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Sonic Youth: Sleeping Nights Awake
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by Lybarger

"The sleeping part is right."
3 stars

Viewed for CineVegas: The story behind new concert documentary 'Sonic Youth: Sleeping Nights Awake' is sadly more interesting than the film itself. The film was shot and recorded by a crew of seven teens at a 2006 Sonic Youth show in Reno, Nev. The septet called Project Moonshine caught the veteran noise rock band on a good night, but the film might have been more enjoyable if they’d simply filmed the show.

Instead, director Michael Albright includes what may be some of the most tedious interview footage in recent memory. There are lots of talking head segments featuring happy fans and banal observations from the members of the group. Neither the band nor their admirers has anything interesting to say. As a result, viewers may be reaching for their fast forward buttons, even in the theater.

There’s an intriguing story here, but the filmmakers seem to have missed it. Sonic Youth have been performing together for two and a half decades and can still play scorchingly vibrant music even though most of the musicians are now in their 40s and 50s.

Founding guitarists Thurson Moore and Lee Ranaldo and bassist Kim Gordon have apparently resisted the siren calls of drugs and booze and appear to have diet and exercise tips that younger musicians should follow. At an age when many of their peers are either dead or burned out, they can still kick out their ferociously dissonant sound with the same finesse they had in their youth.

You’d think that with over 25 years of experience the band members would have accumulated dozens of anecdotes and pithy descriptions of life as travelling musicians. If they have, it’s hard to tell. Ranaldo simply drones on music being a new medium to express one’s self, and Gordon compares being in a band to being in a family.

Some musicians are better at making music than they are about talking about it. Gordon sounds more committed when she slams the Pussycat Dolls and Paris Hilton during the band’s hit “Kool Thing” than when she’s yapping during the interviews. Still, the rookie filmmakers don’t learn anything that isn’t already available on the Wikipedia page for the band and neglect to ask some potentially interesting questions.

For example, it might have been interesting to know how Moore and Gordon have managed to stay married and raise a daughter in a business that’s known to wreck lasting relationships. It also might have been worth knowing how Gordon has managed to cut a niche for herself in a field that’s heavily dominated by men.

Worse, the band members aren’t even identified by name until the closing credits.

The one interview segment that manages to hold up is a segment where viewers get to hear how the band’s guitars are tuned. One of Sonic Youth’s trademarks is the fact that the band will use odd tuning styles to give their songs an eerie, dissonant sound that’s difficult to cover. Unless you want to tour with dozens of different guitars, each tuned so that it can be played only for a couple of specific songs, it might be best to play another band’s repertoire.

The concert footage is thankfully rendered in crisp black-and-white photography that goes nicely with Sonic Youth’s sound. Unlike the fan-shot Beastie Boys documentary “Awesome! I Fuckin’ Shot That!,” Project Moonshine know where to place the cameras and how to record the sound with proper clarity.

The film ends with Moore having a long discussion over a buffet with the filmmakers. While he’s thankfully encouraging to the young artists, his wisecracks answer the question of why he became a guitarist instead of a comedian. The segment goes nowhere and could have easily been replaced by a couple of more tunes.

Sonic Youth fans will easily be able to overlook the jabbering between the songs. Others may zone out on both the talking and the tunes.

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originally posted: 09/04/08 13:27:25
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 CineVegas Film Festival For more in the 2008 CineVegas Film Festival series, click here.

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