When Talking Heads frontman and all-around art-rock god David Byrne was contacted by a color guard team looking to license one of his songs, he hadn’t the foggiest idea what color guard was. The swirling flags, the twirling batons, the spinning rifles, the dance choreography all set to pre-recorded music were foreign to him, but one performance was enough to change all that. Enchanted, Byrne set to work to transform color guard performances from halftime entertainment to the main event.
And that is exactly what Contemporary Color is. For this impressive spectacle of light and sound, Byrne recruited color guard teams from 10 schools, paired them with 10 musicians, and put on one hell of a show in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
Thankfully, Byrne brought along documentarians Bill and Turner Ross to capture it all on camera, including a healthy amount of backstage energy and interviews with the performers. The result is not just spectacular to watch but heartwarming. For most of these kids, this is the last time they will perform these routines with lifelong friends. College and the real world await, and though color guard shaped who they are, it will most likely not follow.
The Turner brothers excel at documentary filmmaking, and Contemporary Color is no exception. While the colorful images steal the show, it is the interviews with the students that stick with you long after the movie ends. Some give personal stories. Others simply express excitement. The Turners choose not to identify each student, instead allowing their stories and their passion to speak for a larger group. They turn individual stories into a collective experience.
In many ways, the arts have always been a product of the privileged class indulging their egos and predilections. Beautiful people making beautiful things with substantial backing dominate many forms of commercial arts, but they’re not the only kind out there. Often we forget the arts are not just a form of expression but a form of escape. A chance for individuals on the margins to find a collective that thinks like they do, acts like they do, and feels like they do. High school is tough for just about everybody, but for many kids, band, choir, theater, and color guard are places where they can go, be accepted for who they are, and make something in the meantime. It may not last forever, but it matters for right now.
If there is a single image in Contemporary Color that drives that point home, it can be found when the New Jersey high school team, Black Watch, takes the floor. The students all lie on the ground in an arranged pattern waiting for the music to begin. The camera finds two hands grasping each other tightly in anticipation, anxiety, and excitement. One hand pats the other as if to say, “It’s going to be great. You’re going to be great.” How lucky these kids were to find each other.
Contemporary Color (2016)
Directed by Bill Turner, Ross Turner
Produced by David Byrne, Michael Gottwald, Dan Janvey, Josh Penn
Starring: David Byrne, Nelly Furtado, Ira Glass, Adam Horovitz, St. Vincent
Oscilloscope, Rated PG-13, Running time 97 minutes, Premiered April 14, 2016 at the Tribeca Film Festival.