SIFF “Face the Music” preview: Backyard

In Icelandic filmmaker Arni Sveinsson’s documentary Backyard, musician Árni Rúnar Hlöðversson brings together his friends and other musicians for an outdoor performance behind his house in Reykjavik.

Festival screenings:

May 26 – 4:00 PM – Neptune Theatre
May 29 – 8:30 PM – Admiral Theatre

As its title implies, Backyard is a familiar, comfortable and typically fun place to be. The premise of this hour-plus documentary is simple: a guy named Árni wants to have a party with his fellow musicians and friends in the small space between his house and his recording studio. The problem, if there’s said to be one at all, is that he lives in downtown Reykjavík with all its bad weather and close proximity of neighbors. So what’s he to do? Print up invitations, hand them out to his neighbors and hope for the best. Árni’s story, though, is just the vehicle that holds this concert footage together. While we do learn a bit about the bands who perform, and there’s a certain charm to the behind-the-scenes footage of Árni and the friends who help him put the concert together, the variety and talent of the Icelandic bands is what’s really of interest here.

Nearly all of the bands who appear in the movie we’ve had the opportunity to meet, film or broadcast over the last two years that KEXP has been to the Iceland Airwaves festival: Borko (the only exception), Hjaltalín, Sin Fang Bous, Reykjavik!, múm, Retro Stefson, and FM Belfast (Árni’s band). Just as the music of Iceland is typically varied, so are the performances in the movie, which vary from orchestral rock to heavy metal-esque punk to modernized Afropop to electronic dance. The eclecticism isn’t lost on the bands either — as one of the members of the scream-happy Reykjavik! points out, this will be the only time they ever open for múm.

Director Arni Sveinsson’s approach is equally casual. We meet friends and band members at first without learning who they are. As they interact, we play fly on the wall, but soon we’re comfortable in our environment and the music starts. Now, we get names, details of the bands, their histories and characteristics. Although we only hear one song by each of the seven bands, we do get those songs in their entirety, with no cutting from clips to interviews and back again. Sveinsson’s footage isn’t slick — some of the cameras don’t even match that well and some of the angles are place for for necessity than opportunity — but his DIY aesthetic perfectly matches the attitude and situation.

While Backyard can be viewed as a document of the Icelandic music scene (the various artists debate whether there is a “scene” at all), it also feels like these bands could be any anywhere in the world. True, they speak Icelandic almost exclusively, but the intimate familiarity Arni Sveinsson engenders as musician Árni interacts with his friends, as passersby gather to watch the performances, and as the bands themselves share a mutual camaraderie makes you feel like this could be your backyard too.

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