David Byrne’s Astounding High School Color Guard Concert Explodes Onto Film in ‘Contemporary Color’


David Byrne’s globe-crossing quest for musical inspiration brought him in recent years to Dayton, Ohio, home of the annual World Color Guard Championships. Ever-curious and touchingly charmable, the Talking Heads frontman fell hard for this hybrid sport/dance competition for high-school teams. Color guard squads march, wave flags and toss plastic rifles, all in the long tradition of cheerleading and highly disciplined army-parade peacocking; in the last few decades, color guard has evolved into expressive collective art, with teams staging elaborate, inventive routines set to surprising musical choices and often suffused with raw feeling, all while still getting in the twirls and tosses tradition demands. Moved by the homegrown spectacle, Byrne paired up color guard teams from the U.S. and Canada with pop musicians (Nelly Furtado, Dev Hynes, St. Vincent, Lucius) who would create new music for each squad to build a performance around — and then perform in four arena concerts.

Turner and Bill Ross’s doc Contemporary Color dashes through those triumphant shows, mixing choice glimpses of life backstage (teens freaking out; pop stars marveling at those freakouts) with impressionistic tours of the performances themselves. The approach is experiential, a you-are-there-and-overwhelmed dazzlement, rather than a definitive record of each squad’s big moment. In the spirit of the Ross brothers’ life studies Tchoupitoulas and Western, Contemporary Color smooshes together many nights of life into one shimmering present, in this case an explosion of movement and music, color and fabric, show-faces and determined rehearsals, all into one vibrant now. It gets exhausting, though, and a handful of the performances pass in an unengaging blur, the directors and their crews neither capturing the complex formation movement nor finding a way to make their own medium a vital contributor to all the mixed-media madness.

Contemporary Color
Directed by Turner and Bill Ross
Oscilloscope Laboratories
Opens March 1, IFC Center