‘Eno’ Remixes the Music Doc — and Brian Eno’s Entire Career

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The many faces of Brian Eno, subject of the Sundance doc 'Eno.' - Credit: Sundance Institute
The many faces of Brian Eno, subject of the Sundance doc 'Eno.' - Credit: Sundance Institute

You can never step in the same river twice. And, unless you are blessed with an infinite amount of patience, time, and mortality, you can never see the same version of the Sundance documentary Eno twice.

This is by design. Brian Eno — former Roxy Music member, legendary recording producer, Berlin-era Bowie bestie, ambient music pioneer, and a man who rocked a Seventies kimono like no other — is not someone who likes dwelling on the past or being pinned down. The idea of a movie chronicling his 50-year career behind the keyboards and mixing boards, much less one involving his participation, feels counterintuitive to him. “You’re becoming a filmmaker’s story,” Eno has said when asked about the subject. “And I don’t want to be anyone’s story.” He’d just as soon score a documentary as have one made about his life.

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Which is how Eno met Gary Hustwit. The filmmaker asked him to compose music for Rams, a 2018 look at industrialist designer Dieter Rams. After that collaboration, Hustwit proposed something different. He’d been talking to a programmer about software that would be able to remix film footage in real time. The feature would be fully edited and completed, mind you. But if you ran the work through this program, it would rejigger the order of the sequences at random. Certain scenes would be “pinned” at the beginning and the end, per the director. Everything else, from the chronology to what was or was not included within a two-hour timeframe, could be left to chance. It was not unlike how Eno made what he dubbed “generative music.” So what if this legacy — all that music, all of those albums, all of his experimental video work, all of the five decades of insanely fertile artistry — was not so much rehashed but reshuffled? What if a music doc on someone’s life was less an LP and more of a fate-curated mix tape?

Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival on the event’s opening day, Eno gave a packed house at the Ray Theater a glimpse into the life of Brian Eno — a portrait of an artist pulled together on an algorithm’s whim. It was a singular experience, impossible to replicate and uninterested in being definitive on anything, much the gent at the center of it all. Were you to attempt this on almost any other subject, the idea might be gimmicky to a fault. Applied to a conceptual musician like Brian Eno, who couldn’t play an instrument when he joined Roxy Music but took up the synthesizer because it was new and thus “there were no rules on how not to play it,” the approach feels like it might be the only way to properly talk about Eno. “I’m not sure what he does in the studio, really,” Bowie muses in behind-the-scenes footage of the Heroes sessions. “It’s more of a philosophical approach.” That’s Eno‘s method as well. It’s just outsourced the philosophical approach to artificial intelligence instead of musical genius.

If you’re lucky, that Bowie bit will be in the Eno version you eventually see. You may also get to bask in Eno introducing the joys of Afro-Pop to the Talking Heads, resulting in the brass section-like arrangements of backup singers on Remain in Light; the early Roxy days, with Eno sporting the second greatest spaceman-mullet in glam rock history; a priceless anecdote about Eno pissing in DuChamp’s “Fountain” urinal when it was on exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art; and the now-75-year-old Eno grandpa-boogieing to the Silhouettes’ “Get a Job.” Those were some of the highlights of the Sundance premiere, though who’s to say whether there were even greater moments that AI temporarily left on the cutting room floor. This is what you get when a music doc that isn’t a greatest-hits collection but a life on shuffle mode. During the postscreening Q&A, someone asked why there was no mention of the Portsmouth Sinfonia — a project involving a symphony that couldn’t play instruments — Hustwit replied, “Come tomorrow! We filmed something on it, it may come up in that version.”

Eno himself beamed in from his studio in London, lording over Hustwit and several members of his crew — this is one of the few feature films to have both a Director of Photography and a Director of Programming in its credits — like God, or possibly Big Brother. He gamely took questions from the audience, explained why music docs tend to frustrate him, occasionally weighed in on the process of making it, and waxed about submitting to an AI’s demands rather than a director’s.

At one point, Eno answered an inquiry about working with someone by repeating, almost verbatim, a story that appeared in the film. “They’ve already heard that, Brian,” Hustwit joked. Well, that’s the risk you take with these experiments, God/Eno replied. “Honour thy error as a hidden intention,” he says in the doc. And happy to have unintentionally proven his point, Eno just smiled broadly. One more once-in-a-lifetime moment, likely never to be repeated.

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