The NYC Art Gallery Concert Film

I recently found myself falling down a hyperspecific rabbit hole watching live performances of bands that meant a lot to me in high school. It started with the David Byrne concert film American Utopia, which I caught up with on HBO as part of the late-in-the-year hunt for potential Best of the Year list-toppers. Even more so than the landmark Talking Heads documentary Stop Making Sense, American Utopia is a unique specimen within the concert film genre. Unlike most rock concert docs, it doesn’t aim to energize or throttle the audience in any discernible way. It’s an upbeat but gentle work, staged with regimented, clinical precision within the rigid confines of a Broadway theatrical setting. Spike Lee directs the film with a controlled, observant formalism that only appears in flashes in his messier, more idiosyncratic works. As a movie, American Utopia is more like stumbling across a performance art piece in an NYC art gallery than attending a rock show or even a typical Broadway musical. It’s not the only concert film of that exact ilk, though, and I soon found myself seeking out more heady art gallery concert docs on its wavelength to keep the arty party going.

I was lucky enough to catch the traveling American Utopia show live at the 2018 Jazz Fest, but it was a lot more of a traditional rock performance than what’s captured in the movie version. Watching Byrne perform for the first time live in the afternoon sunshine, I found myself crying while dancing in a rare moment of ecstatic happiness – maybe the second time I’ve ever experienced such euphoria at a concert. That Jazz Fest set was an abbreviated version of the show, one that cut out a few songs and, more importantly, abbreviated the spoken monologues that act as the show’s thematic throughline. In the movie (and, presumably, most live performances of the act), Byrne’s parade of solo & Talking Heads hits are bookended by short lectures that examine the function & the soul of American culture from a distanced outsider perspective; it’s a kind of spiritual sequel to Byrne’s small-town America portrait True Stories in that way. It’s an honest but optimistic temperature check of where America is today, both acknowledging the horrors of racially-motivated police brutality that have long been a stain on this country’s honor and pointing to our current moment of change as a possibly transformative turning point towards a better future. Meanwhile, everything onstage is rigidly uniformed & regimented like a dystopian sci-fi film, with the traditional rock performers’ instruments & colorful costuming stripped away to mimic the minimalism of modern performance art.

American Utopia has earned plenty accolades as one of the best cinematic experiences of the year, but it’s not the only NYC Art Gallery Concert Film that was recently highlighted as a Cultural Event. In an effort to stay visible as a cultural institution despite ongoing COVID-lockdowns, the Brooklyn concert venue St. Ann’s Warehouse has been periodically broadcasting past shows on YouTube, free-to-the-public. A recent one that caught my eye (thanks to write-ups on sites like the New York Times) was a 2007 concert film version of Lou Reed’s Berlin. The follow-up to Reed’s cult solo record Transformer, Berlin was a critical & financial flop in 1973, a failure that broke the rock ‘n roller’s heart to the point where he refused to play songs from the album live. The 2007 performance at St. Ann’s Warehouse is a decades-in-the-making event, then, finding Reed performing the proggy concept album in its entirety with a sprawling backup band that included contributions from Sharon Jones, Antony, and a full children’s choir. It also translated Berlin into the world of Visual Art, layering in dramatic visualizations of the album’s loose “narrative” (as projections on the stage and interjections on the screen) as if they were fuzzy memories bubbling up to the surface of the songs. The film’s director, fine art painter Julian Schnabel, does his best to turn the concert film experience into an instillation piece, achieving an art gallery aesthetic in a much uglier, more somber way than Byrne’s work. Weirdly enough, both movies also happen to share a cinematographer in Ellen Kuras.

After watching Berlin & American Utopia in short succession, I caught myself wondering what the ultimate NYC Art Gallery Concert Film would be. The answer was immediately obvious, although I had not yet seen the film myself because of its limited availability. Laurie Anderson’s 1986 concert film Home of the Brave is a 90min distillation of her two-night concert piece United States I-IV. Having now only seen a fuzzy rip of the film that’s lurking on YouTube (as it unforgivably has never made the format leap from VHS & laserdisc to DVD), I’m fairly confident in calling it The Greatest Concert Film of All Time. I know that title has been communally bestowed upon Stop Making Sense, but Anderson’s piece certainly belongs in that conversation, if not only for highlighting how her work pioneered a lot of the more Conceptual Art elements that goes into Byrne’s stage shows. Anderson also observes the soul & structure of America in a series of abstracted, outsider-POV lectures the way Byrne does in American Utopia, but those monologues are interwoven into her avant-garde new wave songs to the point where there’s no boundary between them. Projectors, voice modulators, newly invented instruments, and guest appearances from William S. Burroughs of all people are prominently featured in her show as if they were the hallmarks of a rock ‘n roll music video instead of weirdo outsider-artist eccentricities. While American Utopia & Berlin evoke the mood & setting of an art gallery, Home of the Brave is an art gallery, and it’s a shame that it’s the only film of the three that you can’t currently access in Blu-ray quality.

Although she’s less of a household name elsewhere, Laurie Anderson was very much an equal & a contemporary alongside David Byrne & Lou Reed in NYC art snob circles (and Reed’s spouse in the final years of his life, a pain explored in the experimental essay film Heart of a Dog). Stop Making Sense might have preceded the concert film version of her United States I-IV act by a few years, but she was already pushing its more out-there ideas (especially its use of projectors) to their furthest extremes in her own stage work at that same time. If anything, American Utopia finds David Byrne leaning even further into the Laurie Anersonisms of his own work, to the point where it feels like it’s turning Home of the Brave‘s idiosyncrasies into a concert film subgenre all of its own. The only other concert doc I can name that approaches these films’ shared NYC art gallery aesthetic is Bjork’s Biophilia project, which is great company to be in. They might not be the most raucous or chaotic specimens of rock ‘n roll hedonism, but they collectively strive to elevate the concert film to new artistic highs; and Anderson clearly stands as the mastermind of the medium.

