With a roster of films exploring Latin hip-hop, hipster electro indie, gangsta rap, '70s folk, anti-apartheid protest songs and gypsy flamenco, Park City is a sonic smorgasbord this year, not to mention a live entertainment line-up that reads like a mini Coachella-in-the-snow: David Gray, Jenny O, James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, Fitz and the Tantrums, electronica hero Flying Lotus, folk legend Donovan and original gangsta Ice T. "I wanted to take people back to the roots of rap music," says Ice T, who is expected to perform in support of his documentary "Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap," an examination of the true craft of MCing. The film follows Ice T as he grills 52 fellow hip-hop icons, including Melle Mel, Chuck D, Eminem and Kanye West, in an attempt to define rap's true essence in an age ridden by the post-bling blues. Ice T purposely focused on established rappers as opposed to younger artists, feeling that the younger generation could benefit from a reminder of their roots.
"The Comedy," about a group of disenchanted Brooklyn hipsters, features LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy in a dramatic role (coincidentally, the Sundance doc "Shut Up and Play the Hits" follows Murphy for 48 hours, documenting his band's final performance), as well as Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim of Adult Swim's "Tim and Eric Awesome Show," and Gregg Turkington, aka surreal singer Neil Hamburger.
Unusually, the film -- with a "small pressing, '70s sort of folk component" to the soundtrack, according to director Rick Alverson -- was financed by an indie record label, JagJaguwar. The label has released music by alt darlings Bon Iver, Okkerville River, Black Mountain and Dinosaur Jr., and its owners exec-produced and financed Alverson's past two films. "It's an interesting partnership, for them to get into the film business," says Alverson, whose own bands, Drunk and Spokane, released albums through JagJaguwar between 1996 and 2007. "It's kind of unprecedented for an indie label to be funding films, isn't it?"
Other easy-on-the-ear offerings include the as-yet-untitled Paul Simon project from Joe Berlinger ("Some Kind of Monster"), which follows Simon to post-apartheid South Africa, reuniting him with his "Graceland" collaborators, including Ladysmith Black Mambazo, 25 years on. (Paul Simon will be at the fest.)
Also exploring South African apartheid -- by way of Detroit -- is Malik Bendjelloul's "Searching for Sugar Man," about mysterious 1970s rock figure Sixto Rodriguez. He disappeared from the public eye in 1981, and was presumed dead by many of his fans, only to become adopted as a folk hero of Dylan-esque proportions in apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia, thanks to his anti-establishment anthems.
"His cassettes and bootlegs were spreading around liberal youth throughout the '80s," says Bendjelloul, "and he became literally bigger than the Rolling Stones in Cape Town, even though he had never performed there."
A compilation of Rodriguez's songs, "At His Best," went platinum in South Africa, and Bendjelloul was amazed to find that "for many South African music fans, there was no difference between Rodriguez and Bob Dylan. In fact many people I spoke to consider Rodriguez's music to be better than (Dylan's 1966 classic LP) 'Blonde on Blonde.'"
Rachel Leah Jones' "Gypsy Davy" profiles David Serva, the legendary flamenco guitarist based in Andalusia -- who happens to be American. Since first landing on Spanish shores in 1959, Serva has so fully assimilated in the closed, magical world of gypsy flamenco, many of his Andalusian contemporaries are unaware of his white Alabama lineage, or that he is the son of a Berkeley professor.
Playing in the U.S. dramatic competition is the hip-hop drama "Filly Brown," about a tough female MC (Gina Rodriguez), and starring Lou Diamond Phillips. There's also "I Am Not a Hipster," an art-and-music-informed feature geared toward the 20-something vinyl junkie with a shoegaze band, featuring a soundtrack by melancholy indie rockers, the Canines.
On the live music side, the Sundance ASCAP Music Cafe will feature performances by artists looking to strengthen their ties to film and television, including LA electronica godfather Flying Lotus (distant relative of John Coltrane), singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson (whose songs you've heard on almost every primetime television show in America), Jenny O, Natasha Bedingfield, English singer-songwriter David Gray and James McCartney, progeny of Sir Paul and the late Linda McCartney.
Donovan, the legendary folk pop troubadour, is the big guest at BMI's Music Showcase on Jan. 25; Fitz and the Tantrums are playing the SPIN party, and word on the street is that LCD Soundsystem is DJing the Chase Sapphire party.