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In Contemporary Color, David Byrne and the Ross brothers joyfully fuse art and athleticism

How the documentarian brothers captured Byrne’s unique vision of a color guard-assisted music concert for the screen.

David Byrne in Contemporary Color

David Byrne is walking purposefully through an intricate network of hallways in the backstage guts of Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. A handheld camera follows him as he strides briskly down a corridor, taking a sharp right, then a left, then another right. Signs adhered with brightly colored gaffer’s tape read “THIS WAY TO THE STAGE” and “DRESSING ROOM.”

He passes huddles of coaches and booster parents speaking quietly but urgently to young adults in sparkly Lycra getups, and stops for a moment to say a quick hello to living rock goddess Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent. There’s a static charge in the air, the kind that only comes from the live-wire combination of nerves and excitement that hits right before a big performance. It’s showtime — at last, they’re ready to pull back the curtain on Contemporary Color.

It’s June 2015, and months of tireless rehearsal are all about to pay off for the former Talking Heads frontman and his eclectic team of collaborators. Ten color guard teams hailing from high schools and colleges around the country have all converged on the Barclays Center for a show unlike anything they’ve attempted before; each crew has prepared a routine to be executed in conjunction with a live concert performance from a murderer’s row of musicians hand-picked by Byrne, the mastermind of the operation. Such darlings of the left-of-the-radar music scene as St. Vincent, Devonte “Blood Orange” Hynes, and Tune-Yards have joined forces for an entirely new sort of experience, a fusion of art and athleticism unlike anything that’s come before. And scurrying in the shadows are documentarians and brothers Bill and Turner Ross, capturing it all for posterity.

The Ross brothers and their crack team of camera operators spent Contemporary Color’s two-night stand in June 2015 rushing around out of sight. (Ten active shooters and a few stationary cameras simultaneously captured the evening to ensure that the Rosses would have a wide variety of angles and perspectives to choose from in the editing process.) Now, they’re stepping into the spotlight themselves with a nationwide release of their feature film chronicling the event and the process leading up to it, also titled Contemporary Color. (The film is currently playing select theaters, and is available digitally via iTunes, Amazon, and other online outlets.)

Byrne and his team reached out to the indie-circuit stalwarts to simply create a record of the evening, but as the brothers Ross began immersing themselves in the extraordinarily vibrant world of color guard, their task grew richer and more complex. They found a wholly unique art form in color guard, where antithetical concepts could somehow exist in perfect harmony.

“It’s a contradiction, because it’s become a free-form, really elegant art form that’s based on a military tradition,” Bill explained during an interview with Vox. “It’s a rigid, formal thing that has become an inclusive, poetic form. There’s a choreographer and a designer, but it’s sport. It’s athletic, but very emotional. It’s something else.”

“The film needed to be an event as dynamic as the event itself”

Synonymous to most with high-school dorkery, color guard takes on an arresting visual grace and unexpected profundity of feeling in the Rosses’ gentle hands. While the concert’s psychedelic light design and live accompaniment were instant improvements on the usual garish auditorium fluorescents and piped-in PA-system audio, the Ross brothers dumped out their entire bag of stylistic tricks to honestly convey the wonder that these collective performances inspired in the individuals comprising them.

In one sequence, the camera quickly racks focus so that every flag in a cascading line comes into sharp relief just as it twirls overhead. The St. Vincent-tracked number plays out over a series of double exposures, a transparent Annie Clark wailing on top of a wide-angle shot of the rifle-twirlers’ shifting formations. It’s art for art’s sake, a purely pleasurable feast for the senses that the Rosses accredit both to the swirly, far-out musical numbers of ’70s variety programs and Walt Disney’s wild experiments with color and sound in Fantasia.

St. Vincent performs in Contemporary Color.

But they found that the delicate interplay between personal expression and physicality was only a part of what made Contemporary Color special. Their goal with the film became more than placing the viewer front row for the spectacle of a lifetime; they wanted to step right into the exhilarating bustle of the production itself.

“We didn’t want to engage with the straightforward concert-film thing,” Turner said. “The film needed to be an event as dynamic as the event itself. There are a lot of moving parts. It’s not just a frontman on a stage, so we needed to create a kinetic environment like that. Not just a stage performance, but also the floor show, and also the engaged audience, and also the world backstage.”

From the dramatic opening countdown to the occasional interview segments between a hammy Barclays announcer and a handful of breathless flag masters, a rollicking let’s-put-on-a-show spirit animates the entire film. The Rosses widened their focus, traveling to high schools and colleges to get footage of rehearsals and team meetings. They introduce the characters on the periphery, too — one of the most amusing bits joins a trio of terse fundraising dads, mostly clueless but clearly pleased as punch to be along for the ride.

During the interview with the Rosses, I floated a comparison to the mockumentaries of Christopher Guest, and how the comedies double as a portrait of a specific and obscure milieu. They countered with The Muppet Show. There’s nothing even remotely mocking in the Rosses’ approach to their subjects; with total affection, they wanted to encapsulate what they called a “temporal community, one that exists for that moment of time.”

“It was a safe space they felt really comfortable in”

The Rosses and the performers alike got swept up in the infectious positivity of this teeming subculture. Singer-songwriter Zola Jesus teamed with Syracuse’s Brigadiers squad, a group she describes as “authentic,” “innocent,” and “a really sweet bunch of kids.” Speaking to Vox, she said of her partners, “My favorite part was spending time with the team. It was cool to have insight into a totally alien world, one they take as seriously as I take music. I loved being able to see someone else’s passion, and finding more common ground with them than you think … I couldn’t stop smiling.”

The Rosses echoed that same sentiment, openly admitting that they also spent most of this production process with grins plastered on their faces, excitedly plotting camera strategies on the locker room whiteboard like football plays. In fact, this is the first of their three films that they claim they can bear to watch again (and they have, with great relish).

That’s understandable, considering the overall welcoming atmosphere that dominates the proceedings. From the start, the Rosses had envisioned their take on Contemporary Color as a joyful noise, and the color guard’s spirit of inclusivity would be a key part of that. An aforementioned prelude to the night’s action quickly cuts between different kids counting down from 10 — and as Bill and Turner have it, it’s no coincidence that they’re all colors, shapes, and sizes.

“[Color guard] is a space in which people of all types can come together,” Turner said. “If you show up and you can do it, then you can do it. It’s easy to get sucked up in it.”

Theater has long been the refuge of high school oddballs, and color guard fosters that same ethic of total acceptance, with an edge of friendly competition. In an unexpectedly moving moment in the film, two flamboyant young men with neon-dyed hair burst through the stage doors drenched in sweat, proudly informing the camera that they feel this was their best run-through ever. The look of hard-earned satisfaction on their faces is more than a little moving. “It was a safe space they felt really comfortable in,” Bill added. “This made them happy. With all the time they dedicate to it, they’re really like family.”

At a time when the nation’s strategic reserves of contagious feel-good experiences have hit a dire low, mounting a work like Contemporary Color — the show or the movie — practically qualifies as a public service. More than an edifying primer on a fascinating and under-recognized mode of performance, the film offers 90 minutes of pure buoyancy. Commissioning a documentary on his latest quixotic pursuit must have been a no-brainer for David Byrne; an experience this cathartic and communal deserves to be shared with as many people as possible.

With Contemporary Color now available worldwide through the usual online digital-download channels, Bill and Turner hope that viewers will let the irresistible energy seize them just as it did the documentarians. Contemporary Color is a celebration — of color, naturally, but also of music, movement, the human body, and above all else, the binding forces of entertainment.

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