- Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017
In 2015, former Talking Heads front man David Byrne staged an unconventional show in which he paired up 10 contemporary musicians and performers with color guard teams - those baton and saber twirling staples of small town parades and high school football games. The musicians, including the likes of St. Vincent, Lucius, Ad-Rock, Zola Jesus and Nelly Furtado, composed original songs that the color guard teams then used to choreograph a corresponding routine. The unique spectacle, which took place at Brooklyn's Barclays Center, is chronicled with experimental verve in the documentary "Contemporary Color ," from filmmaking brothers Bill and Turner Ross.
Narrative is of little consequence in "Contemporary Color." The Ross brothers show some interest in the excitable high school students from various parts of the country who have devoted most of the free time of their young lives to their color guard teams. This strange, high profile gig will also be the last time many are performing together. But the audience doesn't get to know any individual well enough for that to have any sort of emotional impact.
Maybe it'll remind some of their long lost high school passions, but the most remarkable thing about these youngsters is what happens when they're on the stage moving in tandem in an eye-popping swirl of sequins and flags. You forget that just a minute ago they were giggly and emotional and inarticulate in that way that most normal people are when a camera is pointed at them.
The Ross bros. employ various techniques to keep the sights stimulating, dreamily overlaying images and sounds in hypnotically retro fashion. They were right to keep "Contemporary Color" on the experimental side, but the film isn't immune from dragging some. After a handful of performances, they do start to blend together a bit. Perhaps that's because they have the unenviable task of documenting the entire show for an audience who will be watching it separated by a screen, making it that much more difficult to convey the actual energy of a live performance.
Off stage, too, the film can't help but stumble onto the high/low divide between the color guard art that they're purportedly celebrating and the fact that many of the students and coaches participating simply haven't heard of some of the indie musicians they've been paired up with. The film isn't out to mock anyone, nor is Byrne, who seems genuinely delighted by the color guard troupes. And yet I couldn't help but feel a slight queasiness watching three grown men standing in the hall of a high school having to tell the camera that they had not heard of the act How to Dress Well.
The Ross brothers have established themselves as distinct and lovely voices in the documentary world. Their three previous features, "45365," ''Tchoupitoulas" and "Western" are lyrical and humanistic. "Contemporary Color," constrained by an established story, exists outside of that. They put their own spin on the concert film, but I'm not entirely convinced that "Contemporary Color," despite its earnest intentions, will hold the attention of anyone who wasn't already interested.
"Contemporary Color," an Oscilloscope Laboratories release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "brief strong language." Running time: 107 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.