Tag Archives: Concert film

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: A SPELL TO WARD OFF THE DARKNESS (2013)

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DIRECTED BY: Ben Rivers, Ben Russell

FEATURING: Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, Nicholas McMaster, Weasel Walter

PLOT: A commune member goes off on his own for a more solitarty existence but eventually heads to the city, where he plays in a black metal rock band.

Still from A Spell to Ward off the Darkness (2013)

COMMENTS: Michael Winterbottom’s 2004 romantic drama 9 Songs is ostensibly about the life of a relationship, in which we see the central couple enjoy each other’s company, argue, and have sex; in between, they go to concerts and see bands like Franz Ferdinand, the Von Bondies, and the Dandy Warhols. The back-and-forth nature of the production begs the question of whether the songs are there to justify the explicit sex scenes, or if the sex is an excuse to showcase all these up-and-coming bands. 

I thought of this as I followed the tripartite journey of the central figure in A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness. This man who goes from a commune to a lone encampment in the woods to a concert in a small nightclub never speaks, never offers any insight into his heart or mind. Even in performance, he and his fellow bandmates sing exclusively in wordless intonations. So what are we seeing? Is this concert the culmination of a journey? The logical endpoint for his travels from nature to urbanity? Or did the band come first, and the movie was reverse-engineered to get us here?

As winner of the award for Best Documentary Feature at the Torino Film Festival—aside from reminding us just how many film festivals there are out there—Spell brings up the question of just what a documentary is. Nothing in A Spell to Ward off the Darkness is fictional, strictly speaking, because nothing in it is functionally narrative. Arguably the most vérité section of the film is in the first third, when we hang out with a bunch of hippies at their wooded retreat as they build a small dome, frolic about in the sauna, laze by a river, and engage in idle chit-chat. It seems pleasantly rustic (they still have wi-fi and sound systems), and the residents are a little crunchy-granola, but not annoyingly so. Still, there’s a distinct lack of specifics. We don’t even know anyone’s name, let alone what led them to walk away from society or permitted them to find each other. It documents by capturing on film, but completely elides the facts or context that would give the images meaning.

But the remainder of the film doesn’t even possess the veneer of the found moment. When one of the campers (Lowe, whom we’ve only seen occasionally up to this point) decides to go off and live on his own, it feels enormously calculated, as we jump directly to the middle of his escape in a canoe. Nothing has precipitated the move, and not much will come of it as he hikes his way to a remote cabin where he can read, fish, and get dressed for the last portion of the film. Having put on makeup and set fire to the cabin, Lowe heads into town to join a concert in a tavern. Surely this was no surprise to the filmmakers. Certainly these are known events, staged and shot with forethought and intention. So the questions arise again: What are we seeing? Does the dog wag the tail, or vice-versa?

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness is a beautifully shot motion picture, and the slow and contemplative pacing is enticing, encouraging you to watch to see where it’s going to go. But it isn’t going anywhere, because it isn’t really storytelling. It feels more like a collection of the most professionally shot home movies ever assembled. Having seen the pretty pictures, the viewer leaves with no more than when they began, without even hot sex or a cool song to take as a souvenir. So I guess it’s weird. I’m not sure if it’s a movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This muddled curio doesn’t coalesce into anything, even by its own dreamy, associational terms.”–Tara Brady, The Irish Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Blizard. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: BIG TIME (1988)

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DIRECTED BY: Chris Blum

FEATURING: Tom Waits

PLOT: Tom Waits guides the viewer through a surreal concert experience.

Still from Big Time (1988)

COMMENTS: Geometric backdrops, sweat, a hook-light, and pocketsful of confetti litter the screen as a strange presence raspily sings through songs from a time out of time. Tom is a dust bowl mourner, a piano-side crooner, a cabaret djinni, and a gravel-hammer blues man. He swaps guises at the drop of a hat, instantaneously—because Tom waits for no man. A dreamy New Years Eve alternately thwacks in your ears through a pipe rig percussion solo, or floats gently like the bubbles popping up from an on-stage bathtub. All sunglasses, cigarettes, and watches, Waits in ’88 is an amalgam of decades, fashions, and sentiments, and must be seen to be believed.

