Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 04, 2017 9:07 pm 
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David Byrne's mix of hip music and mainstream high school performance art

The stunningly effective sociopolitical counterpoints of the Ross brothers' Texas border town documentary Western (New Directors/New Films 2015) don't quite happen in their new film, but one sees what drew them to the material. Contemporary Color too is a juxtaposition - of the hip and the square, with the Eighties Talking Heads leader and music impresario David Byrne the presiding genius. The complexity of this joyful hybrid event, color guard plus pro music/song performance in a sport amphitheater, pulls the Rosses in a few too many directions, but it's still a heady show and sometimes touching and thrilling to watch.

Byrne's inspiration brought together some very up-to-date musicians including Grammy winners and collaborators like Dev Hynes, Nelly Furtado, and St. Vincent, to write original music for the project, and perform in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center in June 2015 with ten "color guard" groups from American and Canadian high schools. (The film debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year, and is being distributed by Oscilloscope.) In doing this he is celebrating a kind of musical and dance folk art entrenched in mainstream culture.

What's great about the film: it celebrates the excitement of the young "marchers," who are not only over the moon with excitement at such an opportunity, but welling up with tears because it's mostly the end of their careers as they move on and make way for other halftime performers at football games in rural America (and parts of Canada, as we see here). What's not so great: this very coverage as edited into the film too often interrupts the performances themselves. With only a few exceptions, the filming of the color guards baton, rifle, and flag twirling and dancing fails to show off its beauty as a collective performance, which, like ballet or Japanese synchronized gymnastics, is meant be be seen as a flowing, pulsating gestalt, not in bits and pieces of teary eyes and sweaty faces or arms grabbing flagpoles, but in collective images of flags, twirled poles (or more often, it seems, wooden rifles) and bodies moving as one. You don't chop up synchronicity.

Some of the musicians are outstanding, such as white R&B exponent Tom Krell of How to Dress Well, or Paz & Jop poll winner Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, but all are tuneful pros whose arrangements and crews fill the hall with their sound - and envelop the dancer-twirlers. Most of the color guard crews are good too, but for some reason we don't know, only a couple are beautifully presented in visuals, notably with their performances overlapping shots of the singers in the case of St. Vincent's performance with a team called Field of View. This shows off the visual beauty of the color guard while simultaneously keeping us aware of the live musical performance. It is a rare demonstration of how beautiful, even thrilling, a spectacle this may have been for spectators. Too often in the film both music and movement are interrupted to show the brassy event announcer Simon Bennett rehearsing his lines, Byrne pacing the back corridors of the hall, excited kids before and after performing, dads explaining their supporting roles - everything but what's happening during the performance. Closeups of the marcher/dancer/twirlers when they are seen performing, incidentally, these being non-pros from the boonies, reveal with shocking frequency Botero-like proportions, in men as well as women. America, you need to go on a serious diet, and now. Dancers 30 or 40 pounds overweight aren't fun to watch up close.

It should be pointed out, by the way, that choppiness isn't wholly the Ross brother's error but the event conception's choice: a many-voiced multiplicity being clearly one aim of the show itself. Working with composer Nico Muhly, This American Life's Ira Glass diced-and-spliced their own recorded interviews with the Alter Ego troupe and broadcast them during the troupe's performance to take the audience into performers' thoughts as they execute their seemingly effortless but actually long practiced and difficult movies.

As John DeFore points out in his Hollywood Reporter Tribeca review, the Ross brothers have taken on a "daunting" task, and perhaps a somewhat thankless one, and one may need to cut them some slack. Let's just say it's just hard to do a daunting task really well.

Contemporary Color, 104 mins., debuted at Tribeca 14 Apr. 2016, at least 31 other festival showings including San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, Sydney, Houston, Amsterdam. US theatrical release begins 1 Mar. 2017.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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