Karlovy Vary Film Fest Review: Fascinating Subject Almost Trumps Staid Format In ‘Brian Eno: The Man Who Fell To Earth 1971-1977’

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by Jessica Kiang
July 2, 2012 10:04 AM
1 Comment
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A documentary about just 6 years out of a 42-odd year career, that runs two-and-a-half hours long and rarely strays from bog-standard talking head/rote archive footage format? Yes, it sounds unbearable, and probably would be were its subject anyone but Brian Eno, a definite, no-joke candidate for The Most Interesting Man In The World (sorry, Senor Dos Equis), at a period in his life which was arguably his most creative. (Very arguably, and we’d probably be the ones to argue, having had some exposure to the Eno of the ‘80s, ‘90s and today). Still, there’s no denying 1971-1977 in the visionary musician/artist/producer’s life was a dynamic one, and the film exhaustively maps it out: his early Roxy Music days; his initial solo music career; his burgeoning confidence with the new technologies that essentially become his instrument; his multiple collaborations with artists known and unknown; his embracing of cybernetics; his championing of avant garde music in the form of Island-funded label Obscure Records; the coining of the term “ambient”; and finally up to the start of his most indelibly famous association with David Bowie on Low and then Heroes. At the same time, the minute approach means we also get a good sense of his expanding musical consciousness, and a strong appreciation for how, in just half a decade he could go from insistently referring to himself as a “non-musician” to being the consummate musican’s musician, without ever really troubling the space in between. It’s pretty much a superhero origin story for modern music geeks.

So it is a real shame, then, that the documentary itself doesn’t take its cue from the groundbreaking flair of its subject. Contributors are well-chosen and, for the most part articulate and passionate about their subject (Eno biographer David Sheppard is a particular pleasure), but they are largely covered in face-on head-and-shoulder shots, in front of dull, unchanging backgrounds, and the reliance on these segments to convey the narrative, coupled with the frequent use of explanatory voiceover, makes the film feel deadeningly talky when you’re not 100% riveted by what’s being said. Similarly, the music itself is transcendent (often literally) but too frequently director Ed Haynes makes use of archly counterpoint stock footage to fill in where no music video or live performance footage exists (or is available to him). There's only so often one should ever go to the well of black-and-white images of ladies in bloomers dancing to pioneering electro-rock tracks, and the quota here is filled quickly. But perhaps the most glaring lack is of footage of Eno himself. Despite the film’s generous running time and the narrowness of its focus in the context of Eno’s whole career, disappointingly it only yields a couple of clips of the man himself, both culled from later interviews for, we have to presume, other projects.

We feel that lack, not least because the picture that does emerge of Eno, in marked counterpoint to the chilly intellectual vibe one could mistakenly ascribe to him, is of a tremendously warm, friendly man who is tirelessly generous with his creativity, and genuinely collaborative in approach, even as his individual sensibilities are coalescing. Time and again his genius for drawing great work out of others, leading by example, and rarely allowing ego to foreground his own contributions, is referred to by the assembled journalists, admirers and sometimes those collaborators themselves (krautrocker Hans-Joachim Roedelius of Harmonia and Cluster; bassist Percy Jones, among others). The fact is, we had always admired Eno, but here we start to really like him -- we’d love to get to spend a little more time with him.

Nor do we get David Bowie, or Bryan Ferry, or John Cale or any of the higher-profile people who were such an influence on, and who were so influenced by, this prodigious talent. The film’s small budget shows in this regard, and again it is a pity because those famous names may not have contributed much to the actual story being told, but they would have lent a gloss of prestige to the rather creaky made-for-TV-and-not-even-primetime feel.

It’s not surprising, then, that is a rare big-screen airing of a film that has been available on DVD in many territories since early last year. And if our own experience here was marred a little by, of all things, poor sound quality (wherever he was, sonic perfectionist Eno no doubt experienced an uncanny quiver of horror at the precise moment the speakers started to fuzz with bass overload), still it’s a life and early career that is actually so fascinating that it not only kept our attention, more or less, to its end, but actually had us looking forward to more. Or rather, hoping for another installment, more imaginatively put together (why not use some of the man’s own Oblique Strategies?) and better funded, starting where this one ends. After all, there is plenty of material remaining unmined; here, we don’t even get to Music For Airports, let alone the Talking Heads period, let alone his projects in other media -- his books, his art -- let alone his 2009 album with David Byrne.

If you adore Eno or are just Eno-curious, or somewhere in between, this documentary does enough to satisfy, if only because the story it ploddingly lays out and the 70s music landscape it sketches is such compelling subject matter. But especially compared to the rash of superior music docs that have made a splash of late (“Shut Up and Play the Hits” and “Searching for Sugar Man” for example, both of which are playing here at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival) it’s simply not shiny enough to draw in the neophyte, and perhaps that is the documentary’s greatest failure. Eno’s is an oeuvre more people should know: it is central to our conception of electronic music today. Quite beside that, the multi-multi-hyphenate Eno's example is utterly inspirational to anyone with any kind of creative leanings. But the film, being so cramped in its own artistic ambitions, and having such a relative paucity of top-flight contributors, is unlikely to draw in anyone but the established Eno devotee. And so it preaches to the converted, which is a great shame, because Eno’s church, on this films’ own evidence as well as that of our own ears though the decades, deserves to be much, much broader. Forgive us our evangelism -- we’re members of the congregation. [B-]

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1 Comment

  • sly | July 2, 2012 10:26 AMReply

    Just a small correction: you can't just put "Vary" out of "Karlovy Vary" in the title, since it's a name of a town, same as you can't say "Saint" instead of "Saint Petersburgh."

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