December 13, 2018

Review: CONTEMPORARY COLOR at Wisconsin Film Festival, Apr 1 and Apr 2

Review: Wisconsin Film Festival
Contemporary Color | Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross | USA | 2016 | 97 min
Barrymore Theatre, Saturday, April 1, 2:45»
Sundance Cinema Sunday April 2, 8:15»

Edwanike Harbour kicks off our 10-day Wisconsin Film Festival preview with a look at Contemporary Color, a dazzling portrait of color guard performances with music provided by big names in indie pop.

Fans of David Byrne will love Contemporary Color, which documents performances from ten different color guard troops from around the United States, accompanied by indie pop acts including Lucius, How to Dress Well, tUnE-yArDs, Wisconsin’s own Zola Jesus, and Blood Orange (formerly Lightspeed Champion).

Byrne impressed audiences with his iconic performance in Stop Making Sense (Jonathan Demme, 1984), a quintessential concert movie by the Talking Heads. He demonstrated a knack for synthesizing engaging visuals with his unique brand of geek-rock. Your average music nerd has a copy of this movie on DVD somewhere.

In Contemporary Color Byrne explains that he stumbled upon a color guard performance and conceived the idea of pairing color guard with live music at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. He recruited directors Bill and Turner Ross (Western) to complete his artistic vision which they brought to life in expert fashion.

In a country obsessed with organized sports and competition, this film engages the viewer on many levels. Most people do not appreciate the time and energy it takes to put on a show of this magnitude. Strictly speaking in a militaristic sense, the color-guard represents a group of soldiers assigned to protect the flag, or colors, of a regimen. Instead of the lockstep march, these students perform ornate routines that combine modern dance and other more contemporary dance styles.

This movie inspires in a way that I did not anticipate. Spirited performances demonstrate how the students support each other while remaining competitive. They strive to be their best and have the best “run” of their lives on one of the biggest stages out there. One young girl talks about how her father had died shortly before this show and you can see her face drenched with emotion upon the conclusion of her set. She has to practice outside in the street as the twirl flags are very large and practicing inside at home would be ill advised.

The students come in all shapes and sizes, but the routines require coordination and athleticism as the they catch objects flying through the air and synchronize their movements. You can hear the crunching sound of the guard rifle after it stops spinning through the air. Some of them look pained as they catch it, and the level of concentration it takes to do this must be staggering.

Emotions sneak up on the students as they participate in the project. One young man observes that you can hear other students crying during their performance, over the applause of the audience.

A routine by the Field of New troop depicts people in an on old-school mental asylum with makeup and costumes. St. Vincent performs the music for the set, and she gives the kids a tastefully profane pep-talk. The angles, lighting, and color grading amplify the dream-like quality of this routine and it stands out as one of the highlights of the film.

The color guard from Mechanicsburg High School also makes an impression with “How to Dress Well.” The booming percussion and slow-motion shot of the girls dancing captured the essence of the film. Two hyperactive boys can hardly stand still during an interview after their performance, and their joy is contagious.

Contemporary Color plays like an extended music video but it remains fluid and dynamic enough to keep the viewer engaged. Between sets, the filmmakers show what’s happening behind the scenes in preparation for the performance. David Byrne runs around singing to St. Vincent and the kids nervously get ready. Showing behind the scenes footage in addition to the routines gave the movie a loose but more realistic feel.

The Ross brothers sneak in some political commentary, too. A TV screen broadcasts a discussion of the Confederate flag controversy, and displays footage of the White House lit up in rainbow colors. Flags can symbolize so many different things to so many people.

These students are united in love, peace, and harmony. Their strength comes from one another and the final spectacle brings this message home in the end. While not competitive in the organized sports sense, color guard can be just as exciting as I found myself rooting for each troop. Contemporary Color defied all my expectations and delivered a pleasant surprise.