"One of the deep roots of Arcade Fire's aesthetic is trying to ignore the world and make art just with the people in the room around you," Arcade Fire matriarch Régine Chassagne expresses in The Reflektor Tapes, a documentary/objet d'art by filmmaker Kahlil Joseph (Beyoncé's Lemonade, Kendrick Lamar short film m.A.A.d.).
This feature-length film allows audiences a glimpse into the private room she speaks of, where the Montreal band crafted the extraordinary Reflektor (2013), but more than that, it captures moments of its grandiose execution on stage, revealing the distinct conceptual and cultural ideas that shaped the album.
Among the most prominent of these influences is the band's connection to Haiti; from the chalked "Reflektor Tour" logo that appears to be inspired by veve graffiti, to the steel pan drum rhythms that offer reverence to music rastine, the album's aesthetic and sound are rooted in the birthplace of Chassagne's parents. The film also explores Haitian Carnival, a celebration where elaborate masks and costuming hide one's identity allows one to dance unabashedly, and as frontman Win Butler explains, "puts the politicians and the pope and everyone down in the dirt."
Although the film refrains from explaining it verbatim, the Carnival-inspired elements of the tour — such as the controversial dress code and the band's iconic Big Head masks, which "invert the relationship with the audience" — were clearly designed to place all in attendance on the same level, including Butler and co.
The film also touches on Arcade Fire's inspiration from Kierkegaard, whose essay The Present Age informed the album's title concept about "living in a reflective age." Though director Joseph limits the use of text in this film, he attempts to explain this theory with a card that reads from the essay: "The present age is one of understanding, of reflection, devoid of passion, an age which fires into enthusiasm for a moment only to decline back into indolence."
The statement seemingly informs not just the album, but Joseph's directorial approach to The Reflektor Tapes as well. Rather than trying to recreate the tour with lengthy performance clips and narrative accounts (there is little of either), Joseph instead focuses on fleeting moments of humanity; he slows down a high-intensity outburst where Will Butler fervently wails on his drum, and isolates some of Win's emotive vocals from the soundboard.
These sequences, spliced together with thematically (if tangentially) relevant visuals, better convey Kierkegaard's "moments of enthusiasm" than a traditionally filmed concert documentary could. (For those who still insist on the necessity of complete performance clips, the concert at Earls Court is playable in full on Disc 2).
While the previously considered cultural references flirt with exploitation, and the explicit nod to Kierkegaard surely adds to what some might consider an air of pretentiousness, The Reflektor Tapes also offers some more tender and genuine glimpses into what inspires Arcade Fire's music. Some brief narrative musings — Chassagne's confession of feeling "invisible," or Butler's illuminating thoughts on romantic love — may seem like incomplete thoughts, but they offer balance to the documentary by reminding us of the fragile human beings beneath the hype, the stadium-sized anthems and oversized plastic heads.
All this considered, it's Joseph's choice to stray from the standard format of behind-the-scenes music documentaries that makes The Reflektor Tapes such a revealing look into the creation and execution of Reflektor and the ensuing tour. A band like Arcade Fire couldn't be captured in such a chronological, straightforward method.
Before the film's conclusion, Chassagne concedes that "with Reflektor, a whole 'nother world is open that you could see from a distance before — but now it's another room that you can actually enter." And with The Reflektor Tapes, Joseph has handed us the key to it.
Order The Reflektor Tapes cassette, featuring rare Reflektor outtakes and remixes, via Umusic here. (Arts Alliance Ltd.)