Contemporary Color is the brainchild of Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. In the past, Byrne has used his dexterous musical genius to develop collaborations with the likes of Brian Eno, Selena, Fatboy Slim and St. Vincent. This time, Byrne wanted to invest in the collaborations between experimental artists/composers and color guard teams.

Contemporary Color Review

In order to actualize his vision, Byrne recruited brother directing duo of Bill and Turner Ross. The Ross brothers are known for making documentaries that deliver an inside look at a microcosm of a community, embedding themselves within it until they “get” whatever it is about the community there is to be gotten. Byrne, understanding color guard as a community – tethered together by a common passion rather than a locale – realized before the Ross brothers did that they were the perfect filmmakers for the task at hand. But it wasn’t long after dipping into the color guard subculture themselves that Bill and Turner realized it too.

Bryne’s vision featured 10 dynamic color guard performances set to the tune of live musical performances. St. Vincent, Beastie Boys’ Ad-Rock and Money Mark, How to Dress Well, Dev Hynes, Lucius, Zola Jesus, Nelly Furtado, tUnE-yArDs, Nico Muhly and Ira Glass, and Byrne were all paired with a color guard team. To give the film its structure and focus, Contemporary Color is grounded by a massive winter guard show that was held at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center last summer.

Each one of the performances are captured differently, indicating that the Ross brothers understood that every unique pairing required a unique lens through which to best capture it. To their credit, they managed, through their direction, to create something cohesive while also giving each performance a feeling of autonomy, an ability for them to stand on their own. The cohesion was made possible through certain narrative choices. For example, interspersed throughout the concert were shots backstage of the artists interacting with each other and with the color guarders. There were also cuts to rehearsals and to the color guarders hometowns. One particularly striking moment featured Somerville High School’s Marcus Henry running down the streets of the New Jersey town, color guard flag in hand and flapping in the wind.

Without Bill and Turner’s particular skills as documentary filmmakers, it goes without saying that Contemporary Color would not have been nearly as affecting. But, it also would have struggled to harness the pathos necessary to make it successful with lesser performances than were delivered by the teams and artists. Not one of the collaborations fell flat. Whether it was Lucius’ powerful singing on “What’s the Use in Crying” with Shenendehowa High School, the spoken word narration crafted by This American Life’s Ira Glass and Nico Muhly for Alter Ego, the instrumentals Money Mark and Ad Rock put together for Somerville High School or Dev Hynes’ simple and resonant “Black Watch” for Black Watch, there was something special to witness.

In a Q&A that followed the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Contemporary Color, the color guarders expressed their hope that the movie would open more people’s eyes to what it is that they actually do. They are not failed cheerleaders. They are dancers, they are artists, they are athletes. Contemporary Color does its job, leaving the viewer duly impressed by what these young men and women are capable of, and wondering why their talents have heretofore been so difficult to witness. Byrne certainly gave the color guard teams the gift of exposure. And it is a gift to be able to see their talents backed by the talents of others.

Contemporary Color proves once again that Byrne knows how to orchestrate a collaboration like no one else.

Full List of Performances:

David Byrne and Les Eclipses – ”I Was Changed”
Nelly Furtado and Ventures – “World Premiere”
How To Dress Well and Mechanicsburg High School – “How Could This Have Happened? (Version 2)”,
Devonté Hynes and Black Watch “Black Watch”
Zola Jesus and Brigadiers – “Something Beautiful”
Lucius and Shenendehowa High School “What’s the Use in Crying”
Money Mark + Ad-Rock and Somerville High School ““Quattro Mentos”
Nico Muhly + Ira Glass and Alter Ego “What Are You Thinking?”
St. Vincent and Field of View ““Everyone You Know Will Go Away”
tUnE-yArDs and Emanon “Body Code”