SXSW 2021 Reviews: Day One


“I Went to the Dance” still from Kanopy.

Dean Robbins, Arts Editor

The annual South by Southwest Festival began on Tuesday March 16th and runs through Saturday March 20th. Dozens of films, shorts, live musical performances, and lectures are included in the festival. Below are my capsule reviews of the five film I viewed on the first day of the festival:


Dear Mr. Brody: Margarine heir James Michael Brody promised to give his fortune away so the world will see peace and happiness. He invited anyone to write him a letter or ask him for money. Dear Mr. Brody, the latest documentary from Tower director Keith Maitland, explores the tragic story of Brody and his idea utilizing a mix of archival footage, animation, and historical recreation. Behind the character of Brody, the audience will find a story about the suffering of the world. Brody received thousands of letters wherein people from across the globe revealed their greatest dreams, failures, and needs. The letters include photos, drawings, and other small personal touches. For some of the letters, Maitland was able to find the sender and have them read it. Dear Mr. Brody is powerful stuff and already seems practically a front-runner for the 2022 Academy Awards if it gets the right distribution. Amazing work. 8.5/10.


I Went To The Dance: Co-director and cinematography Les Blank had a singular talent to find the most astounding moments of beauty in humanity and culture. I Went To The Dance, a survey of Cajun and Zydeco music in Louisiana, is a perfect example. The history of the genres are told through interviews and concerts. The cinematography is as good as anything else Blank has done. Everything is truly alive in Blank’s photography. In this film, people are dancing, animals are frolicking, and nature is in full bloom. Watching a Les Blank is like being out on a perfect Summer day where you are surrounded by people, the birds are chirping, the humidity rests on your body, and it just seems like the world is breathing. Another Les Blank masterwork. And of course, the new 5K restoration at SXSW looks immaculate. 9.5/10.


The Lost Sons: CNN Films produces this twisted and twisty documentary about the kidnapping of a one-day old infant from a hospital in 1964. What follows is an epic decades-long journey to discover the truth of what really happened. A few years back, the documentary Three Identical Strangers became a critical and commercial hit. That film’s insane story of three identical twins reuniting by chance quickly became the talk of the town. I can definitely see The Lost Sons becoming that kind of hit this year. The stranger-than-fiction story is truly wild, and the creators pace the reveals well. The third act is especially shocking. The filmmaking on display is about what you would expect from a documentary like this. The real meat is that story. That story. 8.5/10.


Demi Lovato: Dancing With The Devil: In 2018, singer and former Disney actress Demi Lovato overdosed on a mix of drugs including fentanyl. She ended up in the hospital for several days and came within an inch of her life. Almost three years later, Demi tells this story in the new YouTube Original documentary Demi Lovato: Dancing With The Devil. There are two crowds for this: Demi stans and not Demi stans. I am sure that Demi stans will be absolutely blown away by this documentary. The 100ish minute runtime is filled with bombshells, reveals, stories, and revelations. I think three of those things are the same but you get my point. To put it simply, Demi stans will be shook. For the rest of us, the documentary is just fine. It is clear that Demi lays it all out here with the traumas of her life but I did a sinking feeling that it often felt like an ad. As Letterboxd user Stevie puts it, “What is the takeaway supposed to be from all of this other than to buy her new album?” 7.5/10.


Broadcast Signal Intrusion: Harry Shum Jr. plays a grieving film and television archivist who becomes obsessed with finding the origin of a broadcast “intrusion” wherein a broadcast is hijacked to show a creepy scene. The premise of Broadcast Signal Intrusion is fantastic, but the screenplay leaves a lot wanting. For one, the pacing is all over the place. The mystery takes way too long to unfold and, instead of getting on with things, we are introduced to a few boring new characters. This film did not need to be over 100 minutes. 85 or 90 minutes would have been much better. Additionally, I like Shum a lot, but he seems miscast here. He always felt like he was trying to play a grieving and obsessed archivist than actually being one. This role was perhaps difficult for him to relate to. I have no clue. 6/10.


Stay tuned for more reviews of films at SXSW as the festival continues!