Ice-T leads the dance in the Utah mountains

A great crop of music films have lit up this year's Sundance Festival, says Ed Gibbs

Once notorious for fighting the power, Ice-T has emerged as the most unlikely champion of this year's annual showcase of independent film, founded by Robert Redford, in the snowy environs of Utah, in the west of the US. The 53-year-old rapper-turned-actor – real name Tracy Marrow – can now add bona fide film-maker to his ever-increasing resumé, thanks to his highly engaging documentary, Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap, co-directed with the BBC's Andy Baybutt.

In the film, the New Jersey-born, LA-based entrepreneur guides audiences through the art of rap, from inception to performance. "I felt I had to do this movie because rap saved my life," he declares at the outset. "This film is about the craft."

A who's who of hip-hop artists – Chuck D, Eminem, Q-Tip and Snoop Dogg among them – share street-flavoured musings on their techniques and origins. The issue of why rap isn't as highly regarded as jazz or blues is covered, with breathtaking aerial shots of New York, Detroit and Los Angeles included. Group raps ensue.

Ice-T's presence in the snow-capped enclave also extended to a musical showcase, in Park City's music café, with fellow rapper Chuck D on hand to offer support.

Music documentaries have led the field this year. Opening the festival's documentary competition, Searching for Sugar Man – another UK co-production – tells the bizarre tale of the forgotten folk hero, Rodriguez. The Hispanic equivalent of Bob Dylan, his two timeless 1970s albums spectacularly tanked, never to be heard again. Thought to be dead by his substantial army of followers in South Africa – one of the few territories that embraced the cult figure – a search eventually led a pair of intrepid reporters to a barren house in Detroit, where the singer-cum-bricklayer resides to this day.

"The producers say that of all the albums they worked on – including Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and The Temptations – that this was the true masterpiece," says the Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul, whose film was the first to snag major distribution at this year's festival. "The anticipation was so high. They knew the album was going to be massive, an all-time classic. Yet it wasn't even a flop – it was below a flop. It didn't sell anything. Literally, nothing. There are a few theories as to why: that given his Hispanic looks and his name, Rodriguez, that in America at that time, you weren't allowed to do that, to sing folk music like that. You were allowed to play Mariachi music, Mexican music. You weren't allowed to enter the white rock scene.

"In South Africa, he committed suicide: that was the story," Bendjelloul adds. "Some thought it was a shooting, others that he set fire to himself. So these two guys set off on a search to find out the truth, by deciphering his lyrics. We found him, in the same house he bought back in 1970. Detroit is almost apocalyptic, the way it looks now. Every second house is a ruin, burnt out. It's a very dangerous place."

Indeed, the demise of Motor City – as documented in Detropia – and the state of the union as a whole has dominated this year's festival. From poverty to nuclear power, from slavery to sexual assault in the military, the likes of Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare, Finding North, The Invisible War and We're Not Broke all paint a bleak picture of the superpower.

Britain's film-makers have provided similarly sombre highlights. Sally El Hosaini's My Brother the Devil – one of many Arab Spring-related films at Sundance – is an outstanding feature about gang warfare and sexuality set amongst the estates of the East End of London. James Marsh's mesmerizing thriller Shadow Dancer – set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and starring Clive Owen and Andrea Riseborough as two would-be lovers on opposite sides of the tracks – has also caught many unawares.

London is soon to host its own bite-sized version of Sundance, at the O2 in April. Although details of the three-day event remain sketchy, the festival's executive director, Keri Putnam, views it as a natural extension of the Sundance remit, particularly as revenue streams become more diluted as digital platforms expand.

"It shines a spotlight on the great work, and it might be a model that can be replicated in other locations," she says. "We've also got this other program, where we're offering access to online distribution, to the films that come through the festival – and we've got the capacity to expand that, to offer a complimentary set of films to watch at home."

