"Every Other Summer: Solid Sound Festival 2013" creates a portrait of an intimate music festival, built from scratch by an independent-minded band.
The film, which has its world premiere on Friday at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, chronicles indie-rock band Wilco's very own festival in the small town of North Adams, Massachusetts.
As the title says, it takes place every other summer, when the group invites complementary artists such as Neko Case and Yo La Tengo to a factory-turned-art-gallery for three days of music and art in a hand-curated setting.
"A lot of festivals are enormous, and they do a lot of things well, but they don't do intimacy well. This is a really intimate festival," said Brendan Canty, who directed the film with Christoph Green.
Canty would know. Before starting a career in films and documentaries, he was the drummer and multi-instrumentalist for the legendary post-hardcore band Fugazi.
The directors enlisted 22 shooters to document every performance for all three days.
The film includes footage of Wilco's big-tent, well-lit performances, the band members' myriad side projects, invited acts such as Dream Syndicate, Foxygen, the Relatives and more.
There's also footage of the other eclectic offerings at Solid Sound: the beekeeper and birder demonstrations, and the pop-up art galleries and art installations, including ones by members of Wilco.
He said the film gives "a very clear alternative to a big festival," and they tried "to relate to the viewer what the heart of a community feels like."
Canty, who counts Wilco as his favorite band, said "Every Other Summer" starts off by telling some history of the area.
North Adams, population 15,000, was a factory town until the mid-1980s, when its main employer, the Sprague Electric Company, closed.
The sprawling factory was converted into the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, or MASS MoCA, which has since become home to a massive collection of art and art projects.
Canty said Wilco found a "kindred spirit" in MASS MoCA founder and director Joe Thompson, and worked with him to create an intimate setting for a festival. The filmmakers interviewed Thompson and former Sprague workers to provide background.
Solid Sound also brings tourism to the town and a positive economic impact.
"When the festival comes to town, it makes a huge difference. ... It brings in 8,000 people for local businesses and the people who come to it tend to be people who would not be caught dead at a larger, more corporate festival," Canty said.
Green and Canty worked together on a long-running documentary series called "Burn to Shine." The two would enlist 10 or so bands in a local music scene to play in an abandoned house, and then film its demolition (done by the local fire department.)
"It definitely highlights our fascination with spaces, and architecture and history and the changing face of our communal environment," Canty said.
He says "Solid Sound" has a thematic connection to that project: a rust-belt town in need of revitalization, an ambitious museum director, and a band looking for an appropriate space for a festival.
"That's what interested me about it, beyond shooting a lot of great bands, which I love to do," he said. It was "the idea we could document this amazing transformation of an electrical factory into an art gallery" and show "an alternative to typical stasis is a beautiful thing."
Canty and Green also directed "Ashes of American Flags," a 2009 documentary on Wilco that had its world premiere at Big Sky, where it won an award for best cinematography.
Canty said the film was, in a way, about "why we think Wilco is the most important band on the planet."
He cited the very American way the band grapples with history and tradition while pushing it forward. It has a base in great singing and songwriting topped with occasional musical cacophony.
He also noted the sheer playing ability of the lineup, comprising singer-guitarist Jeff Tweedy, lead guitarist Nels Cline, bassist John Stirratt, guitarist Pat Sansone, keyboard player Mikael Jorgensen, and drummer Glenn Kotche.
"The musicianship just keeps going up and up and up," he said.
The concept was to follow Wilco on tour to places such as Nashville's Ryman Auditorium or Tulsa's Cain's Ballroom - storied venues associated with country.
He said the group dips into country and expands it – "then they off set it with all the beautiful noise that they put on top of it."
"My thought was that if you put them into that setting that you would suddenly hear the differences in that band," Canty said.
That both Wilco movies premiered in Missoula is due to the film festival and the band's call, although the Washington, D.C., resident has long ties to Montana.
His mother, Joan Canty, grew up in Billings. His sister Mary Canty lived here from 1972 to the mid-2000s and worked as a TV producer. Her husband Jay Christopher was a longtime track coach and guidance counselor at Sentinel and Big Sky High School. His brother, the novelist Kevin Canty, is director of the creative writing program at the University of Montana.
A day after the premiere of "Every Other Summer," Canty will perform during director Sam Green's "live" documentary "The Measure of All Things."
The documentary examines the personalities and lives of Guinness Book of World Records holders.
Green, an Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker, will stand on stage, narrate and cue visuals on laptop.
Accompanying him with a live score are Canty on drums, vibraphone and baritone guitar. Catherine McRae will perform on violin, and T. Griffin will perform on electronics, vibraphone and baritone guitar.
Griffin and Canty, who both write and perform scores for documentaries, wrote music they thought worked with the narration and dialogue. He said it has the feel of a score, with some more "jagged moments."
The group has performed "Measure" some 14 times now, and Canty says it changes all the time.
They gather for a full rehearsal the day of the performance, in which they go over any changes Green has made.
"We know when he's going to talk, but we don't have it totally locked in. There's an ebb and flow to it. It is really different night by night," Canty said.
Canty and company said they have to adapt quickly, but the "Measure" shows are fun experiences.
"He's a brilliant writer. He really has a knack for a good script and for what will work as a performance," Canty said.