by Joyless Staff
Sound Unseen 2015 runs this week, November 11-15. Truly one of Minnesota's most unique cinematic forums, Sound Unseen pulls in a variety of films for, by, and about musicians. From conventional documentaries to narrative films starring musicians to films directed by musicians, Sound Unseen delves into what it means to be a music film. The Joyless Creatures staff took a look at a sliver of what the festival has in store.
Heart of a Dog
Laurie Anderson's work has always been extremely experimental and high-minded—think for instance of her strange robotic-voiced breakthrough, "O Superman." Despite its abrasive formality it landed at #2 on the UK charts. Heart of a Dog is not far off, an experimental, formalist essay film that lands halfway between Chris Marker and Leslie Thornton, yet this weirdo, personal, high-art project is opening at the Lagoon later this month. This is Anderson's first film but she approaches it with a lifetime of experience as an interdisciplinary artist, making it both polished and innovative. Her newness to cinema gives her a completely original visual approach (some of the effects she uses are truly remarkable) and she demonstrates a real knack for Eisensteinian ideograms, making meaning between superimposed images and tight cuts. This meandering essay film, which touches on pet ownership, nonhuman psychology, the NSA, Homeland Security, death, religion, and Anderson's relationship with her mother, is remarkably unified and one of the most impactful films of the year.
Friday, November 13 – Trylon Microcinema – 7 pm
The Glamour and the Squalor
While countries like the UK have a long tradition of radio hosts who become gatekeepers and even celebrities, US DJs tend to find their influence limited to their regional market. With stations frequently programming the same songs as their competitors and peers, it’s rare to see any one personality stand out. But The Glamor and the Squalor makes a convincing case that Marco Collins, onetime music director and evening host of Seattle’s 107.7 The End, effectively kick-started the 1990s alternative rock wave by being the first in the nation to play not only Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” but, later on, breakout singles from Beck, Weezer, and more. Director Marq Evans offers an intriguing glimpse into Collins’ personal journey—including not only his fierce passion for music, but also his struggles with sexual identity and addiction—as well as the pre-Internet music industry and its relationship to local scenes.
Friday, November 13 – McNally Smith College of Music – 7:15 pm
Live from UB
If you thought Mongolia was all about throat singers, horses, and wrestling, Live From UB is here to let you know that it is so much more. Taking a talking head approach that leaves much to be desired stylistically, Live From UB tracks the birth of rock and roll in Mongolia as it travels a parallel but pioneering path right alongside the country’s civil rights, from socialist rule to revolution to democracy. While rebellion against the socialist state was the thrust of rock music in the 80s and 90s, director Lauren Knapp draws out another narrative from contemporary popular music—one that longs to embrace Mongolia’s rich cultural history through traditional means. Eventually, Live From UB (which stands for Ulaanbaatar, the country’s capital) falls in line with the popular young rock band Mohanik as they forge plans to record an album at the 300-year-old Amarbayasgalant Monastery. Knapp pulls back the curtain on a music scene that few have considered and its fight for individuality against the oppression of Western influences. But Live From UB fails to do much more, lacking spark by staying tied to a dog-eared approach to the material.
Friday, November 13 – Trylon Microcinema – 9 pm
Theory of Obscurity: A film About the Residents
It has been said there is no true story of The Residents, so naturally we ask who are they—avant-garde explorers of sound and image? YES. Rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest enigma? YES. Multimedia artists who’ve disguised their identities in outsized eyeball heads with top hats since the ‘70s? Oh, YES! To say The Residents are an evolving idea, a concept, rather than a band in any traditional sense would be an understatement. Theory of Obscurity (thankfully) does not seek to demythologize The Residents’ story. Rather, it’s a madcap celebration of a group that never sought celebrity. Indeed, the philosophy behind Theory of Obscurity is that artists do their best work in obscurity, when they are free from the scrutiny of fans and critics alike. Theory of Obscurity is a biography at a distance and a testament to the fact that art (and music) should be whatever you want it to be.
