The Watcher - Hi-Fi Heaven

Sundance Channel does VH1 one better

What happened to "Behind the Music"? Three years ago, I was hooked on VH1. While my family was shelling out major moolah for my education, I was getting a musical tutoring for free courtesy of "Legends" and "Behind the Music."

I learned about a host of classic artists — Eric Clapton, the Mamas and the Papas, Iggy Pop, just to name a few. Then came the day "Behind the Music" died. It wasn't a death so much as a descent into fluff — Puff Daddy, Poison, Faith Hill, etc.

My education resumes this month when the Sundance Channel steps in with a four-week run of programming packaged as "HiFi Fridays," made up of the "Sonic Cinema" mini-series paired with music documentaries. Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore is the host, chauffeuring the audiophile/couch potato into the miasma where sound meets film.

"Sonic Cinema" begins with a segment on the animated video for the song "Everything Hits at Once" by Spoon, one of my favorite bands of recent years. Using digital images of scenes shot around Austin, Texas, the animator, an Indian woman named Divya Srinivasan, draws over the video, essentially re-coloring the pictures and preserving the fluid motion of real life.

Personally, it's nice to see an Indian involved in a non-lucrative, creative field; I was beginning to think the two were mutually exclusive. But shortly after the Srinivasan segment, Bend it Like Beckham writer/director Gurinder Chadha introduces a clip from an old Bollywood movie, Gumnaam. Meant to show how Western culture has impacted the booming Indian movie industry, the scene, a song-and-dance number (shocker), looks like a bizarre early B-52's video — with guitars, beehives and shimmying.

"Sonic Cinema" also provides a glimpse into the thought processes of Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne as he conceptualizes his band's colorful and eccentric videos. Here's where my only complaints about the show arise. A couple of Coyne's cronies are shown at a laundromat, where they wash the band's giant animal suits. It seems as though a 30-minute show could use three minutes to better effect — though the spin cycle is pretty mesmerizing. And one other complaint: The show's creators get me all primed to see the videos that are discussed, and then cut me off after about 50 seconds of viewing. (Don't tease me!)

The first documentary Tom Dowd and the Language of Music follows the life of the sound engineer from his childhood in New York through his teens as a researcher at Columbia University to his eventual perch as one of the preeminent producers in music history. While the innovations that Dowd helped usher into the industry (like eight-track recording) and the artists he worked with — including Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Cream and the Allman Brothers Band — are impressive enough, his technical achievements at Columbia directly contributed to the Manhattan Project. I don't make this shit up. It's just fascinating.

Future episodes of "Sonic Cinema" include a former fashion photographer who directs videos for artists like Amon Tobin and Marilyn Manson, the early musical short "Mongoloid" using the song of the same name by Devo, and former Velvet Underground member John Cale's rebirth as a film scorer. Upcoming documentaries examine the roller-coaster ride of Pogues frontman and serial substance-abuser Shane McGowan, West Coast indie bands of the mid-'90s, and Gov't Mule's experimentations in the wake of their bassist's death.

Good music, interesting stories and no P. Diddy, "HiFi Fridays" explores what's really behind the music.

"HiFi Fridays" airs Fridays in October at 9 p.m. on the Sundance Channel. All shows rerun Oct. 31 starting at 3 p.m.


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