TIFF 2013 – Master of Puppets: Nimród Antal’s METALLICA THROUGH THE NEVER

metallica-through-the-never-dane-dehaan1

Nimród Antal’s METALLICA THROUGH THE NEVER is a lot of different things. It’s a concert film, presented in IMAX 3D. It’s a surreal, post-apocalyptic narrative starring the wonderful Dane DeHaan. It’s a weird, genre-bending hybrid film that strives to do something a little bit different. But more than anything else, it’s just one gigantic mess.

Several years ago, Toronto’s own Broken Social Scenes premiered a film at the Toronto International Film Festival under the name THIS MOVIE IS BROKEN. In a similar fashion to Metallica’s latest foray into cinema, it presented two seemingly-connected ideas: one, a concert film documenting the supergroup’s mid-garbage-strike, free-for-all, lakeside performance, and the other, a surreal fictional element of a few characters who were on their way to (then at, then leaving) the concert.

THROUGH THE NEVER does something similar, though it seems to have missed the memo about that earlier work. Whereas BROKEN put the narrative at the thematic forefront of the project, creating a stirring, compelling story about hedonism in youthfulness, NEVER takes the alternate approach: this is a movie about Metallica, and any experimental ideas that they may have initially wanted to put into the film get left by the wayside in favor of more concert footage. There is no balance between the two sides of the story, and every time you find yourself craving a return to the narrative, you’re treated to three or four more songs in a row (with a shot or two of DeHaan thrown in to remind you that he, you know, exists). In other words, the band (and possibly Natal, as well) consider the band more important than the project itself, and THROUGH THE NEVER suffers for it.

It’s hard to blame Natal for any of this, though. Finding himself in the middle of a self-funded project developed by the world’s leading metal act – after all, they do get story credits – cannot have been the easiest situation to be in. And it’s obvious that this is detrimental to the overall project. He brings a ton of kineticism and visual grandiose to the proceedings – the film looks absolutely beautiful, and he dresses his sets with visually arresting imagery – but wrestling the project away from the metal monsters and towards integrity may have been a bit out of his depth.

DeHaan, in particular, is entirely wasted. Though he brings a powerful and impressive presence to the screen, he never utters more than a word or two throughout the 90-minute runtime. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in another film, it could be a very daring and ambitious choice. But in reality, it just serves to underscore how half-baked the narrative elements of this film are. It’s not just that the “plot” is paper-thin and makes almost no sense – a film with this level of surreality is often better off dealing with narratives in the abstract – it’s that it’s treated as such an afterthought that you never get a chance to be absorbed by or even care about its inclusion in the film.

Which is the film’s biggest sin: the fact that you dread a return to the increasingly shallow and uninteresting narrative they occasionally cut to, as if the incredible concert you’re watching isn’t enough to keep your attention. The story is given such little weight in the runtime that it might as well not even exist. In fact, if this had been a straight concert film, it would have been a wildly superior film: the IMAX 3D visuals make it one of the most intimate and grand concerts ever committed to film, and the band performs at the top of their game. This might be one of those extremely memorable concert movies, if only they hadn’t “tacked on” the narrative.

But the real problem isn’t the narrative’s existence. Antal and the band should be commended for trying to do something a little bit different, and including it was a great idea  – in theory. Whether it was over-inflated egos or poor execution which resulted in cutting the narrative’s presence back to near-irrelevance is something we may never know, but once it became clear that everybody involved agreed that the band would be the focus of the film – rather than equal weight being given to both elements – they ought to have just cut their losses and made it a concert film.

Because the strength of the film is absolutely in the concert. Metallica may be entering their fourth decade of existence, but they’re still fabulous performers and musicians. Their playing is top-notch, their knack for spectacle is first-rate, and Antal commits the whole thing to film in a way that’s engrossing, awesome and, most importantly, a real treat for long-time fans. They ought to have either gone all-in on the performance element, or figured out a way to give the narrative element increased relevance in the feature.

Especially because DeHaan really is quite great. He’s one of our most promising young actors, and as a character who doesn’t get a single line in the entire film, he remains a stoic, engaging presence for every frame he is in. He gives the movie his all – it’s just a shame that the script doesn’t give him the same level of respect.

