festivals 2016

Sundance Next Fest Is the Film and Music Anti-Festival You've Been Dreaming of

Think the Park City fest’s cool younger sibling, with a better record collection.

Frank Mojica


Sunflower Bean (all photos by Frank Mojica)

Some of the most promising rising artists from the music and film worlds came together for one heck of a union this past weekend at the annual Sundance Next Fest, a three-day celebration that took over Downtown LA's impossibly ornate Theatre at Ace Hotel hotspot with panels, live performances, and film and music video premieres.

The Next program launched at the annual main Utah extravaganza in 2010 as a spotlight for promising filmmakers on the rise, and has since evolved into an event fusing musical performances with independent films with shared sensibilities—think the Park City fest’s cool younger sibling, with a better record collection. The event's original spirit of discovery carried over to the 2014 debut of Next Fest at The Ace, matching unique film offerings such as the zombie rom com Life After Beth and the Iranian vampire Western A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night with performances by then-ascendant indie artists like Warpaint and Father John Misty.

This year's edition featured performances from the likes of Big Freedia, Shamir, and Sunflower Bean, alongside Flying Lotus' directorial debut (the explicit, delightfully gory short Royal) and discussions between heavyweight directors like Catherine Hardwicke and John Landis and rising disciples like Elizabeth Wood. Funnyman Nick Kroll presented a series of short films, and Craig Robinson hosted a youth talent show following coming of age story Morris from America.

Next Fest offers a unique film-music festival hybrid vibe targeted at music lovers, cinephiles and professionals in equal measure—this year's event featured both red carpet industry glam and fans nabbing merch and tacos in the parking lot. In a saturated festival market crowded with often-redundant lineups, the maturity and relaxed atmosphere of Next Fest offered a refreshingly slower, but decidedly fun, change of pace.


Big Freedia

According to Trevor Groth, director of programming for the Sundance Film Festival, the film-music combos were selected with Sundance's signature rebellious, independent spirit in mind, as well as crossover appeal.

"People that come for the movie will like this music, and the people that come for the music would like this movie," Groth said. "So it's a pairing of art that we think will accentuate the whole event. I think all the things we do, whether the conversations or the concerts or the talent show we did for Morris from America, they all create these one-of-a-kind moments that hopefully will last in people's memories and keep them coming back."

High-energy psych rock trio Sunflower Bean followed Andrew Neel's Nick Jonas-starring Goat, an unflinching condemnation of hazing, toxic masculinity, and frat bro culture. Jonas brings a nuanced believability to Brett, a confident, suave older brother increasingly consumed by guilt over Brad's (Ben Schnetzer) brutal attack by townies and the cruelty of his frat. Sunflower Bean frontwoman Julia Cumming bridged the lengthy gap between the theatre's extended stage and the crowd by stepping out during a couple songs to shred on the bass while jumping back and forth among enthused fans in the pit, the irreverant flipside of frat house destruction (between songs, the band of 20-year-olds revealed they hadn't been to college).

What felt like Next Fest's biggest crowd turned out for Sunday night's screening of Jim Hosking's proudly disgusting The Greasy Strangler, and Flying Lotus' similarly graphic short Royal. Billing himself as steve (yes, lower case), a.k.a. Steven Ellison, FlyLo distributed free Brainfeeder barf bags before the short due to its unsettling skin ailments, copious body fluids, and possibly the most explicit puppetry ever. Beneath all the gross-out horror, The Greasy Strangler and Royal gave a surprisingly affecting look at the tenderness of love and dysfunctional father-son relationships, respectively.


Elizabeth Wood and Catherine Hardwicke with moderator Jen Yamato

Once Big Freedia took the stage to close out the fest, everyone dropped their barf bags to hit the dance floor both on and off the stage. The Queen of Bounce's "asses everywhere" motto served as the perfect counterpoint to The Greasy Strangler's "dicks everywhere" creed.

On Friday night, So Yong Kim's Lovesong premiere preceded a performance by Shamir, whose "I'll Never Be Able to Love" appeared in the film.

Beyond live performance, music videos also made a strong showing at the festival. Neon Indian's Alan Palomo introduced his excellent new VHScore fever dream video for "Annie," which also premieres exclusively on Noisey today, as a lead up to the debut of director Elizabeth Wood's White Girl, a examination of gentrification, racial profiling and whiteness.

Sunday afternoon opened with the Kroll-hosted showcase of five shorts, including Jim Cummings' hilariously uncomfortable singalong to "Thunder Road" and the Rep. Todd Akin-inspired "Too Legit,” starring Lolawolf frontwoman Zoë Kravitz. UK electronic producer Mark Pritchard's mesmerizing video for the Thom Yorke-featuring "Beautiful People" later preceded Babak Anvari's Farsi horror film Under the Shadow, set during the war between Iraq and Iran.


Trevor Groth with Alan Palomo of Neon Indian

If festival lineups these days tend to feel overloaded—even among the devoted, it's rare to be able to catch even half of what you set out for—Sundance Next Fest’s programming refreshingly allows room to see it all, and even offers time to grab a drink and schmooze in the AstroTurf-lined Next Door space. Located in the alley beside the hotel, the new Next Door provided a mini-festival area with games, VR demonstrations, Trejo's Tacos, tattoos, and free booze set to a playlist heavy on Radiohead, Pixies, and Autolux.

Next Fest isn't the only event to merge film and music, but similar jaunts like SXSW, for example, would require a long and costly ten-day stay in Austin to make both the film and music portions. Next Fest keeps it palatable and realistic, and, with its strong turnout and the Orpheum and Tower Theatres located just down the street, it's easy to envision an expansion to a multiple-theater event.

"Three years in, we're really happy with it and the reception, and it's been exactly what we wanted to do in LA," Groth said of the festival's evolution, explaining that the growth towards a film and music pairing came from a desire to offer festival fans a more distinct experience, as well as establish an event in Los Angeles. After learning that The Ace was renovating the historic theatre as a screening and concert venue, Sundance found their perfect location.

Groth remained tight-lipped about what's in store for next year, emphasizing that the film side is settled first, but that they do have a list of names they wish to book.

"Stay tuned," said Groth.

Fair enough.

Frank Mojica is a music head and a film buff. Follow him on Twitter.