The Color guard performance tradition is another American art form that developed in the military and morphed into halftime shows at high school and college football games. It involves dazzling displays of synchronized rifle-spinning, saber-tossing and flag-twirling, integrated with modern dance techniques, usually performed alongside marching bands. It has operated beneath the radar of most Americans, in its own insular subculture, but all that is set to change.
In a new documentary, Contemporary Color, directed by brothers Bill and Turner Ross, and conceived by David Byrne, the ex-Talking Heads frontman, color guard is celebrated as a cultural treasure. “I stumbled upon this art form, and I was knocked out,” says Byrne, who appears and performs in the film. “I thought, People need to see this. People need to know about this.”
After football season, color guard teams compete in gyms and indoor arenas, performing tightly rehearsed routines to recorded music. The off-season performance, known as “winter guard,” was Byrne’s primary focus. He started attending regional and national championships, and was astounded at the level of skill, sophistication and creativity. Then came the light bulb moment. “Wouldn’t it be great,” thought Byrne, “to see this with a live band.”
He matched ten color guard teams from the United States and Canada with ten musicians from the cutting edge of pop and rock, including Nelly Furtado, St. Vincent and Nico Muhly. He assigned them to create the greatest spectacle they could imagine, with original music, to be performed at a live concert at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.
That concert footage, from 2015, provides the meat of the documentary, and it’s blended with interviews and candid moments that reveal the passion and emotional drama behind color guard performances. In their own attempts to spin and catch replica rifles, Byrne and his fellow musicians show us how difficult the basic skills are to master—and how painful it can be when they go wrong.
Contemporary Color will be released March 1, 2017.