Holland, South Africa, Seattle: New Music Documentaries Go International

This year's Silverdocs film festival covered everything from politics to food, including an entire special section dedicated to music documentaries. Up to my ears in recent or forthcoming dramatized biopics (Darby Crash, Ian Curtis, Edith Piaf), I though that a little bit of non-fiction might just hit the spot. Spanning multiple continents and varied genres, the festival's crop of new music docs was eclectic, if not altogether satisfying.

Hip Hop Revolution

While promising in theory, Weaam Williams' doc about hip-hop in South Africa turned out to be a disappointing mish-mash of interviews and performance footage. The film seeks to document the trajectory of the genre in Capetown, from its origins in the city's Cape Flats slums during ‘80s apartheid through to the contemporary scene, making the point that hip-hop has become a truly global medium providing a mouthpiece for the world's poor and oppressed. Unfortunately, Hip Hop Revolution suffers from fuzzy chronology and a seemingly random, haphazard structure. There are no clear connections made between issues, so it is difficult to understand why important topics such as AIDS, gender, DJing, and graffiti are broached at one moment rather than another. Long performance montages suffer from flashy, amateur editing tricks like split screens and color distortion. Though Hip Hop Revolution introduces a number of compelling performers, from Prophets of da City (a.k.a.“the Public Enemy of South Africa”) to female crew Godessa and tragically murdered visionary Devious I, it lacks the cohesion and sense of purpose to be a truly effective film.

Building a Broken Mousetrap

Those who already know director Jem Cohen from his 1998 Fugazi concert film Instrument may already have an idea of what to expect from Building a Broken Mousetrap, which documents a New York concert by Dutch punks The Ex. Integrating both color DV and 16mm black and white film, the band's intense, eclectic performance is the film's focus. Cohen intersperses city scenes from New York and the band's hometown of Amsterdam with his concert footage, creating a collage that becomes increasingly politically charged as the film progresses. Images of police and protestors from the 2004 Republican National Convention and shots of people shopping in fluorescent-lit stores highlight the political and economic issues that the anarchist band takes to task in its music. One of the only people to speak in the film is a somewhat incoherent man on the street who rambles about the importance of budgeting money. Only during the documentary's final few moments, when it is revealed that the show took place on September 11, 2004, does the viewer realize the implications of the concert's timing. What distinguishes this film from other concert documentaries is its intimate contact with the band as it performs. The camera is in the center of the stage, close enough to pick up on frayed strings and feet pushing effects pedals, giving an experience that compliments rather than mimics the experience of being in the audience. Building a Broken Mousetrap is a unique and refreshing political documentaries that makes astute observations about consumerism and government oppression without ever resorting to dogma or sloganeering.

Kurt Cobain: About a Son

By far the worst film I saw at Silverdocs, Kurt Cobain: About a Son (dir. AJ Schnack) does a true disservice to its subject's legacy. The documentary pairs a montage of images from Aberdeen, Olympia, and Seattle, WA with audio excerpts from interviews that rock journalist Michael Azerrad, who co-produced the film, conducted with Cobain for his book, Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana. Schnack's schtick is reconstructing the interviews in chronological order and synching them up with (in sometimes confusingly vague and painfully literal ways) related Pacific Northwestern images. Azerrad's book is a classic, providing an insightful synthesis of Cobain and Nirvana's history and gaining rare, candid access to one of popular music's most enigmatic and misunderstood personalities. This film doesn't elaborate or improve upon Come as You Are, but merely discombobulates it and presents the quotes in Cobain's own voice. Of course, for someone of my generation, the effect of hearing that voice is hardly negligible. For that reason, while watching this film it is easy to let your eyes glaze over and be lulled into an accepting trance by Cobain's intelligent, sleepy voice. And while some of Cobain's quotes, including that “the most exciting time for bands is just before they become famous,” and that his “story is the same as about 90% of people [his] age,” are evidence of a well-examined life, they don't gain anything from being chopped up and assembled chronologically. In fact, the sort of bizarre juxtapositions that arise out of attaching an image to each sound byte is actually rather jarring. I could see what Schnack was trying to accomplish by coupling images with Cobain's words to produce the effect of traveling with him through his life, but the footage he came up with, which alternates between self-consciously artsy non-sequitur and exasperating overstatement of the obvious, only alienated me. What, for example, does a generic, sped-up shot of cars in traffic (yes, the same one you've seen over and over since the dawn of music videos) have to do with the musician's discussion of his crippling stomach problems? Why insult Cobain and his band mates by overlaying his words about fame with footage of a really bland band performing? Why end the film with shot after still shot of famous black and white photos that have been gracing Nirvana posters and t-shirts for years? Aside from its narrator's words, Kurt Cobain: About a Son has nothing to offer, and since those words have already been well-documented, I can see little reason for this film to exist.

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