CHAMPAIGN – The 12th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival – one of the more intense yet, Director Nate Kohn said – ended with festivalgoers dancing and waving their arms as a star of the last film sang live on the Virginia Theatre stage.
To karaoke accompaniment, Claire Sardina sang two Patsy Cline songs and ABBA's "Dancing Queen" after the screening of 10-time Emmy-winning director Greg Kohs' "Song Sung Blue."
Ten years in the making, the documentary tells the love story between Sardina and her husband, Mike, a Neil Diamond impersonator.
The documentary, which also follows the Milwaukee couple's 17-year "Lightning & Thunder" tribute act to Diamond and Cline, has not yet found theatrical distribution.
It won the audience and juried awards at Slamdance 2008 and was named best documentary at the Chicago and Atlanta underground film festivals and at four other festivals.
Kohs nearly had to show the movie at Slamdance without the music; he received clearance on the rights to 12 Diamond songs from Diamond himself just an hour before the screening.
Kohs, who was at the Virginia, said he saved Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder's cell phone number and while at Slamdance called Vedder in a last-ditch effort to reach Diamond.
Vedder, who had performed onstage with Lightning & Thunder at a Summerfest in Milwaukee, came to the rescue. And in one of the most poignant scenes in the documentary, Claire Sardina receives a large box in the mail soon after her husband dies. Her daughter, Rachel, opens it to find a letter and Gibson guitar from Vedder.
The Pearl Jam guitarist had sent it to Mr. Sardina after having heard about his illness from a friend in the Milwaukee band, the Frogs.
"The guitar is on display at the house, and nobody touches it," Claire said.
Kohs said "Song Sung Blue" is not a musical, though. Besides being a love story, it's a hard-luck story about folks who eventually overcome obstacles.
Kohs and his crew became flies on the wall to document the emotional unraveling of the Sardina family after Claire loses part of her leg in a freak accident.
He also documented Lightning & Thunder's eventual comeback on the performance circuit and the death of Mr. Sardina, at age 55, of heart failure.
Festival emcee Chaz Ebert saw "Song Sung Blue" for the first time on Sunday at her husband's festival, a special event of the University of Illinois College of Media.
She said she related to it "100 percent."
"People who have a catastrophic accident or illness get a lot of pain medications," Chaz Ebert said during the post-screening discussion. "We went through a period when Roger was on a lot of pain medications and I had to fight with his doctors to wean him off of it."
Claire Sardina began taking painkillers after losing part of her leg while gardening in front of her home in May 1999 in Milwaukee. An older man lost control of his car and ran into the front yard where she was working, pinning her and severing her leg.
"Song Sung Blue" was the last of 13 films screened at Ebertfest, along with music shorts from the website playingforchange.com. Its mission is peace through music.
Ebert also pulled a surprise on Saturday by showing the short film "Plastic Bag" directed by two-time Ebertfest guest Ramin Bahrani and narrated by German director Werner Herzog, also a two-time guest of Ebertfest.
The humorous short, in which Herzog voices the plastic bag, follows it from its "birth" at a grocery store to a landfill. From there it escapes, wafts away and washes out to the 100-million ton vortex of plastic in the Pacific Ocean.
"I cared about that plastic bag," festival-goer Brenda Koester of Urbana said after the festival ended.
Kohn called the five-day event more intense than usual, perhaps because 13 instead of the usual 12 films were shown.
"It's been nonstop," he said. "It seems like in previous years we had more time between films."
Also adding to the intensity were packed houses for every screening and a number of long films, "not the least of which is 'Apocalypse Now Redux,'" Kohn said. Its running time: 202 minutes.
Kohn, who like Ebert is an Urbana native, said the famed film critic enjoyed this festival "tremendously."
"He's so happy that all his 'far-flung correspondents' (film bloggers who Ebert features on his website) are here. He really wanted them to be part of the festival."
This year's festival also featured the inevitable advancement of digital, with slightly more than half of the films having been digitally projected. Projectionists James Bond and Steve Kraus showed HDCAM, Digital Betacam and with "Trucker" on Saturday, Blu-ray digital films.
"It's going to be more next year because films are finished digitally," Kohn said. "When a 35mm film is struck from a digital master, the images become slightly degraded. So we're better off showing the digital version.
"The revolution is finally here," he added.