On the 2004 Special Edition DVD of Purple Rain, director Albert Magnoli discusses the shooting process of the director of photography Donald E. Thorin (who passed away mere days after Prince, rest in peace). Magnoli recounts his experiences on the film, and among the most interesting tidbits is that Thorin basically suggested that the best and easiest way to capture a concert, on film, would be to have four or five fixed cameras, steadily focused on the action onstage. Keep it simple, but covered, and let the musicians perform. Not a bad idea. Granted, there are a ton of great ways to dramatize, photograph, and stage a performance for film. Jonathan Demme mastered a new kind of performance narrative for the Talking Heads in Stop Making Sense. Michel Gondry’s Block Party is rambunctiously in love with its Bed-Stuy atmosphere. But sometimes music and performance can accidentally get lost when trying to appear “filmic.”
Take Contemporary Color, for example, a new concert documentary from Bill and Turner Ross. It has three cinematographers and a 30+ person camera department, careening kaleidoscopically at the edges of every shot, wandering for images. Perhaps Contemporary Color could have benefited from the Thorin School of Concert Shooting™.
Okay, maybe that’s not entirely the Rosses’ fault; Contemporary Color features a series of performances in double-time, putting name artists at the forefront and small-town color guards in front of them on an arena floor. A passion project from the sing-talk god David Byrne, Contemporary Color is a concert film, but a finicky one, unstable and unfocused. Mixing performance art with star-gazing modern pop music sounds like a grand old time, and often the music and motion is impressive. But Contemporary Color doesn’t blend its materials very well. Rather, it amasses and liquefies them. This is a well-intentioned feature that loses its way due to its directionless form, and winds up feeling more like a form experiment than a shared experience.
In a nutshell, the film captures 10 artists with 10 high school color guards randomly selected by master of ceremonies Byrne, colliding onstage at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. Zola Jesus, tUnE-yArDs, Nelly Furtado, Blood Orange, and other random acts under the umbrella of what we’ll generalize as “indie” music are paired up with drill performers. As a quick primer on color guards, in case you don’t watch halftime shows, they are the people on the field during big sporting events, marching and dancing in patterns with twirling flags. The kids are from all over the place, from Jersey, Canada, and so on.
The idea seems to be vaunting an under-appreciated and under-recognized practice, the color guard, through the goodwill of big stars. Charitable. Smart. Nice. And yet the form is treated like an esoteric hobby, or something for display. Sequences intended as duets are accidentally laid out like battles, and the artists seem to win. The ingredients are here for a unique concert-going experience. When the guards take the stage, it’s a frequently vivid act of uniformity, and the kids deserve the spotlight. Yet while Contemporary Color may purport to be about these guards, the form and flow gives great weight to the musicians.
Cross-fades, crash zooms, soft focus, and an array of showy imagery turns the concert into an unconfident ramble scrambling for meaning. Perhaps they’re easier to mic in a concert basement with no one else around, but people like St. Vincent or Ad-Rock give hard-to-hear anecdotes about how amazing these kids are that offer little of substance. Perhaps it’s the fray of teens waiting in the wings for the next performance that makes the sequences hard to capture, but the guards seldom get to take center stage outside of the occasional tear-searching moment. The Rosses make stylistic choices which, while aesthetically pleasing, feel like slights to the younger performers or worse, musician-worship with guards as decorations.
Perhaps most frustrating is how the Rosses constantly splice images of the star singers atop of the color guards. As a visual choice, it’s interesting enough. As stills, these images could work as Unplugged-style album covers. But image is ideology, and while watching Zola Jesus dance along with her assigned guard may be intended as immersive, it instead reads as a lording-over. Same thing with every artist.
The music is all original, and well, its quality will likely be subject to the taste of the musicians’ fans. Zola Jesus and How To Dress Well employ marching-style drums that seem to fit the color guard regimentation. Byrne’s “I Was Changed” has the appropriate grandeur. Merrill Garbus warbles to a broken dance. Nelly Furtado coos. Devonte Hynes woos. Ad-Rock stands idly with his guitar during a space waltz. Some songs seem to fit the format better than others.
At one point, Byrne talks to the event’s announcer, almost sheepishly, and says, “It’s kinda working… It’s working!” That pause, that hesitation, is everything you need to know about Contemporary Color.