The Philadelphia Film Festival (PFF) Springfest, the Philadelphia Film Society's annual spring mini festival, represented a reopening in two key ways: After more than a year of virtual film festivals, it was Philadelphia's first in-person, non-drive-in film festival since before the pandemic. And the festival marked the return of the Bourse theater, which closed in January 2020 but has been revived under the Film Society's stewardship.
While it was held later than usual and at the new venue, the PFF SpringFest format (running June 11-17) remained the same, offering seven acclaimed films that had debuted at other festivals, notably Sundance and South by Southwest. One film in the lineup, Josh Ruben's horror comedy Werewolves Within, premiered the same week at the Tribeca Film Festival.
The new Bourse looks good, with new carpeting and more digital displays in the halls than it used to have, in addition to upgrades to the projectors and other equipment. And while the escalators weren't turned on the night I was there, the long broken one on the right appeared to have been repaired.
For those not ready to return to the theater, the festival also offered a Virtual Cinema option. I watched The Meaning of Hitler in person at the Bourse and Swan Song on the virtual cinema platform. I saw Summer of Soul when it premiered at Sundance, but looked at it again, on the streaming platform, for the purposes of this review. The other films shown at the festival were The Sparks Brothers, Ailey, Werewolves Within, and Cryptozoo.
Summer of Soul
The directorial debut of Philadelphia's own Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is a concert film assembled from footage recently unearthed of the Harlem Cultural Festival, which was held across several weekends in 1969, the same summer as Woodstock.
And while Woodstock was the subject of a much-watched documentary and soon became ensconced in the boomer imagination, the footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival was abandoned and ended up in a vault for the better part of 50 years.
That 1969 festival featured a virtual who's-who of Black performers of the time, including Sly and the Family Stone, The Fifth Dimension, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and a young Stevie Wonder.
The film, credited on screen as "A Questlove Jawn," shows that the longtime Roots drummer has a bright future as a filmmaker.
Summer of Soul will be released theatrically and on Hulu July 2.
The Meaning of Hitler
What's the modern-day legacy of Adolf Hitler, at a time when hate is everywhere? That's the question raised by filmmakers Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, along with a large cast of historians, in the documentary The Meaning of Hitler.
The documentary, which debuted last fall at DOC NYC, is loosely adapted from the 1978 book of the same name, by journalist Raimund Pretzel, although he wrote it under the pseudonym Sebastian Haffner. The film is the latest in a series of documentaries produced by Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, whose company also did Summer of Soul.
The film features a pair of elderly Holocaust historians, Yehuda Bauer and Saul Friedlander, as its leading talking heads, along with the likes of Martin Amis and Deborah Lipstadt.
There is also an interview with the vile British Holocaust denier David Irving, which is something that I imagine will be controversial. But with Irving the film wisely takes the "hang him with his own words" tack, to great effect.
The Meaning of Hitler acknowledges that much of the modern view of Hitler is formed by popular culture, whether it's the work of Mel Brooks, Downfall memes, or the History Channel, which at one point featured Hitler so frequently that it was often dubbed “The Hitler Channel.” But the film gets dead-serious in pointing out the troubling rise of the contemporary far right, especially in Charlottesville.
If I have one complaint about the documentary, its treatment of Donald Trump is somewhat clumsy. The former president's name comes up occasionally, as part of a recent wave of demagogic right-wing rulers who have come to power of late in democratic countries. But the question of how much Trump and Hitler have in common is way too loaded to be dealt with in passing.
The Meaning of Hitler has a listed release date of August 13.
This is a movie that blew everybody away when it debuted at the virtual South by Southwest festival back in March, although I didn't get to see it back then. I'm glad I finally did, because it's wonderful.
Swan Song was written and directed by Todd Stephens, who has created the extremely specialized niche of LGBTQ-themed films set in his hometown of Sandusky, Ohio. In that it's the unlikely journey of an older man, Swan Song somewhat recalls David Lynch's The Straight Story, except there's nothing "straight" about it. The film is also reminiscent of Kogonada's Columbus, which also set all of its action in a surprisingly beautiful small Midwestern city.
The film stars Udo Kier as Pat Pitsenberger, an elderly gay man who lives in a nursing home. A retired hairdresser who once moonlit as a drag club entertainer—he was once called "The Liberace of Sandusky"—Pat receives word that an old friend and client (Linda Evans) has died, and that her final wish was that Pat do her hair for her funeral.
Against doctors' orders, Pat spends the movie venturing across his old hometown of Sandusky, running into old friends and rivals, some of whom appear as ghosts themselves.
There are a quite a few fascinating things going on here. A gay man in his seventies, Pat has lived through a lot, and seen and survived many things. But he returns to the town where he long lived, in which the experience of being gay is far removed from anything he recognizes from his own story. And this is brought to life by Kier's wondrous performance, fall of sadness and occasional joy.
Pat, we learn from the closing credits, was a real guy, who really was a hairdresser in Sandusky. Stephens’s film represents a loving tribute.
Swan Song is set for release August 6.
Image description: Sly Stone performs for a large crowd. He’s grinning ecstatically and wears a gold chain and pink-framed glasses.
Image description: A black-and-white photo of a concrete bust of Adolf Hitler.
Image description: A scene from Swan Song. Actor Udo Kier sits on an ornate couch smoking a cigarette. He wears a blue hat and light-green suit with puffy white sleeves.
What, When, Where
The Philadelphia Film Festival SpringFest ran June 11-17, 2021, online and at the PFS Bourse Theater, 400 Ranstead Street, Philadelphia. Filmadelphia.org.
Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). Directed by Ahmire "Questlove” Thompson. Release July 2, 2021.
The Meaning of Hitler. Directed by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker. Release August 13, 2021.
Swan Song. Directed by Todd Stephens. Release August 6, 2021.