Daniel Lanois: Here Is What Is

Here Is What Is movie poster


Daniel Lanois is a unique musi­cian, as gift­ed a singer-song­writer in his own right as he is a col­lab­o­ra­tor and pro­duc­er. I orig­i­nal­ly came to rec­og­nize his name after find­ing it list­ed in the cred­its of many key items in The Dork Report’s for­mi­da­ble music col­lec­tion, includ­ing Peter Gabriel’s So and Us, U2’s The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, and Bob Dylan’s Oh Mer­cy and Time Out of Mind. His 1993 solo album For the Beau­ty of Wynona remains an all-time per­son­al favorite.

The fea­ture doc­u­men­tary Here Is What Is pre­miered at the Toron­to Film Fes­ti­val in 2007, direct­ed by Lanois, Adam Samuels, and Adam Vol­lick. It cap­tures the record­ing of the album of the same name, but also serves as a kind of ret­ro­spec­tive and mis­sion state­ment. Con­ver­sa­tions between Lanois and ear­ly men­tor (now equal) Bri­an Eno punc­tu­ate the film. Lanois states to Eno his inten­tions for the movie: to cre­ate a film about the beau­ty of music, not every­thing that sur­rounds it (which I took to mean hagiog­ra­phy, celebri­ty gos­sip, and the some­times tedious behind-the-sceens doc­u­men­ta­tion typ­i­cal of the genre). Eno sug­gests that his film should try to show peo­ple that art often grows out of noth­ing, or from the sim­plest of seeds in the right sit­u­a­tions, not from what out­siders might assume are the mirac­u­lous inspi­ra­tions of alleged­ly bril­liant or gift­ed artistes.

Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno in Here Is What IsDaniel Lanois and Bri­an Eno record­ing their new ambi­ent mas­ter­work, “Music for Stair­cas­es”

Lanois is Cana­di­an by birth, but has a spe­cial affin­i­ty for the Amer­i­can South, espe­cial­ly New Orleans. He cred­its New Orleans for the orig­i­nal sen­su­al groove that formed the basis of rock music. Per­haps intend­ed as a visu­al echo of this the­o­ry, the stun­ning­ly beau­ti­ful Car­oli­na Ceriso­la often appears danc­ing in her scant­ies.

Lanois details his long­time, fruit­ful col­lab­o­ra­tion with drum­mer Bri­an Blade. Leg­endary key­boardist of The Band, Garth Hud­son, also joins them in the stu­dio for some tru­ly awe­some per­for­mances. One of my favorite sequences inter­cuts between “The Mak­er” per­formed by Lanois’ band live in stu­dio, cov­ered by Willie Nel­son and Emmy­lou Har­ris, and Lanois’ band live on stage. Bil­ly Bob Thorn­ton, still friends from col­lab­o­rat­ing on the score to Sling Blade in 1996, drops in for a vis­it. We catch excit­ing glimpses of record­ing U2’s forth­com­ing album (since chris­tened No Line on the Hori­zon, to be released in Feb­ru­ary 2009) with Eno and Steve Lil­ly­white.

Daniel Lanois in Here Is What IsWhich but­ton dials down Bono’s ego?

Lanois names a pri­mar­i­ly influ­ence to be the Jimi Hen­drix Expe­ri­ence, which he describes as a fair­ly straight­for­ward rock trio but with ambi­tious, exper­i­men­tal pro­duc­tion. He describes how he him­self approach­es pro­duc­tion, in just one word: “feel.” He report­ed­ly had a con­tentious rela­tion­ship with Dylan in the stu­dio, but the resul­tant albums are clas­sics, and Dylan affirmed that “you can’t buy ‘feel.’” Anoth­er Lanois apho­rism, “max­i­mize the room,” means to make the most of what you have, rather than invite guest musi­cians or order up more equip­ment.

Here Is What Is fea­tures full per­for­mances of songs, which is espe­cial­ly wel­come com­pared to two recent music doc­u­men­taries recent­ly screened by The Dork Report: Low in Europe (read The Dork Report review) and You May Need a Mur­der­er (read The Dork Report review), which both shy away from actu­al­ly show­ing Low per­form. Here Is What Is’s visu­als are some­times com­pro­mised with cheesy video effects. The film is at its best when sim­ply fol­low­ing the hyp­not­ic move­ments of Lanois’ hands on his ped­al steel gui­tar.

Offi­cial movie site: daniellanois.com/hereiswhatis

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

For All Mankind

For All Mankind movie poster


It was a weird expe­ri­ence to final­ly see the orig­i­nal film for the sound­track to which I’ve lis­tened to count­less times. Bri­an Eno and Daniel Lanois’ Apol­lo: Atmos­pheres & Sound­tracks is a gor­geous piece of work, and very much col­ored my expec­ta­tions of what the film would be. Hav­ing long pic­tured a large­ly abstract com­pi­la­tion of oth­er­world­ly lunar footage, I was sur­prised to find For All Mankind a more straight­for­ward doc­u­men­tary than what was already in my head. (Bits and pieces from the com­pi­la­tion album Music for Films III also appear.)

Unlike In the Shad­ow of the Moon, the 2007 fea­ture doc­u­men­tary on the same sub­ject, For All Mankind exclu­sive­ly uses orig­i­nal footage tak­en dur­ing the Apol­lo Mis­sions, much of it by the astro­nauts them­selves. The absence of new nar­ra­tion or footage right­ly places the empha­sis sole­ly on the achieve­ments of the orig­i­nal par­tic­i­pants. But a draw­back is that the inter­vie­wees on the sound­track are not iden­ti­fied (the Cri­te­ri­on DVD edi­tion includes an option to dis­play sub­ti­tles iden­ti­fy­ing the speak­ers).

For All MankindOpen the pod bay doors, HAL

I have lit­tle to add to Matthew Dessem’s excel­lent review on The Cri­te­ri­on Con­trap­tion blog, or to my own thoughts on In the Shad­ow of the Moon. Three small obser­va­tions:

  • I was com­plete­ly igno­rant that NASA first began space­walks dur­ing the Apol­lo mis­sions. I was under the impres­sion they began dur­ing the space shut­tle mis­sions of my youth. In ret­ro­spect, it makes per­fect sense that NASA would test space­walks in orbit over the Earth before attempt­ing to step out of a cap­sule onto the moon, but: Wow!
  • The astro­nauts were very con­scious of Stan­ley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Each astro­naut could bring one cas­sette tape to play on a portable deck, and one chose Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathus­tra”. Anoth­er describes see­ing the moon sur­face up close as being like some­thing from 2001.
  • Due to the film’s nature of being com­prised of orig­i­nal footage, there’s per­haps too much of the astro­nauts goof­ing off in zero-G, and not enough of the spec­tac­u­lar lunar footage. But it goes to show that even the pilots select­ed for being the most sane and calm peo­ple in the word still turn to excit­ed kids when play­ing in out­er space (with the rare excep­tion to prove the rule).

Cri­te­ri­on DVD info: http://www.criterion.com/asp/release.asp?id=54

Cri­te­ri­on Con­trap­tion review: http://criterioncollection.blogspot.com/2006/04/54-for-all-mankind.html

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to me.