Sunday, December 1, 2013

Watch "First You Close Your Eyes" online

This blog is not a personal blog like so many others. It's about music films. Today the lines blur a little. Today December 1st my music documentary is being "set free" online. It was shown at the Spot Film Festival earlier this year - which also happened to be in my favourite cinema Øst For Paradis (East Of Eden) in Aarhus.

The film "First You Close Your Eyes - Five Days In The Abyss" is about the making of the album called "The Abyss" by Danish singer Esther Maria in New York. Working hard for five days with her musical partner Torsten Stistrup Cubel and the legendary independent musician and producer Kramer (Low, Galaxie 500, Urge Overkill, Daniel Johnston, 22 Pistepirkko) they managed to record most of the album. It was a big project for me to do the film, but I was - and still am - very happy with the end result. The film turned out quite close to my original idea, which I am proud of.

I think the film - besides showing the origin of the album - also sheds some light on Kramer's philosophy on music recording and creation. It somewhat demystifies parts of the process and lets you see how little it takes tech-wise to do this. But at the same time it also clearly reveals how important it is to have years of experience and an uncompromising attitude to music that surely comes from a love of pure art.

Seeing as we now enter the christmas month the band and I figured we would give everyone a little present: The whole 30 minute movie streamed online. You can do that from either the film's website - where you will also find outtakes, videoblogs, an online book and other things - or straight from YouTube.

Please note: Part of the recordings took place in a dark environment and the clarity of the image greatly improves if you set YouTube's streaming quality to one of the HD settings. Also: There are subtitles in both English and Danish. Just click to turn on the captions.


/ Lars

Saturday, November 23, 2013

From 2013 to 2014 - a quick look in the bag

Maybe it is time to diversify a bit on this blog and not only write reviews. But of course... it will still all be about music films. December is coming up and every website known to man will do their top-whatever to sum up the year. This is not such a list.
While IMDB's list of "Most Popular Music Documentaries" reveals the flavor of the moment - you know them, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, One Direction and the rest of their ilk - it's still a nice list to trail through. Some oldies are still on it and also more recent ones that did well. Provided me with some reminders and some inspiration.

Before we move in let's just namedrop a few of the films that popped up in 2013 that we might have forgotten. I had to enlist the help of the world's biggest search engine whose named shall not googled, eh, mentioned. Quite a few films I haven't even seen, but remember hearing about.
There's "Good Ol' Freda" about The Beatles secretary. Squeezing the lemon? Maybe. But it seems this president of the band's fanclub must have had some stories to tell. 
Another one is "Muscle Shoals" about Rick Hall, the founder of FAME Studios and the so-called signature sounds he developed in songs such as "Brown Sugar", and "When a Man Loves a Woman". It came out this October, so still very new. Sounds interesting, but of course another of the more "historic" kind of music films.
Dave Grohl & Co's tribute to and resurrection of Sound City Studios was fairly well-received, as far as I remember, and also got plenty of attention (but in this day and age a buzz doesn't last for long, of course - hence a reminder such as this blog). "Sound City" attempted to tie the past to the present and it's still a movie I have not had the pleasure of seeing.
One that should get way more attention than it does is "Pussy Riot - A Punk Prayer". Yes, a documentary about the shameless treatment of protest punk band Pussy Riot in Putin's increasingly worrying Russia.
One film that might not get a wide audience could be "Art Gods". But I love the narrow and odd angle of it: It's about the promotional displays that set the scene in each Tower Records store and how viewing them became a part of the record buying experience. A niche film, surely, but I got curious when I read about it. I wonder if it's one that will make the rounds so we can see it. There's a trailer here.
I know there were plenty more in 2013, but let's keep it short... ish.

In the Coen Brothers coming feature film "Inside Llewyn Davis" it looks like they yet again too a turn down the road to darkness. It's hard to tell from the trailer whether it's going to be good. But it certainly looks amazing. And they usually attract good actors while also trying out new talent, so my hopes are high. Even though it looks like a "struggling artist" story we have seen before.
A quick look on IMDB's list of coming music documentaries reveals some interesting ones.
There are already several films about rap and rhyming. And now comes another one. The title is "Check The Rhyme" and it features Chuck D, Ice T, KRS-One and loads of others. There there is also a few more: "Lee Scratch Perry's Vision of Paradise" (the reggae legend), "Shot: The Mick Rock Documentary" (famed rock photographer) and one called "Art Officially Favored" about Californian street musician and "bowhammers" player Michael Masley, which sounds like a nice story.

Anyways, just a quick look around the room. I'll post more non-review blog entries along the way when I come across something interesting. And of course write more reviews.

/ Lars

Thursday, May 23, 2013

#11 The Doors: Mr. Mojo Risin' - The Story of L.A. Woman (2011)

It seems there's a whole industry behind doing one-hour documentaries about old classics. Like the aptly named "Classic Albums" series. One was already made about The Doors' debut album. Although not named as being part of the series this film about "L.A. Woman" seems to follow the exact same recipe.

