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FROM MUHAMMAD ALI TO JIM GAFFIGAN: ADVENTURES AT SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST

South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas  has become a “must” for my daughter Jessie and me. Originally a music event, its film component is now a launchpad for movies big and small and a gathering place for anyone involved in pop culture. We had a great time, as always, filling our time with podcasts, screenings, and schmoozing in roughly equal measure.

I had the pleasure of introducing the world premiere of my friend Robert Bader’s new documentary Ali and Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes. Robert has been archiving Dick Cavett’s talk-show library and realized there was gold in the many appearances Muhammad Ali made on that late-night talk show in the1960s and 70s. He also knew that establishing context was essential, and conducted interviews with such articulate observers as sportswriter Larry Merchant, journalist Juan Williams, and Rev. Al Sharpton, as well as Cavett himself. It turns out that the charismatic champ and the former standup comic had an exceptional rapport and a genuine friendship away from the television cameras.

I had previewed the film at home on my TV, but it played even better on the big screen at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse…perhaps because Ali himself was larger than life. I was delighted to see my daughter’s enthusiastic response. I vividly remember watching the boxer in his prime, flaunting his thousand-watt personality at every opportunity–but this was new to Jessie. Her reaction was echoed by the sold-out crowd, which gave Dick (and the film) a standing ovation, not commonplace at SXSW. Cavett entertained the audience with his dry wit and eagerness to share anecdotes—not just about Ali but also his great favorite Groucho Marx.

Jessie and me with Jim Gaffigan. Photo by Mindy Tucker

As it happens, comedy is another vital ingredient of SXSW. Jessie and I took full advantage of that by recording episodes of our Maltin on Movies podcast with Bill Hader and Jim Gaffigan. Bill was in Austin promoting his upcoming HBO series Barry, which he created with Alec Berg (most recently a writer and producer on Silicon Valley). Everyone knows how funny Hader is, and if you’ve seen The Skeleton Twins you know he’s also a talented dramatic actor. He is also a true film lover whose parents introduced him to all forms of cinema. We had a great time talking to him and I know you’ll enjoy the results when the show is posted next Friday.

Jim Gaffigan was in town with a new movie called You Can Choose Your Family, which unfortunately we didn’t get to see. (Scheduling is always a challenge at SXSW.) But we did spend quality time with the popular comedian, who studied acting before he pursued a career in stand-up. He is a thoughtful, intelligent man who can have an audience (like ours) laughing whenever he chooses. His quick wit and self-deprecating demeanor have made him a success in every facet of show business. This hour-long chat will be online in two weeks.

Doug Benson, Nick Thune, Nick Rutherford, David Gborie

My final foray into the world of podcasting was an appearance on Doug Benson’s popular Doug Loves Movies show. A lively audience always brings out the best in Doug, who welcomed me alongside three successful actors/stand-ups: Nick Thune, Nick Rutherford, and David Gborie. (Rutherford also had a movie playing at SXSW, The Unicorn.) We all had fun, and as usual I strained my memory trying to answer Doug’s sometimes-challenging trivia questions. Let’s just say I’m glad I didn’t have to pass an exam to go home that night! You can hear the program HERE.

Jackie Van Beek and Madeleine Sami in The Breaker Upperers

All of this activity curtailed the number of films I was able to see, but I was pleased to take in Bart Layton’s American Animals, which debuted at Sundance and will be playing in theaters June 1; the New Zealand import The Breaker Upperers, written and directed by its very funny female stars Jackie van Beek and Madeleine Sami; and another Sundance favorite, Chloe Zhao’s The Rider, which has been acquired by Sony Pictures Classics.

SXSW is a great meeting-ground as well as a great festival. Add to that the easy access to great barbecue and you’ve got an exceptional experience.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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