All My Friends Are Funeral Singers

March 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

When we think of the great collaborations between film and music it’s typically the case that one medium takes precedent over the other. Both Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz and Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense are memorable for their transcendent musical performances. Even without the underlying melodrama that transpires between Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson, The Last Waltz would be a film we revisit for The Band’s raw collaborative performance that provides a coda to a golden age of rock n’ roll. On the flip side, it is often the non-digetic music that is celebrated in the cinematic world. Bernard Hermann’s scores for Hitchcock and John Williams’s scores for Lucas aren’t respected for their performance, but for their seamless interaction with a narrative. It’s hard to think of a case that provides an egalitarian negotiation between film and music.

Chicago’s own Califone ambitiously attempts this mediation in their new film All My Friends Are Funeral Singers. On Tuesday night, I attended a screening of the film with live accompaniment by the band at Lincoln Hall.  The film is a mystical, and often humorous, tale about a fortune teller who lives with a number of ghosts in an old house filled with kitschy psychic memorabilia. The fortune teller, Zel (played by Angela Bettis), is clearly reliant upon her housemates to perform her job and upon finding out the ghosts wish to leave as a result of a bright light coming from woods behind the house,  she is asked to decide whether to sacrifice her way of life or  to keep her strange family captive. This peculiar narrative is showered with religious imagery and dialogue: the film begins with a lighthearted exchange between two ghosts about the way they imagine heaven and hell, and the character’s wardrobes are often stark shades of red and white. Although it’s not a film about religion, it definitely provides a look into the filmmaker’s cynical perspective on the subject.

The filmmaker, Tim Rutili, is also the principal songwriter, lyricist, and vocalist of the experimental-folk group, Califone – one of Chicago’s greatest underrepresented musical institutions. To accompany the release of the film, the band also released their sixth studio album under the same name – All My Friends Are Funeral Singers. While the album contains some of their most accessible, hook-laden songs to date – the title track is undeniably catchy – listening to the album before seeing the film may endow some with certain expectations for the latter. Let me say that the film, for the most part, is less accessible than the album and many of the songs on the album do not appear in the film. However, this does not mean these are autonomous entities. In fact, the richest experience of Califone’s latest project will be from the ingestion of both parts.

In this sense, the evening was made coherent through the synthesis of all the project’s disparate aspects: film, digetic music, non-digetic music, live music. As the film rolled at Lincoln Hall, the band’s accompaniment consisted mostly of soundscapes and musical vignettes. While only a few songs from the album make an appearance in the film, it was truly only in those moments where the film’s narrative called for musical interplay. As they played the slow, melancholy ballad “Evidence” over the end credits, it became clear that whatever Funeral Singers is about, it’s contained in the mind and soft-crackling voice of the project’s mastermind, Tim Rutili. A short post-film set allowed the band to open their sound into some of the tracks from the album.

Due to the surreal nature of the film and high level of sonic experimentation, it was never fair to mention Califone’s latest in the same sentence as The Last Waltz or George Lucas. But for an ambitious multifaceted project, Califone pulls it off with such warmth and ease that one wants to unmask its underlying aesthetic. Although it can’t be said to be seamless, the interaction between moving picture and music in Funeral Singers is a daring feat that provides an interesting, and often moving experience.

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Click here to download the title track from the album: Califone – Funeral Singers

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