Contemporary Color Review by Tanner Stechnij
A couple years ago, the Les Éclipses independent winter guard approached Talking Head frontman David Byrne to use one of his songs for their production. This berthed Byrne’s interest in the relatively unknown pageantry of color guard that eventually blossomed into Contemporary Color. The project brought together ten color guards from across the United States and Canada and paired them with composers ranging from Byrne himself to St. Vincent and ADROCK of Beastie Boys fame. Throughout the documentary, Byrne expresses a passion for the art of color guard, but the film doesn’t succeed in showing the beauty of the dance, flags, rifle and sabres.
The live show is incredibly impressive, especially in the sheer luck of the performances coming together. Each of the guards spent ten months performing to a recording of the song written by the composers. For the performance in New York, each guard only got to rehearse with their musicians live once. However, the editing doesn’t showcase enough of the color guard in a documentary that’s whole purpose is to bring a new audience to this art form. The directors Turner Ross and Bill Ross turn the show into a run of the mill concert film and the resulting film squanders the incredible artistry of the whole production.
The only redeeming quality of the film is the music. Byrne brought together a collection of the most interesting and well-received artists working now. The musical highlights are Lucius, Tune-yards, Devonté Hynes of Blood Orange and Byrne who is joined by others from the production. The artists mostly deliver lowkey performances in order to keep the focus on the show on the guards, so they don’t necessarily make for great viewing. Byrne’s song is especially reserved, but the camera revolves around him as if the film was Stop Making Sense 2. For every one shot of color guard there are two shots of artists singing into a microphone completely still.
Contemporary Color also does a poor job of making a case for color guard as an art form. There is no history or explanation of the art by professionals and all of the testimonials are surface level and inconsequential. The most emotional performance came from Alter Ego who was accompanied by Nico Muhly and Ira Glass. The composers put together a minimalistic electronic piece that was accompanied by vocal recordings from the guard. They expressed their experiences as performers and personal stories of how color guard has been integral to their lives. This performance alone would have done a better job of showing the audience what color guard is than the entire documentary did. What could have been a touching introduction or ending was wasted in the middle of the film.
It is very easy to shoot color guard in a way that is attractive and speaks for itself. Most competitions film the guards from a high angle that displays the full unit at once highlighting the group as a whole, but also allowing for solos to shine. Contemporary Color relies far too much on the star power of the composers to sell something that color guard isn’t. Niche team sports aren’t about celebrity, they are about the strength of an ensemble. I can’t imagine that this film is what Byrne had in mind when he created this passion project.