Posted by: kaleidophonic | June 20, 2010

Some thoughts on recent music documentaries

It’s not too often that I see a music documentary that I actually enjoy. I find that too often they cater to the lowest common denominator – a few hits, a few ‘candid’ interviews, and a few of the ‘secrets’ that any fan of the bands already knows. Rarely to they actually offer any electrifying performances or truly intimate portraits of the artists. Take, for example, It Might Get Loud, which is actually an extremely mediocre film, despite a promising premise: three of the 20th century’s greatest guitarists get together for a jam session.

The opening scene of the film is the best part, as we watch Jack White construct a primitive but working guitar out of an old wooden board, some nails, a wire, and a coke bottle. Yes, White is the king of low-fi rock’n’roll, and in this film he far outshines his elders – U2’s The Edge and the legendary Jimmy Page. White is the best thing about this movie, as The Edge comes off as pathetically dependent on a huge array of effects pedals and technical gagetry, and Page just seems… well… old. He fumbles his way through a few classic Zeppelin tunes but seems to lack the spark that ignited his notoriously incendiary playing in the ’60s & ’70s. Although the trip through his early years as a session man are interesting, these are details any true Page fan already knows. The same goes for the sappy trip The Edge takes back to his elementary school, and the anecdote about his composition of “Sunday Bloody Sunday”.

The most disappointing feature of this film is that the promised jam session never appears! Who knows what kind of sonic alchemy these three talents could have created together, if given some time to play rather than wasting time recounting boring details of their former lives. Alas, the audience has to be satisfied with a decidedly lukewarm rendition of The Band’s “The Weight”, which the trio sleepwalks their way through during the closing credits. Unless you’re suffering from a die-hard obsession with any one of these guys, don’t even bother renting this one.

Watch the trailer here – where you can see White’s primitive musical construction along with undelivered promises of jam sessions and fist-fights.

Speaking of sleepwalking, however, I recently saw Dengue Fever: Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, and was absolutely delighted. This film is what a music documentary should be all about.

The film follows the LA band Dengue Fever as they visit Cambodia – but this is not your average “live tour” film. Dengue Fever was initially formed by two brothers with a taste for 1960s Cambodian rock’n’roll – that is, the strange brand of rock music that Cambodians wrote and recorded in the 1960s, and which was heavily influenced by psychedelic and surf music from America. The story of musical groups mimicking and re-creating the sounds carried around the world through American cultural imperialism is nothing new (see, for example, Episodes 5 & 6). But Dengue Fever has taken this process one step further: they have taken the Cambodian rock and mimicked and re-invented it in their own style – going so far as to hire a Cambodian front-woman who sings in Khmer. They play covers of classic Cambodian tracks, as well as some of their own compositions, which stay true to the psychedelic organ and fuzzed-out guitar sound of the originals. The result is globalization coming full circle – and it sounds great.

The film follows Dengue Fever during their first foray outside of the United States – to Cambodia. How will Cambodian audiences react to a bunch of American guys playing their music? This question becomes especially fraught given that music has a deep cultural resonance in a country that nearly witnessed the annihilation of its musical heritage during the horrific decades of Pol Pot’s regime. One especially poignant moment comes as we listen to a school teacher’s memories of her harsh life under the Khmer Rouge, separated from her parents and too hungry to even think about music or dancing. Meanwhile, while the camera lingers on one of her students, a young girl, who sings the refrain of a song called “The Orphan” :  “Mother, Mother, where are you? Help me…”. The sweet innocence of the girl is juxtaposed with the older woman’s somber recollections, creating a deeper resonance of meaning.

The film does a nice job of presenting this self-reflexivity, as the band members question the complications involved in their presence and performance in this foreign territory. We watch as Dengue Fever performs for a wide variety of audiences: a small city club, an appearance on a national television show, a jam session with some Cambodian musical traditionalists, a particularly rewarding scene where they play with a group of school children, and finally an outdoor performance in a “shanty town”. At each of these moments we are spared the usual musical documentary formula of fawning audience and preening performers. Instead, the complexities of Dengue Fever’s process are written in the band’s honest but uncertain efforts to communicate with their audience, who reflect back this uncertainty in myriad expressions of bewilderment, consternation, joy and sorrow. This is a richly rewarding film, and a must-see for anyone interested in the global processes of music-making. Oh yeah, and the soundtrack rocks too!


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