Still, when all is said and done, this is a pretty great showcase for Metallica, and fans are definitely going to find a lot to love here. The audio track and the visuals are unparalleled, and fans are likely going to be cheering their seats. Anybody looking for something more than that, however, should steer clear of the whole affair.

Better yet, they should rent THIS MOVIE IS BROKEN instead.

[D+]

d.a. garabedian

Advertisements

Micro-Review: John Mitchell & Jeremy Kipp Walker’s THE HISTORY OF FUTURE FOLK

future folk

John Mitchell and Jeremy Kipp Walker’s THE HISTORY OF FUTURE FOLK has been billed as (probably) the only alien / folk duo / science-fiction / action / romance / comedy movie ever made. It’s difficult to argue with that assessment, because it may be the most accurate description of the film you’re likely to find. After all, this is a movie where a duo of intergalactic space travelers come to Earth bent on its destruction, discover music and decide to spare the human race – all while developing a cult following as the bluegrass / folk duo, Future Folk.

If any (or all) of that sounds appealing to you, you’re certainly in for a treat. THE HISTORY OF FUTURE FOLK is a silly, absurd film, but its idiosyncrasies work in its favor, creating a rare level of charm. From the delightfully catchy musical numbers – there are several – to the goofy-to-the-point-of-endearing sense of humor, it’s difficult to ever peg the film down into any one category. And at an extremely brisk 86 minutes, it never has a chance to wear out its welcome. Mitchell and Walker continuously evolve the story in new directions (and genres) over the course of the movie, and by the time we reach the finale, it never feels like it’s had a chance to repeat itself. 

It’s noteworthy that the filmmakers choose to fully stick to their guns when it comes to the premise’s absurdities. There’s a lot of camp value inherent to these kind of stories, and they never resist putting it all up there on the screen – from the set decoration to the costume design, this is an indie comedy for the DOCTOR WHO crowd. Similarly, it should be acknowledged that the film never takes the easy way out, especially given its classic “fish-out-of-water” set-up. It dabbles briefly in milking humor out of initial alien-human interactions, but it’s all in the service of character development, and it never allows itself to descend into cliché sight gags and scenarios.

The film is not perfect, however. Its narrative is unambitious, though pleasingly so, and some of the sequences have quite obviously been included in order to tick off another genre, rather than because they organically evolved out of the story. But these are small nitpicks in an otherwise delightful story, and the writer / directors earn such huge points for originality and creativity that its hard to focus in on any of them. Really, this is just a very sweet film about connecting with other people (even if those people are actually aliens), whether that connection be through music or love. And even in spite of its goofy tone, Mitchell and Walker manage to pull off a surprisingly poignant ending – one which feels fully earned and emotionally resonant.

This is one of those rare properties that is just dripping with possibility. Much like the similarly eccentric Flight of the Conchords, Future Folk have the potential to expand into all kinds of different areas. In addition to the film, there’s already an album of music available online, and – given the right level of exposure – I could see a whole cult-following springing up around them. And deservedly so.

Hondo!

7.5/10

d.a. garabedian

Mantra: Dave Grohl’s SOUND CITY

6-e1c89e4912ef6f21dc643e681fc168c9Dave Grohl’s SOUND CITY is the first great film of 2013. As his directorial debut (specifically in the documentary genre), it lacks nothing in the way of surety: shots are eloquently framed, interviews are casual, insightful and cut to the bone and his pacing is rock solid. One finds it easy to forget that this is the same man who screams bloody murder into microphones for a living.

But Grohl is a man of many talents, as he so perfectly explains in a clip which did not make it into the final film. After hearing an instrumental piece as a child – one which offered a solo passage to each of the instruments involved – he became obsessed with the idea of trying his hand at, and eventually mastering, each of them in turn – guitars, drums, et al. And so the grown-up Grohl has since proved to the world: the legendary drummer behind one of the most influential bands of the past 20 years and a powerful songwriter, vocalist and guitarist in his own right, the man has become a spokesman for this generation of rock music. And now he can add filmmaker to that list of admittedly blush-worthy talents.

