It took nine songs, but by the time "Hey Boy Hey Girl" came on during an advance screening for "Don't Think" -- an Adam Smith-directed movie of the Chemical Brothers' headlining set at Japan's Fuji Rock festival -- two men had jumped out of their seats and run to the front of the cinema. Those of us more steadfastly rooted to our seats looked on with amusement.
Amid cheers and the occasional "Here we go!" from the theater's speakers, the duo danced alone for a few songs. Eventually, a few more people bounced out of their seats to the theater's various corners, and a mini-party blossomed. By the time Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands reached "Galvanize," a good fifteen or so fans were dancing in the space between the front row and the screen.
Watching "Don't Think," which Smith contends is an entirely different type of concert film, was a nice reminder that there is well-paced, industrial electronic dance music with fans that aren't all under the age of 25. Watching Thursday's screening audience in New York react to the film was like watching one's parents beam with the pride of recognizing a quality song that's played in a hip bar. There was a cathartic familiarity in the air, one that rubbed off on even the viewers who thought they were going to something more akin to a David Guetta concert.
The star of the film is undoubtedly the Fuji Rock audience. Smith sent out a team of semi-professional videographers into the audience to capture the rapt (and often entertaining) expressions of fans who are completely lost in the music. Smith's other brilliant directorial move was to not show the size of the crowd until the film's end. By focusing in on the micro and eventually building the viewer's understanding of the festival as the show progresses, "Don't Think" adds a swelling sensation that is uniformly lacking in the typical Glastonbury-style which often treats the crowd as a single, inhuman mass (to say nothing of films of Beyonce concerts, where their tight focus only examines the performer's every move).
Fans in the live audience register a surprising number of emotions throughout the show. There are the usual -- the open-throated screaming and hands-in-the-air response to Smith and Rowland's DJ-Jesus poses -- but there are also fear at jarring noises; a distracted wonderment at the festival's food and surrounding forest; and uncomfortable, overwhelming moments translated into a sudden outburst of tears.
"We wanted the cinema audience to connect with the people at the festival on an emotional level not merely document the spectacle of the show," Smith wrote in an email to The Huffington Post. "When the crowd [is] lost in the music and bathed in warm light during the breakdown of 'Star Guitar' [it] is a very beautiful expression of the effect the live show seems to have on the audience and hopefully also will touch cinema audiences in a similar way."
A good number, but not all, of the visuals for the concert are the band's music videos writ large. Seeing the audience react to the familiar videos and hearing the duo's music on a cinema speaker system makes "Don't Think" a must for any true Chemical Brothers fan.
As Simons said in an interview with the Guardian, many consumers of modern music aren't getting the whole story. "I don't really think people get that absorbed in music at the moment. They're streaming it, they're watching YouTube clips," he said. "People say 'I listened to this' and you think 'Yeah, did you listen to it on computer speakers?' ... I just like the idea of people listening to our music quite loud."
In previous interviews Smith has described the challenge of creating an 85-minute film with no real narrative arc (the songs in the Chemical Brothers' setlist don't convey a grand narrative, and the visuals -- as impressive and well-thought out as they are -- don't share anything that can be described as a story). It's a sharp self-criticism, because there are times where the cinema viewer grows disengaged from the band and its original live audience.
It may be the generally strong quality of the Chemical Brother's music that makes "Don't Think" a bit trying at times. By never having created pop-ready jingles with slow buildups and "epic" breakdowns, they ensured that their fans were in for the longer haul -- even if the actual running time of each of the songs in the film is a maximum of nine minutes, the segments can feel extended when piled on top of one another.
Cinema audiences also face a conflict the concertgoers did not. Though both live electronic dance music concerts and movies require an audience, the former audience is expected to be active, to engage physically and kinetically with the art. Moviegoers are seated and generally passive, an inertia that can prove difficult for many to reconcile with the relentless music that's being pumped at them.
At a live concert, visuals come and go through a sea of hands and tall people. Smith did a great job dropping the camera into the crowd and making Simons and Rowland only the occasional focus of the film, but again, it's not a technique that moviegoers can wholly engage with or appreciate (movies are "supposed" to be visually accessible).
The film is ultimately a success and bravely faces the challenges of translating a concert to the cinema without relying on an imposed narrative frame. Smith's ability to resist layering a hokey story on top of the concert experience is admirable and makes "Don't Think" a must for Chemical Brothers fans, and an entirely new experience for the casual moviegoer.
"Don't Think" will be screening in the United States for one night only in select theaters on Feb. 1.
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