Music Films Come to Life at Houston Cinema Arts Festival

All images courtesy of Houston Cinema Arts Festival
A still from the documentary Narco Cultura
It's not by design, but the fifth installment of the Houston Cinema Arts Festival is so packed with music-oriented films, both narrative and documentary, that it makes a pretty damn good music festival all by itself -- complete with several live performances.

Pairing music with films has always been an essential element of HCAF, which officially runs Wednesday night through Sunday at ten different venues across town, from the Aurora Picture Show and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston to the Asia Society Texas Center and Project Row Houses' Eldorado Ballroom. (Many screenings take place at Sundance Cinemas downtown, however.) At the first HCAF in 2008, San Francisco indie-rock band Dengue Fever set a precedent by providing a live score to the 1925 film The Lost World.

"To tell you the truth, I'm not trying to make the festival primarily a music festival," says the festival's artistic director, Richard Herskowitz. "The main thing is to celebrate all the arts, and so I'm kind of happy that this year has that kind of emphasis.

"I would say music is always going to be one of the most important art forms in the festival," he adds. "Because for one thing, we love to do live performance with film."

This year's HCAF indeed sees a number of live performances, from a set from two members of the Gourds following the new documentary about the popular Austin band that recently went on hiatus, to Chinese folk musicians who will accompany the film The Love Songs of Tiedan. Other live sets include a klezmer score to 1931 drama The Yellow Ticket, interactive musician/animator Jeremy Rourke climbing into the screen, and some even more progressive than that.

"A lot of stuff in our gallery downtown [HCAF headquarters at 1201 Main] is really futuristic stuff," Herskowitz says. "We've got an interactive film by this young hip-hop perfomer named young Jake and it works out of an iPad. It's really hard to describe. You gotta see it."

One of HCAF's featured guests is Charlie Ahearn, who will present a screening of his seminal 1983 hip-hop film Wild Style and several other works. And then alongside possible Oscar contenders such as Nebraska and August: Osage County, other HCAF offerings -- such as a 20th-anniversary screening of Richard Linklater's classic stoner comedy Dazed and Confused and Wim Wenders' haunting 1984 drama Paris, Texas, shot largely in Houston and featuring Ry Cooder's evocative slide-guitar score -- are today arguably remembered for their music more than anything else.

"Sometimes I think it's by unconscious design," laughs Herskovitz. "I did notice that myself when it was done; you know, the variety of music that's celebrated across the festival is pretty amazing to me."

So what does Herskowitz look for in a music film for the HCAF?

"I'm particularly concerned that the film be cinematically exciting," he says. "That it not simply be informational, that it uses the artistic qualities of the cinematic medium in original, exciting ways. So it's exciting and interesting music, but also exciting filmmaking."

And then how does he find the films that he presents?

"For one thing I go to a bunch of festivals, but I also consult with a lot of people," explains Herskowitz. "Sometimes they're other programmers and sometimes they're people locally who advise me. There are people in this town who are really savvy."

The HCAF was kind enough to send over brief synopses of all 16 music-focused films screening at its 2013 festival; Rocks Off condensed them a little bit more. A complete schedule of screenings, a map of HCAF's ten venues and lots more is available at

See the films on the next page.

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