Artist Docs Take Center Stage at Sundance 2024

Each January, the Sundance Film Festival is the debut stage for hundreds of films that will be rolling out over the coming year. By now the festival’s program has come to include a robust segment of documentaries about art and artists. This year’s lineup of biographies has a particular emphasis on musicians.

Most intriguing among them is Eno, about the influential multihyphenate composer/producer Brian Eno. Director Gary Hustwit, a pioneer in nonfiction films about unlikely subjects, is best known for his design trilogy (2007’s Helvetica, 2009’s Objectified, and 2011’s Urbanized), which tackles the subtle creative aspects of everyday phenomena (fonts, product design, and urban planning, respectively). Notably, the film is not in any of the documentary sections but is instead part of the experimental New Frontier program. Each screening is unique, thanks to a generative algorithm that’s “designed to sequence scenes and create transitions out of Hustwit’s original interviews with Eno, and Eno’s rich archive of hundreds of hours of never-before-seen footage, and unreleased music … presenting different scenes, order, [and] music.” It’s unclear how successful this strategy will prove, but it’s certainly in keeping with Eno’s exploratory ethos.

Pioneering art-pop musicians are also profiled in DEVO, about the namesake new wave band. This one comes courtesy of director Chris Smith, whose American Movie (1999) is a landmark in oddball independent documentary. He seems like a good fit for Devo, having previously made films about culture jammers the Yes Men, actor Jim Carrey’s process of portraying comedian/performance artist Andy Kaufman, low-budget filmmaker Robert Downey Sr., and the English pop artists Wham!. The music films are rounded out with a portrait of Luther Vandross, who began as a backup singer in the 1970s before emerging as a powerhouse R&B and soul singer. Luther: Never Too Much is the latest work by Dawn Porter, adding to her repertoire of films about subjects such as public defenders, John Lewis, and abortion laws.

Arguably one of the most consequential performances in cinematic history is Christopher Reeve in 1978’s Superman. The movie made the superhero genre a viable blockbuster template, and Reeve’s winsome and appealing portrayal of Superman set the template for countless caped heroes to follow. Offscreen, Reeve himself gained a reputation as an inspirational figure after he was paralyzed in an accident and became an advocate for disability rights and expanded medical research. This Sundance is bringing us Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story. The film promises an intimate look at Reeve’s life through the use of previously private home movies and personal materials.

Finally, the biographical film most likely to be of interest to Hyperallergic readers is FRIDA, about Frida Kahlo. The perpetually popular artist is no stranger to cinematic portrayals, and this one purports to distinguish itself through the incorporation of Kahlo’s diaries and letters, as well as animation. It’s the first feature directed by veteran editor Carla Gutiérrez, who previously worked on successful docs like 2018’s RBG

While Sundance continues to maintain an online component, which was introduced in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, each year it makes fewer titles available to view through its website. Of the films covered here, only FRIDA will have virtual screenings. But keep an eye out for the rest of them as we get into 2024.

The 2024 Sundance Film Festival will take place both virtually and in Park City, Utah, January 18–28.

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