Arts & Events » Movies

Celluloid Heroes

From lost Orson Welles to Richmond music videos, the James River Film Festival celebrates the moving image.


If you needed more proof that the James River Film Festival is a little different than most festivals, this year's 29th annual installment will include a visit to legendary actor Joseph Cotten's grave.

"Yes, on early Sunday morning we're going to make a pilgrimage to his gravesite in Petersburg, gussy it up a little bit," says Michael Jones, the festival's founder and director.

Produced by the nonprofit James River Film Society, this year's annual moviethon is slated for April 20-23 in all kinds of spaces, including the Byrd Theatre, the Grace Street Theatre, the Visual Arts Center, the Richmond Main Public Library, the VMFA and others.

The assemblage, typical of the long-running event's trademark cinephile focus, will showcase everything from classic Russian silent films ("Earth," April 20, 7:30 at Visual Arts Center with a live soundtrack from klezmer band the Vulgar Bulgars), to a free program of early female movie makers (Richmond Main Library, April 21, 1 p.m.), to a lost work by none other than director Orson Welles, "Too Much Johnson," starring the great man's longtime collaborator, Petersburg native Joseph Cotten, and given a live soundtrack by festival favorite, acclaimed guitarist Gary Lucas (April 22, 9 p.m. at the Byrd Theater).

"'Too Much Johnson' was lost for many years. The only print was said to have burned when Welles lived in Spain, but then a print turned up in Italy." says Jones. "It was made to be shown during a theater production but never used." Jones says that "Too Much Johnson" is "typical Welles, it has the same fascinations but is earlier than 'Citizen Kane,' and it's a real homage to the silent slapstick films of his childhood from directors like Harold Lloyd. It will be interesting to see what Lucas will do with it."

Famous for his collaborations with Captain Beefheart and Jeff Buckley, Lucas has appeared at the festival five times over the years, providing live soundtracks to the likes of "The Golem," "Dracula" and a program of Betty Boop cartoons. "Rolling Stone calls him one of America's most original guitarists." says Jones. "We think of him as extended family." Lucas will also sit in at the end of a screening of three 1920s "city symphony" films performed with new scores by local avant-jazz group, Hotel X, which is celebrating it 30th anniversary (April 21, 7:30 p.m. at Grace Street Theater). "This year more emphasis is being placed on music and collaborations with multiple RVA ensembles," Jones points out.

Richmond's own Hotel X.
  • Richmond's own Hotel X.

Coleman Jennings, a curator and board member of the Society, recommends the documentary, "The Album." "It's about the art of album art. The film is a bit of a love letter to that disappearing art form, and includes many of the iconic examples, like ‘Abbey Road,’ ‘The Dark Side of the Moon,’ and ‘Nevermind.’" (April 22 at Byrd Theatre, 4 p.m.) For jazz lovers, there's "Play & Rewind," a documentary about pianist Thelonious Monk that incorporates rare live French TV footage with a never-before-seen interview with the mysterious Monk (April 21 at Grace St. Theater at 9 p.m.). And the festival concludes with an installment of the Silent Music Revival at the VMFA's Leslie Cheek Theatre, which will see the local band Sun V Set providing a soundtrack to the dreamy DIY movies of Maya Deren (April 23 at 3:30 p.m.)

One of the most anticipated events will be two back-to-back Byrd Theatre programs of Richmond-area music videos starting at 6 p.m. on Saturday, April 22. "Part one is a spotlight on the work of Good Day RVA," says program curator and musician Laney Sullivan. "They are an amazing film collective that has been doing live music videos of local bands in unique settings, several of which no longer exist - like the GRTC Bus Depot when the mural art was displayed, or the Flood Zone when it was boarded up."

The second program will feature more than an hour of rare and little-seen Richmond-related videos and clips - everything from the funk band Poison's 1975 visit to TV's "Soul Train" to Gwar's 1990 talk show encounter with Joan Rivers to AARNxBRWN's "Value" video shot at Marcus David Peters Circle. The exceptional '90s power pop band The Seymores will reunite to perform in the Byrd lobby during intermission of these video showcases. "And we will screen a Docker's commercial that the band shot," says Sullivan.

All of that plus a free screening of Luis Buñuel's surreal classic "Simon of the Desert" at the Richmond Main Library (April 21 at noon), a documentary on African-American newspapers, "Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords," narrated by actor Joe Morton (April 23 at VMFA, 1 p.m.), two James River-focused episodes of the acclaimed PBS series, "The Good Road," with host and Richmond native Craig Martin in attendance (April 22 at the Byrd, 11 a.m.), and an intriguing documentary about pioneering Jewish families who fled Russia in 1882 to settle in New Jersey to form a thriving agricultural co-op ("Alliance" on April 22 at the Byrd, 1:30 p.m.)

And let's not forget that pilgrimage to Joe Cotten's grave on Sunday, April 23 from 11-11:30 a.m. "This kind of programming is indicative of what we've been up to the past 29 years," says Jones. "It's eclectic celluloid for the cinematic soul."

The James River Film Festival runs April 20-23 in venues across town. See a complete list of films and events, and purchase tickets, at