“Insofar as I have any ambition for our music, it would be that it survives anonymously,” a band member with scant irony states at the beginning of Arcade Fire: The Reflektor Tapes (2015), begging the question: why not just release your music anonymously? Why allow a filmmaker access to your live shows and recording sessions? Why allow them to interview you so that you come out with such guff? As Gandhi might have advised: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Kahlil Joseph’s rockumentary (if you will) strives to be an impressionistic mix of audio and visual sensation, a cornucopian bricolage of text, image and sound. It also makes no concession to those who aren’t fans of the band.
Very little history, back story or context is given to the disembodied musing. Some of it is just straightforward music video fare, other songs are not so much remixed as deconstructed in order to create disorientating new versions. Sonic fugues in between songs allow the band and particularly band leader Win Butler to wax (and wane) philosophical – “I didn’t explicitly talk about Kierkegaard with Régine, we talked about it later in the process” – in a way that might tempt the cruel to sardonic smirking, if not hearty laughter. Pretentious foolishness is one thing, but why can’t musicians talk about their intellectual ideas? Why can’t they muse about their process?
“Music is all around us,” says one member of the band. “A carnival is when the low can mock the high,” says another. Wow. All of this is intoned with such a humourless sense of self-importance that anyone who genuinely loves their music (such as this reviewer who [full disclosure] would rate Funeral and Neon Bible as two of the best albums of recent years) finds themselves alternately stuffing their fingers in their ears or, when it gets too excruciating, their elbows. “I had a dream that Elvis came to me and told me if I want to make it as a band we have to practice for 37 hours a week.” Like Christian Slater in True Romance (1993), Butler dreams a lot of Elvis, but he’s so self-involved he seems to spend much of his performances rolling about on the floor or at another point (again without irony) banging his own drum until he splits the skin. Meanwhile, partner in crime and romance Régine Chassange talks about her Haitian heritage and spends her time on stage in eye-squeezed shut trances. Other members, including Win’s brother William, Richard Reed Parry, Tim Kingsbury and Jeremy Gara, also presumably contribute but other than brief shots of them sitting around studios and despite the vaunted unprecedented access, we get no sense of the band as an entity or as a team of artistic collaborators.
Chassange instructs the percussionists and though we learn that they recorded the Reflektor album “a little in the morning, some in the afternoon and then, after dinner, in the evening,” this is the kind of thing that doesn’t even register as insight. The concerts themselves look fascinating with obvious thought given to costumes – big papier-mâché heads and spangly mirror man suits – and dance, staging and performance, but all coherence is lost as Joseph intercuts between different performances randomly. Arcade Fire: The Reflektor Tapes is supposed to be cutting edge, but it has the same visual grammar as a One Direction video, where a boy band performs the same song in four different settings – formal, swimsuits, casual etc. – just for the sake of variety and because essentially you don’t trust the subject to be in and of itself interesting. Perhaps what we needed here was more Kierkegaard.