Photographer Brian Skerry on a guided adventure into the deep blue to discuss the upcoming Disney+ original documentary series Secrets of the Whales. Filmed over three years in 24 locations, avid underwater conservationists Cameron and Skerry join forces to deliver an epic, awe-inspiring look at the incredible life and culture of whales and how the world’s largest mammals are facing the challenge of an ever-changing ocean. Moderated by OceanXplorers executive producer Orla Doherty.
  • The Quest Effect: Inside VR’s Next Chapter – Anyone who has entered virtual reality knows what a transformative experience donning a headset can be. Until recently, that experience was enjoyed mainly by hard-core VR enthusiasts. This year, all-in-one VR has become better, more powerful, and more affordable, expanding and changing the makeup of who spends time in VR. Now, that new group is discovering how great VR can be — not only for games, but also for fitness, media, hangouts with friends, and even real work. Join Mark Rabkin, Vice President of Oculus at Facebook, for a discussion about the future of VR, its changing ecosystem, and what its recent success means for the development of the next computing platform.
  • STARZ’S “Power” Universe Collides – Join STARZ’S Power Universe co-creator, Curtis “50 Cent” JacksonPower Book II: Ghost cast: Michael Rainey Jr.Mary J. Blige, and Cliff “Method Man” SmithPower Book III: Raising Kanan cast: Mekai Curtis and Patina Miller; and Power Book IV: Force lead: Joseph Sikora, for the first time ever as the Power Universe collides. Moderated by media personality and bestselling author Angie MartinezPower stars will discuss: the legacy of the Power Universe, the latest on upcoming seasons, the future and fate of new and iconic characters.
  • Ted Lasso: Emotion in the Edit – Join producers and members of the Ted Lasso editorial team in a panel discussion on the magic of Bill Lawrence shows (ScrubsCougar TownSpin City) and how editorial is the true partner in landing the jokes, drawing out emotion, and making it feel like you’re spending 30 minutes with your long time pack of friends. American Cinema Editors (ACE) CinemaEditor Magazine writer Nancy Jundi will moderate the panel with representatives from the Ted Lasso creative and editorial team (Bill LawrenceKip KroegerMelissa McCoy, and A.J. Catoline) to elaborate on the many considerations that go into building and honoring a character across episodes, seasons and a series.
  • Who Controls the Past: The Tulsa Race Massacre – How is it possible that the 1921 massacre of as many as thousands of Black people in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was almost erased from US history? And why is it finally penetrating the national consciousness? Featured in HBO’s The Watchmen and Lovecraft Country, this history survived because of the dedicated efforts of Black Tulsans, including the descendants of survivors, who have made it their life’s work to uncover what really happened and make sure we never forget. This session, moderated by Jeffery Robinson from Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America, examines the work of activists Dr. Tiffany CrutcherChief Egunwale F. Amusan, and Kristi Orisabiyi Williams to take control of the historical narrative, and in so doing, to force a reckoning on racial justice in this country and a long overdue conversation on reparations for Black Americans.
  • Why Do We Fear Innovation? – A conversation featuring actress, author, and neuroscientist Mayim Bialik and historian, philosopher, and bestselling author Yuval Noah Harari, moderated by Tech Open Air founder Niko Woischnik. From the printing press to vaccines to artificial intelligence, the introduction of almost any transformative technology has been met with wonder as well as fear and rejection. Many of history’s greatest inventors were considered heretics – the archetype of the mad scientist exists for a reason. Why does the new still scare us? What does it take to build acceptance for transformative ideas? How does the unprecedented scientific progress to deliver COVID vaccines influence this? What role does disinformation play in shaping our fears? How can we ensure innovators consider ethical issues, so outcomes can lead to the betterment of people and the planet? What can innovators learn from artists and creators of fiction? Presented by Leaps by Bayer and Tech Open Air Berlin.
  • Why The Music Biz is Buzzing About the Metaverse – In the midst of the 2020 global pandemic, one of the biggest concerts ever took place in the virtual worlds of Roblox. Two-time Grammy Award winner Lil Nas X gave a performance debut of his new single ‘Holiday’ and other top hits, dancing and socializing with fans, and attracting over 30 million concert views in this revolutionary music experience. The concert’s unprecedented success was made possible by the Metaverse, a social and technological phenomenon driven by a new generation growing up online and global platforms paving a new way for people to be together, even when they can’t in person. Hear from Maverick Management music manager Zach Kardisch, futurist and CEO of Futures Intelligence Group Cathy Hackl, Roblox Global Head of Music Jon Vlassopulos, and Columbia Records SVP, Experiential Marketing and business development Ryan Ruden about how the Metaverse is shaping the future of music business, today.
  • Breaking the Sonic Color Line: A discussion about authenticity of voice in media, defeating racial stereotypes in voice acting, the impact of race in audio ads and how the industry can come together and make real change featuring DJ, actress and entrepreneur MC Lyte; Pandora Group Creative Director Roger Sho Gehrmann; and voice-over and television actress Joan Baker.
  • The Chainsmokers on launching MANTIS VC: Grammy Award-winning and Billboard Chart topping artist/producer duo, The Chainsmokers, are a dominating musical force with a diverse repertoire of songs that have led them to become one of world’s biggest recording artists. Alex Pall and Drew Taggart have expanded The Chainsmokers’ empire into film and television, tequila, philanthropy, and most recently their venture capital firm Mantis. Hear their story on how the duo have evolved their music career into so much more.
  • A Conversation with Icons Queen Latifah and LL COOL J: From the mic to the big screen, award-winning rappers, actors and producers Queen Latifah and LL Cool J have been major forces in the entertainment industry for over three decades. Queen Latifah executive produces and stars as the first female Equalizer, Robyn McCall, in the reimagining of the series Equalizer, and LL Cool J stars as Special Agent Sam Hanna on “NCIS: Los Angeles.” Join them for a lively, in-depth conversation about their illustrious careers in music, television and movies (in front and behind the cameras), the cultural resonance and timeliness of their series, and much more.
  • From Moonlight to The Underground Railroad: Barry Jenkins & Composer Nicholas Britell: A conversation with Academy Award-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins and with Academy Award-nominated and Emmy Award-winning composer Nicholas Britell (Succession), where they will discuss the joy, delicate nuances, challenges and unexpected discoveries from their work together. The pair will talk about their unique creative process in building a singular audiovisual identity with a specific focus on their upcoming Amazon Original limited series, The Underground Railroad, based on Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name. Jenkins and Britell first collaborated on Moonlight, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. During the making of Moonlight, the duo formed an inimitable rapport that brought them back together again for If Beale Street Could TalkThe Underground Railroad will stream in more than 240 countries and territories worldwide on Amazon Prime Video in 2021.
  • Hi, I’m Dave: Hailed by Rolling Stone as one of the best TV shows of 2020, FXX’s DAVE is based on the life of Dave Burd (aka Lil Dicky), and centered on a neurotic man who’s convinced himself that he’s destined to be one of the best rappers of all time. The critically-acclaimed first season explored ambition, mental illness and masculinity in the world of hip-hop. Join co-creator/executive producer/writer/star Dave Burd (aka Lil Dicky), co-creator/executive producer Jeff Schaffer, executive producer Saladin Patterson and series star GaTa for DAVE’s first panel at SXSW. Season 1 is available on FX on Hulu; season two will premiere on FXX in 2021.
  • How GenZ Duets the News on TikTok: Hear about tactics publishers are using to build relationships with young audiences on TikTok, and the content that moves audiences to action with The Washington Post video producer Dave JorgensonNowThis politics producer Ian McKenna; and content creator Jackie James.
  • Leading Safely + Motivating Empathetically: Learn how the hospitality industry have changed their tactics to adapt to the ever-changing health and wellness regulations and lead, motivate and engage their employees, colleagues and communities; eaturing Blackberry Farm Vice President of Food & Beverage Andy ChabotFood & Wine editor-in-chief Hunter Lewis; executive chef and Cúrate Bar de Tapas and La Bodega by Cúrate co-owner Katie Button; and award-winning chef and activist Marcus Samuelsson
  • .Making Emotional Connections With Volumetric Video: Hear from three seasoned creatives on the most effective way to make emotional connections through volumetric video with writer, director, and new media artist Illya Szilak; Microsoft’s Mixed Reality Capture Studios creative director Jason Waskey, and producer and Atlas V co-founder Antoine Cayrol.
  • RIP Live Shows? Concerts in the Time of COVID: A conversation about the ways the live/touring industry are trying to stay afloat, what’s working, what isn’t, and what still needs to be done to save the music we love, featuring Driift general manager Adam Shore; Panache Booking and Panache Management founder Michelle Cable; and Paradigm Talent Agency Executive, Wilder Records founder and Home School co-founder Tom Windish.