SOUND CITY follows, for the most part, the story of the iconic and titular studio since its inception in 1969. The film essentially boils down to the history of rock ‘n’ roll over the past 50-odd years, filtered and magnified through the presence of this single studio and the people who ran it, used it and created inside of it. Rick Springfield, Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, Ratt (all of whom appear in the film – plus many, many more)… The studio defies generations and genres, but it holds one simple truth as a common thread: the importance of artistic creation and, perhaps more importantly, the importance of the human element behind that creation.

For the most part, Grohl’s focus finds itself centred entirely on the studio’s mixing console, known as the Neve Board. This board is one of only a handful that was ever made, and is essentially a one-of-a-kind artifact, left lingering as the days of analogue music recording have hit their lowest point in history. The importance of this board cannot be understated, and Grohl wisely focuses on it. It is a unifying presence amongst these impossibly diverse but equally brilliant musicians; the thing which helped make them the people that they are today. Grohl is adamant about this: Nirvana recorded NEVERMIND in that studio, on that board, and it changed his life.

Though to many non-musicians, the importance of the particulars of this technology may be lost, but Grohl does a perfectly satisfactory job in describing just how meaningful the presence of it (particularly as counterpointed against the digital age, which plays a strong role in the middle portion of the film) is to the creation of the music through which it was recorded. It’s hard to accurately describe the exact reason why this board is so special without getting into brain-melting, scientific particulars which will inevitably be lost on the non-musician, so Grohl smartly sidesteps it. In fact, in one of the funniest scenes in the film, the filmmaker gets Rupert Neve himself (the engineer who designed and built the console) to explain the particulars – which are quickly lost on Grohl’s glazed-over eyes.

Because that is essentially what SOUND CITY boils down to: it doesn’t matter how these things work. It doesn’t matter that the studio is a mess, or that nobody can explain just why the reverb and decay of a certain room in the studio makes it, against all logic, the perfect place to record drum tracks. It just matters that there’s some sort of magic in this place, and that it comes through in the music. It helps create the art, through engineering, or luck, or plain old witchcraft. It just works, because you can feel it.

And that’s what ultimately makes this film so special. After an hour or so of delving extremely successfully into the history of rock ‘n’ roll as it exists around this studio, Grohl pivots the film into something else entirely. Following the history of Sound City Studios up until the very moment when the place closed its doors forever a few years back, the musician-turned-filmmaker buys that console and continues its legacy in his own studio. He invites back all of the musicians whose lives have been changed by it, and they record what will become the official soundtrack to this movie: a series of brand new songs, written in collaboration by some of the greatest rock musicians to ever live.

This is where the film transcends itself to become something truly magnificent. I simply cannot remember the last time I was moved to so much joy as I was in the last 40-or-so minutes of this film. The entire “Real to Reel” segment is so creatively stimulating, so emotionally poignant and so downright celebratory that it defies description. Perhaps this is a fact that will be lost on the non-musical viewer, but for anybody who has ever played an instrument, or followed a band, or just been a true fan of music – this is something you are not likely to ever experience again.

It’s over a half an hour of some of the greatest musicians in the world, gathered around the mixing board that helped make them the artists that they are today and creating new music together. The process is fascinating and, frankly, humbling: when Grohl, Josh Homme (of Queens of the Stone Age) and Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails) get together in a room and slowly work out the specifics of a brand new song (“Mantra”) that they are writing on the spot, you get a real feeling for just how impossibly talented these people are. And bringing them together around this metaphorical personification of what the music industry used to be is a powerful and exhilarating message.

And when Sir Paul McCartney himself joins all of the surviving members of Nirvana to write what will eventually be known as “Cut Me Some Slack”, one gets the feeling that you’re witnessing the entire history of an art form encapsulated in one room, in one moment.

“Why can’t it always be this easy?” asks Grohl.

“It is,” replies McCartney.

And if that’s not enough to make you want to follow your dreams, I’m not sure what will.

