Each track Bill Callahan crafted during his (thus far) 24-year career posses unfathomable depths of beauty and thought. There’s an ever-intimate progression within the singer/songwriter’s lyrics—moving, melodic and masterful—which all the while keeps his message simple. With APOCALYPSE: A Bill Callahan Tour Film, documentary filmmaker Hanly Banks matches that intimacy and beauty with an impressionistic assemblage of travel scenes and the performances that fall between. Now, thanks to distribution through Factory25, the video portrait can be seen through a series of on demand options, with a limited theatrical run not far behind.
Callahan’s 2013 album Dream River further solidified his influential role—carrying tremendous weight as it drifts skyward and back again. His previous album, 2011’s Apocalypse shared similar aesthetics and musings, and it was during the US leg of this tour that Banks shot her film. Across two weeks (and with a microbudget of only $8,000) the filmmaker created one of the most complete portraits of the songwriter—while preserving the mystery he maintains. “It was a dance,” Banks explains to CH, “I definitely wanted to preserve the mystery.”
In order to do so, the filmmaker shares that, “it took a lot of editing myself and intuition to be able to do that. There were certain strategic aspects of it.” Callahan only speaks directly at the beginning and end of the film. The rest of the film is kept to voiceover and live performances. “Bill explains in that film that the stage is where he feels the most real and authentic. I wanted to give him that justice and not strip it away.” With that in mind, Banks portrays a poetic, emotive figure as true to real life as most will ever know.
The film itself was directly influenced by the album Callahan was touring to promote. Banks felt that extending much further beyond Apocalypse would skew a vision of the singer. “I couldn’t really capture—and no one could, unless if you’re doing a posthumous documentary—the entirety of Bill’s work. I really wanted to focus on what was happening at the moment, rather than encapsulate everything.” She further notes, “You can go so many places when making a documentary. I kept it specific to this tour as it gave me leeway in terms of focusing.” With that lens—direct yet non-linear, shaping moments into a memory—that the film delivers magnetic honesty.
Banks began listening to Callahan’s work back in college. Soon after, she saw him perform live and filmed it for the Fader, where she was working at the time. “There was such a difference filming that show than anything else I had filmed before,” she recalls. “I knew if I were to continue making films it would be about him.” For most of the shoot, it was primarily Banks—five days up California and later again across the US. The resulting 65-minute documentary reflects this private access and honed vision. Even with its enigmatic subject preserved, it stands as the most insightful entry way into the nature of a musician who’s larger-than-life but shielded except for the songs he sings to the world.
“Apocalypse: A Bill Callahan Tour Film” is available for download at iTunes, there will also be limited theatrical screenings in NYC and SF commencing 2 May 2014.
Images courtesy of Hanly Banks