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Film Review

Daniel Lanois: Here Is What Is


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Daniel Lanois
Here Is What Is
Red Floor Records

Sharing the Process: The Film

Daniel Lanois' film, Here Is What Is, is one of those miraculous movies, a picture that seems to have come together by laws unto itself. It merely exists, like some inexplicable and wonderful quirk of nature. In an era whose artistic expression has come to be dominated by the stultifying forces of financial and strict mass appeal conservatism, Daniel Lanois reminds us to keep our options open. Envisioned and executed as a travelogue rather than as a concert movie or educational video, it is a showcase of one man's journey through music, a life rich with music.

By blending technology, spirit and craft, Lanois has earned the respect of his colleagues and the admiration of his audience. For years he continues his long practice of working with visionary artists, usually as an album producer or co-producer, sometimes as a composer, co-composer, or performer. When he is not occupied with other people's music, Lanois produces music of his own, thus creating several strong albums which show that he has a strong personal voice. As an artist he has always striven to defy expectation, and that determination is evident in his movie Here Is What Is.

Shot mostly in black and white, the film portrays several things happening in Lanois' agenda for a period of 12 months. Much was occurring during that period. Recorded on locations including L.A., Morocco, Dublin, and Shreveport this is a documentary made in a non-linear fashion with little biographical information except for the reminiscences of past events. It is co-directed with Adam Vollick and Adam Samuels, and it documents the creative process of music-making as it follows Lanois working in studios, rehearsal rooms, live stages and places where the music is happening, no matter what the location is.

The title, Here Is What Is, was taken from a Jamaican proverb that says not to look at tomorrow when today is right here. Lanois has devoted his life to capturing magical moments and, since there are no exclusive or elite locations other than the magic coming from people in the room, at best he was always capable of capturing and portraying their special characteristics.

The film starts with a piano sequence by Garth Hudson of the Band—just one of the musicians who drop by with their talent during the making of Lanois' new record. The opening theme ("Lovechild") later develops with Lanois' spacious slide playing, which by his own words is his favorite instrument. Somewhere in the beginning there is a rendition of an old gem from the Apollo soundtrack for the For All Mankind documentary but with a slightly more countryish feeling than the original track initially had. Back then, when he was making that groundbreaking record with the Eno brothers, the reason to include country elements were the astronauts from the Apollo missions, who saw themselves much as the American pioneers who conquered the West.

Speaking of Eno, with whom he is always associated and with whom he has come a long way, Lanois embarks on inspiring conversations that are inserted between sequences. One of the aims of the film was to show not just how Lanois does what he does but also how fortunate events come to life out of nothing or from unexpected situations. At the time, Eno had heard some of the "off-balance" music that came from Lanois' studio at Grant Avenue in Ontario, and that was the beginning of their partnership. The studio became a "sound-processing laboratory," producing gems by acclaimed artists such as Michael Brook, Jon Hassell, the Eno brothers and the ambient classics with Harold Budd. There is a moment when Lanois remembers, with a sense of nostalgia, how they recorded Plateux of Mirrors and The Pearl. What they did at Grant Avenue was later transported into the world of rock music when they went to Dublin to produce U2's Unforgettable Fire.

Their fruitful partnership lasted for 25 years, yielding fantastic results. This time the band and their producers had some recording sessions in Morocco. The brief snippet recorded during the sessions is a real treat, allowing the viewer to see the band working in such a exotic environment. The Edge's power chords promise that their next record is going to be a burner.

Special place is given to Brian Blade, one of the world's premiere drummers who, even before he turned 30, had built up an impressive resume as a drummer of choice for leading music artists of different genres. The director and drummer have been working together ever since the For the Beauty of Wynona record, and one of the most memorable scenes occurs at Brian Blade's father's church (the Zion Baptist church) when they perform a spiritual "This may be my last time." Gospel has played an enormous role in Lanois' music, as the spiritual yearning is always present, even if sometimes not overtly evident, in his music.

