In the run-up to the release of Arcade Fire's forthcoming album, Reflektor, we take a moment to trawl through the archives and recall a story that still resonates. In 2011, the band teamed up with director Spike Jonze for Scenes From the Suburbs - an emotive short film that brought to life the storyboard embedded in their acclaimed 2010 release, The Suburbs. Together, they found their way back to their roots and returned with a film that speaks of the future.
When you’re at the top, to look back is to fall behind. Yet taking stock can often act as a tonic for the perspective shift brought on by success. Just ask Arcade Fire’s Will Butler. “There are kids that came to my birthday parties throughout my entire youth that I haven’t seen even once in my adult life,” says the multi-talented player of bass, guitar, percussion and synth. “I’m not on Facebook, so that feels like a totally separate, distant part of my life, but I’m constantly reminded of how many things I’ve forgotten about. This film felt like a way of remembering the things that I’ve lost over the years.”
This catalytic moment of self-reflection came during the making of Scenes From the Suburbs, a nostalgia-tinged thirty-minute short film inspired by the band’s Grammy-winning 2010 album The Suburbs. Shot across two hot weeks in Austin, Texas – not long after frontman Win Butler and wife Régine Chassagne had finished laying down vocals in their Montreal home studio – Scenes is a love letter to brothers Win and Will’s far-away Houston childhood. “It came from a place of wanting to write about that life,” explains Butler, “while still being young enough to remember it, but being old enough to have some distance from it. We wanted to get that down while we still had the chance, because writing a song or making a film about the suburbs when you’re fifteen is very different to when you’re twenty-nine.”
These days Arcade Fire are more likely to be found occupying awards stages, sold-out stadiums and the tops of album charts than sleepy Midwestern cul-de-sacs. While this may add to the novelty of Scenes, Butler reveals that memories weren’t the only driving force behind the project: “We’ve always wanted to do visual stuff and we’ve never quite had the time or the money to do it properly, but the other thing is that we just really wanted to work with Spike.”
Scenes not only marks the band’s first step into filmmaking terrain but the beginning of an artistic kinship with small-town USA’s favourite creative son, Spike Jonze. Visiting the band in New York in the spring of 2010, as The Suburbs was just starting to take shape, Jonze politely declined the invitation to direct a music video for the title track in favour of something a little more ambitious. After making an instant connection with the initial concept, Jonze’s hyperactive mind took hold and within a matter of a few short weeks a script was fleshed out and a location picked.
Amplifying the themes from The Suburbs, Jonze has honed in on the unpredictable frontiers of youth, giving context to Butler’s melancholic lyrics (“First they built the road, then they built the town / That’s why we’re still driving round and round”) while interweaving his own fears and obsessions. The twist is the parallel reality in which the film unfolds: a concrete Dystopia where communities are controlled by a military state. This tonal shift from carefree reminiscence to claustrophobic social commentary sees Scenes ring out like a warning shot.
For Will and the rest of the band, watching Spike set the scene was an unexpectedly illuminating experience. “Seeing the infrastructure that’s in place when you come to make a film, it was kinda like, ‘Wait a minute, is this really how movies get made?’ It felt quite structured, but it was also quite liberating. It was a semi-punk rock production; a lot of it just felt like we were bumming around with our friend Spike making a movie.
“The most striking thing about the project,” Butler continues, “was just how natural it felt and how much fun the whole experience was. I mean, I’ve never had a day job, so it feels totally normal to me to just goof around and do funny art projects all day. I’ve never really had a taste of the real world so in that sense it was easier for me to connect with this as a project. It was like, ‘This is life,’ you know?”
This organic, sociable tone seeps through every frame of Scenes, as kids surf pavements and cruise down vacant streets on pushbikes, BB guns slung over shoulders. But while Jonze’s sincere lens captures the uncertainty and isolation that underpin growing up – much like it did in his 2009 adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved 1963 picture book Where the Wild Things Are – Butler affirms that it was the presence of youth alongside the young-at-heart that bolstered the on-set harmony: “We cast Scenes in a really personal way. We went around all these skate parks and schools and interviewed a ton of kids and we decided on what personalities we liked.
“None of the kids were actors, they were just kids, and I had a really strong reaction because normally when you see teenagers, and you’re at the age I’m at, they seem foreign. I don’t often relate to the average teenager on the street, but I really related to these kids; they didn’t feel like random kids who just wanted to be in a movie. I really connected with them and agreed with their viewpoints, and they were really funny – it was great hanging out with them. It definitely restored my faith in kids. Making a great album will always be priority one, but this got us in a totally different headspace, which I loved.”
Pre-order Reflektor at Arcadefire.com.