Andrew Bird: Fever Year

[ I’ve had this draft sitting around since November or so, when I first saw Andrew Bird: Fever Year at the Chicago International Film Festival.  I never finished the post, feeling like I needed to see the film again to finish collecting my thoughts.  I had the chance to see the film again, this time at Evanston’s Talking Pictures Film Festival, and think maybe this time, I’ll collect my thoughts better.  So I sit here, several months after beginning this, listening to Break It Yourself, and think: how far we’ve all come.  How far, indeed.]

Andrew Bird: Fever Year isn’t quite a concert film. If you’re looking for that, go track down his performance on Austin City Limits from 2009, or spend some time trawling through YouTube. It’s not a biographical film, either, as you glean little about Andrew Bird the person that you couldn’t get from Wikipedia or his own website or, frankly, this very blog. The film exists somewhere in between, and is, as described by director Xan Aranda, “ten songs and a storyline,” capturing the culmination of Bird’s dizzying year of non-stop touring in support of his 2009 album, Noble Beast.

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Most of the concert footage was taken at two shows at Milwaukee’s Pabst Theatre, filmed in October 2009, with a few clips from one of December 2009’s Gezellegheid shows, and a few brief moments from Bird’s triumphant September 2008 show for 10,000+ fans at Chicago’s Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.  For those of you playing along at home: yes, yes I was at all of those.  In a way, it felt like it was a movie made just for me, seeing these moments up there on the big screen.  I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that Andrew Bird’s music has affected the way that I think about writing and music and being creative, let alone to say that it’s touched me as a person.  I’m a little too old and jaded to throw around words like “life-changing”, but trust me, it’s close.

So this film, one that I’ve been waiting for since 2009, had a lot of high expectations to live up to.  But there was nothing to worry about: from the opening notes of “Sweetmatter”, his combination of the songs “Sweetbreads” and “Dark Matter”, to the closing shot, post-credits, of Bird picking up his shoes and his sock-monkey and waving goodbye to the crowd, the film works.   Ultimately, it is a touching tribute to Bird as an artist.  It marks the culmination of over ten years of hard work, with possibly one of the most grueling years of Bird’s career, one that saw him reaching new levels of professional acclaim but also stretching himself to the limits, running a perpetual fever over the course of the year and literally limping over the finish line after injuring his heel at one of the last concerts of the year.

For a film that gives you little personal information about its protagonist, it has its good share of quiet, intimate moments.  Bird, in the studio, setting up his vast array of pedals cross-legged on the floor, whistling to himself.  In a Milwaukee hotel room, running through a song on acoustic guitar.  On his farm in western Illinois, trampling through the grass, picking vegetables.  Moments before taking the stage at Fourth Presbyterian, humming a few repeated notes to himself.  They’re moments that say a lot about Bird as a person, even without words.  It’s those quiet moments that struck me most on viewing, more so than the concert footage.  I can’t quite say why, but as someone who has her own hills to climb in regards to being an introvert, living a solitary life mostly by choice and occasionally forgetting how to re-engage with people, large portions of the film spoke to me in a deeply personal way.

Although it’s an often serious, straight-forward look at Bird’s music and process, the film isn’t without humor, often provided by Mike Lewis and Jeremy Ylvisaker.  “I’m surprised my cats don’t hate me yet,” Lewis quips at one point, when discussing the grueling touring schedule.  “He’s always freezing, always whistling, shivering… like a baby bird,” says Ylvisaker, regarding Bird’s constant illness throughout the tour.  There are a few scattered behind-the-scenes moments of the band at soundcheck, or working through the tricky, rarely played coda to “Opposite Day”, that show their more playful sides, even while at work.

Andrew Bird: Fever Year is a beautifully shot film, from the way the concert footage is presented, to the traditional talking-head style interviews, to the long, loving shots of the Chicago Skyway.  It holds up over time and over repeated viewings (not that that’s possible unless you’re planning on following it around the film festival circuit; the film will not be released on DVD).  It’s perhaps even a little more meaningful now, after the release of Break It Yourself.  You can see the beginnings of a few of the songs on the new album in the film: he works on “Lusitania” with Annie Clark, who went on to provide the backing vocals for the new album; he runs through “Sifters” in the studio, but performed it for the very first time during one of those shows at the Pabst, a performance which gave me chills.  A lot has changed for Andrew Bird since that grueling year of non-stop touring, but some things always stay the same: he’s back out on the road in support of yet another highly anticipated, acclaimed album.  I’m sure that even now, he’s working out snippets of songs that will appear on a future release.

Let’s just hope he doesn’t spend a year running a continuous fever this time around.

Check out the trailer, below, and then plan to find it at a film festival near you.  Upcoming showings include stops in Toronto, Phoenix, Vail, Cleveland, Orlando, and Nashville.

Official Trailer (2:45) from Andrew Bird: Fever Year on Vimeo.