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

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

Part of the allure of genre filmmaking is that it provides a built-in satisfactory payoff in narrative that frees up directors to experiment in tone & aesthetic without worrying about storytelling basics. Slapstick comedies, revenge films, zombie horrors, and outer space creature features all have well-worn narrative patterns in their basic storytelling structure, each with a built-in release of tension in their final acts that, if handled well, satisfy through familiarity. The latest Spike Lee joint, BlacKkKlansman, is well aware of audience expectation for that familiar, comforting payoff in its chosen genre(s) and happily delivers it – at first. As its buddy cop & blacksploitation throwback narratives power through their natural conclusions, BlacKkKlansman pretends to be a straight-faced, well-behaved participation in old-fashioned genre tropes meant to leave audiences entertained & satisfied. Then all of that easy, comforting payoff is swept away with an epilogue that effectively punches the audience in the gut, reminding us that we’re not supposed to feel good about the way the past has shaken out, that the modern word remains messy & nauseating in a way that can’t be captured in a fully satisfied genre exercise. Spike Lee knows exactly how storytelling conventions have trained audiences to expect easy, comforting resolutions to even the most sickening thematic territory, and he’s found potent, purposeful ways to weaponize them against us.

John David Washington stars in BlacKkKlansman as Ron Stallworth, a real-life Colorado Springs police officer who was assigned in the 1970s to go undercover in investigations of both the local university’s radicalized Black Student Union and, more unbelievably, the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Stallworth, a black man, mostly investigates the KKK via phone (for obvious reason) and relies on a (Jewish) partner played by Adam Driver to serve as his white body double for more hands-on portions of the investigation. It’s a story that’s presented somewhat glibly as “some fo’ real, fo’ real shit” in the opening title cards, but is overall depicted in terms not at all resembling a historically-minded biopic of Stallworth’s exploits. Lee fractures Stallworth’s story into a multimedia approach that incorporates 1970s blacksploitation homage, Shane Black-style buddy cop thrillers, film school lectures on racist cinema relics like Birth of a Nation & Gone with the Wind and, most curiously, slapstick farce. Each of those specific genres & tactics reach their own respective built-in payoffs in the way you’d expect them to, with the undercover cops effectively solving racism with their victory over the KKK and that grotesque prejudice being contextualized as a vestige of a long-gone past. After that narrative fully concludes, however, a rug-pull epilogue comprised of modern cell phone footage & news coverage fully undoes that satisfaction, effectively staging a political prank that demonstrates in clear terms how small-scale, individual victories like the ones depicted in the film mean nothing in the face of the systems that maintain the status quo.

There’s nothing subtle about the prankish, sickening epilogue that concludes BlacKkKlansman, just like there’s nothing subtle about the blacksploitation, cop thriller, or slapstick farce genre beats that precede it. Nor should there be. We do not live in subtle times. Racism in the 2010s is as public & as overt as ever, represented here in public-record statements from politicians like David Duke & Donald J Trump. Lee’s subtlety is neither thematic nor in choice of form, a reflection of how glaringly racist discourse has been allowed to thrive in the public sphere; his subtlety is in criticism of naïve do-gooders who feebly attempt to “change things from the inside,” something not allowed by the racist power structures that maintain that system from on high. All the film’s traditional, genre-faithful heroics are contextualized by the epilogue to be minor, unimportant victories in the face of larger, systemic oppression. In BlacKkKlansman’s main narrative, David Duke is portrayed (by Topher Grace) to be a cartoonish buffoon whose blatant villainy is befitting a racist authority figure in a 1970s blacksploitation pic. He gets his comeuppance as such, and the small-scale embarrassment he suffers being fooled by Ron Stallworth feels incredibly good in the moment of its third act payoff. That payoff is easily undone by Stallworth’s higher-ups, however, and a real-life Duke is shown thriving long after the fallout of the petty road-bump framed earlier as the ultimate victory. His hateful rhetoric remains just as blatant & ridiculous, but fully supported by the white men in charge. If there’s any subtlety in that dichotomy, it’s in Lee’s critique of the audience’s desire for a cleanly wrapped-up ending to a problem that has unsubtly, publicly persisted with full, systemic support.

It’s been a while since a movie had me ping-ponging from such extremes of pure pleasure & stomach-churning nausea. What’s brilliant about BlacKkKlansman is that it often achieves both effects using the same genre tools. Even when it’s taking the structure of an absurdist farce, its humor can be genuinely funny or caustically sickening. Racism is delivered kindly & with a wholesome American smile here, without apology; shamelessly evil bigotry is presented in the cadence & appearance of a joke, but lands with appropriate horror instead of humor. Lee only further complicates his genre subversion by mixing that horror with actual, genuine jokes, so that the film overall maintains the structure of a comedy. It’s a deliberately uneasy mixture that makes the victory-subverting epilogue feel like less of an out-of-nowhere sucker punch than a necessary, realistic addendum. The film’s general tactic from start to end is to offer the built-in satisfaction of throwback genre structure, only for the poison of our modern, grotesque reality to ruin the party. The ending only reinforces that tactic by dislodging systemic racism critiques from the distant past with a nauseous, necessary update.

-Brandon Ledet

She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

With funding for movie projects being drastically polarized between dirt cheap indies & international blockbuster behemoths, many directors who used to thrive as mid-budget risk-takers have been driven to television & streaming platforms to finance their works. Even names as big as David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, and *shudder* Woody Allen have had to recoil to outlets like Showtime, Netflix, and Amazon to secure proper funding for their midbudget creative projects. Spike Lee has now joined their ranks, with an upcoming Netflix series adapting his debut feature, She’s Gotta Have It, to a streaming television format. In some ways, the basic idea of adapting this film to television makes total sense; She’s Gotta Have It is already episodically structured & relaxed in its candid, direct-to-the-camera discussions of youth & sexuality in ways that feel ripe for televised storytelling. In other ways, though, the news is a little bit of a bummer, mostly in what it means for the current status of Big Name directors who used to be the gods of indie cinema and the vibrancy of the independent filmmaking boom She’s Gotta Have It helped instigate.

