CMJ is proud to present a screening of the incredible new music documentary, Beautiful Noise. What kind of music, you might ask? Well, apparently the majority of the musicians in the film—all of whom had their heyday in the 1990s—are still so incensed at the music press-sprung genre nickname that they flatly refuse to ever use it themselves, considering it a condescending putdown, to the point that the filmmakers themselves did not include that genre tag through the entire film. But hey, the hoardes of younger bands today influenced by it seemingly have no trouble with the word, so…oh, it’s shoegaze, okay, shoegaze!
Starting with Cocteau Twins, Jesus & Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine as the jumping off point for the genre, co-filmmakers (and husband and wife) Eric Green and Sarah Ogletree spread out to investigate a plethora of primarily British bands from that early ’90s era to explore the development, rise, decline and recent resurgence of this gorgeous, ear-destroying sound. Packed with amazing rare footage, detailed interviews (Trent Reznor, Billy Corgan, and many more) plus a visceral sound mix that does l-o-u-d justice to shoegaze, Beautiful Noise is a must-see for alternative music fans, and a well-wroght film unto itself.
First off, what is your history with music and film?
Eric Green: Sarah and I are both avid filmgoers. She studied film in college at UCSC and I grew up in New York and spent all my free time watching old movies, listening to music and writing. We both moved to L.A. to pursue a career in the industry. I’d heard The Jesus and Mary Chain and was hooked instantaneously. Culture for me is my lifeblood, I’m always thinking in quotes, songs and scenes. She’s an editor and I am a writer of articles, stories, novels, screenplays and marketing content. Beautiful Noise is something I came up with, and after we met I asked her to get involved and produce it with me.
When you make an indie documentary there are a lot of unknowns, it’s very different from a traditional film production where there’s a set budget and number of days you shoot and edit. It’s more guerilla filmmaking, a lot of logistics and research, borrowing gear, last minute calls and interview set-ups after months of pursuing an interview. All of the work fell on our shoulders. I came up with the basis for the story, researched and landed the interviews, made an outline of the story points and then we filmed the interviews and creatively put together the movie. We work really well together and are a great team. We have a two-year-old and we joke that Beautiful Noise is our other child. Aside from the two of us, there were a lot people who helped us get this movie made in some small way simply because they believed in the subject, and that made all the difference. This movie happened because a lot of people saw the value in it and wanted it to happen, including quite a few kind fans via Kickstarter.
When and why did the idea for Beautiful Noise come to you?
EG: I was always collecting anything to do with these groundbreaking bands and researching the genre. And I would always see these documentaries about every other genre of music, but not about this one. The idea just occurred to me to make a documentary myself, and I began the process one interview at a time.
There is such a huge amount of bands in the film, it’s really comprehensive. Which band did you talk to first? And was there a band that you wanted to interview, but weren’t able to?
Sarah Ogletree: Our first interview was with Ulrich Schnauss. He was a great first interview for the project because like us he had a strong passion for music and did not grow up in the U.K., so naturally was stunned by the way many of these groups were treated in the press at the time. We got most of the people we wanted to, but there were a few we tried hard to connect with but could not get, namely William Reid (Jesus & Mary Chain), Liz Frazer (Cocteau Twins), Lou Reed, Brian Eno. Would have been nice to have someone from Radiohead, we tried. We did get their manager Chris Hufford who was Slowdive’s producer, and he is in the doc.
Was it difficult in general to track down the bands, and get them to agree to chat with you?
EG: To varying degrees, there were some who were oddly easy. Robert Smith emailed back with a yes a half hour after I first emailed him, but others like Jim Reid (Jesus & Mary Chain) took a lot of convincing.
One often hears about how Liz Fraser of Cocteau Twins is a somewhat difficult person to deal with, and I believe I’ve read she had some stage fright and/or claims that she thought her voice was gone and didn’t want to be involved in reunions, etc. In any event, what was your experience with her? And why did you start the film with that band as a jumping off point?
