The Reflektor Tapes finds Arcade Fire and director Kahlil Joseph working hard to re-invent the “making of an album” music documentary. They seem to be attempting to make an impressionistic film, one that initially stays away from a lot of explanation about motivation and inspiration. Images flit across the screen in a variety of filters. Often these images are black and white, but occasionally they’re colored in rainbow distortion as if the viewer was watching a worn-out VHS tape in the process of breaking down.
It’s supposed to be, to quote the press release, “hypnotic”. It ends up being, to quote myself, “aggravating”. Fortunately, the bonus Live At Earl’s Court is a straightforward concert performance film that is much more palatable.
The documentary, alas, is just a mess. Occasionally there will be chunks, usually 60-90 seconds long, of actual performance footage, usually in black and white. But director Kahlil Joseph and Arcade Fire are far more interested in images than in the band’s music. In the opening five minutes of the film, viewers get one of those performance chunks of the band playing “Reflektor” in what looks like a large, disco-era nightclub. But an equal amount of time in this introduction is spent watching the band playing at a larger venue.
Will Butler takes a large drum and wanders the stage, pounding the hell out of it. He finally ends up front and center on the stage, with the drum on the floor, whacking at it until the head breaks so he can stick his own head inside. This could be inspiring performance footage, but Joseph removes the audio of the band playing “Rebellion (Lies)”. Instead, he opts for unrelated isolated audio of single instruments from studio tracks, crowd noise, and eventually just a wash of sound.
There’s a narrative in The Reflektor Tapes, but it’s buried beneath the layers of Joseph and the band’s pretensions. The film is meant to tell the story of how the Reflektor album came to be, how Régine Chassagne fully embraced her Haitian heritage and how a trip to Haiti to play a benefit show after the earthquake of 2010 influenced the sound of the album. Along the way, the members mention in voiceover how they “became a much better band between The Suburbs  and Reflektor ” and discuss how a Jamaican getaway allowed them to just focus on making music together. There is some decent insight from Chassagne about how Caribbean beats she grew up with but largely ignored as an adult finally came to the forefront for the album.
Frontman Win Butler has his share of voiceovers, as well, explaining his love of records while growing up and some of his philosophy. As the leaders of the band, he and Chassagne are the main characters of the film. I’m not sure any of Arcade Fire’s other four members even speak. Certainly none of the touring musicians that swell their ranks to a dozen people get much attention. The exceptions are Haitian percussionists Diol Edmond and Tiwill Duprate, who have a straightforward clip working with Butler and Chassagne in the studio. They even get unadorned footage being featured on stage in concert and celebrated by Win and Régine.
A huge chunk of the film is taken up by footage of parades and celebrations, presumably in the streets of Port Au Prince, but never officially identified. At one point Win Butler talks about it being Carnival and trying to explain why it’s so great, so probably most of the footage comes from that. This footage is interspersed with studio bits, fans waiting in line, and occasionally roiling storm clouds moving across the sky.
In The Reflektor Tapes final third or so, Joseph throws in much more coherent performance snippets that start to give an impression of what seeing the band live is like and even gets a little into what it might feel like to be onstage. It’s a nice loosening up, but then the final five minutes of the film is devoted to yet more parade and parade preparation. It’s festive and odd and sometimes depressing, and it’s set to a performance of downbeat Reflektor b-side “Crucified Again.”
The whole film is only about 66 minutes long, but it feels like three hours. It’s an enervating experience and the rare moments of insight and band performance don’t make up for the pretentious nonsense surrounding it. Live at Earl’s Court, on the other hand, is just under two hours long but breezes by and captures what makes Arcade Fire such a dynamic live band.
The 20-song setlist is heavy on both Reflektor and Funeral tracks, with eight and six, respectively. As frustrating and inconsistent as the Reflektor album was, the eight songs here comprise more or less the best of the record, and most of the band’s other big songs show up as well (unless, like me, you’re a huge fan of Neon Bible. Having that album represented only by “No Cars Go” and “My Body is a Cage” may leave you with some setlist complaints). The performance is extremely well shot, keeping the focus on the band in bright and vivid color. The occasional crowd shots and brief shifts to black and white serve as nice accents to the footage but never overwhelm the performance itself.
From start to finish Live At Earl’s Court shows the dozen members of Arcade Fire playing hard and having a good time and the audience giving that energy right back to them. Seeing Will Butler pound that drum into the ground at the end of “Rebellion (Lies)” is so much more effective in this context with the actual audio than in the other film. Watching Will again working his ass off, this time playing the glockenspiel part in “Power Out”, is another reminder of why the younger Butler brother is the band’s secret weapon in their live shows. But the whole band is on point for this performance and the film is well worth watching for any Arcade Fire fan.
Live at Earl’s Court is reason enough to purchase The Reflektor Tapes. This is a high-quality concert movie from Arcade Fire and it’s well worth picking up on Blu-Ray for that reason. The Reflektor Tapes itself, on the other hand, is not a worthwhile behind the scenes look at the making of Reflektor and I can’t recommend it. Since it’s a package deal, though, what I’ll recommend is just watching the concert performance and leaving the documentary film in the Blu-Ray case untouched.