History and place have long been muses for Canadian artist Stan Douglas, whose peripatetic, time-traveling work includes film, video, photography and installations. The two muses conjoin in Douglas’s riveting six-hour film Luanda-Kinshasa (2013), which purports to document an eclectic band recording in a famous New York studio in the mid-1970s. Between 1949 and 1981, the Columbia 30th Street Studio in Manhattan was legendary. There, pivotal, genre-spanning albums were made: Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, and the 1955 and 1981 versions of Bach’s Goldberg Variations by Glenn Gould, among many others. Often called “The Church” for its location in a former Congregational and later Armenian church, Columbia Studio was beloved by musicians and understood to be the preeminent recording studio of its time. When it was ignobly demolished in 1981 (replaced eventually by a nondescript apartment building), New York lost a force at the core of the diverse music scene that helped define an era.
Douglas has frequently updated, re-created and recast historical material and obsolete things for his own purposes. Here he meticulously reconstructed Columbia Studio, down to walls, windows, floors, equipment and furniture. In this convincing facsimile, stellar contemporary musicians (selected by renowned jazz keyboardist Jason Moran) constitute a fictional 1970s band performing music that before Douglas’s video hadn’t been composed or imagined, for a record that, obviously, had never been made. Influenced by and perhaps directly quoting Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil, the 1968 film of a Rolling Stones studio session teeming with cultural references from a hugely conflicted time, Douglas slowly pans across the ensemble. You become entranced by these musicians, singly and together, even though you register that something is seriously off and grossly implausible. The music is a jazz/funk/rock/world fusion with a percussive Afrobeat and ample doses of jam-band improvisation, a mishmash that, even if it had existed in 1974, probably wouldn’t have topped the charts. Electric guitars combine with Indian tablas and chimes. Congas, played by Abdou Mboup from Senegal, mix with drums played by American Kimberly Thompson, who sports a period Afro (she’s the only woman in the band, and she’s great). Circa 1970s semiotics abound: bell-bottoms, alligator boots, a hippieish headscarf for bearded and long-haired lead guitarist Liberty Ellman, bassist Burniss Earl Travis’s pink shirt and light purple trousers, abundant cigarettes, iconic Anthora coffee cups. The inspired musicians contrast with blasé technicians, a journalist and record company suits who mill about. You briefly see two bored girlfriends of band members on a couch, and they are hilarious: a white hippie chick with long hair and a big leather hat, and a black woman with an Angela Davis Afro.
While this fictional recording session seems like a whopping explorative jam with few interruptions, the musicians actually play multiple permutations of two improvised songs, titled “Luanda“ (the more clearly African-influenced) and “Kinshasa.” The titles refer to signature mid-1970s events in Africa: the liberation of colonial Angola and the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman heavyweight title fight in what was then Zaire, when Ali’s “rope-a-dope” strategy exhausted and ultimately vanquished the younger and more powerful Foreman. Unlike Godard, Douglas never strays from the recording studio; instead, the outside world, including questions of race, economics, fashion and competing styles, subtly infuses the studio. As Douglas explores the African origins of and influences on 1970s culture and music, his film—drolly humorous, yet transporting and hypnotic—celebrates music altogether and is a rapturous ode to creativity.