At first glance, Burning is nothing more nor less than a bundled live performance DVD, a little something extra to add value to an already pretty sweet live album by Mogwai, Special Moves. Thankfully, this roughly 45-minute concert vid transcends the confines of its essentially commercial function, turning out to be a rather interesting and refreshing work of art in its own right.
In April of 2009, Paris-based filmmakers Vincent Moon and Nat Le Scouarnec, probably best-known to people who are down with Mogwai for the work they’ve done with La Blogothèque, traveled to Brooklyn to film Mogwai during their three-night engagement at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. Within Burning’s first 10 minutes, it becomes apparent just how good Moon and Scouarnec have gotten at capturing the most intimate moments of live musical performances. The way the two directors chose to shoot the band reveals quite a bit about their own artistic sensibilities, and in the process allows for a thoroughly interesting experience of Mogwai’s live show. Contrasted with a nearly endless stream of stale, almost static concert videos that provide nothing you wouldn’t have enjoyed more if you’d been there to see the show in the first place, Burning serves as a reminder that there really is an art to making a good film out of a live performance.
People familiar with Mogwai’s work have no doubt concluded at one point or another that a lot of their music is totally epic and would make for a killer soundtrack to just about any movie whose subject matter was intense enough to justify the adventurous dynamic shifts that have become the band’s trademark. With this in mind, it’s no coincidence that Moon and Scouarnec included the live tracks that they did, running the gamut from “Mogwai Fear Satan” to “Hunted by a Freak.” The selected performances showcase the band’s range to be sure, but simultaneously afford the directors opportunities to capture, to the best of their abilities, all of the visceral emotions that made Mogwai such post-rock darlings back in the day. The band’s signature washes of heavily delayed guitar noise lend themselves brilliantly to the sweeping camerawork and smartly done rapid-fire editing that naturally syncopates with the music where appropriate. Messrs. Moon and Souarnec use black-and-white film to their full advantage, employing the beautiful, deeply contrasted medium to work with shadows and light just as much as they work with the actual musicians onstage.
Of course, it helps that Mogwai are at the top of their game for the film, reinterpreting some of their old standby anthems in such a way as to render them entirely new and invigorating. Regardless of whether you like admittedly repetitive post-rock music, of whether you share any sense of nostalgia for Mogwai, of whether you’re into Brakhage and Deren, there is still something worthwhile in this short feature. If nothing else, the gorgeous look and feel of Burning and its knack for complementing and enhancing the music it documents sets it apart in a genre of filmmaking that has been glutted with rote, boring, or worse yet, completely pretentious failures.