Sound Unseen Fest Brings Music Films to Minnesota

Sound Unseen has been the Twin Cities’ one and only underground music-in-film festival since it debuted in 1999. The five-day event screens rare and new music documentaries, music biopics and music-oriented independent films from all over the world. For this year’s 15th annual installment, festival director Jim Brunzell, who’s been a part of the fest since the beginning, has selected 21 films (in addition to a short film program) that run the gamut, from the more straight-forward music docs on legendary New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders, the late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, and punk bands Fugazi and Rye Coalition–to some decidedly quirkier fare, such as Eternity: The Movie, a satirical ode to 1980s musicals and featuring a pair of Hall & Oates-esque leads, and a documentary on Iran-born theremin virtuoso, drag queen, and former New York club kid Armen Ra.

Don’t wait to scoop up tickets to this year’s event, which runs this Wednesday to Sunday–popular screenings tend to sell out (as the Johnny Thunders doc Looking for Johnny already has). And finally, be adventurous: it’s the last time most of the films will screen locally.

Read on for some of this year’s highlights and trailers:

Wednesday, November 12: Heaven Adores You

7 p.m., $20 advance, $25 door (includes admission to opening-night reception), McNally Smith College of Music, 19 E. Exchange St., St. Paul.

With the release of his debut album Roman Candle in 1994 and a self-titled album in 1995 on the now-iconic Kill Rock Stars label, singer-songwriter Elliott Smith helped put his hometown of Portland, Oregon, on the music map. Smith’s inclusion on the 1996 soundtrack to Good Will Hunting brought him his first taste of mainstream success, culminating in an Oscar nomination for his song “Miss Misery” and an endearingly out-of-place performance at the Oscars, donning a white tuxedo alongside the likes of Celine Dion. The 1998 album XO was Smith’s first release on a major label (DreamWorks) and most commercially successful release to date; 2000’s Figure 8 would be his last. Addiction, depression, and scrapped recordings followed, until his suicide in 2003 at the age of 34. Now regarded as a mythic figure of the ‘90s indie music scene, this new documentary offer an intimate glimpse into the life and music of Smith, and its influence on fans, friends, and fellow musicians. An opening-night reception at the Hotel 340 and St. Paul Athletic Club follows with acoustic sets by Dan Mariska and Cobi Mike. (96 min.)

Friday, November 14: Beautiful Noise

7 p.m., $10 advance, $12 door, McNally Smith.

While most music documentaries tend to focus on one band, this ambitious doc looks at an entire genre of music: shoegaze. A noisy, guitar-driven style that incorporated loud sounds with a slew of effects pedals popularized in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the genre was never commercially successful, but it influenced a legion of musicians. The genre is explored through a more than 50 interviews with music icons (Robert Smith, Trent Reznor, Wayne Coyne, Billy Corgan) and practitioners of the sound, including the Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Cocteau Twins, Slowdive, Lush, Curve, Ride, Chapterhouse, and Swervedriver, culled over the course of eight (!) years. (87 min.)

Friday, November 14: Centerpiece Gala Event: Flood Tide

9 p.m. doors, 9:30 p.m. show, $10 advance, $12 door, Amsterdam Bar & Hall, 6. W. 6th St., St. Paul.

A Minnesota-made contribution to this year’s lineup, Flood Tide follows a group of artists who float a series of large sculptures down the Hudson River, interweaving the journey’s documentation with elements of fiction, mythology, and oral history. The film, which features an original score by Minneapolis band Dark Dark Dark, will be accompanied by a live score for night’s screening, which will be preceded by a program of short films by director Todd Chandler. (70 min.)

Saturday, November 15: When My Sorrow Died: The Legend of Armen Ra and the Theremin

5 p.m., $10 advance, $12 door, McNally Smith

Easily the most eccentric of this year’s offerings is this documentary on modern theremin master Armen Ra, following his rough childhood, his rise to the top of the New York City drag world and club scene in the 1980s, his descent into drugs and addiction, and his life-affirming introduction to the seemingly-magical instrument. (85 min.)

Sunday, November 16: Legends of Ska

3 p.m. $10 advance, $12 door, McNally Smith College of Music, St. Paul.

This new documentary chronicles the history of ska, its Jamaican origins, and its worldwide musical impact, interspersing vintage concert footage, tourist 8mm home movies, photographs, newsreels, and rare interviews. Fans of the 1999 award-winning Cuban dance club documentary Buena Vista Social Club won’t want to miss it.  (102 min.)

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