by Niles Schwartz
Just thinking back on my past year of movie viewing, I’m transfixed by factory smoke billowing through the empty urban wasteland to the haunting voice of Rodriguez in Searching for Sugar Man, a film where a songwriter’s work moves a nation, which in turn resurrects him from relative obscurity. Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff and Catherine, their painful epilogue presented as a jarring flip off to stuffy literary period drama, Mumford and Sons’ “The Enemy” blowing over the desolate moors instead of a bloated score. Metric’s stark electronica reflecting the post-human longing of Eric Packer in Cosmopolis. Cloud Cult’s “Just For Now” sliding to the leisure of the Tampa sun shining over silhouetted waves washing on decadent dreamers in Magic Mike. And perhaps as poignant as anything I’ve ever seen and heard in a cinema, having my emotional guard utterly decimated by Benjamin Britten’s “Cuckoo Song” as the camera bids young lovers adieu and settles on a girl’s impressions of the lost monument to first love in Moonrise Kingdom.
These moments join a canon of others in my memory: Keith Carradine singing “I’m Easy” to Lily Tomlin in Nashville; Rebekah Del Rio waking Diane Selwyn up with “Llorando” in Mulholland Drive; Philip Baker Hall entering a New Year’s party with a series of lap dissolves to Sniff ‘n the Tears’ “Driver’s Seat” in Boogie Nights; the freeze-frame first look in Casino’s doomed relationship with the stinging sound of Mickey and Sylvia’s “Love is Strange”; David Byrne losing control while his stage set goes up, convulsing to his boom-box in Stop Making Sense; the longing of a lonely ex-con (Bob Hoskins) exploring peep-show environs while Genesis’ benign “In Too Deep” plays in Mona Lisa; Hugh Grant preparing to get cozy for a New Year’s kiss with Rachel Weisz, Badly Drawn Boy scoring his heart in About a Boy; Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungeon kissing over their new kitten, The Pogues’ proclaiming “I’m your precious love” in Sid and Nancy; the shoegaze neon blurs of brief exchanges between strangers, with My Bloody Valentine’s “Sometimes,” in Lost in Translation; a grim Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) looking out into the dark Kentucky night and seeing a burning car on a turn pass, a Lisa Gerrard aria over a puzzling isolated moment from The Insider; Groucho explaining, “Hello, I Must Be Going” in Duck Soup; the eerie synth harmonies of Popul Vuh played against an unconquerable wilderness in Aguirre, the Wrath of God; a killer without rhyme or reason setting in on his first prey to Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” in Zodiac; Levon Helm singing his heart out to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” in The Last Waltz; Screamin’ Jay Hawkins putting a spell on me, through an immigrant’s radio in Stranger Than Paradise; Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) staring at a television with an unquenchable longing, young people on the screen dancing to Jackson Browne in Taxi Driver. The list goes on and on. Too many films, too many songs, etched in my senses and refusing to leave me. They all affect how I see the world, how I hear films, and how I see music.
Celebrating the marriage of music and film, the indivisibility of sound and vision, it’s time for Sound Unseen’s annual rocking festival of small-time music-related movies, followed by some post-screening live shows (and drinks) at the Harriet Brewing Tap Room, conveniently down the street from the Trylon Microcinema, host for most of the festival’s selections. From the Rick Springfield you only thought you knew, to the Boston hardcore scene, to alien invaders who fall in love with folk music, Sound Unseen reiterates the relations of the imaginative eye and ear, enticing hundreds of Minneapolis’ best and brightest to spectate and listen before stumbling home with a pleasant golden glow buzz, whistling in the pleasant mid-autumn night.
Movie tastes and music tastes are personal affairs, mysterious like the top-secret reconnaissance content old Miss Froy carries in song form from one side of Europe to the other in The Lady Vanishes. Sound distorts how we see, manipulating or immersing us deeper into a stranger’s experiences. The saturation of a source-music score, for example in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive when the Driver (Ryan Gosling) hears Desire’s “Under Your Spell” through the walls, playing in the apartment of the woman he desires (Carey Mulligan), grows from something inhabiting a concrete physical space before evolving into something overpowering and fiercely interiorized: what was just in the other room is now blasting in his head. The moment demonstrates this interesting exchange between Film and Music, as the newer art’s appropriation of the elder aids in communicating something about human experience, refusing to submit to the detestable prison-house of language (or at least refining the spoken word). Moving images and music (can) work together to channel the foggy dream logic and smudged memories distinct from familiar tropes of linearity and logic. The urgent anarchy of pop music in all forms and genres, as diagetic content or non-diagetic commentary on the action, punches the emotion deeper into the mat with a more intense and physical energy. Movies are our visual mix-tapes. As the Arthur Phillips novel explains, “the song is you,” but the film is you, too.
