Torontonians are a strange lot. We’re often accused of being uptight, snobbish and centrist by fellow Canadians. As a born and bred local, I’ve always felt that maybe we’re a little uptight because we get shat upon so much by the ROC (seriously, do you know any other nation that hates their biggest city so much?) and I think that hometown pride is mistaken for snobbery; spending a lot of time on the east coast, I’ve met my fair share of snobs. Everyone thinks that their city is the centre of the world; I’ve heard nothing worse of out a Torontonian than I’ve heard from Haligonians, Vancouverites or Montrealers.
Which brings me to Broken Social Scene, a bit of a strange band, like the city that spawned it. It expands and contracts its numbers, so it can be either 5 members or 20. The members come and go, and often when they go, they have success outside of BSS (Leslie Feist, Amy Millan and Emily Haines, to name a few; I went to high school with Amy & Emily, as well as BSS leader Kevin Drew, which might say something about the generation.) There is no definitive BSS sound. The instruments range from electric to acoustic, and blend together is near-perfect harmony. They are in many ways the essence of the city: a ragtag group that works together and apart, that welcomes all, and is quite happy to put on a free show. Still working out the kinks to their sound, not every song working but most. A young person in their mid-to-late-twenties, say, with ambition, talent, and the energy to see their dream through.
Their free concert last year at Harbourfront is the centrepiece around which veteran Toronto director Bruce McDonald stages his latest film, This Movie is Broken. McDonald was already going to film the concert, both for the audience and backstage, when friend and frequent collaborator Don McKellar suggested throwing in a kind of Toronto love story. So the movie is literally broken: into stories, styles of image, and the people in it break apart and come together. Bruno (Greg Calderone) has been in love with Caroline (Georgina Reilly) for nearly 15 years. They have a one-night stand, and he has one day to either tell her how he feels or let it go, as she is about to return to school in Paris. Claiming the ability to get backstage passes, he takes her to the BSS concert.
Footage from the concert is cut together with the love story. And it is the concert footage that is the strength of the film. The love story itself is nothing original; though that doesn’t automatically make it bad. Reilly (who appeared in Pontypool) is a strong actor who is able to convey a depth of personality to her character in only a few short scenes. The casting of Calderone is a mystery to me; his voice-over narration is bland, and his character portrays no redeeming qualities that would seem to make him appealing to Caroline. Unfortunately his performance detracts from what would otherwise have been something simple and relatable—everyone probably has that one who got away. As well, the narrative takes a strange turn which hardly seems to make sense, even for McKellar.
Framing the love story is some fantastic concert footage. I don’t know if it was the type of camera McDonald was using, of how he positioned the various cinematographers, but the intimacy of the shots makes the viewer feel as though they are a member of the band, or at least a roadie. That intimacy matches the intimacy of the band and the setting; this is not a huge concert hall, but an outdoor venue that gives the audience a closer connection to the performer. This is replicated in shots of Bruno and Caroline; the camera pulls out to show them in the space of the city, the space that encloses them in their happy bubble and occasionally pulls the camera into. The songs are also meant to somehow reflect the situation between the lovers, but it is not a direct comparison, which makes it more interesting.
One of McDonald’s strengths as a director is his willingness to play with filmic convention, not just in narrative, but in aesthetics. He has fun with the camera, and fun in the editing suite. McDonald plays with the images in ways that force the viewer to think about the images in their minds and how they are formed. A little more difficult in the context of this film, perhaps, but he pulls it off. As a concert film, This Movie is Broken is a great tribute that should find its way into the ranks of other great concert films. As a love story, the film only partially succeeds.