Touring season is slowing down to a halt, but tour documentary season is apparently just beginning. In the span of just a week, two feature-length documentaries prominently featuring Minnesotan musicians will be shown in Minneapolis. Last week, Doomtree debuted their new doc, Team the Best Team, at St. Anthony Main, while Sound Unseen is presenting Andrew Bird’s new documentary, Fever Year, which includes interviews his three Minneapolitan bandmates, tonight at the Trylon.
Both films aim to document the rigors of life on the road—the exhaustion and physical tolls it can take on artists, and the reasons why such personal sacrifices might ultimately pay off creatively. The local angle of each film and their categorization as tour docs are about all the two have in common, however.
Andrew Bird’s film, directed by Chicagoan Xan Aranda, is focused squarely on him—his presence on stage, and how he spends his time away. Going into the film, it occurred to me that I didn’t know an awful lot about Bird’s personality, and was looking forward to glimpsing some of the private details that typically emerge in behind-the-scenes footage. And yet, at the end of Fever Year’s 80 minutes, I didn’t feel like they’ve learned much about “the real Andrew Bird” at all. He speaks eloquently about his art and his love for beautiful things. He takes his life and his work very seriously. And he pushes himself through a year of heavy touring so doggedly that he runs a fever almost every day. But we never see struggles that Bird encounters on tour—we just have to take his word for it. He mentions having a fever several times and even injures his foot toward the end of the tour, but his mood and outlook seem to stay the same. Whether swimming in a brook on his beautiful, sprawling farmland or running through a soundcheck for the 90th time in as many days, he always seems about the same.
Which is perhaps the film’s most compelling take-away: Bird has a dry, intellectual, unflappable personality that makes him appear emotionally distant and a little obsessed. And that mechanical approach to touring just might be what has allowed him to persevere through such a tumultuous lifestyle.
“I started playing when I was four, and music just swallowed me whole,” Bird notes toward the end of the piece. “I am what I do.”
My main complaint with the film is that it seems like it started out as a live concert DVD, since most of the performance footage is from a single concert in Milwaukee, and was later stretched into a different narrative by the director. So it may not quite fit a fan’s expectation for a tour documentary, but that isn’t to say that it’s a bad piece. The live footage is shot exceptionally well and there are many cinematic moments—a hotel room jam session with St. Vincent is especially captivating, as are the images of Bird on his picturesque farm. Minneapolitan Martin Dosh gets a hearty feature, along with Mike Lewis and Jeremy Ylvisaker, who provide color commentary in between the live footage and shed some additional light on Bird’s accomplishments and artistic drive.
The Doomtree documentary takes an entirely different approach, and bursts open with emotion and personality. The crew members are constantly mugging for the camera and inviting the viewer in, and at many times it feels like you are right there along with them in the van as they drive from state to state, thanks to the fact that Picture Machine Productions’ Chris Hadland and Daniel Cummings toured extensively with the group throughout the past year.
The film cuts between quick-paced, bombastic live footage and the tedium of getting from gig to gig, and the exhaustion and unwavering dedication of the group is palpable. One of the film’s most riveting moments starts when the crew’s tour manager finds out that a water main has burst in front of their venue in New York City and the show has been canceled. Suddenly, we are thrown into the belly of Doomtree’s booking, management, and PR machine: With all hands on deck, the crew works together to find a new venue, compares prices and capacity sizes, and books a new show; as they drive across town to make a radio appearance, Sims dictates their social media messaging and everyone dutifully updates Facebook pages and tweets along. Their synchronicity and laser-like focus is mesmerizing and, frankly, a little terrifying. At that moment you feel like Doomtree, as a unit, could accomplish just about anything.
Other parts of the film depict the crew in more vulnerable moments. Both Lazerbeak and P.O.S. become fathers to new babies while on tour, and have to race back home to greet their new children. P.O.S. reveals his medical troubles, holding up an entire backpack’s worth of prescription drugs and vitamins that he takes on a daily basis. Sims shows the camera a dislocated finger that he’s positioned back in place with electrical tape. And Dessa best encapsulates the group’s mounting fatigue, tugging off her glasses, laughing maniacally, and proclaiming “I’M. SO. TIRED!”
In the end, I feel like I learned more about Doomtree the human beings through Team the Best Team, and more about Andrew Bird the artiste via Fever Year. But consumed in quick succession, the pair of films helped to paint a more complete picture—one that shows just how many sacrifices we ask from modern-day musicians, and one that illustrates just how much time and effort is poured into creating a magical moment on stage. I recommend a double feature.
Fever Year will be screened tonight at the Trylon Microcinema; tickets are available here. Andrew Bird will perform with his Minneapolitan backing band on Monday night, December 17 at the State Theatre.