Noise Pop, projected: "I Need That Record" asks whether Wal-Mart is deciding our musical tastes. (Photo courtesy Noise Pop Film Festival)

Noise Pop Film Festival 2009

Dennis Harvey February 26, 2009

A notorious 1971 print advertisement targeting counterculture types and wannabes featured Central Casting hippies behind the defiant slogan "But The Man can’t bust our music!" It was widely ridiculed because, well, it was an ad for The Man—Columbia Records, then the label of choice for Barbra Streisand, Simon & Garfunkel, Chicago and other not-so-revolutionary acts.

Fake rebelliousness remains a staple in mainstream music marketing. But who’d have guessed almost 40 years later we’d have rebounded to a pre-Summer of Love popscape in which rigid radio playlists, payola scandals and manufactured stars are the norm? Annette Funicello then; Justin, Britney, Miley and Jonas Bros. now. O Disney, you ageless bringer of da rock!

About as far from the ever-increasing corporatization of popular music as you can get is the annual dose of our very own Noise Pop Festival. In addition to about 120 live acts at citywide venues—2009 headliners including Bob Mould, Antony and the Johnsons, Stephen Malkmus, Kool Keith and Papercuts—its multimedia elements include the Noise Pop Film Festival, now in its 9th year. (Noise Pop itself has been around since 1993.)

Given that precious few music movies get distribution beyond dvd release these days—excepting the likes of High School Musical 3, for which thanks again, Walt!—NPFF offers rare chance to see new ones on the big screen amongst like-minded souls.

There’s only one bona-fide concert documentary here. Perhaps that’s just as well: Anything else might suffer by comparison. Former Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty and co-director Christoph Green (who together created the very cool ongoing Burn to Shine DVD series) shot Wilco in concert last year in Tulsa, Nashville and New Orleans venues (yay Tipitina’s!). The music is…well, duh, gorgeous. Plus you get to see the articulate Jeff Tweedy rhapsodize about the dying small-town America he draws inspiration from, cope with fan-thrown bras, and get embarrassed by dad. ("His music keeps me young!" "That’s not working very well.")

will be released to home formats on April 18 in honor of something called "Record Store Day." Its celebration of the remaining 700 independent music stores remaining nationwide is echoed by Brendan Toller’s "I Need That Record!," a fond lament for a miserable trend.

If you’re looking for one more way in which the world sucks more every day, go no further than the last decade’s closure of over 3,000 record shops. These weren’t just businesses but (as mourners put it) "homes away from homes" and "community spaces" where misfits found employment, local bands formed/played, like-minded folk found one another, and musical discoveries were made.

Who hasn’t experienced hearing something in a store, asked "What’s playing now?" and discovered something at least slightly life-changing? (My last time was last year in Toronto, re: Swedish retro psychedelic band Dungen.)

Few will have that experience in the future, thanks to a combination of radio deregulation, label buyups by bottom-line-oriented corporate monoliths, CD price inflation, the Internet, and aggressive "big-box store" invasion.

Some 30,000 albums are released every year. How many are stocked by Wal-Mart, now our nation’s biggest music retailer? Insert hollow laugh here.

I Need That Record
features pithy thoughts on these and related matters from the likes of Ian MacKaye, Glenn Branca and Thurston Moore, as well as custodians of treasured record stores, some expired and some not (like Boston’s famous Newbury Records). The corporate critique—encompassing recent pay-for-airplay bribes on behalf of J-Lo and Good Charlotte, which explains a lot—invites commentary even from Noam Chomsky, though he admits "My musical tastes terminated in the 1940s." It also takes its title from a great "Yellow Pills"-style vintage purepop tune by Tweeds that I was previously unaware of. Now it’s an earwig I don’t wanna get rid of.

Several other Noise Pop Film Fest features flash back to major artists underappreciated (at least in the U.S.) during their peak of creativity. Loki: Arnaldo Baptista follows the bizarre career trajectory of a subject whose ’60s band Os Mutantes revolutionized Brazilian popular music with their mix of samba, bossa nova, psychedelia and Beatlesque pop. His LSD-addled instability resulted in a long downslide eventually turned around by latterday fans like Kurt Cobain and Sean Lennon (who calls him the "Syd Barrett of Brazil"), with triumphant comeback results.

Agile Mobile Hostile
chronicles a year in the life of Andre Williams, who went from 1950s R&B mini-stardom to songwriting fame (for Stevie Wonder, Parliament, Ike & Tina Turner etc.) to drug-addicted 1980s impoverishment. He bounced back in the late ’90s with punky "sleaze-rock" while converting to Judaism… (and circumcision). Now that is funky.

Contrastingly feet-on-ground is Dennis Lambert, a sixty-something Florida luxury real-estate salesman once one of the music industry’s hottest songwriter/producers—for acts as disparate as The Four Tops, Commodores, Glen Campbell, Ziggy Marley, Grassroots, even Tupac Shakur. (Amongst 75 songs that charted on the Billboard Top 100, it must be noted he’s partially responsible for brain-scarring "We Built This City.")

In 1972 he released a solo album. It flopped almost everywhere but was huge in the Philippines, cut "Of All the Things" becoming that sugary-ballad-loving nation’s unofficial Valentine’s Day anthem. Son Jody’s documentary follows dad on the nostalgia tour he’s finally dragged into doing. It’s funny, intimate, and a little angst-y about rocking past age 50.

Other films in the festival include Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (Bestor Cram’s "illustrated album" take on that seminal disc), Largo (featuring Grant Lee Phillips, Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann and others in a tribute to the artist-centric L.A. club), and Gogol Bordello Non-Stop (self-explanatory to that band’s fans).

J.D. Wilkes’ Seven Signs examines kwazy Kwistianity’s influence in the contemporary musical landscape. Being a major fan of Sufjan Stevens, Soul-Junk, Leslie nee Sam Phillips and select other alt-Christian music acts, I am not unsympathetic to that last-named cause. But holy Jaysus: How did I manage to overlook Noise Pop’s programming of Soldiers Under Command, a short about ’80s Bible-study metallists Stryper, who wore yellow-black bumblebee leotards and were, uh, SO FIERCE! I can’t believe I didn’t request this screener in advance.

Last but not lineup-least—at least for ’80s nostalgics—is Night Flight: Born Again, a feature compiling vintage stuff from national cable’s first music program. It premiered in 1981 on the USA Network (three months before MTV’s launch), ending in 1988.

Its four late-night hours every Friday and Saturday offered a freeform mix of music vids, interviews, mock commercials, anarchic animation, concert sequences, campy old movie clips (often tampered with for maximum snark), "New Wave Theatre" with Peter Ivers (whose 1983 murder remains unsolved), rampant Reagan mockery, and occasional full-length, rock-related movies.

Born Again
doesn’t assemble cullings from this treasure trove in any particularly interesting or coherent way. But the archival material fascinates. There are dynamic concert performances by everyone from B.B. King to KISS to Grace Jones. (Plus notably undynamic ones: Ozzy, take different drugs!) There are interviews with Jones (banal), Freddie Mercury (unpretentious), Eurythmics (pretentious), Zappa (erudite), Divine (gentlemanly), Neil Young (very cool), Lou Reed (maybe too cool, but when wasn’t he?), and The Plasmatics’ late Wendy O. Williams (looking awfully old for her age).

There are jaw-dropping (for different reasons) music videos, like Devo’s excellent Texas perversion for "Whip It," strangely stalled solo breakout star David Lee Roth’s Vegas-y spectacular "Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody," and something very strange wherein Elton John tries really hard to get New Wave.

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