In order to enjoy these films you first off have to accept that what they do is reinforce rock'n'roll mythology. Not much in the way of critical reviewing. But therefore they can be enjoyable nevertheless - although never really getting neither too exciting or revelatory.

This film first gives a bit of band background and then it goes through the major songs on the album. The band members are seen playing parts and talking about how and why they chose to go "back to the blues roots". But in an hour we only scratch the surface with brief statements not given enough time (although some are expanded in the bonus material). Ray Manzarek seems especially caught up in The Doors myth and sounds like he's been telling this story word-by-word a hundred times before. It is enjoyable to see him playing the old stuff again, though. Exact replica of the albums - not much freeform. But he's like the old favourite uncle with the cool stories and you forgive him.

At some point during the film one does get tired of hearing people say how genius a songwriter Jim Morrison was. To some a brilliant poet, to others a pretentious art student. I fall somewhere in-between depending on the song. But doesn't the best art always divide the crowd down the middle?

Ray, Robby and John very often end up talking about Jim. And also all the trouble surrounding the band back then. All the stuff that has less to do with the music. That was also my problem with both Oliver Stone's 1991 bio-pic "The Doors" and the more recent "When You're Strange" documentary. This one does have more music in it.

In the end the film feels does like a - second - missed opportunity. Everyone is interviewed separately. And it's formulaic. The film would have been infinitely more interesting had they put the three surviving members in the same room. One wonders: Do they still do stuff together? Let alone talk with each other? Or are each of them just  feeding the rock myth - and the royalties it brings with it? If one googles current projects there seem to be some legal battles between band members. But that would not have been right to put in this film.

One thought is unavoidable: These folks are supposedly old hippies (maaan), but the stream of re-issues paint them in a rather capitalistic light. So, well, definitely real hippies 2013 A.D.? Wink wink nudge nudge.

This film doesn't present much new stuff, but it also doesn't at all ruin the enjoyment of an amazing album. One for the fans (who won't find many surprises) and one for the curious newcomer (hungry for a - celebratory - history lesson).

A final note: Right in the middle of writing this review over a few days Ray Manzarek died. It felt kind of strange while listening to all this. From an age when music was recorded live... by a band... in a room. You can still feel that when listening to the records. And it's without a doubt what is missing from most music today - which sounds assembled instead of played. It doesn't breathe the same way. And it does not require the same musicianship that Ray and the others had. These four very different musicians create something unique. Together. Thanks for every single note, Ray!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

#10 Grandma Lo-fi - The Basement Tapes of Sigridur Nielsdottir (2011)

I think I first heard about this film in 2011 when it was shown at CPH:DOX in Copenhagen. Didn't see it then, though. This May (2013) it was featured - as part of the new film program at the Spot Festival in Aarhus - along with my own music documentary "First You Close Your Eyes". So I finally had to chance to check it out.

The film is about Sigridur Nielsdottir who at 70 started making music with a simple Casio keyboard and stuff from her kitchen, as well as toys and her pets. In seven years she manage to record more than 600 songs on 59 homemade albums. The young musicians on Iceland caught wind of this and the film tells us she somehow became a bit of a local cult sensation.

We hear about her life, her lost love, her travels and experience how she makes her music. Whether you like the music or not her enthusiasm is definitely contagious and it's impossible for the filmmakers not to end up with a sweet and very heartwarming film.

The homemade aesthetic of her music is mirrored in the film's visual style using picture collages and grainy super-8 and 16 mm footage. So indeed the whole lo-fi grandma theme saturates the film. Her fans among the younger Icelandic bands also perform her songs and tell her story through them in little sections of the film.

It might be difficult to put one's finger on the Icelandic "thing". Their whole approach to music and art. But you can sense it. It's tongue-in-cheek, but serious. And yes, everything Icelandic is hip. Still. Even grannies!

It might seem like a fun "fad" that these musicians liking this music. But I don't really doubt their love and/or fascination with Sigridur Nielsdottir. Her music is honest, it comes straight from the heart and doesn't cater one tiniest bit to what is called the music business. She doesn't have to. She doesn't care. She is totally free! But the music itself must be what some call "an acquired taste". And the context - knowing her - surely must help with the enjoyment of the music. This film will certainly do that job to a certain extent. Still, it feels like its balancing on a tightrope. That is also one way to enjoy the film. Challenging your perception of what music is and can be. Remind you that everything is subjective. Bottom line is, though: She did what she loved to do, even though she came to it very late in life. But anyone having that spark within themselves well after 70 is an inspiration.

Because of the film festival I watched this film two days in a row. At the first viewing it felt somewhat longwinded about two-thirds in. But at the second viewing it didn't feel as long. I of course knew what to expect, but it also allowed me to catch more details in it, which was nice. In short: Recommended viewing.

Friday, May 17, 2013

#9 The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights (2009)

More than once I've wondered why I've never really gotten into The White Stripes. I share Jack White's love for the old blues guys from way back. When at the end of their career the band chose to release a live album that included a nice-looking documentary I figured maybe this might do the trick. Well...

