Mar 042016

This year’s Taste of Iceland is bringing in only one film, Rock in Reykjavik, and it is screening only once.

A scene from the documentary "Rock in Reykjavik."

A scene from the documentary “Rock in Reykjavik.”

By Paul Dervis

One of my favorite weekends in the city is the four-day incursion of Icelandic culture, music, food, and,of course, film. Last year we were treated to a couple of dozen shorts, both documentaries and fiction. Some were funny, others made you ponder. This year A Taste of Iceland (March 4 through 7) brings in only one film and it is screening only once — at 3 p.m. on Sunday at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge. Rokk I Reykjavik (Rock in Reykjavik) was originally distributed to a local Icelandic television station in 1982: the movie delves into the edgy music culture of the island that produced such international stars as Björk (seen as a very young performer here) and Of Monsters and Men. Rock in Reykjavik is a very raw documentary that takes an unapologetic look at the birth of a rock culture immersed in diverse social and political issues.

Though, be warned, the commentary is hard to follow. Well over half the film is made up of footage of the various bands playing in dank clubs and halls with no subtitles. You don’t know what the singers are screaming about, but the visuals evoke an image of fractured youth going off the rails. In between the concert shots are interviews with the different band members, who talk about sniffing everything from glue to petrol fumes. They also insist on the apolitical stance of their music. There are posters of swastikas on walls and complaints from the musicians that the authorities are hassling them, jostling them in music halls and bus stations.

One particularly disturbing interview is with a young band member, who couldn’t have been more than thirteen or fourteen (the film does not tell us his age), who talks about getting high from inhalants to the point of being disoriented for days on end. During this cautionary tale he talks about friends and other musicians who are in worse shape.

The concert footage is rough, filled with a brutal power. Although the words are indistinguishable, the rhythms are not. The fiery music on the assorted stages gives off a palpable anger, generating a kinetic energy that mirrors the references to violence mentioned in the interviews. Sometimes the experience feels as if you are watching out-takes from Stanley Kubrick’s film version of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. And, although we do know what the future held for a few, such as Björk, we left wondering about how life has dealt with the rest of the alienated music makers in the movie.

The film gives us a bit of the history of the movement. Rebelling against the ’70s and its timid disco scene, the groups started playing regularly on U.S. military bases. Some of the bands performed almost nightly on these bases, and they heard what was being played on American rock radio stations. This exposure became a major influence on the anarchistic Icelandic sound.

The sound itself is akin to grunge, with a heavy dose of garage band tossed in. The lead singers bring a remarkably similar, anti-conventional performance style to the stage: the gyrations of their bodies, the up and down contortions of their heads and upper torsos, and the constant ‘belting out of the lyrics. They are there to make a statement about the insanity around them, and they do.

Director Fridrik por Fridriksson has been nominated for a couple of dozen Festival Awards over the last 25 years, though this documentary (his first full-length film) was passed over. Yet >Rock in Reykjavik is considered, to quote from its Wikipedia page “…one of the most important documentaries about the Icelandic music culture…”. After viewing it, it is easy to see why.

Other A Taste of Iceland events you can enjoy this weekend include an Icelandic meal (whipped up by Chef Thrainn Freyr Vigfusson) at Boston’s The Merchant Restaurant. And if music is what you desire, on March 5 head out to the Middle East in Cambridge for its ‘Reykjavik Calling’ night and listen to several Icelandic musicians as well as a couple of local bands. Admission is free.

And on March 5 Eliza Reid, an Icelandic based writer and editor of the Iceland Writers Retreat, will be exploring the “World of Storytelling.” The title of this event is The Write Stuff and it will be held at the Barnes and Noble in Boston’s Prudential Center. Admission is free.

Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.


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