“Stage this way”
You have to give David Byrne credit. He stumbled upon the idea of color guards, looked into the excitement and spectacle of their “sport of the arts,” and sought to open their world to the rest of us ignorant to their craft outside of football halftime shows. So he called upon modern music luminaries (Lucius, Nico Muhly + Ira Glass, Nelly Furtado, Devonté Hynes, St. Vincent, How to Dress Well, Money Mark + Ad Rock, Zola Jesus, tUnE-y-ArDs, and himself) to compose wholly original pieces that would serve as the backdrop to the performances of ten handpicked teams. The event took a year to organize and congeal together before culminating in a live concert at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, filmed as Contemporary Color.
The Ross Brothers (Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross) are credited as directors, but this is very much a final work based in collaboration. They each operated a camera alongside others (including director Jessica Oreck and cinematographer Sean Price Williams) as Byrne conceived what it was they’d shoot. Mike Hartsock was enlisted as the concert’s in-arena host; schools from New Jersey (Emanon, Black Watch, and Somerville High), New York (Brigadiers and Shenendehowa High), Canada (Ventures and Les Eclipses), Pennsylvania (Mechanicsburg High and Field of View), and Connecticut (Alter Ego) were selected and paired with an aforementioned composer; and filming of these performers commenced during practice sessions and at home. We’re engulfed by their art, camaraderie, and athleticism as the visual pageantry of it all is immortalized onscreen.
Just don’t expect a crash course in color guard history. This isn’t a deep dive into the sport’s every evolutionary leap forward as much as an experiential example of what it is these teams provide audiences and themselves today. The title adjective “contemporary” says everything and the focus is therefore solely on those lucky enough to participate in Byrne’s event so that they can share their modern choreography. We get some insider conversations with fathers who build sets and props, coaches explaining competition strategies, and the teens-to-young adults embodying the extreme emotional and physical toll their joy entails, but this again is merely color for what we’re watching in-the-moment. There’s no doubting that the past got us here, but understanding twenty-first century color guard is to see it.
So think of yourself in the stands with parents and friends (themselves sometimes mic’d for commentary only those with loved ones on the floor could share). Think of yourself running backstage amidst the “good lucks” and moving equipment. And know that despite not being there to watch it in real-time, the gorgeous overlays, speed shifts, and process montages deliver more information than being there live ever could. Yes we’re viewing these ten teams through a very specific lens, but that type of curation enhances the experience. Just like Ira Glass’ interviews with the athletes (which he uses as “lyrics” to Nico Muhly’s orchestration) show, these kids are paramount to everything. Their dedication, catharsis, skill, and pure exuberance (manifesting in smiles and/or tears) expose the sport as highly compelling.
Some of the sequences are better than others (Glass/Muhly’s song is the most emotive aurally, Eamon’s “Beautiful Mechanical” performance the most memorable visually, and How To Dress Well with Mechanicsburg High the best combination of both), but each effectively marries the senses thanks to the filmmaking. Contemporary Color could have easily been a bland concert film with three cameras shifting between wide shots and close-ups. The reasons it’s not: the Ross Brothers and Byrne, their choice to highlight the chaos, motion, and heart a testament to their art. And where the film lacks historical exposition for the sport, it possesses an ample amount for each group. While the film opens a window for us, it commemorates a year of unforgettable memories in preparation, performance, and praise for them.
Just think about it. You’re sixteen, eighteen, or whatever and you’ve been selected to perform for millions via theater screens and home video. You spend months perfecting a routine with music, practicing each rifle, flag, and saber twirl to a specific beat knowing a celebrity musician chosen by the legendary David Byrne will replace it with something written especially for you. Suddenly you’re the contemporary to a pop culture iconic, collaborating at an extremely high level to blow the minds of those close to you and some you’ll never meet. You coax tUnE-y-ArDs’ Merrill Garbus into proving she can do a split. You inspire Ira Glass and Devonté Hynes to attempt rifle spins. And Nelly Furtado calls you fierce as she moves in for a hug.
We’ve seen color guards do their thing on football fields, but never on this intimate and personal a level. Whether it’s an athlete talking about her mother’s death, two friends explaining how this is their last performance, or famous musicians staring in awe at the professionalism of these amateurs, that which we’ve disregarded comes into focus. There are television channels devoted to player profiles and against-all-odds success stories, the media and our culture dictating that football, baseball, basketball, and hockey are more important because they lead to fortune. But the truth is that every multi-million dollar athlete in a major league sport started in high school and college too. Finally this sport is granted a showcase for the world to cheer as they do for those others.
It’s an experience made better by the big screen so you can be immersed into the spectacle. It’s funny throughout with over-the-top reactions, current embarrassment by words spoken months earlier, and one grandfather sitting in the stands with his phone’s camera going who cannot subdue his enthusiasm. We see the juxtaposition of dance and music, costume and set, insider and outsider (there are so many moments of security guards standing stoically as Byrne dances and sings through halls). We appreciate the sacrifices being taken and the sheer improbable opportunity being provided—one that may never happen again. Will Contemporary Color bring color guards into the mainstream? No. But it may just inspire someone to seek out a local team in order to become part of an unforgettable family.
 David Byrne Photo – Turner Ross
 American Flag Girl – Bill Ross
 St.Vincent – combo of Jarred Alterman and Wyatt Garfield
courtesy of Oscilloscope