“I am the daughter of a goddess.” Stéphanie Argerich offers these words as explanation, trying to relate her relationship with her mother, legendary pianist Martha Argerich. It does not come off as relatable. It does, however, begin to illuminate how the younger Argerich, the documentarian, came of age in the house of the elder. This artist is like a goddess because she taps into something that the rest of us mere mortals cannot fully comprehend, and relays it down to earth through her instrument. That is the role of the musician, according to the film, “Bloody Daughter” – to illustrate the unattainable.
But what, then, is the role of the music documentary? It certainly isn’t to simply offer an easily projected replication of that process. Even concert films do more than that, the good ones anyway. The short answer, obviously, is that there isn’t one right way to make a music doc. It’s a solid and entirely unsatisfying point. The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Sound + Vision series, running through August 1st, is an intriguing collection of films that try to achieve something beyond the documentation of the act of music-making. The best of them try to push their lens into the ramifications of musicianship, probing the impact of great artistry on family, identity and mental health.
Martha Argerich has three daughters, each from one of three marriages. Stéphanie is the youngest, her father being American pianist Stephen Kovacevich. She grew up with her mother, alongside her sister Anne Dutoit. “Bloody Daughter” is a memoir of a family, cobbled together with years of home movies and concert footage, both old and new. Yet rather than try to somehow normalize her mother, documentarian Argerich emphasizes the uniqueness of the experience, from the glory of international music festivals to the hidden drama surrounding the custody battle and kidnapping of her eldest sister, Lyda Chen. The implication is that, at the end of the day, having flown so close to the sun makes the burns worthwhile.
Yet the loose love of the Argerich family is not necessarily the norm among great musicians. Jazz trumpeter Phil Cohran devoted his life to his family, incorporating his many children into his larger vision. He views music as a political tool, tied to ideals of African American community revival in Chicago. Nine of his sons, now performing together as the “Hypnotic Brass Ensemble,” struggle to achieve their own success without betraying their father’s mission to raise political consciousness with music.
The film is “Brothers Hypnotic.” Documentarian Reuben Atlas followed the group as they went from performing on the streets of New York City to touring Europe. The music itself is a leap into the 21st century compared to Cohran and his involvement with the Sun Ra Arkestra back in the 1960s, a point of pride for the younger generation of musicians. Yet the brothers are much more concerned with holding onto his ideals, at one point turning down a contract offer from Atlantic Records. Atlas effectively combines their fiery performances with the behind the scenes conflict, a constant struggle for how to appropriately move forward as an increasingly successful ensemble.
Culture is seen even more explicitly as a weapon by the Touareg musicians of North Africa’s Saharan interior, a community featured in Désirée von Trotha’s “Woodstock in Timbuktu.” Her focus is the Festival au Désert in Mali, an annual gathering of Touareg bands in the Northern part of the country that seeks to emphasize cultural harmony in the face of rising tensions in the region. The women of Tartit, a group that formed in a refugee camp during the 1990s rebellion in Burkina Faso, sing in protest of the troubles of their desert homeland. Bombino, praised by the festival for having “replaced his Kalashnikov with a guitar,” speak out against the rise of al-Qaida and more militant forms of Islam. Von Trotha ties the performances of these groups together with words from the festival’s organizers and attendees, attesting to the importance of this peaceful event. “A man without a culture is a man without a face,” one musician insists.
These musicians, using their guitars as a weapon to advocate for Touareg autonomy, have sung together in this safe space since the mid-1990s. Yet, in the wake of the 2012 Northern Mali conflict, the festival has been canceled. Its organizers have fled, along with many of its participating musicians and over 100,000 Touareg people, either on the run in Mali or seeking refuge in neighboring countries. In this context, the film becomes a historic record in a way that it should not need to be. It’s a testament to the urgency of cultural preservation, and a call for a return to rhythmic dialog in place of religious and political fervor.
The serious context of all of these films, from the threat of violence “Woodstock in Timbuktu” to the family drama of “Bloody Daughter” and “Brothers Hypnotic,” might initially make the inclusion of K-Pop seem a bit strange. Yet the industrial, cynical world of the South Korean popular music business has an awful lot of resonance when paired with these drastically subjects. “9 Muses of Star Empire” is a glimpse at the production of a K-Pop group in the months before their debut. Director Hark-Joon Lee got reality-show level access to this process, as studio executives try to train a group of nine teenage girls to become the next big thing in international music. K-Pop, as the film goes out of its way to insist in its opening sequence, is an enormous presence around the world.
Whether Lee intended his film to be so bleak is unclear, but it does not take long for “9 Muses of Star Empire” to shift from a celebration of Korea’s success on the world music stage to a darker chronicle of teen psychological unraveling. The Star Empire Agency’s businessmen, not content to simply sit back and demand the shortest skirts possible, take a very active role in the management of their talent. It is no wonder when these nine young women, harassed and demoralized, begin to doubt their success.
The documentaries of Sound + Vision celebrate music, to be sure, but more so they emphasize its potency. These films do not necessarily infuse their style with the character of their subjects’ work, but they do illuminate the way their work has influenced, enriched and in some cases fractured their lives. Perhaps, given the success of “20 Feet of Stardom” and last year’s Oscar win for “Searching for Sugar Man,” the first by a music documentary in decades, we are witnessing a bit of a renaissance for the genre?