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Film Review: What Difference Does It Make?

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Whether it’s kicking Austrians out of spaceships, being the world’s fastest Formula 1 team despite not actually making cars or pouring masses of sponsorship into events that either involve motorbikes flying 80 ft up into the air or paper-mache covered pushbikes 40ft into a lake, Red Bull have always done things their own way. As a brand, they’ve got one of the most entrenched music-endorsement systems in the world, with a sprawling media complex of radio streaming, live events and their now infamous music academy. It’s the latter that this new documentary, released simultaneously internationally just last night, focuses on. It comes as no surprise however, that this movie takes a very different angle to other music ‘docs. Instead of focusing on a handful of artists’ rise and rise, Red Bull instead opted to focus on the actual process of making music from an artistic perspective: what an individual, an aspiring artist goes through when they choose to step off into this industry. 

Based around the two week induction of new Red Bull Music Academy hopefuls in New York, the documentary cuts between footage of the widely international selection of students on the new program, interviews with established artists and footage of both life in New York and life in the studio. The students for their part make for entertaining footage. A mixed litter of energetic, introverted, laid back and evidently frustrated, watching them turn from nervous, to clashing in the studio, to eventually working as a slick unit, both in the booths and out on the stage in the Red Bull live events they feature in makes for an interesting short in itself. Meanwhile the established artist interviews are the real jewel here: Brian Eno, Rakim, Giorgio Moroder, Nile Rodgers, Lee Scratch Perry, Falty DL, Seth Troxler, Egyptian Lover, Richie Hawtin and James Murphy are just a snippet of the enormous range of artists sat in front of the camera for this. Their own careers, memorable peaks, biggest gigs are not discussed. Instead the focus is on the actual creative process – what drove these, and what drives other artists to create music, at the expense of normal jobs, financial stability, social acceptance and a more comfortable lifestyle. It’s painfully honest stuff – James Murphy’s evident resentment at the flippant aspects of fame and lost opportunities, Seth Troxler’s account of playing an enormous sell-out gig in Moscow through sobs as his on off fiancée finally told him on the phone just hours before that she couldn’t handle this any longer. It’s also often brilliantly funny: Nile Rodgers reflecting on medically dying from drug overdose eight times in his life “Well, all my other friends died from strokes, heart attacks – I guess I was the only one that learned to relax…”, or Lee Scratch Perry’s answer to a series of questions on what makes the perfect artist, therefore what makes the perfect human being: “Vegetables….”.     

There are layers and layers here – there’s a hard persistence running through the documentary on finding the source of the artists drive. The answers are varied, and the whole theme feels raw and genuine, there are lengthy pauses before answers – there’s camera turns as the interviewee and artist banter back and forth of a strangely phrased question.

 Above all, is the concept of a kind of burden, or struggle. There’s no mention, no apparent interest in discussing wealth, rewards, or what it means to ‘make it’. The entire piece focuses on that hardest part of every musicians career – that attempt to survive on your art alone, to be able to concentrate on making music without money, without a social life, and occasionally without a fully established sense of identity. Above all, the universal message as to why people choose to go down this path is one of lack of control – they had little say in the matter, something just drove them to do it.

Directed by the visionary Ralf Schmerberg, each segment is typical of his style, voiceovers of interviews intersect heavily with metaphorical footage of New York: a discussion of an artist trying to find his sound cuts to dogs on the street, or rubbish being compressed, sound bites describing the difficulty of trying to make and finish tracks interlace with people running through the rain, laborers on night shift and trains entering tunnels. It’s all shot in a hand-held, close-lens style, and the overall effect is intensely personal, at times, hard. Discussions of being unable to make rent, to living in poverty intersect footage of abandoned tower blocks and homeless people. This is a veritable anti-venom to the shiny alternate reality of TV talent shows – the viewer has a strange sense of sympathy every time footage of one of the artists performing on stage to a live audience is played – there’s no cheesy undertone of trying to make it, or living the dream, there’s a sense of reluctant compulsion – a kind of misguided religious fervor. The artist is locked in to playing their part.

Needless to say. It’s pretty deep stuff. It’s also frequently hilarious, brilliantly shot and perfectly balanced, concluding with a series of questions about what happens after that track, that album, that show is finished. The answer? Not a lot – on to the next one. Bang – credits.

Brilliant. Go watch.   

What Difference Does It Make is now available to stream/download www.rbma15.com

Inspired? If you think you have what it takes then head to  www.redbullmusicacademy.com/apply and you could find yourself heading to Tokyo this Autumn for Red Bull Music Academy 2014. Don’t forget us when you’re famous!

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