St Vincent in "Contemporary Color"

SIFF ’16 Review: Bill & Turner Ross Reinvent the Concert Film in “Contemporary Color”

Ah, so this is what happens when you recruit some of nonfiction’s most exciting rising talents to man the cameras of a concert film. One look at the credits list of “Contemporary Color” will surely intrigue with “Tchoupitoulas” and “Western” directors Bill and Turner Ross at the helm, but the eye will also likely catch on the participation of Amanda Rose Wilder (“Approaching the Elephant”), Jessica Oreck (“Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo”) and Robert Greene (“Kate Plays Christine”) among others in camera crew, promising a film ahead that is every bit the experiment as the show David Byrne organized after becoming enthralled with the old high school team sport of Color Guard. Inviting ten flag-waving teams to join him on tour, the former lead singer of Talking Heads paired them with 10 different musical acts who created a new song for their routine, not letting the 17- and 18-year-olds hear the song until a few hours before they appear onstage. Still, the teams prepared choreography for 10 months leading up to a multi-city tour, culminating with a show at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn that features the likes of St. Vincent, Nelly Furtado and Lucius.

Given the adventurous spirit of those behind the camera, it should come as no surprise that it would be a misnomer to say the film captures what it was like to experience the “Contemporary Color” show in person so much as it gets inside of it, imbued with the tears and sweat of those giving it their all on stage while the delight felt in the crowd is palpable. Each performance takes on its own personality, announced with a title card priming the musician and their accompanying Color Guard team as if it were its own main event. While feeling as though it takes place entirely in the present, the film is equally dynamic in tracking the show as it unfolds as it is in the preparation leading up to it, whether it’s the performance of Money Mark and Ad Rock with the squad from Somerville High School, where the film leaves the arena to follow one of Color Guard members in his preparation, a “Rocky”-esque jog down the street with his flag that gets the pulse pounding, or leading up to a song by Nico Muhly with the composer and Ira Glass venturing up to the high school who will be dancing to the song to talk to the students. In each instance, the music, movement and history behind it are fused together cinematically to the point of transcendence.

Although “Contemporary Color” doesn’t put too fine a point on it, the day of the Barclays show is particularly special and the Ross brothers, who have always put a premium on conveying a tangible sense of setting, achieve that ineffable feeling effortlessly. The film navigates the maze-like backstage of the arena like blood coursing through the veins and charts the emotional geography of all participants just as vibrantly. Cool, hardened professionals like Byrne and Glass are reduced to the level of giddy schoolboys as they frantically run around during the course of the concert ensuring it comes off just right, exhausted but energized by what’s happening in the moment while the camera’s concentration on faces and physical expression pays off in spades in depicting the actual teenagers, who are performing on a stage that must be unimaginable, with the film fully realizing the personal horizons being opened up as well as the closing of a chapter in their lives since for many, who are graduating, this will be the last time performing together.

On a broader scale, the day is already charged with the news of the Supreme Court’s decision to make same-sex marriage the law of the land, a harbinger of history being made acknowledged by what’s playing in the background of dressing rooms and a simple declaration of Byrne on stage that “America has changed” before the show’s final song. In taking such a pillar of the form as the concert film and reworking it in electrifying fashion, you feel documentary has too, unsure when leaving the theater whether the music or the filmmaking has provided the buzz that refuses to wear off. Fortunately, you don’t need to choose.

“Contemporary Color” doesn’t yet have U.S. distribution. It will play at the Seattle Film Festival on May 26 at the Majestic Bay Cinemas at 9 pm, May 28 at the SIFF Cinema Uptown at 8:30 pm and May 30 at the SIFF Cinema Egyptian at 1:30 pm.

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