Music and artistry. Eccentricity and genius. Beauty and sensation. These are all elements that comprise the theme of Deep Dive’s fifth week of notable cinema: something about music. It’s no mystery that the impact of music continues to provide us with an insurmountable range of emotions, all without accurate description or justification. But what we can attest to is the beauty of its expression and all its cultural significances. This week’s films explore the ways in which music creates friendships, enthralls its audience and bridges cultures. Similarly, they attribute their distinct musical voice to their often unconventional but never ordinary artists.
NAS: TIME IS ILLMATIC
dir. One9 / 2014
“That’s life. Keep pushing.”
More self-serious than entertaining, “Time Is Illmatic” is a well-structured, well-composed examination of the growing pains of rapper Nas in his early career. Twenty years after the seminal release of Nas’s freshman album “Illmatic” comes an illustrious documentary about the legacy of not only its titular record but also its creator. “Time Is Illmatic” reflects on the productive process and the environment in which the project was born. Exploring the roots of Nas, the movie surveys his influential roots, from his tumultuous adolescence in Queensbridge, Queens to his father’s musical impact on his ultimate decision to drop out of school. His drive for success is reflected by his desire to respect and honor a childhood friend lost in a shooting while he simultaneously capitalizes on the distinct voice of his neighborhood’s growing artistic scene. Nas pays tribute to his early heroes: Juice Crew and Roxanne Shanté, two artists who molded the Queensbridge soundscape. Featuring interviews and appearances from Busta Rhymes, Alicia Keys, Marley Marl, Shanté, Q-Tip and others, Nas’s footprint on the hip-hop world is revealed to be paralleled by his cultural significance in the Black community. The film does not indulge in taped renditions of his songs but employs live performances with scribbled lyrics at the bottom for viewers to better comprehend the intended mastery of his craft. On occasion, his vocals are twisted to a degree that is perfectly calibrated with distorted beats, as if audibly deconstructing the music in ways the documentary couldn’t do.
JAZZ ON A SUMMER’S DAY
dir. Bert Stern & Aram Avakian / 1960
“It’s your city.”
Set in the 1958 Jazz Festival of Newport, Rhode Island, “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” is an immersive filmic experience marrying cinema and music. Including live performances by Thelonius Monk, Anita O’Day, Louis Armstrong and more, “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” favors discrete observation in place of story and structure, allowing for the musical ambiance onscreen to flourish. The result is more of a concert film than a documentary: Shots of audience members, close-ups of performers and an eye over the surrounding atmosphere compose the film, all with the soundtrack as a backdrop. Viewers are enveloped by the literal sweat and tears of both artists and listeners. Landscapes of rowdy house parties stand as testament to the effects of the evocative music, all while the watcher is seemingly positioned right in the center of it all. These visuals are representative of the palpable array of emotions showering a music festival. Whether it’s blissful peace, utter jubilance or dumbfounded awe, pathos is actively shown yet never told. Showcasing eminent performances by some of the most praised artists of America’s blues scene, “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” is a remarkable love letter to music. It’s no wonder that the Library of Congress selected this film for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry, for it is “culturally, historically and aesthetically” pleasing.
THIRTY TWO SHORT FILMS ABOUT GLENN GOULD
dir. François Girard / 1993
“I’m not one of those piano freaks, you know.”
Not a biopic or biographical documentary but sincerely a collection of miniatures, “Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould” is a palette of fictitious vignettes depicting a musical icon of the 20th century. Gould, the acclaimed Canadian classical pianist, has long been considered by critics as a prodigy of his métier, but the mystique and reclusiveness of his private life always captivated friends and fanatics alike. In his movie, we see Gould in his most intimate state: himself. By stripping away the personality of concert halls, the film explores Gould’s psyche in all his personal eccentricities and foibles, such as his unprecedented financial endeavors and on-air radio disposition. We see him soaking his hands and arms before his last encore, silent and decadent in thought. On another occasion, when the recording engineer plays back his audio, Gould succumbs to the floor with eyes closed and conducts his own rendition of J.S. Bach’s Italian Concerto. In one particular episode, Gould eats breakfast at his local diner but is distractedly attuned to the multiple conversations decorating him. His attentiveness can be compared to his aptitude for the polyphonic textures of Bach, a composer to whom Gould dedicated much of his virtuosic career. By utilizing the structure of Bach’s Goldberg Variations — a composition comprising 32 variants on an aria for which Gould is most famous for playing — the movie passes judgement on neither Gould’s celebrity nor persona but celebrates the artist for who he was and what he did. It is a pure, refreshing portrait of a complex yet enlightening musician.
dir. Paul Thomas Anderson / 2015
“It’s a madness of love.”
Acclaimed film director Anderson marks his territory in the documentary genre with “Junun,” a musical journey like no other. Anderson follows Jonny Greenwood, fellow lead guitarist and keyboardist of the alternative rock band Radiohead, to Rajasthan, India to record a collaborative album alongside many international stars. Israeli composer and poet Shye Ben Tzur and local musicians of the Rajasthan Express are seen rehearsing, recording and restructuring their work in the stunning Maharaja of Jodhpur. Relying on limited interviews and conversation, the film employs a sense of dialogue through the development of its musical pieces and songs. The acme of “Junun” is its immaculate departure from the traditional documentary style of filmmaking where plot and structure typically dominate. Anderson is free to steal every inch of space in front of him and thus captures each enduring wavelength of sound. Musical excerpts provide a multifaceted sketch of the artists spanning inexperienced to wise, man to woman, friend to friend. It’s a true “behind-the-scenes/making-of” movie because even as we see the artists seemingly achieve perfection with their musical execution, we also see them struggle to keep up with the constant power outages and scavenge the urbane landscape of Jodhpur for a harmonium tuning. “Junun” is a diverse endeavor that attests to multiethnic alliance, and its fruits stand as pure evidence. At a humble 54 minutes, it will leave you awakened and torn for more.
words_sharon beriro design_jess morgan