What do Canadian Opera soprano Barbara Hannigan and Downtown multi-everything John Zorn have in common? Aside from the fact both have probably conducted ensembles playing in a broadly classical context (certainly true in her case), they both are known associates of French actor-director Matheiu Amalric and been the subjects of his short films. Usually they were largely unplanned. Amalric just had his camera running, suspecting something interesting would happen. His rapport with his subjects and their remarkable talent produced the three highly distinctive short documentaries that screened as a program at the 55th New York Film Festival.
Hannigan is the subject of C’est presque au bout du monde and Music is Music, which each clock in around twenty minutes and bookend the nearly hour-long John Zorn (2010-2017). Presque was an online commission for the Paris Opera, but seeing it on a theater screen instead of a little streaming window is an almost overwhelming experience.
When you are an artist of Hannigan’s caliber, you do not simply crack your knuckles and hit the high notes. You have to warm up your instrument, which in her case is her entire body. Amalric captured her warm-up process before several performances, which he and his editor Caroline Detournay assembled into a master-cut. To say this is a private process would be an understatement. Hannigan is incredibly exposed, captured often in a ritual that suggests auto-eroticism. Yet, when you watch it, viewers will feel an extraordinarily personal and protective attachment to her.
The Zorn film is something completely different, starting with the fact is not, strictly speaking, finished yet—and may never be. According to Amalric’s lively post-screening discussion, he and Detournay have already cut together more footage for the next installment, which is great news, because what he has so far is terrific.
Again, Amalric was commissioned to do a standard TV doc on Zorn, but apparently that went by the wayside. Instead, they became fast friends. Every time they crossed paths, Amalric filmed Zorn in performance, as well as his backstage comings and goings. In just fifty-four minutes, Amalric conveys the wide ranging stylistic diversity and virtuosity of Zorn’s work. We see him in a variety of settings, including a Downtown-style jazz ensemble (featuring Dave Douglas) and approvingly watching a string trio perform his chamber composition, “Freud.”
Yet, probably the greatest merit of the Zorn piece is the way it captures his sense of humor. I know several jazz musicians and most of them are very funny, because when you accept that kind of life, you have to have a sense of humor or you’ll soon be crying. In later sequences, Amalric and Detournay show Zorn listening appreciatively to other musicians sets, which is another decision that really pans out.
Similarly, viewers get a keen sense of how Hannigan relates to other musicians in Music is Music. For her latest CD, Crazy Girl Crazy, Hannigan chose a program of Alban Berg and George Gershwin that she performed as both featured vocalist and conductor. To make things even more interesting, the musicians of the Ludwig Orchestra would also perform the chorale arrangements, sort of like the flip-side of John Doyle’s Sondheim revivals. Initially, they are clearly uncomfortable in their new role, but Hannigan coaxes them out of their shells, which is lovely to watch. The way she makes connections between Berg and Gershwin is also fascinating. Frankly, it is just nice to see her expand the classical canon to include the Great American Songbook.
None of Amalric’s music films could be described as fannish, but they each can turn viewers into fans because they really get at the essence of their subjects. You feel like you have been backstage with them and then watched them perform from the wings. Very highly recommended, Music is Music is now available as an extra with Crazy Girl Crazy and John Zorn 2010-2017 will continue to expand and hopefully screen again at future NYFFs. Presque is also available online from the Paris Opera, but you won’t get the same overpowering impact that way.