Arcade Fire premiered its documentary, Reflektor Tapes, at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it’s exactly the kind of film one would expect from a band whose music is a cultural mishmash of anything-goes instrumentation: rhythmical. Directed by rising newcomer Kahlil Joseph, Reflektor Tapes is an audiovisual overload of quick cuts and overlapping sounds covering the Montreal ensemble’s fourth and latest album, 2013’s Reflektor.
The cinematic adventure rolls through Jamaica, Haiti, Los Angeles, London and the group’s hometown for writing and recording sessions along with live performances. It also features the indelible philosophy of frontman Win Butler, who offers: “One of the deep roots of the Arcade Fire aesthetic is trying to ignore the world and make art just with the people around you.”
Indeed, the film shows exactly that — from massive crowds to the isolation of the recording studio — while also touching on the fun, culturally rich influence of Haitian festival music, known as rara (singer Régine Chassange’s parents and grandmother were born on the Caribbean island).
Traditional sit-down interviews were not in the cards for Arcade Fire, and so the Butlers — Win, wife Régine and brother Will Butler — along with Richard Reed Parry, Tim Kingsbury and Jeremy Gara, tell their story mainly through pictures, music and fly-on-the-wall conversations between the band members. The result is a 75-minute vibrant assault. “Being open to being led by spirit, music is exactly that,” says Win in the film. And that’s precisely the vibe Joseph captures.
Reflektor Tapes opens in theaters on Sept. 23. The limited engagement includes a 15-minute bonus interview that’s exclusive to its big-screen run. The doc also contains an unreleased track, “Get Right.”
Billboard spoke with Arcade Fire’s frontman Win Butler at TIFF about the film.
In Reflektor Tapes, so much is happening so quickly. What was the direction you gave Kahlil?
I was made aware of Kahlil’s work when we first started working on Reflektor. He was working for [filmmaker] Terrence Malick in Austin as an editor. Terrence has 25 college-age editors editing all the time and so we actually met him a couple of years before when he was just out of film school. But then I saw some of his work — he does more hip-hop stuff — with a group called Shabazz Palaces. He did a video for the whole record where the songs come in and out. It was episodic. Maybe 10 minutes, but his technique and the way that he filmed stuff, I found really interesting.
We just wanted to hang out with him and see if we got along, so we invited him to Montreal, had him look at some of our footage we had shot in Jamaica. Then we did this month-long tour of small club dates when the record came out as the Reflektors, almost pretending we were a new band and it was our first tour. He shot at this place called the Salsathèque in Montreal, which was this very small Latino seventies nightclub with a disco floor and all mirrors, and then we were going to go play in Haiti, which isn’t something that a band of our size does every day; it’s not the easiest place to go do a gig.
Yes. So we knew we were going to be doing these really interesting shows. We played during Carnival and so it was important to document it because not many people are going to fly to Haiti to come see us play. So it started like that, knowing we were going to be doing these things that we might not do again.
Interesting that you met him when he was an editor because Reflektor Tapes is all about the editing in how it swirls with images and sounds…
He probably edited it for a year or something.
And the doc has a rhythm, like Arcade Fire’s music.
It’s almost like a remix record, just in its way of thinking about film, thinking about our music.
The film opens with you saying “I feel like our lives are a lot crazier than we ever let each other in on.” What’s the significance of using that first?
Kahlil did a film on Kendrick Lamar that’s maybe 10 or 15 minutes long [called m.A.A.d]. It’s in a museum in Los Angeles — two screens at a 45-degree angle with home-video footage of Kendrick as a little kid, Compton, kids swimming, and then this Latino guy riding a horse through the streets. It’s very cinematic. And it was really interesting because I watched the film, and afterwards, I felt like I knew so much more about where Kendrick is coming from as an artist, in terms of were he’s from. I don’t know what year he was born; I don’t know what year he went to high school; I didn’t learn a single thing. There’s not even a single image of him in the whole film, but I felt this kind of intimacy about the art, about where the art of what he does comes from, and so that’s something that I respond to in Kahlil’s work.
Arcade Fire’s connection to Haiti goes back to the song “Haiti” on Funeral and was all over Reflektor. The movie allows us to experience the color, the vibrancy…
Yeah. You can see a little bit of it.
Do you hope your fans start exploring Haitian rara music?
Yeah, of course. I’ve seen documentation of Carnival and, it’s something we talk about a lot: Unless you’re there, it’s vey hard to understand what it’s like. And so selfishly, I wanted to capture some element of the mysticism and the color and the depth in the music, and I feel like some of it is on the screen. It’s still hard to get the full [picture] — the smells and the local people — and there’s a lot that’s left, but I hadn’t seen that stuff documented in the way that it is in the film. That was an important subtext in the film as well.
I’ve said this before: Most of the bands that I was really into in high school had broken up before I heard them. I was listening to The Smiths and I was listening to The Clash, who I heard was an amazing live band. Our manager and our tour manager both saw The Clash when they were 13. And our manager got a mohawk from Joe Strummer backstage in London when he was like 14 and had to go home and get punished by his dad and it completely changed his life; he was in music for the rest of his life.