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Screaming Masterpiece

Posted: January 23rd, 2006, by Alex McChesney

About three-quarters of the way through “Screaming Masterpiece”, we are introduced to “Nilfisk”. They are a teenage punk band who practice in a garage and all live in a tiny, remote village on the south-coast of Iceland. (“There are only three girls in this town – and everyone’s been with them.”) After bumping into Dave Grohl, they landed their first ever gig – supporting the Foo Fighters.

It’s a great story, but like most of the film, it doesn’t do much to dispel the image of Icelanders as hardy eccentrics, clinging precariously to a mid-atlantic ice-cube, a situation that’s granted them an intense tenacity. The movie is full of shots of hot springs, helicopter flyovers of frozen tundra, single lonely buildings perched on icy cliffs, but never, for example, the streets of downtown Reykjavik. Repeatedly, the point is made that Icelandic musicians are inspired primarily by the dramatic environment in which they live, and by the nation’s long folk-song tradition. You can’t blame the filmmakers for trying to find a common thread with which to link the musicians that their film showcases, and I’m hardly qualified to suggest that these things don’t loom large in the Icelandic psyche. But beyond a brief mention of the 1970’s punk scene, many of the interviews in this documentary would have you believe that the Icelandic music scene is built upon glaciers and beardy folk-singers alone.

Happily, most of the interviews are kept fairly succinct, allowing the music to speak for itself. It does so more eloquently and interestingly than most of the musicians who channel it, and it should quickly become clear that environment and tradition are only part of the equation. Screaming Masterpiece’s strength is in the great diversity of music that it promotes, from the obvious “big hitters” like Björk and Sigur Ros playing to massive stadium audiences, to tiny inner-city clubs hosting hip-hop, electronica, death-metal and all points in-between, and if the aforementioned big names get a smigeon more time that could maybe have been better used to crowbar in one more lesser-known artist, then it’s hard to complain given the exposure that their success has given the scene. Indeed, Björk is one of the few interviewees who doesn’t play the “landscape” card and has something more interesting to say about Iceland’s artistic output and the search for a national identity in the years since they became independent.

But who cares, when Screaming Masterpiece does the bit that’s important – the music – so well. Each act is captured in a live setting, and their performances are afforded the same high production values whether they’re selling out shows in New York, or playing in a corner of a mate’s house. Worth seeing in a cinema with a decent sound system, or, if you’re at home, with the DVD plugged into the stereo and turned way up, it’s as much a mini all-Iceland music festival as a documentary, and well worth the ticket price whether you’re looking for horizon-expanding, or just some ace tunes.

Alex McChesney

Alex was brought up by a family of stupid looking monkeys after being lost in the deep jungles of Paisley. Teaching him all their secret conga skills (as well as how to throw barrels at plumbers), Alex was able to leave for the bright lights of Glasgow where adventure struck him and he needed all his conga skills to save the world and earn the hand of a lovely Texan princess. He now keeps a low profile alphabeticising his record collection and making sock monkeys in the likenesses of his long lost family.


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