Contemporary Color Shows Us a Better America Than We Deserve

Contemporary Color-St.Vincent - combo of Jarred Alterman and Wyatt GarfieldContemporary Color
Directed by Bill and Turner Ross
Opens March 1 at the IFC Center

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“The world has changed,” David Byrne says to the crowd near the end of the virtuous and euphoric concert film Contemporary Color. Backstage, in an empty dressing room, a TV tuned to CNN shows the White House lit up in a rainbow to celebrate the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision. A document of summer 2015’s concerts in Brooklyn, for which Byrne paired up musicians and color guards from schools and elsewhere across the US and Canada, Contemporary Color captures the feeling of the best of the Obama years, when, it seemed, we were all coasting along the moral arc of the universe as it bent towards justice. As indie and neo-R&B acts play their songs, composed to inspire choreography from amateurs of all races and orientations and body types, the film offers a spectacle that’s audio-visual and multimedia, interdisciplinary and intersectional, and open-minded in the evident mutual admiration across medium, genre and class. The end credits play over spent confetti on the ground of the empty Barclays Center, reminding us that this vision of technocratic positivity underwritten by corporate largesse was hardly inevitable—but the film as a whole is a tingling, joyous confirmation that we were on the right track.

Brooklyn Magazine’s Jake Cole recently described Jonathan Demme’s concert film Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids as “a process-driven account of the way that an artist’s vision is only actualized through collaboration,” positing it as a spiritual heir to Demme and Byrne’s Stop Making Sense, with its still-utopian mixing board-as-melting pot, and moments of racial unity and enjoyable frisson in every dorky-fluid dance move. Contemporary Color is self-consciously also celebratory of difference and inclusivity. Byrne had been approached by a color guard—you know, spinning fake rifles high in the air, twirling flags, like a high-school marching band and drum majors and majorettes but here, in the “winter guard” style, far more avant-garde—about using one of his songs, and from there connected his famous friends together with teens and adult performance groups for the concerts. The resultant fusions of talent mix the color guards—modern-dance lighting, ice-capade leotards and circus makeup, acrobatics, bits of narrative and muscular choreography, and many, many star-spangled presentations of white plastic guns and rainbow flags, all from ecstatic and incredibly sincere young people—with mostly moody futuresounds from the likes of St. Vincent (very commanding in her stillness), Nelly Furtado, Dev Hynes, How to Dress Well and Ad Rock and Money Mark (who amuse themselves backstage, in matching color-guard t-shirts and baseball caps, looking at the sports team photos like a couple of suburban dads at an away game). Ira Glass and Nico Muhly’s collaboration, early in the concert, provides a bit of context with a collage of color-guard interviewers narrating their performance (and excitements and fears) over shards of classical minimalism; the live shows adds further layers of context and texture with interstitial video presentations on the Jumbotron, and hilariously out-of-step backstage announcements from a sort of tuxedo’ed Michael Buffer figure, who interviews the “athletes.”

The directors, the Ross Brothers, have made a couple of partly staged nonfiction films offering impressionistic textures of Americana (easy to see how they hooked up with Byrne). The camera crew, a murderer’s row of documentary and micro-indie talent, stalked different beats during the shows, giving fly-on-the-wall backstage views, overhead and reactive close-ups to the pageantry, and stylized music-video snippets of individual color guard members at home. All sorts talents are recognized: the film hands out participation trophies in the form of screen time to bridge-and-tunnel audience members, and the Barclays maintenance crew dealing with a loading-dock water leak as the show goes on. If Contemporary Color’s vision of America is a bubble, it’s large and welcoming, and positively iridescent, shimmering in all the colors of the rainbow.

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