Contemporary Color (David Byrne, 2017)


I saw this at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, as part of the Open City Documentary Festival. At the end of the screening, there was a Q&A with Bill and Turner Ross (the directors), during which one of the audience members described the experience of watching the film as feeling like she’d eaten a rainbow’. This is precisely what it was! The film is spectacular in the way that through its visual energy alone, it captivates viewers entirely.



The story behind the idea of the film – told by the Ross brothers during the Q&A – is really quite lovely. Many years ago, a high school color guard contacted David Byrne (composer, artist, performer, etc.) to ask for permission to use one of his songs for a routine that the group was working on. Byrne wasn’t completely sure of what a color guard actually was, and set out to investigate. Turns out, he became enchanted.

Color guards can be found in most American colleges, high schools, and universities. They use various equipment, including flags, rifles, and sabres, along with dance, to enhance the music of the marching band show. Yet, they’ve since evolved into a separate activity known as winter guard, which is an indoor sport usually performed during the winter or spring, where the guard performs unaccompanied by the band, to a piece of pre-recorded music.

Byrne saw this as a kind of American folk art, a regional portrait, and thought up a concert event in which many different musical artists (including himself, Nelly Furtado, Ira Glass and Ad-Rock) would accompany color guard routines. The concerts took place on two evenings in Brooklyn, New York, in June 2015. The resulting film, Contemporary Color, records not only the concerts, but also the backstage buzz of the teenage performers working on a scale much larger and grander than ever before. The film is just as much an exploration of these kids’ emotional journies, and it’s clear that these color guards are a way for those who don’t fit into the traditional athletic and sporting scene of their school to be able to participate in something in their own right.

There were a few moments where I wondered if the film could perhaps do with a little more structure and narrative, but ultimately the visual experience was so dazzling that that ceased to matter. I thought it was spectacular.




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