I recently sat down with local filmmaker Peter McGennis at his office on Elmwood Avenue and he let me preview a few clips from his latest feature film, "Queen City"--a musical tribute to the hometown that has become his muse. As he played some tracks from the score he composed for the film--thirteen original songs in all, a labor of love spanning three years of dedication--a smile slowly crept across my face as note after bluesy note hit my ears and my spirit simultaneously, absolutely dripping with soul. It was just so very...Buffalo.
The second in a series of Buffalo-based films, "Queen City" takes on a very different tone from McGennis' last film, "Buffalo Bushido." "Buffalo Bushido is abstract reverence in its tribute to Buffalo," McGennis said. "It's a darker drama--not exactly the most commercial of fare--and passing through it, I wanted to celebrate with my next Buffalo endeavor. I kept getting feedback that musically, my work really provided the story and locations with a voice and I was encouraged to stay on that note. Drawn to 60s and 70s cinema and music, I wanted to create a musical tribute film to Buffalo for my next project."
Tipping his hat to 1970s camp and dark noir genres, McGennis captures Buffalo's rich and somewhat turbulent history, using her beautiful architectural backdrop as his canvas. "Architecture plays a huge role in this film, and placing these iconic musicians in historic places such as the Central Terminal, the Hotel Lafayette, and the Colored Musicians Club of Buffalo really gives the city a voice in the film," he said. With a cast that includes over 100 local actors and a cadre of Grammy award-winning musicians that McGennis strategically placed alongside Buffalo's own best musical talent, the soul of the city is unveiled in an "intersection of story, music, history and metaphor."
The film is a detective drama set in the wake of Buffalo's steel plant closings, filmed entirely here in the Queen City. "I placed two cops from different sides of the tracks and a jazz singer trapped in a world of corruption and social dystopia," McGennis said. The character of Lady Midnight, played by Vivica A. Fox, was inspired by a rich legacy of jazz singers to whom McGennis wished to pay respect, including Buffalo native Dorthea "Dodo" Greene. With the help of an ensemble of musical legends including James Cotton (photo below right [pointing to] Peter), Toni Lynn Washington, Sharon Jones, Susan Tedeschi, Allen Toussaint, and Maria Muldaur, McGennis created a soundtrack that allows the spirit of the Queen City to resonate with the audience.
Guiding McGennis and his crew through three years of work on this film was that very Queen City spirit--the blue-collar grit and resilient mentality, and an approach deeply rooted in community and collaboration--that so often seems to accompany those who are Buffalo-bred. Inspired by his own struggles along the way, McGennis was able to identify with the Buffalonian perspective conveyed in the film. "About two-thirds of the way through the production, my Harley Davidson luggage business took a huge hit," he said. "The motor company dropped us as a supplier and went overseas." Not wanting the filmmaking process to be interrupted by this financial loss, McGennis began to channel his filmmaking into producing television commercials for local brands. "Adaptability is critical for filmmakers, finding a place in an ever-changing landscape," he said. "In some ways I was drawn into the heart of my own story, having to find the resilience to complete this film without compromise."
Also guiding "Queen City" through its production was that strong sense of community and artistic collaboration that grew from the city itself. "I made it a point for this film to pass through more hands than "Buffalo Bushido," in an attempt to celebrate its enduring spirit and to honor different circles of our community," McGennis said. Rather than hold the reins from beginning to end, McGennis chose to step back and observe as others shaped the film with their contributions. "It's never just about the film, I'm operating on some level that runs deeper into the veins of community," he said. "I'm proud to have shared this film at all stages with so many people, from sipping herbal tea with my co-producer, Suzi McGowan, to sitting down at the piano with my musical supervisor, Larry Eason, to filming Vivica A. Fox in the Miracle Christian Fellowship Center, to setting off a car bomb in Allentown, to filming Irish dancers at the Armory, to group streaking at the Hotel Lafayette."
And that spirit of community pervaded as McGennis found himself bringing local musicians together with a group of Grammy-award winning legends to produce the film's score. "It blows my mind how much talent there is here, and music is definitely a language of itself and a family circle based on respect and tradition," he said. "You get these musicians who are world renown and they're playing with local players and the respect is there. It's pretty cool to see."
With music providing the backbone for his film, McGennis chose to create a unique format for the "Queen City" premiere--one that emphasizes the union of music and film. On Wednesday, November 14, McGennis will host the first local screening of "Queen City" at the UB Center for the Arts at 7:30 p.m., followed by a musical set performed by several of the musicians involved in creating the film's score. Buffalo's own musicians will provide the back up for Sharon Jones, James Cotton, Toni Lynn Washington, and surprise guests after the film premiere. This "Rust Belt Revue" tour will travel to many universities and film festivals to promote the film, returning home once again for a New Year's Film and Music Tribute at the Hotel Lafayette on December 30 at 7:30 p.m.
McGennis hopes the local audience will take the film as a dose of "cinematic therapy" and enjoy its loveable and mischievous spirit, as well as a slew of familiar faces, from Rick Jeanneret, to Lance Diamond and the Queen City Roller Girls. While Buffalo's history doesn't always prove to be the most pleasant subject matter, McGennis helps his audience to digest it with a sense of humor and appreciation for the city's enduring spirit. "I wanted 'Queen City' to serve as some community glue, some cinematic therapy, a little letting out some steam...one needs to step back and have a good chuckle at where we've come from since our nadir circa 1980 in the wake of the steel closings," he said. "I'm hoping a pie in the face tastes good, I've certainly taken a fair share myself."
McGennis will soon be embarking on new film, entitled "Bubble Girl," which also is set here in Buffalo and tells the story of a young girl who overcomes a childhood illness with the help of her imaginary friend. McGennis will be collaborating with Roswell on his first attempt at a children's film, which he has deemed the "hope for the future" installment in his series of Buffalo-based films.
"I'm honored to have Buffalo as my canvas," McGennis said. "I don't see my home as a stepping stone--if it never gets bigger than this, I'd be happy."
Tickets to the Queen City Red Carpet Film & Music Premiere on November 14 at UB can be purchased at www.ubcfa.org or by calling the box office at 1-888-223-6000. For tickets to the New Year's Film & Music Tribute at the Hotel Lafayette, call 716-877-6623 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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