This year RIDM (Rencontres Internationales du Documentaires Montréal/The Montreal International Documentary Festival) brought together five films under the banner “BeatDox,” which showcased artists and their struggles to create music, from Beirut to Brooklyn.
There’s a scene in the middle of Breaking a Monster, about the heavy metal band Unlocking the Truth, wherein the group is in the studio recording their first single. But lead singer/guitarist Malcolm Brickhouse is strung-out, begging his manager, septuagenarian Allan Sacks, for more coke. Sacks tells him he can’t have any more. Malcolm runs past him to get to the stash, but Sacks grabs the coke, and pours it out onto the street, exclaiming: “That’s it! No more coke!” But the twist is that Malcolm is an 8th grader and the coke is cola.
Way back in 2013, a trio of black tweens in Flatbush, Brooklyn were playing music on the streets for spare change. A video of them goes insanely viral and comes to the attention of Sacks, an industry veteran who created Welcome Back, Kotter and then in the 21st century worked with Disney-pop act The Jonas Brothers. Sacks flies in from LA and before the kids can stop playing Grand Theft Auto for five minutes, he’s negotiated a $1.8 million contract with Sony Entertainment on their behalf. You might think the first move would be to get the band some small gigs to work out their material and stage presence, but no, they’re off to SXSW, Coachella, and the Vans Warped tour. The adults are constantly battling with the kids to act more maturely, while Malcolm, who is the central focus of the film, complains to his mother: “I’m too young for responsibility.” Malcolm becomes more and more frustrated and finally lets Sacks know his frustration is not just petulance, but he is aware the band is viewed by Sacks, Sony, and the media as a novelty act – urban black kids playing white man’s heavy metal – to be branded and sold to the general public. Showing Sacks a video wherein the band is described as a vehicle for “liberals to feel good” about themselves, we understand Malcolm not only gets it, but he’s actually cool with it. He just wants to rock.
Breaking a Monster is in many ways a well made peek behind the absurdity of today’s entertainment industry. In other ways, like the band and the story of the band, it’s a bit premature. As the documentary debuted at SXSW earlier this year, the trio announced they were trying to get out of their contract with Sony. So perhaps director Luke Meyer (Darkon) should have kept filming for another year. As is, the film just seems to stop in the middle of the story.
While Unlocking the Truth continues to dream of fame and fortune and recording an album, on the other end of the musical spectrum – there’s Amy. In I’m Gone: A Film about Amy, Quebec directors Geneviève Philippon and Julie Bourbonnais take us along with Amy Goldberg and her band mate Garrett Johnson, collectively known as No Family, as they record an album in a cabin in the woods. Also along for the adventure are Amy’s former boyfriend (and father of her children) John McColgan who serves as the record’s producer, and Amy’s current boyfriend, artist Aaron Zak who provides the 16mm animation that’s nicely checkered throughout the film. But this is a film about Amy, who at 38 became addicted to heroin and is now five years sober. Garrett and Aaron are also ex-junkies. Their music, which they have described as a mix of “roots music including American folk, Appalachian banjo-style, and Celtic arrangements,” is as arresting, meditative, and timeless as the Bell Island, Nova Scotia location for the shoot. Now 52 years old, Amy spends a lot of time navel-gazing during the film, which she would attribute to being an addicted personality, but it didn’t strike me as so different from the typical kvetching I’ve heard at my Jewish family get-togethers—-minus the heroin. Regardless, the inner demons that plague Amy leave her alone enough to transform her struggle into beautiful music. As history attests, too often the most exquisite art is born from a life of pain and strife. The music Amy brings forth clearly speaks from her life lived, and we root for her to succeed both emotionally and musically.
Watching Yallah! Underground, by German-born Farid Eslam (Istanbul United), less than 48 hours after the Paris bombings, spoke in ways that it might not have otherwise. One walks away from watching this panorama of musical artists from Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Palestine, understanding that what is going on in their region should in many ways be viewed as a generational struggle between antiquity and modernity, between the 11th and 21st centuries. As Egyptian DJ and radio personality Mohamed Safi states in the film: “I grew up listening to the call to prayer while watching The A-Team and Knightrider.” Within this context, it doesn’t seem a coincidence that terrorists would bomb a concert theatre rather than a government office. What place music holds in our world, and what it should or shouldn’t be “allowed” to be and say, are not questions to be thought of lightly in our times.
Earlier this year, ISIS in Libya set a pile of musical instruments ablaze and beat a man over his electric keyboard as they deem music itself to be offensive to Muslims. The musicians in this film speak and sing of political, social and generational shifts that are at the core of today’s conflict. Egyptian singer/songwriter Maii Waleed Yassin tells of her struggle to be not just accepted as a female singer, but as a young single woman who simply wants to live away from home in an apartment of her own. Lebanese super star Zeid Hamdan gets himself arrested for a song considered to be a defamation of former President Michel Suleiman. And not much speaks louder than hearing and watching Lebanese electro-pop and glam punk band Lumi sing “Not Our War,” which they wrote during the Israeli invasion of 2006.
