At 75 minutes long, Khalil Joseph‘s Reflektor Tapes, produced by Pulse Films, is an exhausting experience. Viewers are transported from London to Hollywood, Montreal and Haiti, and to intimate performances, large-scale arena gigs and even a Haitian carnival. With quick cuts, split screens, distorted imagery and handheld footage, it’s a disorienting but often compelling (and visually striking) look at the band’s musical output.
On the Reflektor Tapes website, the film is described as one which “recontextualizes the album experience, transporting viewers into a kaleidoscopic and sonic visual landscape.” Joseph combines concert footage with scenes of the band rehearsing and performing, as well as quieter moments of downtime.
Commentary is delivered via fleeting voiceovers, providing brief moments of reflection rather than lengthy interviews or in-depth insights. For some this will prove frustrating, but it also leads to some unexpectedly poignant moments. In one scene, Regine Chassagne discusses her heritage and Haitian roots, explaining: “Both my parents are born in Haiti, my grandma was also born in Haiti…my mother is darker than me, my sister’s darker than me but I got the genes were you can’t really tell. …I’ve always been a little bit invisible, like I’m floating in two worlds,” she says. The camera cuts to Chassagne alone on the beach, then in the studio cheerfully rehearsing with some drummers.
Band members Win and William Butler also discuss Arcade Fire’s approach to their art: Win explains that their famous cartoon bobble heads were born out of a desire to “invert their relationship with the audience. To not just be taking pictures all the time and to move beyond the crowd and feel some kind of communal energy with the whole thing” while in another scene, he explains: “One of the deep roots of the band’s aesthetic is trying to ignore the world and make art just with the people in the room around you.”
This sentiment is evident throughout – from scenes of Butler smashing his head through a drum during a performance, to another where the band is huddled around equipment in a candlelit room in Jamaica, we see a group completely lost in the music they are making.
With the film’s tracking shots, following the band or travelling past crowds waiting in line to see them (often in elaborate costumes), Joseph creates a sense of watching the band through the eyes of a bewildered outsider, someone who has been thrown into their hectic world of recordings, rehearsals and concerts, the world of a band with an intense and devoted following.
Those looking to watch a concert in near entirety, or who prefer more traditional concert films, might be disappointed, as Joseph delivers mostly brief snippets of gigs. Often, these are accompanied by pre-recorded compositions, creating a juxtaposition between the sweaty, loud experience we see on screen and the sound of a single instrument or a cleaner, edited soundtrack. There are some moments which capture the vast scale and spectacle of Arcade Fire’s larger gigs, from a powerful scene showing a performance of Afterlife, to another which depicts a venue filled with thousands of fans – but often, Joseph cuts away to a contemplative behind-the-scenes moment just as Butler is reaching a crescendo on stage.
Joseph’s work often has a surreal quality, and Reflektor Tapes is no exception. The mix of handheld footage, black-and-white and saturated colour shots and various editing techniques creates an almost dream-like feel, as if watching a mix of archive footage and half-remembered moments.
It’s not a style that will appeal to everyone – one reviewer said the film was “infuriantingly artsy” while another in Variety described it as “a rudderless melange of looks never coheres into a more purposeful statement”. It’s true that Reflektor Tapes film defies any clear understanding or categorisation and for many, this will be a point of contention (particularly given the film’s length) – but much of this criticism comes from an insistence that it should have some overall purpose or meaning, or a clear narrative – something Joseph and Arcade Fire have actively resisted.
Speaking in an interview with Billboard, Arcade Fire’s Win Butler said he came across Joseph’s work while the director was working for Terrence Malick, and was immediately drawn to his experimental approach. “Khalil did a film for Kendrick Lamar that’s maybe 10 or 15 minutes long [m.A.A.d]…it’s very cinematic, and it was really interesting because I watched the film, and afterwards, I felt like I knew some much more about where Kendrick is coming from as an artist…I don’t know the year he was born, I didn’t learn a single thing…but I felt this kind of intimacy about the art,” he says. Butler also describes the film as a kind of “remix record”, in its way of thinking about film, art and music.
Arcade Fire has a history of working on experimental projects, from the interactive Neon Bible video and website created by Vincent Morrisset, to the Wilderness Downtown, another interactive video by Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin, an experiment with Google Chrome which used street detection technology to place viewers outside their house. Koblin and Morriset’s Just a Reflektor video, meanwhile (which also featured footage shot in Haiti) allowed viewers to interact using their mouse and smartphone, inserting their camera feed into the video to make them part of the experience. With this in mind, it’s unlikely Arcade Fire were ever going to make a traditional music documentary.
There are times when you wish Joseph would linger a little longer on a live scene, or pry a little deeper into the band’s work, but in its chaotic nature and jumble of vibrant footage it is captivating and, in some ways, quite an honest portrayal of creativity. Art, music or any creative output rarely follows any clear narrative or trajectory – it is made up of various influences and experiences – and this is something Butler and Chassagne come back to time and time again in Reflektor Tapes.
Chassagne says music should be “like a diamond with a million cuts” while Butler describes their output as “a hotchpotch of notes and rhythms”, which are happening around them all the time. Writing Reflektor Tapes off as a failed documentary perhaps fails to acknowledge what the band and the film-maker were trying to create – not a traditional tour film, or the ‘complete story’ of Reflektor, but a new and engaging audio-visual interpretation of their album.
The Reflektor Tapes is showing in selected cinemas on Thursday 24 and Friday 25 September. For screening details, see thereflektortapes.com