The best stories are always captured behind the scenes. For this month's collaborative blog, members of the T&E collective discuss their favorite movie documentaries that shed light on the artistry, ingenuity, and humanity from the artists that we've all come to know and love.
Kurt B.'s Picks
Film: The Nomi Song
Director: Andrew Horn
[see description below]
Film: Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell
Director: Matt Wolf
Neither Klaus Nomi nor Arthur Russell was “ahead of his time.” Au contraire, both men lived in the moment (although the latter was notorious for leaving projects unfinished), memorable players in the New York underground of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Alas, the technology that would ultimately enable them to connect with the widest possible audiences still smacked of science fiction in their lifetimes. Only with the rise of the Internet did their reputations and critical kudos catch up to their transcendent artistry. By then, both were dead from AIDS.
Today, music geeks speak of Nomi and Russell with a reverence once reserved for the likes of David Bowie, Kate Bush, and Miles Davis. The influence of Nomi’s eye-popping expressionist fashions and operatic vocals are found on the runway of RuPaul’s Drag Race, The Venture Brothers, and the flipside of a recent Superchunk single. Cited as an influence by everyone from Davendra Banhart to James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, Russell inspired a 2014 tribute album, Red Hot + Arthur Russell, teeming with notables: Robyn, Blood Orange, Hot Chip, Sufjan Stevens.
Although their careers didn’t intersect, these East Village denizens shared much in common. Both harnessed their classical training in service of idiosyncratic approaches to pop conventions. Russell spoke of making “Buddhist bubblegum” music; Nomi’s catalog showcased covers of Marlene Dietrich, Lesley Gore, and ‘60s dance craze “The Twist” alongside Renaissance and baroque arias and art songs. Icons including David Bowie, Talking Heads, and Philip Glass recognized and promoted their gifts.
Yet the two were also as different as the documentaries that celebrate them. The Nomi Song conveys the singer’s fusion of German expressionism, pop art and postmodernism by injecting kitsch ‘50s movie clips, cheesy FX, and dioramas into the storytelling. On-screen ambassadors for the New Wave countertenor include painter Kenny Scharf and musician/actor Ann Magnuson, big personalities with cartoon sensibilities. Russell’s story, on the other hand, is largely entrusted to low-key intimates including both parents (his father, Chuck, is responsible for the film’s biggest get-out-your-hanky moment) and his longtime companion Tom Lee, and features mesmerizing shots of Iowa cornfields and rolling clouds that reflect his Midwestern upbringing and unique approach to open space and repetition in his compositions.
Illness cut the careers of Nomi and Russell short too soon; the former died in 1983, two years before Rock Hudson gained notoriety as the first celebrity killed by AIDS. Fortunately, their stories live on to inspire and amaze in these top-notch films, each one as remarkable as its subject.
Film: Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda
Director: Stephen Nomura Schible
Year Released: 2017
At face value, Coda can seem a boring and uneventful film. I myself struggled to get hooked by it when it began. But then I came to realize that it presented a perspective of zen-like contemplation, where one must appreciate the small details and take their time to stop and smell the roses. This is key to understanding Ryuichi Sakamoto, who perceives life and sound meditatively and with utmost respect.
The documentary shows different facets of Sakamoto’s life. He is an important figure in music, pioneering synth music in “Yellow Magic Orchestra”, composing film soundtracks effortlessly, and crafting his own beautifully arranged personal projects. The film explores all of these moments of Sakamoto’s career, interleaved with mundane scenes in his New York City apartment and historical events that the musician got to experience, such as 9/11.
One of the most interesting aspects of the documentary is how it delves into Sakamoto’s music making process. Along the different moments that the camera follows him, we get to see the musician gathering field recordings, experimenting with sounds in his studio, and producing his tracks in the computer. The film reveals secrets about more than half the tracks in “async”, Sakamoto’s latest studio album, which intrigued me with its diverse set of gorgeous sounds.
In the end, “Coda” achieved what it set out to do, as I got to know Ryuichi Sakamoto better. What moved me the most is how the little moments were translucent of his humanity and awe towards the world. I appreciated his thoughtfulness and his focus on listening and observing before acting. The film was rewarding as I learned a different way of living, as well as it enriched his music even further.
Film: Who Is Harry Nilsson? (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?)
Director: John Scheinfeld
Year Released: 2006
The film’s title and question it represents is an in-depth examination on one of rock music’s underappreciated figures. Harry Nilsson was an artist you would probably consider a musician’s musician; someone who is generally well respected by his musical peers yet not too well known outside of that social circle. His career illustrates an odd phenomenon that many musicians have experienced before and since his music career began although notably, none of those other stories come quite as close to capturing the tragedy behind this happening to an artist as Nilsson’s story does.
Nilsson is the original writer and performer of some very well-known songs like “One (Is The Loneliest Number)”, and “Lime In The Coconut” and yet he’s simultaneously flown under the radar and avoided the status of being a household name. Clocking in at nearly two hours (116 minutes), this documentary does a thorough investigation on his life, career, his deep connection to John Lennon and the Beatles, and much more.
There’s a powerful scene towards the end of the film where a friend of Nilsson’s recalls him and Harry sitting in a car overlooking the city at sunset, when suddenly Nilsson pulls out a cassette tape of his music and pops it in the tape deck. After they sit in silence and a few songs play, Harry brings up questions about his legacy and whether or not he’s leaving a meaningful impactful on the world, or anybody for that matter. This paints the picture of a man highly aware of the fact that his days on earth are numbered and shows him at his most honest, his most vulnerable. This and many other scenes like it throughout the movie, perfectly demonstrate the tragedies behind the human condition and on that merit alone, this film is not to be missed.
Film: The Devil and Daniel Johnston
Director: Jeff Feuerzeig
Year Released: 2005
"Hi, I'm Daniel Johnston. This is the name of my tape, it's "Hi, How Are You", and I was having a nervous breakdown when I recorded it."
There's a common misconception from music lovers that depression or mental health issues create good art. We almost glorify the idea of a "troubled artist", but the truth is that the two concepts aren't dependent on each other - rather, they can happen to interact in a way that's painful, heartbreaking, and tragically genuine. "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" is the story of an avant-folk artist whose transparent authenticity and raw talent was unlike anything that had came out before (or after, for that matter). It's not that he was a technically skilled musician per se, but as author Ken Leick points out in the film, "you start off hearing this noise, and eventually you hear The Beatles and the whole symphony." You hear the heart of this entire man's soul pouring out into each moment of his cassettes.
After being launched into cult status after Kurt Cobain famously wore Johnston's t-shirt with the artwork for "Hi, "How Are You", we watch the singer's downfalls of battling schizophrenia and bipolar disorder while trying to maintain a successful career and healthy lifestyle. The film draws from countless hours of Johnston's self-documented videos, audio recordings, photography, and self-journaling style of cartoon drawings to recreate and narrate the most intimate details of his life. "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" goes beyond telling us the story of a musical genius, but reminds me of the fragility of life, especially when we walk with the Devil by our side.
Some of my honorable mentions: Amy, Decline of Western Civilization I, Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll
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