Arcade Fire have not only created three of the most essential albums in contemporary rock, but they have also crossed over to the world of film – with the help of a few significant friends. In August, the live webcast of their concert at Madison Square Garden in New York was shot by Terry Gilliam for internet audiences. They created one of the most original interactive videos around for their single "We Used to Wait". And now the Montreal band have teamed up with Spike Jonze, the director of Being John Malkovich, to create their first film, Scenes from the Suburbs.
The mysterious 28-minute film, which was made as a companion piece to their twice-Grammy-nominated 2010 album, The Suburbs, will be seen by the public for the first time tomorrow when it premieres as part of the Berlin Film Festival's Shorts programme. Up to now, we've known very little about the film: in the summer, the band's frontman and songwriter Win Butler had given a brief description of a "science-fiction B-movie companion piece for the record" to the American music website Pitchfork. Recently, a poster for the film appeared on the band's website, while fans had a glimpse of the film in the music video for their song "The Suburbs", which featured scenes from the full-length project.
If fans and critics felt that the band had relaxed a little with the thematic content of The Suburbs, less preoccupied as it was with the state of modern society and more set on looking back nostalgically to their childhoods, the film, which I have seen, paints the darkest picture of the album.
With the sound of the album's title and opening track as a backdrop, the theme of nostalgia – so key to the album – is portrayed through the perspective of a teenager looking back on a distant summer: "I wish I could remember every little moment. But I can't," he says. "Why do I only remember the moments that I do? I wonder what happens to the others."
Taking us into his memories, against a soundtrack comprised of songs and instrumental extracts from The Suburbs, the film follows his group of close friends, who appear to have grown up together in their neighbourhood. Idyllic shots of the group show them cycling around their suburb, smiling, play-wrestling, getting into mischief and experiencing first love, before shifting quickly to showing us that they are trapped in the suburb.
The imagery becomes increasingly threatening, as armed soldiers start arresting people at the suburb's border and then, even more terrifyingly, removing people from their own homes. The eerie sense of unease is captured by the cinematographer Greig Fraser, who was behind the camera for Let Me In, the American reworking of the Swedish vampire film. Turned away from their suburban border on the way to visit a relative, these teenagers can't leave town, it seems, because outside the country is at war and the military controls life and all gateways. It very literally portrays the sentiments of the album's title song: "You always seemed so sure/ That one day we'd be fighting in a suburban war."
The film's screenplay was a collaborative effort between Jonze, Win Butler and the latter's multi-instrumentalist brother Will. "We played Spike some music from the album and the first images that came to his mind had the same feeling as this idea for a science-fiction film I had when I was younger," said Win, for whom this was a first attempt at screenwriting. "My brother and I and Spike wrote it together, which was really fun – it was like total amateur hour."
They spent a week with some 15-year-olds to research the roles played by the young actors. It also stars Win (in a speaking part) and his wife, the singer and multi-instrumentalist Régine Chassagne, as uniformed cops.
The Butlers themselves grew up in a suburb in north Houston, Texas, with its uniform lines of corporate housing. The album sees Win revisiting his hometown to reconnect with his past and an old friend. There's a tension in the album between the joyful memories of a carefree childhood ("The kids want to be so hard/ but in my dreams we're still screaming/ and running through the yard") and something less idyllic, seen in lyrics which describe a more oppressive place, in which "they heard me singing and told me to stop" ("Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)") and "our heads are just houses/ without enough windows/ they say you hear human voices/ but they only echo" ("Half Light"). Either way, the place of their childhood cannot be rediscovered except in memories.
In the film, the oppressive neighbourhood is represented by the country's harsh military control. It explores growing up, what it is to be teenager and to experience the loss of innocence. When a childhood friend moves on as the result of ageing and changing circumstances, the film captures the resulting emotions of resentment and disconnection.
It also bares comparison with Jonze's previous film, Where the Wild Things Are, in which a seemingly utopian environment becomes the setting for a savage power struggle leading to wounded friendships.
True to the ebb and flow of distant memories themselves, the film is non-narrative, structured instead by stand-alone scenes that fade out and into each other. It retains the feel of a clip, rather like the music video to "The Suburbs".
Maike Mia Höhne, the curator of the Berlinale Shorts programme, which has been going for five years, says of the film: "I like its look, its storytelling, beauty and emotion, its future/past tense and the overall feeling of a romantic view into the past. Spike Jonze and Will and Win Butler wrote a script that extends by far the length of a music video, but at the same time uses its most unique strength – its non-narrative approach giving a deep inner feeling.
"The market for short films is an important one and will be much bigger in the future due to the digitalisation of cinema. Scenes from the Suburbs is an independent film giving an idea of the strength and emotional power of short films."
The film is rumoured to be released as part of a new, expanded edition of The Suburbs later this year. I hope it is – it illuminates the themes of one of the best albums of 2010, while mirroring its powerful emotions.