Review: ‘Screaming Masterpiece’

It takes chutzpah to call a pic "Screaming Masterpiece," however tongue-in-cheek it's intended, but as helmer Ari Alexander Ergis Magnusson's flag-waving docu proves, Icelanders are not short on self-belief. Film explores how this tiny nation of 300,000 souls has managed to produce not only exportable pop from the likes of Bjork and rock combo Sigur Ros, but also a thriving scene for jazz, folk and classical music.

It takes chutzpah to call a pic “Screaming Masterpiece,” however tongue-in-cheek it’s intended, but as helmer Ari Alexander Ergis Magnusson’s flag-waving docu proves, Icelanders are not short on self-belief. Film explores how this tiny nation of 300,000 souls has managed to produce not only exportable pop from the likes of Bjork and rock combo Sigur Ros, but also a thriving scene for jazz, folk and classical music. Pic may feature a few too many talking and singing heads to crossover to general auds, but buffs could boost B.O. if courted cannily, with even better sales on ancillary.

Ultimately, pic doesn’t quite answer its own provocative question about why Iceland is so music mad, although the obvious answer — the folk there have long nights on their hands with little to do but drink — is suggested. Other factors considered include a strong sense of community, originality fostered by isolation from other cultures, the beauty of the island’s landscape, and an august oral tradition stretching back a thousand or so of years.

Numerous interviewees also cite the vibrant Icelandic language as inspiration. There’s plenty of pretty folk singing in the local lingo on display to back up the assertion. However, it’s also striking how many of the pop and rock acts featured, like so many other Scandinavian groups, mainly sing in English, presumably to draw in listeners abroad.

Biggest name on display is chanteuse Bjork, who is seen holding forth articulately in her native tongue on Icelandic musical culture and related topics. Generous footage covers the pixie-like pop star performing both at a recent concert and in archive material.

Prog-rock progeny Sigur Ros also dutifully gets screentime, but helmer Magnusson, who has made several docs and two “making of…” films about Fridrik Thor Fridriksson’s “Niceland” and “Falcons,” seems eager to explore this musical landscape’s more obscure nooks and crannies, including a band composed of four organists, a xylophone made from rocks, and a garage band of pubescent boys called Nilfisk.

After an hour, the relentless snow flurry of names, faces and eclectic music grows exhausting, which makes peaceful aerial footage of Iceland’s eerie landscape all the more welcome. Sound mix is the standout element in the mostly adequate tech package, producing a veritable avalanche of noise in the concert sequences.

Screaming Masterpiece

Iceland-Denmark-Netherlands

Production

An Ergis Filmproduction, Zik Zak Filmworks production, in association with Naflastrengur (Iceland)/Angel Production (Denmark)/A Film (Netherlands). (International sales: Katapult, Santa Monica.) Produced by Sigurjon Sighvatsson, Ari Alexander Ergis Magnusson. Directed, written by Ari Alexander Ergis Magnusson.

Crew

Camera (color, DV-to-35mm), Bergsteinn Bjorgulfsson; editor, Jon Yngvi Gylfason; music, Absolute Icelandic; sound (Dolby Digital), Kjrla Kjalanssen. Reviewed at Gothenburg Film Festival (competing), Feb. 4, 2005. Running time: 85 MIN.

With

Bjork, Damon Albarn, Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, Fridrik Thor Fridriksson. (Icelandic, English dialogue)
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