Monday 6 August 2012

Andrew Bird: Fever Year (2011)

Director: Xan Aranda
Stars: Martin Dosh, Jeremy Ylvisaker, Michael Lewis, Annie Clark and Andrew Bird
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2012. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012 films.
I'd never heard of Andrew Bird before seeing this documentary, so it became my introduction to him and his work. I don't like going in blind, preferring documentaries about subjects I know at least a little about. Partly it's because they're at once familiar and enlightening, but mostly it's because I appreciate having a frame of reference to work from. I'm likely to notice pretty quickly whether they're biased in a particular direction or whether they're even remotely accurate. The successful ones enhance my knowledge and understanding of the subject. The less successful ones range from fun but inconsequential to completely worthless, but I'll have an idea which. If the subject is entirely new to me, I'm entirely without reference points to determine whether the treatment is fair or accurate. So here, while the film introduced me to a couple of musicians I'd be happy to know more about, I can only really judge it on its cinematic merits.

My wishlist for music documentaries is twofold: a copious amount of performance to give me a feel for what the subject does by listening to them play, with an additional something to validate why they deserve a feature all of their own. What makes them special and why? Fever Year does well at the former, but not particularly well at the latter. I enjoyed Bird's music so I'm thankful for the introduction to his work, but I'm less sold on the insight into why he warrants a documentary. In many ways, Bird as a person is lost in this picture, surrounded by and consumed by his music. There's some poetry to be found in his playfulness with language and in his obvious affection for the visual, even though he closes his eyes while playing. Perhaps this comes from growing up on a gorgeous farm in the countryside, thinking about distance. His delightful speakers look like old Victrola horns. Even his choice of coffee maker highlights a visual aesthetic.

Yet, these are small moments. The big picture is Bird's music, not Bird himself. Talking about his life, his background, himself, he just doesn't seem to be that interesting. It's when he talks about his music that he comes alive and it's when he plays his music that he turns into someone truly magnetic to watch. There's so little of Bird himself here that we wonder if he even exists outside his music. What's more, he seems to know it. He makes some very telling comments during the film. 'Music just swallowed me whole,' he tells us. 'I am what I do.' At one point he goes deeper. 'When I'm solo,' he says, 'I get to really crawl inside the songs and lose myself.' We're left with the impression that he did this early in life, given that he was trained on violin from the age of four, and he hasn't found his way out again yet. I wonder if the titular fever made a difference there. He ends up on crutches by the end credits, surely life's way of telling him to refocus.
And so we see Bird only through his art. He's a highly regarded multi-instrumentalist with a particular focus on the violin, who moved from classical music through jazz and indie rock to a folk influenced sound. We open and close with him on stage in ostentatiously sparkly shoes that don't fit the rest of the experience. He seems unassuming, down to earth, someone who might have just walked in from busking on the street, down to the consistently unkempt hair. Yet the shoes are something Liberace might wear. Maybe they help him feel like a showman, but we're not given an explanation. The song that he plays is unusual, with a fun and surprisingly overt use of whistling. We're treated to many songs, mostly performed live. I found that I preferred the the quirky material to the conventional and the instrumental material to the vocal. Bird does quirky really well and his core collaborators are up to the challenge.

Many of the stories we hear are so routine for music documentaries that we can almost close our eyes and imagine the words coming out of the mouths of any artist we like. He spends much of his time on the road, working at a ferocious pace. He feels more alive on stage, often unsatisfied in the studio. He plays new instruments for hours to put them through the sonic tests he needs to know they're right, rather than just looking at himself in the mirror with them. None of this is remotely surprising. The only real twist to the usual stories is that, as the title suggests, Bird was suffering from a fever for most of the year he was being filmed. It didn't seem to slow him down. Visually, there's much of the same. We see him on stage, we see him backstage. It's fun to see a variety of the poster art from his long tours but again, it's hardly groundbreaking. While the film ran smoothly, it felt like it needed something more to emerge from the background.

It never got there. I enjoyed the film, but after the credits rolled I found that it had made so little impact that it was almost like it hadn't been. Left in its wake were a few vague memories that I should seek out some of Bird's albums and write his name on a virtual post-it note in the back of my mind in case he comes through town. More than that, I felt I should read up on what Martin Dosh has done. Dosh is Bird's percussionist and he's portrayed as something of a kindred spirit, not only because of his multi-instrumental talents and his strong use of loop pedals. There isn't much of a focus on him, of course, as this isn't his film, but the brief moments we have hint that a documentary about him has the potential to be what this one isn't. Of course, if he's as similar to Bird as a person as he is as a musician, maybe it would succeed and fail in precisely the same ways as this film. It takes more than music to enliven a documentary about a musician.

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