She’s Gotta Have It is essentially a sex-positive hangout film. Our POV character is Nola Darling, a young Brooklynite who openly & honestly maintains three simultaneous sexual partnerships. Despite each partner’s urging for her to go monogamous, she refuses to apologize for or back down from her sexual autonomy. She introduces herself & her plight to the audience in a series of Bergman-esque, direct-to-the-camera monologues, as do her three opposing beaus: an uptight business prick, a well-meaning but toxically jealous romantic, and an immature goof (played by Spike Lee himself). There isn’t much plot outside the tension of this premise, which is amplified by scenarios like all four players sitting down for a shared Thanksgiving meal, one of her beaus demanding she see a psychiatrist for sex addiction, an act of consensual rough sex that darkly transgresses into rape, etc. Mostly, we just sympathize with Nola as she struggles to remain an independent, antonymous person despite all of the outside pressure in her life, which even comes from her female best friend (who also has the hots for her) & an endless parade of male strangers who deliver corny pickup lines in a photo shoot void. It actually sounds more like the plot of a TV show than a feature film when you consider it in that context, but as a D.I.Y. debut from a young, scrappy filmmaker it does work surprisingly well as a one-off feature.

A lot of She’s Gotta Have It is understandably rough around the edges. The unprofessional acting is charmingly scrappy, but also awkward & misshapen. There’s a music fantasy sequence that could be transcendent & lovely, but feels a little corny & flat instead. The movie desperately wants to have an open, progressive mind about sex, but often falls prey to the same toxic masculinity it’s critiquing, especially in the way it handles the aftermath of a sexual assault. These stray quibbles do little to poison the overall mood, though, if not only because the just-getting-started Spike Lee displays so much giddy excitement for the material. For all of its awkward missteps as a debut feature, She’s Gotta Have It just feels incredibly cool. It conveys a 90s Attitude about casual sex years before pop acts like TLC & George Michael would define what that even means. Its stark, black & white cinematography & slideshow photographs frame Brooklyn as a vital, artistic neighborhood where black culture is thriving as a natural echo of the Harlem Renaissance (decades before Brooklyn was a hot commodity). As many young filmmakers do, Lee throws as many of his personal passions & influences as he can at the screen: hip-hop, jazz, The Wizard of Oz, Malcolm X,  Zora Neale Hurston, etc. Individual moments may falter within that aesthetic but it’s such an infectiously rich framework for this film’s snapshots of youthful sexuality & black masculinity in 1980s, big city America. Lee pays special attention to the craft of his personal brand within this cool aesthetic too, already introducing the film as A Spike Lee Joint & a 40 Acres and a Mule production, as if that meant anything to an audience who never heard of him before.

I’m not sure that She’s Gotta Have It is going to be able to retain that cool cultural cachet & artistic vibrancy as a Netflix series. However, a television show should easily be able to stay true to the spirit of its source material without much trouble. I’d much rather that Spike Lee have the opportunity to continue to make weird, outlier projects like Chi-Raq & Da Sweet Blood of Jesus than have to return to early career nostalgia for online “content,” but at least he’s chosen to adapt a project that’s already primed for a TV format. The only real difference is that if he casts himself in a role this time, he’ll have to play the uptight business prick instead of the youthful court jester. In so many ways, it’s not 1986 anymore.

-Brandon Ledet

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2015)

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Even when Spike Lee’s films fail, they always have a fascinating quality to them that’s difficult to describe in words. This sensation is apparent as early as the opening credits in Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, which features an oddly earnest sequence of slow-motion break dancers. It’s a vision that, like a lot of interpretive dance, is both excitingly strange and embarrassingly awkward. That compromised tone is relentless for the entirety of the film’s run time, to the point where it’s difficult to say which reaction rules over the other-excitement or discomfort.

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is the story of a wealthy black scholar in an all-white community who just happens to be a blood-sucking vampire. Lee is heavy on the vampire genre’s inherent draws: gore, sensuality, religious iconography, and spacious room for metaphor (among others here, he suggests that as the most violent nation in the world, the US is a blood-based society). He also makes room a compelling romance between the central vampire and a no-nonsense woman who says blunt things like “I don’t believe in ‘if’s. If I had two balls & a dick I’d be a bloke. Fuck ‘if’s.” None of these elements ever really come together to form a satisfying whole, though; they just kind float around in individually. The effect is persistently odd.

The oddest aspect of all is that Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is actually a faithful remake of an even more inscrutable film: 1973’s Ganja & Hess. Unfortunately for Lee, Ganja & Hess (although nearly 40 years older) feels like a much more naturally bizarre & experimental, especially in its bold sexuality bucking of racial expectations. In remaking the film, which has a very quiet reputation, Lee has done little but remind the general public that it exists and it is awesome. Capturing Ganja & Hess’s magic in a bottle proved itself difficult and the results are mixed, but at least he’s getting the name of that weird little cult film back out there in the world. Ultimately, though, I would have rather have seen what an original idea for a Spike Lee vampire movie would’ve been instead of a restaging of a film that already worked on its own terms.

Side note: It was super cool to see Felicia Pearson (who played Snoop on The Wire) in a feature film and she delivers the best line uttered by anyone here: “Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends.” Words to live by, Snoop. Now if every movie producer out there could start casting her in everything they make ASAP I would be much obliged.

-Brandon Ledet