Music Performances

There are normally about 2,000 artists who perform at SXSW every year. However, due to nightclub closures, the performance lineup has been reduced for 2021. Some of the announced artists who will be performing virtually include Indigo Sparke, Place to Bury StrangersFrancisca Valenzuela, SquidGrrrl GangDarkooSamantha Sanchez, Holy Fuck, Astrid Sonne, NAYANA IZ, and Jealous

Showcases and presenters include AfroFuture Sounds (British Underground & DAJU Presents), Hotel Vegas & Hotel Free TV, Damnably, EQ Austin, Jazz re:freshed Outernational, FOCUS Wales, Roskilde Festival, Taiwan Beats, Close Encounter Club, Sounds from Spain, M for Montreal, Flipped Coin KOREA, Carefree Black Girl, New Zealand Music, KUTX The Breaks, Dedstrange, Fierce Panda x End of the Trail, Brazil Inspires the Future, and ÅÄÖ…Sounds Swedish.

Movie and TV Premieres

Demi Lovato in “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” (Photo courtesy of OBB Media)

SXSW has a wide variety of feature-length and short films. In 2021, the SXSW Film Festival has music documentaries as its opening, centerpiece and closing films. “Demi Lovato: Dancing With the Devil” is the opening film, the Charli XCX quarantine chronicle “Alone Together” is the centerpiece, and “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” is the closing film.

Here are some of the more high-profile feature films that will have their world premieres at the festival: The psychological thriller “Here Before,” starring Andrea Riseborough as a woman questioning reality. The drama “Language Lesson,” starring Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass as a Spanish teacher and her student who become friends. And the superhero action flick “The Spine of Night,” starring Richard E. Grant, Lucy Lawless, Patton Oswalt, Betty Gabriel and Joe Manganiello.  Documentary world premieres include “United States vs. Reality Winner”; “Introducing, Selma Blair”; “WeWork: or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn”; “Hysterical,” about female stand-up comedians;

TV shows that will have episodes premiering at SXSW 2021 include Starz’s “Confronting a Serial Killer,” showrunner Po Kutchins and director Joe Berliner’s chronicle of the relationship between serial killer Sam Little and author Jillian Lauren; HBO Max’s “Made for Love,” starring Cristin Milioti as a divorcée who’s out for revenge; and the third season of Starz’s “The Girlfriend Experience” and Amazon Prime Video’s thriller series “Them.”