You’d normally be hard-pressed to find a link between color guards – those tween-to-teen troupes who do military-style dance routines involving waving flags and spinning rifles – hipster rock/EDM bands and micro-indie regional documentarians; a microscope used to be required to view the Venn diagram overlap. Enter David Byrne, an artist who’s never found a bunch of disparate elements he couldn’t turn into a creative goulash, and who became a fan of the Middle-America past time after a group asked to use his music for a routine. The former Talking Head decided to check out a regional competition and then fell down the rabbit hole. The next step, he thought, was to pair musicians (St. Vincent, tUnE-yArDs, Ad Rock of the Beastie Boys) with a handful of these youngsters and have them work together. If he could eventually gather everyone together for a few marathon concerts in Toronto and Brooklyn, all the better.
If you happened to catch these all-star gigs, you can attest to the oddball genius behind it all – how the live mash-up of movement and bands complemented each other in unexpectedly moving ways. Thankfully, in another fit of manic inspiration, Byrne also invited the New Orleans-based filmmakers Bill and Turner Ross to capture the events for posterity. And like his original you-got-your-Americana-peanut-butter-in-my-avant-musical-chocolate concept, the decision to enlist these two particular directors proved to be a paydirt-hitter.
At its core, Contemporary Color is essentially a recording of one of the 2015 Barclays Center shows, complete with testimonials and a tuxedo-clad announcer’s let’s-get-ready-to-rrrrrumble running commentary. But it’s also a dance film, a performance piece, a concert flick – and most of all, it’s a movie that takes full advantage of the medium. This may be one of the few rockumentaries since Stop Making Sense to tap the cinematic potential of sound and vision in a way that feels genuinely collaborative and borderline transcendental.
So yes, you’ll get to see those aforementioned famous folks, along with Zola Jesus and Nelly Furtado and Ira Glass (?!?) and Byrne himself, croon and yelp and warble while kids from the U.S. midwest and their Canadian counterparts do elaborate, kinetic routines in front of the stage. It’s the way that the Ross brothers film these pieces, however, that give the shebang a whole other dimension, as they frame the dervish-like color guards weaving and whirling past each other with an eye for emphasizing the push-pull of teamwork. It’s so mesmerizing that you wish the film let some of the performances play out in full, rather than cutting between the show and the backstage antics, or focusing on dancers/musicians waiting in the wings while their peers make magic on the boards. (Still, gotta love those Altman School of Crowd Zooms the brothers trot out.) When they do hold on a bit, like St. Vincent swaying through her piece while Westchester, Pennsylvania’s “Field of View” parade below her, you get a sense of how powerful these pairings were. Shots of the otherwordly singer proclaiming “Come, all you children/come out and play” are overlaid with with tossed props, twirled colored flags and writhing bodies. It’s a woozy alt-pop narcotic.
Specializing in lyrical portraits of jus’ folks and outsiders – see the Big Easy-centric Tchoupitoulas (2012) and the regrettably timely border-culture snapshot Western (2015) – the Ross siblings understand how to film ordinary people without turning them into a povertysploitation fetish, and how to defuse the potential for kitsch-viewing. There’s a tendency for a certain type of filmgoer to sneer at the whole idea of color guards or treat it as an mega-ironic goof. Byrne set out to show the artistic bona fides behind such heartland pageantry, and the filmmakers up the ante by making kids who “aren’t exactly prom kings and queens” seem leagues cooler than the Williamsburg-approved artists scoring their interpretive boogies. Even without the movie’s lingering shot of the White House lit up in rainbow colors on TV, you sense how the movie positions the event as an outsider reclamation for the participants of this subculture. Back home, these kids might be considered betas by small-town jocks and snooty froshes. Contemporary Color turns them into next-gen Bowies. Even the rock stars bow down.