8.5/10

d.a. garabedian

TIFF 2012 – This is War: Bartholomew Cubbins’ ARTIFACT

The music industry is in a tricky place, and it has been for several years now. And no, that’s not all because of file-sharing (even though it sure does have a hell of a lot to do with it); there are a lot of intricate and complex political, economic and technological issues going on behind-the-scenes of all of your favorite bands. In fact, many of them probably make less money than you do; not just less, but significantly less. Most bands these days are in debt so deeply to the record labels that there is no hope of them ever getting out again.

Enter 30 Seconds to Mars, the band fronted by actor / director / musician / artist Jared Leto. Along with his brother Shannon and fellow band-mate Tomo Miličević, the three musicians collectively encompass an alternative rock group which has sold in excess of six million records worldwide after only releasing three albums. In today’s music climate, that’s not just a rare thing – it’s unheard of. It categorically places them amongst the pantheon of some of the most successful artists in rock music working today. And in spite of all of this success, the band is somehow still nearly $2 million in debt to their record label. They have never seen a dime of the estimated $60 million that their album sales alone have brought in.

This is Jared Leto’s (working under his popular, directorial pseudonym, Bart Cubbins) ARTIFACT, the artist’s feature-length debut as a director. The documentary may just be the most definitive film yet produced on the state of the contemporary rock ‘n’ roll scene: with interviewees that span from a who’s-who of former record label COOs, presidents and other businessman to contemporary superstars like Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington, System of a Down’s Serj Tankian and Incubus’ Brandon Boyd, the film uses the people who are actually involved in the business to give an unprecedented look into the increasing amount of corporate greed surrounding today’s music scene.

Where the film is most successful isn’t in its objectively systematic dissection of record label politics, but rather in its framework: ARTIFACT is not just an account of 30 Seconds to Mars’ struggle with record label EMI, it’s also an intimate look at how the creative process has become impeded by back-door politics and economic jargon that has little to nothing to do with musicians or what they are trying to do. Following in the wake of an apparent breach-of-contract with their record label – wherein the band attempted to terminate said contract – the trio of musicians found themselves unexpectedly being sued by their own record label – to the tune of $30 million. The film follows their simultaneous battle against the lawsuit and the recording of their third album, THIS IS WAR.

What Leto has to say about the record industry is things that many musicians have already been screaming for years: that it’s corrupt, that there is incessant level of greed dominating everything and that it’s led by self-serving business types who have little knowledge of the actual industry and care more about themselves than about the company or their employees. Leto’s animations and narrations explaining the true economics of rock music may be surprising to some, but it’s becoming increasingly common knowledge in a world of independent superstars and crowd-source-funded albums that the contracts between record labels and their artists is borderline criminal, a hodgepodge of legal hokum from which artists become trapped, with no hope of actually generating sustainable income. It’s an important footnote on an industry whose primary function isn’t just generating capital and entertainment, but art.

But, again, Leto’s call-to-arms over the injustices of his industry would be quickly lost had they not had the framework of the THIS IS WAR sessions to drive home the juxtaposition of art and business. Taking as broad a canvas as possible, Leto interviews everybody he can get his hands on, all while simultaneously exploring the history of his band, the personal relationships between its members and how the horrors of the industry have begun to affect (both positively and negatively) the most important artistic output of his career. Peppered with lush, haunting instrumentals (all of which from the THIS IS WAR sessions; some a-sides and some not), ARTIFACT does a terrific job of driving home not only Leto’s personal struggles as an artist, but just how frustrating a business that exists in a medium of self-expression can really be.

As 30 Seconds to Mars dives headfirst into crafting an independently-funded album with the hope that their lawsuit will be settled in time for them to release it, Leto carefully constructs a narrative that never becomes overly preachy, nor overly sentimental; just as things become a little bit too heady, the director ensures that we take a quick left turn into the realm of the personal and intimate in order to balance it out.

