Reel Sounds – Vol. 4: St. Vincent, Damien Dempsey And More At Doc’N Roll 2021

This year's Doc'n Roll festival grapples with artifice and authenticity as it returns to the big screen, finds Neil Fox

Two films that build on recent music documentaries that have set or pushed the bar in the way they approach their subjects are standouts in this year’s Doc ’N Roll festival programme. The festival is making a welcome return to cinemas as well as hosting online premieres following last year’s solely online edition. First up, The Nowhere Inn explores the art and role of the music documentary in a musician’s life, in a way that feels akin to Stewart Lee and Michael Cumming’s brilliant King Rocker from last year. Where King Rocker takes a curious and lo-fi approach to undermining, critiquing and questioning the music documentary, The Nowhere Inn takes a more elaborate, postmodern and meta approach that is risky but pays great dividends.

The film sees Annie Clark (St Vincent) enlisting her best friend Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney, Portlandia) to make a film about her (the film is actually directed by Bill Benz who Brownstein has worked with on her sketch show) only to discover that she’s not that interesting as a film subject. The discussions between the pair as they try to craft a portrait of Clark connected to but different from her St Vincent stage persona offer insightful thoughts on fame, creativity, failure, fandom and whether and why we need our stars to be as exciting offstage as they are onstage. The film is intercut with amazing live footage of Clark/St Vincent on tour, material that does a great job of backing up the film’s underlying anxiety that music documentaries are themselves, for the most part, uninteresting when the subjects are not performing for audiences.

To try and solve this problem, the film spends a lot of time in fantasy/sketch show territory, somewhat outstaying its welcome in this regard. Following Brownstein’s attempt to reel in her friend’s increasingly cliché and grating impersonations of a star, Clark expresses a wish to make “a different kind of music film”. Sadly, the one she imagines feels like a bad David Lynch pastiche, almost detracting from the ways The Nowhere Inn approaches the form so originally elsewhere. What keeps the film on track for the most part, though is the relationship and artistic dialogue between Clark and Brownstein and the fact that the film is so very, very funny.

Before coming to the other title that builds on this recent trend, it’s worth mentioning the other titles and themes drawn out that make this year’s festival so exciting, including the correction of historical erasures, intersectional perspectives, trauma and art, and the coronavirus pandemic. Two films take cult, overlooked female figures from the ‘70s and give them their (over)dues in extended form. Fanny: The Right to Rock is a solid and straightforward doc – in form at least – about David Bowie’s favourite all-female rock band, the Fanny of the title. The film follows sisters June and Jean Millington, bassist and lead guitarist respectively, as they reunite with original drummer Brie Howard to record a new album decades after slowing to a halt and calling it a day. There is some great archive material of the band, capturing their live power and also the unique atmosphere of the house they lived and wrote in when they moved to Los Angeles.

The film also offers some honest, perceptive interviews with friends, peers and fans about their importance, their struggles and the uniqueness of their story as not only women but women of colour and from immigrant families. The film acknowledges the sadly unsurprising sexism that kept their career from really taking off and wore them down, exhausting the women with the constant barrage of micro- and full-blown aggressions. As the film progresses, the sisters’ ambition to tell a positive Filipino American success story becomes a reality. Mostly. Because life, as it can, gets in the way and threatens to derail their much deserved resurgence.

Lydia Lunch is another performer who has battled multiple attempts to derail her life and career – but as a new film shows she is still standing, and as vocal and direct as ever. Beth B’s portrait of her New Wave peer is a striking and powerful film, which never shirks from the complexities of its subject. Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over is a visceral account of Lunch’s life and work, from the earliest days of No Wave to the present. It’s punchy, fierce and unapologetic, cut together with a ferocious pace that leaves little room to breathe while it’s happening. It feels like an appropriate cinematic form in which to house Lunch’s account of her life as musician, performer, feminist activist and trauma survivor. Lunch speaks unashamedly about her childhood and young adult abuse, her feelings on sex and sexuality, the oppression of herself and women.

