David Byrne leaned back in his chair and stared up at the ceiling of his charmingly cluttered Soho office: “I like to keep trying new things — it keeps me on my toes.”
Um, yeah. In the last decade alone, the 64-year-old art-rock legend has authored two books, released a pair of collaborative albums (one with Brian Eno, the other with Annie Clark), written a musical about Joan of Arc, turned a building into an instrument, scored a Shia LaBeouf movie, and teamed up with Fatboy Slim to create a disco opera about the life and times of Imelda Marcos, the former First Lady of the Philippines.
For Byrne, a restless iconoclast who founded Talking Heads with some RISD chums in 1975 and has been expanding his horizons ever since, such unbridled creativity is just par for the course. He’s completely at the mercy of his muse — no matter where it wants to take him — and he won’t shake free of its grasp until he can share his inspirations with the rest of us. Whether melding pan-African sounds into New Wave jams or starting a record label in order to bring his favorite Latin American funk to the masses, Byrne has always been happy to serve as a human conduit for the things that stoke his curiosity.
Sometimes, it’s like he doesn’t even have a choice in the matter; when he encounters something that excites him, he simply can’t fathom the idea of keeping it to himself. “Music fans always like to share what they’ve found with somebody else,” he explained. “It makes them feel good if the other person likes it, too.”
But David Byrne is no ordinary music fan — this is the guy who wrote “Remain in Light,” the guy who gave Radiohead their name. And when he wants to share something, he’s not just going to make you a mixtape — he’s going to engineer a celebration. So, when Byrne happened upon a DVD of color guard performances a few years ago and became convinced that he was witnessing a great American folk art, it was never going to end as just a passing fancy. On the contrary, it was going to build towards the biggest party the obscure medium had ever seen.
Calling the event “Contemporary Color” (you might remember reading about it in the summer of 2015), Byrne paired 10 of the continent’s best color guard teams with 10 of his favorite musicians, bringing wildly different worlds together for a quartet of live performances in arenas that are typically reserved for Beyoncé concerts and major league sports games. And he wasn’t going to stop there. The star of the greatest concert movie ever made, Byrne understood the value of capturing this spectacle on camera — more than that, he understood the value of doing it right. So, upon meeting “Beasts of the Southern Wild” producer Josh Penn at a Smithsonian gala (“You never meet people at parties that are going to be of any use to you, and this is the exception that proves the rule”), Byrne asked if he knew anyone in the documentary world who might be a good fit to direct this kooky project he had in mind. When Penn suggested brothers Bill and Turner Ross, they were the only names that Byrne needed to hear.
“He had seen some of our movies…” Turner said in a hushed voice, as though he still couldn’t entirely believe it himself. “We’re obscure arthouse documentary filmmakers, but at some point David had ridden his bike down to the theater and watched some of our stuff. That’s a genuine curiosity. That taught us a lot. We really took a lot from this experience about being able to have those fresh eyes.” Turner (clean-cut, kindly intense) and Bill (shaggy, gregarious, like Andrew W.K. by way of Frederick Wiseman) sat on the opposite side of the table from Byrne, and — years into their collaboration — still exuded the same awed deference that a wonderstruck fan might have when meeting the musician for the first time.
Byrne didn’t elaborate on why he knew the Ross brothers would vibe with this project as mellifluously as Jonathan Demme had with “Stop Making Sense,” but — in hindsight — many of the clues are somewhat self-evident. Exploring historical ideas via indelibly specific subjects, each of their previous three features has offered an immersive look at one of the invisible communities that comprise this country. From “45365,” a lyrical debut that saw the soul of the American heartland through the citizens of a single zip code in the Ross’ home state of Ohio, to the dreamlike “Tchoupitoulas,” which collapses nine months of New Orleans night into a seamless fantasia that feels like a Greek myth on the bayou, and most recently to “Western,” which reconciles centuries of American iconography with the flesh-and-blood people of the modern world, the Ross’ elegiac portraits fill the space between the smallness of an individual and the scale of the world into which they were born.
For Byrne, who was fascinated by the dynamics that galvanized these color guard teams — drawn to how each individual member supports the troop, and how the troop supports them in return — the Ross brothers’ natural inclinations made them the ideal accomplices. He knew that they would find a way to measure, and perhaps even expand, the space that is afforded to such niche artists in our cultural landscape.
And now, a quick word on color guards: Essentially cheerleaders with a militaristic edge — the troops wave flags and twirl plastic rifles, hurling them into the sky and catching them with the precision of an olympic gymnast — color guards have become an esoteric symbol of small town American life. Often found on the sidelines of high school football games (usually in the kinds of places where people care a little bit too much about high school football games), they provide a niche for kids who otherwise might not have one, the routines combining so many different disciplines that almost anyone with a flair for the dramatic can find a way to fit in.
“We had always talked about what it would look like if we were ever to make a concert film,” Bill chimed in. “That’s a long history, and we needed to figure out what we could add to it. It needed to be something like this, something with so many moving parts.” For Bill and his brother, “Contemporary Color” represented a golden opportunity to put their own personal spin on a somewhat petrified genre, to expand their own horizons through a form that has remained largely static since Byrne posed for its masterpiece 32 years ago. “We had those first three films which are of an aesthetic and working within a shared palette,” Turner explained, “and we wanted to move on.”
