Culture / Entertainment

Snowy Sundance Gets Off to a Slow Buying Start, While Lionel Richie Steals the Show With Steve Wonder and Michael Jackson Tales

Plus: 3 Documentaries You'll Want to Watch As Soon as You Can

BY // 01.22.24

PARK CITY, Utah — The Sundance Film Festival is in full swing with freezing temperatures, long lines and a scramble for tickets. Usually after the first weekend of the festival a large number of movies have been acquired. Not so this year. (Though Jesse Eisenberg’s A Real Pain was scooped up by Searchlight Pictures for $10 million.) Many movies came to the festival having been financed by a studio. In the past, distributors have been influenced by the enthusiastic Sundance crowd reaction to a movie, buying the film largely off that reaction, only to find that outside of the high altitude of Park City, the movie is a dud. In other words, classic buyer’s remorse.

Expect to see film distributors in no real hurry to acquire movies before Sundance ends. But there will be buys with Hollywood seeking movies to fill gaps created by last summer’s writers and actors’ strikes.

I spent the first days of Sundance watching documentaries. Here are the hottest documentaries of Sundance 2024 — and where you’ll be able to watch them:

Greatest Night in Pop

One of the hottest tickets for the festival this year is Greatest Night in Pop, the untold story of a pivotal night in music history when 46  of the country’s top musicians came together for seven hours in 1985 to record the legendary pop song “We Are the World,” raising money for famine relief in Africa. The song became the fastest selling single in United States music history. It is hard to remember but in 1985, there was no widespread email use, no online marketing, no wide Internet use. Still, “We Are the World” took off like a rocket ship.

Iconic producer Quincy Jones enlisted Lionel Richie and Stevie Wonder to write the song. When Stevie Wonder did not return calls, Richie recruited Michael Jackson and the documentary captures the genius of the two as they write the song in a matter of days.

The incredible amount of footage from the seven-hour recording session coupled with interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Huey Lewis and Richie make Greatest Night in Pop a terrifically fun romp down memory lane. And the stars? We’re talking Hall & Oates, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Diana Ross, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder and many more. The only music star they wanted but didn’t get was Prince.

Lionel Ritchie
Lionel Richie makes his first appearance at the Sundance Film Festival to premiere “The Greatest Night in Pop” (Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute)

The best parts of the documentary are seeing these stars in their younger days. It triggers nostalgia and a little sadness to see deceased legends such as Tina Turner, Michael Jackson, Kenny Rogers in their prime. Bob Dylan was so shy and uncomfortable that Stevie Wonder had coach him on how sing his part.

In the post film Q&A, Richie, after receiving an extended standing ovation, notes that pulling off something like “We Are the World” today would never happen because “we could not get clearances. There are too many managers, different labels and of course there is streaming.”

Greatest Night in Pop will stream on Netflix beginning January 29.

Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story

Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story traces the career, activism and personal life of the Superman actor before and after the 1995 horse riding accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down. This powerful documentary includes extensive home video footage, Reeve’s audition tape to be Superman, extended interviews with his three kids and Reeve’s own words taken from the audio versions of his memoirs.

Reeve developed a closer relationship with his children after the accident because they spent time talking rather than on activities. He also formed a foundation for funding research and helping those who are paralyzed. Two of the most touching parts of the doc are the actor’s friendship with Robin Williams, his roommate from Juilliard, and his love for wife Dana, who sadly died two years after he did.

SUPERMAN, Christopher Reeve, 1978. ©Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection
A still from Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, one of the intriguing documentaries at Sundance.

This documentary reminded me of the Still: A Michael J. Fox Film that premiered at Sundance last year to universal acclaim with an Oscar nod in the cards. These are two men whose lives dramatically changed when they were at the peak of fame who used their afflictions to help others. As the Q&A session wrapped up, a woman in a wheelchair raised her hand and told the Reeve children that she became paralyzed at the same time Christopher Reeve did and that his example motivated her to not give up.

Reeve’s kids all walked to her and gave her a big hug. There were tears all around. That is what I call a Sundance moment. Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story is still seeking a distributor.

Girls State

Girls State is the follow-up to the highly successful 2020 documentary Boys State that followed several hundred boys who gathered at a week long leadership program — sponsored by the American Legion and held in almost every state — where they formed a new government. Boys State, directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize.

This time Moss and McBaine filmed Girls State in Missouri. One important difference was that Missouri scheduled the boys program at the same time as the girls program which inserted a new wrinkle into the process. Like with Boys State, the filmmakers select five or six young women who they believe will play a leadership role in the government that is established. But the presence of the boys programs pulls the new documentary into an unexpected direction.

Girls State
A still from Girls State by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

Girls State participants get lessons in cupcake decorating and learn a song. They discover that their budget is one third of the amount allotted to the boys state competitors. Still, the girls are funny, smart and can discuss the United States’ issues more cogently than most adults.

At the Q&A after the Sundance screening, the six girls featured in Girls State appeared and reemphasized their desire to make a difference.

Apple has already acquired Girls State (one of the producers is Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’ widow) and is expected to stream the documentary this spring.

 

Author’s note: Jane Howze is managing director of The Alexander Group, a national executive search firm headquartered in Houston. She has reported on the Sundance Film Festival for 15 years and is covering the 40th edition of the movie extravaganza for PaperCity this month.

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