Film Review: ‘Contemporary Color’ Is an Eye-Catching Introduction to Color Guard

What is Color Guard? That is the question frequently asked throughout “Contemporary Color,” the new documentary from directors Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross. In defining this unique cross between modern dance and cheerleading, the duo lets its inherent beauty speak for itself. Turning the cameras towards a one-of-a-kind event, they crafted a concert film that captures this niche “art sport” in all of its glory.

The eponymous “Contemporary Color” takes place in New York City in the summer of 2015. In an effort to introduce the sport to a wider audience, a special live event was staged featuring 10 Color Guard teams made of students from across North America, performing alongside notable musicians such as Nelly Furtado, St. Vincent and Ira Glass. The brainchild of David Byrne, this festive occasion incorporated dazzling choreography and original music compositions in a noncompetitive atmosphere. And as expected, it was a grand spectacle for the ages.

Indeed, what unfolds is a cornucopia of flags, rifles, sabers and enough twirling to fill up a Terrence Malick film. Bursting with the energy of live performance and the impressive artistic synergy of music, dance and acrobatics, this is a visual feast of epic proportions. As such, it makes for an uncommonly beautiful documentary, providing no shortage of striking imagery for the cinematographers (Jarred Alterman and the directors themselves). And through some fanciful editing, the film brilliantly juxtaposes the performers doing their routines in the rare grandeur of the Barclays Center, with more intimate settings like a high school gymnasium or quiet suburban streets.

These behind-the-scenes glimpses add a flair that elevates “Contemporary Color” from a regular live recording of the show. Away from the perfected synchronicity of the performances, they give insight into the heightened emotions and discipline associated with executing these intricate pieces. For many of the participants, the Contemporary Color event will be their last Color Guard show, giving each performance a sense of bittersweet finality.

In providing these brief glimpses into the backstage drama however, the film merely teases a larger narrative about the “blood, sweat and tears” involved in Color Guard. As a result, the audience still leaves with unanswered questions as to what exactly the Color Guard world is all about. While the film constantly reminds us that the celebrity-filled extravaganza on display is hardly reflective of the typical Color Guard setting, it particularly fails to illuminate the competitive aspects of this unique art-sport hybrid. And in doing so, “Contemporary Color” leaves us with a further appreciation for music and dance, rather than attracting new fans to Color Guard itself.

“Contemporary Color” is now playing in select theaters.

GRADE: (★★★)

About Shane Slater

Shane is a passionate cinephile and Tomatometer-approved film critic residing in Kingston, Jamaica. When he's not watching or writing about film, he spends much of his time wishing he lived in a big city. Shane is an avid world traveler and loves attending film festivals. He is a member of the African-American Film Critics Association.