For Dan Carlson, in charge of Sound Unseen’s marketing and community outreach, Film and Music were an even split in the program’s appeal. Always a music enthusiast, Sound Unseen appealed to Carlson because it found bands, supporting the screenings with live gigs, who weren’t yet big, putting them on like, he explains, “a sound unseen, they’re unseen yet.” But now, a lot of people know The Bite Club, Doomtree, and The Pink Mink. The live performances that complement the screenings enhance the reality of what’s somewhat abstract in the music. The films, Carlson says, document the soul of the artist. He mentions this year’s closing film, Charles Bradley: Soul of America, about a 62-year-old aspiring soul musician whose 2011 album No Time for Dreaming took him from obscurity to critical acclaim and notoriety. The songs and the lyrics are one thing, but the film gives the music context and enhances how we hear Bradley. “Just to see where he was living and where he came from, and then to hear those lyrics just ties it all together,” explains Carlson. It’s different from hearing something decoratively meaningless on the radio, or something, for example, based on a book. Soul of America makes the music breathe. This relates to the growing popularity of music documentaries, as opposed to narrative features.“I’m personally attracted to [documentaries],” says Carlson, “because they capture the essence of what someone is going through, the heart and soul, people bleeding on screen. You can’t make up a happy ending. You hear their music and you can understand.”
In addition to Soul of America, the program this year includes An Affair of the Heart, an in-depth look at Rick Springfield, the “Jessie’s Girl” sweetheart singer-songwriter still going strong on tour at age 62 with a devoted following; Bad Brains: A Band in D.C., which gets into the influential punk band that refused to be confined into any fixed sound or genre, thereby representing the true spirit of Punk Rock; The Source, about a cult-like commune of psychedelic musicians from the 1970s, reforming decades after their hippie heyday; XXX All Ages XXX: The Boston Hardcore Story, which takes a different look at Punk (no, it’s not a melding of Sasha Grey and “More Than a Feeling”), demonstrating how hardcore emblems such as mosh-pits weren’t necessarily the creations of drug addled decadents, but had more straight-edged progenitors than we might expect; Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey, the festival’s centerpiece film (playing at the Ritz Theatre), about a young man who posted his songs on YouTube and became Steve Perry’s replacement in Journey; Cartoon College, delving into the artistry of comic-book making; Beware of Mr. Baker, about Cream and Blind Faith drummer Ginger Baker’s musical and personal journeys across the globe; and Radio Unnameable, about radio DJ Bob Fass, a boundless on-air personality whose influence we can see with local personalities on KFAI and, of course, Tommy Mischke.
Sound Unseen director Jim Brunzell III explains the maddening process of selecting pictures for exhibition. A whiz on film history and culture, with impeccable taste to boot, his cognizance regarding the selection process is laudable. Says Brunzell, “Programming is always tricky and can be a huge nightmare or a blast, depending on what is out there year to year. You’ve also got to be aware of what is upcoming perhaps next year, or something that is being released now, that I haven’t had the chance to see yet. This year alone, I saw between 40 to 45 Sound Unseen submissions and had to whittle it down to about 12 films.”
Brunzell’s programming perfectly divvies up selections between genres, in addition to popular notoriety vs. indie sensibilities. After the Top 40, household name of Springfield, you have Bad Brains, and then a movement as mysterious, though undeniably fascinating, like the Boston Hardcore punk scene. “Not every film is going to be about a musician as big as Rick Springfield or a band as big as Journey,” he says, “but I feel there were a ton of films about interesting ‘bigger’ artists/groups that I saw too, that didn’t make it into our program. Not every film can be about a worldwide-known band like Journey, and every year you’ve got to make some tough decisions about what should be in the Sound Unseen festival versus what would work better as a Sound Unseen monthly. I try to look for films/subjects too that people will know as soon as you say their name, but part of the fun about programming is you discover some really terrific films that some people may never see again.”
