Not many music documentaries feature onscreen quotes from Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. But Arcade Fire aren’t like other bands and The Reflektor Tapes, their first feature film, is certainly unique. It’s also an odd, vague piece that intrigues without real insight and might even disappoint the most rabid of fans.
Directed by Kahlil Joseph, the film’s ostensibly about the making and release of Arcade Fire’s Grammy-nominated fourth album, a time and topic definitely viable for big-screen treatment, with the band at their artistic peak. Melding live footage, rehearsal shots, location scenery and voiceover interviews, we follow the band from the album’s genesis in Jamaica, through its recording in Montreal, a Haitian carnival performance and rapturously received sell-out shows in London and Los Angeles.
With Joseph present throughout the process, the film offers a chance to get closer to Arcade Fire than ever before. And, unsurprisingly, the music’s superb, with clever editing isolating composite parts of the band’s back catalogue in fascinating fashion. But, unfortunately, the film’s idiosyncrasy is its biggest problem. It’s sometimes beguiling, but often bizarre, revealing very little about the band and only the sketchiest of homilies about where their music comes from and what makes them tick.
We see the band’s intelligence, their talent and their depth of thought about their music, but the film only rarely manages to harness and display Arcade Fire’s powerful ability to connect emotionally with an audience and create a sense of community. Stylistically, it’s a bold and disorientating piece, but too often feels more like an art installation than a feature film.
At only 75 minutes long, it doesn’t outstay its welcome and has the occasional brilliant moment – Regine Chastagne dancing to Haitian drummers in the studio, Win Butler ‘in the moment’ while recording it’s Never Over, a silent shot of jubilant crowds in the breakdown of Rebellion (Lies) – but little intimacy. It’s a film that’s unlike any other music documentary you’ve seen; at times this is thrilling, but treading in mainstream waters a little more wouldn’t have hurt.