On An Island


Arcade Fire, Vincent Moon and fame’s variability

After being bludgeoned into submission by years of accolades for albums with dubious critical standing and the similarly dour selection of Grammy winners that very evening, I was completely blindsided by the Album of the Year victory by Montréal's Arcade Fire for The Suburbs. Other people watching with me saw the writing on the wall: that the band had performed immediately before (the production seemed to tilt a bias towards bands that had performed at the ceremony earlier that evening), the positioning as the only critically viable album of the bunch and, oh yeah, the fact that Arcade Fire is a hugely famous band.

The band's award is the highest creative watermark for the trophy since 2004's improbable win by Outkast for Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. The Suburbs is a triumph of harnessing the band's two divergent strengths: lyrical intimacy and grandiose presentation. The album resonates with the audience through sociological deconstructions of the language and developmental systems that make up their neighbourhoods. It's stadium-indie, music perfectly positioned for popularity.

But who is the band famous to, exactly? The group's sold out Madison Square Garden, it's held the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and has played Saturday Night Live twice. But it did all of these things without a huge single, a major label or any commercial tie-ins. The group has eschewed doing anything outside of its ethical guidelines and has presented a consistent image of purity. This hasn't stopped the Internet from lampooning the surprise success with featuring incredulous responses from pissed-off Bieber acolytes and the likes of Rosie O'Donnell and Dog the Bounty Hunter.

But, to some former collaborators, the band is actually too famous. The filmmaker Vincent Moon, famous for his Take Away Shows (short musical films that record bands playing in unique environments) and the rejected AF documentary Histoire De Feu, recently told Toronto's Eye Weekly that Arcade Fire is “not good people.” Most pointedly, he criticized the band's perceived indie stature: “What I hate about the band now is that people call them an indie band and they're not an indie band, they are a mainstream band. … Those guys are just making things on a very big level, a very mainstream way of thinking. The way they deal with their business is really disgusting for me.”

Vincent Moon's newest work is called An Island. A 50-minute film being shown around the world in free “private-public” screenings, it follows the Danish band Efterklang around the small island of Als while contributing mobile and elaborate renditions of songs from the group's 2010 album Magic Chairs. It's a fantastic, off-kilter performance film that finds the band generating organic, entertaining songs out of the environment amidst clever framing and set-work by Moon. One has them performing through the forest on a moving vehicle, while another zooms in on vocalist Casper Clausen in a room filled with the ensemble only to back out to show a much larger idiosyncratic cast than there was previously.
When watching Clausen sing with a large group of children and his eight-piece live group later in the film, one can't help but consider Efterklang's similarity to Arcade Fire. Perhaps this is what drew Moon to the project, a second chance at capturing a world-beating musical family before the world at large got to spar with them. Then again, Efterklang might already be more famous than I've given them credit for being. V

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