With an arid grace as yet unrivaled, we bear witness to Bill Callahan. Billions and billions and it only takes one. With the patience of a mountain and all the awkward comforts of a clingy sort of weary wonder with the world around it, the man’s voice assails. So it is visually, with that smart dress sense, micro-Byrne dance moves and that drawn, elegantly lined visage. Throw in a casual and good humored stage manner and a tour doc is rendered a promising venture. At worst it could be a fan-only affair, which its one-hour runtime and practical title could lead one to presume.
As it turns out, director Hanly Banks did make a fan-only tour doc, and a very hyper-stylized, music video-esque one at that. And there are sections with its subject in reflection mode that, while somewhat provocative, often come off like fawning promotional material. Don’t Look Back this is not (though one could argue that the Pennebaker/Maysles fly-on-the-wall approach is nearly impossible to manage now). That being said, the film’s introductory passages manage to echo some of Dylan’s press alienation in a playful bit in which Callahan flatly paraphrases snippets of a New York Times article. This then cuts to a slow-mo portrait of the singer toweling himself off on a beach in front of a passing train. After the title card appears we’re then ushered into a smoldering rendition of “Drover.” These three scenes in sequence cinematically ring out almost as strongly as Don’t Look Back, but they are not quite topped or matched by much of what follows. What makes Pennebaker’s film a considerably better portrait than Scorcese’s No Direction Home is its immediacy and communion with the essence of what makes music, those that perform it and their audience so vital. One film is starkly present while the other is rife with talking-head hindsight framing. At it’s best, Apocalypse is also decidedly present. But the segments in which Callahan plaintively muses on himself only threaten to diminish the power of the surrounding performances.
Using a technique also implemented in John Hilcoat’s recent Johnny Cash video, there is that familiar drive-by filming of America’s denizens footage paired with “Riding For The Feeling.” In a way it’s a reminder that random people (as in the Maysles/Pennebaker films) are fun to gawk at, but it also comes dangerously close to hokey exploitation. Though perhaps, as a lot of Callahan’s self-aware/yearning for earnestness lyrics show, this sort of devil-may-care schmaltz is intentional. Take the video for Smog’s “I Feel Like The Mother of The World.” It never blinks in its almost drab conciseness, but it still comes off tense and vital. Likely it’s simply the distinctness in Callahan’s voice matched with that of Chloe Sevigny’s wordless, no-nonsense portrayal of a one-eyed housekeeper. All through his stoically timid daliances with the mundane, there is a vitality in the distinctness of Callahan’s features, be they eerily vacant or pained and straining. These are careful songs, loose and creaking — but one can easily mark his (and his bandmates’) estimably honed poise and conviction. In the end, Apocalypse is a carefree enough affair that it can be forgiven for it’s occasional slightness. And it finishes strong, post-end credits, with some footage of Callahan playing “Free’s” to some gawkable goats as the sun sets.
More than a visual souvenir for those lucky souls who got to see him in 2011, Apocalypse is a solid companion piece to an album that still sounds as vital and mysterious as when we first encountered it. It’s also something that, despite its slightly lofty airs, shows Callahan to be a man who’s humble about his place in the world and grateful that it’s there. And being that he’s as photogenic as he is listenable, its easy to see how his presence could elevate future films, even (perhaps especially) if they weren’t about him or even the music biz in general. Callahan wafts. He’s something vaguely stirring in the breeze — a vaporous essence — and even in postcard form is a perfect artist to see as you listen.