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Review: Arcade Fire’s Experimental Doc ‘The Reflektor Tapes’ Hits A Flat Note

Review: Arcade Fire's Experimental Doc 'The Reflektor Tapes' Hits A Flat Note

Well, it’s not going to be easy to listen to another Arcade Fire album again. “You have to combine with a new force to make a new kind of wave,” says the band’s frontman, Win Butler, over a smorgasbord of superimposed images and concert footage. He says this at the beginning of his band’s new rockumentary, and it ends up being one of the more comprehensible things in “The Reflektor Tapes.” By ‘new force,’ he’s referring to the musical traditions in Haiti, where the band spent a lot of time spiritually connecting with the locals looking for a new musical approach for their 2013 album Reflektor. 

After shooting some footage there, the band turned to the forceful Kahlil Joseph, the avant-garde music video director for the likes of Kendrick Lamar and FKA Twigs, for a collaboration on a new kind of concert film. The result? A painfully nonsensical piece of post-modernism (that’s coming from someone who’s had Reflektor on repeat since its release).

READ MORE: Watch An 8-Minute Preview And Teaser Trailer For Arcade Fire’s ‘The Reflektor Tapes’

There’s an unintentionally amusing moment in the film in which Arcade Fire inevitably returns to the land that’s inspired them so much while on tour: the band performs to a packed crowd in Jacmel, Haiti. The camera sweeps around the crowd, and we see dozens of perplexed faces not knowing whether to bob their heads, clap their hands, or just leave. We get a closer look with a quick shot of a few boys hanging out on the railing, and their puzzled expressions are priceless. After sitting through 80 minutes of ‘Reflektor Tapes,’ I can totally relate.

This film does a great job of making one never want to go to an Arcade Fire concert, if only because it exposes Butler as an awful singer when he doesn’t have the advantage of post-production touch-ups. And for anyone who’s ever thought of this band as egotistical and pretentious, this undertaking will more than likely validate that opinion, with Butler in particular coming across as particularly self-regarding and arrogant.

But the failure of this experiment is all in the execution. For a film that’s meant to give us insight into the band’s artistic methods, we instead get an assortment of visual violations: frames-within-frames, smudgy outlines on the camera lens, meaningless squiggles, and faux-philosophical musings from Butler and his wife and band-member Régine Chassagne. It’s all meant to be very “unconventional” and “impressionistic,” but ends up being outstandingly ostentatious. For the most forgiving fans of the band, “The Reflektor Tapes” might be a success. For the rest of us? Not so much.

One of the few interesting things Butler says in the film concerns how the band ignores the rest of the world while working, mostly feeding off of each other for inspiration and influence. It’s too bad we only get the briefest of peeks into this process, because Joseph appears most interested in footage of the band’s freaky-looking mascot dressed in a suit made of mirrors. Apart from a few minor insights into the band’s musical ideologies, “The Reflektor Tapes” mostly goes through all the album’s songs via various performances on tour, confirming that the album is an infinitely more enriching experience than anything you’ll find in this film. Trying something different and playing around with convention is always commendable, but if “The Reflektor Tapes” proves anything, it’s that the result can sometimes fail miserably. [D-] 

This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.

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