Bill, who edited the film, hedged a bit on that point: “We thought of it is as what we typically do, but just with a smaller space to explore.” But he nodded along as his brother elaborated on their thought process: “We wanted to tell a story the way we usually do, which is to fluidly move through this space and these stories. We didn’t want to do a straightforward concert film, and we didn’t want to do the prescribed narrative of building up to a show and having a pinnacle moment at the end. We wanted to build this contiguous, immersive world where you buy the ticket and you take the ride.”
Originally, the brothers conceived of the movie as a lo-fi thing that could be shot by the parents of the color guard kids from their seats in the crowd, but — after talking through the project with Byrne — they realized that it called for something a bit more elaborate. “Each of these kids has a story,” Byrne insisted. “There’s a whole process that they’re going through, and they’re all building up to this thing.”
So Bill and Turner flipped their game plan. Their approach went from minimalist to maximalist, from coordinating iPhone footage to feeding a Jumbotron. They worked with Byrne to narrativize the event and everyone in it so that, in Turner’s words, “As you watched the show you went on this journey and got to know not only where the show came from, but where the art form came from and how it got to the present moment.” In order to do that, the brothers had to embed themselves in a subculture in much the same way as their previous docs required them to embed themselves in a place.
So while Byrne was enlisting musicians to play the show and convincing the troops to pair their routines with original songs that wouldn’t be written until just before showtime, the filmmakers spent a year traveling the country and shooting the mesmeric rehearsal footage that would be ultimately be used as interstitial material. The finished film poetically cuts between the bombastic arena performances and the quiet imagery of individual troop members practicing their moves in the pre-dawn light of their suburban hometowns, contrasting the immensity of their destination with the intimacy of the journey that led them to it. “The show was the big unknown,” Bill reflected. “Everything leading up to that was very similar to our other work.”
But the Ross brothers seemed to know that, no matter how they shot it, “Contemporary Color” was going to be one hell of a show. In fact, the only person who ever had any doubts may have been Byrne, himself, who worried that his ability to stage an event like this might not be enough to justify actually doing it. When asked if he was at all afraid that it may not work out, Byrne sighed and stared at his hands: “I’ve gotten to a point where I think maybe I can do some of these things, where it’s possible for me to realize these crazy concepts.” You’d have thought he just invented the hydrogen bomb.
The alchemy on display here is, fortunately, of a more benevolent kind. It helps that all of the performers who appear in the film clearly wanted to be there. Byrne may have the entire music world on speed dial, but he only called artists whom he thought might genuinely enjoy the experiment and share in its sense of discovery. Assembling what he described as “a nice spread,” Byrne collected a motley crew of talent that ranged from indie superstars like Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent and Dev Hynes (aka Blood Orange), to New York royalty like the Beastie Boys’ Adam Horowitz (aka ADROCK), and creatively forceful pop stars like Nelly Furtado.
The most moving contributor, however, is also the most surprising: “This American Life” host Ira Glass. Byrne laughed when remembering how the iconically voiced public radio star got involved: “He volunteered himself! I thought he wanted to be the MC, but he was like ‘No, I want to perform.’” Glass’ offering, which he pieced together with some help from poly-talented composer Nico Muhley, poignantly threads interview snippets around a plaintive bedrock of strings, the wistful voices of individual color guard performers providing a fitting soundscape for a project that was literally designed to amplify them.
To shoot the film, the Ross brothers enlisting documentary superstars like Robert Greene (“Kate Plays Christine”) and Amanda Wilder (“Approaching the Elephant”) to serve as shooters and giving them free reign to follow their own visions. More palpably, it’s also reflected in how it’s been assembled, the temporally unhinged footage creating a slipstream of music and movement that synthesizes into something more than the sum of its parts. In one emblematic sequence, images of St. Vincent playing on stage are transposed over a shot of the troop performing at her feet, creating an achingly ephemeral harmony between two different worlds.
Ego is the only thing missing. “None of the musicians complained,” Byrne insisted, “but it was definitely like saying: ‘You’re not up front. There’s a whole spectacle between you and the audience, and you’re providing the soundtrack for it.” Of course, it probably helped that the teens in the color guard troops were as unfamiliar with the rock stars as the rock stars were with them. “They knew Nelly Furtado!” Byrne laughed, “but the rest… well, it was good for us!”
By the time Merrill Garbus (aka TuNe-yArDs) gets her face painted like one of the kids she was playing for, there’s a wonderful sense of people meeting in the middle for one perfect moment where everyone is equal and none of the arts are taken for granted. That spirit of solidarity was beautiful when Byrne brought it to the stage (the show took place the day after the Supreme Court decided on the legality of gay marriage), and it’s even more beautiful now that the Ross brothers are bringing it to the screen (because Trump).
And it’s through that collaboration, even more so than the many others the movie puts on display, that “Contemporary Color” becomes such a perfect distillation of what David Byrne is all about. “We need to celebrate the creativity that happens outside the traditional cultural centers,” he said, “because all kinds of people are being very, very creative.” You only had to look at the arthouse documentary filmmakers sitting on the other side of Byrne’s table to know exactly what he meant. It’s a big world out there, full of beautiful things, and all of us grow together when it gets a little bigger with the times.
“Contemporary Color” is now playing in theaters.