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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

MFF Review: Contemporary Color

Unless you happened to be on a color guard team in high school or college, it's unlikely that you know a whole lot about it. Given that, it's also pretty unlikely that you're going to get excited to see a movie about a big color guard show. Trust me: I'm right there with you, but there are just a few other things in the documentary Contemporary Color that might start to give you some doubt.

First, consider this: David Byrne (of Talking Heads) likes color guard. Likes it enough that he decided to pick out ten teams from across North America, then had musicians like Nelly Furtado, St. Vincent, Money Mark + Ad-Rock, and others compose songs specifically for these teams to perform to. After nearly a year of preparing, this whole project came to a nearly impossible climax at a gigantic, unwieldy performance at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn. That show is the subject of Contemporary Color, a documentary by Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross.

When I say the show is the subject, I don't mean that this is a concert documentary. It is in some ways, of course–it does showcase the entire performance from the pre-show warming up to the larger-than-life finale–but it also aims to document much, much more. This film is just as interested in the audience, the folks behind the mixing console, the backstage host, the cameramen, and the Barclay janitorial team as it is the actual performers. While it does capture much of the emotion and excited nervousness of the young color guard performers and the cool collectedness of their partnered musical artist, it does so by documenting the event itself, from every possible angle.

The outcome is a film that is exceptional and hard to define. It's like a concert film fused with a feature length blu-ray featurette which itself is the subject of another documentary. It's behind-the-behind-the-scenes.

Even though the subject matter of color guard is a pretty niche one (at least in my circles!), Contemporary Color takes on the nature of a creative performance as its central, secret subject, and the results are fascinating and thrilling. It highlights the sheer amount of manpower, talent, skill, and miraculous luck that it takes to pull of an event of such magnitude, and the way it is portrayed is both invigorating and easy, with each performance sliding into the next and each act taking on a new visually compelling technique.

Which brings me to the editing, which is the real star of this film (Bill Ross IV is also the editor of the film). Given the miles of footage that must have been captured–it seems like the massive team of cameramen was just told to split up and film anything and everything–the editing of Contemporary Color would be a colossal task to edit into something cohesive. Fortunately for us, Ross does that and so much more; with each performance comes a different creative technique, from splicing in an audio montage of the performers' thoughts on their routine to double and triple exposed dreamy layers of slow motion footage of the teams and musicians. Even during the performances, we get in-time cuts to the host preparing for his next interstitial interview, the makeup team prepping an upcoming act, or an empty green room with a TV showing footage of the rainbow-lit White House after the Supreme Court ruling for gay marriage. This all creates a real sense of omnipresence and excitement that is extraordinarily rare in the documentary form.

Contemporary Color is a weird, wonderful, gargantuan film that seems to expand the meaning of the word 'documentary'. It's about creativity; it's about production; it's about teamwork, collaboration, and all the tiny moving parts and factors that come into play when artists of all kinds work together. It's a film that might not sound like your cup of tea on the surface, but is utterly spellbinding in its uniquely creative beauty.

Contemporary Color does not yet have a non-film festival release date, but keep an eye out on contemporarycolor.com for news.
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