The New York Film Festival screened the music doc Andrew Bird: Fever Year twice this past weekend.
When conceiving Andrew Bird: Fever Year, director Xan Aranda rejected the idea of a biographical film about the folk-rocker. “That is what the internet is for,” said the newly minted director at a post-screening Q&A at this past Saturday’s world premiere at the New York Film Festival. Instead, Aranda sought to “give the viewer a chance to spend time with [Bird]” through a gently meandering series of live performance clips, interviews, and scenes of Bird rehearsing and living.
The film traces the last four months of a feverishly intense year of touring for Bird. The title refers literally to an onstage accident that left him on crutches for much of the tour and with a perpetually high temperature. At one point, a bandmate refers to him as a “sickly little bird,” and while viewers do see an at-times meek Bird, what resonates most is his resilience and commitment to his creative process.
Bird describes his inspiration as “waking up and the mystery that comes from [the self].” That mystery, he later suggests is like chasing a ghost. The documentary’s success comes from the subtle mechanisms it uses to draw viewers back to this idea.
A highlight of the film is a clip of a live performance of “Anonanimal,” accompanied by audio clips from an interview in which he discusses his sudden urge to switch from violin to guitar for a few measures, forcing a brief but good-humored pause in the song. The juxtaposition of song and reflection gives the viewer a glimpse of his spontaneous creative process.
Much of Bird’s work, including “Anonanimal,” makes extensive use of use of looping, particularly of intricate violin melodies. Bird talks about how until very recently, he considered himself only a “student” of looping. The viewer sees how variable Bird’s loops are in live performances, creating a distinct experience for each audience. Bird actually discusses the popular success of “Fitz & Dizzyspells” with a tinge of frustration—to him, the melodies come together too seamlessly, like in a pop song. Looping and aversion to finality figure deftly into Bird’s ghost-chasing philosophy, as well as the film’s lack of linear narrative.
The film makes clear Bird’s intense focus, which he admits borders on obsession. A clip of Bird rehearsing with Annie Clark of St. Vincent leaves an impression of mutual admiration but also seriousness—they are very intent on finessing their duo piece the whole time. But the film provides insight into Bird’s life outside of music as well. He discusses his collaboration with Chicago artisans as a sort of diversion. For instance, he worked with one artisan to make undulating wooden sculptures that look like the barrels of phonographs, and were later used on the sets of Bird’s tour performances.
While Bird is quiet and inward in every sense, viewers see a person deeply committed to his friends, family, and bandmates, and someone humble and gracious to his audiences. Bird spends much of his spare time at his family’s farm in northwestern Illinois. He makes music there, inspired by the lack of “constant crisis” he encounters in his Chicago life, but we also see him tending vegetables and enjoying the tranquility he lacks while touring. Bird is inspired to make music by everything he does, and one might hear the city in his intricate loops and the country in his drawn-out chords.
This rare glimpse into Bird’s life leaves an inspiring impression, not only to be firmly committed to what excites and intrigues us, but also to keep on chasing the ghost that we wake up with each morning.