Bruce Springsteen was on the red carpet, so was veteran rock star Robbie Robertson, and legendary producer David Foster – but this wasn’t the Grammy Awards or an MTV event; they were all at the Toronto International Film Festival, or TIFF, that ran from September 5 to 15. Their presence signalled the trend of films increasingly turning to timeless music stars for their inspiring— and often colourful— life stories to script their own success.
Movie theatres haven’t quite become mosh pits, but audiences are giving music-themed films a big thumbs up, as evidenced by the box office success of recent films such as Bohemian Rhapsody, a biopic about the famous British rock band Queen and its lead singer Freddie Mercury. The 2018 release became a monster hit, grossing over $900 million globally, and winning four Oscars. This year’s Rocketman, based on the life of iconic pop musician Elton John, was also a big box office success.
The trend extends to documentaries as well. In fact, TIFF chose Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, a documentary on the life of the Canadian-born rock star and his band, as its opening night film, a slot typically reserved for high profile productions. The documentary ticked the boxes anyway — its executive producers include film legends Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, and the film boasts talking heads like Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton and Van Morrison.
It chronicles the life of Robertson, a Toronto kid from a mixed background, who broke into the stratosphere of rock music with a mix of explosive talent and sheer grit. Director Daniel Roher was hooked the moment he heard The Band’s music through his parents, an interest that turned into near obsession after he watched Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, a concert film about The Band’s farewell live performance in 1976, years before Roher was even born. That concert also featured guests such as Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell.
When Robertson, 76, published his best-selling memoir Testimony in 2016, Roher, who is 50 years younger, knew he wanted to bring his story to film. “When Robbie released his memoir, I devoured it,” Roher says. “A wild musical journey built on a scattered upbringing in Toronto, on the Six Nations Reserve and in the living rooms of his underworld Yiddish relatives...I could see that this would make an extraordinary documentary, and making this film became my obsession. I would beg, kill, cry or steal to get this job.”
TIFF also chose a music-related film, David Foster: Off The Record, as the opener for its documentary section. It also pays homage to a Canadian icon who shaped the careers of a parade of music stars, from Barbra Streisand, the band Chicago, Whitney Houston, and Celine Dion to younger stars like Michael Buble and Josh Groban. In a decades-long career, Foster has racked up 16 Grammy awards from 47 nominations. “There isn’t an artist today that can’t trace their roots to David’s style of producing and composing,” says Barry Avrich, the director of the documentary. This is another film that features timeless hits like Streisand’s Somewhere, Chicago’s Love Me Tomorrow, Houston’s tracks from the film Bodyguard, Dion’s All by myself, Natalie Cole and Nat King Cole’s Unforgettable, and Toni Braxton’s Un-break My Heart, all produced by Foster.
“I just think people want great storytelling and need a break from Spiderman and other Marvel things to get lost in incredible stories and incredible music, and everybody wants to know how you make music, how these people’s lives interacted,” says Avrich. He admits his job was made easier by his subject.
Foster is a consummate showman himself, coming up with the most memorable quotes in a film featuring the likes of Streisand, Dion, Peter Cetera, Lionel Richie, Quincy Jones, Clive Davis and Tony Mottola. If you thought a rock star’s life was colourful, wait till you hear about Foster – “Five sisters, five wives, five daughters…a very complex life,” says Avrich, in an understatement Foster would have eschewed. The 69-year-old producer is currently married to American Idol star Katharine McPhee, and is bent on breaking into a world that he hasn’t conquered yet: Broadway.
Also at TIFF this year was Western Stars, a Bruce Springsteen concert film co-directed by the superstar himself. In the features section was I Am Woman, a biopic about Helen Reddy, the Australian singer behind the 1971 hit single I Am Woman, which became an anthem for the women’s liberation movement. This opening night film for the Special Presentations category is directed by Korean-Australian filmmaker Unjoo Moon. “I think music films can work well as documentaries or as fiction films. I don’t think that matters as much as the truth of the story,” says Cameron Bailey, Artistic Director and Co-Head of TIFF.
Until now, much of the revival of cinematic interest in veteran music stars has been limited to Western musicians. “We need to see more films by filmmakers who are exploring other kinds of music beyond Western music. I don’t think the music itself is any kind of barrier to audiences,” says Bailey. Adds Avrich, “What’s interesting in India and Asia is that I think the general public is more interested in people that make the music than those that sing it. They are interested in artistry because so much of the musicians in India are such artists themselves, when you listen to the complexity of Indian music, so it’s millions and millions of David Fosters.”
As timeless as the music may be, what entrances the box office is the notes from the ringing cash registers. So is this the latest winning trend? “I hope not,” says Avrich, “because trends tend to end and I hope this goes on for a long time.”