Tribeca Film Festival strikes a musical chord

— The Cannes Film Festival features movies by international auteurs. The Sundance Film Festival has gained a reputation for scrappy dramas and documentaries. The Tribeca Film Festival, at least this year, is training a spotlight on music.

The musician's life — and, more often, the perils thereof — is a particular theme at this year's New York film gathering, which opens Wednesday night.

While music has cropped up in past editions of Tribeca, with movies about the likes of Jon Bon Jovi, this year's installment has a particularly tuneful focus and kicks off with an outdoor screening of Cameron Crowe's "The Union," a documentary about Elton John.

There are documentaries about mainstream rock stars ("Talihina Sky," which looks at the band Kings of Leon); aging metal icons ("God Bless Ozzy Osbourne," a take on his background and current life); niche acts ("The Swell Season," about an Irish folk duo); the 1990s club scene ("Limelight," about the music and drugs of the legendary New York hotspot); and timeless divas ("Carol Channing: Larger Than Life").

Scripted features get in on the act too, especially with stories about the fraught confines of the concert tour bus. This year's festival includes "Roadie" (about a has-been schlepper for Blue Oyster Cult who returns home to his mother) and "Janie Jones" (about a band coming apart on the road as the lead singer learns he has a teenage daughter).

The music-themed titles do not form a particular section of Tribeca but rather permeate the lineup. (About two dozen movies from the festival and its Tribeca Films releasing arm, including "Janie Jones," will come to Los Angeles via theaters and video-on-demand in the coming months. A smaller group of movies will be available on-demand concurrent with the festival.)

Founded a decade ago by Robert De Niro and producing partner Jane Rosenthal, Tribeca screens about 90 films across a range of genres at venues in Manhattan. While Tribeca's emphasis on music this year could be read as a response to the winter box-office success of teen idol Justin Bieber's concert movie, organizers say the theme actually developed organically.

"We didn't really think about [the music theme] as we were programming. We sort of realized it halfway through," said director of programming David Kwok. "And then when we were finished, we looked back and realized we had something."

In its 10th year, Tribeca continues to seek its niche.

The festival long ago achieved its original aim of bringing foot traffic and business back to Manhattan after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Efforts to establish a specific identity, however, have been less successful.

A section for sports films created in conjunction with ESPN four years ago has not taken off as a stand-alone brand. Scripted features at Tribeca, meanwhile, can be a mixed bag — many top-quality commercial titles have been going to Austin's South by Southwest film festival in March, while artier films are held for Cannes three weeks later.

The festival has had its standout moments — for instance, the 2006 opening-night screening of "United 93" in front of dozens of relatives of victims of the airplane tragedy turned into an impromptu memorial and group-therapy session. And Tribeca can be a venue for discovery: It was the first place U.S. moviegoers saw the Felicity Huffman drama "Transamerica" and the Swedish vampire film "Let the Right One In."

But the festival often seems to be at its best showing small, personal films that, while unlikely to set the world afire, may resonate strongly with a core audience. Tribeca filmmakers say there's something about the complexity of a musician's life that lends itself to the human stories they hope to tell.

"I wanted to set my movie in a world that was very ego-based and the music world can be that, even if you're just a low-level band," said David Rosenthal, director of "Janie Jones." "The artist still has this sense they're at the center of the world, and I find that funny and sort of tragic."

For the first time in recent years, Tribeca has eschewed big studio extravaganzas (past festivals have included the U.S. premieres of "Shrek Forever After," "Spider-Man 3" and "Mission: Impossible III") in favor of a slate filled with more intimate movies.

Not that it won't have a hefty dose of celebrity. Among the more anticipated music movies are the Osbourne and Channing pictures, with the subjects from each expected to turn up. Both movies (which were not made available to reporters ahead of the festival) take on overexposed legends and aim to cast them in a new light.

"I think people tend to view Ozzy through the lens of 'The Osbournes,' his MTV show — they think he's this buffoonish old rock dude who shuffles around the house yelling at his wife," said director Mike Fleiss. "What we tried to do with [this movie] is reclaim Ozzy for what he really is — a great artist, as well as a very complex and often troubled human being."

Of course, music-themed movies can yield dynamic programming in the form of live performances by their subjects. After Wednesday's premiere of "The Union," which explores Elton John's collaboration with keyboardist Leon Russell, John will give a free performance at the World Financial Center.

Music movies can have a ready-made audience in the form of a performer's fans, though organizers say they must walk a careful line.

"What we want to look out for is that the movies play to more than just someone who's a fan of the band," Kwok said. "If they just do that, we'll have failed."

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