After Arcade Fire won the Grammy for The Suburbs in 2010, they went from becoming the biggest indie rock band in the world to simply one of the biggest bands in the world. In turn, their sound on their 2013 album Reflektor grew far more eclectic, embracing more of the polyrhythms and exotic influences that had colored all of their previous records. But as the band has blown up, they’ve turned increasingly inward, moving away from the twee indie hipsters of “Wake Up” and toward the more esoteric and mysterious. Before the release of Reflektor they performed several pop-up shows as The Reflektors and turned their album into a double album opus drawing on the Greek tragedies of Orpheus and Eurydice. This is hardly the arc of your typical pop stars.
The Reflektor Tapes then, the first official Arcade Fire documentary, was a chance to see the band in a more personal light, to find some of the humanity within the mystique as they traveled to Haiti and experienced Haitian culture and roots music in pursuit of Reflektor’s rhythmic sound. Kahlil Joseph’s film however is more of the elliptical and impenetrable. It’s distant, brooding, surreal, experimental and trying hard to be deeply profound.
Win Butler has a line about how he feels cameras will steal his soul. The giant papier-mache bobble heads the band wore during this tour were an attempt to escape from those “flashbulb eyes”, as he explains in in the film. But it’s as though the difficult and solemn presentation of The Reflektor Tapes is trying to capture more of Butler’s soul, rather than step outside the band’s curated persona and simply see it.
The Reflektor Tapes plays like a found mix tape of sorts, jumbling home movie footage on the streets of Haiti and wild, celebratory stadium shows in an erratic montage. Joseph will turn the film to a hazy and heavenly black and white on a dime, or bathe the whole scene in a trippy pink filter. We’ll hear the lyrics to “Afterlife” harrowingly isolated or see Will Butler hammering away on a drum during a sing-along for “Rebellion (Lies)” but will have the audio subtracted as to make the moment more intense, delirious, and consequently heavy-handed.
At just over an hour, the documentary still can feel like a long, burdened slog, with only a few personal moments inside the studio looking at the album’s process and almost no moments of levity. Joseph never stages a talking head testimonial on camera, and much of Butler or Regine Chassagne’s voiceover dialogue is of the vague, introspective sort.
Compare this to Mistaken for Strangers, the documentary on Arcade Fire’s indie rock contemporaries The National. That film found the band at truly tenuous and dramatic moments, but the bulk of it was a film that showed their personality and weird, human side. They’re not brooding, dark and strange 100 percent of the time, even if their music can be.
What’s more, the best cinematic Arcade Fire features have been of the interactive variety. For The Suburbs, the band made music videos that would allow you to dance in front of a webcam and animate the screen, or punch in your address and take you through a nostalgic odyssey of your own suburban sprawl.
The Reflektor Tapes is far more hands off. Joseph and the band don’t give us a deeper look at the band but one that burrows deeper into their mythology. “I thought I found a way to enter, but it was just a reflector.”