Nov. 07--Among the 44 documentary films screening at the Napa Valley Film Festival next week are several films that delve deeply into art and music.
In "Sound City," Dave Grohl explores the legendary Los Angeles recording studio where bands like Fleetwood Mac and Nirvana recorded. In "Good Ol' Freda," Ryan White tells the story of a shy teen-ager, Freda Kelly, who served as The Beatles' secretary for a decade.
Then there's the story of another rock star, a 340-ton boulder that made a $20 million, 22-city tour from Riverside to Los Angeles on its way to fame as an environmental sculpture outside of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
In "Levitated Mass: The Story of Michael Heizer's Monolithic Sculpture," Doug Pray provides a riveting account of how that chunk of granite was hauled 105 miles by a truck the length of a football field.
"This is the story of this rock, as we start in the desert," Pray said. "It's hundreds of millions of years old and was blown out of a mountain in a quarry."
A graduate of UCLA's film school, Pray has made seven feature-length documentaries, mostly about mavericks and subcultures. His first film, "Hype!," delved into the Seattle grunge music scene. "Scratch," made in 2001, celebrated hip-hop DJs.
In "Levitated Mass," Pray worked closely with an experimental rock band, Akron Family, for the film's rhythmic and hypnotic soundtrack. He chose mostly instrumental tracks that evoked a range of moods.
"Their signature sound can be really gritty and raw, but they are capable of more moody work that all feels handmade," he said. "The band members were huge fans of Michael Heizer, which is an anomaly."
When making a film, Pray always works on the soundtrack first, then edits the visuals to fit with the music.
"It helps me see the movie if I know the sound of it," he said. "It helps me to get a thread and a mood and a scene."
Getting the right sound, he believes, is the secret weapon of the documentary film.
"That's what makes them believable and makes them feel like you're getting a cinematic experience," he said. "I spend a lot of time on it."
Along with the epic journey of the rock, which was witnessed by nearly 100,000 people from all walks of life and social strata, Pray also told the story of the renowned but reclusive artist, who was born in Berkeley but now lives in Nevada.
"I think Michael Heizer will be an artist of the century," Pray said. "The film is really one of the first portraits of him as an artist."
Outside the LACMA, the iconic sculpture is set amid a large field of decomposed granite. To create the sculpture, Heizer suspended the pyramidal stone above a 456-foot trench of polished concrete, allowing people to walk under and gaze up at the timeless boulder.
"It's very humbling to stand under the rock," Pray said. "It is an ancient shape, which hasn't been touched by man, and yet it's sitting on this completely clean, ultra-modern, architectural line."
The third thread in the story revolves around the museum itself, which faced huge bureaucratic and logistical hurdles to make the sculpture happen.
"The drama is, 'Can they do it?'" Pray said. "They had to go through hell to pull it off, with all the engineering. So you just start rooting for it."
The 88-minute film premiered at the 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival this summer. Pray will attend the three screenings at the Napa festival and answer questions afterward.
According to the filmmaker, the current popularity of documentary films grew out of the rise of digital technology, which made the art form more accessible.
"You can buy a camera and go out and shoot your documentary tonight, for free," he said. "It doesn't require funding up front. It doesn't require a script or huge financing."
That means that film festivals are now inundated by a raft of good documentaries, as well as a glut of mediocre ones.
"In the end, it all comes down to story," he said. "That's the thing about docs. You can't fake it. It's either an interesting story, well told ... or it's not."
You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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