Anybody who has been aware of “Cubbins'” directorial style through any of the alternative rock group’s music videos (which should really be called short films – they range from five to 13 minutes in length, and have been shot in world record-setting locations as diverse as the Republic of China and north of the Arctic Circle) should know by now that the actor has picked up a few flourishes from the incredibly high caliber of directors that he has worked with and become friends with over the years: there are often dark, noir-esque nods to David Fincher in his works, not to mention the surrealist (and the more contemporary, brutally realist) styling of Darren Aronofsky. On ARTIFACT, Leto is less reliant on his acquainted influences and merely shoots the film in subdued, simplistic fashion. Which is, of course, not necessarily a bad thing for a documentary.

ARTIFACT is an interesting film for several reasons, most notably because it brings Leto’s wonderful eye for compositions and direction into the realm of features for the first time. What the film truly is, however, is a celebration of everything music-related, and a fascinating peek inside of an industry that has become infamously idealized – one where outdated models, expectations and relationships have given a new generation a violently skewed perspective on how it operates. If music lovers – fans, creatives and the corporates – all got to take a look at this film, we might be on our way to figuring out how to make this industry sustainable again.

8.5/10

d.a. garabedian

Micro-Review: Childish Gambino’s ROYALTY

Donald Glover has had a great year. After years of experimenting with acting, rapping and writing, it seems like every aspect of his multifaceted talent have culminated all at once: he’s won a WGA award for writing on 30 ROCK, a TV Guide Award for acting on COMMUNITY, and his one-two musical punch of last year’s EP and his debut studio album CAMP finally gave him the musical recognition he (also) deserves.  Now, Glover is back under his Childish Gambino moniker for a television-off-season mixtape, ROYALTY.

And while ROYALTY is less polished, personal and unique than the amazing CAMP was, the mixtape has its own distinct and wonderful flavor, and still happens to be a fantastic release from the young star.  Peppered with star cameos – everybody from Beck to RZA; even Tina Fey(!?) makes an appearance – the mixtape is a much more straightforward hip-hop offering than the stylistically diverse CAMP, which should please fans of the genre. Most of the beats are memorable – did I really hear the theme song to SIGNS on “Arrangement”? – and the production is handled mostly by Gambino himself. There are a few outside producers, though; like Beck, who helms two tracks, including the excellent “Silk Pillow”, where he even throws in a verse or two.

In true mixtape fashion, ROYALTY reuses certain cues and motifs that pop up over and over again throughout the tape, to convincing effect. The result is a very cohesive offering that plays like a singular, unified entity, for better or worse; unfortunately, this also has the undesired effect of having all of the songs bleed together in a way that makes the middle of the disc (download?) sort of forgettable after the absolutely stellar opening. Luckily, the album rebounds beautifully in the final quarter, pulling out wonderful beats, verses and hooks (even despite Gambino’s lamentation about them not being hooks on “Bronchitis”), especially on the lush “Wonderful” and “Make it Go Right”.

There are a few real gems in here that Gambino fans will definitely latch onto , specifically the opening track, “We Ain’t Them” and the familiar-sounding “Won’t Stop”. And despite a middle section that drags, it’s still another excellent offering from the ridiculously talented Glover.

Download: http://childishgambino.com/iamdonald/mixtape/ROYALTY.zip

Standout tracks: “We Ain’t Them”, “Wonderful” and “Silk Pillow”.

8/10

d.a. garabedian

Micro-Review: Delicate Steve’s POSITIVE FORCE

Delicate Steve is one of those un-categorizable groups that defy almost everything that seems safe and easy about music. Hailing from the Garden State, the band’s instrumental music is composed entirely by the titular guitarist / songwriter, Steve Marion, whose only musical consistency seems to be his bizarre but instantly recognizable guitar tone: equal parts MIDI track, pipe organ and electric guitar, there’s just nothing else quite like it out there. After releasing a debut album (WONDERVISIONS) and taking to the road with fellow genre-defiant, post-rock(?) allies Fang Island (along with backing band Mike Duncan, Adam Pumilia, Christian Peslak and Mickey Sanchez), Marion returns here with his sophomore offering: POSITIVE FORCE.

