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BY AMELIA GROOM

‘The notion of locking in for a film festival for days on end may be really compelling for film nerds like me,’ says Sydney Film Festival director Clare Stewart, ‘but for wider audiences a more varied entertainment experience is something that people are really looking for.’

The Film Festival program strand Sounds on Screen was introduced last year, when Stewart took hold of the reins as director. ‘It caters to the audiences’ changed desire for experience,’ she says, ‘the idea is to celebrate the music documentary genre, and also to put the films in a social context, with screenings taking place in interactive cabaret-style environments that include live music and DJs.’

One of the most interesting films of this year’s music documentary selection is Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, about the life of the late virtuoso cellist and pioneering disco producer.

Young New York filmmaker Matt Wolf says he had originally wanted to make an experimental film that was just about Russell’s music, ‘but when I met Tom [Russel’s partner] I was really inspired by him, I felt like his connection to Arthur was so alive and real, and that it would a really compelling subject.

‘Through Tom I connected with a lot of the people who were important collaborates and significant people in Arthur’s life, and I realised I wanted to tell his story.

‘I think the film transcends the topic of music in a lot of ways ‘ it’s about the life and character of an artist, the experience of being gay, the landscape of Iowa and Arthur’s fixation with it, and the cultural history of downtown New York in the 1970s.’

Russell collaborated with so many different types of people ‘ from his next-door neighbour Allen Ginsberg to Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers to James Brown ‘ constantly pushing himself creatively and experimenting with new types of music.

What the film substantiates is that though a lot of his tracks have been hugely influential, he never received much notoriety or recognition and was more interested in the process of making music than in achieving fame or commercial success.

Music documentaries like these have had a surge in production and popularity in recent years, and Sounds on Screen sets out to showcase the growing genre. But why has the trend come about’

‘After music videos there came a vocabulary for visualising music and with that people began exploring the mythology that has always existed around music and musicians,’ says Wolf, ‘that’s how we’ve found ourselves with this ‘behind the music’ template.’

According to Stewart, ‘a new depth of curiosity has evolved as a result of people being able to obtain much more information – through the internet and so forth – so they’ve become a lot more enquiring about their passions.

‘The music documentary genre is the result of people pursuing information about the things they love, and I think that’s great.’

The Wild Combination screening on June 19 at The Metro will be accompanied by DJ Ben Drayton playing funk, soul, dub and disco, and drag-burlesque artist Trash Vaudeville performing to Arthur Russell’s music.

Also in the program is Heavy Metal in Baghdad presented by VICE magazine, a film about Iraq’s only heavy metal band. Following the screening at The Metro, VICE Australia will be having it’s fifth birthday party, with local and international bands and DJs ‘ sure to be the most debaucherous event of the festival.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil, another heavy metal documentary, will be accompanied by DJ Sultan of Sin (the name says enough). DJ Dynamite, Johnny G & The E Types and DJ Hot Grits will provide the funk/soul entertainment on the night of the Respect Yourself: The Satx Records Story screening, a film about the original funk record label Stax.

Alongside the Australian premiere of Julian Schnabel’s Lou Reed’s Berlin, there will be documentaries screening on musicians as diverse as Phillip Glass, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Pete Seeger and Anita O’Day.

A certain highlight is the festival’s silent film presentation, Japanese director Teinosuke Kinugasa’s 1926 eerie and radical masterpiece, A Page of Madness, which will show at the State Theatre accompanied by a live score by Phillip Johnston with musicians Chris Abrahams and Lloyd Swanton (of The Necks) and Daryl Pratt.

The 2008 Sydney Film Festival runs from June 4-21. For more details and the full program see www.sydneyfilmfestival.org.