When Traverse City Film Festival Entertainment Manager Mike Sullivan first started booking musical acts nine years ago, he had to call his musician friends and plead with them to play.
Now, with 300 spots to fill, Sullivan is overwhelmed by submissions each year. His challenge now is to pair genres of music with the wide range movies at the fest.
SUPPORTING A VISION
Working with his wife Joan, plus Kathy Wilson, Rick Siders, and a roster of interns and volunteers, the crew works year-round prepping the entertainment.
As the festival draws near, the group puts in up to 40 hours a week, carefully choosing the acts to fit the mood and style of the movies.
“The music’s function is to create a sonic atmosphere that supports the emotional tone of the movie,” Sullivan said.
Carl Henry, a Detroit-based bluesman, will open a movie about Detroit, while The Grand Traverse Show Choir will be matched up with a documentary about Mitt Romney.
The innovative Asylum Quartet has been paired with the dark, absurd comedy of Larry Charles.
“This is a wonderful challenge for musicians,” Sullivan said. “It isn’t so much about showcasing as supporting the filmmaker’s vision.”
In addition to the pre-screen performances, a slate of free concerts takes place at the music stage by the bay. Sullivan tries to theme these events, but sometimes fate intervenes.
“There are usually two themes: the one we plan, and the one that emerges,” he said with a laugh.
One of his initial ideas for this 10th anniversary year of the fest was to bring in Klezmer music (a style of Jewish celebration music), but the band he wanted couldn’t make it.
Meanwhile, other patterns were emerging.
“As submissions came in this year, we discovered several a capella groups and Detroit performers,” Sullivan said.
The abundance translated into a night devoted to a capella groups and an overarching theme devoted to the Motor City, he said.
“I am calling [it] ‘The Detroit Invasion,’ as it seems to represent a new spirit of hope and enthusiasm,” Sullivan said.
Returning acts, especially local ones like The Accidentals, are a big part of the TCFF’s music lineup.
Argentinian pop singer Milagros is returning, as well as some new groups, he said “We have the minimalistic music of Canadian performer Frank Paul, the neobluegrass of Fauxgrass, and an exciting collaboration of local legends Al Jankowski and David Chown,” said Sullivan.
Others on Sullivan’s “must-see” list include Claudia Schmidt, Miriam Pico, Blake Elliott, Ireland’s Full Set, R&B singer Laura Rains, hip-hop band Cold English, Irish band Fynbar, and Song of the Lakes.
But as more musicians hear about the TCFF, the more Sullivan’s challenges increase.
“We have been getting more and more interest from acts all over the world that want to perform at the TCFF,” he said. “While we do strive to provide diversity, we also remain committed to showcasing the remarkable music scene that’s alive and well in Northern Michigan.”
Coordinating 300 performances is no easy feat.
There are musical acts scheduled for 230 of the 235 movies that are scheduled to screen at this year’s event.
In addition, there will be free live performances every hour from noon-10pm in Clinch Park, free concerts every night at the Open Space, and even more performances at the Founders, Opening, and Filmmakers parties. Whew.
And it’s all made both more difficult and more rewarding by Sullivan’s insistence on a more “real” approach to getting the musicians in and out in a timely fashion.
“We want to make personal contact with each musician, and make sure they know how much we appreciate their contribution to the festival experience,” he said. “This becomes quite intense during the festival, when we have up to 10 events going on at the same time.”
But since all of the festival musicians are volunteering their time, these personal thank yous are of utmost importance to Sullivan, who has also developed a musician sponsorship program that will allow film fest patrons to help financially support the festival musicians.
So as a festival patron, take a moment to return the favor and thank Sullivan’s team for all of their work.
Don’t be surprised if their leader seems a bit distracted, because even as he’s making sure this year’s performances run smoothly, he’s already making plans for next year’s fest.
“I am thinking about and listening for festival acts all year long,” Sullivan said.
For a complete schedule of music at the Traverse City Film Festival, running July 29- Aug. 3, visit the fest’s official site at traversecityfilmfest.org/music. Don’t forget to pick up a copy of the 2014 TCFF Music Compilation Greatest Hits CD ($15) or Flashdrive Wristband ($20), both available at every venue during the event.