The program also makes evident the predominance of music documentaries over narrative features. Last year, Sound Unseen opened with Alex Cox’s dramatic masterpiece Sid and Nancy, but what the current line-up – and more well-known music films generally as of late (Searching for Sugar Man, Jonathan Demme’s newest Neil Young doc Journeys, the LCD Soundsystem concert film Shut Up and Play the Hits, Scorsese’s Living in the Material World about George Harrison, Werner Herzog’s Killers concert) – makes me think of is how the music documentary is so alive in comparison to the biopic or conventional narrative feature. Acclaimed director Demme, an icon for his use of music in films both narrative (Something Wild, Philadelphia) and documentary (Stop Making Sense, Storefront Hitchcock), just sees the documentary as being an easier approach logistically. It’s also hard to think that the year’s breakout hit documentary Sugar Man would work nearly as well if it was a narrative feature. Elsewhere, Scorsese’s highly personal sculpting of given material regarding Bob Dylan (No Direction Home) and George Harrison makes me pray that he foregoes doing Sinatra as a big budget dramatic feature, and instead makes it an epic documentary. The documentary form’s assembly of fragments works in an oblique way to arguably make a richer film, requiring more inventiveness for the filmmaker to create and fashion a theme, and being a more fascinating process of interpretation and discovery for the viewer.
Brunzell explains the practicalities of music documentary filmmaking over dramatic features. “Well, right away, there are more music documentaries being produced than narrative music films being made nowadays. So with that said, I probably watched 35 to 40 documentaries, and probably only about five or six narrative films to make up the program this year. I think it’s probably easier for a director and producer to approach an artist/group about being the subject of a film, instead of trying to create a narrative film, which would include more people and actors involved in the project, and probably costs a lot more to make.” Of course, assuming you’re not Jonathan Demme or Martin Scorsese, obstacles remain. He adds, “But with documentaries you have to have clearance on music rights, and that can be a struggle for filmmakers and producers to come up with the funds to cover those costs. You see a lot of people going on Kickstarter or Indiegogo to raise funds to complete the films.”
The two narrative features of this year’s festival sound both odd and delightful. The Crumbles is about clashing personalities in a female garage band, dramatizing – with a sense of humor – the struggle to concretize big rock star dreams. The History of Future Folk, meanwhile, sounds like a cult classic in the making, as a General from the planet Hondo has second thoughts about destroying the human race after falling in love with our music. “I’m a big fan of the narrative film,” says Brunzell, gushing about The History of Future Folk, which he describes as “hilarious and is a small film, but it deserves an audience and I think it could be a film a few years down the road that could have a decent, if ‘cult’ following.” That kind of forecast (about a film where music works to save humanity, no less) ties into the outreaching agenda of Sound Unseen. “[You] get the chance to bring some more unknown or not big name films and put them in a festival, along with something like Journey or Bad Brains, and I think they are all great films.”
Last week I was attempting to touch this whole “Death of Film Culture” thing, being that the general public seems so less vested in going to movies, as compared to television. Meeting girls, it’s treacherous to take the “Talk Film” route, but musical knowledge and tastes somehow gets you going somewhere.
But I owe my musical taste to the movies. I frequent Jake Rudh’s Transmission dance floor, but it was the Trainspotting soundtrack that introduced me to New Order, Iggy Pop, David Bowie (discounting Labyrinth, but please), Pulp, Blur, Lou Reed, and Primal Scream. Not radio. It was Jonathan Demme who brought me to Talking Heads and Neil Young. It was Michael Mann’s Heat that brought me to Brian Eno, William Orbit, the Kronos Quartet, Joy Division, Moby, James, Michael Brook, Lisa Gerrard, and thus the 4AD label in general (reinforced by hearing This Mortal Coil in David Lynch’s Lost Highway the following year). And then, from each individual artist, one branches outwards and touches new sounds, new bands, new images. If I wasn’t already a Nine Inch Nails fan (something that really happened the moment I saw Trent Reznor on the cover of Rolling Stone with David Lynch, regarding the Lost Highway soundtrack), just hearing the dark ambient textures of Reznor and Atticus Ross’ work for David Fincher’s The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (the score being only one of the many things that makes the Fincher studio remake superior to the just-fine Swedish original) would have led me to The Downward Spiral. And that in turn to other albums produced by Flood and Alan Moulder, or David Bowie’s Low, which itself branches off into a myriad of influences and possibilities for listening.
