9 Dec 2020

Review: Three Music Movies

From Widescreen, 1:52 pm on 9 December 2020

Dan Slevin has been watching recent films featuring Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift and David Byrne.

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Photo: Apple

What’s a rock star to do when the pandemic has shut down the lucrative touring circuit? The answer appears to be head to the movies. Recently, Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift and David Byrne have all created ways for fans to experience their work on screen, with the help of streaming services and (where possible) cinemas.

Springsteen’s new album, Letter to You, was recorded in a couple of weeks during the last US winter at his home studio in new Jersey. For the first time in years he reconvened the famous E Street Band to back him up and one of the pleasures of the subsequent documentary (Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You) is watching the band’s effortless shorthand – mostly Bruce talking about how good it feels to collaborate and then giving them orders anyway.

Although the theme of the album (and the film) is mortality and loss, Bruce also talks a lot about “his band” and how good it feels to have them back. (Even though they are actually employees and therefore make no money except session fees on the records, Bruce looks after them when he tours, splitting the gate receipts equally amongst himself and the musicians. That’s their stipend.)

This time around, they all get an appearance fee for the movie as well as for the session, and that’s not the only example of Bruce trying to look after other people (while never giving up control). The inspiration for the album was the passing of his former bandmate George Theiss and Springsteen’s realisation that he was the last one remaining from the 60s Jersey rock and roll band, The Castiles, that gave him his start. In a post-credit sequence, Springsteen sits with his cousin Frank and plays a song he co-wrote with Theiss – a remembrance of his friend but also a gift of royalties to his family.

The film is directed by now-regular Springsteen collaborator Thom Zimny (Springsteen on Broadway) and it is photographed in a crisp black and white that reflects the frostiness outside. Other notable factors to consider include that the film sounds fantastic – for a long time Springsteen’s albums were not notable for that – and the sequence during the song “Last Man Standing” where the Boss’s long-time manager, co-producer and friend Jon Landau is so moved he has to leave the studio and have a weep out there in the snow.

Letter to You was written and recorded pre-pandemic but can’t be toured. Taylor Swift, to the surprise of her record company, used the lockdown to make a whole new record – Folklore. She also can’t tour to support the record – or herself – so has made a concert film instead, Taylor Swift – Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions on Disney+. With pandemic precautions still in place, she went to Long Pond Studio in rural upstate New York with her two songwriting collaborators Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner and a tiny crew (so small that the cameras were all operated by remote control and Swift herself is credited with makeup as well as direction).

Over a couple of evenings, the three-piece (with one notable exception) create beautifully sparse versions of all 18 songs from the Folklore record, interspersed with conversation between them about the songs and how they came about. Swift is obviously a very thoughtful writer and collaborator but, if I’m honest, I could have done with a bit less of that, especially as the result is over two hours long.

The highlight is the duet between Swift and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon (Vernon joining in from his home studio in Wisconsin) duetting on the song “Exile” through an outlaw’s bandana that might be a Covid-related mask or a gesture towards anonymity. In any case, it’s wonderful.

I’m not a huge follower of Swift but this film is great, and I think I would buy these versions of the songs over the original album.

The king of the hill of recent music films, cinematically at least, is Spike Lee’s film of David Byrne’s American Utopia, filmed at the Broadway version of the tour that came here in 2018. People who attended those gigs told me it was in their top three concerts of all time and, watching Spike’s joint, I can well imagine it.

Reinventing what pop on stage can look and sound like, Byrne’s band are blindingly well-drilled musically and choreographically. It’s perfect for a big screen experience, a different kind of experience to the intimacy of the first two films.

And need I say that it sounds amazing. See it – and hear it – in the biggest auditorium you can find. We’re remarkably lucky here that we have cinemas open to screen it – in the States it ended up on HBO which is fine as far as it goes, but I feel certain that wasn’t the original plan.

It seems extraordinary to me that Byrne can reinvent the concert film twice in one career. His taste in collaborators (Demme with Stop Making Sense in 1984 and Spike Lee here) is exceptional.

Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You is rated PG and is streaming now at Apple TV+. Apple TV+ is $8.99 a month or free with qualifying Apple purchase. It offers a seven-day free trial.

Taylor Swift – Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions is rated PG and is streaming now at Disney+. Disney+ is $9.99 a month and does not currently offer a free trial period.

David Byrne’s American Utopia is rated M (offensive language) and is in selected cinemas across New Zealand.