The seeds for “Bill Frisell: A Portrait” were planted at South By Southwest nearly a decade ago, when director Emma Franz was showing a previous film at the festival and attended a Frisell performance at the Continental Club.
“I was playing there, and she walked up to me and asked me if she could do this thing,” Frisell remembered on Monday, shortly before heading out with Franz to the second of three screenings that “Bill Frisell: A Portrait” is getting at SXSW this year. The third and final showing is 10:45 a.m. Thursday at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar.
Amid the cacophony of SXSW, settling into a two-hour window centered on Frisell’s colorful guitar tones and easygoing, contemplative personality provides a welcome, zen-like pause from the surounding buzz. “I wanted to have a different sensibility from all the music films that are fast-cut and flashy,” Franz acknowledged on Monday.
Early on, stars such as Bonnie Raitt and Paul Simon testify to Frisell’s distinctive style and tone, while Wilco’s Nels Cline speaks eloquently about the influence he’s had on other guitarists. But the film soon dives well beneath the surface of his considerable accomplishments, capturing the humble grace and subtle humor at the heart of both Frisell’s personality and his music.
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Interactions with many other musicians, from his longtime mentors Michael Gibbs and the late Jim Hall to frequent collaborators such as bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Joey Baron, help illuminate why Frisell is, as Raitt notes early on, “universally loved” by those who’ve worked with him. Still, the film’s best moments are simple conversations with Frisell himself: checking out a closetful of guitars at his home in Seattle, poring over pages of recently written sheet music at a kitchen in Italy, walking around Greenwich Village and marveling at the musical history there.
After Sunday’s world-premiere screening at the Alamo Ritz, Franz answered questions from the crowd, explaining how she’d “tried to make something that was more focused on the peripheral elements that make someone’s music special.” The next day, Franz and Frisell (who’d flown in for a one-day-only, non-performing appearance to support the film) sat down with us in the SXSW media lounge to talk a bit more about that periphery.
Austin360: There’s no narration in the film, with someone telling Bill’s story; it’s almost more impressionist.
Emma Franz: “Yeah, I didn’t want to do a biography. From the start, I wanted it to be more of a portrait, which is why I called it that in the first place. But I wanted it to be about ideas and attitude and approach, and all of those things that are often left out of music films. It’s so often just about the biography, or some scandal. We were going to fake his overdose to get some excitement at the end of the film, but that never happened!” (Laughs)
Bill Frisell: “Yeah, for me, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone, ‘I played the clarinet and then I did this, and I used these strings,’ and all that. I mean, that’s all cool, but she got at something that I don’t think anybody’s ever [captured] — you know, it’s about the process, or whatever it is that I [go through]. I felt like you could actually see that.”
A360: Did you approach the film like the audience probably already knew who Bill was?
Emma: “Well, I think the opening scenes [with Raitt, Simon and others] are for people who, if they don’t know Bill, they at least see how respected he is. In a way it’s kind of antithetical to what I like to see in a music film, because you don’t want just empty praise. But then I think hopefully the film goes on to explain WHY people say that about him. I always hope it’ll bring other people to it. And then I’ve had people who have seen it who said, ‘Yeah, I can’t believe I didn’t know who he was, but I realize now I’ve heard his music everywhere.’
But I think it’s something problematic with music films — people think they have to know who it’s about to enjoy it. If you walk into a feature film, you don’t know the characters; you get drawn into their personality. I think that’s how people are responding to this film. They feel like they’ve been hanging out with Bill and they’re getting to know him.”
A360: There’s a moment in the film that sharply illustrates the difference between practicing and performing. Can you elaborate on that?
Bill: “Well, when you’re really doing the gig, there’s so much more intensity happening. It doesn’t always work out that you get it, but you have to deal with it. When you’re practicing, it’s a few steps removed from what the actual music is. I mean, I know you have to do it; that’s how we get things together.
Just the other day, there was this tribute for Pat Metheny in New York. It was like all these guitar players, and they asked me to come and play this one song. So I spent all day — you should have heard it, it was incredible! (Laughs) In my room I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m gonna get out there, I’m gonna show Pat.’ And then I came out there and I was just petrified — it was horrible. And I think it might have been better if I hadn’t been practicing. Because it puts all these expectations in your way, when you should be just in the moment. Be where you are and do what you can do. So that’s what happens with the gig. You just have to deal with it.”
A36o: There’s a scene where you’re going over very recently written sheet music that felt like a rare window into the songwriting process:
Bill: “Well that’s what I thought — because that’s never been shown before.”
Emma: “This is one of the things I’m trying to do, when I’m making films about music — to sort of dismantle the idea that there are people with these god-given gifts. There are geniuses who walk among us, but such a huge amount of it is just doing it every day and working, and then going back through things and editing.
“It’s obviously his talent, and there’s a whole lot of other factors. But I think people don’t often show that it’s a very human process. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re doing, but you’ve just got to do it every day. Hopefully that’s inspirational to people who feel like they can’t do it because it’s not just flowing up out of them like a god-given gift.”
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