EG: We have never spoken to Liz Fraser. We would have loved to. We tried and tried for years, but no luck. As for the Cocteaus, they kicked this whole thing off, and are in that lineage with precursors like the Velvet Underground, Joy Division, even Syd Barrett. Robin Guthrie is widely recognized as the first to experiment and popularize making a guitar not sound like a guitar and is often referred to as the godfather of the genre. Liz was a pioneer with the way she sang her vocals so they blended in and felt like an instrument as much as lyrics. The genre had a lot of pioneering elements mixed together in ways never done before, and it made for an altogether new kind of sound with millions of possibilities. When I first heard Garlands I was blown away, the guitar sound was massive, and with each ensuing album they only got better and better.
The Jesus & Mary Chain had a rep as these kind of surly, sarcastic Brit rockers, as they humorously talk about in the movie. How were they to deal with?
EG: Really wonderful people, actually. Jim is a really cool guy, very down to earth. He was very shy and introspective, not what I was expecting, no ego. Douglas and Bobby were really great as well. We never met William.
I’m assuming that Kevin Shields probably personally has a ton of My Bloody Valentine filmed footage, but I know he’s a perfectionist and I assume he wouldn’t be keen on letting people root through his video and musical tapes. How was he to deal with on that front?
EG: Kevin was one of the tough interviews to arrange logistically, but he was a great interview once it finally happened and gave us several hours of his time. We felt really lucky just to have that time with him. It’s really rare to even get an email reply, so getting film footage directly from him did not happen.
We tried various other sources to get footage, and really there isn’t a huge wealth from back then. We did get a lot of what’s out there. Most archival footage from that time period is owned by licensing companies and we had to work with a very limited budget. A good friend of ours who worked on the film, Angus Cameron, was a great source for My Bloody Valentine stuff. He did several of their videos and their tour projections which he agreed to let us use for the film. In fact the moving Loveless cover sequence was created for this film. Angus showed it to Kevin and he liked it so much they used it on tour. One of the commonalities of these musicians is that they are all very private people.
Any other fun stories in general about tracking down rare footage or getting interviews?
EG: There are a lot of good stories. One that sticks out was when we were in Kentish Town after midnight, going to interview Douglas Hart (bassist, Jesus & Mary Chain). He said to meet him at the subway, and there was a Subway sandwich shop right next to the tube station, so we kept walking back and forth until we saw him in the train station. He looked the exact same, he even had gloves on that looked like the ones he used to play bass with. We were going to interview him, he was with a friend, Charlotte Marrionneau, and they led us through some dark passages to Kevin Shields’ studio, but then couldn’t open the door. It was past midnight and we were incredibly jet-lagged at the time. He was on the phone with Kevin, who was trying to walk him through the labyrinth of locks and doors. There were multiple locks on the door that had to be turned in a certain sequence and at the same time. After several minutes of trying, right as it seemed the door was about to open, one of the keys broke, so we ended up rescheduling.
SO: That experience stands out because making the movie has been a lot like that, of trying to figure out how to get past locked doors and broken keys and into inner sanctums that are heavily guarded.
I believe you said it took 10 years to finish the film. Obviously that’s partially due to the fact that this was your first movie, but what are some other reasons for the long production time?
SO: It wasn’t so much because this was our first film; it was largely due to timing and resources. Finding a way to get the music licensing extended the process for more than five years. The music clearances were our biggest hurdle with this film. We tried to get distributors in 2008, but the film industry went through a major change in how they do business and what kind of movies they invest in. It was a bad time for indie film. We were told smaller niche films were no longer a focus because they weren’t the revenue generators of the big budget tent poles. Why make a new film with an untested idea when they can remake an old film with a built in audience and awareness? We had more than one big executive tell us he would like to get the movie made because he was personally into it but it wasn’t a good time in the industry to make a niche art film focused on music. Another person advised us that it would have to have someone like Britney Spears in it to get their company involved, which obviously didn’t make sense for this film. So that was the kind of thinking we were up against.
