Music documentaries can be a number of things - a filmed concert, a look backstage, a tour chronicle, hagiography, a psychological dissection, all of the above. Or they can be something different.
Director and producer Xan Aranda attended the international premiere of her film Andrew Bird: Fever Year at the Vancouver International Film Festival this past October. She introduced it as being "more of a dream than a documentary." In a Q & A she said it deliberately wasn't going to get a commercial release - in regular movie distribution channels, on DVD, on the internet, on TV - nothing. It'd only play film festivals.
I interviewed her and asked about this.
But first, a quick word about the film's subject, Andrew Bird. He's a Chicago based indie musician, principally playing the violin, often using a loop pedal. In every live recording I've heard he explores his songs anew, spontaneously. They're always recognizable from other recordings, but they're different. He's followed a relentless touring schedule since 1996. Fever Year presents interview footage with him and his band, and songs from two concerts at Milwaukee's Pabst Theater towards the end of 2009, a year that saw him do one hundred and seventy advertised and promoted concerts, and another forty or so unofficial performances. He was also in the grip of a 103 degree fever for the majority of the year.
A quote from the film:
Andrew Bird: Having that concert every day, that ritual of being on stage and people gathering in a dark room and sharing this thing together - there isn't much out there for people that is truly a moment in time and not something that's just bottled up and sprayed at you. I think it's kind of ridiculous what I do to myself to do this thing - planes, trains, automobiles, sleeping on buses, having a fever perpetually. I'm either sweating bullets or I'm freezing, all the time. (laughs) But it seems like a worthy thing to do with your life.
Here's the film's trailer.
So about Fever Year only playing film festivals:
Xan Aranda: Yeah, that was Andrew's choice. What I love about not commodifying the film, even though for me it means lower viewership of my project, which is a bummer, is that film festivals are almost always secretly struggling scrappy non-profit orgs that provide a great and exciting service for their communities, curating projects, bringing filmmakers in. A side-effect is that you leave your house. You go see the film, you buy a ticket, you're supporting a local non-profit organization in your own town, you're telling them that people are still willing to leave their houses and look at a screen bigger than their bodies, with beautiful sound that I worked really hard on, and had Dolby redo twice.
TJ: It also makes it somewhat like going to see him in concert, because 80 - 90% of films that get screened at the Vancouver Film Festival never get a commercial release of any kind, so the people that see them, they might be blown away by a given film, but they don't have the opportunity to see it again, and if they tell their friends about it, those friends can't see it. So it's kind of like seeing a concert, especially an Andrew Bird concert where he makes the songs different with every performance.
Xan: You're left with your memories, what you were a part of that day. I love that Andrew makes that statement in the film about not writing things down. He's also somewhat in touch with the environment, so I don't think he's conscious of it, but he's cultivating with this project an impermanence that I think is within character. He wants to chase that ghost on stage.
from the film:
Andrew Bird: My process? It's waking up and the mysteries that come out of you. I don't write anything down, generally. No chord charts - not even rough outlines. I just hope if it's really good it just catches and it'll come back out of me. A melody pops into my head - and then the next day, I try to piece it together. I could do everything as I did it the day before and it wouldn't exist anymore. So there's like a ghost that has left those notes and has gone on to something else. And you just keep chasing that thing. And that's what is so attractive about performing. Having to chase that ghost onstage.
TJ: When did you come up with this analogy of it being more of a dream than a documentary?
Xan: Probably when it popped out of my mouth in Vancouver. Just out of watching it, too. I didn't go into it with the intent of crafting a dream. I think in my films I go with the intent to explore, but I don't often know what's going to happen, it's more like I create a situation that can support a variety of things that happen. With my projects, especially the one I'm making now, it's a different subject matter, like I get a sense of what it is already, I can tell it's there, I can feel it's there, I can almost smell it, and my job is to kind of uncover it and let it reveal itself. And I felt like Fever Year always wanted to be a little bit of both, something that could deepen the musical experience for you, but also provide a very clear theatrical experience.
TJ: With not giving it a commercial release, there's a direct link to it being like a dream, because a dream might completely enrapture you and then you wake up and five minutes later you can't even remember it.
Xan: You try and… you can see it, you can feel it, you can smell it, and you try and tell people what it is and they're just like "Yeah…" If you describe a dream to me, I don't see it, it doesn't mean anything.
TJ: And that's kind of what I've been going through after seeing Fever Year, telling people about it and saying you should see it, and it was like this, but I know that doesn't convey even one one-thousandth of what it was like.
Xan: Thank you. And yeah, I've heard other people say "it's boring, it's kind of confusing" and then other people say "I just wanted so much more." But dreams are meant to be interpreted, films are made to be seen, and then people can have their opinions, and that's the experience. I love that. There was a guy in New York, who is a huge fan of Andrew's, and he sent me an email later and said a secondary takeaway was the fact that I was there, and I talked a lot at the Q & A, and he said the combination of watching a film and talking with the filmmaker in person about her process about making it helped him go home and sequence a book of poetry that had been in limbo for a year. And that, to me, made so many sleepless nights one hundred percent worth it. And that's why I was like "He's me, and he's Andrew, and we're all the same." You get these whiffs of how great you are, or whiffs of what you're dialed into, and kind of react to that thing and get that into your projects.
TJ: Before there was recording technology, music, at least in a folk setting, was probably different with every performance. And now with so much digital technology people are sharing files, so musicians are making very little money from album sales, it's mostly from touring.
Xan: Right, it's absolutely that, there's almost no income from selling records.
TJ: And it's something I see in other musicians, and in theatre - the desire to give the audience something authentic to that performance, to connect with them in that moment.
Xan: Yeah. As a filmmaker, being part of other people's projects as producer or as a shooter, getting out and shooting with them, creating ideas, workshopping ideas, collaborating is a great way to connect with others. A lot of the work of artists is you're just looking for a balance of really hearing your internal creative desires, and then stirring them up by accessing them with the company of others. So I've got to keep it alive for myself first and then inevitably for them. I don't want to create one frame of waste. I don't want to create one frame of something that I don't feel is part of things. Right now, a film about the creative process, on the surface could be just a pleasure to hear the music and get into the home of someone who's very private, if that's what people are in for. But other people find that it's another way to kind of awaken themselves, however they want to. And the film really does belong to the viewer. I mean Andrew owns it, but by not selling it he's just saying enjoy it when you see it, and when it's gone, just go see another show…
TJ: And if you go see him in concert, just be ready for whatever happens that time.
Xan: Yeah, exactly. The film will be showing in festivals worldwide for the next two years. It's booking up very quickly. And we'll just keep showing it, and I'll keep showing up whenever I can. It's a treat. It's a real treat.
Xan Aranda is a Chicago based producer, director, curator and film consultant. She's currently working on Mormons Making Movies, a documentary about the Mormon film industry. Click here for her website, for the Andrew Bird: Fever Year site with listings of festivals where it'll appear. Check out Andrew Bird's website for info on albums and live dates.
This is the official video for Andrew Bird's song Imitosis, produced by Xan Aranda.