Pass the Remote: New Decibels Film Festival spans synth music, vinyl, and more

A new Bay Area festival sounds the right note for music and film fans alike, embracing creative endeavors from a variety of soundmakers while celebrating their fans. The Decibels Music Film Festival launches this Thursday and runs through Nov. 7 but also includes a pre-festival event taking place Wednesday. (More on that below.)

This week, Pass the Remote chimes in on four surefire options along with a peek at a Netflix series based on Colin Kaepernick’s high school years. 

First, let’s dip into the 25-film program that the Decibels Film Festival offers, a thoughtfully curated lineup brimming with numerous films that have Bay Area ties. One of the best is Vinyl Nation,” a fascinating plunge into the world of vinyl record collectors. It’s co-directed by San Francisco resident Kevin Smokler.  

A few other tempting Bay Area-connected documentaries include:

  • Op. Cope: An Algorithmic Opera,” which is anchored around UC Santa Cruz professor emeritus of music David Cope, and his ahead-of-his-time compositions that moved the needle forward on artificial creativity.
  • The Mill Valley Film Festival fave “Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres,” an intimate portrait on the acclaimed journalist who has left an indelible mark at Rolling Stone magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle. It’s the Centerpiece selection.
  • The hourlong “Rap Squad,” which is set in Arkansas and is about an after-school program where students write and perform raps to express their trauma. Two teachers featured in the film live in the Bay Area now: Victor Sellarole in Oakland and Jess Rossoni in San Francisco. 

Those cinematic goodies are worth taking in either by streaming or at in-theater experiences. Below are four other notable films. For a full lineup and to get tickets, visit

“The Rise of the Synths” is a creatively made documentary that’s narrated by John Carpenter and features — in short segments — the Synth Rider (Rubén Martínez). (Photo courtesy Decibels Music Film Festival)

If you want to get a jump on events, head over at 8 p.m. Wednesday to the DNA Lounge (375 11th St., San Francisco) for a pre-festival launch party with a screening of Iván Castell’s dynamite documentary “The Rise of the Synths,” followed by a dance party.

The clever title tips you off to the creativity that ensues as narrator John (“Halloween” and many more) Carpenter narrates this exploration on the rise of synthesizer music and how it was the go-to music for films including “Risky Business,” “Drive” with Ryan Gosling and, of course, “Halloween.” Castell shows reservoirs of passion and knowledge for this music form while he drops in on numerous artists — many of whom who don’t and still won’t reveal their faces. Interwoven into these lively conversations and vintage array of film clips are the exploits of the enigmatic Synth Rider figure (Rubén Martínez), who wanders dystopian-looking environs in his DeLorean. Every second of this film is irresistible. (For the pre-festival party:

The fest’s official opening kicks off with not just one, but two features — each so different from the other. 

“Listening to Kenny G” is the documentary on the smooth jazz musician that you never knew you really needed. (Photo courtesy HBO)

Penny Lane’s “Listening to Kenny G” is the documentary on the smooth jazz stylist that you never knew you needed. Really. It opens with this killer observation from Lane, director of “Hail Satan?”: “Kenny G is the bestselling instrumentalist of all time. He’s probably the most famous jazz musician. And I made this film to find out why that makes certain people really angry.” 

Lane receives passionate, articulate and sometimes venomous replies from music critics who discount Kenny G’s easy-listening playlist as dreck, and that’s summarizing it kindly. Lane’s feature does include input from his fans, but unlike many fan-like docs on musicians, she doesn’t soft-pedal on who Kenny G is. He comes across as a confident, even cocky musical force who has pushed back from the first time he appeared on the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. There’s jaw-dropping candor in this illuminating documentary for fans and non-fans alike. My jaw dropped many times while watching. 

With its standouts performances from Emily Skeggs and Kyle Gallner, “Dinner in America” riffs on punk rockers and suburbia. (Photo courtesy Red Hour Films)

For a droll, edgy and often hilarious comedy drama that’s about a quirky relationship that develops between two anti-establishment misfits — on-the-run punk rocker Simon (Kyle Gallner) and a bored-at-home teen fan Patty (Emily Skeggs) — “Dinner in America” dishes out some real treats. Writer-director Adam Rehmeier’s edgy rom-com finds Simon hanging out with Patty and her suburban parents, played well by Pat Healy and Mary Lynn Rajskub, and cobbling a relationship together. “Dinner in America”won’t be for all tastes, but its rebellious spirit and marvelous performances make it such a joy to behold. 

Former Bay Area resident Laurie Amat is always on the search for new sounds in “Oh, It Hertz!”, a fascinating documentary that looks into the connection between the use of sound and the Nazis. (Photo courtesy Up North Films)

An intriguing central premise — Nazis manipulated sound to rile up the status quo — is but one of the many draws of Gunnar Hall Jensen’s talker “Oh, It Hertz!” Laurie Amat, former Bay Area resident and member of the avant-garde creative group The Residents, floats out that theory, and while it generally gets debunked later in the film, Jensen shoots off into other directions, speaking with a cancer survivor on a quest to create the best sound system, a Deaf percussionist and a musician whose illness spurred creating better hospital environments, amongst others. But the film belongs to Amat, a likeable and eccentric presence wandering the streets to pick up sounds. And where else are you going to hear someone reveal they love the way the word “gonorrhea” sounds? 

“Colin in Black and White” re-creates key moments in the teen years of former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. (Photo courtesy Netflix)

If you’re seeking more context on what led former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to take a knee to protest racial injustice, the Netflix six-part series “Colin in Black and White” is a smart place to start. Interweaving narration (Kaepernick observes, comments and breaks the fourth wall by stepping into key scenes) with dramatic reenactments, the Ava DuVernay-produced series that’s co-created by Kaepernick draws a portrait of a shy, introverted and serious Turlock high school athlete (portrayed by Jaden Michael) growing up biracial in a predominantly white world and white adoptive parents (Nick Offerman and Mary-Louise Parker). All 30-minute-or-so episodes drop Friday on Netflix.

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