How does a song come into being? You know, that song or piece of music that sticks in your head so firmly that it’s rather like it becomes part of your DNA? Or that song you heard years ago that still makes you stop and think, arousing something in your soul from the long ago?
Two current series take slightly different approaches to chronicling the creation of a song. One documents the creation, as it happens. The other looks back and asks the creators to remember everything and tell good anecdotes about it all.
Amplify (Fridays on APTN and on-demand on APTN lumi) is a beautifully made, sensitive and often piquant experience to watch. The idea behind the 13-episode series is to invite an Indigenous songwriter to find a piece of Indigenous inspiration and write a song about it. It can be a personal or family experience, something in nature or someone else’s art. The songwriter explains the process, composes and the episode ends with a music video of the piece created.
Two coming episodes are especially striking. Nick Sherman (Oct. 9 episode), an Oji-Cree songwriter, decides to write about living in Thunder Bay and to somehow reflect the long history of anti-Indigenous racism there. What’s startling is the visual presentation of the location done by using local youths to enact stories or experiences. The result is a gorgeous but disturbing series of visual motifs. Directed by Michelle Derosier, the half-hour program is a stunning blend of music, silent performance and politics.
A later episode (Oct. 16), featuring Cree songwriter Tara Williamson, is lighter in tone but no less powerful. Williamson is rueful about her history of performing since she was a child, but the meat of the episode is her finding inspiration in a painting by Anishinaabe artist Daphne Odjig. That takes the viewer into the Winnipeg Art Gallery and a close encounter with the painting. What emerges eventually is an arresting song by Williamson about losing a child. The series is highly recommended for the visual dazzle it adds to each act of creating a song.
Song Exploder (new on Netflix) is more pop-focused, and based on a long-running podcast. It’s like an up-market version of that old thing, Pop-Up Video. Each episode examines a hit song and where it came from. A good example is the one devoted to REM’s Losing My Religion. As Michael Stipe of the band says, “The song was a mistake.” He means it wasn’t seen as a possible radio hit, or any kind of big hit. It has no discernible chorus and the instrument that’s prominent is a mandolin.
Guitarist Pete Buck explains that after a decade of being in the band and touring and recording, he was tired. He was especially tired of being “the guitar guy,” so he decided to teach himself to play mandolin and, in fiddling with the instrument he came up, by accident, with the core riff of the song. The drum beat came next. Then Stipe operated in his usual way – separately, with a Dictaphone and a typewriter, absorbing the music as he composed the lyrics.
Stipe says the song is about “deep insecurity” and features a vulnerable person calling out to someone who might not even exist. Other episodes of the series include Alicia Keys explaining 3 Hour Drive and Lin-Manuel Miranda going deep into the creation of Wait for It from Hamilton. There isn’t a dud in that batch of episodes.
The Sounds (CBC, 8 p.m.) kicks off a big week for CBC TV. The mystery series (it also streams on Acorn TV) is far from being original or startling, but it’s puzzle-drama without apology or ambition; a good time-waster. A Canada-New Zealand production, it’s about Maggie Cabbott (Rachelle Lefevre), who goes to New Zealand from Vancouver to meet up with her husband Tom (Matt Whelan). A rich businessman, he’s been finalizing a deal to build a sustainable fishery there. After a day or so, he disappears into the water. Or does he, really? We’re told often here that New Zealand is beautiful, and Tom’s dark side is telegraphed almost as often. Uncomplicated and cozy – the lead actors could have used sterner direction – it amounts to nicely made escapist drama.
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