Thursday 3 December 2020

Vorsprung durch technik: "Tripping with Nils Frahm"

What will be an unusually busy, not to mention stellar festive season for music docs - stand by, fans of David Byrne, the Bee Gees and (gulp) the Stereophonics - opens in elegant style with Tripping with Nils Frahm, a Brad Pitt-produced concert film showcasing the eminent German electronica peddler. As an artist, Frahm poses a problem for the cinema, and it's the same problem the producers of Top of the Pops faced when dance music began to dominate the charts in the late Eighties/early Nineties: how do you make a compelling spectacle out of the sight of a pale man sat behind a keyboard, or twiddling knobs on various black boxes? The TOTP old guard's solution was straight out of light entertainment: surround and outnumber the performer with sexy dancers throwing their bits around. With Tripping, director Benoit Toulemonde goes the other way: he leans only further into this lowish-key activity, the better to highlight the great skill involved. Toulemonde ushers the 36-year-old Frahm into the middle of a darkened Funkhaus in Berlin - shaven-headed beneath a flat cap and boho black T-shirt, resembling a marginally more agonised Andrew Scott - and then quietly gets on with watching him do what he does. Not so much event cinema as a supremely well-timed invitation to hibernate, this may be a film best dialled up in the early hours, perhaps with blankets close at hand, and a candle or something more intoxicating on the go. It becomes fairly obvious why Pitt, one of Hollywood's most celebrated caners, may have been drawn this way.

Scene and mood may be the mellowest imaginable: in a couple of places early on, a piece ebbs away, and an audibly sleepy pause ensues while the crowd huddling around Frahm figure out whether or not this is their cue to applaud. (This must be a great feeling for a minimalist: to make your audience believe silence is part of the show. Frahm chips in by uttering not one word the entire 90 minutes.) Yet the pared-down focus only points up the extent to which Frahm is operating as a one-man band here. Presumably, it would have taken a hefty road crew to set up the piano, synthesisers, modulators and pitchshifters piled high on the Funkhaus floor; during the most ambitious numbers, Frahm has to skitter frantically around a Maplin firesale's worth of kit to get the effect he wants. He can sit down and play a note over here, but he has to reach over there to sustain or distort it, and he has to haul some serious ass to work in a sample. There's your show right there: the music may be very minimal, super-chill in a way that has always played well in Berlin since the inception of Kraftwerk, but the effort that goes into reproducing it live, and doing so single-handedly, leaves the musician front-and-centre sweating like James Brown at the Apollo.

That perspiration has been met with an equal application on the filmmaker's part. Toulemonde has taken great care with his shot choices and sound mix, eternally snaking around swaying spectators - and through the abundant cables and wires on stage - to bring us closer to the source of each particular set of beats, and to find the angle that best demonstrates his subject's absolute mastery of the keyboard. One takehome: the most expressive close-ups of hands the cinema has offered in some while, possibly because Toulemonde had two of the most dextrous hands on the planet at his disposal, able to multitask - to create real, delicate beauty and do the tech work that enables it to fill a room - without snapping into two or three. Anyone seeking overwhelming widescreen stimuli from their concert movies should probably hold out for Spike Lee's film of David Byrne's American Utopia (arriving in the UK next week): Tripping's idea of a showstopper is to set Frahm to beating the insides of his Steinway with what look like two well-worn toilet brushes. But the encircling fullness of sound he generates here, as elsewhere, is remarkable, and that interiority feels crucial to what this composer-director pairing have been mining all along. It's a film of quiet precision and fascination, and proof sexy dancers aren't the solution to everything.

Tripping with Nils Frahm is now streaming via MUBI UK.

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