Out of The Smog: Apocalypse: A Bill Callahan Tour Film

04/23/2014 4:00 AM |

Apocalypse: A Bill Callahan Tour Film
Directed by Hanly Banks

There’s no instrument in contemporary rock music quite like Bill Callahan’s voice: a carefully modulated speak-sing drawl that treats each word like an unfamiliar object, picking it up, fondling it, weighing it and setting it down gently. Over the course of 23 years, Callahan has recorded 15 records, 11 under the moniker Smog and four under his own name. His earlier recordings progress from raucous, tape-recorded electric guitar workouts to slightly tidier, noise-laced lo-fi rock. In the mid-90s, he started to develop a songwriting model—spacious, patient, evocative, sparsely ornamented—that he’s been refining ever since.

Bill Callahan: Apocalypse, an hourlong documentary directed by Hanly Banks (now Callahan’s fiancée), follows the singer through his 2011 North American tour. Banks wisely chooses not to chop up the seven long performances included here, and keeps her camera fixed on the musicians with one misguided exception: a squirm-inducing montage layered over “Riding for the Feeling” of trailer park residents, county-fair patrons, skateboarders, children, and athletes that risks treating its subjects as shorthand signifiers of Rural American Values. As a performer, Callahan is rarely given to grand gestures or showy effects. He stays planted more or less in place, mouth close to the mic, subtly stretching every muscle in his face to give his voice the proper texture.

Callahan’s lyrics lean toward the cryptic, and his brief voiceovers between each performance suggest that he’s more comfortable crafting striking images than speaking directly about his working methods. His observations, often drawn out with pauses and delays, range from the vague (“I really like… traveling… especially by… a vehicle”) to the inscrutable (“A year or two ago, I decided that symbols are everything, and that’s all we have. That’s all we communicate. Everything’s just a metaphor for something else”). That the movie lingers on these sorts of lines, usually paired with footage of the band driving around, setting off fireworks, or gazing out of car windows, is telling. We see almost nothing of the band’s setup, rehearsals, technical difficulties, or, with a few exceptions, their audiences. For better or worse, the film rarely gives us the option to regard Callahan—on and off stage—from any perspective other than that of a fan in the crowd.

Opens May 2 at reRun