At a brisk 37-minutes, POSITIVE FORCE is as good a gateway into Delicate Steve’s music as any; it’s as eccentric, scatterbrained and oddly comforting as anything else that the musician has released thus far. Though the sonic texture seems on par with his debut, it’s hard to accurately judge just what “consistent” might be when your textures are as impossible to nail down as they are here. Still, it goes without saying that there is a general air of maturity that makes this a far more compelling release than the debut. There is an overall atmosphere that is generally less in-your-face about its eccentricities and more about creating a singular, oddly soothing tone that permeates the entirety of the record.

What Marion creates here that was missing from WONDERVISIONS is a sense of space -and there is certainly a lot of it. Almost space-rock-esque in its airy, electronic sensibilities, Marion injects POSITIVE FORCE with an irresistible, calming sensation that replaces the bouncing, bubbling absurdity of the last release. He’s certainly improved on his overall songwriting abilities, as well; screeching guitar lines make way to a far more meticulous compositional palette, and the instrumentation, as a result, tends to be far more interesting and balanced here. He even throws in a few instances of vocal texturing – something new for the project – on tracks like “Two Lovers”, “Love” and “Redeemer”, the latter of which bears an unmistakable, vocal aesthetic similarity to the equally experimental “Trembling Hands” off of Explosions in the Sky’s latest offering.

Whereas WONDERVISIONS was delightfully over-the-top and peculiarly refreshing, POSITIVE FORCE is breezy, looser and far more aesthetically pleasing – the mark of a maturing musician, no doubt. And with such a long career ahead of him, there’s no reason why Marion won’t continue to grow and impress from here on out.

Standout tracks: “Two Lovers”, “Positive Force”, “Africa Talks to You”.

8/10

d.a. garabedian

Micro-Review: The Fuck Off and Dies’ SONGS IN THE KEY OF FUCK

That’s a whole lot of fuck for just the title.

The brilliantly-named Fuck Off and Dies are unapologetic punk in the grandest fashion. With a 17-track debut that clocks in at only 34-minutes, this band is all about getting in fast, hitting them hard and getting out even faster: at an average track length of two minutes and with a third of the total number of songs coming in at under a minute, SONGS IN THE KEY OF FUCK is unrelenting from start to finish.

Fronted by Story of the Year vocalist Dan Marsala, there is something delightfully and hilariously ironic about the thematic content of The Fuck Off and Dies – as a branded straight-edge musician up until fairly recently, it’s positively exhilarating hearing Marsala croon so passionately about beer. Because, in the end, that’s all this album really is – a party-fuelled ode to sex, booze and skateboarding – and it’s a refreshing, fun listen for that reason alone. Seeing as Marsala’s vocabulary here consists almost entirely of the words “fuck”, “beer” and, well, “fuck” again, the album is digestible and, quite frankly, a fucking blast. With songs titles like “WTF (There’s No Beef Left)” and “F.U.C.K. We’re Going On a Holiday”, and featuring lyrics that could be memorized and repeated back before the first listen is over – I’ll give you a hint: most of the lyrics are contained entirely within the songs’ titles – there is a lot to love here, and I expect it’d be a hit at just about any rager you could find yourself in.

As a punk record, the songs are stripped, simple and energetic in the best way possible: straightforward rhythms behind palm-muted power chords dominate the entire running time, interrupted occasionally by a few arpeggiated riffs. Which, of course, gives Marsala – and the bassist / backup vocalist known only as Mark Attack – a chance to scream and swear and wax existential on running out of beer after the store closes for the night, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Luckily, Marsala isn’t afraid to also pull from his impressively deep pool of melodic talent, and several of the tracks, including “I Fucking Love Her” and “Last Fucking Call” feature some legitimately excellent hooks that help balance out the sheer madness.

SONGS IN THE KEY OF FUCK is a terrific contemporary punk album. It’s simple and concise, but, most importantly, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Here’s hoping that they keep this project going for a long time while the rest of the Story of the Year boys are off on their various side-projects.

“You better wise up / And open up your eyes / If your favorite band is not / The Fuck Off and Dies.”

Standout tracks: “I Fucking Love Her”, “Last Fucking Call” and “WTF (There’s No Beer Left)”.

8/10

d.a. garabedian