Apocalypse: A Bill Callahan Tour Film (Hanly Banks, US, 2012, 60 mins.)
Instead of a conventional documentary, this concert film captures the singer/songwriter on one tour in support of one album, 2011's Apocalypse (I caught his Seattle stop at Neumos with Michael Chapman; it was great).
Of course, there's nothing particularly unusual about a concert film, except Callahan's been around long enough that some fans might welcome the opportunity to get to know him better (or to hear a few older songs).
For an artist who wants to showcase their most recent work while maintaining their privacy, however, it's the way to go. As he sings in "America!," one of his finest songs to date, "Everyone's allowed a past they don't care to mention."
Instead, the director combines songs with glimpses of the towns Callahan visited. Filled with twang, reverb, and the seersucker suit-clad subject's unvarnished baritone, Apocalypse offers a noirish take on Americana, like Scott Walker playing with Calexico, and the shots of farms, forests, and factories suit the material.
Nonetheless, the emphasis remains on Callahan and his band (guitarist Matt Kinsey and drummer Neal Morgan), and Hanly Banks neatly stitches together different domestic performances. One minute, Bill is wearing sunglasses, the next he's not. One minute, he's outside under the stars, the next he's not. It isn't as distracting as it sounds, but I'm also pretty accustomed to the technique by this point.
Hanks, a former Fader contributor, has designed the film more for listening to the music and meditating on the imagery than for thinking about Callahan's background and how it relates to his discography. If he talks about writing and touring, he avoids specifics, concluding that he's never more "real" than when he's on stage.
In the end, Apocalypse belongs to the impressionistic, About a Son school of filmmaking, which is both its biggest strength and its biggest weakness. Even the latest John Mellencamp DVD, It's About You, takes this approach; in fact, the two releases are strikingly similar, even if one guy's an FM mainstay and the other's an indie stalwart. If I prefer this film, that's mainly because I prefer Bill Callahan.
Apocalypse opens at the Grand Illusion (1403 NE 50th) on Fri, 9/7, at 7:30pm.