Friday, November 13 – McNally Smith College of Music – 9:15 pm
Morphine: Journey of Dreams
The Boston trio Morphine was one of the ‘90s American indie circuit’s more stylistically distinctive bands, and their haunting, visceral concoction of noir-inflected rock and moody, stripped-down blues and jazz—guitarless, but accented with raucous baritone sax—remains an utterly unique sound today. Morphine: Journey of Dreams chronicles the band’s origins and brief success, tragically cut short by the death of frontman and bassist Mark Sandman on stage in Italy in 1999. While an earlier documentary honed in on Sandman’s life in particular, Journey of Dreams widens the scope to explore each of the members’ stories and beyond, demonstrating how important Morphine was to many in the Boston music community. Indeed, some of the band’s close friends get roped into managing and touring roles, leaving behind day jobs to support the music they love. Perspectives like theirs help make this a sweet, intimate, and ultimately melancholy story.
Saturday, November 14 – McNally Smith College of Music – 5:15 pm
The Damned: Don't You Wish That We Were Dead
Often pigeonholed as the also-rans of early UK punk--the narrative of which is dominated by icons like the Clash and the Sex Pistols--the Damned were one of that scene’s first bands to make a splash, touring both coasts of the US before their more storied contemporaries. They endured well into the following decades, with a musical-chairs line-up and an increasingly goth-inflected sound that earned them a robust fan base. In The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead, director Wes Orshoski—whose previous credits including a documentary on Mötörhead bassist Lemmy, who played with the Damned for a brief stint—parallels this history with the travails of the band’s current touring incarnation, and he often spends too much time documenting interpersonal dramas or wandering into the dull minutiae of the band’s less-inspired career phases. Still, the film is an entertaining look at a vital and oft-overlooked act.
Saturday, November 14 – McNally Smith College of Music – 7:15 pm
Made in Japan
It’s rare when a documentary can jump the rails and tell a story that is compelling far beyond a theme-specific audience, yet Made in Japan, Josh Bishop’s debut feature about a one-of-a-kind artist, is just such a movie—you don’t need any interest in country music or Japan to fall in love with Tomi Fujiyama and her irrepressible energy. In 1964, this 24-year-old Japanese country singer took the stage at the Grand Ole Opry alongside the likes of Johnny Cash and Earl Scruggs and was the only artist to receive a standing ovation. Now in her 70s, Fujiyama, an iconoclastic firecracker, is still singing, playing, and rocking the cowboy hat and the country shirt—but more importantly, she’s also dreaming of having another chance to sing at the Opry. Using playful graphics and a patient delivery, Made in Japan takes us through Fujiyama’s unlikely life story full of heartache, tenacity, good fortune, and a love for music that knows no bounds. Executive producers Morgan Spurlock and Elijah Wood (who also narrates) add some Hollywood cred to this unassuming movie, but 90 minutes of fine filmmaking and one very special personality outshine them both.
Sunday, November 15 – McNally Smith College of Music – 1:15 pm
Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai
(Rain The Color Of Blue With A Little Red In It)
(Rain The Color Of Blue With A Little Red In It)
This film sounds absolutely crazy on paper: the first-ever fiction film shot in the Taureg language is a conscious remake of Purple Rain set in Agadez, Niger. Akounak stars real-life Nigerien musician Mdou Moctar as a left-handed guitarist who is new to town and desperate to make it as a musician. In place of Prince's alcoholic father, Mdou has a devout Muslim father who believes guitarists are all alcoholics and drug addicts and in place of Morris Day, Mdou goes up against another Nigerien guitarist, Kader Tanoutanoute, in a battle of the bands staged at the Alliance Française. Akounak approaches its narrative with an elegant simplicity, giving it the feel of a myth or a morality tale and while the acting is uneven, the directing (from American ethnomusicologist Christopher Kirkley) is impressively nuanced. Most impressive of all is the iconic beauty of this Nigerien Purple One shredding his way through the desert in his purple motorcycle.
Sunday, November 15 – Amsterdam Bar and Hall – 6:30 pm