Posted Monday, April 6, 2009 at 8:15:45 PM
What did you accomplish in high school? Were you captain of the soccer team, did you star in your school’s play? Or did you have the chance to film one of the most well-known alternative rock groups of the past 20 years? “Sonic Youth: Sleeping Nights Awake” is the beautiful result of the latter, and yes, you should feel both jealous and foolishly inadequate.
The 2008 documentary was directed by Michael Albright and captured by Project Moonshine, a non-profit group training teenagers for filmmakerdom. Their assignment, worthy of endless envy, was to follow Sonic Youth in Reno for their July 4 2006 show. Far from being amateur, what these ambitious high school kids did with three digital cameras and an artistic eye is astounding.
The documentary, shot in black and white, is a sophisticated portrait of the famed noise rock troupe that knows how to stay relevant. Considering Sonic Youth’s legacy, these young filmmakers are all the more impressive in their brilliant visual feat. Instead of being intimidated, the young protégés let their curiosity drive their endeavor and the result is a multitude of honest and powerful frames.
Interviews alternate with live footage from the concert, providing points of contrast between the candid vulnerability of the band members and crew with their raw power and energy onstage. We all know what Sonic Youth is capable of, but their humility is drawn out by questions ranging from “what would stop you from continuing?” to, “we hear you really like burritos”. What results is a feeling of conversational depth that matches the film’s richness of visual splendor.
Some of this depth may be purely coincidental. Perhaps the visual flatness of interview style is what creates such high contrast with stunning montages of fingers picking strings and mouths kissing microphones being illuminated only by strobe light. Yet it is through a lack of manipulation and pure creative vision that so many memorable shots of barely-lit profiles and guitar close-ups permeate the screen. It isn’t difficult to imagine yourself behind the lens, because what is shown is exactly what you want to see.
The ease of interaction between the band and young film crew provides a revealing vignette into the dynamics of the band members. One moment Kim Gordon is divulging her hesitations and the ideology of the group, and then we enter variety hour with the ever clever Thurston Moore. We hear from the men manning the technical equipment that they are still mystified by the shows, we emerge with a sense of respect for the humble, grounded powerhouse that is Sonic Youth.
The sensitivity shown in both capturing and editing the footage of actual performed songs is compelling. The speed of the cuts match the energy of the band, creating an atmosphere that would otherwise have been lost in translation. It’s as if the ticket for the film has suddenly become your backstage pass into an electrifying show.
Near the end, Moore admits that the band had a choice between having a day off or partaking in their Reno show. You can’t help but feel a pang of shock in contemplating a universe without this experience that Project Moonlight was determined enough to capture, and gifted enough to make beautiful.