And all the while, this is cut through with footage of Lunch on stage with Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and as a solo spoken-word performer. The film is exhilarating, dragging the viewer from Lunch’s early days as a pioneer of the New Wave scene – a scene she is happy to align herself to in terms of its name, increasingly rare for artists in music docs – to the present day, showing effortlessly that she has lost none of her political or artistic power. One of the most fascinating aspects of the film reflects on and celebrates her work in experimental film in the ‘80s, particularly with renowned experimental filmmaker Richard Kern. This focus rightly showcases her as a pioneer, of both sound and image, in the vital No Wave art scene that emerged from New York’s lower east side in the late 1970s. At one point, Lunch declares her music with Teenage Jesus as “a scream from the bowels, a caterwaul” and much the same can be said for Beth B’s film.

The pandemic is both referenced and incorporated in Canadian auteur Denis Côté’s experimental performance film Renegade Breakdown Live, starring electronic musicians Marie Davidson & L’Oeil Nu. The online screening option offers an apt way to experience Côté’s jarring multi-format approach. The film sees the band perform in a stark white studio space, with select audience members present (drifting in somnambulantly wearing face masks and white lab coats as the film gets going). The band perform in the middle of a roving camera track, recalling Andrew Dominik’s approach to the Nick Cave film One More Time With Feeling and the imagery cuts between crisp widescreen high-definition video and glitchy, narrower ratio, low-grade black and white and bleached out video footage.

The film leans on the pandemic as a visual cue and, also, through the stark setting and almost complete lack of any external context, feels both alien and futuristic – like so much of the past 18 months of lived reality. The film and sound crew wear the same white lab coats as the sparse gig audience and it feels as though all have been invited to gaze upon the sight of a band performing their music, rendered strange by the removal of this possibility so long in everyday life. Côté’s choices create a voyeuristic experiment that is both aesthetically pleasing and a suitable visual accompaniment to the searing, exploratory sounds the band conjures. Davidson is a fantastic performer – all confidence, power and directness – and Côté knows how to make the most of her presence. This 50-minute performance film may be a side project for the narrative director, due to the restrictive circumstances of COVID-19, but he clearly embraced the opportunity to make a concert film that is striking and simultaneously timely (and potentially prescient).

Love Yourself Today is Ross Killeen’s frankly overwhelming film about, and driven by, Irish singer-songwriter Damien Dempsey. Akin to last year’s noble Idles film Do Not Go Gentle this film looks deeply and tenderly at trauma, mental health and fandom but does so in a way that blasts past that film’s potential to somewhere profoundly moving and utterly joyous. The film gives space to the stories of three fans of Dempsey – Nadia, Packy and Jonathan – and Dempsey himself, to talk about their lives and the struggles they have faced with addiction. The film is never patronising, and never makes the fans talk about why Dempsey’s music means so much to them. It gives space to the connections between these people and the man onstage they, and so many others, come to see perform his annual Christmas concert at Dublin’s Vicar Street venue. The shows form the musical backbone of the film, with the fans’ and Dempsey’s accounts moving in and out. The live performances are exhilarating, making clear why Dempsey’s fans are devoted to him. They feel religious in their power of communion and catharsis. When Dempsey says, “Every show has to be a great show” it doesn’t feel trite. It feels essential. This is an incredible film about the power of music as a true anchor for survival in people’s lives. It’s unsentimental, unapologetic and utterly gripping as well as a vital addition to the slim volume of films dealing explicitly with working class musicians and music fandom and culture.

Many of the films at this year’s festival are touring cinemas in the UK and Love Yourself Today is one of a few with wider cinematic releases that follow the close of the festival and run into the new year. I urge anyone, regardless of whether you like Dempsey’s music or not, to see this amazing piece of work on a big screen, with a lot of people, with the volume and emotions turned up loud.

It’s a fantastic programme, as ever, but The Nowhere Inn and Love Yourself Today feel like vital new additions to the emerging canon of music documentaries in how they feel unphased and unbounded by previous ideas of what a music documentary should look or feel like. They take on new conversations around formal dialogues within the work, and explorations of trauma and mental illness, to exhilarating and exciting new places. Kudos to Doc ’N Roll for bringing them to our screens.

The 2021 Doc’n Roll Film Fest runs from October 28 to November 14

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