I have to say, for me one of the most impressive aspects of the film was the sound mix—it was so loud and layered. And you were dealing with many different sound sources, from old VHS tapes to new digital interviews, etc. How exhausting was that process of sound editing and mixing?
EG: Sarah did the bulk of the work there. That is very creative and technical work and she is a wiz with laying in the sound and video and editing everything together. She did the sound editing and design. When we had the mix done she worked with the mixer and really made sure that it matched up with the original edit as closely as possible. After you work on something for many years you get it to a sweet spot, you get to where you know it so intimately, so obsessively. Since I was the one who knew the music best, she would always cross check with me to make sure the songs were hitting right. We both wanted the music to play as loudly as they were intended but not cross the fine line and blow out the speakers—and with this kind of music that’s easy to do.
Which band of the sort of “second tier” bands in the film do you think is most unjustly underrated?
EG: Hard to pick a favorite, but Slowdive comes to mind. They are such an incredible band, such amazing folk songs layered in such dreamy guitars, a soundtrack to my mind. They were unjustly maligned at the time and only now seem to finally be receiving the kind of recognition they deserve. I always go back to their records because they are highly individual, unique statements. Live they are truly amazing to hear, those songs really come alive.
Tell me about interviewing Robert Smith.
EG: When we met Robert Smith he had no makeup and we thought to ourselves, is he going to do the interview like that? Can’t say enough great things about Robert Smith, he is very warm and sociable. We chatted for a while about a variety of topics before we even started, including Borat, which Smith said “Everything you need to know about filmmaking is in that movie.” And then he looked at the clock and said, “It’s time to put my makeup on,” and pulled out two big makeup bags. He gave us a really long time in his studio to set up, which we didn’t have for many of the other interviews. We ended up duct taping lamps to the ceiling rafters in his studio to properly light the space and when he sat in the chair and looked around I think that surprised him, but then he chuckled and he said, “Wow, this really is a DIY film.”
Obviously, this music scene was mainly centered in the U.K., and the film concentrates on that. But of course there were antecedent bands in the U.S. that influenced it, some even mentioned in passing in the film. Were you thinking of adding in information or interviews with Husker Du, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., or any other mid-80s U.S. bands that influenced that scene?
EG: We chose to narrow the focus of the story to the U.K. origins, it made the most sense that way. Those bands are mentioned in the film. I spoke to Bob Mould, Thurston Moore and J Mascis via email and tried to plan interviews, but they never happened. We certainly would have included them if they had. Also Glenn Branca was an influence on many bands. Obviously I love those bands, but that could be another documentary entirely.
SO: We had several other sections in the film about precursors that we ended up having to cut out to get the movie to a reasonable time frame and comfortable pacing. We chose a path that is a divergence from the fast cuts and short sound bytes made for the ever shrinking attention span of viewers in an increasingly fast-paced world. We are big Ken Burns fans, and his kind of deliberative, thoughtful, elaborative storytelling felt right for this music and the people who made it. Most of these people don’t talk in soundbytes, and they didn’t make their music in that way either.
So, the elephant in the room—shoegaze. Among the young bands today who would be called that genre, or would call themselves that, I don’t think there’s much frustration or annoyance associated with it. But that word is not uttered once in your film, and you mention that the all bands just hate it. Can you explain where/why you think that term became so volatile for the bands in Beautiful Noise?
EG: Well that term originated as a dis, basically implying that the bands weren’t engaging, even though they were hitting you with a massive wall of sound that you couldn’t help but feel and hear. The term was an insult, and we were told point blank that certain key interviewees would not be interviewed if the word was used in the film, so it was an easy decision.
SO: The music is known by other descriptors as well. That one is probably the least accurate. They were looking at their pedals. I think a lot of people don’t think much about it and it has lost its negative origins in general, but it clearly upsets some of the bands. Whatever you want to call it, it doesn’t really matter, it’s just a label. The music will exist irregardless of it. We chose the title Beautiful Noise because it was a common phrase many of the interview subjects used in different iterations to self-describe their music, and it resonated with us.