SIFF “Face the Music” preview: Ride, Rise, Roar

Ride, Rise, Roar
directed by David Hillman Curtis
(USA, 87minutes)

Festival Screenings:

May 28, 2010 9:30 PM, SIFF Cinema
May 29, 2010 1:30 PM, SIFF Cinema
June 3, 2010 9:15 PM, Everett Performing Arts Center

“He took the mic and pointed at a security guard and said, ‘Look! At the beginning of the show I said people could take pictures. What the FUCK are you doing?!’ He was telling this guy to stop … and he was so incredibly livid and alive.” Are we talking about Henry Rollins? No, more old school punk than that: David Byrne. Steve Rekar, one of Byrne’s dancers for the rock tour with extensive choreography troupe performing live on stage with the band through the tour explains the energy. “It’s like watching your dad get in a fight with someone. What do you do?”

“It started back in the spring (of 2008) as Brian and I finished recording tracks for the record,” Byrne explains in “Ride, Rise, Roar,” the meticulously multi-camera shot and edited concert film and documentary debut by stylish Brooklyn-based fillmaker David Hillman Curtis. “I started getting offers to tour — it’d be rushed, but I could have the record on-line for people to hear” in time for playing behind “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.”

That was the new collaboration with Brian Eno, long-time occasional partner in challenging art-pop since they first put the voices of Southern fundamentalist preachers to warm ambient funk on “My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts” (1981), long before the Talking Heads broke up and Fatboy Slim and others would copy the style of that groundbreaking LP digitally.

The date of the new album’s release, November 5, 2008, the day after the last national American elections, was not an accident. “The feeling of a lot of the songs have a sort of dread, and are sort of positive at the same time–” Byrne begins to explain, standing with Eno in his Todomundo label offices. Eno finishes the sentence for him, as he probably often does, “Sort of dead and promise, actually. It’s quite ambiguous because everything that happens today can be a great message or a terrible one.” From the campaign buttons and t-shirts worn by the dancers on the tour, it’s pretty obvious that Byrne’s lyrics in the final song played in “Ride, Rise, Roar” came true for them: “I ride on a perfect freeway / Many people on that road …”

So what about these dancers? Well, Byrne had been noticing a lot of non-pop music based choreography for awhile, lurking at performances, and putting together a new kind of live show to play out the new album and gobs of the zenith of Talking Heads material his fans love. “Same as it ever was” is the refrain to opening number “Burning Down The House,” and in a strange way, it fits in how Byrne is able to still make that song as vital sounding today, and how “Ride, Rise, Roar” looks and sounds very similar to “Stop Making Sense,” the definitive rock concert movie Jonathan Demme shot for the Talking Heads at the height of their commercial success in the 1980s. This also enables a criticism, in that there is a lot of reliance on the songs from “Fear Of Music,” “Remain In Music,” and “Speaking In Tongues,” the troika of T. Heads albums most appealing to most of Byrne’s fan-base. More complaints could be made about this redundancy if his backing band wasn’t so excellent, his own performance so energized and intense and vivacious, and if the newer material didn’t hold up as well in comparison (recent track “I Feel My Stuff” is really one of the best things here, bouncing fluidly between rap and rock and psychedelia and God knows what like a modern but totally seamless Tropicalismo mash up).

The existence of this concert footage would probably be sufficient for the exposure to some great new songs and another chance to hear some of the best material ever made in the post-punk era (and how well it, and Byrne, have held up), but it’s in the main story of “Ride, Rise, Roar” which will grab the most attention. The dance work of Rekar, Lily Baldwin, Natalie Kuhn, and many others, of all types of shapes and sizes, expertly choreographed by Noeme LeFrance, makes the film something you’ll want to experience on the big screen and purchase for recurrent watching as well. Dressed mostly, usually in white, on minimalist sets with a lot of mellow blue lighting to relax the audience/viewer and allow them to focus on the movements and music, the modern choreography assists in expanding on the lyrical meditations about restless spirits and the material world, while exploring and improvising with the rhythms themselves. Like Yukio Mishima, a master storyteller who transcended his books (“I burned my notebooks. What good are notebooks? They won’t help me survive,” Byrne sings in the centerpiece of the doc, a feverishly effervescent “Life During Wartime”) and found an evolution in ideas in the language of the body, it’s as if Byrne was creating music several decades ago to finally spring to life in the bodies of these dancers.

Even the backing musicians feel this way about how the dancing helps bring the music to more life. Keyboardist Mark Degli Antoni says, “The dancers brought a whole new sensibility to the stage. I found in a couple of the songs I could be more free while playing,” moving with the dancer as opposed to anchoring the sound. Paul Frazier, bassist, agrees: “It was almost like scoring a film.” Connected to this, a little later Eno explains how he came up with the music that he would send to Byrne in MP3 form to collaborate with him on for “Everything That Happens,” by saying he would bash around the keyboard coming up with a feeling, and then later on “correct” the notes with a Midi. This is perhaps why the new tracks have the same sense of invention and vibe that Eno’s best work from the mid-70s has (“Before And After Science,” “Another Green World.”)

Speaking of Eno’s work in the mid-70s, Byrne says that they came up with four rules for the dancers, who he didn’t want to “look like dancers” and were discouraged from the showy kicks and flashy moves of the usual choreography: “(1.) Perform a series of very short movements; (2.) when you come up with something you like repeat it; (3.) if you see someone else doing something stronger copy what they are doing; (4.) when the whole room is doing it, it’s over.” Byrne almost burbles when he says, “You could see this was a model for evolution, for self-organizing, for creativity — pretty amazing.” It’s thrilling to see his enthusiasm for his own Cybernetic experiment pay off so well in “Ride, Rise, Roar” which you shouldn’t miss during SIFF.

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