Neither concert film nor behind-the-scenes doc nor avant-garde objet d’art, “The Reflektor Tapes” attempts to be all three at once, mirroring the musical hybridization that inspired Arcade Fire’s mammoth 2013 double-album “Reflektor.” But what worked for Arcade Fire most emphatically does not work for director Kahlil Joseph. As the Canadian rock band deftly fuses New Wave dance and Haitian percussion with an array of genre influences, Joseph winds up with an disorganized mishmash of visual gimmicks, empty exoticism, and soundbites worthy of “This is Spinal Tap.” Great music and some dynamic, up-close concert footage gives it the occasional life, but “The Reflektor Tapes” will appeal to Arcade Fire devotees only and even their patience might be tested.
“Sounds are happening all around you,” muses Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler. “New hybrids keep the vast ocean of musical waves going back and forth. You have combine with a new kind of force to create a new wave.” Quotes like that are strewn throughout “The Reflektor Tapes,” along with two separate callbacks to Elvis Presley, like Butler recollecting a dream in which The King advised that the band practice for 37 hours a week. Having released only four albums in 14 years, the six-piece outfit invests heavily in each one, all of which are packed with baroque pop songs that reflect the Elvis-recommended work ethic and the complex threading of musical forms.
But watching “The Reflektor Tapes” is demythologizing, like getting a tour of the sausage factory. It’s one thing to groove to the infectious disco of the title track or the Caribbean percussion of “Here Comes the Night Time,” but another to hear Butler referencing Soren Kierkegaard’s “The Present Age” or his musical (and life) partner Regine Chassagne likening their musical layers to “a diamond with a million cuts in it.” None of what they’re articulating is false — the album is layered and complex, and perhaps does have Kierkegaard as its philosophical godfather — but it’s infinitely more appealing to hear them articulate it through music, not words.
To that end, Joseph’s failings are particularly acute. Arcade Fire are a terrific live act, and between their Talking Heads-style art pop and the Haitian influence of “Reflektor,” this seemed like a job for “Stop Making Sense” director Jonathan Demme. Working with three cinematographers, Joseph does one better than Demme by climbing onto the stage and making the camera an active participant, but the doc’s murky conceit keeps it from becoming a full-on concert film. Songs from the album are doled out in unsatisfying snippets, wedged between a blur of global pitstops, montage sequences, and impressionistic renderings of events like Haiti’s Carnival.
Making his feature debut, Joseph comes to “The Reflektor Tapes” from the world of music videos and he mostly lives down to the cliches of the form. There’s no shortage of visual ideas on display here: A mix of textures and aspect ratios, video effects from image-within-image to a triple split-screen, and shots that are hyper-saturated with color one second and completely drained of it the next. Joseph’s choice to shoot Carnival, a celebration of technicolor vibrancy, in a blown-out white transforms the island into an alien beauty reminiscent of Mikail Kalatozov’s “I Am Cuba.”
But what’s good for a three-minute music video doesn’t necessarily suit a 75-minute documentary, and Joseph’s rudderless melange of looks never coheres into a more purposeful statement. “The Reflektor Tapes” inadvertently underlines the importance of craft: Butler can talk about drifting in that vast ocean of musical waves, but when Arcade Fire lays the tracks down, every note has a purpose. Joseph just drifts his way into a riptide.