TOM SURGAL WAS ART DIRECTOR ON 'HOME MOVIES', ALSO APPEARED IN THE FILM
At Filmmaker Magazine, Steve Dollar writes about Tom Surgal, who worked on Brian De Palma's Home Movies:
Many years in the making, Fire Music tells the many-stranded story of free jazz, a chronically misunderstood and often maligned expansion of the improvisatory African-American art form that exploded as a movement in the 1960s through the innovations of path-breaking titans like John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler and Sun Ra. Although this avant-garde has been around long enough to become its own tradition – its oldest living exponents are in their 90s – the music still remains somehow outside the mainstream. Even this week, Twitter was abuzz over Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon’s mockery of the German saxophonist Peter Brotzmann, a pioneer of European free improvisation, in a bit called “Do Not Play.” He held up a copy of Brotzmann’s 1969 album Nipples, and then played a snippet from one of the musician’s signature gale-force solos. Times haven’t changed. As the film reports, critics at the time denounced the same records as “washing machine” music.
Filmmaker Tom Surgal’s “cinematic corrective,” which opens today in New York and next Friday in Los Angeles, offers an immersive primer told from the performers’ perspectives. It’s a rich and highly spirited account, driven by candid and extremely “real” interviews with a generational spree of artists, including Carla Bley, Sonny Simmons, Bobby Bradford, Roswell Rudd, Rashied Ali, Noah Howard, Tristan Honsinger, Paul Lytton, Karl Berger and many others, venerated by the form’s devotees if not always well-known to wider circles of listeners. These are intercut with a sometimes dizzying assortment of performance and archival clips, many painstakingly sought out. “Pretty much, if you don’t see it on YouTube it really doesn’t exist,” Surgal says. “I was amazed I was able to uncover what I did, and equally disappointed that I couldn’t come up with more of some artists.”
Surgal has been around the edgier precincts of the film industry since childhood. His father, the screenwriter Alan Surgal, wrote Mickey One, Arthur Penn’s surreal, noirish 1965 film with Warren Beatty as a stand-up comic on the lam. At the other end of the spectrum, Surgal’s mother Florence, now 104 years old, was a pioneering female television producer who first introduced the puppeteer and children’s TV legend Sherry Lewis to the airwaves.
“I was a little kid,” Surgal says. “Just to be on sets was definitely stimulating.” As a teenager, the filmmaker and musician was taken under wing by Brian De Palma. “Everything I’ve ever done in film I’ve learned everything from him,” he says, speaking recently via Zoom from his Tudor City home. “He taught me everything. Location scouting. How to shoot things. How to storyboard. A lot of things that didn’t come into play with this project: how to work with actors, how to cast. He is the primary influence on my cinematic life.”
That life led to art-directed downtown indies like Beth B.’s 1982 Vortex, and directing videos for bands like Pavement, the Blues Explosion and Sonic Youth, whose frontman Thurston Moore is a longtime friend and musical collaborator, and one of the executive producers of Fire Music (along with experimental guitarist Nels Cline of Wilco, among others).
As to what in the music captivated Surgal enough to compel the years of labor behind Fire Music, “that’s the hardest question to answer,” he says. “That’s like asking me what I like about sex. It’s not one thing. It’s highly varied. The free-blowing scene in New York is different from the way it took root in Chicago. The music in Holland was different than Germany was different than England. Throughout stages of my life just discovering that there are so many ways to run with this artistic ethos. It manifests itself in so many beautiful and varied ways.”