-Brandon Ledet

Heart of a Dog (2015)

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Laurie Anderson is one of the world’s greatest living artists, full stop. I’m throwing that accolade out there not only because it’s so very true, but also to admit a bias before I review her latest work, a “documentary” that pushes the boundaries of not-for-everyone cinema to a ludicrous extreme. Those turned off by loose, experimental filmmaking will likely find Heart of a Dog‘s philosophical navel-gazing insufferable. Obsessive cinephiles might also recoil at the film’s cheap, blasé mode of rough visual collage, an aesthetic that combines 80s art school technique with the most disposable of digital photography available. Both sides of that divide might find plenty reasons to groan or roll eyes at Anderson’s verbal meditation & casual poetry. Heart of a Dog is a work that I love & appreciate deeply, but would never be shocked to hear that someone else didn’t feel the same way. It’s the same tone of affection I have for the out-there art of pro wrestlers, John Waters, Death Grips, and Xiu Xiu. You’ll never hear me incredulously ask, “You didn’t like that? Why not?!” I totally get why not. The only difference with Heart of a Dog is that it stimulates a more intellectual, philosophical area of my mind than some of those acts & the type of art I generally seek out typically do.

Heart of a Dog is being billed as a documentary & its distribution was recently picked up by the HBO Docs imprint, but I believe that genre distinction is wildly misleading. The film is more like an act of meditation or hypnosis, playing like a weird lecture from an alternate dimension, a Dianetics DVD for the terminally bizarre. Even though I’m a huge fan of Anderson’s decades of spoken word & experimental pop music work, I’ve been a little weary of watching this film since it was released, because I expected it to be a brave, emotionally bare account of her beloved rat terrier Lola’s death that served as a means to deal with the also-recent death of her husband, Lou Reed. I was selling the artist a little short there. The losses of Lola & Lou inform every frame of Heart of a Dog, but they’re part of a larger tapestry of ideas that cover everything from the modern surveillance state to living in New York during 9/11 to the tenants of Buddhism to the existence of ghosts. Lou Reed’s absence weighs heavily on the proceedings, cropping up in an occasional image or song or dedication, but speaks volumes as Laurie Anderson instead discusses the process of accepting loss in terms of her dog, her dog’s sight, the twin towers, a world before the omnipresence of modern technology, and a mother she feels she never genuinely loved. As with all of Laurie Anderson’s work, Heart of a Dog is a writer’s delight, an intense meditation on the bizarre nature of language, but this film stands as her most fiercely personal work to date. It not only covers the whirlwind of painful change & transition she’s survived in recent years; it also lays out in simple, clear terms how she sees the known world & the unknown one that follows. Nearly every word, sound, and image in the film was created by Anderson herself and by the end credits the film feels like a snapshot of her very soul.

As weighty as that description sounds, Heart of a Dog is just as playful as it is philosophical. When making a “documentary” about death, loss, and the basic structure of the known & unknown universe, it probably helps to keep the mood as light as possible, which Anderson accomplishes by centering the POV on that of a dog. When Lola was alive she was taught to paint, sculpt, and play piano, all on display for the camera. Besides exhibiting these canine works of fine art, Anderson also shifts the camera’s POV to a dog’s-eye-view, playing with shaky, blue-green messes of birds, puddles, trash, and other dogs. You know, dog stuff. There’s also a few wonderfully surreal accounts of Anderson’s dog-themed dreams that toe the line between morbidity & absurdist humor. Anderson knows exactly how ridiculous these moments are, too. As part of Heart of a Dog‘s press tour & post-release growth she’s been screening the film for canine audiences & performing concerts for dogs on talk shows & in art gallery spaces. You always get the sense that she takes the dogs & her performances for the dogs seriously, but there’s also a sly smirk to the whole endeavor that suggests the ridiculousness of the situation (and of life in general) is all part of the act.

If you’re not thrown off by Anderson’s meditative, hypnotic musings on life & the afterlife, you’re just as likely to be resistant to Heart of a Dog‘s oddly cheap & off-putting visual poetry. The film employs a kind of layered visual collage that plays like a shoddy take on the works of Dave McKean, Guy Maddin, and Don Hetrzfeldt in attempt to mimic the scattered, blurred shape of memory & personal perception. Anderson mixes stock footage, digital photography, home movies, and animation to bring her trademark spoken word work to vivid, visual life. Heart of a Dog can sometimes play like a tangled mess of power lines, pyramids, smoke, helicopters, tree branches and, duh, dogs. However, it’s a distinct, deliberate visual style that not only exists to serve Anderson’s intense soundscape & language play, but also taps into the immediacy & intimacy of a private home movie collection.

It’s difficult to say if Heart of a Dog would be a great primer for becoming a fan of Anderson’s work. I didn’t find it to be any more or less accessible than her magnum opus United States I-IV, except maybe that it demands 1/4th of that masterpiece’s run-time. As someone already won over by her particular, peculiar philosophy, language and music, however, I’ll say that I could gladly continue to watch her make these weird little meditative art films forever, though perhaps without the heartache & despair that inspired Heart of Dog in the first place. I wouldn’t want her to have to live through that pain again, but I’d gladly reap the rewards as long as they’re as winning & engaging as this wonderful film.

-Brandon Ledet