Two Film Reviews: Far Off Town - From Dunedin to Nashville
17 October 2006
Author: Gareth Shute, Roi Colbert
It's a real treat for a fan to see footage of the work in progress and there are some nice pieces of live footage to go along with it (from David Kilgour's shows around Nashville with local musicians, as well as a small part of the last Clean tour). The film also provides some commentary on the current Nashville scene, in which good music has been forced into the underground, while the country hit charts are dominated by soul-less pap.
Unfortunately, the film as a whole didn't really cohere into much of a story and therefore doesn't have much for someone who is new to David Kilgour's music - this isn't helped by the montage sections, where the film becomes more music video than documentary. But for the real fans, this will be a treat, and I'm sure many will be hoping that a DVD eventually emerges with even more footage of the live/studio performances. Let's just hope the purists don't baulk at the sight of David Kilgour and Lambchop hashing out an off-kilter rendition of an old Clean song!
Kilgour could hardly be accused of making bad music. A founder member of The Clean, who were at the beginning of both The Dunedin Sound and the Flying Nun label at the beginning of the 1980s, Kilgour has consistently made exceptional, if at times maddeningly occasional music, for nearly three decades. His Order Of Merit in the 2001 New Years Honours List was as deserved as it would have seemed bewilderingly unlikely when The Clean's Tally Ho and its jammed organ note in the chorus made its garage-rough entry into our consciousness in 1981.
Napier film-maker Bridget Sutherland made the 82min doco about one of Dunedin's favourite musical sons and his trip to Nashville to make the album 'Frozen Orange' with the band Lambchop. Kilgour and Lambchop are close friends and have often toured together. They both record for Merge, and the merging of Kilgour with Nashville and its homogeneous Music City product was an ideal subject of intrigue for a film.
But Kilgour did not record with normal mainstream Nashville, he went to the city's indie underground, and worked with people he knew and liked, and who definitely liked him, like Lambchop's Mark Nevers, who produced the record in his own studio.
Nashville's front window is a mixture of Old Country - the never-quite-made-its who play on the hour every hour in the bars for tips - and far more lucratively, New Country, which is manicured market-aimed singers who are young, slick, attractive, bland, radio-friendly, and often extremely successful.
Dan Tyler has no time for the latter, and welcomes David Kilgour to the indie underbelly of this famous musical city. As the film unfolds, the Dunedin legend is clearly seen as a man revered. A host of highly respected indie figures like Yo La Tengo pay tribute to Kilgour and his songwriting, and perhaps most revealingly, we see scenes of musicians playing Kilgour songs quietly in the corners of rooms, rather like the early Dunedin indie musicians would noodle away on the material of their heroes, like The Velvet Underground, in their own cramped little practice rooms in the early 80s.
Kilgour seems completely relaxed throughout - something Nashville musicians, brought up with one eye on the wall clock, find particularly refreshing. He is delighted to find a Wurlitzer Organ, which is duly transported to the studio to form part of the album, the same joyful fascination with unusual sounds he has always shown with Clean recordings. And he is as disarming as ever when discussing his own music.
"The melodies and the music come fairly easily," he says. "But lyrically, I'm a minimalist."
Which is the essence of a David Kilgour song. It would be a documentary in itself if this gifted and thoroughly natural musician was ever taken to Nashville's Music Row and thrown in a room with a completely different songwriter for a few hours. This is the way much Nashville music is written these days, and while the record company executives have statistics to show it works, the musical results do often smack of passionless, made-to-measure, market-aimed industry urgency that is the absolute antithesis of everything Kilgour has done since he picked up his first guitar.
Sutherland's film is loose, fast-cut, pressureless, laid-back and floaty - fittingly, largely the persona of Kilgour himself. It is also, according to Kilgour, who worked alongside Sutherland on what went in and what was left on the editing floor, deliberately assembled to resemble the feel of Bob Dylan's Eat The Document, a loose account of the madness that was Dylan's 1966 world tour.
The image and music-making ideas of Dylan have hovered around David Kilgour like Dylan's own hypnotic-splattered mist for a long time now, and it is echoed again in Far Off Town when Kilgour goes to Los Angeles and visits Ramblin' Jack Elliott, a Dylan contemporary in early 60s Greenwich Village. Elliott duly performs a song for his Dunedin visitor which would fit seamlessly alongside the Dylan cover Ballad Of Hollis Brown Kilgour once performed live with Dunedin one-off covers band The Pop-Up Toasters.
Sutherland is a longtime fan of Kilgour's music, and ironically her first job in Auckland years ago was cell painting for an animated short film with a soundtrack from The Clean.
"I had always thought of David's music as very cinematic and had hoped one day to use it in a soundtrack. Then when I heard he was thinking of recording an LP in Nashville, we started talking about the possibility of documenting his journey. And we also had a mutual interest in Nashville, where I had already spent time working on another project."
Both had applied for funding to Creative New Zealand for special projects, and when the two successful grants came through together, the film project came together as well.
Sutherland shot a lot of film, and in the end elected to take just about all of the New Zealand footage out, concentrating solely on the theme of a far off town, itself a line from one of the songs on the Nashville album. She was still cutting and pasting up until the last day and she says if there were any lows in the whole process, it was what she had to leave out.