Xan Aranda’s docu on unclassifiable singer-songwriter-composer Andrew Bird follows the indie artist on a grueling 165-stop concert tour. Reticent about his private life, Bird eagerly discourses on his music, which he readily admits is his life. More than anything else, Aranda’s docu concerns process — not a linear one from genesis to performance, but open-ended, jazz-like experimentation where “final form” must be avoided. Generously sampling Bird’s unique compositions, with their intellectual humor, folk rhythms, complex structures, whimsical whistling and signature pizzicato violin, “Fever” should rock the faithful and uninitiated alike.
The docu opens with one of Bird’s intricate, multitrack solo performances, the stage cluttered with audio switchers, wires and rotating horn speakers as he orchestrates taped playbacks with his feet, performs on the violin or guitar, sings and whistles. On the tour, these one-man gigs alternate with ensemble dates featuring drummer Martin Dosh (another loner musician whose introversion Bird identifies with), guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker and bassist Michael Lewis, Bird obviously finding equal satisfaction in interaction.
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In capturing the various stages of creation, Aranda takes her cue from her subject, spending minimal time in the recording studio, whose microphones Bird describes as “the worst possible audience.” At his family’s bucolic farm, however, which Bird has transformed into a soaring, airy studio space, he composes, prerecords loops and rests up from exhausting, if inspirational, tours.
At one point Aranda slips in grainy clips of earlier tours before Bird’s music took off(2007’s “Armchair Apocrypha” sold more than 100,000 copies), when he drove around in a van playing to “the same 40 people” in coffee shops and bars. But with wider fame came the fear of sameness and staleness. Bird’s need to stay fresh keeps him constantly tinkering with songs, welcoming glitches and imperfections, and writing nothing down so that he must continually chase the ghost of his original concept. But this obsession, this deep fear of rote repetition, also serves to stimulate, driving Bird to fully explore the possibilities of the moment.
The docu title’s “fever” reference proves literal, Bird suffering chills and flushes daily, leading to philosophical musings on the relationship of creativity to physical imbalance. The tour ends with a tendon injury that leaves him limping onto the stage.
But what shapes the film is the music, providing a rich continuum that seamlessly incorporates every aspect of the production, the numbers usually running in their entirety, overlaid on subsequent shots even after the camera cuts.
Technical credits excel, the compositional and color balance of the image complementing a topnotch sound mix.