Brunzell’s love for a particular film might not necessarily affect his musical tastes. “I go into each ‘music’ film thinking I’m going to like it or learn something about an artist or group that I had no prior knowledge about. I’m not a country music fan, but I was really impressed with last year’s doc Wish Me Away, on country music star Chely Wright, who came out as a lesbian but was horrified about what her fans would think and how it would effect her as a country musician. It was thoughtful and moving doc, but I didn’t go out to buy Wright’s records as I’m not a fan of country music, but as a film I thought it was really solid.”
Even so, like my own experiences, the movies have opened up his ears to new treasures. “[I'm] open to discovering new artists and groups through films, but I also listen to soundtracks closely when watching a film and have discovered some really great music based on what was on the soundtrack or a subject on screen talking about his/her favorite singer/band or groups that might have influenced them. I’m also interested in knowing how certain artists/groups define their sound and whom they were inspired by.” He gives a specific example of a particular film classic that affected him deeply through its soundtrack. “One of my favorite films of all-time is Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude, which isn’t a music film, but features an amazing soundtrack by Cat Stevens, and that film is the reason I’m a big Cat Stevens fan to this day. Ashby also went on to direct, Bound for Glory [the 1976 Woody Guthrie biopic], which I absolutely love too.”
Brunzell’s favorite music-related pictures in recent years? “I’ve loved so many, but just to name a few worth seeking out, Ondi Timoner’s Dig, Sasha Gervasi’s Anvil! The Story of Anvil, and Mark Landsman’s funk/jazz documentary Thunder Soul was a really surprising and inspirational documentary that nobody saw in theaters but it made my top ten last year.”
The vaguest of adolescent memories include the supernatural Calypso lip-syncing in Beetlejuice, the “Twist & Shout” euphoria of Ferris Bueller, or Robbie Rob’s “most excellent” kitsch-ballad “In Time” as Bill and Ted partake in their ritualistic air-guitar strum in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Years later, my favorite movie moments play like my favorite music moments, hand-in-hand. If there’s silence, like with Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, I go over Dreyer’s helmet (he would not approve, I fear) and play some Arcade Fire while watching. Watching a band I love, I don’t know if it’s my seeing or hearing faculty that’s in charge. And maybe that has to do with where I came from, namely the womb of MTV.
The syntax of music videos has infected the bulk of mainstream filmmaking, with fast cutting and sensory overdrive, the whoosh of movement at the expense of weight and balance. Action scenes in big releases play like music videos, often cynically commissioning and employing a top hit to sell a few extra copies of the soundtrack, delivering some pop oomph even if the song in question has nothing in its content related to the film. There’s a disparity between the sound and vision, both moving so fast and with such air that any visceral abrasion either sense may generate is dulled. There’s detachment from the content’s solidity or earthiness, or the wind in the melodies. Meanwhile, filmed live shows – and movie musicals (see Rob Marshall’s Nine) – have those god-damned tracking shots around the spot-lit stage, and then cuts to the cheering audience, as if we needed to be reminded of the euphoria contaminating the crowd.
But good films and filmmakers can restore weight and resonance to the music. In comparison to the standard, fast-moving music video born in the 1980s, look at Jonathan Demme’s take on New Order’s “The Perfect Kiss” (often played above the dance-floor at Transmission). Demme begins with keyboardist Gillian Gilbert’s face in close-up, walking into focus. She switches on the programming. Demme then cuts to the band’s other members, again all in close-up, all readying their instruments. The disposability of “synth dance” is eradicated, as Demme shows an electronic rock band in unity, yet each member intensely concentrating as sole individuals inhabiting their own private spaces. For instance, the director never cuts away from Bernard Sumner’s face as he sings the whole first verse and chorus. The video is the anti-Flock of Seagulls or Duran Duran, a dance song visualized with no fast cuts, roving cameras, or flashing lights. The approach takes us out of the glossy fashion myth of pop and instead offers the fascinating and secret world of living performers who become, for lack of a better word, real. It’s what Demme did for a full-length concert with Talking Heads and Stop Making Sense, where the stage is an intimate set undergoing gradual change, the audience space mainly a void. The alchemy is in the relationship between the Heads and the restraint of the camera, and even with that restraint, or maybe because of it – as with the New Order video – it’s hard to watch it and not want to ecstatically dance like crazy, becoming David Byrne.
