Music on Film at TIFF 2014

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For many people, music attains its greatest emotive power when accompanying a moving image. Whether your thing is comedy or experimental art-house, it’s hard to imagine our favourite films without their respective scores. Here are three films that I saw at this year’s TIFF in which music played a pivotal role.

Bang Bang Baby

If David Lynch and John Waters decided to co-direct, and they asked Tim Burton to design the sets, it would probably be something like this film. Ostensibly a comedy musical and a send-up of 1950s teen films and early sci-fi, it steadily progresses in wackiness until the third act, when the bottom drops out and it became one of the weirdest, darkest, most unsettling things I’ve ever seen. Playing with the conventions of its source genres, it’s a bizarre and funny film set in a fictionalized version of small-town Canada. The songs are convincing pastiches of early doo-wop and rock & roll hits, performed with a fair degree of authenticity.  If you ever thought about watching “Grease” whilst taking LSD, then just watch this film instead.

Human Highway

After my wife and I found seats in the beautiful Elgin Theatre, I made a quick stop at the concession counter. The popcorn lady informed me that Neil was in the house, and would be doing a Q&A following the film.  The sense of excitement, the enormity of the occasion, shot through my heart like adrenalin. I’ve seen Neil perform a few times, but I’ve never been close to him, physically. Sure enough, he stalked out of the wings to deliver his intro. During his brief introduction, Neil said sarcastically, “Thirty years ago, I knew that we were going to need a film to follow-up Greendale. I think I look great in this movie.” And then he unceremoniously walked off, leaving us to his bizarre film.

Somewhere in the multi-verse, Neil Young’s maligned 1982 film “Human Highway” became a midnight hit and is playing alongside “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” in an eternal double-feature. It’s impossible to explain this film without context, so allow me to attempt to give you the background: in the late 1970s, Neil’s inner circle included actors Dean Stockwell and Dennis Hopper. Somewhere in one of their cocaine-fueled rampages, they decided to create a comedy film about the denizens of a desert gas station on the eve of a nuclear apocalypse. Neil himself takes one of the main roles, portraying the goofy station attendant Lionel Switch. Lionel is a loveable idiot who dreams of being a rock star (which gives Neil the opportunity to perform a fictionalized version of himself in the film). The bulk of the film concerns the mundane goings-on in this desolate place, until war is declared and all hell breaks loose.

The film is also notable for the involvement of the band Devo. The band themselves play “nuclear garbage workers” in the film. Their bizarre signature character, Booji Boy, plays the role of narrator, or perhaps a warped Greek chorus, and he pops up throughout to mock the main action and foreshadow doom. There’s also a sequence where Devo and Neil play his anti-anthem “Hey Hey, My My”, with Booji Boy barking from a crib, while the band thrashes away like they’re trying to banish all traces of melody from the song.

For years, this film was unavailable. Neil financed it the entire film, to the tune of somewhere around three million dollars, and the lack of a conventional script or narrative virtually ensured that no distributor would touch it. TIFF announced that it would be screening the new Director’s Cut of the film, recently re-worked by Neil himself. Needless to say, I was beyond excited to actually see this crazy artifact. It’s funny and weird and trippy and thoroughly Neil-ish. Devo really steal the show with their oddball vibe and their particular brand of surrealism.

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Roger Waters The Wall

At this point, Roger Waters has spent decades re-working this idea, and it shows. After countless tours, technology has finally caught up to him, allowing him to design the most intense, immersive version of The Wall yet staged. It will likely go down in history as the definitive version of the piece.

Roger’s new version of the concept documents the shows from his last tour with the production, interspersed with a semi-fictionalized road trip he took to visit the memorial of the battle where his father was killed during WWII. Clearly he’s still fairly adamant in his positions on the war, but it’s the overall change in Roger himself that is one of the most affecting things about this film. He is no longer the “fucked up” (his words) person that he was back in 1978. Back then, the alienation he was exploring with the work was obviously personal, relating to his feelings of separation from his audience. Couched in fascist imagery, the anti-war sentiments of the songs were mixed up with his personal emotions about stardom and the nature of the separation between audience and performer. In his new version, he seems genuinely at ease with himself and grateful for his audiences. He even smiles throughout the film, laying the final nail in the coffin of the conflicted young artist he once was.

These days, Roger is just angry and sad about the fact that people kill each other. Consequently the “fascist rock star” plot of the original has been transformed into a broader allegory about the search for empathy.  The implicit thesis is that lack of empathy for our fellow man is the source of all conflict, and Roger hammers his point home with lots of anti-ideological, anti-corporate imagery.  The effect his message has on audiences is tangible. Seeing stadiums full of young people singing “all in all, you’re just another brick in the wall” was a profoundly moving experience for me, and I genuinely hope that those audiences took the sentiment to heart.

But the real star of the show is The Wall itself. No longer a coldly imposing, faceless monolith, it has been transformed by technology into a living, breathing thing. It is a swirling, ever-changing projection of Roger’s imagination, the Id brought to life. Its scale, its seamless expressiveness is awe-inducing. It’s grown from a relatively simple stage design into a psychedelic masterpiece, a symphony of light.

Overall, the newest (and one would assume ultimate) version of The Wall draws a direct line way back to the roots of the global peace movement in the 1960s. It’s taken nearly 50 years, but Roger has finally created the ultimate manifestation of the hippie aesthetic.  It’s a masterwork by one of the most important rock stars of all time.

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