Film

Best Documentary: Detropia

Joe Vallese

With a hugely-successful self-distribution model that found strong support on Kickstarter, Detropia, against the odds, is now poised to become this season's documentary Cinderella story.


Detropia

Director: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
Cast: Crystal Starr, Tommy Stephens, George McGregor
Rated: NR
Studio: Loki Films
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-09-07 (Limited release)
Trailer

Watching Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s striking documentary Detropia, I was reminded, strangely enough, of Ridley Scott’s decidedly indecisive Alien “prequel” Prometheus. No, seriously. Hear me out. A movie event 30 years in the making that couldn’t possibly satisfy anyone with a vested interest, Scott’s chilly, baroque space oddity shifted from easy and familiar to vexing and suggestive, often within single scenes. Saddled with expectation it couldn’t -- or perhaps didn’t want to -- meet, the film eschewed clear exposition to explain its visually arresting, but logic-scrambling, narrative moves in favor of an open-ended, “piece it together yourself” framework. Such brazen disregard for the by-the-numbers payoff of a big-budget sci-fi entry exhilarated some, glad to ascribe their own meaning to what they’d just witnessed, and angered those who demanded answers from the all the film’s big conceptual rues simmering in the pot, waiting for some ingredients to thicken.

Detropia, ostensibly a documentary about the staggering decline of what was once America’s fastest growing city through a blend of both bird’s eye and fly-on-the-wall distance and intimacies, functions in a similar way, tossing aside its genre’s structural conventions and goals, presented to us instead as a moving collage of Detroit’s diverse people, places, and things. Absent are straightforward sit-down snippets with a cast of “experts", cherry-picked factoids serving a slanted thesis. In its place are the tired but insistent living ghosts of Detroit, spirits who either cannot or choose not to leave their crumbling but hallowed ground. The film grants much of its space to these characters who drift in and out of the frame without much context, Ewing and Grady catching them often in the middle of alternately fiery and somber conversations about the surreal, suspended state in which they live, their hopes for its resurrection barely distinguishable from their fears of its extinction.

Ewing and Grady are content to allow quiet, long takes of Detroit’s shattered landscape (and its searching inhabitants) speak for itself; even the obligatory on-screen intertitles are mostly embedded into skylines, aligned with gutted facades, and growing out of empty lots like dandelion weeds. Unlike their focused take on the fuzzy but earnest moral conflicts displayed in their captivating 2006 film Jesus Camp, Ewing and Grady, with risky aplomb, step aside from their subjects just enough to exonerate themselves from committing to judgment or solution. At the same time, though, the filmmakers have chosen subjects with whom they seem deeply familiar, and even if the viewer fails to walk away from the film with a sense of understanding each individual -- the young barista/video blogger, the retired school teacher/bar owner, the hopeful opera house director, the performance artist couple who stand on the freeway in gas masks spray-painted gold -- the community of voices manifests into a strong, singular hum that contributes to the film’s fluidity.

I’ve never been to Detroit, but it is where two of my closest friends came of age. Unsurprisingly, they were split in their assessment of the film: one applauded its experimental approach and its ability to capture the complicated beauty of Detroit, the way it exudes a kind of grim grace; the other felt Ewing and Grady actively ignore the places where the city objectively thrives, its more modern, functioning facilities that successfully attract suburbanites and keep the troubled economy afloat. But where they are in agreement, however, is in their passion for their hometown, their deep nostalgia for how it has shaped them and their concerns for its prosperity. Clearly, Ewing, born and raised in Detroit, composed this film with that same spirit, at once generous and appropriately defensive. And it is in this vain that Detropia offers up its most compelling, if whispered, argument: that Detroit ultimately will save itself, and in a way will be the site of the rebirth of the American dream.

The film begins and ends with the arts at play: it opens on the Detroit Opera House in performance juxtaposed with its neighboring crumbling edifices, and closes on a young opera singer belting his heart out in an abandoned train station. And mere minutes before, we’re introduced to those aforementioned performance artists who are prominently featured on the film’s promotional materials, gleeful that they were able to purchase a modern loft with sleek, high-end appliances, without having to sacrifice their pursuit of a creative life that in, say, New York City would be utterly impossible without a benefactor or a trust fund. When one of them insists this possibility exists “only in Detroit,” its echoes of “only in America” surely resonate.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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