Friday, 25 September 2015

Keep the car running: "Arcade Fire: The Reflektor Tapes"

Busy week for concert movies. Perhaps it shouldn't be such a surprise that where Roger Waters, in his The Wall, ventures a bombastic, vaguely indulgent two-hour political statement, Arcade Fire, in their The Reflektor Tapes, cleave to an artful minimalism: 75 minutes of distended or otherwise distressed images, non-synch sound and quotes from Kierkegaard, and an attempt - on the part of acclaimed shorts director Khalil Joseph - to stitch together these sharp, shiny, eye-and-earcatching bits-and-pieces into something as glittering as the reflective suit worn by the band's aptly angular Mirrorman mascot.

By all accounts, including the fleeting one Joseph's film offers in dispatches, 2010's The Suburbs, the album that promoted Win Butler's troubadours from the indie fringes to the top of the charts, ensnared its makers in a feedback loop: getting markedly better as an ensemble through the endless hours of live performance, yet growing increasingly dissatisfied with aspects of their new-found celebrity, and wondering where a set of art-school refuseniks might wind up once they'd passed through the mirror separating observers from observed. The answer, which might legitimately fill any conscientious musician with a rare mix of thrill and dread: bigger arenas still.

Emerging out of this period of introspection and doubt, 2013's Reflektor - ditching the anthems for alienated lyrics and asides on the soul-sapping properties of modern recording equipment - would be the sound of yet another band getting a tad restless and grumbly both with their own success and each other; the kind of creatively testing experience that often decides whether or not a band has any future together. Though a fractured listening experience - literally so, in splitting its fourteen tracks over two discs - the album has moments as elevatingly poppy as anything the band had previously attempted: it stakes a fair claim to being the closest the 21st century has yet given us to a group catharsis like Fleetwood Mac's Rumours.

To record it entailed getting away from the hoopla for a while - to Haiti, where Joseph's film catches the group rehearsing with local musicians to generate the album's big, grounding, tribal beats, the pulses that prevented Reflektor from getting bogged down in neurosis. (It's not explicitly stated, but Haiti also appears to be the source of Butler's skeleton suit - a local custom, and perhaps a means of expressing just how run-down and over-exposed he was feeling by this point.) There are issues of cultural appropriation here; Chassagne's Haitian heritage is mentioned in passing by way of mitigation, but Joseph, in his first feature assignment, appears unwilling to push the band further on the matter.

The distancing extended to the creation of a second, other self - a reimagining of Arcade Fire as The Reflektors, i.e. the same musicians decked out in oversized papier-mâché heads. This development, similarly, begs for closer analysis than The Reflektor Tapes, seizing upon it as the basis of a funny sight gag, provides: not only does it chime with the premise of last year's Frank (where, again, a troubled art-rocker sought refuge by hiding in plain sight), it also hits upon a neat visual analogue for a band who might have felt stuck inside their own big brains - and simultaneously a representation of the mindless, merchandisable puppets, the cartoon rockers, which Butler and Chassagne feared becoming. (In this configuration, at least the band get to control their own movements.)

The Reflektor Tapes permits glimpses of all these influences and transformations, and Joseph's stitching is occasionally effective, as in the cut that takes us from the band performing "It's Never Over (Hey Orpheus)" at an Earls Court gig in June 2014 to the moment it all began (Butler laying down the vocal in the Caribbean), a few words from the singer about his relationship with Chassagne rooting the recording - and the live performance - in graspable emotion: you're allowed to see how they got there from here. Too often, however, such glimmers come at the expense of any bigger picture, and you begin to wonder whether hiring a shorts man to make a feature was the best idea. Several sequences look to build towards some revelation, chorus or other climax - only for the music to cut out, the attention to drift away somewhere else. 

I was there at that Earls Court gig, and what impressed me most - other than that it was a bunch of pallid-looking Canadians who should be making such an almighty racket - was the sheer multi-stage, confetti-blasting, laser-doodling spectacle of the occasion: the kind of spectacle the Waters film dines out on, the kind of spectacle that, at point of initial impact, seemed to suggest Arcade Fire had, after all the soul-searching, come to embrace their destiny of large-scale partyplanners for all the world's outcasts and oddballs. The gorgeous fragments Joseph compiles here preserve the band's mystique but short-sell that experience; less definitive record than tentative sampler, it's really just a deflektor, one that needed a more rigorous handler behind the camera, imploring their not uncompelling subject to look the camera in the eye for once.

Arcade Fire: The Reflektor Tapes is now playing in selected cinemas.

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