Amid the Sundance Film Festival’s annual Main Street stargazing and industry buzz, a long line inevitably forms in front of Park City Live (427 Main St). The queue provides a somewhat comical study in contrasts between heavily bundled natives, who know they might be waiting for hours before gaining entry, and ill-prepared Los Angelenos more concerned with how they’ll look on the dance floor than with the unwise decision to brave a midwinter Park City night in spiked heels and a miniskirt.
The Saturday-night line for the 2013 festival was for the Sound City Players, a musician collective put together by Foo Fighters front man Dave Grohl to celebrate the Sundance premiere of his directorial debut, Sound City, a documentary about a famed SoCal recording studio. The anticipation of those in line, the gruff manner of the security guards, the complaints about the cold—the whole experience was the same as it ever was at the Main Street venue, which has hosted a slew of memorable concerts over the festival’s 30-year history, through myriad management and name changes from the long-gone Z Place and Harry O’s up through its current incarnation.
As the festival has grown, so have the opportunities for live-music lovers. Both film houses and megacorporations throw live-music-focused soirées, hoping to use a little star power to promote their movies and products, respectively. The festival itself has expanded its music component in myriad ways, such as the annual “Celebration of Music in Film.” And every year, plenty of documentaries and narrative films take music as their subject.
“Music is an integral part of the Sundance Film Festival, in terms of the live music performances we host, the films about music and musicians we show, and the role music plays in our films,” says Trevor Groth, director of programming for the Sundance Film Festival. “The intersection of music and film creates a really dynamic experience, and independent artists in particular have been pushing boundaries and creating new ways for the forms to relate to and build on each other.”
Like many of the music events happening during the festival, the Sound City Players concert was not officially part of the Sundance programming, but instead presented in conjunction with a film. It was also a concert that could occur only at Sundance. Grohl put it together himself, and the public was able to buy tickets for a once-in-a-lifetime experience that included performances by Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty, Rick Springfield, and a slew of lesser-known but highly influential musicians showcased in Grohl’s movie, as well as all of the surviving members of Grohl’s old band who actually recorded at Sound City—a quaint group who went by the name of Nirvana.
Similarly intimate shows affiliated with Sundance movies occur every year, as when Joan Jett and the Blackhearts played to promote the 2010 Sundance premiere of The Runaways, a biopic about Jett’s teenage band. Hard-rock gods Metallica even showed up in 2004 to play in celebration of Some Kind of Monster, the lengthy but excellent documentary about the band.
“The festival has premiered some of the coolest music-driven films of the past 30 years,” Groth asserts, noting a few of his personal favorites: 2013’s Twenty Feet from Stardom, 2001’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, 2008’s U2 3D, and Searching for Sugar Man, the 2012 festival’s opening film, which went on to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2013 Oscars. “More and more, it seems that independent filmmakers are telling stories about music and musicians, and we’re happy to program and show the best of those films.”
The big-name shows are only part of the thriving music scene associated with the festival. World-class DJs arrive to spin at venues like Downstairs (625 Main St), where several choice hip-hop and EDM shows always seem to arrive in town to coincide with Sundance’s time frame. And the Star Bar (now closed) hosted a large slate of shows in 2013, including One Republic and Courtney Love.
This year the Sundance ASCAP Music Café, an afternoon concert series for festival credential-holders, celebrates it's 19th year as part of Utah's ode to independent film. ASCAP has grown from a casual jam session upstairs at the Park City Elks Building—where rising bands like Old 97s and Third Eye Blind performed for music lovers lounging on stacks of pillows strewn on the floor—to its current space at the Rich Haines Gallery. Artists performing in recent years have ranged from the Civil Wars and David Gray to Andrew Bird and the Head and the Heart. The wide variety of acts booked for this year's ASCAP Music Cafe include Clare Bowen, Michael Franti, Wilder Atkins, Niia and Peter Bradley Adams.
Given the quality of music every year at both official and unofficial Sundance Film Festival venues, the festival badge’s steep price is worth it even if you never see a single movie.