Directed by Chris Blum (a man so niche he doesn’t have a Wikipedia page), Big Time kicks off with an alarm clock summoning Tom Waits to sleep. While Waits serenely tosses about on an onstage and rooftop bed, Waits greets us to the show, greasy-haired and hustling time-pieces, running up his arm and set to the trendy times of Paris, Tokyo, Ann Arbor, and Sudan. On stage with his band, Waits shucks to his own quirky performance of his undefinable songs. He charms the audience with stories and quips. “I feel like I can look right into those black little hearts of yours,” he suggests. Later he kicks off a tune with, “The question I get asked the most is, ‘Is it possible to get pregnant without intercourse?’ To answer that, we have to go allll the way back to the Civil War…” Waits operates his own spotlight, and even mans the ticket booth outside—occasionally receiving telephone calls from an unknown agent.

In case anyone here is unfamiliar with the phenomenon, Big Time is the ideal primer for Tom Waits. This “concert film” not only covers a broad range of his musical stylings, but also offers a window into the mind of a man who, by all rights, probably can’t exist. Imagine if the piano bar at the Black Lodge was infiltrated by a radiant imp, or a flare of genteel id rained down over Brecht’s favorite boozer. While many good films inspire you to sit and think, this one makes you want to leap up and create something—anything—so I urge you to watch Big Time, and then smash yourself into that creative project that’s been teasing the corners of your mind.

Right now.

Big Time has long been out-of-print on home video, but is currently available on scattered subscription services, including Paramount+ and Amazon Prime. For whatever reason, it’s still not available for purchase or rental anywhere else.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…elements of vaudeville, burlesque and soulful balladry are orchestrated by what is evidently, for all the downbeat, offbeat imagery, a fantastically energetic imagination.”–Time Out

(This movie was nominated for review by Jake H. McConnell, who argued “from performing on stage and telling odd stories to standing on a roof with an umbrella on fire this is a odd film.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: PARADOX (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Daryl Hannah

FEATURING: , Lukas Nelson, Micah Nelson, Corey McCormick, Anthony LoGerfo, Tato Melgar, Willie Nelson

PLOT: “Many moons ago, in the future…” a gang of cowboy-style fellows scratch out an existence on a remote farm; they’ve been exiled there by women-folk, who have proven better stewards of the earth. And there’s also Neil Young concert.

Still from Paradox (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This odd little film would conceivably make the cut (albeit waaay down the list) if it weren’t for the fact that, mid-way through, it becomes a Neil Young concert movie for about ten minutes. During the narrative bit, though, performer Neil Young and director Daryl Hannah (yes, that Daryl Hannah) have assembled a passable bit of amateurish art-house and strangely compelling “W.T.F.” meanderishness that’s not without its charm.

COMMENTS: What do you get when you combine a legendary country star, an environmental activist director kicking around, and down-time? Paradox is one possible answer. Neil Young, in his 21st acting role, narrates and stars in this 60 + 15-minute ((The “movie” itself is about an hour; unlike many people who might watch this, I could have done without the concert interlude lifted from Young’s 2016 tour.)) diversion, bringing along with him a couple of scions in Willie Nelson and other outlandishly talented musicians who, after all is said and done, make a decent fist of playing post-apocalyptic versions of themselves.

Daryl Hannah makes full use of every camera filter at her disposal and every little bit of editing trickery to render, visually, what might have once existed as a campfire tall-tale. Random shots of animals create an ambience that is both cute and natural, as well provide the occasional “What the…?” moment. (One shot with a very quizzical-looking deer seemingly watching over the action is particularly effective.) Our lads, of all ages, burn time talking, gambling, and digging up trash-treasure while waiting around for the “Gray Eagle”: a bus full of women who, in Paradox‘s loose narrative, are the Earth’s stewards. And Neil Young looks cryptic. Then he wanders the land toting a rifle. Then he plays his guitar. Then he looks like he might partake in a quick-draw with Willie Nelson. You get the picture.

