“Things Evolve Out of Nothing”: Daniel Lanois’s Here Is What Is
Brian Eno uttered the words quoted above in his first on-camera moment in Here Is What Is, the inventive, stylish and illuminating documentary made by Daniel Lanois, Adam Vollick and Adam Samuels. What Eno is trying to explain is the amount of work that artistic production requires. Rather than pluck fully formed pieces from a tree as though they were fruit, he argues, artists must put a lot of effort into realizing what we eventually hear, see and touch. A later clip—in which he described himself as an “anti-Romantic”—extends the idea. He asserts that many people mistakenly feel that art is “out there” rather than “in here,” that its building blocks come from the world rather than from within.
Eno, of course, is not the documentary’s star. Nor for that matter is Lanois, who graciously shares the screen with a number of the musicians with whom he’s worked over nearly three decades. But Lanois is the reason for the film’s existence, and he’s the nexus that connects everyone. In that role, he has succeeded in making the best documentary film about music that I have ever seen—The Last Waltz; Meeting People Is Easy; Straight, No Chaser and an as-yet-unreleased documentary about the Drive-By Truckers notwithstanding. What it does is, and I’m paraphrasing words from the latest post by my college chum Wyatt, look at and peer beyond some of the received ideas we might have about music-makers.
Indeed, what HIWI does exceedingly well is to show the kind of thought and work that musicians, producers and engineers put into making recordings and performing. At various points, one sees/hears the recording/performance before and after talk, and all the instructions, the inspirations and the modifications it contains. In “I Like That,” one of the DVD’s bonus features, we see Brian Blade holding mallets and anxiously anticipating the moment he’ll enter to add his drum parts to what Lanois has already recorded. We see him, as well as Lanois, beautifully intercut throughout the take. When it’s done, the two of them along with the engineer begin evaluating that take (no. 2) and comparing it to the first—in terms that reveal the humility, mutual respect and artistry they all share. Another sign of the graciousness of this film is that, rather than have to wait for the credits to learn who all the players are, a viewer gets that information from the inobtrusive captions the accompany the first appearance of each person on screen.
Even without this film, Lanois has given us many opportunities over the years to hear the magic he works in the studio. Many are probably aware of him through the work he has done (with Brian Eno) on U2’s most celebrated recordings: The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree. Fewer people, though, might be aware of the other production work he has done and how varied it is. His résumé includes a number of brilliant releases like the Neville Brothers’ Yellow Moon, Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball, Brian Blade’s Fellowship, Willie Nelson’s Teatro and Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. Flying further below the radar are the various ambient projects he has done, perhaps the most amazing of which is Harold Budd and Brian Eno’s The Pearl. And then, there’s his work on recordings like the debuts by Ron Sexsmith and Luscious Jackson. Perhaps least known of all are his solo recordings, all of which have something to recommend them.
The sonic substance of his recordings and in this film is the most solid indicator of his work ethic and his aesthetic sensibilities. Unlike the biopics which I trashed here and here, HIWI lets us not only see a series of stirring moments but also what went into them. And each one is mesmerizing, so much so that only once did words pass my smiling lips as I watched. I heard myself saying, “This is fucking briiliant!”, during the scene where Lanois performs the mix of “Blade Steel,” at times isolating and explaining the function of its constitutent parts. It is a revelatory look into what happens after the instruments have been packed away, one likely to fascinate non-engineers and to inspire those people who produce or aspire to produce their own recordings. (Another good example is this clip detailing the recording/mixing of “Peg,” taken from the Classic Albums DVD focused on Steely Dan’s Aja.)
There are many other rewarding scenes in the film: Garth Hudson’s improvised (?) piano solo at the beginning, Aaron Neville singing Dylan’s “With God on Our Side,” a few psychedelic jams by Lanois and Blade, and Blade performing “This May Be the Last Time” with his father, Rev. Brady Blade Sr., in the latter’s church in Shreveport, LA. I’ve watched HIWI twice in the last 24 hours, and if I didn’t have work to do, I’d be watching it again. It is everything I have ever wanted in a music film and more. It shows us, pace Eno’s comments above, exactly how musical productions evolve out of very little—a riff, a chord sequence, some words or a sound—but can grow into something magnificent. So, too, with this film, which Lanois says he wanted to be “about beauty, about the sources of the art” rather than everything that surrounds it. Not only is HIWI about beauty, it might be one of its finest exemplars…