This film follows the band on tour in Canada - in various small towns. We see the band behind the scenes and rocking away on stage - shot in both black and white and in a contrasted colour style that enhances their red, white and black image nicely.

The band seems to want to look "down-to-earth" (small gigs, simple live set-up etc.), but they still don't mind going the limo and private jet route. The film contains many funny moments, but for the most part it feels as if we're just scratching the surface. Also, some moments seem rather awkward as if they were staged a bit too much. Or maybe the film does not give those moments the time they need. But how could it? Then it would get overly long. Maybe it wants to do too much - and ends up doing very little?

On the positive side the sections containing concert footage seem to capture the band's stripped down style and energy rather well. But I'm still not that much wiser regarding what Jack White really wants to say with his music. So contrary to my expectations the film sadly didn't win me over.

I would say that this is a film for the fans. Nothing in the world wrong with that. That's just how it is. For the rest of us I personally feel there's less meat on the bones to hold onto for a genuine and unforgettable musical movie experience. Although, cinematically we can enjoy the nice cinematography and musical energy.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Lying about Sugar Man

"If something is too good to be true... then it usually is."

That's what I usually say. Not to set myself up for disappointment, but to make sure I am not fooled (too often).

The feeling crept up on me when I watched "Searching For Sugar Man", but I played along. It was a good story. A true fairytale. But now it turns out, apparently it was too good. Once again proving that, yes, fairytales are not true.

In today's newspaper I read that the film's protagonist played several big stadium concerts in Australia and New Zealand in 1979-1981 and that his album sales there reached platinum five times over. A fact not mentioned once in the movie. In fact it played up the "fact" that his albums flopped and that he lived in totally obscurity. I was wondering why Sixto didn't say much in the film. He probably told more of the real story.

Of course documentaries take liberties when telling their stories to make them more to the point. But this undermines the whole premise of the film. The sad thing it, that the story about Sixto's impact on the anti-apartheid music scene in South Africa, was good enough in itself, had it just focused on that. The fact that he had success elsewhere would not have weakened the film's angle that much.

But director Malik Bendjelloul couldn't resist the temptation of creating a fairytale. Sadly he has now put himself in a position where his word and work will leave us wondering: Is he telling the truth this time?

Yes, some people argue that the lines between fact and fiction are blurred in documentaries these days. But if fiction takes over or if  the editing is too selective by omitting parts that are essential to maintain truthfulness... then it's not a documentary anymore. Unlike way back when Sixto made his music, you can't keep facts like these a secret in the hyper-connected world of 2013. So why even try?

So, in my humble opinion the film does not deserve the four stars I gave it - or even the Academy Award it received. And the sad thing is, there was no need to keep these things from the audience in order to make a good movie. A "little white lie".... is still a lie.

/ Lars

Monday, January 7, 2013

#8 Searching For Sugar Man (2012)

"Searching For Sugar Man" is one of the better examples of truth being stranger than fiction. Of course, all documentaries have been edited through the filter of a director and thus a film will always be the director's truth no matter how you look at it. This version of the facts, though, is mighty entertaining and makes for a great movie.

The film tells the story of Mexican-American musician Sixto Rodriguez who recorded two albums in the 70s which flopped big time - despite his producers' claim that his songwriting was up there alongside Bob Dylan. A matter of taste, one could say, but according to the film his music played an integral part in inspiring the South African music scene to be more anti-establishment minded and to openly criticize the apartheid regime back in the day. So say the musicians there, who director Malik Bendjelloul talked to.

Rodriguez was by South Africans believed to be dead years ago. A South African journalist decides to investigate (WARNING: Spoilers ahead!) He finds out that the man himself is alive and that he apparently didn't know about the impact of his music on the other side of the planet. The driving force is the story of the search for the man and then afterwards how he went to South Africa and got the recognition he deserved.

Rodriguez himself seems content with just being a "regular guy" with solid blue collar values. Although his way of being in itself suggests he moves on a different level than most people. Very "zen", if you will. Giving away his earnings from this adventure to family and friends. This gives rise to some questions which are never really adressed in the film. It could be reluctance from Rodriguez, but I fear it could also be superficial interviewing from the director. He ask about fame and fortune, but it's clear that it does not matter to this "star". I am therefore missing the questions about Rodriquez' social conscience. He clearly had something to say. How does it feel about the impact he really did have after all? And where did his zen-like look on life and core values come from? 

The film shows the value music can have. Or could have back then. A reminder from a time before the internet where things like this could still be a mystery. Still, considering the story of discovery actually took place in 1998 it's a wonder it took another 14 years to reach the rest of the world. Maybe that says more about the media's one-eyed focus on only local matters and America.

A heartwarming tale that works surprisingly well, but - when you think about it - somehow sadly fails to properly reach the core matter of the story at hand. With a playing time of just 86 minutes an extra 10 minutes of depth would have benefitted the film greatly and would have driven home the point of the film better. One is left with the thought that the world would be a better place if more people were a bit more like Rodriguez. Maybe true, but it's also a fact that the picture painted of the man is not very nuanced. Maybe there are clues in the dvd's commentary track. I have reviewed this film from a cinema viewing.