Dear David Byrne,
I love you, and I always have. I love your voice; I love your songs. I will never ever let go of my vinyl copies of Fear of Music and Remain in Light (even though my ex took the turntable). I love your relentless curiosity and fearless multi-modality. And I bet if I’d been at the actual event that the documentary Contemporary Color details, I would have really liked it.
There. Now, let’s talk about said documentary, an event conceived of and staged by David Byrne, in which color guard teams were paired with songwriters for a live performance at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn. For the uninitiated, color guards are teams of synchronized dancers who are often part of high school and college football halftime shows, and who often perform alongside a marching band. The tossing and spinning of flags, rifles and sabers is usually involved.
As one might expect from any project involving Byrne, the concept behind the show is intriguing—songwriters, including Nelly Furtado, St. Vincent, Devonté Hynes and David Byrne, all wrote original pieces for the event, and the high school color guards did some fairly amazing choreography. Still. The editing bothered me. Sometimes it felt like too much time was spent in close shots of vocalists when I wanted to be watching the choreography. There were a lot of really chopped-salad cuts between the house and the backstage, where in many cases nothing was happening. One or two shots of the empty hallways and greenrooms of a performance space, sure. A shit-ton of them? I’m lost. Is this metaphorical in some way? There were cuts to the audience sprinkled throughout and subtitled comments plucked from the crowd—which had the potential to be interesting, had they not chose to pluck out comments along the lines of, “This is a pretty good hot dog; wanna bite?” Why? I don’t get it. (Incidentally, the film won awards for cinematography and editing at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016, so let me acknowledge this may well be a “your mileage may really, really vary” situation.)
Nonetheless, it would have cool to get more of a sense of what drew those students into this particular niche, because one thing was clear: these kids freaking love color guard. Like, hugely passionate. When interviewed, in ragged staggered takes, there were basically no dancers who could offer a cogent sentence about why this is a big deal to them: Everyone basically broke down sobbing and left. Why were they so totally overcome with emotion that they were rendered speechless? That I would have liked to know. One of the collaborators on the sound side was Ira Glass (with Nico Muhly), and he got closest to getting into these kids’ stories, and his voiceover contributions are one of the high points of the whole documentary. Personally, I would have been psyched to get a little more sound out of impresario David Byrne regarding why and how he came up with this production. What got him so interested in high school color guard that he wanted to stage this huge production? Maybe I blinked at the wrong moment, but I still don’t know.
Contemporary Color is not without other strong points. There its eccentricity. The sheer exuberance from flag twirlers and mic-wielders alike. It was clear that all involved were having a great time. Everyone on camera was full of a kind of unfakable giddy enthusiasm, which was really sweet. There were some engaging shots of really complex synchronized movement, and some shots that layered dancers and musicians together. And watching Byrne, both in production mode and performance mode—his vocal range as elastic as ever—is a treat in and of its own.
But though the cinematography has its moments—generating an almost dreamlike quality—more often, it feels like the focus is on the wrong person or thing for that moment. Moments are lingered on that baffled me, whether it was taking the time to subtitle someone’s comment about their hot dog or spending forever on Zola Jesus’ epically random hair-tossing while there were actual dancers down on the stage who would have been much more visually satisfying. On a narrative level, I got loud and clear that kids who do color guard are passionate about it and become tight-knit friends. I wanted to know why, and I wanted to know why David Byrne was so captivated by it that he came up with and executed this production. (Ira Glass could’ve handled that interview with aplomb.)
Leaving a film like Contemporary Color, one knows that the answers were out there, and that, for whatever reason, directors Bill and Turner Ross likely left them on the cutting room floor as they focused on sound bites that were more overwrought tearful-babble than articulate. The result yields a film chock-full of enthusiastic people and talented performances that nonetheless falls short in harnessing the power (and delivering the narrative punch) otherwise present.
Directors: Turner Ross, Bill Ross
Release Date: March 1, 2017
Amy Glynn is an award-winning poet and essayist. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can follow her on Twitter.