'Sound and Chaos: The Story of BC Studio': Film Review

"Sound and Chaos"
Fan-oriented doc offers a novel view of New York rock history.

A rundown Brooklyn basement proves to have birthed a surprising variety of NYC music.

It may be a bridge-or-tunnel away from the heart of most Downtown New York rock histories, but an abandoned Brooklyn industrial building proves important to that narrative in Ryan Douglass and Sara Leavitt's Sound and Chaos. From the dawn of hip-hop through no wave and today's hipster scene, a dumpy studio run by recording engineer Martin Bisi has played host to a remarkably diverse crowd, many of whom swear by the place. Though light on the top-shelf interviewees that might have carried it beyond niche theatrical bookings, the doc offers a surprisingly strong sense of one of the city's most storied epochs and will please in-the-know viewers with a taste for behind-the-scenes arcana.

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Bisi was affiliated with Bill Laswell's Material, "a band soon to become a production company" in the late '70s; searching for a recording space large enough to double as an apartment, he rented an old building near Brooklyn's famously toxic Gowanus Canal. To hear former studio manager Victoria Galvez tell it, the neighborhood was straight from The Warriors — deserted save for packs of feral dogs and gangs like "The Confederates," who wore Civil War caps.

Sketchy 'hood notwithstanding, a 17 year-old Bisi talked Brian Eno into recording with him there. (It was Bisi's first gig; Eno was already a star.) Soon he and Laswell met some of the men turning rap into a movement, cutting records with Afrika Bambaataa and Fab Five Freddy. One of their recordings with the later wound up being fodder for Grand Mixer DS.T's historic turntable manipulations on Herbie Hancock's Rockit.

Only one of those five boldfaces, D.ST, appears here; throughout, the really famous players in this studio's story — Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry, The Beastie Boys — are beyond the filmmakers' reach as interview subjects. Even Sonic Youth, who recorded multiple records with Bisi, are absent — with the exception of drummer Bob Bert, who was only briefly with the band. (Michael Gira, leader of Swans, is the most notable interviewee aside from Laswell.)

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Bisi and Laswell tell most of the stories, evoking the city's once scroungy art culture in between tours of the oddly shaped, painted-brick rooms whose many flaws make them a unique acoustic environment. Somewhere along the way, talk of marathon sessions (in which musicians slept, ate and recorded in the underheated bunker for days) gives way to the inevitable subject of gentrification. The arrival of a Whole Foods nearby signals that, here as elsewhere, artists will be priced out of the area they made attractive by luxury developers. Douglass and Leavitt don't overdramatize the prospect, allowing their roll-with-the-punches star to muse briefly about moving elsewhere then get back to work.

Directors-Producers-Editors: Ryan Douglass, Sara Leavitt
Directors of photography: Matthew Semel, Danielle Calodney
No rating, 71 minutes