Sundance – the first of the year's major festivals – isn't technically a market-driven arena for buyers, but it inevitably becomes one as over 200 films premiere here to industry insiders eager to catch the next big thing. Last year's breakout star, Elizabeth Olsen, has been most notable in her return. As if to emphasise that the 2011 hits Martha Marcy May Marlene and Silent House were no flukes, her performance in Josh Radnor's relationship drama Liberal Arts has had critics buzzing.

Returning hero Spike Lee has been less fortunate. At the premiere of his return-to-Brooklyn effort Red Hook Summer, a modest $1m feature that he chose to fund himself, he launched into a rant, complaining that Hollywood doesn't understand black culture.

"I didn't want to hear no motherfucking notes from the studio telling me about what a young 13-year-old boy and girl would do in Red Hook," Lee stormed, after Chris Rock asked during a post-screening Q&A what he would have done differently, should studio money have been forthcoming. "They know nothing about black people. Nothing!" Red Hook Summer is typically stylised, with Lee's trademark heightened sense of colour and sound. Yet for many, the rambling, evangelical drama overstayed its welcome, with epic musical set pieces scored by Bruce Hornsby testing the patience of festival-goers. A shocking finale brings matters back into focus, but for many it was too late.

Similarly, Stephen Frears' Lay the Favourite – a rags-to-riches tale based on Beth Raymer's memoir – is blighted by the presence of Bruce Willis and a miscast Catherine Zeta Jones. It's more The Whole Nine Yards than a fact-based yarn.

Faring better was Amy Berg's sprawling, Peter Jackson-backed documentary West of Memphis, which revisits the infamous Memphis Three case, in which three Arkansas teenagers were controversially convicted for the 1994 ritualistic murder of three eight-year-old boys. Its unexpected, dramatic conclusion left many reeling in shock.

Equally, Julie Delpy's infectious 2 Days in New York – an offbeat romantic comedy of sorts, starring Chris Rock, Delpy and her real-life father, Albert – has proved something of a worthy follow-up to 2 Days in Paris, while Kirsten Dunst heads up an impressive cast in Bachelorette, a successor to Bridesmaids, in which a group of sassy singles take hedonism to new levels. The marriage-dilemma comedy Celeste and Jesse Forever also added a suitably dry sense of drollery to proceedings at Park City. The journalist Mark O'Brien's autobiographical quest for love, The Surrogate, is another of this year's clutch of bizarre, sex-focused comedies. In the film, a man confined to an iron lung (played by oddball-for-hire John Hawkes) attempts to lose his virginity at the age of 38.

The festival draws to a close on Sunday, with an awards show hosted by Parker Posey, once known as the Queen of Indie. Her new feature, Price Check, will no doubt take centre stage. Who will snag the gongs remains as unpredictable as the festival itself.

Hot list: the best of Sundance

Shadow Dancer

James 'Man on Wire' Marsh returns to dramatic feature territory with this startling thriller set during the Troubles in Belfast (firstly in 1973, then 1993). Andrea Riseborough (above) gives the performance of her life as a single mum looking for a way out. Clive Owen is the MI5 type who's in way over his head. Due for release in September.

My Brother the Devil

An Egyptian family living on a rough council estate in East London must come to terms with gang warfare, drugs and sexuality in this gritty and gripping debut from Britain's Sally El Hosaini.

Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap

Former gangsta rapper turned US TV star Ice-T teams up with the BBC's Andy Baybutt to present a thoughtful, insightful look at why rap was created – and how its leading lights create their art of the street.

Searching for Sugar Man

Forgotten, presumed dead, Hispanic Detroit native Rodriguez (below) is brought back to life in this documentary, which includes footage of his triumphant tour of South Africa in 1998 – and interviews with the man today.

Simon Killer

Hailing from last year's 'Martha Marcy May Marlene' camp (director Sean Durkin is producer here), Antonio Campos's unnerving neo-noir thriller has Brady Corbet cast as a mentally disturbed loner, drifting in Paris after a break-up. Those who take pity on him soon live to regret their generosity.

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