[This review initially appeared when the film screened at Germany's
Nippon Connection and with the film appearing this weekend at the Shinsedai
Festival in Toronto we present it again now.]
When I think of concert films I tend to think of them as static. Even if the filmmaker is following a band on tour things tend to progress from one stage show to the next. If the music is great then it can be electrifying, but concert films still present a real challenge to a director. How can people playing music on stage carry an entire feature film? Some have found that magic formula, namely my favorites like Chris Blum's film of Tom Waits's 1988 American tour "Big Time", Laurie Anderson's groundbreaking "Home of the Brave" and that little piece of Toronto punk rock history "The Last Pogo" shot at the city's Horseshoe Tavern. I was lucky enough to recently add to my list of favorite concert films when I got a chance to see Tetsuaki Matsue's "Live Tape", the winner of the top prize in the Japanese Eyes program at this year's Tokyo International Film Festival. It's a film that blurs a lot of lines, bends the genre in whole new directions, but might be a bit of a slow build for a lot of audiences.
First off "Live Tape" is an amazing technical feat. Matsue shot the film on New Year's Day 2009, following singer/ songwriter Kenta Maeno as he walks through Tokyo's Musashino neighbourhood from Kichijoji Hachiman Shrine to Inokashira Park. All the way Maeno strums his guitar, belting out a full set of his songs, and Matsue captures his entire performance and journey in one single 74-minute take. Besides a cameo appearance by Tsugumi Nagasawa, star of such films as "Tokyo Gore Police" and "Zombie Hunter Rika", offering alms and prayers at Kichijoji Hachiman there are no other actors on screen, just Maeno front and center while the citizens of Tokyo come and go, for the most part passing him by as if her were just another part of the scenery. Maeno might not have a flashing neon sign over his head saying "Watch me!" but with his blazer, Rayban sunglasses and mop of curly hair looking more than a little like the patron saint of guitar troubadours Bob Dylan he definitely stands out. Add to that that the first song he performs "Summer at 18" has him confessing about how he masturbated to Yoshimitsu Morita's 1997 erotic hit film "Lost Paradise" for a dose of cheeky appeal, but even singing this at top volume the crowds just pass on by.
It was this disconnect that first struck me about "Live Tape". As Maeno slips through the crowds at the Shinto shrine and into the relative quiet of the holiday streets he sings about everyday life - how it's as boring as plain tofu ("Tofu"), how he's getting older and softer ("Fat on My Heart"), and about meeting with an old love ("100 Years from Now") - and all the while everyday life is going on around him, but Maeno seems like a ghost in the city, apart from the people and the buildings and there were times I caught myself watching the pedestrians more than Maeno and growing nostalgic about wanting to return to Japan after too many years of being away from it. Not necessarily the reaction that a director would want to get from the audience of their concert film.
The turning point for me those was when Matsue starts to question Maeno from behind the camera, asking him "what power level are you on right now?" and coaxing him to go from 80% power up to 120%. From this point on in "Live Tape" until the rousing last minutes Maeno does indeed increase his power, sometimes by bellowing out his lyrics of love, loss and alienation so that echo through the main covered shopping arcades of Musashino to a wonderful scene where Maeno crosses paths with the erhu (Chinese stringed instrument) player in his backing band The David Bowies to perform the title track of his 2007 debut CD "Romance Car". He follows that up with the emotional core of the film (at least in my opinion), the heart-tugging ballad "Can't Be Just Friends" where Maeno delivers such evocative lyrics as "The flowers are out/ And the stars are too/ I'm a black lump/ I wonder if I can paint with my guitar..."
Yes, "Live Tape" starts out as a document of a day, of a neighbourhood, and of everyday life in Japan. Years from now people may watch "Live Tape" partially for this very reason, but as Maeno and Matsue discuss their families and Matsue's desire to make something on New Year's Day after a very tough twelve months of loss and pain his film and Maeno's performance become a testament to the cathartic and joyful power of music. After Maeno teams up with The David Bowies behind him for the films high-powered climax at an outdoor concert my initial misgivings about "Live Tape" totally melted away. I can only hope that this film will make its way to North America so even more folks can go on this journey with Maeno and Matsue.Review by Chris MaGee