October 4, 2022

Screaming Masterpiece – a music documentary by Ari Alexander

You’d have to have been comatose since around 2001 not to know that Reykjavík has become to music as Firefox is to browsers and Liverpool was circa 1962 – and that the coolest of the cool book Glastonbury and Iceland Airwaves at the same time.

High time, then, for a decent doco on the scene, and here it is. Ari Alexander’s ninety-minute film goes for an overview that’s neither high art nor low hype – somewhere in between the American and the European ways of doing things, indeed, as one of the interviewees most presciently identifies as being an Icelandic characteristic – and the result is charming, quirky, and informative, with an edge of slightly shielded playfulness that anyone who’s ever tried to get Icelandic humour will recognise as bang-on authentic.

Apart from the occasional scrolled reminder that the Icelanders raided Ireland in the eleventh century to refresh the gene pool (you think I’m kidding, don’t you? see ‘Icelandic humour’ above) Alexander has chosen to let the musicians speak for themselves – which isn’t necessarily a good thing. It’s good when someone like Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson talks about the connection between the old and the new, for example, speaking in a soft, singing English that sounds as if he’s just woken up and wouldn’t mind if we did this tomorrow instead, inside, in the warm, rather than standing here freezing our bollocks off on the edge of a cliff, but bad when we have to listen to the stoned drivel of mediocre rockers who sound, in Icelandic, exactly like stoned rockers in any language, anywhere, and worse when you have to read the subtitles.

But most of the film is music – mostly live performances, mostly fairly recent, and there’s some wonderful archive stuff as well – a seventeen-year-old Björk looking all of twelve and already belting it out like a banshee in the pre-Sugarcubes Tappi Tikarass is pure joy. And apart from the obvious headliners – Ms Gudmundsdóttir and Messrs Sigur Rós – there’s plenty to please, although the inclination to editorial balance means the sort of crap you can find in any city anywhere gets as much attention as the innovative brilliance that could only have emerged out of Reykjavík, like Múm, Apparat Organ Quartet, Mugison, and Slowblow, inter alia. There are a few undeserved exclusions, however, and one or two regrettable inclusions – Gus Gus, Leaves, Jaguar, and Emiliana Torrini, for example, don’t get so much as a mention, whereas the utterly charmless Vinyl get far more loving than they deserve.

Sigur Rós, hardly unexpectedly, maintain a dignified silence, apart from when they’re in concert (bliss!) whereas there are a few hesitant attempts by a few less reticent (more foolish?) souls to answer the film’s underlying question: how come that a city the size of Oxford should have spawned such an über-talented tribe of musicians? Perhaps Slowblow’s Dagur Kári Pétursson comes closest, when he talks about this bunch of people who tend to appear in each other’s bands all the time as a kind of extended family – the Oxford equivalent would be Radiohead, Supergrass, Hurricane #1, The Egg, and The Unbelievable Truth all sharing members – almost as weird as taking it for granted that some ancient old folk singer codger should appear in a garage band’s lineup as an unremarkable matter of course rather than as part of some hyped-up roots revival.

Whether or not Iceland’s current cool dominance will endure except as a plethora of hastily assembled strange fonts in the music zines of the future remains to be seen, but Screaming Masterpiece will remain, at least, as a reminder of just how good it got once the cod wars were over.