Wednesday, November 15, 2006

On The Biz

The NYTimes profiles an indie film called "Before the Music Dies."
Maybe you’ve seen the trailer. A guy in a cheap suit jacket, brandishing a big microphone, approaches some unsuspecting young women after a concert. He is making a documentary, allegedly. His manner is naïve, but the questions he asks are plainly insulting. Still, the women are kind enough to play along. He says something weird about bra-burning. They respond politely. Nice.

But this isn’t that fake documentary “Borat.” It’s a real documentary, or at any rate an earnest one: “Before the Music Dies.” The interviewer, eager to make a point about the idiocy of popular music, has found these enthusiastic young women outside an Ashlee Simpson concert. He asks them if they are familiar with Bob Dylan. (At least a few of them aren’t.) He explains Mr. Dylan’s appeal, or tries to: “He used to inspire people to, like, drive to Washington and burn their bras.” Apparently Ms. Simpson has no such incendiary effect. Case closed.

“Before the Music Dies” is the work of a couple of concerned music fans, Andrew Shapter and Joel Rasmussen, who set out to document the decline of “raw, undeniable talent,” as Mr. Shapter puts it, “the kind that doesn’t seem to be around as much in these days of instant pop stars.” The satellite radio network XM is broadcasting the film as an audio documentary. (For more information, visit And the film is touring the country in do-it-yourself style; it is being shown in clubs, at colleges, and in private homes; tomorrow night a guy named Ryan in Minneapolis is inviting people over to watch it.

In the end, author Kalefa Sanneh doesn't really think the film succeeds, but as someone who ruminates amateurishly over the nature of the music business, it might be worth seeing.


Dave said...

I read about this film in Paste and I'm sort of interested in seeing it...I actually, honestly, fer-seriously think that Ashlee Simpson is one of the greatest artists -- singer/writer/performer -- of the past five years. Her music is intelligent, powerful, beautiful, catchy as hell. Her fanbase ("those people who like that music) is a major issue to plenty of culture commentators, all of whom have no clue what they think of Ashlee or her audience (the issues are more apparent in discussion of Paris Hilton's new album, which differs because Paris Hilton isn't necessarily asking her audience to take her "seriously," although whether or not she's a "serious artist" is a different question altogether).

Somewhat ironic -- or maybe this was intentional, at least I hope it was -- that in his write-up of Dylan as Greatest Songwriter of All Time, which appeared in the same issue of Paste, Frank Kogan explicitly suggests a link between Bob Dylan and Ashlee Simpson.

Elephant in the room here that might make these filmmakers uncomfortable if they really thought about it (I say this without having seen the film, so grain of salt): these "instant stars" do have talent by most standards of the word. Many have adopted a DIY ethos (e.g. Skye Sweetnam's first album, essentially a collection of demos created by her and her green 21 y/o producer in a basement) and the talent is there if its there, i.e. if it's manifest on the album (and I would strongly argue in the cases of Lindsay, Ashlee, and Paris -- all huge sources of authenticity hand-wringing -- that they DO have talent and that it is manifest on their albums). So this reaction has much more to do with the filmmakers seeking a decline in talent (which would be a fascinating topic if they were honest enough to really recognize and examine it, same goes with a large number of music critics struggling dishonestly with similar problems) than actually finding one.

Dave said...

(Er, "many of these instant stars" is more like "at least one of 'em." And if its about distribution, fair enough, even Skye's on Capitol, but I'm not sure that's entirely what "DIY" is supposed to mean, and if it was I could still point to Myspace, the Disney pop underground -- largely Xtian pop, which itself is a DIY/indie model with a teenpop aesthetic and a young fanbase ready to be exploited by snarky documentarians.)

Anonymous said...

I'm an aspiring young musician and saw this doc at a film festival. I thought it was revealing and inspiring. Kelefa Sanneh seemed to miss the whole point of the film and drew some odd conclusions.

I had to read about Sanneh to figure out where he's coming from. After reading about his background, his review makes more sense in light of his personal biases.