Cambridge Film Festival 2013 Day 3: Hannah Arendt, Muscle Shoals

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Day 3 arrived, and as usual in the film festival it’s the one day each year when commitments of my other hobby leave me unavailable. But for a humble church chorister as myself, the chance to sing in King’s College Chapel each year is too good to turn down.

The difficulty of this is that it means almost a whole day when I can’t see films. With an impeccable lack of timing, the film that won the audience award screened in this slot in 2012. Last year, because I’m clearly insane, I went to Bums On Seats for the first time, then to a film, then to sing at King’s, then back to the cinema for more films, and still managed to miss the festival’s best. I was Bumming again this year, venting my Hawking frustrations again (which you can hear here) but sadly there was no suitable gap before the evening to get a film in.

Hannah ArendtHannah Arendt

So after singing until I was hoarse, my first film of the day was Hannah Arendt. I have a passing interest in philosophy, so Hannah Arendt’s name is one of those I’ve heard of but couldn’t necessarily place. Arendt was a chain-smoking free thinker who saw her theories taking precedence over the feelings of friends and colleagues. This might not have been so provocative had Arendt’s theories not centred around the motivations of the Nazi. Arendt was herself a Jew who’d escaped a French detention camp, but she’d also had an affair before her marriage with a Nazi-sympathising professor and some couldn’t see past that when reviewing her work.

There’s a disconnect at play, in that emotions and passions are suggested to be running high by Hannah’s actions, but that’s barely alluded to on screen. The footage from Adolf Eichmann’s trial shows  great anger, but that level of emotion never translates into any of the film’s contemporary characters. Hannah Arendt builds to a simultaneously thoughtful and stirring climax, but it’s a shame about some of what precedes it.

I also reviewed the film for Take One in more detail here.

Muscle Shoals

There’s been some superb music documentaries in the past few years, but the best understand the balance between the music and the story behind it. Muscle Shoals has a phenomenal musical heritage to call on, and the talking heads make a line-up that would make Glastonbury blush, from Alicia Keys to The Rolling Stones and Wilson Pickett to Aretha Franklin. The music is unquestionably the highlight, and what Muscle Shoals does well is to not only give insight into the characters behind the music, such as Rick Hall, but into the process and composition of the sound. It tells the story of how both Rick Hall’s Fame Studios and its rival Muscle Shoals Sounds came into being, and in  the process left its distinctive sound written through decades of music like letters in a musical stick of rock.

The only area where Muscle Shoals falls down slightly is in an attempt to be a comprehensive and exhaustive history of the musical period, following a fairly strict chronology. By the time we’re into Lynnyrd Skynnyrd the fascination may be waning somewhat, and trimming 10-15 minutes may have helped. It’s a documentary that looks almost good as it sounds, the digital cinematography showing off both the countryside and the crags in Keith Richards’ face to equal effect, but it’s at it’s best when it’s exploring the characters behind the music.

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