Screens at CIFF: 10/15 & 10/16
World premiere: 1 October, 2011, New York Film Festival

I have seen Chicago-based indie artist Andrew Bird perform live four times, which might not sound like a lot to the music junkies out there, but it ties him for my personal record. The second of those four times is probably the best live music experience of my entire life. These autobiographical details are of interest to nobody, obviously, but I spell them out partially in the interest of full disclosure, and partially to demonstrate my bona fides: I like Andrew Bird a whole lot, and I think what he does as a recording artist and as a live performer is phenomenally interesting. This matters because as much as I love his work, it's not even remotely as much as Xan Aranda does, or at least not as indiscriminately, and if given the chance, I don't think I would have put my name, as Aranda did, to such a bland piece of fanboy wankery as the aimless feature documentary Andrew Bird: Fever Year.

The title comes from a perpetual fever Bird was running during the intense 2009 tour year, during which time Aranda followed him around to create a concert movie. It's a good sign of how absolutely trivial her film is that this fact is not used as an organising concept, nor does she build some kind of argument about the strain of touring around Bird's endless illness: there's a moment near the end where the musician complains about how he always has a fever, and though it's a nice little "aha!" moment, we don't get anything out of it. The point, of course, is that a resolute loner and perfectionist like Bird has a hard time living up the constant speed of life on the road, but we never feel that along with him, save for a single interlude when he's retired to the family farm and the sense of relaxation on his face is palpable.

That nice little moment aside, the bulk of Fever Year consists of one of three types of scenes: full-length performances of songs in concert, moments in which the artists muses about his creative impulse and how he feels about his career, and other people talking about how great he is. Discarding the third of these categories as abject pandering (and look, I know how Aranda feels: I love him too, and I wish everybody else did, and it must be awesome to make a feature-length commercial for the man. But that does not mean it is an artistically worthwhile thing to do), that leaves us with an altogether typical concert movie balance between the music and the man.

The music, at least, is beyond reproach: there is a place where rock violinist and performance artist come close and overlap,* and Bird has made a career out of exploiting that place. It's difficult to describe what he does, but it's something like this: he plays a portion of melody into a digital recorder, and sets it to play on a loop, and then he plays another portion of melody and loops that; and so on, until he has several different loops all layered atop one another, and then the song properly begins, but the act of recording the loops is, in and of itself, part of the tune. It's artsy as all hell, and it would be fair to say that a healthy respect, if not outright affection, for classical music is a prerequisite for really getting into it (Bird is a classically-trained violinist, Northwestern '96. Go Cats.). But simply as an act of musical gymnastics, it's damned impressive.

That part of the film, then, is excellent to watch: I will forever be grateful that there is now a compact way to see several Bird performances without the uncertain integrity of cell phone movies uploaded to YouTube. But Aranda's method of capturing those performances is entirely typical: not bad, just typical, and an artist as untypical as Bird would seem to demand otherwise. Also, she is unbelievably fascinated by his socks, and they are, to be fair, brightly colored; and he does make a point of taking his shoes off during shows (it's because his looping device thingy is foot-operated).

As for the Bird on Bird interview segments; it is regrettably not always the case that artists are as interesting as their work, or that they understand why their work is effective, and there's nothing in his placid conversations about where music comes from and how he developed his process that isn't colossally obvious. Arguably, Aranda is not responsible for Andrew Bird being inarticulate, but she could have pushed him harder; she could also have removed all that material and just gone for a strict performance doc with little or no backstage contemplations. At any rate, the straightforward and deeply unengaging Life of Bird material is enough to hobble a better project than Fever Year: coupled with with the pleasant, uninspired treatment of the songs themselves, the film is only a bit of fan service - and this fan will attest, it's not even terribly good at that.