Though Yallah! Underground is Eslam’s second film to be released, it’s technically his first film as he began in 2009 but didn’t complete shooting until 2013, and in between directed and released the documentary Istanbul United. While shooting mostly in “guerrilla-style,” as Eslam has noted, the former music video director displays his training in many of the musical sequences which are ready for broadcast on Arabic MTV.
Another film set within this ongoing war is They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian music in Exile, the first feature documentary by American-born, UK-based Johanna Schwartz. Schwartz has produced and directed award-winning television for the likes of BBC World, Discovery, National Geographic, and CNN. While filming took place as jihadist groups were still operating in the region, as well as in a refugee camp in Burkian Faso, perhaps the most stressful factor for Schwartz was being pregnant during the first half of filming. As she recently told Indiewire: “Luckily, I had a relatively easy pregnancy, but I was in constant fear of contracting malaria… And once Ebola hit Mali, a new group of concerns were presented. But we got through it.”
For music lovers and historians, Mali is one of the most important countries in the world as it is considered to be the birthplace of the rhythms and musical structures which made a forced journey to the Americas and were reborn as the blues. For decades, Western musicians have sought inspiration there, and from 2001 to 2012, music lovers trekked into the Malian desert to participate in the Festival in the Desert, which often featured jam sessions between native Taureg musicians and Westerners like Robert Plant and Damon Albarn. Several documentaries have been made about the festival, including Le festival au désert (2004), Woodstock in Timbuktu (2013), and The Last Song Before the War (2013). In fact, Schwartz was initially planning on going to the festival simply to enjoy the music in 2013. But when it was canceled due to the erupting violence, she decided to go and film what was happening.
In the film, Khaira Arby, known as ‘The Queen of Desert Blues’ (and who appears in all the aforementioned documentaries), leads a group of fellow exiled musicians back to Timbuktu to perform a concert in defiance of the rebels. “Music is like oxygen for human beings,” Arby tells us. Schwartz’s other main focus is on a group of then unknown musicians who came together while exiled in Bamako from the war-torn north, calling themselves Songhoy Blues. They quickly came to the attention of Nick Zinner (of New York indie rockers Yeah Yeah Yeahs), who also provides original music for Schwartz’s film, and have gone on to international success, recording an album produced by Zinner. The film does suffer from having to switch between the two stories, but the music makes up for it. Like the musicians in Yallah! Underground, Schwartz has described Songhoy Blues as part of “a brand new generation of Malian artists who are determined, switched on politically, intellectual thinkers.”
And finally, we return to the West. To Scotland. Where musician/artist/media prankster/raconteur Bill Drummond asks us to: “Imagine waking up tomorrow morning and all music has disappeared. All musical instruments. All forms of recorded music. Gone. A world without music. You cannot even remember what music sounded like or how it was made. All you knew is that it had been important to you and your civilization. Then imagine people coming together to make music, with nothing but their voices. But with no knowledge of what music should sound like. The music they would make is that of The 17.”
In German/Swiss documentarian Stefan Schwietert’s (The Devil’s Accordian) new film Imagine Waking Up Tomorrow and All Music Has Disappeared, he follows the Scotsman as he creates his latest in a series of compositions featuring The 17.
But let’s step back for a moment for a brief history of Bill Drummond. Drummond, 62, began playing professionally in 1977 in the punk band Big in Japan. In the 1980s, he took a “real” job working as an A&R (Artists & Representation) man for Warner/Elektra/Atlantic records. Then one day he had an idea and brought in fellow musician Jimmy Cauty (later of The Orb) to make a record together. They wound up turning out a string of top 5 singles under the moniker The KLF, and became the “biggest selling singles act in the world for 1991.” But just as quickly as they rocketed to the top of the charts, Drummond and Cauty decided to call it quits. Their final appearance was at the 1992 Brit Awards where they broke out machine guns and shot blanks at the audience. Before the night was over, they also dumped a dead sheep outside the awards after-party. They then formed a foundation with the one million British pounds they earned from their recordings and, as a work of art and/or spectacle, burned all the money in a pile of £50 notes on a boat.
Since then, Drummond has been involved with various art and music projects, including The 17, which was inspired after realising that in a world where almost every piece of music is available to us instantly on our portable devices, that recorded music as we know it has become meaningless. “I wanted to dance on its grave,” he has written. “A new dawn. Music could be free and once again be able to celebrate time, place and occasion and have nothing to do with something trapped in the iPod in your pocket.”
This wildly enjoyable romp sees Drummond driving across a particular geographic meridian that cuts across the center of the United Kingdom. His mission is to record groups of people he finds along that meridian on his portable recorder – everyone from construction workers to school children – making various oohs and ahhs and whup-whup sounds, which he will then edit together into a recording. Those who participate in one of his compositions then become members of The 17. That’s the only way in. Those are his rules. But there are two more catches: Only those who participate in a particular composition are invited to hear the recording. And it’s only performed once. Once only, and then he completely deletes the recording. Is Drummond an artist, genius, madman, or all of the above? You get to decide for yourself after watching the film.