By Sean Titone
Leave it to Arcade Fire to make a wildly unconventional film that (sort of) documents the making of and touring behind their excellent 2013 album Reflektor. The merry pranksters from Canada, with four studio albums to their name, are a band that has pushed against convention since their inception, so anyone expecting a traditional concert film or music documentary that cuts to the core of the group will, unfortunately, be disappointed. Win Butler, lead singer of Arcade Fire, has said in previous interviews that he has no interest in making a conventional rock documentary or concert film; and so far we are left only with The Reflektor Tapes and 2009’s Miroir Noir to document the group on screen. (Miroir Noir is just as strange, although director Vincent Moon at least allowed the performances to breathe more in his film.)
Win Butler and bandmate Richard Reed Parry have described the film as director Kahlil Joseph’s visual remix of Reflektor. In The Reflektor Tapes, there are no sit-down, talking head interviews. Live concert performances, in both small clubs and spacious arenas, are often quick and choppy, so just when you start to get in the groove of a song or live performance, the film cuts jarringly away. Sound bites, mostly waxing philosophical in brief snippets that quote Kierkegaard or reference Elvis, float by in the ether. Jumps are made in the time/space continuum: backwards and forwards, and then backwards again.
We see the band travel to Jamaica to hang out and record songs that would appear on Reflektor, and they also spend time in Haiti where, among other things, the viewer gets a taste of Carnival. Yet, the band and first-time feature director Kahlil Joseph made a decision to shoot Carnival, an explosion of color and elaborate costumes, in monochromatic black and white, thus zapping the life out of the proceedings. Even so, Joseph, who is known for his visual flourish directing music videos for other artfully minded artists like Kendrick Lamar, FKA Twigs, and Flying Lotus, does bring a kinetic energy and a unique compositional perspective to the film, especially when we’re placed on stage alongside the band as they perform, replicating the feeling of what it might be like to be a member of Arcade Fire.
So, what exactly are Joseph and Arcade Fire going for here? The band is notoriously anti-fame and has frequently shied away from the spotlight. The film feels like a continuation of the wall they’ve put up around themselves, as the spotlight grows brighter, to avoid showing their audience the man behind the curtain and instead invoke an added layer of mystery. They took this credo to a new extreme on the Reflektor tour when they created giant papier-mâché bobbleheads for each member of the band and wore them during parts of their performances. They even created an alter ego, The Reflektors, that played several small club shows in advance of the much larger arena tour, all with the goal of furthering their deeply cultivated mythology and giving the band an opportunity to intermingle with fans before the show and feed off their energy without having to interact face to face.
If you’re a fan of the band like I am, you were probably excited about the prospect of a feature-length film that profiles them. But as I sat in the packed theater in lower Manhattan with presumably like-minded fans, I found myself getting progressively bored as the film wore on, hoping for something to cling to emotionally or some kind of fly-on-the-wall scenario that would shine a light on their work ethic and creative inspiration, but it never came to fruition for me. The closest we get to anything like that is a scene where singer and multi-instrumentalist Regine Chassagne is in a studio working with two percussionists and tries to help them lock into a groove that she hears in her head. After a few attempts of Regine singing the beat and even playing it for them herself, you can see the joy sweep across her face and move her to dance when they are finally able to translate the rhythms that have probably been floating somewhere in her subconscious since she was a child growing up in Haiti.
I’m all for pushing boundaries and testing new waters in a medium that may seem stale or stagnant such as the concert film. And Arcade Fire has proven to be kings of this kind of reinvention in their corner of the musical world with each new album. But, for me, something just didn’t gel here. There are examples of innovative, artistic bands that have been the focus of semi-unconventional documentaries, and they’ve been met with varied success. 1998’s Meeting People is Easy was a great snapshot of Radiohead, a band with the noblest of artistic pursuits, and it captured the beautiful music and oppressive gloom behind the promotion and grueling world tour for OK Computer. The Sam Jones-directed I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, a 2002 documentary about the Chicago art-rock band Wilco and the turmoil and redemption surrounding their breakthrough album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, was a moving portrait of a band at a crossroads in their career; and the entire film was shot in Super-16mm black-and-white, not exactly a mainstream choice.
Ultimately, The Reflektor Tapes is more of a cinematic tone poem, less a fully realized film. There are some visually striking moments, and the flashes of new songs that appear on a recently released deluxe reissue of Reflektor are a nice bonus for fans. But if I truly want to get engaged by Arcade Fire’s music, I think I’ll stick with going to one of their concerts or firing up one of their albums. The film is still rolling out with select screenings across the country and you can find out if it will come to your town here.
Star Rating: 2.5 out of 5