Film Review: ‘Contemporary Color’

A stunning record of one of musical polymath David Byrne's most ambitious collaborations, pairing pop artists with high school color squad teams.

Courtesy of Tribeca Fim Festival

Some documentaries set out to heal the world, while others succeed in making it a better place by the mere fact of their existence. A clear example of the latter, Bill and Turner Ross’ “Contemporary Color” is a gift to audiences everywhere, a spectacular kinetic pinwheel of a movie that whisks us away from big issues to celebrate an exceptional creative collaboration between Talking Heads frontman/founder David Byrne and 10 East Coast color guard squads, resulting in a one-of-a-kind concert movie through which this peculiar American art form — a meticulously choreographed mix of flag spinning, weapon tossing, and dance — gets a splendid, soul-recharging big-screen treatment.

So-called “winter guard” is a curious discipline to begin with, obscure to some, downright sacred to others, that evolved out of the ancient military tradition by which a regiment presents and protects its flag (or “colors”). Today, it is practiced at the high school and college level as large teams of coed dancer-athletes create elaborate maneuvers — complete with brandished sabres and rifles — to be performed either at football half-time shows or in high-stakes tournaments.

“Contemporary Color” strips away that competitive dimension and focuses on the “sport of the arts” itself, where each routine consists of two key elements: a piece of music and a highly disciplined group performance. Byrne was introduced to color guard several years back when a high-school team asked to license one of his tracks, and later hatched the unique idea of enlisting a number of his musical friends to create original songs that would serve to inspire 10 teams to create an ambitious color guard show that could eventually be performed live in Brooklyn and Toronto.

For the most part, the film skips over nearly a year’s worth of practice in order to document and share the final result. (Why drum up traditional behind-the-scenes B-roll when one can merely shoot pre-packaged making-of segments off the jumbotrons at the event — or better yet, film a silhouetted dancer practicing in his dramatically lit garage?) Between production numbers, the crew ventures into the bleachers or backstage to share interviews with a tuxedo-clad local media reporter, commentary from the likes of NPR emcee Ira Glass, and brief profiles (rendered in the human-interest vein so often seen in Olympic Games coverage) of a few of the musicians and performers. But the main attraction here is the show itself, for which the filmmakers invent 10 different styles, each one custom-tailored to the performance it captures.

In light of the three individualistic indie features they had made prior to this, the Ross brothers might seem a strange choice to helm such a project, and yet, their unique sensibility lends itself incredibly well to the task at hand. Over the course of three films — small-town-custom portrait “45365,” after-dark New Orleans phantasmagoria “Tchoupitoulas,” and Tex-Mex cross-border embrace “Western” — the duo have pioneered an innovative style of nonfiction collage that’s lyrical in form, enriched by carefully observed human behavior, and woven together by music.

“Contemporary Color” may be a commission job, resulting from Byrne’s idea that someone really ought to document this stunning had-to-be-there collaboration (which explains both the uncanny backstage access and the crew’s ability to put cameras practically anywhere, from the sidelines to right there on stage as the squads lunge and spin around them), but it possesses an artistic identity and autonomy all its own. That has everything to do with the near-magic alchemy between each squad and the artist to whom they’ve been assigned (including such legends figures as Nelly Furtado, Ad-Rock, and Byrne himself), which is true even of those saddled with more experimental-sounding artists (à la How to Dress Well’s sublime “How Could This Have Happened?” or tUnE-yArDs’ wacky track, “Body Code”).

As feats of editing go, what Bill Ross accomplishes here is nothing short of astounding. Composed of footage from four separate shows (but presented as one), the shape-shifting film is constantly evolving and surprising, varying form every few minutes to keep us mesmerized. While there are no prizes in play here or competition to be considered, the most dazzlingly cinematic number is St. Vincent’s “Everyone You Know Will Go Away,” in which Ross layers the footage three or four layers deep, reminiscent of the technique seen in the remarkable “U2 3D.”

Comparisons to Byrne’s paradigm-shifting concert film “Stop Making Sense” are not only obvious but inevitable, and yet as Byrne projects go, this whole undertaking actually seems to share more DNA in common with his book “How Music Works” and various concept-album projects: Once again, the cultural omnivore seeks out and collaborates with talents from other disciplines in hopes of arriving at an artistic result no one could quite have anticipated at the outset.

Though Byrne and the other musicians were clearly stimulated by the experience, what makes “Contemporary Color” so compelling is just how much the students get out of it. The film doesn’t talk about acceptance and inclusion (the two near-impossible goals of so many teens’ high school years) per se, and yet the Rosses capture the phenomenon in practice, as each squad represents a diverse array of races, body types, and sexual identities — all colors of a different stripe. Clearly, these young people have found their respective tribes, and the resulting sense of satisfaction comes through loud and clear in the sheer bliss on the squad members’ faces. It’s not every documentary that can so exhilaratingly make us feel a part of something so special.

Film Review: ‘Contemporary Color’

Reviewed online, Mar. 2, 2017. (In Tribeca, Hot Docs, Seattle, Sydney film festivals.) Running time: <strong>MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (Documentary) An Oscilloscope Films release of a Public Domain presentation of a Department of Motion Pictures production, in association with Todo Mundo. Producers: David Byrne, Michael Gottwald, Josh Penn. Executive producers: Leeann Rossi, Aaron Rosenblum, Dan Janvey, Spencer Silna, Nicole Barton, Douglas Saylor Jr.
  • Crew: Directors: Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross. Camera (color): Jarred Altermann. Editor: Bill Ross IV. Music supervisor: Joe Rudge.
  • With: David Byrne, Lucius, Nico Muhly, Ira Glass, Nelly Furtado, St. Vincent, Devonte Hynes, How to Dress Well, Zola Jesus, Ad-Rock, Money Mark, tUnE-yArDs.