'The Reflektor Tapes': TIFF Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
A hangout-minded music doc captures its subject's artistic aspirations more than its performances.

Follow the Arcade Fire from London to Haiti.

Music vid director Kahlil Joseph stays in experimental mode for his first feature-length project in The Reflektor Tapes, a look at the last couple of years in the life of Arcade Fire. Hopping back and forth from their home base of Montreal to London, Haiti, Jamaica and elsewhere, the film conveys the sense of hanging out with a band despite the fact that we almost never see them talking to us; a mood of creative ferment overrides any detailed narrative, and although its time period includes a massive tour for the group's latest album, this is definitely not a concert film. Devotees of the group will embrace it on video and perhaps in special-event-style theatrical bookings, but those with a casual interest will tire of it quickly.

Certainly not the least pretentious music doc out there, the film spends a long preamble fading in and out of interview clips, dropping each one before the unidentified speaker has said anything of substance. Eventually our offscreen speakers are allowed to utter complete sentences, about the evolution of the band and, given the explosion of their popularity, their desire "to ignore the world" for a while and "just make art with the people around you." They go to Jamaica in 2012 as part of the Reflektor songwriting process and, ready to make sacrifices for his film, Joseph goes too.

He gets more illuminating footage in Haiti, though, where group co-founder Regine Chassagne's roots are, and where the band draws all kinds of inspiration from Carnaval celebrations. We see Chassagne work with local drummers in the studio; we watch parade dancers whose creative costumes will inform the masquerade themes of the Reflektor tour. (Chassagne and husband Win Butler are the only members who get much of the camera's attention here and elsewhere in the film.)

Joseph cuts back and forth to that tour, where the bandmembers wear giant papier-mache masks of their own faces, making bobble-heads of themselves. But when the director gets interested in their actual performance, he almost never follows a song from start to finish. For a few songs, like "Afterlife," he constructs composite renditions using footage from arena shows, small promotional gigs and the like, using sound so clean it doesn't reflect the live experience and sometimes dropping everything out of the mix but one element, like a violin line or a distorted vocal.

This is less a document than a mood reel, a collage of the band's ideas about itself and Joseph's visual interpretations of them, that occasionally morphs into a quasi-music-video. It has to work its way up to the kind of stuff most music films begin with, like a standout performance of "Normal Person" that comes near the end. In a more straightforward structure, that song's lyrics — "I'm so confused. Am I a normal person? ... If that's what's normal now, I don't want to know" — might have served as an opening thesis for this deliberately obscure portrait.

 

Production company: Pulse Films, What Matters Most

Director: Kahlil Joseph

Producers: Dan Bowen, Omid Fatemi, Onye Anyanwu

Executive producers: Barry Clark-Ewers, Scott Rodger, Thomas Benski, Sam Sniderman, Yogita Puri, Mark Foster

Directors of photography: Lol Crawley, Autumn Cheyenne Durald, Malik Hassan Sayeed

Editors: Matt Hollis, Daniel Song

No rating, 75 minutes

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