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Photo of Laurie Anderson from "Sisters with Transistors" // CIFF

CIFF 2021 Reviews: Music

By Rachneet Randhawa and Ramiro Bustamante Torres, December 27 2021—

This year at the Calgary International Film Festival (CIFF) we learned that music does indeed make the world go round. This year’s selection for the music category was amazing and had a sprinkle of everything — from women’s empowerment, headliner boy bands, social justice and the universal language of music and how it continues to connect us all, even in the throes of the global COVID-19 pandemic. With jaw-dropping performances, curated techniques and sheer mastery of skill, you will be in awe after watching one of these screenings. 

Sisters with Transistors

If you think of early electronic music, the first thought that comes to mind is most likely DJs pushing buttons and knobs. Although electronic music and even our modern-day EDM version are considered a boys club, the truth is that from the very beginning women have played an integral part in inventing the device, techniques and tropes that would define the shape and sound for years to come. A blend of new-age technology with women’s empowerment, this film examines the crucial yet shamefully unknown role female composers played in the creation and transformation of electronic music. 

Photo of Suzanne Ciani from Sisters with Transistors // CIFF

Electronic music — better known as techno music — is defined as music that requires electronic processing including recording and editing on a tape and reproducing on loudspeakers. As electronic music’s unsung heroines, filmmaker Kisa Rovner examines the story of these female pioneers who were the first to embrace machines that use these liberating technologies to transform how we produce and listen to music. Most of the narrative focused on various interviews with composers in their studios over the years layered with the feminist rights movements from the early 20th century up until the modern-day. 

What I appreciated about this film is that, for once, it takes on the woman’s perspective of how the history of music unfolded in post-modern times and “her-story” rather than the biased focus on the male gaze which mainstream media tends to portray. This music documentary is a rare find that tells the story of women who hear music in their heads and use technology as an enabler to break their silence with their beautiful noise.  

Country: UK

Rating: 3/5

A-ha: The Movie:

We’ve all heard about A-ha with their world-hit “Take On Me” that has been resurfacing over and over through the years. This film takes that hit song as a motif and offers the perspective of the band members, as we see their journey from the very start. We get to see how each band member was inspired by music and their initial dreams. 

Members Magne Furuholmen and Pål Waaktaar-Savoy were friends since childhood and we get to see how they built the band from the start in Norway. It wasn’t until Furuholmen and Waaktaar-Savoy looking for the third member after a failed summer in London, that they went back to their home that they got their start with a familiar face. We get to see a deeper side of the lead singer, Morten Harkten. We all know Harkten as the face of the band which was by choice between the members, since the others had expressed their introvertedness. Waaktaar-Savoy was the designated songwriter and Furuholmen was the keyboardist even though he wanted to play the guitar. This created tensions between them that lead to their two band break-ups, but their respect for each other brought them back together. 

Scene from A-ha: The Movie // CIFF

This documentary really opened my eyes to the behind-the-scenes of A-ha’s personal life and their achievements that are not just “Take on Me” — even though it still is one of the best hits from the ‘80s. It felt like the film heavily relied on the audience’s knowledge of A-ha’s hit as they played clips or motifs at certain intervals almost to keep everyone interested in the film, which I found unnecessary. Their story was very intriguing and I think that with the advent of streaming services, their other songs are easier to be exposed to. 

Country: Germany & Norway

Rating: 4/5

The Sound of Us: 

Let’s face it — music was our failsafe in all those isolated and lonely moments during the COVID-19 quarantine in between the long bouts of social distancing and limited contact. Especially during this critical time in history, music is the great, universal language that unites us all. Directed by Chris Gero — a 12-time Emmy winner and Grammy-nominated producer — this film was shot in two months across five countries amid the pandemic, showcasing beautiful, groundbreaking and breathtaking moving film that defines the magic of music in an epic celebration of hope, humanity and unity. 

Most of the footage compiled was of featured interviews, soul-bearing performances with the likes of Ben Folds, Sarah McLachlan, Avery Sunshine, Patti Smith, Sekou Andrews and many more. The film demonstrates how music can be a source of healing and inspiration as hope for the future. Guided by the question, “What is music, what is music to you?” It unfolds as a series of vignettes that demonstrate music’s power to heal the present, preserve history and inspire the future.

Scene from The Sound of Us // CIFF

The overall plot unfolds from witnessing the massive lockdowns, shutdowns of music venues and the halting of performances all across the divide. It samples everything from the struggles faced by the inner-city orchestra ensemble, after school music programs including high school bands, the history of blues music originating in the Southern United States in the African-American community, a composer and musician whose music was silent by the evil of war in a military concentration camp and spoken word poetry for Black Lives Matters — the film is truly jam-packed with diverse sonatas.

Music gives us a voice of hope and courage and allows perhaps the greatest avenue to grief and honesty and as a universal language for our most difficult conversations. Even if you’re not a music aficionado, you are bound to find something to your liking in this transcending film. 

Country: USA

Rating: 5/5

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