After three documentaries noteworthy for their humanity-affirming lyricism, Bill and Turner Ross step outside their comfort zone with Contemporary Color. It’s a filmed record of last year’s David Byrne-organized celebration of color guard, the flag-spinning dance form usually associated with high school and college marching bands. For the event, held at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the former Talking Heads frontman matched 10 color guard troupes with 10 musicians, from classical composers like Nico Muhly to old- and new-guard indie darlings, among them Ad-Rock, St. Vincent, tUnE-yArDs, and Zola Jesus, commissioning them to choreograph routines based on original music.
The resulting performances are certainly varied and colorful, but the interstitial video material that appears between the performances add another layer to the show. For many of these high school troupes, this celebratory events represents the last time they’ll perform with each other before they head off to college, thus infusing the whole spectacle with a poignant sense of melancholy. It’s that subtextual layer that the Ross brothers seize upon. Here’s a concert film that’s as fixated on backstage interactions as it is on the live performances themselves. Thus, even as performances are going on, the filmmakers will cut to bits of behind-the-scenes business, whether its color guard troupe members interacting with each other while preparing for their routines or the musicians themselves talking about the youngsters and the lives ahead of them.
This strategy can be somewhat frustrating, especially because, without the convenience of time in order to actually get to know these performers, this human element is never developed with the kind of richness that distinguished 45365, Tchoupitoulas, and Western. Think of Contemporary Color, then, as the Ross brothers’ experimental film, with the dance routines allowing them to try out different forms of purely visual spectacle in ways that are occasionally intoxicating and inventive. Certainly, in none of their previous films have they come up with an image as indelible as that of St. Vincent in the midst of her live performance superimposed in between two flag twirlers, collapsing two planes of the Barclays Center stage into a moment of entrancing visual and spiritual creative connection.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 13—24.
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