Every American city has its thriving music scene, whether that's salacious bounce in New Orleans, spiritual rap in Brooklyn or Portland's dreamy psych-rock. At Los Angeles' Soho House on Thursday, previews of three short films attempted to capture musicians on the make in each city. The new film series, created by Nokia Music and the Sundance Channel, will air in January with Gary Clark Jr.'s "Bright Lights" as its signature song.
The Texas guitarist, whose genre-hopping debut Blak and Blu has impressed critics as well as high-profile fans Alicia Keys and President Obama, sees his song about resisting the big city's empty thrills as a natural fit for the project.
"The story of my song runs parallel to the underground music scene in any city," he said. "It's about staying true to yourself while still showing love to people."
In a Q&A session after the sneak peeks, the young directors culled from the fashion and music video worlds offered up tales and observations from each of their locales.
"New York is a city of samples," director Emily Kai Bock said. Tracking rising talent such as the Underachievers and T'Nah Apex, a teenage rapper inspired by Lauryn Hill, Bock cited the city's constant commotion as not only a soundtrack for her film but inspiration for one of the bedrock techniques in rap.
All of her subjects have loftier concerns than getting rich. In the film, one of the Underachievers accuses mainstream rap of "keeping capitalism going."
"These are amazingly self-aware people," she said. "They want social change."
In a separate interview, Bock said she shot her film on the eve of Hurricane Sandy – and ended up trapped in the city for more than a week. A resident of Montreal, she also couldn't retrieve her film, which was locked away in a production house without power.
"I was sleeping on my producer's couch," she said, "because the budget only allowed a hotel for a few days. My train home got canceled twice."
Eventually she got her footage back and had to quickly edit three hours down to eight minutes – all while jetting off to London for the U.K. Music Video Awards. "Oblivion," her testosterone-soaked video for her old friend Claire Boucher (a.k.a. Grimes), snagged a nomination, but not a win.
In New Orleans, Abteen Bagheri immersed himself in the bounce scene with the help of ass-shaking ambassador Big Freedia. Bagheri waved aside the idea that the music is simplistic. "These are good rappers with crazy lyrical dexterity," he said during his introduction to a clip of the Diplo-approved rapper Nicky Da B. maniacally freestyling in a barbershop.
If a "hustler's attitude" might prevail in New Orleans, Portland could not be more different. "They're happy just making music for their friends," Bagheri said. Cue lots of slo-mo shots of overcast skies and vintage-clad rockers on mopeds.
The film series will eventually include segments on Los Angeles' electronica scene and the ties between strip clubs and Southern rap in Atlanta. All of the adventures are designed to highlight musical discoveries waiting in every American city.
"Music is the biggest passion for people," Nokia Entertainment vice president Jyrki Rosenberg said before the screening. "We'll travel all over the U.S. to learn about everyone's taste in music."