“I’ll look back and say I was changed.”
In the unforgiving, agonizing world of high school, students tend to be divided by groups and cliques, sorted out by value through cruel, superficial hierarchies of popularity. Or, rather, their lack thereof. And, come on, let’s be real here — when your high school color guard troupe comes to mind, the last thing anybody typically associates them with is the top of the food chain. What is color guard, after all? Are they cheerleaders? Is it a sport? Are they human, or are they dancer? Contemporary Color, a documentary by brothers Turner and Bill Ross, answers these questions by defying all rules and stereotypes, instead creating a gorgeous, cinematic symphony of movement, energy, and the love for craft.
Two years ago now, in 2015, David Byrne quietly held the ultimate celebration of youth and art at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, filling every seat in the house in anticipation for an experience unlike anything else the audience had ever witnessed before. With his impeccable taste, the Talking Heads frontman thoughtfully paired ten musicians with color guard groups from all over North America for over an hour of a feast for both the eyes and ears. Part concert film and part fly on the wall, the film not only captures the pure magic and thrill of performance, but it also sees the participating teenagers through a turning point in their lives. For many them, this performance is their last hurrah in high school. The road ahead is long and full of uncertainty, and the present is bittersweet, caught between the point of having to grow up and holding on to the last moments of youth.
In the hands of the Ross brothers, Byrne’s masterpiece was captured through the lens of a kaleidoscope, like a fantastical feast of colors, movement, and energy as the groups move across the floor, performing their choreography with songs that were written especially for the event. While the focus could easily fall on the more recognizable names of the musicians — from Dev Hynes/Blood Orange, St. Vincent, Ad Rock of the Beastie Boys, Zola Jesus, Lucius, Nelly Furtado, to David Byrne himself — the true subjects are the kids themselves, outliers in their own world, but the stars in this one.
As one musician points out backstage, “These kids, they’re not the prom queens.” Along with Byrne, the Ross brothers allow the kids to shine, one by one, highlighting the discipline and commitment the craft begs for, the camaraderie between their communities of misfits, and their own stories of growing up, from what they leave behind at home, the passion they throw out on the floor, to their hopes and dreams once the evening is over.
At one point backstage, a historic announcement plays on a television in an empty room: gay marriage has been legalized across the United States, and in celebration, an image of the White House strewn in rainbow colors flashes across the screen. Outside of the room, as the Ross brothers portray, the festivities continue — people from various backgrounds and experiences coming together for the love of the unconventional, what most people do not know or understand, and of course, the promise of youth.
Ultimately, as the film reaches its conclusion, every single performer takes center stage, literally letting their freak flags fly as confetti explodes above them. What the Ross brothers have created is more than just a documentary about outsiders — Contemporary Color is a psychedelic celebration of artistry in one of its least pretentious forms, showcasing the love and passion that goes into perfecting your craft through the wide, hopeful eyes of the future.