On the one hand, this film is a beautiful diary and a travelogue for happenings in Daniel Lanois' life over a period of one year. On the other, people who have little knowledge of his role behind the music of the artists who appear or are mentioned in the film, might find it difficult engage with some of the stories, as everything mentioned has a long and interesting history behind. To the uninitiated it might be a first step in the world of DL, and for the others a feast of beautiful ideas, moments, performances. It would have been nice if there were more people taking part in this film (who were part of his resume, like Dylan, Gabriel or even producer Malcolm Burn) and to hear them also talk about creativity. Maybe all of that is for the next movie. Here Is What Is is an excellent film in which Lanois' passion for what he does is evident in every frame.

The Final Product: The CD

The CD that this film shows coming into fruition is by no means just an accompanying album or a soundtrack. Though many of the songs featured can be seen and heard during the process of their making and fruition, the end product is an entirely different story that has a life of its own. Here Is What Is is, in its CD format, a successful and enduring album filled with mystery and grandeur characteristic of Lanois' albums. By fusing a delicately expressive musicality with a lustrous, "trademark" smoothness that's unsurpassed in today's music, Lanois has refined his art to yet a greater clarity. Deep yet radiant with light, melancholy yet optimistic, achingly sad yet euphoric, Here Is What Is is another minor and unexpected masterpiece by Lanois.

A successor of both Shine and the all instrumental Belladonna, it shares its predecessors' basis of guitar-based (pedal steel guitar as well) atmospheric clouds, both dark and light. From the first album Acadie until the last one, Lanois has crafted a sound world and a vocabulary that are instantly recognizable. What is noticeable is how flexible that world is, as you see it evolving constantly from album to album, never the same.

Lanois' music literally shimmers with layers dotted with delicate melodies. It just invites endless descriptions from listeners and reviewers. He orchestrates a dream world full of hidden shadows, surrounding his pristine tones with sustained guitar textures and shimmering atmospheres. In a way, he has dug deep into his resources for a set of songs that are self-searching, full of religious faith and human compassion.

Here Is What Is is a collection of gentle, reflective folk-rock songs and instrumentals. "Where Will I Be" is a song that he wrote for Emmylou Harris for the monumental Wrecking Ball. This track and "Deep Blue" are the two selections that tie most closely to Lanois' previous outings. The title song is rife with Lanois' usual guitar artistry, possessing a catchy melody. He ties the dark to the light with poetic folk ballads like the lullabies "Not Fighting Anymore" and "I Like That." "Moondog" is a personal favorite. Built on irresistible rhythms, the waiving vocal lines are perfect, evoking the feeling of works such as "The Maker." The pedal steel guitar, which can be heard throughout the whole record, has its own spotlight on "Bladesteel," "Sacred and Secular" and "Joy."

Both the CD and the film end with "Luna Samba," an upbeat track with irresistible danceable drum beats. Close listening reveals the infinite care and genius with which these songs have been crafted. Here Is What Is is a smart, absorbing, and beautifully disquieting collection of songs that could have come from no one but Daniel Lanois. To attempt a film and an album of this scope requires more than a passing knowledge of technology and music theory. Here Lanois succeeds in transforming deep personal feelings into profound musical experiences.

Tracks: Chest Of Drawers; Where Will I Be; Here Is What Is; Not Fighting Anymore; Beauty; Blue Bus; Lovechild; Harry; Bells of Oaxaca; This May Be The Last Time; Smoke #6; I Like That; Duo Glide; Bladesteel; Moondog; Sacred And Secular; Joy; Luna Samba.

Personnel: Daniel Lanois, Brian Blade, Garth Hudson, Brady Blade Sr., Tony Garnier, Jim Wilson, Marcus Blake, Steven Nistor, Daryl Johnson, Ada Small, Shawn Stroope, Tony Mangurian, Willie Green, Aaron Embry.

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