Music and the Movies

By Pacho Lane

Music and movies have gone together almost since the first motion pictures. Silent films were usually presented with live musical accompaniment – often just mood music composed on the spot, but increasingly with scores provided by the producer of the film. With the introduction of sound, these scores became a part of the soundtrack. While the technology changed, however, the purpose of this kind of musical scoring remains the same: the music provides an emotional reinforcement to the visuals and thus cues the audience as to how they are to react to what is happening on the screen.

But soundtracks also made possible “music films”: films in which the music and its performance are themselves the subject. While dramatic films like “The Yelllow Submarine” or “The Commitments” are the best known, there are also a large number of exciting and stimulating documentary films about music – films like “Monterrey Pop”, the first great 60’s music film, or “Chulas Fronteras”, the classic film on “Tex-Mex” music.

Generally, there are two approaches: stick to the music, as in the majority of “rockumentaries”, or put the music in context. Even a great “mainly music” film like “The Last Waltz” leaves me wanting to know the musicians and their friends. That’s where “context” films come in. These films, while doing justice to the music, also show where the music comes from, who plays it, who listens to it, why it is important and interesting, how it is performed, and how it reflects the society and culture in which it is performed.

That sounds pretty boring, but it shouldn’t be. As with (almost) any film, the first rule of a good music film is to make it interesting and fun to watch. Not hard, really! If the music is good, even a bad music film – like, sadly, Wim Wenders’ (or Ry Cooder’s) “Buena Vista Social Club” – can have you on the edge of your seat. The music and the performers can carry the film, just as they do on stage. But the really great music documentaries combine great performance with great film-making. Like “Woodstock” and “Gimme Shelter”, they tell us something about the era and the society they document. And of course, like all good films, they tell us something about ourselves.

So far, I have been fortunate to make four music documentaries of my own, and to work on half a dozen more. Like the three films mentioned in the last paragraph, all of them share an approach: “cinema verite” or “direct cinema”. There are no hard and fast rules, because every film is (or should be!) different from every other, but there is a kind of feel, a kind of honesty, that comes across in such films. The basic idea is twofold: to present a fair, empathetic, and moving picture of the subject while giving the viewer the information to interpret the film for himself or herself. Usually that means providing – in addition to some great performances – a bit of history and a look at the lives of the musicians, their friends, and the world they live in, and, most of all, letting people speak for themselves.

What does it take to make such a film? For me it comes from intense personal involvement with the people I film. I once spent an hour filming Chucho Valdes, the great Cuban pianist of Irakere, from a meter away. As I watched his every gesture through the camera lens, I entered into his music, and in some strange way into his spirit. How often can you just stare at someone for an hour, and what’s more, be able to zoom in so your field of vision is what you would see if you were 10 centimeters away? When I was finished, I felt like I understood his music for the first time. It shows in the footage. On the same trip, I filmed handheld in a crowd of 50,000 dancing Cubans at a carnival performance of Los Van Van. As they played “Se Acabo”, I entered a kind of trance. With my camera on my shoulder, I became a spectator, a performer, and a dancer in the crowd, all at the same time. Again, the footage conveys, the ecstatic moment I was sharing with the people in the lens, and so allows the viewer to connect, to become part of the dance.

So it’s that kind of empathy that I think makes a good music film. We become part of the action, part of the music, and by losing ourselves in their reality we are able to understand and share, through the music, the lives of the people we see for a few minutes on the screen.