I focus on Demme in this Sound Unseen piece, because he’s a journeyman filmmaker who consistently, through both dramatic feature and documentary, seamlessly links the strange interplay of looking and listening. Maybe there’s nothing as perversely demonstrative as the private narcissism of Buffalo Bill’s “tuck” dance with Q Lazarus’ “Goodbye, Horses” in The Silence of the Lambs, but I want to look at Demme’s topical, and so possibly neglected as trivial Oscar-bait, 1993 AIDS drama Philadelphia. The picture’s tropes and pathos are fairly explicit, but the edges surrounding the contours of the story, particularly Demme’s visual approach with cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, and the use of pop music, gives an otherwise conventional drama some edges, the visuals and sounds intermingling to reinforce the confrontational urgency of the story’s civic activism.
We might take Bruce Springsteen’s award-winning single which opens the film, “The Streets of Philadelphia,” or Neil Young’s “Philadelphia,” which closes it, as standard commissioned tracks by iconic songwriters working on autopilot for a hefty fee. But if the Boss’ song is disposable on its own, played alongside the picture’s opening sequence of fragmented moving images around the City of Brotherly Love – disparate lives and pictures longing for connection and communication, prosperity subterfuged by squalor – where people are interacting and conscious of the camera. Demme removes the song from the courtroom “plot” of the film, much like the opening is removed. The commentary’s directness is somewhat peripheral (like what’s scrawled on a closing elevator door, removed from the protagonists’ eyes: “No Justice, No Peace”). The film wants us to look and hear, bridging gaps caused by ignorance. Demme’s signature use of close-ups, cross-cutting between faces looking directly at the camera, doesn’t only work in provoking an audience to confront the reality a “liberal message movie” seeks to expose. It draws us into the nature of the senses leading to a private individual’s passions, his soul, such as the love Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) has for music, his experience of Maria Callas being transformative: a lonely sick man becomes a god in its rapture. The wide expanse of the whole polis of Philadelphia, covered by the Springsteen montage, is bookended by the home movies of young Andrew at the end. For Jonathan Demme, the “big sound” in Talking Heads, New Order, or the crowded streets and slums of Philadelphia, is connected – and amplified – by the intimacy placed on the solitary individual: be it David Byrne, Bernard Sumner, or Tom Hanks. We see better, we hear better. And applied to Demme’s politics, seeing and hearing better makes us better citizens. Music and Film are civic tools.
Brunzell lays out his philosophy of sight and music. “I think music has always been important factor in films and vice versa, and that has been going on ever since the silent era. It just so happens that in recent years, that the music documentary has really picked up and there are more then ever and more then I can keep track of. There was a time though where there were not that many music documentaries and the first big [one], in my opinion, probably goes back to the 1969 Rolling Stones doc by the legendary directors’ Albert and David Maysles, Gimme Shelter [a film about the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, where the hired Hell’s Angels security had tragic consequences], which I think really opened a lot of eyes, just how powerful a documentary can showcase a band but also inform many on tragic events that took place at Altamont. And since Gimme Shelter, there have been so many fascinating and informative docs and narratives from older films like The Last Waltz, The Decline of Western Civilization, and also something like Robert Altman’s political drama Nashville, [which] were all really important films that have a music angle.”
Sound Unseen is one of the Twin Cities’ most essential elements in preserving the energy and power of the exhibitive local cinema experience. It effectively brings people out to dream, watch, and listen together in the dark, fusing an audience with a screen and a band on stage, in addition to the ultimate fusion of sight and sound. This week will be ripe for rocking and reeling, so let’s all grab a drink, watch some films, dance to some bands, grab more drinks, dance at some films, watch some bands, grab more drinks, eat breakfast, pass out at a stranger’s house…wake up, and rock some more.
Sound Unseen kicks off tonight with screenings of An Affair of the Heart: Rick Springfield (sold out) and Bad Brains: A Band in DC and an afterparty at Harriet Brewing with live music from Apollo Cobra and DJ Shannon Blowtorch. It continues with Thursday’s screenings of XXX All Ages XXX and The Source and afterparty with LaLiberte and DJs Lady Heat; Friday’s Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey and Spyder John Koerner and the Logging Camp Ranch and afterparty with Gallupstar and DJ Don Cuco; Saturday’s Why Marmarth (Willie Murphy) and Beware of Mr. Baker, Cartoon College, The Crumbles and The History of Future Folk and afterparty with Bomba de Luz, Strange Names and DJ Don Cuco, plus CD release from Mark Mallman at the Ritz Theater; and Sunday’s Radio Unnameable and Charlies Bradley: Soul of America. All afterparties are free and take place at 8 pm at Harriet Brewing’s Tap Room, 3036 Minnehaha Avenue, Minneapolis. Click HERE for the Sound Unseen site.