Stripped of its concert footage center, Paradox would have made a nice little entry in one of 366’s appendices. But as this brief review has remarked, it’s nothing more than the sum of its circumstances: Neil Young and company with a few days to kill, Daryl Hannah with a movie camera and time to spare, and an impromptu feel derived from the director’s “one take” methodology. Lives will not be changed (though the occasional preachiness of Paradox suggests they wouldn’t mind if they were), but the world isn’t worse off for having this odd little digression into music, philosophy, allegory, and black hats.

Available exclusively on Netflix (at least for the time being).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Once upon a time, a film like ‘Paradox,’ a vaguely hallucinatory sci-fi/Western hybrid with legendary rocker Neil Young at its hazy center, would have found its natural home on the midnight movie circuit. Alas, the midnight movie scene is practically dead, and it is therefore instead debuting on Netflix, which will at least make it more convenient for its target audience of Young completists, people too stoned to make it out their front doors and those who felt that ‘Masked and Anonymous’ was far too lucid and commercial-minded for their tastes.” – Peter Sobczynski,  RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: METALLICA THROUGH THE NEVER (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett, Robert Trujillo

PLOT: A roadie goes on a mysterious errand during a Metallica concert.

Still from Metallica Through the Never (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a weird movie for fans of Metallica, not a Metallica movie for fans of weird movies.

COMMENTS: Obviously, aficionados of hard rock outfit Metallica’s shredding guitars, brutal pounding rhythms, and morbid macho posturing will be thrilled with this 90-minute testament to their precision musicianship and sweaty stage presence. Fans will be happy to hear that the 14-song set isn’t a plug for the latest album, but instead is of a classic greatest-hits survey of crowd favorites.

To me, on the other hand, every Metallica song sounds like a guy with anger-management issues yelling at his malfunctioning washing machine. Then again, I think popular music never recovered from the wrong turn it took at Bill Haley & the Comets.

Still, as a pure adrenaline/testosterone concert concoction, Through the Never is near the top of the heap. The elaborate stage production features walls of video monitors (and even a video floor that sometimes “fills” with blood), green lasers shooting skyward, the assembly and demolition of a colossus, and a sequence where the electrical wiring goes haywire and speakers come crashing down onto the stadium floor, all captured with some impressive crane shots. Even with the receding hairlines, the performance is of sufficient energy to avoid Spinal Tap syndrome.

All of this will, obviously, play to fans looking for the virtual concert experience. Through the Never‘s extra ambition comes in its feature-length music video style narrative about a roadie named Trip who’s sent to recover a mysterious parcel while the band plays. His mission takes him through a surreal Vancouver nightscape ruled by rioters and a horseman in a gas mask. Director Nimród Antal indulges his visual imagination with weird moments like a bleeding guitar and a walking voodoo doll. These music video styled semi-narrative excursions effectively break up what otherwise might have become a tedious visual exercise in determining how many ways you can shoot a guitar so it reminds you of a phallus. And, although the symbolism will be obscure to outsiders, there is a touching point to Trip’s quest that Metallica diehards will surely pick up on. Non-essential for non-fans, but not nearly as bad as it could have been, and infinitely better than the last movie we reviewed in these pages sponsored by a band.

I find echoes of the fascist concert sequences from Pink Floyd The Wall in the call-and-response exercises with the adoring audience who chant angry lyrics about death like holy texts. That’s not unique to Metallica, of course: this Dionysian abandonment, the adolescent’s desire to dissolve his individuality into the headbanging collective, is the thing I’ve always hated most about rock concerts.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Who says a movie has to make a lick of sense to be entertaining?… If half an hour of bizarro side-narrative fever dream is the price of admission for a gorgeously lensed, best-seat-in-the-house hour of chugging rock brutality, I’ll pay gladly.”–Colin Covert, Minnesota Star-Tribune (contemporaneous)