Monday, May 5, 2014

#14 A Band Called Death (2012)

It seems there was always someone doing something before that someone you thought did it first... did it (is that even a sentence?). And the art of tracking the punk rock genre back further and further has become a bit of a sport. Now someone claims it to be a band called Death. And depending on how you label your music they were the earliest ones - that is, if you call Iggy & The Stooges "proto punk" instead of "punk", for instance. Anyways... one of the things that made Death special was that it was an all black band... playing "white boy music". And their name.

I saw "A Band Called Death" at the recent Spot Film Festival in Aarhus, Denmark. The film tells the story of three young black brothers inspired by The Who recording an album's worth of material - but only cutting a single - in the early 70s and not going anywhere with it (I'm wondering: They rehearsed, they recorded, but we never really hear of live shows. Maybe that was the problem?). Presumably they got turned down mostly because of their name. After years of rejection the band drifts apart and... yes, you guessed it: Many years later someone finds a 7-inch and before you know it you got a proper underground record geek hype on your hands.

In the film the two surviving brothers are sad about the loss of their brother, but seem very happy to finally tell their story. It does get a bit tiresome having them show you around saying: This is where we did this and this is where we did that, as if it all had significant meaning. And in true American fashion they of course "get the band back together" and go out and play again. But only after the film spends a lot of time telling their story. Maybe a bit too much, as it gets a bit longwinded after a while. But the protagonists in the story are genuine characters and very likable. Sweet old reggae musicians, actually. But the attention on the people themselves does overshadow the actual music. They cut a few good tracks. And maybe was punk before punk. But the film tries to cut the punk-before-punk angle so sharp that one wishes the director would ease off it a bit.

The story is the classic one of "overlooked genius" (not quite sure, but I'll go with "talented"). And the film tells it in the most formulaic way. And this is where the movie doesn't deliver completely. Both the subject matter and the way the film decides to present it is just too predictable. Overall the production is nice and professional, though. And yes, it's enjoyable. Producers of course couldn't resist the sensationalism. And therefore after the viewing the feeling is a bit flat. But if you love a "classic" rock'n'roll story, by all means, check it out.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

#13 Talking Heads: Chronology (2011)

I really like Talking Heads. But I came late to the band, as I was actually born in the year of some of the earliest footage on this dvd. Still, considering that I like this music now and didn't listen to it back then, I think it clearly shows its staying power. You didn't have to be there at the time to enjoy it. It's got more going for it than nostalgia. Lead singer David Byrne is still at it today at 61 with both music, books and art installations. All the while still giving off a vibe of being probably the most decent and likable man in the "rock biz". And yes, I think "Stop Making Sense" is one of the best concert films ever.

While "Stop Making Sense" was an amazing looking film, the material on this dvd is much different, but no less interesting. In short: The dvd is a collection of live performances and it takes its title quite literal. It starts at the band's humble beginnings in 1975. Back when phones didn't have video cameras and were not even mobile. When it took extra effort to capture bands on film. But luckily it did happen from time to time. There are songs filmed more or less bootleg style, but also tv footage. The dvd covers their entire career and you see how the film quality improves as the years go by, the venues get bigger and the band grows with additional musicians. And of course their musical development as well.

It feels like a historical document and it's nicely "objective" in its presentation. Besides the illuminating commentary done by the band (obviously not sitting in the same room while doing it) the dvd is free of any know-it-all retrospection. It's presented as-is.

The live collection is 66 minutes long. The bonus material is a 35 minute tv programme (The South Bank Show) and a 9 minute interview with David Byrne - delightfully quirky as he was back then. Not that at ease with the whole situation.

Getting down to brass tax: This collection is a treasure trove for any Talking Heads fan. The varied footage quality just adds to the mood of the whole thing. It has a nice "analogue" feel to it despite it being a dvd (just as "Stop Making Sense" has even on blu-ray).

There is both a standard and deluxe edition of this dvd. The standard also has the bonus material, but the deluxe is constructed as a book containing photos and a long written piece by legendary Rolling Stone music writer Lester Bangs done it 1979. All in all, a real treat. Check it out!

For additional viewing I would - besides "Stop Making Sense" - recommend David Byrne's other film projects, but also the more recent feature film "This Must Be the Place" by director Paolo Sorrentino - starring Sean Penn and with a major cameo by Byrne himself. An odd film, but one that's beautiful and moving and which feels like a painting in motion.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

#12 Low In Europe (2004)

I must admit I don't listen to Low as much as I used to. Taste changes and so do bands. But I still count the band's 1999 album "Secret Name" among my all time favourites. For an independent American rock band they have been fairly successful with their trademark slower-than-slow music rich with chiming guitars, hushed drumming and beautiful vocal harmonies.

A handful of years after "Secret Name" director Sebastian Schrade followed the band on tour for their shows in Germany and the UK. The result was a nice little 50 minute film.

It's a film from around when filmmaking was beginning to enjoy the same democratization of the medium as music had. Decent technology becoming available to the masses. In the last 5 to 10 years more and more independent documentaries have come out. Many with focus on music. Of course the sheer mass of material explodes and the quality varies.

"Low In Europe" is released through Plexifilm which has an impressive catalogue of fantastic documentaries. This film, though, doesn't feel quite up to scratch with the rest at Plexi. Maybe it has an easier time because it was the first film about Low (not counting the video material on their box set dvd from 2004). It feels like a "fan made" film. It mixes interview bits from hotel rooms, radio PR and backstage rooms with footage from the tour bus and from the shows. Not much else.

Visually the film is not so imaginative and soundwise it doesn't impress either. This in the concert footage where the sounds levels are a bit off. Sometimes the bass is inaudible, but vocals loud. Considering the few instruments played it should have been doable. But capturing things on the fly on tour can be hard. Needs lots of planning.

On the plus side - besides the good music - the band seems willing to give the film makers access, which is crucial. The interviews are pretty basic (about songwriting, sound, touring, politics etc.), but since this was the first film on the band that's excusable. The film makers could probably have benefitted from gathering more material, but there probably wasn't time on tour. It feels a bit rushed.

Still, for a 50 minute introduction to the band it's a good film. It might not be super exciting for people not familiar with the band, but for fans it will definitely be enjoyable. I liked it. There is some nice footage from the beautiful Union Chapel venue in London at the end of the film.

In retrospect the film has been devalued a bit by the fact another Low film called "You May Need A Murderer" was made later. It has a more professional feel to it and the film makers probably had more time and access for the job. I'll write about that one another time.

The dvd also includes bonus material in the form of radio show live recordings with an interview set to tour footage.