Something a Little Bit Different: ‘David Byrne: Ride, Rise, Roar’

David Byrne

There are times when genius works best alone, and there are times when two or more geniuses collaborate to produce a work of art greater than the sum of its parts. Ride, Rise, Roar — the 2010 documentary chronicling the Songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno Tour conducted by Byrne in 2008-’09—falls squarely into the latter category.

As a musical collaboration, Ride, Rise, Roar comprises most of the songs from Byrne and Eno’s first joint effort since 1981’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which has been hailed (particularly in hindsight) as one of the most pioneering musical blends of experimental ambience, electronics, and sampling. While the musical styling of their Everything That Happens Will Happen Today is not nearly as experimental as its almost 30-year-old predecessor, its songs bear a refreshingly new amalgamation of classical gospel with cutting-edge digitalization.

As a concert film, one cannot help but compare it with 1984’s Stop Making Sense, not only because it features live songs from the heyday of the Byrne-led (and Eno-produced) Talking Heads, but mainly because both feature attempts to embellish and expand the entire concept of a concert film. In Stop Making Sense‘s case, director Jonathan Demme and an increasingly visually oriented Byrne used three nights of footage from the Talking Heads’ Speaking in Tongues tour to create a singular performance shaped by an overarching narrative structure influenced, in many ways, by Japanese Noh drama, most plainly evident in Byrne’s famous “big suit.”

However, while Stop Making Sense reflects a period in Byrne’s sensibility in which he consciously, albeit satirically, seemed to portray himself as an iconic centerpiece (as he sang, to “fight fire with fire”), the more mature and apparently humbler lead singer of Ride, Rise, Roar is content to remain with us humans. Perhaps that’s one reason he, along with everyone else on stage, wears commonplace, yet still aesthetically stunning, all-white garb, blending in with the rest of the white-donned crew amidst a darkened stage. (To draw an explicit example of the two films’ contrast, instead of the “big suit” Byrne wore during “Burning Down the House”, he now chooses to wear a “big, white tutu”.)

The choice in timelessly angelic clothing isn’t the only visually unique affect of the gospel-inspired concert footage. In addition to the musicians and background chorus singers, three very nontraditional dancers (Steven Reker, Natalie Kuhn, and Lily Baldwin) have been added to the ensemble, engaging in interpretative movements specific to each song, sometimes using props as inimitable as swivel office chairs and white guitars to the actual singers’ microphones.

As they constantly move about in a blend of traditional ballet and postmodern expressionism, Byrne usually just stands in place and sings, further drawing attention away from him and creating an effect that’s as much in contrast from Stop Making Sense as the rest of visual ensemble. Yet, as with almost all of Byrne’s work, the theme of human optimism in the face of the dread inherent in an increasingly impersonal world continues — a theme that seems to become more and more relevant with each passing decade.

Imagery aside, the choice of music represents the 30 year career of Byrne and Eno collaboration. The black-and-white documentary spliced between each song helps explain their choices as well as showcasing the grueling hours of rehearsals the dancers and musicians endured. It also details the unique process Byrne and Eno used to create their new songs, which pretty much consisted of Eno laying down digitally enhanced instrumentals, which he e-mailed to Byrne in MP3 format, who then layered his own, usually more complex, arrangements and vocals on top of them. From creation to distribution, the new tracks, which were released independently, without a major label, in digital format through avenues such as iTunes and other websites, demonstrates yet another innovative approach deviating from industry standards.

Taken as a whole, Ride, Rise, Roar is still not as groundbreaking as Stop Making Sense. Also, it doesn’t approach its predecessor in musical quality — David Byrne is a genius, no doubt, but his solo career still pales in comparison to his work with Talking Heads, especially without such seminal background musicians as Bernie Worrell or Alex Weir. Even though the DVD doesn’t contain any special footage or features, Ride, Rise, Roar is unique enough of a concert film to stand on its own two feet — a definite addition for any David Byrne or Brian Eno fan — though it will still leave many wondering what the film would have been like had Talking Heads finally gotten over their differences and reunited … something that seems will never happen.

RATING 8 / 10