Arcade Fire Seeks More Than a Rockumentary With ‘The Reflektor Tapes’


This article by Alan Light appeared in The New York Times.

“No matter how much I love a band,” Win Butler said, “I still find concert films a little boring.”

So when Mr. Butler, the frontman and co-founder of Arcade Fire, decided that his group was going to make a documentary about the recording and touring of its 2013 album, “Reflektor,” he wanted to find an unconventional approach. The record, which marries Caribbean rhythms to a new wave-dance music feel, represented a new direction for the Montreal rock band, whose previous release, “The Suburbs” (2010), had won the Grammy for album of the year.

The band turned to Kahlil Joseph, a first-time feature director best known for his striking, abstract videos for adventurous pop stars like the rapperKendrick Lamar, the British avant-R&B singer FKA twigs, and the electronic artist Flying Lotus — clips that create mood and texture, rather than simply illustrate song lyrics or add dance sequences. Mr. Joseph’s work has also been part of a group show curated by Kara Walker at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, while his installation “Double Conscience” recently showed at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

“I was curious that they saw me fitting into their current evolution,” Mr. Joseph said in an email. “I was really impressed when I saw them perform live and realized this was totally a new process with new boundaries, and I wanted to see where the journey was going to lead.”

The resulting film, “The Reflektor Tapes,” is an impressionistic voyage through the album’s creation, with nonlinear jumps in time from Arcade Fire’s preliminary writing sessions in Jamaica in 2012 through arena shows in London and Los Angeles in 2014. Dialogue is sparse — occasional aphorisms like “People have false expectations about what love is” or “You have to combine with a new force to make a new kind of wave” float by in voice-over — and long stretches go by without the band appearing on screen.

“It might be frustrating for a fan,” Mr. Butler acknowledged, “but it feels like a truer version of getting a window into how the band works.” (The documentary will be shown first on Sept. 12 at the Toronto International Film Festival, before opening in theaters on Sept. 23.)

Over lunch in the restaurant of the Ace Hotel in Manhattan, he was soft-spoken and personable, laughing admiringly at the eccentricities of his new part-time hometown, New Orleans. He was as low-key as a 6-foot-4 rock star, wearing a gaucho-style flat-brim hat, could hope to be. He explained that the movie project wasn’t planned when the album process started but evolved as the sound and aesthetic of “Reflektor” came into focus.

In Jamaica, the band members started working in a castle, filming themselves because the location was so distinctive. They kept shooting, with no determined plan, as they continued recording in Montreal and New York, though it required some delicate negotiation. Mr. Butler cited the disastrous results of “Let It Be,” the Beatles’ 1970 movie of the band members recording an album, which essentially sealed their breakup. “They made that mistake so we don’t have to,” he said. For minimal intrusion, the group’s recording engineer ran the camera for the behind-the-scenes material.

When the album was finished, they booked some club dates under the name “The Reflektors,” including a performance at an old disco called Salsatheque in Montreal; they asked Mr. Joseph to document it.

“It kind of felt like we were a new band,” Mr. Butler said. “Starting in clubs and working our way up, burning it down and building the house back up again.”

After discussing the idea of working on a music video with Mr. Joseph, the band decided to turn the footage into an actual film while planning a concert in Haiti during Carnival. They had long wanted to shoot in Haiti — the Arcade Fire singer and multi-instrumentalist Régine Chassagne, Mr. Butler’s wife, was born to Haitian parents, and Mr. Butler described his first trip to Carnival as “life-changing.” (In 2010, they had planned to film there with the director Jonathan Demme, but a few days before their departure, the country was ravaged by an earthquake.)

“If we were going to do it, this was the time to pull it together,” Mr. Butler said. “But to commit to filming in Haiti meant that we had to make a film, because it’s logistically really complicated. We’re definitely not going to recoup what it cost to get everyone there.”

Everything was then turned over to Mr. Joseph, who is based in Los Angeles and who has worked with the visionary, enigmatic directorTerrence Malick. “We wanted to see what Kahlil would do with the form,” Mr. Butler said, “because rock documentaries are pretty formulaic, and I knew that was not what he was going to do. His process is the closest I’ve seen to the process of making a record — trying to get this little spark of chemistry between players, and then everything gets built around that.”

According to Mr. Joseph, his ambition for “The Reflektor Tapes” was “for it to be a new kind of music film and not just a film about music.”

A recent boom in music documentaries has produced the Oscar winners “Searching for Sugar Man” and “Twenty Feet From Stardom” and this year’s acclaimed “Amy” and “What Happened, Miss Simone?” With “The Reflektor Tapes,” Arcade Fire is attempting something more experimental and kaleidoscopic. Mr. Butler, though, pointed to some of his favorite bands — the Clash, the Rolling Stones — and said that his own sense of their greatness had come from a collage of clips and videos over the years, from accumulated fragments rather than any single, definitive document.

“I feel like this film really isn’t for me,” he said. “I would be suspicious if I wanted to watch a film about myself. But I think watching it in 15 or 20 years will be really interesting.”

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