SIFF Face The Music 2016 Preview: Contemporary Color

CColorPoster

Contemporary Color
(Directed by Bill & Turner Ross, USA, 2016, 96 minutes)

Festival screenings:
Thursday, May 26th at 9:00 PM – Majestic Bay Cinema
Saturday, May 28th at 8:30 PM – SIFF Cinema Uptown
Monday, May 30th at 1:30 PM – SIFF Cinema Egyptian

I don’t know about you, but when I was in high school, Color Guard was not the realm of the cool kids. Not quite the social suicide of Marching Band, but definitely not as glamorous as the Thespians, and certainly not the insta-popularity of the Cheerleaders. Sure, every school is different, but we’re going by “John Hughes” standards here. Well, for some reason, former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne has decided to make Color Guard cool, and really, if you think about it, his entire career has been based on making the nerdy cool, so, you go, Byrne.

If you don’t quite remember Color Guard, think kids in matching uniforms conducting synchronized steps with giant swooping flags or spinning rifles around in unison. In Byrne’s own words, via his website: “Color guards are, well, high school (and college-level) ‘dance’ groups who perform during half time at football games, and then compete amongst themselves later in the school year—usually in their school gymnasiums. They are, in my way of looking at them, a sophisticated folk art form that flies under the official cultural radar. I think it’s a wonderful, peculiar, under-appreciated and very creative artform and that deserves to be seen and experienced—in a slightly different context, by a wider public.”

So, last summer, Byrne organized a night of music and Color Guard at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. The line-up looks like a KEXP playlist: David Byrne, How to Dress Well, Devonté Hynes, Money Mark + Ad-Rock, Zola Jesus, Lucius, Nico Muhly + Ira Glass, St. Vincent, Nelly Furtado, and tUnE-yArDs. All the musicians wrote original compositions for the event. Ten different Color Guard teams from around the U.S. and Canada were invited to participate. And this documentary, Contemporary Color, captures the entire evening’s events.

Directors Bill & Turner Ross do a masterful job in capturing both the musical performances and the Color Guard members themselves. With careful, deliberate camera shots and editing, you really get the sense of the energy that night. The film isn’t constructed like a “typical” documentary, which isn’t surprising given that’s it’s Byrne, and nothing he does is “typical,” but I digress. Performances are interspersed by a Best In Show Fred Willard-esque sports-style commentator whose backstage narration and interviews give more context to what you’re seeing. The dancers themselves give voiceovers in that vulnerable, emphatic way teenagers do. The camera slides slowly around backstage, catching Zola Jesus doing vocal exercises or Ad-Rock talking basketball. But the main focus is on the dancers themselves, each step, each swoop, each swirl of a flag.

If anything, there’s not enough exposition, which is why I’m explaining so much in this review. And it’s a shame, too, because I think if more people realized what was happening in the movie, they’d want to go see it. A documentary about Color Guard? Eh, I’ll pass… A performance by St. Vincent featuring original music with a Color Guard team performing to it? Sign me up!

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