Denton filmmaker Andy LaViolette shrugs at being called a defending champion at the Thin Line Film Fest, a yearly documentary film festival that opened Friday and runs through Feb. 18 in downtown Denton.
The title fits, though. LaViolette made his first documentary, Bass: Beyond Limitation, and entered it in Thin Line last year.
He left the festival with a big, enthusiastic audience cheering the film about the first International Bass Solo Competition, the Van Cliburn contest of the upright bass world created and staged at University of North Texas.
He also left with the Denton Doc Award, one of seven awards given by the fest, which is the only documentary film festival in Texas.
No, what LaViolette wants to talk about is the film he made with onetime Denton jazz musician Mike League, Snarky Puppy: GroundUP.
“This was 50 percent a concert film,” LaViolette said. “The other half is about the band and the making of the record, GroundUP. Snarky Puppy is a 17- to 20-person band, and when they record, they bring in a group of people into the studio, they all are on headphones, and then the band circles around them and plays around them.”
On this project, LaViolette said, he acted as the director of photography, following League’s lead. League, the founder of Snarky Puppy, is touring in England and couldn’t be reached for comment.
“Snarky Puppy has really blown up. They’ve really made it,” LaViolette said. “Herbie Hancock has called [GroundUP] one of the most influential records he’s ever heard. Snarky Puppy is a blend of UNT One O’clock Lab Band braininess and R&B power.”
LaViolette met League when he started working at GreenHouse Restaurant on Locust Street, a joint that presented regular jazz acts after League started booking the space. LaViolette started serving at the restaurant after dropping out of UNT, where he’d been studying jazz guitar. His teacher told him “in a really nice way” to consider singing in the UNT Men’s Chorus and putting the guitar down.
“I’m dealing with the guys who were getting into the [lab] band,” LaViolette said of his booking days. “I was the guy who couldn’t get in the band.”
At GreenHouse, the filmmaker said he saw League playing with different jazz groups, often playing the upright bass — by no means his only instrument. A simpatico situation developed. LaViolette eventually started Mr. Magic Carpet Ride Productions, sharpening his skills by shooting video for his favorite bands when they played in Denton and around the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
LaViolette hoped to start filming Snarky Puppy at a gig in a downtown venue, but another videographer got it.
“My heart was broken,” he said. “I’ve been a dork [and a] super fan. They aren’t over your head. It was like Mike waded through the delicate genius of the UNT College of Music and got the best of it. He didn’t graduate. He put everything into this band.”
League forbids any band member to have a music stand on stage, something that doesn’t always happen in jazz ensembles. Instead, the band has to memorize the songs. The band works progressively, building each song to a sonic climax that astounds and delights, LaViolette said.
LaViolette shared the work with Brad Holt, a senior videographer with UNT, and with New York filmmaker Simon Yu. Together, they worked to grab footage of the band stopping along a two and a half year tour to perform and record.
LaViolette said the filmmakers did their best to sidestep any rote concert film conventions, and instead tried to show the “magic” the band concocts between stage (and studio) and its audience.
“The guys that are in Snarky Puppy are musicians who work in the music business six days a week. Snarky Puppy is what they do for fun. They play in this band because they love it,” LaViolette said. “I think because of the perverse setup of the band — there are so many people, a B3 organ, two keyboards, horns like crazy — it surprises you that when you listen to them, you aren’t like ‘Wait, what is all this [expletive deleted] I’m hearing?’ The orchestration is excellent.”
LaViolette said he’s not too preoccupied about winning the Denton Doc Award this year. He’s just happy to be back, he said.
“I’m still tickled and honored that my film got in last year,” he said. “And I’m tickled that my film got in this year. Really, last year, getting to watch with a receptive audience, that was the buzz for me.”
GroundUP does show non-musicians how a band on the rise creates its DVD-CD release. It also shows the heart and soul of the musicians making the art, celebrating the sounds, the fury and the magic between it and audience — even if it vanishes with the final note.
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
SNARKY PUPPY: GROUNDUP
What: documentary on Denton band’s meteoric rise
When: 8 p.m. today
Where: The Campus Theatre, 214 W. Hickory St.
Details: Tickets cost $8. For a full listing of the films screening during the event, visit www.thinlinefilmfest.com.