Babeth M. VanLoo’s docu about artist Meredith Monk focuses on a woman who has spent more than four decades amassing a unique body of work that encompasses, and often combines, media including choreography, composing, experimental film and theater. It’s an admiring portrait of an individual whose calm, joyous personality makes her quite wonderful company, both at work and in conversation. First Run Features pickup will, like Monk’s art, likely attract just a limited, loyal audience in theatrical exposure, with cable artcaster, disc and educational sales to follow.
Monk’s Zen-influenced emphasis on being in the moment resulted in a rare artistic sensibility, at once wholly abstract (her voice-centered music is mostly wordless) yet emotionally empathetic and direct. She first surfaced in the burgeoning 1960s New York avant-garde of Fluxus and Judson School. While initially identified principally with dance, she realized “the voice could be like the body,” beginning to develop the adventuresome approach to singing that’s comparable in some respects to the instrumental minimalism of composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich.
Major works since have included pieces written for her vocal ensemble, a feature film (1988’s “Book of Days”), an opera (1991’s “Atlas”), symphonic compositions and multimedia live performances. Excerpts here, going back as far as 1966, are striking even if they can’t quite convey the frequent poignancy of whole works so much as their surface eccentricity.
Monk is a disarmingly plain-spoken explicator of her art and psyche. The film’s only missteps (fortunately brief) occur when VanLoo, who’s shot punk and avant-garde performance since the mid-’70s, feels compelled to make first-person voiceover comments spelling out what we’ve already deduced from documentary and archival materials.
Interviews with longtime collaborators, footage from an Italian tour, and a behind-the-scenes look at the development of Kronos Quartet commission “Songs of Ascension” (2006) are progressively involving. Later, the film touches on the 2002 death of Monk’s life partner, Mieke van Hoek, an event that moved the now 66-year-old artist to develop the 2005 multimedia performance “Impermanence.”
Assembly is sound. Too-brief glimpses of older performances and films will make fans hungry for a DVD release with generous extras.