"We Were Making the New Punk Rock"
Sebastian Schrade’s Low in Europe follows the Duluth, Minnesota trio Low on tour in Germany and England in late 2002 into 2003. The film is maybe shorter than you’d expect (just under an hour), and doesn’t shed all that much light on the band as people (all three come of as remarkably thoughtful and direct, though we don’t really learn anything specific)—but it avoids feeling like an advertisement, which is important. Instead it feels unaffected and unforced, without getting bogged down in its desire to be either. It does away with any kind of specific storyline (when it starts they’re on tour and when it ends, they’re playing their final show—nothing else, besides running into Napalm Death, really seems to happen), and while it isn’t exactly fun, the band’s music isn’t exactly fun, either. In that sense, this documentary may be a true portrait of them. It shares a lot of the same qualities of the band’s music, and you can pick on both if you wish for sharing the same sticking points.
You’re introduced to the band in the film’s opening moments as they introduce themselves at a radio taping. What little background information is given on them is leaked over the course of the movie, so unless you’re already familiar with them you might feel a bit off-balance. Their music is often described as slow, which is partially true, and minimal, which is mostly true. The film thankfully presents a wide enough range of songs (from the bare bones “Laser Beam” to an acoustic version of “Last Snowstorm of the Year” to a more visceral performance of “I Am The Lamb”) that it allows you to get a fairly good grasp on what their music is all about for yourself.
There is almost no dialogue, and in fact the band is rarely even shown interacting with each other: it seems like the only time that you see them together is when they’re performing. What we see of them off-stage is usually interview footage or footage of them traveling, wherein they’re either silent or sleeping. It’s a bit of a shame because we tend to have a good sense of what a band is like on stage—even if it’s a tabloid impulse, it’s usually the parts of their lives that we normally wouldn’t have access to that we want to see the most.
They do seem to walk their walk: when they say they’re disgusted with the music business and don’t have a driving desire to be a part of it, you don’t necessarily feel like a sucker for believing them. They load-in their own equipment (the film ends with them selling and signing merchandise from the stage and packing their equipment into cases) and the biggest complaint singer / guitarist Alan Sparhawk can offer about touring regards loading his family’s luggage in and out of hotels each day (the elevators always seem to be broken). Their tour van never seems all that confining, though it’s hard to believe they can fit at least five people and equipment in there, and the group never really looks unhappy (backstage Sparhawk picks out the chords to “Suspicious Minds”; at a rest stop the group plays ring-around-the-rosie with Sparhawk and drummer Mimi Parker’s daughter).
Still, there’s no air of self-congratulations from either the band or the filmmaker, and thankfully the movie doesn’t dwell on how wonderful it is that a band like this can survive in the face of the big bad music business (see I Am Trying to Break Your Heart). The only time that commerce even comes up is when Sparhawk talks about his group’s position between bands that get to make the music they want but can’t make money and those making money at the expense of their freedom. They don’t dig any deeper, though, as to how or why Low came to find themselves in this position, and those kinds of insights might have been particularly revealing.
When I first played the DVD I had inserted the NTSC version and was shocked that they would try and pass off such washed-out looking black-and-white footage. After I got it right, I found the color that lights up the live footage contrasted beautifully against the Super-8 and digital video black-and-white footage. Because of the drama inherent in their music it must have been tempting to shoot exclusively in black-and-white, but the band is well-served by color. The live sound is excellent: it catches the band dynamics faithfully and there’s no out-of-sync footage. One glaring scene that is out-of-sync in a different way is the recording of “Canada”; during the bridge the camera keeps its focus on Sparhawk’s face instead of bringing the guitar, where the action is happening, into the frame.
The film ends with footage from the peace marches in England that took place before the start of the Iraq war. No one from the band attends the marches, each offering a reason that essentially boils down to, “yes, they believe in peace”, but “no, they don’t think the band is all that involved in politics”. Writing on the scene, the St. Paul City Pages judged them as follows: “An opera director I know always puritanically condemned Richard Strauss’s aesthetically racy works of the ‘30s as ‘people sipping martinis while the Nazis marched in’. The privileged Minnesotans in Low… now strike me as no less spoiled or indifferent to suffering.” It’s conveniently self-righteous and utterly misguided to condemn three American musicians on tour in Europe with a child in tow using logic (“Either you’re with the protesters or you’re with the war”) that is only a tiny variant on the same argument George Bush used to stir up his own war support. It’s not really clear why this scene is even in the film. Is the point that they’d rather let their music speak for them? That music is a more powerful expression than marching? Were they even close to where the protests were taking place? Were the interview bits used during the segment even shot on the same day as the march? You never really know and it all seems oddly tacked on. It’s a wrong note in a film that’s mostly able to match the quiet style of its subjects.