Available on DVD/Blu-Ray/Vimeo
For the uninitiated, I’d describe the music of Swans as the soundtrack for the end of the world. At their heaviest, they’re extremely loud, overbearing, and hypnotising. Where Does a Body End? – named for the song from the album The Great Annihilator – is a documentary chronicling the bands progression as a group, primarily focusing on the the experiences of Michael Gira, their frontman and the main creative force behind the band. As one of the few consistent members of the bands many iterations, it’s very much a product of his own creation; his creative vision, as well as his strength as an artist, both shine through in this documentary.
Following a successful Kickstarter campaign, director Marco Porsia set out to siphon through masses of the band’s archival footage, as well as seeking out new material to compose this documentary. It follows the band from their preconception – Gira’s childhood – through to their early days, starting off alongside their contemporaries in the scene, working with the likes of Sonic Youth, and finishing in the current day (this is at the time of the films creation, we’ll come back to this). It also covers the band’s multiple breaks, line-up changes, and various side projects.
Porsia’s film is built up using a mismatch of different techniques, containing a heaping of interviews, live performance clips, as well as pop-up text – acting in place of a narrator in some places. Such text often provides contextual information, telling viewers things like “at this point Swans had developed a reputation of being one of the loudest bands ever”. This can be a bit hit or miss in some places, it can feel as a bit of an afterthought to stich together footage, or to set dress the upcoming interviews.
From what I understand, the film has existed in a completed state for some time, and multiple different runtimes are listed depending on where you look. The completed version I’ve seen ran at a thick 2 hours and 41 minutes, and you can feel it. A lot of the interviewees re-tread much of the same ground – either over themselves, or the other people being interviewed. Everyone makes comments which essentially filter down to “Swans are very heavy. There is no one else like them. Gira is a genius” with the repetition becoming far more noticeable in this version’s hefty run time.
Despite its length, the film still misses some major events – In some instances probably intentionally. The entire viewing, I was left wondering when the film would address a very public rape allocation against Gira. They never do. Swans aren’t the biggest band in the world, which means if you’re aware of them to the extent to watch a near three-hour documentary about them, you’ll probably have some awareness of these allegations. Ultimately, whether they be true or false, this is an event that damaged Gira’s and through extension, the band’s reputation for a lot of fans and is a noticeable absence.
The last half hour of the film is dedicated to the final concert of that “iteration” of the band. The film takes a more coherent structure here, charting the end, what it means, and where they’re at now. Watching this segment, I wonder if the whole film would have been stronger like this – as something more reminiscent of Shut Up and Play The Hits(2012) which covered similar ground focusing on LCD Soundsystem’s last concert. Split between half concert, half documentary, and showing full performances in between the segmented interviews. While WDABE does show live footage of the band, it’s rare for it to go beyond a minute, and while this gives us a brief idea, we really don’t get a full picture of what so many of the interviews are focused on, which is the power of their live presence.
This final section, wishing goodbye to the band feels partially undercut. Here the audience is constantly told this is the last we’ll ever see of this “iteration” of Swans, making a big emphasis on this phrasing, you would think that this would mean the band could be back in some form or another. However, watching it feels as though there is an emotional implication that this really is the last of it. The irony of all of this being that since the making of the film, they’ve already released a new album under a line-up consisting of almost all of the same core members.
While a bit messy, I think it’s really a film for the fans. There is obviously a massive amount that has gone into this. Reading through the original Kickstarter page, you get the impression of a vault of content in the band archives. With this though, it can feel in some places that the documentary was made around what was in there, with the purpose to showcase old and unseen footage, interviews, etc all wrapped together by the bands story, rather than fitting into more traditionally formatted documentary.
Looking at it alongside the bonus video features provided through the Vimeo version – I can easily see die-hards listening out for some of the deep cut song excerpts, picking apart the new content and pouring over anything they’ve not already seen. Ultimately, these are the ones who are going to get most out of this. Regardless of intensity, I think a decent interest or enjoyment of the band is required for entry. Otherwise at near three hours, it’s going to be a long sit.